Death by Hanging: Hanging by a Thread

On Film / Essays — Feb 16, 2016
Death by Hanging essay

No director united freewheeling, form-busting adventurousness with literary structure and emotional stimuli more fruitfully than Nagisa Oshima. His zigzag sixties features seem imagined from ground zero, each a uniquely deviating synthesis of inquisitive passion, schematic rigor, and exploratory social surgery. Death by Hanging, simultaneously insouciant and claustrophobic, was a cinema-of-the-absurd milestone and ferocious entertainment on a par with The Exterminating Angel, Dr. Strangelove, Shock Corridor, and Weekend. As the least likely candidate for the title of “feel-good movie of 1968,” it carved a tightly enclosed theatrical space out of a blandly functionalist death-house setting: Oshima makes the audience feel like they’re breathing right down the necks of the obsequious officials, guards, prosecutor, Catholic chaplain, and the condemned man whose execution they—and we—are there to partake in. Yet outburst for mordant outburst, scene for remorselessly obscene scene, minute by unpredictable minute, I’d rate it the most invigorating movie of what was a pretty interesting year for cinema. (The competition included Once Upon a Time in the West, 2001: A Space Odyssey, If...., Faces, Shame, and Rosemary’s Baby.)

Shot in high-contrast, unfussy black and white, Death by Hanging stakes out a sober documentary position—presenting the civil-servant rituals behind a state execution—only to completely upend that routine before the first reel is over, abruptly shifting from scrupulous reportage to the dramaturgical vineyards of Ionesco and Brecht, with lemony notes of The Trial (Kafka’s and Welles’s), Catch-22, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (the novel and play), Imamura (see the perverse, adrenaline-charged estrangement of The Insect Woman and The Pornographers), and Teshigahara (the uncanny atmosphere of Woman in the Dunes and The Face of Another). The condemned man is put in place, the noose set, and the button pushed. Everything goes off without a hitch, with one puzzling exception: “R’s body refuses to be executed.” Like a time-delayed mushroom cloud, the careful demarcations of law, control, and duty begin to disintegrate. Even Godard couldn’t have mustered so impressive a range in the ensuing discourse, from delicacy to existential slapstick, bare Bresson rites of passage to convulsive Jerry Lewis flare-ups, seamlessly compressed into a fistful of dolor.

Oshima’s immersion in Japanese literature and politics—not to mention journalism—ups the ante. His technique was never that of a standard film aesthete but was all about using multiple, sometimes wholly incongruent structures and expressive devices as a way of getting closer to reality: he would routinely draw on literary modernism, neorealism, folk music, avant-gardist theatrics, muckraking journalism, pop stylization, cinema verité street conversations, and critical praxis, all in immediate, mix-and-match combinations. Cruel Story of Youth (1960) is a metamelodrama with Evel Knievel jump cuts and boiling-point human observation, Night and Fog in Japan (also 1960) an autopsy of Japanese leftism that is more complicated and contrarian than anything that came out of Europe at the time. (The Oshima essay collection Cinema, Censorship, and the State, despite the horrible textbookish title, is as thoughtful and fertile a work as his movies, if more self-effacing.) Pleasures of the Flesh (1965) is a staggering movie that takes off from a Hitchcock-Buñuel premise and creates a whole unstable universe of dread and reversals. Sing a Song of Sex (1967)is a work of riotous melancholy, brute fragility; Japanese Summer: Double Suicide (1967) suggests a deadpan lyric gangster mash-up of Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! voyeurism and How I Won the War irreverence—off the hook, off the charts, out of its mind, but completely under control.

Death by Hanging starts from the opposite end of the spectrum. It is gravely introduced by pointed, decorous placards that address the reported 71 percent of Japanese citizens who in 1967 opposed abolishing the death penalty, asking: “Have you ever seen an execution chamber? Have you ever witnessed an execution?” To demystify the apparatus, a narrator begins by describing the layout of the prison—photographed from a helicopter, a shaky view of the partitioned-off, nondescript house on the prison grounds where the gallows is located. (Under his recitation, there is a murmur of agitated voices, suggesting a fascist rally—or a sporting event.) The announcer delivers the size of the enclosure (“10,000 square feet”), notes the landscaping (cherry and azalea trees, grass covering the yard), roofing (“sheet zinc, typical of cheap postwar houses”), the dimensions of the structure (“25 feet by 35 feet”), and the exterior paint (“light cream color”). The report cuts to the interior (“cheery, with salmon-pink walls”) with a metronomic television-documentary pan/push-in/pull-back motion. Details pile up like disconcerting throw pillows. The execution unit has the sanitized blandness of a dentist’s office, complete with waiting-room chairs and sofa and a men’s-only restroom.

