Nagisa Oshima 1932–
Japanese director and screenwriter.
Oshima's films deal with the post-war experience and subsequent disorientation of Japanese society. He questions Japan's moral code and believes human sexuality to be a release of tension within a repressive environment. Oshima also centers on the criminal act, the nature of such an action, and the actual event. By doing so, he provides an objective, unemotional analysis of sensational aspects of contemporary behavior, often focusing on the difficulties of youth in Japan.
In 1962, Oshima formed his own production company, Sozosha, but because of his earlier commercial failures, it took four years to attain financial backing for his first independent feature. The Sozosha films are critical treatments of Japan's bourgeois society. Diary of a Shinjuku Thief and Death by Hanging commence with actual incidents and deal with controversial topics, challenging the conception of truth. By interpreting events in different ways, Oshima accentuates the fallibility of moral assumption.
Death by Hanging, considered Oshima's first major personal statement, depicts a Korean who survives his execution but cannot recall the crime for which he was convicted. Its distancing effects owe much to Brecht and Kabuki theater. The same theatricality is evident in Diary of a Shinjuku Thief, a tale of student unrest. Once again, several viewpoints are presented simultaneously, and Oshima stresses the importance of a fantasy life as a means of attaining a new level of being. Older people are treated unfavorably because of their unwillingness to be imaginative.
Boy uses a more conventional approach. Despite the family's unusual occupation—staging accidents to claim insurance money—they are traditionally Japanese in their attitudes. Though Boy's subject matter is poignant, the film is not sentimental. The violent outcome of their existence is shown as an inherent result of Japanese lifestyles. When a real accident abruptly ends their career, the young boy is damaged irreparably. Significantly, an orphan played the boy and, after the film's completion, chose not to be adopted because of his disenchantment with the Japanese family system. Oshima says of the film, "The plight of the child is the plight of us all."
Oshima's most controversial film, In the Realm of the Senses, appeared briefly at the New York Film Festival before the U.S. Customs Service confiscated it because of its graphic sexual content. The tale of a consuming passion ending in murder, the film glorifies the sensuality of Old Japan. Like earlier films, it deals with an actual event and its consequences. More importantly, however, In the Realm of the Senses raises questions about the nature of obscenity. Oshima felt the film could be defined as either erotic or pornographic, but added that he sees nothing wrong with pornography: sex is a fundamental activity in which human beings participate. Although not overtly political, some critics see the sexual obsession of the protagonists as an attempt to transcend their political milieu.
Oshima was awarded the prize as best director at the Cannes Film Festival for Empire of Passion. Nevertheless, the film met with a tepid reception among critics. Considered a companion piece to In the Realm of the Senses, it intertwines love and death to create a statement about societal dictates. Oshima says of these doomed heroes what is true for all his characters: "In their reluctance to rebel there dwells a curious strength."
Boy is a film that tries to use Western avant-garde modes of obliquity in telling a rather humdrum tale of petty larceny in contemporary Japan. Unfortunately, the director, Nagisa Oshima, has nothing much to say about his characters. The film tells of a partly disabled war veteran who teaches his wife and young son how to pretend they have been hit by passing cars and collect hefty sums for not going to the police. Though there are vague attempts at examining how these activities affect the psyches involved, and their relation to one another, the film stays close to the surface, and the surface is far from interesting.
Nevertheless, one scene remains visually haunting: two small boys squatting in front of a snowman in an otherwise empty, flat, snowy landscape. The color film's way of rendering this essentially monochromatic subject matter, combined with the starkness of the wide-screen composition, makes for an impact comparable to that of certain modern paintings where the figure is pushed as far as it will go toward abstraction. But this is insufficient to redeem a hollow film. (p. 389)
John Simon, "The Festival and Awards Game: Unmagnificent Seventh" (originally published as "More Moans for the Festival," in The New Leader, Vol. LII, No. 20, October 27, 1969), in his Movies into Film: Film Criticism 1967–1970 (copyright © 1971 by John Simon; reprinted with permission of...
