Between 1959 and 1999, Nagisa Oshima directed nearly two dozen features, and eleven of them will be screening in Toronto from tomorrow through December 7. The program includes the international cause célèbre In the Realm of the Senses (1976) but not the less sexually graphic (albeit just as harrowing) follow-up, Empire of Passion (1978). Any way you slice it, a presentation of half the oeuvre will necessarily be an eclectic one. When Oshima died in 2013, Dennis Lim wrote in the New York Times that the Japanese director “never developed a stylistic signature and in fact veered between extremes of style. The 100-minute Violence at Noon includes some two thousand edits, while Night and Fog in Japan, filmed in long takes, is composed of fewer than fifty shots.”
Oshima’s concerns, though, remained relatively consistent: sex, death, racism, the failure of the left, and as Lim noted, his home country, “specifically the Japanese psyche and the damage it had endured from centuries of feudalism and later from World War II. He once said that the goal of his films was ‘to force the Japanese to look in the mirror.’” For TIFF Cinematheque programmer James Quandt, “Oshima’s films are primarily ideational, probing, and controlled—which is not to say they are dry or cerebral. Even at their most complex, Oshima’s works exhibit such wit, beauty, furious invention, and profound feeling that their conceptual gambits take on sensual and emotional force. They are less the product of a postmodernist sensibility than of a desperate intelligence: Oshima made films as if they were a matter of life and death.”
Having studied political history, Oshima began his training as an assistant director at the legendary Japanese studio Shochiku in 1954. His rise was swift, and his debut feature, A Town of Love and Hope, appeared just five years later. In 1960 alone, he made three films. Cruel Story of Youth, in which a pair of young lovers shake down lecherous men, has been called the Breathless of the Japanese New Wave, even though Oshima repeatedly rejected the notion that there was such a movement or that he had anything to do with it. Two gangs in a slum in Osaka go head to head in The Sun’s Burial. “Prostitution, black-marketeering, identity theft, rape, and robbery are the going concerns in this ensemble piece,” wrote Nelson Kim in his essay on Oshima for Senses of Cinema in 2004. “The Sun’s Burial, with its corrupt, conniving characters, its squalor and cruelty, is the director’s disgusted mockery of the nation’s self-image as the ‘land of the rising sun.’”
Two radical activists marry in Night and Fog in Japan, and the wedding devolves into a series of arguments and counterarguments among the guests over just how the Japanese left failed to rise to its moment. Three days after the film’s release in 1960, a right-wing nationalist assassinated the leader of Japan’s Socialist Party, and Shochiku pulled Night and Fog in Japan from theaters. Furious, Oshima left the studio and founded his own production company.
After making a series of documentaries for Japanese television, Oshima returned to fictional features with Pleasures of the Flesh (1965), the story of a white-collar worker entrusted with a suitcase stuffed with embezzled cash. Rather than guard it, the young man decides to blow it all in sensual abandon and then kill himself. TIFF tells us that Martin Scorsese considers Pleasures to be one of Oshima’s “essential” films. Violence at Noon (1966) is based on the true story of a serial killer and the two women who shielded him from the law. “Twisted male desire and political failure have bred madness and death,” writes Michael Koresky in the essay accompanying our release. “These themes reappear throughout Oshima’s career, but rarely are they depicted with such memorably peculiar artistry . . . 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.”
In the black comedy Death by Hanging (1968), executioners frantically debate over how to deal with a Korean student sentenced to death whose body simply refuses to expire. “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,” writes Howard Hampton. “The key to Oshima is how he diligently uncovers the everyday in the surreal rather than the other way around.”
Boy (1969), based on the true story of a ten-year-old whose parents use him to entrap random drivers into paying for accidents they’ve staged, is “one of Oshima’s most accessible films,” wrote David Fear in the Village Voice in 2014. Oshima “threads the era’s modernist tendencies into a template of true-crime realism,” and child actor Tetsuo Abe “makes this masterpiece devastating.” In The Man Who Left His Will on Film (1970), footage found in the camera left by a protesting student who leapt to his death while escaping the police has another student following in his footsteps. “Uncompromising and extraordinary, though tough going for the uninitiated, this is one of Oshima’s signature accomplishments,” wrote Chuck Stephens in a piece on “Essential Oshima” for Film Comment in 2000. The Ceremony (1971) is the saga of the Sakurada family told over the course of a series of weddings and funerals that stretch from the end of the Second World War to the early 1970s. This “grand autopsy of the national clan unfolds as a series of asphyxiating widescreen setups, with characters pinned to tatami floors, benches, shrines,” writes Fernando F. Croce. “For Oshima, the circular family tree of oppression can only conclude via utter negation, the edge where madness meets illumination.”
Slate’s Dana Stevens is one of the most dedicated champions of In the Realm of the Senses, a film inspired by the actual case of Sada Abe, a woman found walking the streets of Tokyo holding the severed penis of her dead lover in 1936. Sada (Eiko Matsuda) works as a maid at an inn where the owner, Kichi (Tatsuya Fuji), takes advantage of his position. “After beginning an obsessive affair, Sada and Kichi drop out of society, drinking and fucking their way from one geisha house to the next in a downward spiral of dissolution—or is it an upward spiral toward erotic transcendence?” asks Stevens. “In the Realm of the Senses isn’t about sex, it is sex: Sex is the medium it moves in and the language it speaks.” The uncut version of the film has naturally run up against short- and long-term bans in various countries around the world. Testifying in a Japanese court, Oshima declared: “Nothing that is expressed is obscene. What is obscene is what is hidden.”
Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983), based on Afrikaner author Laurens van der Post’s experiences as a Japanese prisoner of war, stars David Bowie as a New Zealand officer brought to a POW camp overseen by an aristocratic captain (Ryuichi Sakamoto). The international coproduction is “one of the few Oshima works to wear its heart so clearly on its sleeve,” writes Chuck Stephens, who adds that “never before had the director indulged in so many Old Hollywood moments, so many stirring, music-driven reveries, so much shameless tear-jerking . . . Not that Oshima auteurists are likely to be disappointed by the director’s temporary turn to such mainstream moviemaking fillips: his signature passions and political agonies are everywhere.”
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