A quick glimpse of the chapel and the chaplain administering the condemned prisoner’s final sacraments follows, then we see his untouched last meal, the offer of a cigarette (the slightly trembling prisoner is seen from behind as the camera discreetly backpedals, reinforcing the grave newsreel attitude). “All that remains is the execution itself.” After the application of blindfold and handcuffs and the opening of the curtains (another little domesticating touch) to the gallows, the pace quickens. We know—we think we know—what’s coming, yet the no-frills ordinariness of the noose and the pulleys and the trapdoor is chilling in a highly specific manner. It is as orderly, perfunctory, and scrubbed of mortal significance as a gas chamber that dispenses air freshener. And then . . .

Circling in and hovering over the subjects, the film becomes unmoored from the documentary form; it is as if the audience is now operating the camera, with the staff playing themselves in an exercise that is part experimental theater, part therapeutic role-play. All for the benefit—if you want to call it that—of the hapless R, who is unconscious but continues to breathe, with a perfectly normal heartbeat. The buzzing-wasp-ish authorities wrangle over his body and the finer points of the penal code, official responsibility, and personal liability. Can R (the beatifically impassive Yung-do Yun) be rehanged? Would that constitute metaphysical double jeopardy—and would the jailers therefore be exposing themselves to prosecution? Can an unconscious or mentally incapacitated man be executed at all? Can the doctor restore R to a suitable-to-be-killed state?

The chaplain is horrified; the warden (hatchet-faced Oshima regular Kei Sato) unfazed—revive the condemned prisoner first, decide what to do about him after. Waxing oneiric, he recalls legends heard during the war, the specter of atrocities repressed in the national consciousness underneath layers of fuzzy platitudes and legalistic hairsplitting. R is revived, and his jailers commence a series of arcane, hysterical discussions on the spiritual, philosophical, and medical definitions of identity. White noise hums along in the background like the soft, insistent machinery of death. (Oshima’s resourceful, perplexing use of sound, silence, and Muzak concrète in his features is a precursor to David Lynch’s soundtracks.)

R’s status as a racial minority having been established—Japanese-born, of Korean ancestry, he is given a crash reeducation course in his Otherness—he is a doubly marginalized person: criminality squared, humanity halved. He is present and not present: “R” and “not R.” Oshima regularly touched on the tortured relationship of the Korean minority in Japan to the nativist, chauvinist majority (in his writings “Korea as I Saw It,” “With Heavy Heart, I Speak of Korea,” and “Are the Stars and Stripes a Guardian Deity?” and his films Sing a Song of Sex and Three Resurrected Drunkards, for instance, and especially his documentaries—a whole fecund side of his work unscreened in the West), but Death by Hanging explores the dichotomies most fully. Americans will discern sharp echoes of our own histories of slavery, discrimination, and immigration when the oafish authorities act out an ethnic caricature of R’s family (the equivalent of blackface—“Act more Korean”).

Based fancifully on the life of Chin-u Ri, an ethnic Korean born in Japan who was tried and executed for the 1958 rape and murder of a Japanese schoolgirl, the film doesn’t really invoke the Ri who became a youth cult idol (a book of his letters was eventually published and became a sensation). Unlike the relation between, say, Badlands and the murder rampage of Charlie Starkweather—where the actual events were aestheticized, given a portentous formal gloss—Oshima and his collaborators work from irreverent black comedy toward an anomalous spiritual lightness: a nimble, almost accidental variation on what Paul Schrader dubbed Transcendental Style.

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The key to Oshima is how he diligently uncovers the everyday in the surreal rather than the other way around. That undogmatic willingness to draw on any resource that can put across an idea, feeling, or resolute doubt grounds his pictures, and humanizes them. With screenwriters Tsutomu Tamura, Mamoru Sasaki, and Michinori Fukao, Oshima crafted a flexible but body-hugging narrative that carries death-penalty arguments to their logical and wonderfully, bitterly illogical conclusions. Hikaru Hayashi’s music is less prominent than in other Oshima films, but it injects little bread-crumb-trail cues of unease.

