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In the Realm of Oshima: The Best of Japanese Master Nagisa Oshima

This select retrospective confirms the boundary-pushing radical’s status as perhaps the greatest director of postwar Japanese cinema

Night and Fog in Japan
by James Quandt
Sep 25, 2019

The TIFF Cinematheque retrospective In the Realm of Oshima: The Best of Japanese Master Nagisa Oshima begins Thursday, November 14.

Shohei Imamura’s famous pronouncement, “I’m a country farmer; Nagisa Oshima is a samurai,” may be ambiguous in tone and intent (is it ironic, invidious, deferential?), but it emphasizes the pronounced differences between the two directors: class, stylistic, and otherwise. Often paired as twin avatars of the Japanese New Wave (a term that Oshima took every opportunity to spurn and disparage), given the shared elements between them — an audacity both formal and social, a rejection of the refined tenor of traditional Japanese cinema, a propensity for mixing fiction and reality, and certain key themes (sex and criminality, the abuse and resilience of women, incest, the social fissures of postwar Japan) — Imamura and Oshima nevertheless can be construed as contraries, if not opposites. Where Imamura made defiantly “messy” and “juicy” (his preferred terms) films that celebrated the irrational, the instinctual, the carnal, squalid, violent, and superstitious life of Japan’s underclass, Oshima’s films are primarily ideational, probing, and controlled — which is not to say they are dry or cerebral. Even at their most complex, Oshima’s works exhibit such wit, beauty, furious invention, and profound feeling that their conceptual gambits take on sensual and emotional force. They are less the product of a postmodernist sensibility than of a desperate intelligence: Oshima made films as if they were a matter of life and death.

“I do not like to be called a samurai, but I admit that I have an image of myself as fighter,” said Oshima; “I would like to fight against all authorities and powers.” From his first film forward, Oshima was indeed a fighter, less a maverick than an insurgent, rebelling against every myth, tradition, and piety of Japan, Inc. Though born into privilege as the son of a government worker in Kyoto (reportedly of samurai ancestry), Oshima was a nascent socialist whose ideals were formed in his youth by the Pacific War, Emperor Hirohito’s capitulation after the bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the subsequent American occupation of Japan; the general strike of 1947; the mass student struggle against the Korean War, and, most markedly, against Anpo, Japan’s security pact with the US at the height of the Cold War. Steeped in Marxist and Freudian thought from his father’s prodigious library, Oshima opposed using ideological systems to probe his nation’s psyche: “I am not a Marxist,” he insisted. “In fact, I find Marxism and Christianity to be the same thing and both of them are bad.”

So thoroughgoing was Oshima’s rejection of dogma that he even mocked his own seeming allies, such as the doctrinaire activist-filmmakers in The Man Who Left His Will on Film, one of whom rotely declares that the last filmed images left by a dead comrade portend “the end of a petit-bourgeois unable to achieve proletarian consciousness.” In the brilliant, acrimonious Night and Fog in Japan, Oshima vents his bitter disappointment at the failure of leftist progressives by making Langian doubles of men who are actually ideological foes, implying that both are impotent, too caught up in internecine skirmishes to attend to the real struggle for political change in Japan, to give voice and power to all those “left out” by the country’s postwar economic miracle, its stultifying political system and cultural conformity.

Oshima’s fierce determination to expunge from his own art the signifiers of that national obeisance led to his initial shunning of traditional shots of the sky or of people sitting on tatami mats, and, most famously, his banishment of the colour green from his films, because of its association with nature, with the traditional Japanese garden and its proximity to the consolations of home. Green forbidden as insidious or anodyne, red would become the marker of Oshima’s dire vision of Japan. “The blood of this young boy dyes all of Japan red,” claimed the trailer for Boy, preparing us for a slew of objects keyed to carmine — the mother’s red sweater and dyed hair, the little girl’s red boot and forehead wound, and the ubiquitous Japanese flags (the Hinomaru with its burning sun) that will be repeatedly invoked and maligned throughout the director’s extravagant colour films — and the literal blood that will course, spill, and gush throughout his oeuvre, most notoriously the sluice of scarlet that marks the deathly apotheosis of sexual passion in In the Realm of the Senses.

“I always try to deny the style I used in a previous work.... I never make films in the same style,” Oshima once told an interviewer, which helps account for his swing from the Nick Ray histrionics and Fulleresque kino-fist aesthetics in Cruel Story of Youth and The Sun’s Burial to the refined modernism of a Resnais or Antonioni in The Ceremony and the stern alienation effects of Night and Fog in Japan. Extremity defined both Oshima’s vision — his twin obsessions of sex and crime, and his cardinal themes of human desire in conflict with social codes and strictures, of freedom sought through criminality, sexual abandon, or social revolution, of compulsion and stymied rebellion — and his stylistics: Night and Fog in Japan was shot in only 47 long takes, while Violence at Noon employs over 2,000 edits; his earliest films were mostly shot in widescreen and colour, but he would readily retreat to the old-fashioned mode of black and white and the square 1.37 aspect ratio for others. Just as this bold eclecticism defied the largely studio-created rubric of the Japanese New Wave, so too did Oshima chafe at the inevitable comparisons critics made between his films and Godard’s: though he would politely respond to questions about the latter’s influence with evasive statements about shared enthusiasms and common concerns, he eventually took to calling Godard “the Oshima of France” after one likening too many. (In hindsight, Oshima seems to have as much if not more of an affinity with Fassbinder, given his extraordinary prolificacy, his sometimes sentimental sympathy for outsiders, his development of a “stock company” of trusted actors and technicians, his use of Brechtian strategies and alienation devices, and his acerbic view of human nature and the ways that sex often subverts both emotion and politics.)

Although the director’s “international” period of the mid-’70s to the mid-’80s began with a bang with In the Realm of the Senses, Oshima adopted a more mellow modernism during this era: abiding by the tenets of “conventional” historical realism in the WWII drama Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence; taking on the suave tone of late Buñuel in Max, Mon Amour (which he co-wrote with frequent Buñuel collaborator Jean-Claude Carrière); and even reviving the methods of the traditional Japanese cinema he once utterly abjured in such works as Empire of Passion and his final film Gohatto. Critics have argued over whether Oshima remained an iconoclast or ultimately succumbed to nostalgia in his final films, but when one surveys a gay samurai epic (Gohatto), a brittle comedy of manners about a woman’s love affair with a chimp (Max, Mon Amour), and a legendary work of hardcore sexual transgression (Senses), it’s a little difficult to cast Oshima as a Mizoguchi manqué. Perhaps Oshima himself provided the clue for this transition: he once commented that, along with sex and crime, over the years love had become the third element in his cinema.

Thanks to Nobi Nakamura, The Japan Foundation; Yukiko Wachi, Kawakita Memorial Film Institute; and Brian Belovarac, Janus Films.