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In the Realm of Oshima
The Films of Japanese Master Nagisa Oshima

By James Quandt

Much parsed and puzzled over, Shohei Imamura’s famous pronouncement, “I’m a country farmer; Nagisa Oshima is a samurai” may be ambiguous in tone and intent—is it ironic, invidious, deferential?—but it emphasizes the directors’ differences: class, stylistic, and otherwise. Often paired as twin avatars of the Japanese New Wave, a term Oshima (born in Kyoto, 1932) took every opportunity to spurn and disparage, the two fit uncomfortably in that “movement” and with each other. Sharing formal and social audacity, a brilliant ability to exploit the widescreen format, a rejection of the refined and self-sacrificing tenor of traditional Japanese cinema, a propensity for mixing fiction and reality, and certain key themes—sex and criminality, the abuse and resilience of women, incest, the social fissures of postwar Japan, the aggravated acts of outcasts in a tightly battened monoculture—Imamura and Oshima nevertheless can be construed as contraries, if not opposites. (It would be illuminating to pair certain of their films: Imamura’s A Man Vanishes with Oshima’s The Man Who Left His Will on Film; Pigs and Battleships with The Sun’s Burial; Vengeance Is Mine with Violence at Noon.) Where Imamura made defiantly “messy” and “juicy” (his preferred terms) films that celebrated the irrational, the instinctual, the carnal, squalid, violent, and superstitious life of Japan’s underclass, Oshima’s films are primarily ideational, probing, and controlled even when anarchic (e.g. Three Resurrected Drunkards). Which is not to say they are dry (as opposed to juicy) or cerebral. Even at their most complex—the densely structured Night and Fog in Japan, for instance, all but dictates a second viewing—Oshima’s works exhibit such wit, beauty, and furious invention, never mind profound feeling, that their conceptual gambits take on sensual and emotional force. They are less the product of a postmodernist sensibility, as some critics have characterized Oshima’s strategies, than of a desperate intelligence. Oshima made films as if they were a matter of life and death.

“I do not like to be called a samurai,” Oshima said, perhaps contending with Imamura’s dictum, “but I admit that I have an image of myself as fighter. I would like to fight against all authorities and powers.” Rejecting the aristocratic lineage and traditional Japanese culture that the samurai appellation implies, Oshima instead emphasizes its warrior import. Appropriately so: from his first film forward, Oshima was a fighter, less a maverick than an insurgent, rebelling against every myth, tradition, and piety of Japan Inc. (Fond of polemics, he sometimes dismissed the entirety of Japanese cinema.) Though born into privilege, the son of a government worker in Kyoto (reportedly of samurai ancestry), Oshima was a nascent socialist whose ideals were formed in his youth by the general strike of 1947; the Pacific War, Emperor Hirohito’s capitulation after the bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the subsequent American occupation of Japan; and the mass student struggle against the Korean War and, most markedly, against ampo, Japan’s security pact with cold war America. Steeped in Marxist and Freudian thought from his father’s prodigious library, Oshima opposed using ideological systems to probe his nation’s psyche: “I am not a Marxist,” he insisted. “In fact, I find Marxism and Christianity to be the same thing and both of them are bad.”

So thorough-going was Oshima’s rejection of dogma that he mocked doctrinaire activist-filmmakers in The Man Who Left His Will on Film, one of whom rotely declares that the last filmed images left by a dead comrade portend “the end of a petit-bourgeois unable to achieve proletarian consciousness;” or vented his bitter disappointment at the failure of leftist progressives to effect change by making Langian doubles of men who are actually ideological foes in the brilliant, acrimonious Night and Fog in Japan. Both men, Oshima implies, are impotent, too caught up in internecine skirmishes to attend to the real struggle for political change in Japan, to give voice and power to all those “left out” by the country’s postwar economic miracle, its stultifying political system and cultural conformity. Oshima’s fierce determination to expunge from his own art the signifiers of that national obeisance led to his initial shunning of traditional shots of the sky or of people sitting on tatami mats, and, most famously, his banishment of the colour green from his films as a “too comforting” hue—it “softens the heart,” he averred—because of its association with nature, with the traditional Japanese garden and its proximity to the consolations of home. (Is it too literal to note also his aversion to the “deep green worn by the American army and then by the occupation forces that we Japanese became accustomed to seeing,” which he associated with the repression of Korea and, later, the Vietnam War, described in his essay, “Are the Stars and Stripes a Guardian Deity?”)