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A short while ago a young Korean student murdered and raped two Japanese girls. Director Oshima has returned to the case [in Koshikei (Death by Hanging)] and questioned not the guilt of the student but the justification of capital punishment and the whole problem of discrimination against the Koreans in Japan. He does not do so directly, however. Instead, he has chosen a Brechtian form. The young Korean, though hanged, refuses to die and so the police officers must act out his crime in order to convince him of his guilt. In so doing one of the officers inadvertently murders a girl. The ironies of the picture multiply—law is impossible without crime, for example—and the film ends with the unassailable logic of the young Korean's observation upon being warmly assured that it is indeed very bad to kill, that "then it is bad to kill me." The second half of Koshikei is somewhat loose and more than a little indulgent, but the general structure and the first half are remarkably incisive.
Donald Richie, "'Koshikei' ('Death by Hanging')," in International Film Guide 1969, edited by Peter Cowie (copyright © 1968 by The Tantivy Press), Tantivy Press, 1969, p. 113.
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[Boy] displays its credits against the blackened sun of the Japanese flag. The symbol, recurring throughout the film, is intended as an ironic reminder of militant nationalism, the dominant mood (as Oshima sees it) of the society within which his little band of criminals makes its gestures of revolt. In addition, the flag stands for the paternalistic structure of the Japanese way of life, a structure both constricting and emasculatory which has already received a thorough trouncing in two other recent Oshima works, Death by Hanging and Diary of a Shinjuku Thief. In both these predecessors, youthful offenders against the established order struggle to reconcile their social transgressions with what they are conscious to be their moral ones—only to reach the conclusion that the values of the older generation are neither valid nor relevant to their own problems….
[For the family of Boy], the flag is neither provider nor protector; rather, they are its victims—and in turn the boy is victim of his parents, whose exploitation of his body as a sacrificial offering to one car accident after another … is stoically accepted by him as their right….
[The ten-year-old in Boy] could have been given the full sentimental treatment. Like the arrogantly vulnerable miscreants of Shinjuku Thief, however, he is contemplated by Oshima with a gaze that is almost cold. All the heart-rending...
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[In The Boy, traffic] is used to express a sense of social isolation and indeed, alienation…. The family forms a tight unit held together by mutual need against the rest of society. But within that unit there is continual antagonism both silent and violent…. Oshima has suggested that the father, who uses his war experiences as an excuse for his conduct, is an archetypal Japanese patriarch. In his authoritarian role, an analogy may be drawn between the Emperor rulers of Japan who have dominated the country for two thousand years. Such analogies, however, are remote from the fabric of the film….
[The] movement between colour and monochrome together with the often unlinked scenes suggests that we are inhabiting the boy's private dream world. Rejecting the example of human beings, the boy's heroes are the men from outer space whom he believes to be strong, self-sufficient but beneficent. (p. 43)
The boy's long speech in the snow, the placing of his watch and the dead girl's boot on the snowman and his angry destruction of it, seem to overweigh the film with cumbersome symbolism—even if we realise that the placing of objects on a snowman is a Japanese custom…. The film is at its most impressive when symbolic overtones are absent, in the trivial details of everyday life permeated with a gnawing melancholy—a chilly tone which holds the attention. It is a film constructed in a minor key in which the big...
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[In Diary of a Shinjuku Thief, hands] are torn from the face of a clock. Time and customs are wishfully brought to a standstill while the revolutionary spirit of the world is concentrated into one uptight predicament in modern Japan…. The trouble with [the main characters] is that neither of them has much luck in the matter of obtaining orgasm, especially not together, and their conscientious and troubled search for a solution to this problem is intended by the film's director, Nagisa Oshima, to symbolise the need for a Japan to explode its social inhibitions and become a free new world. It is as well to be informed of this, because one could so easily run away with the thought that the film is all about sex and that political comment is peripheral. As a matter of fact, it seems to me to turn out like that anyway, however intensely one tries to see it in allegorical terms. It's as erotic as can be. They talk about sex, and they enact what they talk about, and anybody who can keep his mind on a political plane while all this is happening ought to stand for parliament at the next election or go and see a psychiatrist. (pp. 51, 55)
The style of the film is erratic; and technically there are signs of what I take to be economic stress, as for example in a crowded little room where a number of men talk about their sexual experiences, sometimes in shots of reasonable clarity, but often in an inconsistent haze…. It's a mélange of a...
