Nagisa Oshima

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RUTH McCORMICK

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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 the explosive encounters between family members—a dialectic of repression and rebellion. On the historical level, individuals in the family are analogous to various classes and character types in Japanese society and the interaction between them can be paralleled by political developments within the country. (p. 21)

If we look at The Ceremony from a purely aesthetic standpoint, it is a stately, beautiful, strangely entertaining prophecy of doom. (p. 25)

On the surface, The Ceremony seems to offer no escape for Masuo, the rebels in the Sakurada family, the Japanese, or, implicitly, any of us, from impotence in the face of the status quo. The only discordant note in what might otherwise be compared to a Greek tragedy is Masuo himself. He is an infuriating character, a real 'loser,'… a self-pitying bundle of 'ifs,' a totally negative creature. But he is the key to the film for the simple reason that he can remember and can use his imagination.

The readiness to die that is so much part of the traditional Japanese mentality is not just a religious phenomenon or the result of internalized aggression. The death wish is also the negation of the tension which is life. Like Eros, the life instinct, the death instinct seeks gratification and thereby the end of desire. This double-edged desire is consummated by Masuo's father, Setsuko, Terumichi and Ritsuko, in their ability to make love and to die. Tadashi, samurai who fetishizes death, also realizes his desire, failed as it is. What none of the aforementioned characters realize is their desire to become self-determining subjects of their own lives. They must die in order to escape the family.

Only Grandfather and Masuo, his legitimate though unlikely heir, do not 'die' in the sense that the others do. Grandfather's relationships with women are in the realm of domination, not Eros; as ruler, his desires are reality. Masuo, on the other hand, is totally impotent. His memories represent his totality in its unfolding moments, a history of unrealized desire, both sexual and political. But only he can dream and it is in fantasy that things are seen not as they are in the present but as they could

(This entire section contains 896 words.)

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could be. (pp. 25-6)

Masuo's infatuation with baseball, rather than with Grandfather's business, makes him analogous to the artist, the visionary, the revolutionary. His powerlessness and inability to become a subject make him the ally of all the oppressed. In his quest for the maternal and his rejection of the 'practically useful,' Masuo can negate things as they are. His vision at the end of the film, after he has thoroughly exhausted the possibilities of past and present, is of himself as pitcher in a game with Terumichi as catcher, Ritsuko at bat, Tadashi as shortstop, under the happy supervision of Setsuko. His dream is an expression of his desire for rational action, sexual fulfillment, mutual understanding, and maternal warmth, a desire for solidarity with those he loves against the impossibilities of the existing order. A dream of the future is an essential element of hope, and rational theory, mediated by aesthetic imagination, can lead, perhaps, to a real revolutionary praxis….

Never didactic or moralistic, Oshima doesn't preach. Glib slogans, rhetorical optimism and exhortations to victory are not for him. He presents us with seemingly insoluble problems and invites us to solve them. If his films are difficult making a revolution is more so. He flatly refuses to offer us any consolation that might reconcile us to the present, and attacks the dominant ideology to the point where it appears totally naked, stripped of all its false promises. It is in this absolute refusal to celebrate the status quo—or to give up hope that we can free ourselves from it—that his importance as a political artist lies. (p. 26)

Ruth McCormick, "Ritual, the Family and the State: A Critique of Nagisa Oshima's 'The Ceremony'," in Cinéaste (copyright © 1974 by Gary Crowdus), Vol. VI, No. 2, 1974, pp. 21-6.

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