Green forbidden as insidious or anodyne, red would become the marker of Oshima’s dire vision of Japan, not only in the motif of the Japanese flag, the Hinomaru with its burning sun, repeatedly invoked and maligned in the director’s films, but also in the many objects keyed to carmine in his extravagant colour films. (Think of the first burst of colour in the hitherto black-and-white Diary of a Shinjuku Thief, the incarnadine bedroom of the young lovers and the glowing red tent theatre of the kabuki troupe, the “cherry blossom” stain left on the sheets by Umeko’s deflowering and the blood later poured down her leg and splashed on the fake decapitated head.) “The blood of this young boy dyes all of Japan red,” claimed the trailer for Boy. In the mother’s red sweater and dyed hair, the little girl’s red boot and forehead wound, the ubiquitous Japanese flags and various red objects given prominence in the Scope screen, Boy joins such scarlet-scored films as Nick Ray’s Party Girl, Godard’s Pierrot le fou, and Bresson’s Le Diable probablement, each a portrait of moral drift, corruption, suicide. Of course, red most readily represents blood, the stuff of life, which is defiled, bought and sold in the black market in The Sun’s Burial or, conversely, the deathly apotheosis of sexual passion (the sluice of blood that ends the cloistered lovemaking in In the Realm of the Senses).

Extremity defined Oshima’s vision, and his stylistics: Night and Fog in Japan was shot in only forty-seven long takes, while the cutting in Violence at Noon came on like a Kurosawa hail of arrows: over two thousand edits, several used for one short sequence. (The long takes in Cruel Story of Youth and The Catch have been compared to Mizoguchi’s.) Oshima’s earliest films were mostly shot in the widescreen and colour formats then favoured by Japanese studios, but he would readily retreat to the old-fashioned mode of black and white and 1.37 square aspect ratio for others. (New Wave compatriot Teshigahara strangely maintained this retro format for all his films, through Face of Another.) Oshima was wont to use extreme long shot or obscuring chiaroscuro to shoot some important events, or to develop an unbearable intimacy using relentless close-ups, as in The Man Who Left His Will on Film, whose images of fleshy confinement offer another instance of the claustrophobia of Oshima’s cinema, which often features shut-off or isolated settings, most markedly the love-making room in Realm and the execution chamber in Death by Hanging.

“I always try to deny the style I used in a previous work … . I never make films in the same style,” Oshima told Joan Mellen, which helps account for his swing from Nick Ray histrionics or the kino-fist aesthetic of Sam Fuller (Cruel Story of Youth and The Sun’s Burial) to the refined modernism of Resnais or Antonioni (The Ceremony), from stern alienation effects (Night and Fog in Japan) to pop-modernist playfulness (Three Resurrected Drunkards), all the while maintaining his singular sensibility. Oshima told another interviewer: “I have to agree with someone like Ozu who said that he could only make ‘tofu’ movies. Bean curd was the only thing he knew how to cook and so he could not make a ‘beefsteak’ movie… . I feel that what I’ve been doing in my films, perhaps, is something much closer to making sake. Sometimes my films approach the full blends and rich flavour that the sake should have, and at other times they’re very raw and they become the kind of sake that burns your throat as it goes down.”

Throat-burning mostly. The director instantly became a pariah with his first film, the cheerily named Town of Love and Hope. Not only was the title forced on him by the Shochiku studio—Oshima preferred his blunt original, The Boy Who Sold His Pigeon—but the director was also expected to hew to the studio’s popular Ofuna-style family melodrama in his tale of a poor boy befriended by a rich girl. (The scam by which the boy supports his family introduced themes of extortion, imposture, crime, delinquency into Oshima’s cinema; the director’s clear-eyed sympathy with the cheating boy—the first of many self-portraits, which include the pimply Motoki in The Man Who Left His Will on Film, and even, Oshima insisted, “that demonic rapist in broad daylight” of Violence at Noon—established his identification with young outcasts and criminal aliens, which would define his subsequent cinema.) Oshima delivered neither the optimistic humanism demanded by the studio, nor the prescribed social message. “This film is saying that the rich and the poor can never join hands,” studio head Shiro Kido fumed, suspending the director for six months and declaring Town unhealthy and leftist. When Oshima returned to Shochiku to make two subsequent films in the popular “sun tribe” genre about disaffected youth, their tonal temerity and colour-coded desolation came as a bitter surprise—The Sun’s Burial has to rank with cinema’s great visions of hell—even if Kon Ichikawa had taken the genre into darkest territory half a decade earlier with Punishment Room. Hand Oshima a genre—the samurai film in Shiro Amakusa, The Christian Rebel and again in Gohatto, the family chronicle in The Ceremony, anime in Band of Ninja—and, while ostensibly observing its conventions, he would twist it to reflect his own concerns.

