[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 editorializing, through Godardian monologues. One of R's problems is that he loved his sister, which doesn't seem to have a great deal to do with legalized murder and capital punishment.
Some of it is funny. More of it is tedious, and a lot of it curiously old-fashioned, even though it reminds us of the great Godard films of the mid-nineteen-sixties. Extreme movie styles date more quickly than hemlines.
Vincent Canby, "Oshima Work Brings Memory of Godard," in The New York Times (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 15, 1974 (and reprinted in The New York Times Film Reviews: 1973–1974, The New York Times Company & Arno Press, 1975, p. 176).