Nagisa Oshima

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David Wilson

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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. 104)

Like the boy in Boy, R confronts reality only after he has first created and then destroyed a fantasy. Imagination continually alters our idea of reality; or in other words, the conflict between the State and the individual can be resolved not by a single revolutionary act (like the book-stealing in Shinjuku Thief) but by a continuing revolutionary process—and so can never be resolved. R lets himself be hanged again for his crime only when he is certain of his innocence; the relationship between the State and the individual depends on that kind of contradiction.

R's crime is personal and only implicitly political (and of course sexual; the idea of sex as a symbolic act is as important here as it is in Shinjuku Thief), but the Korean girl he accepts as his sister interprets it as an explicit political act—an act of retribution by the Korean minority in Japan for their years of repression by the Japanese….

As we have come to expect of Oshima's films, Death by Hanging repeatedly turns arguments on their head. And in doing so it throws up a challenge (developed further in Shinjuku Thief) to the very nature of our conception of what is truth and what merely fiction. Not least in the final acknowledgment of the presence of an audience, which prompts a question about the reality of film qua film that only a close analysis of its elaboration in Shinjuku Thief could begin to answer. (p. 105)

David Wilson, "Film Reviews: 'Death by Hanging'," in Sight and Sound (copyright © 1971 by The British Film Institute), Vol. 40, No. 2, Spring, 1971, pp. 104-05.

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