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[The] departures from the rules of the genre in Naked Youth and The Sun's Burial were evidence that Oshima was more than just an accomplished metteur-en-scène. The violence was too extreme and distasteful to fit the accepted patterns of entertaining rough-stuff. (pp. 63-4)
The Sun's Burial also contains some noticeable departures from the idea of the good story well told—climactic moments of violence are shown in alienating long shots and there's a conspicuous lack of economy in the handling, with a multitude of individually motivated characters all playing a part in the complex thematic sub-structure. Neither The Sun's Burial nor Naked Youth fits into the established emotional modes of crime movies, whether optimistic or pessimistic. Virtue is certainly not triumphant—the good guys don't beat the bad guys, because Oshima does not work in those terms and there are no firm candidates for the position of good guy. But equally these films reject the patterns of romantic pessimism: we aren't offered the moving spectacle of the doomed but sympathetic criminal…. Although the pessimism of The Sun's Burial is as extreme as you will see on the screen, we are not invited to indulge in it as an emotional experience. Emotionally, these films have a drained quality which, excluding much identification, invites a more intellectual response. (pp. 64-5)
Many of the themes and...
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[Death by Hanging] is not so much based on facts as structured round them; a documentary fact merely provides the thematic framework around which Oshima builds a complex interplay between reality and appearance….
[What we watch in Death by Hanging] is a masquerade, a formal demonstration of what Oshima has called 'the continual reciprocity between reality and fiction.' The idea is central to each of the three recent Oshima films we have seen. It is the basis of Boy, where the family's existence depends on an act of deception; and of course it recurs throughout Diary of a shinjuku Thief, with its convoluted variations on the theme of performance. The disappearing body at the end of Death by Hanging is much more than the formalistic convenience it seems at first; with its repeated juxtaposition of real and apparent contradictions, the whole film has prepared us for this final coup de théâtre.
For a start, the film is based on a non-event: R is not hanged…. The cause and effect synthesis is thus immediately demolished, to be replaced by a series of circular antitheses…. The antitheses proliferate, and Oshima assembles them with an intellectual rigour the more remarkable because their interior logic is as unassailable as the prison doctor's whimsical idea that they are all ultimately murderers, since the execution of R involves them in an endless retributory spiral…. (p....
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Oshima's [The Man Who Left His Will on Film and The Ceremony] represent the two directions of his thinking. The Man Who Left His Will on Film is totally absorbed in the student struggle for power in the Tokyo of the late Sixties, and its style is correspondingly harsh and febrile, like Shinjuku Thief. The Ceremony, however, has the formal appeal of emotions recollected, sifted, assessed….
The Man Who Left His Will on Film is in black-and-white, and shot mostly with a hand-held camera. The Ceremony is in scope and colour, its starched gatherings recalling Ozu. Yet both films are obsessed with suicide…. In the earlier work, Oshima is using film as a weapon, creating a powerful dialectic in the conversations between Motoki and his girl friend Yasuko until the truth … seems impossible to disentangle from illusion. In The Ceremony, Oshima emphasises the artificial atmosphere of much Japanese ceremonial, which allows the inhibited national spirit to accept militarism and xenophobia—feelings that in daily life would be rejected.
"For me," says Oshima, "The question of how to die in the Seventies is an answer to the question of how to live." With these two films, he shows himself to be the first director who can reflect the contemporary mood of protest while understanding the legacy of the past.
Peter Cowie, "'The Man Who Left His...
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[The Ceremony] is strictly for cineastes who can justify all sorts of incoherencies and inanities in the name of cult. This endless melodrama is, despite an interesting scene or two, strictly from the schmaltz-soap had-I-but-known school, and if its saga of the Sakurada family, recalled by a grandson who winds up its sole survivor, is a parable of Japanese history from 1946 to the present, it is a convoluted and tedious one. (p. 75)
Judith Crist, "Roadside Refreshment," in New York Magazine (copyright © 1974 by News Group Publications, Inc.; reprinted with the permission of New York Magazine), Vol. 7, No. 6, February 11, 1974, pp. 74-5.∗
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[For about one-third of its running time] "Death by Hanging" is a surprisingly uproarious contemplation of the moral issues involved in capital punishment. The prison officials, prosecutors, chaplain and witnesses argue back and forth and pick at each other with a Lewis Carroll sort of purposeful, cross illogic….
As long as "Death by Hanging" sticks to capital punishment, it is, in its absurd way, provocative and entertaining. But the film's interests keep widening, its methods become increasingly, arbitrarily Godardian (read Brechtian), until it reaches a point of total confusion….
