Eclipse Series 21: Oshima’s Outlaw Sixties

On Film / Essays — May 20, 2010

Driven to Destruction

Nagisa Oshima was a destructive force in Japanese cinema—and he wouldn’t have had it any other way. Intent on exploding taboos and jabbing the eye of the status quo, he created films that leave us with a richly skewed vision of Japan in the second half of the twentieth century. Socially, politically, and intellectually, Oshima’s forty-year career, beginning in 1959 and ending in 1999, was that of an outsider. A theorist and critic as much as a director, Oshima, writes scholar Maureen Turim, “saw film as an activist intervention.” Naturally, this icono­clast found it difficult to function within a studio system, and the titles gathered in this set hail from the period, in the midsixties, when he had just broken away from those strictures and started producing his films independently. With this new freedom, he was able to explore what would become his favorite subjects: sex, crime, death, desire, the failure of the political left, the power of the unconscious, and the place, or displacement, of the outlaw in society.

Oshima stumbled into filmmaking. Initially, he had a much greater interest in politics and journalism, and was heavily involved in left-wing student movements and drama groups, both in high school and as a law student at Kyoto University. “No other company would hire me, so I happened to end up at a film company,” he has written of entering an assistant director training program at Shochiku in 1954. His break came in the late fifties, when Shochiku needed edgier material for a hungry youth market, and the resulting Cruel Story of Youth and The Sun’s Burial (both 1960) were raw and vital enough to brand him the Japanese Godard. It was his fourth film for the studio, however, the personal, aesthetically daring Night and Fog in Japan (1960), that openly courted controversy. Then, three days after its release, Japan’s Socialist Party president, Inejiro Asanuma, was assassinated by a right-wing nationalist, and Shochiku, finding the film—an excoriation of the left—incendiary, shelved it immediately. As a result, Oshima angrily left the studio.

Though many would follow suit, Oshima was the first Japanese director to exit a major studio and create his own company, which he called Sozo-sha (Creation Company). His first feature there was 1965’s Pleasures of the Flesh, which touched off the next, wildly fruitful phase of his career. Though made to fit into the then popular eiga, or “pink film” (soft-core), genre, Pleasures of the Flesh contains many Oshima hallmarks: self-destruction, moral turpitude, class oppression. From a Futaro Yamada novel provocatively titled Pleasure Inside the Coffin, the film concerns Atsushi (Katsuo Nakamura), a poor tutor with a shady past who is blackmailed by a crooked businessman into guarding a bundle of money while the white-collar criminal does time in prison. Atsushi, driven mad by his obsession with a wealthy former pupil, instead decides to spend the money on sex, in a year of suicidal excess.

Whether seen as a penetrating dramatization of the moral fallout from Japan’s postwar economic miracle or as a titillating exploration of the twin drives of eros and death (which Oshima would famously explore again with In the Realm of the Senses), Pleasures of the Flesh remains one of his most forceful fables, and a harbinger of great things to come.

 

Ghosts of the Past

Nagisa Oshima’s follow-up to Pleasures of the Flesh confirmed the director’s free-spirited cinematic brilliance and continued interest in the criminal and the marginalized. Though Violence at Noon (1966), based on a short story by Taijun Takeda, may at first seem like it is going to be a sensationalistic exposé of a serial killer, this jarring portrait of psychosis reveals itself as a political work on the level of Night and Fog in Japan. That earlier film, Oshima’s most controversial to that point, is a highly stylized expression of his feelings about the failures of the left in Japan—a sensitive subject, considering his passionate student activism. Though Violence at Noon chillingly gets into the mindscape of a murderer, it ultimately has the same concerns, creating a disturbing allegory for the degradation of political idealism.

The hideous acts that drive the narrative are based on real events that took place in Japan in the late 1950s, when a drifter dubbed the Daylight Demon roamed the countryside, killing more than thirty women. Oshima’s version of the marauder is a rapist and murderer named Eisuke (Kei Sato), introduced to viewers entering a secluded house; the object of his twisted desire at first seems to be the maid, Shino (Sae Kawaguchi), with whom he has some past connection, although he spares her and kills her employer instead. Shino appears to cooperate with the police, yet it’s clear that she is protecting Eisuke, whom the authorities call the High-Noon Attacker, and soon she is seeking out his wife, a melancholy high school teacher named Matsuko (Akiko Koyama). Thus Oshima deepens what turns out to be his film’s central mystery. As the story shockingly develops, we grow less concerned with the killer’s apprehension, or even his motivation, and more with the shared history that connects this trio.