Those concerns centred on sex, crime, and death. Oshima’s familiarity with Freud, Marx, and, one infers, Marcuse—the latter’s Eros and Civilization invoked in Imamura’s Intentions of Murder, so obviously “current” in Japan at the time—tempts one to read their influence in Oshima’s cardinal themes of human desire in conflict with social codes and strictures; of freedom sought through criminality, sexual abandon, or social revolution; of compulsion and stymied rebellion. But Oshima’s sensibility is too intuitive, anti-ideological, and steeped in Japanese culture to deduce their thinking in any systematic way. It was, Oshima insisted, the “unaware” and unconscious nature of both sex and crime that made them the central obsessions of his cinema; “behaviour with clear motivation is uninteresting,” he insisted. However, the enticement of psychology, of biographical reduction, when interpreting his films is great. To abridge Oshima’s early work to a vast psychodrama of parental abandonment would be unconscionable, but when Oshima says, “I always want to go back to my boyhood” because of the loss of his father at age six—a deprivation he wrote movingly about in an essay—one wonders if that familial yearning could help explain the many incomplete and broken households in his cinema, the previously mentioned preponderance of children, adolescents, teens, few of them innocent, all participants in or witnesses to the criminal world of adults. (Note, for instance, the marked presence of children at the communal evils committed in The Catch.) The stark title of Boy emphasizes this violation, the film’s manipulation of scale and repeated disconnection of the supposedly unified family within the widescreen frame—Oshima was the master of the decentered Scope composition, along with his New Wave comrade Yoshishige Yoshida—stressing the boy’s isolation and vulnerability. Similarly, Oshima describes the harsh world of the amoral teens in Cruel Story of Youth in Scope images of the abject and precarious: an intensely compacted composition of Makoto’s midriff in plaid skirt, a wad of bills and sheet of directions to an abortionist clutched in her hand, or the rape among the logs in Tokyo harbour, a travesty of the traditional understanding of “the floating world,” rendered with virtuosic but unstable travelling camera. (Oshima’s hand-held pans and tracking shots sometimes judder, not to signify authenticity but to transcribe his characters’ restless, tenuous existence.)

Just as he rejected the Japanese New Wave rubric, Oshima chafed at the inevitable comparisons critics made between his films and Godard’s. Though he would politely respond to questions about the latter’s influence with evasive statements about shared enthusiasms and common concerns (predominantly politics and cinema), he took to calling Godard “the Oshima of France” after one too many comparisons or accusations of being a JLG imitator. The similarities between the two run to a substantial list—none diminishing Oshima’s originality, it must be emphasized—but in hindsight, Oshima seems to have as much affinity with Fassbinder in his prolificacy and swift, single-take shoots (look at his output in years 1960 or 1968 alone!); his sometimes sentimental sympathy for outsiders—sexual, ethnic (particularly Koreans), and political; his development of a “house” technical and acting troupe employed in film after film; his use of music as alienation device and such Brechtian strategies as the intertitles in Death by Hanging or the theatrical friezes in Night and Fog in Japan; and his acerbic view of human nature and how sex often subverts both emotion and politics.

In his “international” period, Oshima seemed to mellow as a modernist, taking on the suave tone of late Buñuel (a director he once claimed as his favourite) in Max Mon Amour, or reviving the methods of the traditional Japanese cinema he once utterly abjured in the deep focus and use of wipes in Empire of Passion and the duel on a soundstage misty marsh at the end of Gohatto. Critics have argued over whether Oshima remained an iconoclast or succumbed to nostalgia, but surveying a gay samurai film, a brittle comedy of manners about a diplomat’s wife in love with a chimp, and a legendary work of hard-core sexual transgression, it’s a little difficult to cast Oshima as a Mizoguchi manqué. Perhaps Oshima provided the clue for this transition: love became the third element in his cinema, he commented, along with sex and crime.

James Quandt
Curator, In the Realm of Oshima
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