Kafka, Freud and some other weighty presences are evoked by Mr. Oshima as straight editorializing, through Godardian monologues. One of R's problems is that he loved his sister, which doesn't seem to have a great deal to do with legalized murder and capital punishment.
Some of it is funny. More of it is tedious, and a lot of it curiously old-fashioned, even though it reminds us of the great Godard films of the mid-nineteen-sixties. Extreme movie styles date more quickly than hemlines.
Vincent Canby, "Oshima Work Brings Memory of Godard," in The New York Times (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 15, 1974 (and reprinted in The New York Times Film Reviews: 1973–1974, The New York Times Company & Arno Press, 1975, p....
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If we accept T. W. Adorno's assertion that the only choice open to a politically committed artist at this stage in history is to create a negative art, then Nagisa Oshima's The Ceremony must be considered a profoundly revolutionary work. Using as his metaphor a large, bourgeois family, Oshima seeks to analyze the nature of authoritarianism. On one level, the film can be seen as a study of this authoritarianism as manifest in the traditional Japanese family and, on another, as an exploration of the totality of postwar Japanese experience during the years 1946 to 1971.
One of the key aspects of traditional Japanese society is the fetishization of ritual; there is a set 'way' in which certain things are done, according to time-honored custom. Another is paternalism, which extends from veneration of the Emperor as father-figure to the whole nation to the recognition of the absolute supremacy of the senior male in the family. A third element is a spirit of resignation, an attitude of "it can't be helped", which lies at the root of the Japanese preoccupation with suicide and death.
It is with the above that The Ceremony is concerned, and with the fact that they can exist side by side with the vigorous pragmatism and commercial mindedness of the 'new' Japan. The film works on a psychological level by showing the contradiction between the highly formalized rituals in which the Sakurada family participates and...
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Lawrence Van Gelder
[The voice-over commentary on "Diary of a Yunbogi Boy"] smacks of an inept pastiche of the late Jimmy Cannon….
"Diary of a Yunbogi Boy" seeks to stroke the fires of rebellion with the lump in the throat that presumably arises in the presence of what is intended to be a touching study of an impoverished Korean boy.
With all its drawbacks, looking at [Godard's] "Letter to Jane" after watching "Diary of a Yunbogi Boy" is almost like standing in the presence of a Rembrandt after being exposed to one of those hollow-eyed Keane paintings.
Lawrence Van Gelder, "Comment on Stills," in The New York Times (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 12, 1974 (and reprinted in The New York Times Film Reviews: 1973–1974, The New York Times Company & Arno Press, 1975, p. 158).
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[Oshima] is perhaps the film-maker most actively concerned with the political and social implications of [the] upheaval in Japanese life during the last twenty years or so; all his films centre on the experience of young people and their inability to come to terms with the prevailing values of society. Oshima's characters live out the tensions that exist not only in Japanese society, but in all capitalist societies, which makes him one of the most important directors to have emerged in the past decade….
[All Oshima's early work] falls within the teenage gangster genre, well-fitted for expressing his central preoccupations. In fact, all his films revolve around either a criminal way of life or a criminal act of some kind; for Oshima, crime expresses a working through of a profound and disquieting social disorganisation….
[Oshima's early films] have a documentary conception, most of them being based on fact, and there is an attempt to distance the audience from any identification with the protagonists…. If The Sun's Burial conveys the hopelessness and terror arising from the dislocation in Japanese life, The Catch goes one step farther to explore the traditional Japanese community and its implicit value system, laying bare Japanese responsibility for the war. Oshima sees Japanese nationalism as irredeemable. The "otherness" of the Black is only an extreme case; the community is shown to have...
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[Dear Summer Sister] seems far from distanciation, seems to rely on identification, seems to aspire to a straightforward continuity (conventional—'academic'—editing), seems to have a simple narrative thread, and so on. Yet the film is also, and this is part of its interest, against these things insofar as it takes them as the point of the demonstration politically of the contradictions of a particular social reality. (p. 43)
Dear Summer Sister itself turns on history lessons—the reality of Japan in its development as 'world power'—and a history lesson, that of Sunaoko, the little sister who arrives in Okinawa to find her brother and who ends on the beach ('Miss Prosecutor') by demanding ('for my education, tell me') to know the truth. Lesson and truth, however, are not simple at every step there are contradictions and the film 'blocks together' in a multiple heterogeneity…. The political comment—on Japanese war crimes and the continuing power of those responsible, on Japanese imperialism, on the exploitation of Okinawa—is clear and then at the same time difficult; the summer holiday—the strange language, the songs, the visit to the monument (with a shaky hand-held 'holiday movie' passage), the drive through the streets (Sunaoko questioning her father, the Judge, about the brothels)—and the summer visitors are constantly reinscribed politically but that political reinscription is then again constantly...