That past comes out in prismatic shards. Like so many of Oshima’s films, Violence at Noon is fascinated with destructive sexuality; in this case, the behavior originates from a specific yet metaphoric starting point. All three main characters were once part of a collective farm founded by Matsuko, built on the tenets of democracy and love. Oshima offers the complicated details of their lives and the ultimate ruin of their enterprise via often disturbing images: farm member Genji, the disillusioned son of the nearby village’s leader, attempts double suicide with Shino by tree hanging; Eisuke rescues and then rapes Shino, acts that turn the eventual serial killer into both savior and demon in the young woman’s eyes. Twisted male desire and political failure have bred madness and death.

These themes reappear throughout Oshima’s career, but rarely are they depicted with such memorably peculiar artistry. Violence at Noon is a purposely disorienting experience, made up of more than two thousand cuts—a stagger­ing number for any film, but especially for Oshima, whose style is generally restrained, often employing long takes and traditional establishing shots. With its jagged jump cuts, use of bleachy high-contrast lighting, swooping and shifting camera work, and refusal to adhere to any standard movie practice, the film exemplifies the New Wave ethos that Oshima came to represent—even if he hated the category.

 

Vocal Lessons 

In the years following his departure from Shochiku, Nagisa Oshima traveled extensively in Asia, and one of the defining events of his life happened during a 1964 trip to South Korea. Already prone to identification with social outsiders and the oppressed, Oshima was taken with the spirit of the young people there, living under President Park Chung-hee’s military dictatorship. This only exacerbated his outrage at the anti-Korean prejudice and the mistreatment of Korean immigrants in his own country (Korea was a former colony of Japan’s). As a result, Oshima made three films in the late sixties, which he would later claim to be among his favorites, that dealt with Japan’s Korean legacy.

The first of these was Sing a Song of Sex (1967), or as the Japanese title, Nihon shunka-ko (taken from a contemporary history by Tomomichi Soeda), translates, A Treatise on Japanese Bawdy Songs. But rather than the serious inquiry that title might suggest, Oshima’s film is a kinky, psychosexual odyssey that diag­noses what he saw as a disconcerting deradicalization of youth culture. The film starts out grounded in vivid reality: it’s a bleak, snowy midwinter day, and four young men—Nakamura (played by pop singer Ichiro Araki), Ueda, Hiroi, and Maruyama—meet outside Tokyo University. They have just taken their entrance exams and are preoccupied with attractive girls from their testing session, especially an unnamed student they call simply number 469. Oshima frames their meanderings through campus and the city against striking backdrops both pop cultural (walls of Western and sexually provocative Japanese movie posters) and political (streets full of demonstrators, waving banners in protest against the newly reinstituted imperialist holiday Kenkokubi, or “Founder’s Day”). Later that night, a former teacher, Otake, takes the students, along with a group of young women (including the central character Kaneda, a Korean), out to a tavern. He lectures them on their lack of engagement and teaches them sexually explicit drinking songs, explaining that, historically, “suggestive songs represent the voices of the oppressed.”

Soon after these more straightforward events, however, Oshima’s film goes through the looking glass—fantasy becomes reality and vice versa: one of the boys may or may not have caused a death; one of the girls may or may not have been raped by one or all of the boys. The narrative grows densely layered and free-form, juxtaposing comedy and tragedy, politics and sex, with head-spinning swiftness, climaxing in a lecture on the Korean origins of the Japanese people.

If Sing a Song of Sex feels as though it sprang spontaneously from its creator’s mind, that’s probably because the film was largely improvised. Two weeks before shooting, Oshima informed his cast and crew that there would be no script. One thing he did plan for, however, was Kenkokubi: it was the first time it was being celebrated since the Allied occupation, and he wanted to capture real-life demonstrations against it. This provides an ideal stage for the film, which is about all forms of vocal radicalism (at one point, the kids come across a group of Vietnam-protesting peers singing “This Land Is Your Land” and “We Shall Overcome”), as well as the consequences of collective fantasy.

 

No Exit

If Nagisa Oshima seemed to leave reality behind partway through Sing a Song of Sex, he abandoned it altogether for its unclassifiable follow-up, Japanese Summer: Double Suicide (1967). One of the director’s least screened films, this is an almost Sartrean study of dead-end youth and the death drive in Japanese culture. Featuring a cast of characters that includes some of the most eccentric outlaws in the director’s rebel-heavy oeuvre, it often plays like a damned-to-hell update of Oshima’s breakthrough Cruel Story of Youth. The sensuality of that earlier, color film, which despite its pessimism portrays reckless adolescence with a certain desperate romanticism, is long gone here, replaced by unrelenting, gritty black-and-white nihilism and intentionally alienating absurdity.

