Nagisa Oshima

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Claire Johnston

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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 contempt and hatred for any outsider…. (p. 183)

The Catch represents Oshima's most angry and outspoken rejection of traditional values. The film suggests that the solution lies in achieving a completely new mode of being, and Oshima sees the only real hope for this resting with the young. Throughout the film, he places great emphasis on the children of the community and shows how they witnessed the entire proceedings. In the last image of the film a young boy moves away from the communal fire and builds a small fire of his own, a gesture of defiance that also hints at the possibility of change and renewal. (p. 184)

All Oshima's later films make use of illusion and fantasy as the means for exploring his interests in greater depth…. Death by Hanging starts with a painstaking account of execution by hanging in the manner of the conventional anti-capital punishment film, the story being inspired by an actual murder case…. By using a variety of interpretations of events that in themselves exist on entirely different levels of reality, Oshima succeeds in bringing into question the moral assumptions on which the execution is based. The representatives of Japanese bureaucracy such as the education officer, the priest and the doctor, are depicted as being trapped in their own specialist mentality and devoid of any social responsibility.

Oshima sees the Korean as a victim of Japanese imperialism who exists entirely in a world of fantasy; characteristically he chooses to be hanged at the end. In its alienation techniques, Death by Hanging owes much to kabuki theatre and to Brecht…. (pp. 184-85)

[In Diary of a Shinjuku Thief], as in Death by Hanging, Oshima does not set out simply to put forward one single viewpoint. What does emerge is the stress on the importance of the fantasy life to break through to a new mode of being. Oshima sees the failure of the older generation as being essentially a failure of imagination. (p. 186)

The formal eclecticism of Oshima's recent films, The Ceremony and Dear Summer Sister, demonstrate clearly the extent to which he has sought to reject the traditions of the Japanese cinema. The highly formalised basically theatrical conception of The Ceremony contrasts sharply with...

(This entire section contains 728 words.)

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the deliberately crude, home-movie quality ofDear Summer Sister, yet both films deal with a theme that has dominated Oshima's work over the last few years—the idea of what is Japan and what it means to be Japanese. (p. 187)

[Oshima's films] mark the arrival of a genuinely revolutionary cinema in Japan, a cinema that embodies the collective fantasies of postwar Japanese society. Oshima has stated that the realisation of unconscious desire is a necessary condition for revolutionary change. In founding his notion of cinema on the levels of the unconscious, the ideological and the formal itself, Oshima has gone a considerable way towards founding a revolutionary cinema for his country. (p. 188)

Claire Johnston, "Nagisa Oshima," in Fifty Major Film-Makers, edited by Peter Cowie (© 1975 by Peter Cowie), A. S. Barnes & Co., Inc., 1975, pp. 183-88.


Lawrence Van Gelder


Stephen Heath