Nagisa Oshima retrospective at Edinburgh Filmhouse
The Pensive Provocateur
Ahead of the upcoming Nagisa Oshima retrospective at the Filmhouse Cinema, Edinburgh, which includes screenings of Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence, Night and Fog in Japan and In The Realm of the Senses, Tony McKibbin presents a profile of one of Japan's most prolific and provocative directors.
A complex figure making sense of a complex, still defeated post-war Japanese society, Nagisa Oshima’s career coincided with the French Nouvelle Vague, and he has proved over the years as provocative a filmmaker as any that came out of France at the end of the fifties. Early work Naked Youth (1960) focused on youthful delinquency in post-Hiroshima Japan,with the problems of youth meeting the chaos of a city rebuilt after the nuclear bombing. In Death By Hanging (1968), Oshima based it on an actual case from ten years before, when a young Korean sentenced to death in Japan believed he was simply playing his role in the drama of justice: Oshima reckoned that law wasn’t possible without criminals, and the Korean was going to be executed to fulfil that role. If killing was a capital offence; then what offence was committed by those putting him to death? Oshima is well aware of the provocation in his claims, while critics have pointed out that although he frequently works from a real event, he pushes it into the absurd. In Death by Hanging, the cops become as violent as the person they’re punishing for the crime of violence.
Oshima didn’t only coincide with the New Wave; he was also central to Japan’s own. This was a movement that came out of not a ‘sense of victimisation’ that Oshima believed was central to post-war politics and society, but a "movement rooted in the subjective will of the people." Films couldn’t assume a general consciousness in the audience to which the film would appeal, but needed to offer a subjective vision that would allow creative freedom for the filmmaker, and subjective freedom in the viewer making sense of the images put in front of them. These weren’t the trivial thoughts of an artist simply creating a space for himself against the norms of the time. Born in Kyoto in 1932, Oshima’s father was descended from samurai, and an amateur painter and poet, who left Nagisa a large collection of Marxist and Socialist texts when he died while the boy was only six. In his teens Oshima read a great deal and became a student activist by the time he left high school. The combination of a samurai heritage and a Marxist self-education allows for the sort of healthy contradictions a complex artist can work from.
Writing in his book, Japanese Cinema, Donald Richie reckons Nagisa Oshima’s early films "preferred to dwell upon the more sensational aspects of modern untraditional behaviour, to approve the revolt, and to spend more time over a careful delineation of excess than over any treatment of character." But Oshima had acknowledged himself in an article in 1963, quoted by the other major western critic on Japanese cinema, Noel Burch, in To The Distant Observer, that "editing and imagery have a latent specificity, beyond their function as ‘narrative vehicle’”. With his approval of revolt, and his fascination with form, Oshima was a filmmaker who saw film as both a means to an end and an end in itself. The pragmatic preoccupations of most directors – to film the story as smoothly as possible – was of less interest than filming the story self-consciously and provocatively. Even in the early Naked Youth (1960), for example, in the first three minutes he both de-dramatizes and melodramatises. In the early moments in the car as the characters talk Oshima shoots the scene so that we see the back of their heads not their faces. A few seconds later, as the driver comes onto the girl on the street, she fights back and the driver slaps her around. Someone passes by and gives the driver a good pasting. Here, the aloof approach of shooting from the back of the characters’ heads is followed by two consecutive scenes of melodramatic aggression.
Indeed, central to Oshima’s work has been this combination of the provocative and the austere, and many of his films appear commercial, even exploitative in summary, and yet distanciating, absurd or plaintive in execution. Probably best known for the controversy surrounding Ai No Corrida (1976), Oshima’s explicit account of a case from the thirties where a hotel maid murdered her employee and went off with his severed penis after spending several days holed up having sex. Yet if the synopsis indicates the titillating, the film itself is closer to the exhausting. Titillation of course means to excite pleasurably; Oshima is more inclined to exhaust enquiringly – as though there is some troubling element in the social fabric that the story he bases his work on can bring out. Oshima doesn’t tease us with the pleasures of the flesh in Ai no Corrida, he blankly stares at lovers whose copulating activities must become ever more extreme. If in many erotic films the sex is the elaborate tease to keep the viewer in their seat after the initial come-on, with the sex punctuating the film, in Ai no Corrida the story disintegrates around the sex. As Burch says “the narrative is extremely, often disconcertingly elliptical”. In the equally ‘shocking’ Max Mon Amour (1986), Charlotte Rampling’s character is a diplomat’s wife who falls in love with an ape. Oshima generally presents the relationship for what it is – a wife’s dissatisfaction with her husband, and her interest drifting off elsewhere. Early in the film she talks of the affair with a matter-of-factness, as though sex with an ape is no big thing. Once again the sensational subject matter is contained by Oshima’s reflective bent as he offers a pensive provocation.
Oshima isn’t only a controversial filmmaker – he is also a provocative figure. As he was learning his craft in the Japanese film industry of the fifties , he was simultaneously writing articles critical of the Japanese film-making mainstream, and in 1956 became editor-in-chief on Eiga Hihyon. Burch notes that even in the late seventies “Oshima’s personality has considerably more impact on Japanese society than his films: for some years he was a daily guest star’ on a popular, breakfast-time TV talk-show.” When his fourth film, Night and Fog in Japan (1960), was released it was hastily withdrawn. As it questioned the traditional left and also student radicals, it called for a new political position still more demanding. When a few days after its release a socialist leader was assassinated, the film was withdrawn by its production company Shochiku, and Oshima went on to set up his own production house and made increasingly radical films. There is a sense here not only of a director of provocative material; but a provocateur behind the camera that is part of the texture of that work. Burch reckons while we can admire the “intrinsic qualities of many of these films…his chief importance lies in the reflective quality of the work as a whole”. Like Godard, like Fassbinder, and like Herzog and von Trier, Oshima is a filmmaker as life force; someone who chose film to express a complex self coming out of, in Oshima’s case, as in Fassbinder’s, a society with more than enough complexes of its own.
It was as though Oshima wanted to collide with society as readily as make sense of it, and so it was appropriate that much of his work was taken from the headlines and turned into disquisitions on society and self. Many consequently regard Shonen (1969) as his greatest work, and though others would claim it lacks the tortuous formal innovation of, say, The Man Who Left his Will on Film (1970), it has plenty paradoxes of its own. Not least the idea of a young boy whose is encourage by his parents to run in front of passing cars and feign injury before claiming compensation. If Oshima was the semi-orphaned child left a moral legacy through his father’s library; here the parented boy is left morally orphaned - he doesn’t know where he is placed within an ethical spectrum. Oshima offers conventional continuity editing as he creates almost standard suspense in some of the ‘accidents’, but he also keeps an analytic distance at other moments, as in the film’s early stages when we see the family trying to extort money from a young driver in the family’s flat. Oshima holds on the long shot, a troubled gaze, admittedly, rather than a radical one, but a plaintive look nevertheless. Indeed in one form or another (whether with minimal cutting of Night and Fog in Japan, with 43 cuts, or Violence at High Noon (1966) with over 2000, Oshima’s interest in form never denied content as he became, in David Thomson’s words, “arguably…the first Japanese director who seemed to be functioning within a totally modern world”.
The Nagisa Oshima season is at Filmhouse, Edinburgh from Fri 4 Sep-Thu 22 Oct. For full listings see: http://www.filmhousecinema.com/seasons/nagisa-oshima/