Oshima has been pigeonholed as the Godard of the Far East, but it would be more accurate to call him the reverse-angle JLG: instead of converting flesh and blood and tragedy into glamorous abstractions, Oshima renders ideology in skeptical, frank, kitchen-sink terms. At his most obscure and groping-for-a-contrarian-meaning, Oshima remains committed to the human condition. Instead of aiming over your head like a highbrow skeet shooter, he’d rather swan dive into the murk of being, in its full kaleidoscopic, unsanitary overabundance.

Thus Death by Hanging steadily moves down a sliding escalator of ambiguities, dissembling politesse, and distressed, erratic behavior, until the fourth wall practically implodes from the tension between the film’s self-awareness and its characters’ lack thereof. Fumio Watanabe’s education chief (“This is out of love!”) proves himself a consummate supporter of the corrections system, a Nutty Penologist who believes in rehabilitation through execution. His sly, careening energy is more Kubrickian, or at least Strangelove-ian, than Brechtian: he and the rest of the functionaries surrounding R take turns reenact-ing the killer’s crimes to jog his absent memory. (How else can he in good conscience be punished for them?)

It’s a losing battle for the authorities, who literally fall all over themselves, attempting to preserve a modicum of decorum, amid their desperate exhortations. This twisted penal bureaucracy embodies a discipline-and-punish mentality that’s built on a boys-will-be-boys foundation, making an example of R while maintaining a certain monstrous sympathy for him. R looks on like an otherworldly statue as they descend from one level of hellish horseplay to the next: pantomiming sexual assault, family trauma, poverty, and neglect, it’s an intervention session meant to restore R to his old, prehanging self, enacted with a zeal that straddles the therapeutic and the prurient like Slim Pickens yee-hawing on an H-bomb.

Oshima pulls an unanticipated maneuver when the movie breaks outside and seemingly leaves the locked prison world behind—a foray like a recess from study hall, with the whole staff shadowing R along the path of his crimes, and the education chief stepping in to kill a girl in an excitable panic. This terminates as abruptly as you can shout, “Dream sequence!” Except that the dream has gotten loose in the execution chamber. The dead girl materializes, alive and composed, claiming to be R’s sister. And reality is once more up for grabs.

Diagramming the head-turning intersections/bisections of journalistic information, anthropological excavations, and viewpoint reversals in Death by Hanging would require a cartographer and a sheet of paper the size of a swimming pool. For a film that is mostly confined to close quarters, it has the sweep of an expedition through radicalism, in postwar literature and political engagements, in the modernist collision of documentary rationality with irrational desires, and in cinema’s unreconciled legacy of the mythic, the mystic, and the neorealistic.

So much has been packed into this movie, you might expect a near-impenetrable degree of density and difficulty. The old caste system, authoritarian values, and imperialist psychology of Japan are pinned down with obsessive resolution: Japanese identity conceived as a struggle between repressed knowledge and ambivalent guilt, unrepented war crimes and longing for absolution. What emerges is a vision that manages to blend so many inflections, attitudes, and methodical twists without canceling itself out or watering down the subject matter. Oshima heightens every exchange, raising the bet every time he rolls the dice. A major part of the beauty and terror of Death by Hanging is how every blatant act underscores the subtlety of what’s going on around it, and how each tantalizing, elusive gesture buttresses the mad, brute-force scramble within spittle distance.

In some ways a fascinating continuation of the ultracontroversial Night and Fog in Japan’s examination of order-following groupthink (there, it is a case of leftist sectarianism and the tendency of “Stalinist zombies” to devour their own), Death by Hanging might be read as a rueful elaboration on the earlier film’s declarations “False despair is as bad as false hope” and “We have to show our wounds to each other.” Here, Oshima probes the Japanese psyche like a neurosurgeon fishing for shrapnel, but there’s not a speck of nihilist-chic posturing. In his hands, there’s a belief in the dialectical process of history doggedly moving through the ruins: thesis, antithesis, and synthesis gradually dragging us forward by the scruffs of our dirty necks, if we don’t go and thrust them back in the noose first.