Friday, January 18, 2013

In Memoriam, Nagisa Oshima (1932-2013)

And so the great Nagisa Oshima is dead.  It’s been a bad year for Japanese filmmakers of the New Wave (Noboru Bagu) period (although we can quibble about the definition of “New Wave” and who fits into it, but all the dead Japanese filmmakers I’m about to mention flourished during the ‘60’s).  First we lost Kaneto Shindo (who was 101 years old, and died of being 101 years old), then Koji Wakamatsu (who was 76 and had just entered a newly fertile artistic period when he was struck and killed by a car), and now Nagisa Oshima, who was only 80 and who had suffered a series of strokes over the past two decades.

Following his debut in 1959, Oshima would make nineteen feature films and documentaries in the 1960’s.  His perennial subject was Japan, which he hated with a passion.  He hated Japanese society, he hated Japanese politics, and he even hated Japanese film; he’s notorious for saying that he hated all Japanese cinema that came before him, which presumably has caused any number of Japanese film buffs to sputter impotently, “But-but-but, even Kurosawa? Even Mizoguchi?” Of course, for a foreign Japanophile (although I’d prefer the term Nihongophile, which is my own coinage but which you’re welcome to use) like myself, Japan is a wonderful land of cinema and literature and great aesthetic refinement; there’s no novelty to it if you have to live there, steeped in social stratification, economic stagnation, and deeply entrenched racism. 

Several of Oshima’s films deal with the hostility that ethnic Koreans have face (and continue to face) in Japan.  He approached the theme farcically in his 1968 film Three Resurrected Drunkards (where the titular drunkards were played by a pop trio called the Folk Crusaders) and much more darkly in his 1983 masterpiece Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, in which a Korean draftee into the Japanese Imperial Army is forced to commit seppuku.

Oshima is probably most famous internationally for his 1976 erotic mindfuck In the Realm of the Senses, which tells the story of famous Japanese prostitute/murderer/castrator Sada Abe and features graphic and unsimulated sex acts.  The film was a French-Japanese coproduction and had to be edited in France because of the Japanese law prohibiting the depiction of human genitalia (and to this day, the film has never been publically screened uncensored in Japan).  Now, naked people having sex aside (and we’re adults, aren’t we? Surely this isn’t really all that shocking?), In the Realm of the Senses is a film about individuals who have the balls to assert the primacy of the individual in the face of unjust coercion and societal expectations.  There’s this notion that we have to sacrifice ourselves for something in some capacity (and as the Russian philosopher Aleksandr Herzen pointed out, if we all made ourselves miserable out of a sense of dutiful sacrifice, then what would be the point? Because then everybody would be miserable, including the people for whom we were presumably making our sacrifices).  In the Realm of the Senses takes place in 1930’s Japan, which has invaded Manchuria and is set to invade the rest of East Asia and the Pacific.  Against this backdrop of bloodthirsty patriotism and militarism, the prostitute Sada Abe has fallen in love with one of her clients, and they both turn their backs on Japanese society and fuck to their hearts’ content.  And surely mindless fucking to the exclusion of all else is a better use of one’s time than to go off and kill Chinese people.

It must be said of Oshima (and I was actually planning to devote a blog post to this before he died and I decided to write a broader memorial post instead) that for a man who professed to hate Japan with such a passion, I don’t think a single other Japanese filmmaker has ever crammed his or her films with as many Japanese flags as Oshima did.  They’re positively ubiquitous.  I’d say, “Here’s a fun drinking game; take a shot every time you see a Japanese flag in an Oshima movie,” but doing this could kill you.  Hell, you’d probably die of acute alcohol poisoning only twenty minutes into 1969’s Boy.  The flags of Oshima’s films undergo constant recontexualization and appropriation.  Whether they’re being waved by fascists or used as a blanket on which to fuck, or if they’re just hanging around, insisting upon themselves, Oshima’s flags are subject to ceaseless subversion.  There’s a famous anecdote where someone asked Jean-Luc Godard why there was so much blood in his movies and he responded with, “It’s not blood, it’s red.” Well, the blood-red sun of the Japanese flag serves in both capacities for Oshima, as both color-scheme (think the White Stripes if they were really hung up on Japanese militarism) and as motif: the blood of fascism and the blood of sex and passion.
A representative poster for one of Oshima's first movies, The Sun's Burial (1960).
After In the Realm of the Senses, Oshima’s productivity fell off dramatically, and his health began to decline significantly in the 1990’s.  He did, however, direct two more masterpieces: the previously mentioned Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (which features David Bowie’s greatest screen performance, as well as Takeshi Kitano’s first major film role) and 1999’s Gohatto, a period piece about all the steamy homoeroticism that seems to lurk just beneath the surface of so many samurai movies, and which features Takeshi Kitano and Tadanobu Asano competing for the sexual attentions of the androgynous Ryuhei Matsuda (in his first film role). 

After Gohatto, Oshima suffered chronic ill health until the stroke that felled him a few days ago.  But he left behind him one of the greatest bodies of work in modern cinema.  In the retrospectives and re-examinations of his oeuvre that are sure to come, hopefully more people will look beyond In the Realm of the Senses and Oshima will be appreciated for the many great films he made in a directorial career that stretched over forty years.  There are still a number of his works that have not been released on DVD or made available for streaming in the United States (although Criterion has done a good job of putting a bunch of them up on Hulu) and the time is ripe for a further discovery of the late Japanese master.

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