Nagisa Oshima Essay - Critical Essays

Oshima, Nagisa


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."

John Simon

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 The Dial Press), Dial, 1971, pp. 382-98.∗

Donald Richie

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.

Philip Strick

[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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Margaret Tarratt

[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 scenes are something of a fiasco. (pp. 43, 46)

Margaret Tarratt, "Film Guide: 'The Boy'" (© copyright Margaret Tarratt 1970; reprinted with permission), in Films and Filming, Vol. 16, No. 11, August, 1970, pp. 43, 46.

Gordon Gow

[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...

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Ian Cameron

[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...

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David Wilson

[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...

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Peter Cowie

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,...

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Judith Crist

[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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Vincent Canby

[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...

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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...

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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;...

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Claire Johnston

[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...

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Stephen Heath

[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...

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Tony Rayns

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...

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Stephen Heath

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...

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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…....

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Michael Silverman

[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...

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Joan Mellen

[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...

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Stanley Kauffmann

[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...

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Joan Mellen

[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....

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John Simon

[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...

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Peter Cowie

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...

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J. Hoberman

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...

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Robert Hatch

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...

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