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None of Oshima's films looks or behaves much like any of the others, and In the Realm of the Senses establishes yet another new tonality in his work…. At first, it is as if Oshima were endorsing his characters' rhapsodic isolation by enshrining it in a form that permits no other frame of reference. A vein of fatalism in the plotting reinforces this impression, giving the film the air of a self-fulfilling prophecy: Kichi's willing surrender to death is anticipated in two earlier couplings in which he thinks his partner has died, and several prominent appearances of knives and razors prefigure the climactic act of castration.
In fact, of course, Oshima challenges this complacency as surely as he challenged the supposed naturalism of Boy. The obvious authenticity of the lovemaking is offset by the unreality of Sada's insatiable demands and Kichi's hypervirility. (p. 37)
Locating the action of In the Realm of the Senses in 1936 determines the meaning of a number of incidental details, from the fact that the children harassing a tramp in the opening scenes are clutching miniature national flags to the presence of a squad of armed troops who briefly block Kichi's view as he waits for Sada; but it also makes the total absence of socio-political ideas from the film very striking. As Oshima has already demonstrated often (in the closing shot of Death by Hanging, for instance), absence can be as...
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The intensity of Oshima's work lies in a 'going beyond' of content that constantly breaks available articulations of 'form' and 'content' and poses the film in the hollow of those breaks. The films have an immediate presence of narrative articulation but that presence in each case presents the absence of another film the discourse of which, punctuating this film and its space, finds its determinations, its contradictions, its negativity. Split in the narrativisation, the films are thus out of true with—out of 'the truth' of—any single address: the subject divided in complexes of representation and their contradictory relations. (p. 109)
The work of Oshima is political and obliquely political, a return of the one on the other through questions posed to meanings, images, fictions of unity, the questions of subject relations and transformations. (p. 110)
Stephen Heath, "Narrative Space," in Screen (© The Society for Education in Film and Television 1976), Vol. 17, No. 3, Autumn, 1976, pp. 68-112.∗
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In [In the Realm of the Senses], we witness a relationship between two people, who neither put on an exhibitionistic show for us, nor make us feel embarrassed that we may be spying on them. This, to my mind, is a major breakthrough in the depiction of eroticism in film. There is no fetishism of parts of the body; the sex scenes between the two, photographed from every conceivable angle, are never voyeuristic, and neither partner is objectified by the camera. In each scene, Oshima creates a total gestalt; the shots, mostly long and static, are composed so as to place the two protagonists at the center of simple, stunning settings, realistic without ever ceding to the peurile naturalism of most porno films….
Some women have complained that the film's depiction of female sexuality—in that Sada is almost constantly the aggressor, the lover, whereas Kichi remains for the most part the passive recipient of her attentions—is a male fantasy. Now, while I doubt most men would object to receiving a certain amount of such attention, this is not the point. In the first place, in the context of the story, both as told in court by the real Sada and in Oshima's retelling, Sada was, in fact, the more aggressive. After all, it was indeed Kichi whose desire it was to receive death at the height of pleasure, while Sada chose to survive and, in fact, to continue her life of pleasure after four years of incarceration. Secondly, in most...
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[Ostensibly, L'Empire des Sens (In the Realm of the Senses)] can be seen as a fuck film; indeed, it is so explicit that it may never be shown in "respectable" art houses or at festivals subject to discreet censorship. Its spectacle inheres in the unremitting display of sexuality, so that an occasional exterior shot seems a lapse in concentration…. The lovers' pact is the unqualified prolongation of desire; and whereas in a romantic film … we understand that desire may be kept alive as memory which nourishes one partner after the other's death, here a lapse into sleep or a soft penis signal a point of absolute termination Oshima's persistent narrowing denies any romantic or metaphysical gesture the opportunity of replacing the physical fact.
