Nagisa Oshima

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Ian Cameron

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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 approaches that appear in the later films are already discernible in The Sun's Burial. Not surprisingly, the shadow of the Second World War hangs over the whole film. (p. 65)

It is difficult to find any signs of hope in The Sun's Burial. The partial destruction of the slum by fire at the end of the film might be hopeful but for the fact that the heroine's father has contributed a hand grenade to the conflagration and an old man surveys the wreckage, commenting that it looks just like it did at the end of the war. The most positive quality in the film is the heroine's vitality, her ability to survive…. (p. 66)

The roots of [Japan's internal conflict] appear in The Catch through its concentration on the youths and children. At various moments of violence, Oshima dwells on the presence of children, stressing the effects which both the specific events and the general situation must have on them and hence on the future—or, from our viewpoint, the present…. The film … uses the children to throw into contrast the behaviour of the adults. (pp. 66-7)

[Part of the film concerns the] ignominious process of adjusting to the unappetising facts or rather of adjusting the facts to get off the hook and avoid any guilt or responsibility. In microcosm we are observing the Japanese nation coming to terms—false ones—with its militarist record, war-time atrocities and eventual defeat, thus achieving a spurious peace of mind. (p. 67)

The Catch is based on two contradictory movements in the plot. The villagers resolve events to their own satisfaction, building up a network of pretences that things haven't happened or that they have happened differently: a movement towards reassuring fiction. But the negro also acts as a catalyst in revealing hidden facts and stripping away the layers of hypocrisy and pretence: a movement toward truth. But as we learn more of the truth and the villagers become more enmeshed in their protective fiction, a third movement cuts across the other two and provides a point of identification for the audience. The younger participants do not share their elders' attitudes, but are exposed to the resulting actions, and even try to stop them. (p. 68)

In style, The Catch belongs...

(This entire section contains 2046 words.)

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very much with the early films: it is unorthodox but not particularly striking….

Oshima's recent films offer more obvious evidence of ambition than the sex and violence movies or than The Catch, where the meaning resides in the subtle interaction of plot elements. Two of the newer films display the accepted post-Godardian apparatus of titles and obvious unreality, though these are used in a completely individual way. In Death by Hanging, the use of titles smacks less of Godard than of Brecht; the titles are simple announcements of what is about to happen. And, unlike Godard, Oshima has no doctrinaire objections to using the conventional means of the cinema when they suit his purpose….

The later films show just how personal Oshima's early Shochiku films were—one can discern, if not a typical Oshima hero, at least a typical situation for an Oshima hero, that of a criminal (even The Catch can be said to centre on a criminal act). The concern with criminals in the Shochiku films is not just the result of having to work within a genre but more that the genre happened to be well fitted for expressing Oshima's concerns. The background to Oshima's films is of the malaises of post-war Japanese society…. (p. 69)

Although social problems are behind Oshima's films, there is a complete absence of [De Sica's] facile Bicycle Thieves cause-and-effect explanations of the protagonists' criminality. A distrust of cause-and-effect explanations is characteristic of Oshima, and their dangers are almost a theme of The Catch. Oshima's technique is to suggest connections and parallels rather than to present explanations. (p. 70)

[In Death by Hanging], more than in any other Oshima film I have seen, it is fair to talk of argument rather than of plot. Death by Hanging takes to an extreme a tendency which was already evident within the more realistic conventions of The Catch, which derives its form much less from the complications of the plot than from the thematic argument which underlies it at every point. Death by Hanging begins on the level of reality with the documentary reconstruction of an execution, moves to fiction with the failure of the execution and then progresses to a series of stages of fantasies within the basic fiction. But the fantasies are the means which Oshima uses to reach the truth which may lay behind the facts. (pp. 73-4)

If R's final gesture is a little too close to the sort of resolution favoured by the cinematic expressions of liberal idealism, the rest of [Death by Hanging] is extremely sophisticated in argument and dense in texture….

