New book on Oshima Nagisa

Don, Communicado don
Tue Apr 13 13:16:07 EDT 1999

Found this on the Asiaweek website, thought it might be of interest.
"Cinema-goers would probably know his most accessible film, Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence.
Some may even have seen his sexually explicit Realm of the Senses. But probably few are familiar
with other works by director Oshima Nagisa. Yet he remains a favorite at film schools. Maureen
Turim's new book, The Films of Oshima Nagisa (University of California Press, Berkeley, 324
pages, $19.95), helps explain why. 

A child of Japan's post-war student movement, Oshima has consistently tackled controversial
subjects. These range from the politics of sexuality to the nation's racism against Koreans. But the
director often approaches them in a highly stylized way. Take the masterpiece, Death by Hanging
(1968). Based on an actual killing, the film begins like a documentary with a solemn voice-over.
But this evolves into a grotesque, dream-like fable permeated with black humor. A Korean man
convicted of rape and murder miraculously survives the hangman's rope. When officials find that
the condemned man has amnesia, they try by every means to revive his memory before attempting a
second execution. The guards go as far as re-enacting his childhood and crime inside the prison. As
this bizarre tale unfolds, Oshima blurs the boundary between imagination and reality, turning Death
into a brilliant expressionist work. 

It is this combination of artistic innovation and radical politics that accounts for his standing with
film scholars. Turim rightly regards Oshima as an iconoclast - one who challenges mainstream
society. During his early career as a contract director with powerful Japanese studios, Oshima drew
on established folk characters such as the devil woman. But he transformed the images into critical
comments about modern society. In some of her most illuminating discussions, Turim examines the
director's use of popular culture. Despite his leftist sympathies, Oshima often employs sexist
stereotypes about dangerous females. His portrayal of a defiant woman in The Sun's Burial (1960)
not only celebrates female independence but also conveys a wild sexuality that exploits the heroine's

Turim sees Oshima's cinema as a reflection of Japan's post-war history. Certainly the director holds
a mirror to the nation, revealing class and gender conflicts. His early films such as A Town of Love
and Hope (1959) and Cruel Story of Youth (1960) show how cultural and economic pressures can
drive people at the social fringes to a life of crime. Rather than empathy with the characters, what
Oshima seeks to foster is a more thinking attitude. The films typically take a detached perspective
that avoids sentimental clich?s. 

This stance, Turim argues, springs in part from the director's experiences as a 1950s student
activist. But these shape his films in complex ways. Consider Night and Fog in Japan (1960), for
instance. The work is a biting critique of the Japanese communists and the student movement. But
by transposing the story to the 1960s, when he was not an active participant, Oshima makes a more
general statement about the left. The characters are not people from his past but embodiments of
different political forces. 

Night and Fog marks a transition in the director's career. Awareness of leftist failures seems to have
piqued his interest in human psyche - particularly that of the criminal. While his early films treat
crime as a product of class society, later works deal with individuals' inner compulsion towards
self-destructive behavior. Violence at Noon (1966), for instance, links guilt and violence through
the story of a serial rapist. He is unconsciously ashamed of his own sexual impulses, which he is
only able to fulfill with a corpse - hence his compulsion to kill women. 

In her detailed examination of Realm of the Senses (1976), Turim highlights the director's growing
interest in psychology. Based on a notorious 1930s case, it is the story of a woman who
accidentally kills her lover in sexual play and decides she wants a part of him as keepsake. To the
author, the characters are not so much individuals as different aspects of the mind. Active and
passive protagonists represent the paradoxical nature of desire: Human beings seek to perpetuate
sexual pleasure. Yet climax necessarily means the end of arousal. Not that Oshima ever loses
interest in political questions in his exploration of passion. It's just that his films are grounded in a
deeper awareness of human nature.

Turim seems to believe that the best way to understand most Oshima films is to focus on the
relations between characters. After all, the director encourages audiences to mark parallels and
contrasts between them. Take Merry Christmas, which is about prisoners of war in a Japanese
internment camp. Allies become potential enemies while foes are perceived as friends. The story
combines attraction and repulsion without drawing clear distinctions between them. Through such
unusual set-ups, Oshima challenges common clich?s. 

But for all its overall lucidity and rigor, Turim's approach displays two key weaknesses. First, she
emphasizes the social meaning of the plot at the expense of framing, color and other aspects of
visual style. While bias towards content yields illuminating insights, it limits discussion of visual
organization. Night and Fog, for instance, is a stylistic tour de force that uses extremely
complicated camera movements and long takes. The book fails to deal with such artistic
achievement in sufficient detail. 

Second, Turim pays surprisingly little attention to some of the institutional factors that impinged
upon Oshima's work. In 1977, the filmmaker was charged with obscenity after the publication of
allegedly pornographic photographs from Realm of the Senses. A discussion of the drawn-out trial
and Oshima's defense would have raised disturbing questions about sexuality, media and
censorship. An examination of Japan's studio system and the plots of mainstream films could have
provided context to the evolution of Oshima's career. 

Though flawed, Turim's book is an important contribution to the study of modern Japanese cinema.
Her detailed, cogent analyses compel us to look at Oshima's work with the renewed attention that
this director clearly deserves."
(c)1999 Asiaweek

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