In part this critique of romantic desire and its replacement by the strictly sexual is marked by a restriction and isolation from any social network which might impinge upon sexual activity, making complicated demands. Thus, the woman's objection to the man's wife may be seen as a mark of traditional jealousy, but also as a wish to deny the husband a context apart from the absolutely sexual. (p. 58)
The film rigorously exposes the aim of possession: a placing of the other within a heavily restricted system of exchange, a construction of the object of desire as an enacting substitute for the fears of the self's own death…. Finally, the object of desire must die in order...
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[Oshima's Boy] is one of the bitterest satires ever to be made on the Japanese family…. Oshima argues, not that he is realistically representing a typical Japanese household, but that the entire situation symbolizes the essence of family life in Japan. The power relationships between parents and children, exaggerated through the outrageous fraud, are nevertheless meant to suggest those beneath the surface of all Japanese families. (p. 353)
The psychology of the typical young Japanese … is characterized by frustration and repression of one's deepest longings. Oshima's boy hero experiences each day a total violation of his personal integrity. He hates the cheating and fraud he is forced to perpetrate. But, recognizing the power of the family over his life, he says nothing. Pathetically, he is also intensely loyal to his parents. At first this may seem unrealistic, given their vicious exploitation of him. But they are all that he knows…. Oshima's choice of a ten-year-old was well calculated. By the age of ten the boy has already learned the extent to which he must conform; he has absorbed the rules of what it means to belong to a Japanese family. Yet he is young enough still to long for self-definition.
Oshima's use of atonal music creates a sense of discordance, another facet of this film's subtle departure from realistic naturalism. The music denotes a universe where natural order has been distorted. (p....
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[The intent of In the Realm of the Senses], as the title indicates, is to submerge us in a sea of sensuality. Two professionals of sex are surprised, after their extensive experience, by the intensity of their response to each other. They move, almost transcendentally, to the utmost limits of physical experience, until he wants to die, in the literal as well as Elizabethan meaning, and she seals off their union at its height, so to speak, by severing his penis (with his dreamy consent)….
[The] idea of the film exists in one place, figuratively, the film in another, and there is a great gap between. First, it's full of heavy symbolism. Example: when the man first meets the woman, she is quarreling with another woman and has a knife in her hand; he laughs and says she should have something else in her hand. Second, the color photography is of the most blatantly Beautiful kind—dime-store shades of red and gold, unsubtle contrasts—and the compositions could not be more corny…. Third, because of our constant awareness of various contrivances, we never do sink into the sea: we watch. And merely to watch a series of sexual encounters in an allegedly serious film soon gets as dull as watching such encounters in unpretentious porn.
Far from being any kind of love story, as the two characters claim, and as some outside the picture have claimed, Realm registers only as the record of physiological...
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[At the heart of Nagisa Oshima's "In the Realm of the Senses"] lie impulses quite foreign both to the Western approach to sexuality and to pornography…. [He] is here evoking an uninhibited, joyous sensuality which is said to have flourished in 10th-century Japan as an intrinsic part of an aristocratic culture in which people dedicated themselves to the appreciation of lovemaking, free of inhibition or anxiety; it was a mood reinvoked for the last time in the flurry of pleasure-seeking just prior to the opening of Japan to the West….
Oshima's Sada and Kichizo [are] survivors of a world of sexual refinement long since lost by the 1930's—the period in which "In the Realm of the Senses" is set. Sada and Kichizo pursue the pleasure that was possible in that ancient and more beautiful Japan, heroically unwilling to allow themselves to be repressed by the culture of their own time, one in which Japan has already invaded Manchuria. Oshima suggests that sex in this old Japan was pure, divorced from psychopathology and Oedipal burdens, transcending social class. The body was as important as the spirit. He defies the premise at the heart of [Bertolucci's] "Last Tango in Paris" (to which "In the Realm of the Senses" has been mistakenly compared) that we bring all that we are and have been to the act of love. In Oshima's vision, equality is at the heart of Japanese sensuality.
Sada begins as a maid in the brothel run by...
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[Too much of a muchness is one of the problems] with In the Realm of the Senses, although that is only one trouble with Nagisa Oshima's dreadful movie….