Dripping with pulp yet grimly serious-minded, Japanese Summer: Double Suicide is, as its split title suggests, somewhat schizophrenic. Its duality is established early on, in its two leads, Nejiko (Keiko Sakurai), an unabashedly man-hungry young woman constantly on the prowl, and the suicidal military deserter Otoko (Violence at Noon’s Kei Sato), whom Nejiko meets on the street while watching an austere funeral procession. Their fate seems sealed from the beginning, when they lie down in the chalk drawings of deceased lovers on the pavement. Their bond promises to be romantic, even mythic (he claims to be one hundred years old; her response is that her age is zero), yet Oshima proves uninterested in such conventions. As the film charges forward, it’s clear that despite their apparent connection, these two will never come together: she wants only erotic fulfillment; he craves and anticipates death.

Nejiko and Otoko turn out to be mere cogs in a wheel. Soon after meeting, they stumble upon a shadowy coterie of young men unearthing a crate full of weapons. These seeming gangsters take them by force to a remote compound, where Nejiko and Otoko join a group of prisoners that includes a cherubic high school student obsessed with guns and gangster movies—if Nejiko desires sex and Otoko death, then this boy wants only to kill. The plans of their captors are unclear: Is the violence gang warfare or politically motivated? Is it specifically or generally targeted? “It’s not a war! It’s just killing!” insists one of the criminals. Complicating matters are ambiguous reports from a pictureless television in the prisoners’ locked room of a foreign, white rifleman wreaking havoc on the populace (“It’s the same as Dallas!” a reporter exclaims). These story lines dovetail, but naturally in an unexpected manner.

The bewildering details are less significant than Oshima’s underlying idea of a culture of violence. And the filmmaker made it clear that the obscurity was quite intentional, in a letter he wrote to his cast and crew when embarking on the project, in which he suggests that not everything needs to make sense in a traditional way, and that narratives can arise subconsciously. Liberated by the open-ended, improvisatory Sing a Song of Sex, Oshima wrote, “We are now trying to make exclusively premonitory films, and we consider all other films meaningless.” Oshima even took a certain pleasure in the fact that after a screening of the film, Japan’s preeminent writer, Yukio Mishima, told him that he didn’t understand it. The senselessness of violence has perhaps never been so accurately dramatized.

 

Instant Replay

Nagisa Oshima’s anger over Japan’s mistreatment of its Korean minority had found its way into Sing a Song of Sex and the masterful Death by Hanging (1968), a complex, surreal denouncement of capital punishment and racism. Three Resurrected Drunkards (1968) was his most direct engagement with that subject yet, as well as his most clearly antiwar film, made during the height of the Vietnam conflict. Coming on like a madcap burlesque and going out with a blitzkrieg of disturbing, timely imagery (Eddie Adams’s Pulitzer Prize–winning photo of a Vietcong prisoner’s assassination is a recurring visual motif), this is one of Oshima’s most blistering rebel yells.

The film opens with a scene of three cartoonishly giddy young men frolicking on the beach in a Monkees-esque tableau, accompanied by an electronically sped-up version of a hit pop tune by the Japanese group the Folk Parody Gang. As the three—O-noppo (played by pop star Kazuhiko Kato), Chu-noppo, and Chibi (Big One, Middle-Sized One, and Tiny One)—prance and play the occasional childishly violent game, the maddeningly hummable yet lyrically dark song is repeated to the point of near derangement. Things get even stranger when they go for a swim and a hand pops out of the sand and steals their clothes, replacing them with others.

The young men’s decision to wear their mysterious new outfits triggers a chain of events, beginning when citizens of the seaside misidentify them as a group of undocumented Korean immigrants that officials are looking for. They soon become targets not only of the coast guard but also of angry gangsters, whose clothes they have taken from a bathhouse at the urging of a mischievous young woman. Adding to the confusion are the Koreans themselves, who are trying to steal the boys’ identities to avoid fighting in Vietnam (South Korea at the time was backing U.S. troops there). Oshima turns the three-pronged pursuit of the innocent lads into a conceptually dazzling misadventure, a comical and piercing exploration of identity in contemporary Japan that makes room for extended flights of fancy, dream sequences (in one, they’re sent to the American army headquarters in Saigon), and even a documentary-like interlude of man-on-the-street interviews in which everyday citizens admit, “I’m Korean!” Oshima’s most memorable trick comes at the halfway mark, when the film seems to start again. There have been reports of audiences all over the world loudly calling for the projectionist to fix the error; patient viewers soon discover, however, the initially subtle, then major alterations in the second go-round, in which the characters’ attitudes have changed: the three protagonists this time come to accept their Korean identities.

Three Resurrected Drunkards renewed animosity between Oshima and Shochiku. Though he had broken from the studio in 1960, the director had recently signed a contract with the company to distribute his work. The studio’s whitewashing of the film’s references to Korea and Vietnam in its publicity material, and its general lack of support, however, led him to annul the agreement. Soon, Oshima would gain international renown—with the release abroad of Death by Hanging and Boy (1969)—but without sacrificing his commitment to shaking up his country­men. He would famously say in 1970: “My hatred of Japanese cinema includes absolutely all of it.”