Oshima's technique of suggesting connections is taken to its extreme in the series of parallels which make up the structure of Diary of a Shinjuku Thief, the most complex and ambitious of his films…. It might be described as a set of variations on the themes of renewal (or revolution) and imagination (or vision). It is a film in which every component has resonances which relate to every other component, though none of these relationships has the simplicity of an equation. (p. 80)

The parallel between Kara Juro's theatre and student riots works in two ways: if the theatre is revolutionary, the riot is as much a performance as Kara Juro's play. This implication is just as acceptable in the context of the film. Indeed, the idea of performing or acting is so crucial to [Diary of a Shinjuku Thief] that the more one sees it, the more most of the other themes seem to be subordinate to or derived from the idea of acting. It is also a theme that runs through Oshima's work…. (p. 81)

Kara Juro's role covers the whole of the film's range of reality and fiction (and contrarily in the conventionally fiction sequences he appears as himself), right through to the ritual artificiality of his ghost play…. The theme of the continual renewal of ideas, of the necessity for successive revolutions rather than for Revolution, is very important to Oshima; he sees revolution not as a once-and-for-all process but as the victory of new ideas over stale, static ones—in time the revolutionary vision will itself become static and need to be overthrown by further revolution. (p. 84)

The feeling of [Umeko's scene in the book store] is that each of [the well-known] revolutionaries, whatever else he may have done, has left some useful legacy of ideas. It is the temporal counterpart of the noises of protest which accompany some of the time checks and weather reports from around the world which indicate the spatial spread of revolution. (p. 88)

The whole image of the bookshop implies an irony in that this wealth of explosive revolutionary material is controlled by a non-revolutionary and is very much part of a conventional capitalist system. (pp. 90-1)

After the strident complexities of Death by Hanging and Diary of a Shinjuku Thief, Boy might seem like a complete change of approach, but its preoccupations are exactly those of the earlier movies. The subjects are again people who live outside society and whose actions contravene the law. But where the previous films described have looked at their relationship to others, Boy stresses their isolation. (p. 92)

Where the earlier films dealt with people very much as representatives of ideas, Boy deals with them primarily as characters. We watch the boy being forced back into his fantasies by the social isolation which results from the fact that they have to keep travelling. We see the growth of a relationship between the boy and his stepmother which is born of their complicity in doing jobs together. (p. 93)

[The accident] sequence could fit quite acceptably into a naturalistic chain of events—in a film which concerns fantasy and reality it could be expected to belong incontrovertibly to the reality. The way it is handled, however, serves to make its reality problematical without definitely labelling it as fantasy. It is in monochrome although colour is usual in the film, but then this is true of the whole sequence including the argument which precedes the accident; Oshima has said that he sees no great difference between using colour and using monochrome and feels free to use either without it expressing any particular formal or logical intention…. Both the accident and the ambulances arriving and departing are almost soundless—the combination of the almost suppressed soundtrack and the monochrome image produces a dream-like quality. The accident itself is almost bloodless, although at least the boy thinks that one or both of the people have been killed. Oshima's past record in this line does not point to him as a man likely just to gloss over the carnage which attends fatal motor accidents. Either the boy is wrong and the people have survived or his imagination does not extend to such physical details or, again, he may somehow have suppressed these in his memory—though at this stage in the film, the sequence is implicitly in the present tense rather than the remembered past. Finally, there is the single boot left behind after the ambulances have driven off, a detail which seems in the context to belong with the fantasy elements….

The device, which appears in Diary of a Shinjuku Thief, of characters acting out their fantasies or desires in a more or less ritual form is used in Boy within a much more naturalistic framework. (p. 95)

Boy is in many ways the reverse of Diary of a Shinjuku Thief: most obviously, it does not have the violent shifts in style from sequence to sequence and the fragmentation which characterises its predecessor. Shinjuku Thief was a film about the power of imagination or fantasy and its various levels of reality and fantasy are quite clearly differentiated. Boy, on the other hand, deals with the failure of retreat into the world of fantasy to provide a satisfactory escape from the unpleasantness of the real world. Here the ability to differentiate between reality and fantasy is lost and, through the style of the film, this loss is shared by the audience….

Within the strangeness of the forms he adopts and in spite of certain comprehension problems which are inevitable for a western audience, Oshima is the least inscrutable of all Japanese directors. This is not to deny that his films are extremely demanding of their audiences, but to say that they are susceptible to (and indeed reward) perfectly conventional analysis. They do not, like some Japanese films, invite us to treat them as exotic art objects surrounded with an aura of mystery. (p. 98)

Ian Cameron, "Nagisa Oshima," in Second Wave, edited by Ian Cameron & others (© 1970 by Movie Magazine Limited; reprinted by permission of Movie), Frederick A. Praeger, Publishers, 1970, pp. 63-98.

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