[Oshima] has tried to tell a story about a man and a woman who love each other with such an insane passion that, as it becomes ever more fanatical and all-consuming, nothing will satisfy it except death. Well, why not? Such tales have been a staple of literature since narration began…. But Oshima set out to do something more difficult: to concentrate almost entirely on the two lovers, show their passion in constant closeup, as it were, and deal with the matter realistically, head on. A gallant conception, but one for which he is quite the wrong man, having neither the artistry nor the psychological insight. (p. 53)
It will not do, I think, to talk of cultural differences and the inscrutable East…. Nor will I be swayed by the contention that Oshima looks at passion dispassionately, and so deliberately keeps the temperature level down. In the first place, any number of needlessly graphic details leave little doubt about Oshima's pornographic intentions; in the second, what would be the point of making a film about passion in which one set out not to convey what passion is like? As soon make a film about beauty in which all the sights are ugly.
Rather, judging by several other films of his as well, Oshima strikes me as a profoundly...
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The disdainful reviews meted out to [Ai no borei (Empire of Passion)] are surely related to the film's gravity of expression, by comparison with the sex and violence of Ai no corrida [In the Realm of the Senses]. Oshima has moved further back in time (the earlier film took place in the Thirties) to a Nineteenth-century setting…. But the dictates of Japanese formalism where period works are concerned have not inhibited Oshima's sense of outrage. There is a fury that burns like a bright diamond at the heart of Ai no borei, and Seki and Toyoji live passionately to their last gasp. As Oshima says, in their reluctance to rebel, there dwells a curious strength.
These lovers are unhinged by the ghost of the man they have conspired to kill, and Oshima [creates] an oneiric atmosphere, in which dream and actuality merge. He introduces an element of surrealism by forcing one to watch the murdered man's body tumble in slow-motion into a gigantic pit, engulfing the camera. Death and sexual ecstasy are intertwined. (pp. 218-19)
In the final analysis, the ghost story is only an idiom for Oshima. His prevailing interest is in the impossibility of free love in a social grid. Seki may be sufficiently swept away by passion to acquiesce in the murder of her husband, but as his ghost assails her, and she shelters behind a bank of protective fires, she exclaims to Toyoji that she wants to live "like a couple."…...
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Nagisa Oshima's Empire of Passion is being promoted as the companion piece to his 1976 cause celebre, In the Realm of the Senses…. [They] both grimly depict the wages of sex as death. But whereas the marathon claustro-carnality of the earlier film made it a monumental, half-cracked tour-de-force—the La Region Central of hardcore porn—Empire of Passion is a banal, meandering will-o'-the-wisp….
Empire of Passion begins promisingly but, like an unwelcome guest, grows simultaneously shriller and more sluggish as it edges towards the door. Oshima makes elaborate use of the changing seasons; there are a half dozen striking shots (mostly taken from the bottom of the well where the unquiet corpse has been pitched); but the bottom line is a botched James M. Cain plot with a less-than-eerie overlay. The Rickshaw Man Always Rings Twice, one colleague called it. Would that twice were all it was.
J. Hoberman, "Sympathy for the Devil" (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice and the author; copyright © News Group Publications, Inc., 1980), in The Village Voice, Vol. XXV, No. 50, December 17, 1980, p. 82.∗
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Nagisa Oshima's Empire of Passion is a tale of sexual abandon, murder and retribution, set in a nineteenth-century Japanese village and filmed with a regard for the beauty of the seasons, of the rural structures and furnishings, and the persons of the main characters that place it at some esthetic remove from ordinary life. One views it as though turning the pages in a volume of splendid lithographs recording the stages of a distant tragedy. It is a ghost story, but haunting also in the larger sense that one succumbs to its influence as to the misty fragments of a dream….
It is, you see, one of the oldest of stories, and Oshima does not embellish it with novelties. He relies on its capacity to arouse horror and pity whenever it is told with conviction, and devotes himself to invoking the tyranny of passion in surroundings of serene loveliness. Japanese conventions for the expression of high emotion can seem extravagant, hence shallow, to Western eyes. It is a measure of Oshima's sympathy for his couple, and distress over their intemperance, that their behavior, though clearly foreign to our manners, does not seem false. We accord them the same bittersweet grief that we feel for our own legendary lovers. (pp. 716-17)
Robert Hatch, "Films: 'Empire of Passion'," in The Nation (copyright 1980 The Nation magazine, The Nation Associates, Inc.), Vol. 231, No. 22, December 27,...
(The entire section is 232 words.)