The transgresive Japanese auteur, who was no stranger to controversy, was the most important filmmaker of his generation.
Nagisa Oshima, who died on Tuesday 15 January of pneumonia, aged 80, was one of Japan's best known but most misunderstood post-war filmmakers. Since his directorial debut in 1958, he made 23 stylistically diverse feature films that challenged social and political boundaries.
His early work, such as Cruel Story Of Youth, the first of three seishun eiga (youth films) from 1960, represent the urbanised, Westernised and materialistic generation that came of age as American occupiers were transforming post-war Japan into a stable capitalist democracy. Filmed on location with the transgressive energy and impudent virtuosity of Jean-Luc Godard, Oshima’s handheld camera and iconoclastic political themes identified him as the proponent of the Nuberu Bagu (Japanese New Wave), along with contemporaries such as Shohei Imamura and Hiroshi Teshigahara.
Although he rejected this classification as a corporate marketing strategy, Oshima envisioned his work in violent opposition to what he saw as the rigid formalism and contemptuous superiority of classical Japanese filmmaking. While Kurosawa, Ozu, Mizoguchi and Naruse define the unique fascination of Japanese cinema for Western audiences, Oshima often expressed an obdurate and unsympathetic hatred for them all. Oshima believed cinema could profoundly influence the direction of his birth nation and that the humanist traditions of historical Japanese film stymied the reactionary potential of 'modernist' filmmakers.
An ardent socialist, Oshima was heavily involved in the anti-American and anti-Communist movement at Kyoto University that became the primary focus of his 1961 film Night And Fog In Japan. In the virtuosic but restless opening ten minutes, the camera drifts past a wedding ceremony, through the fog and the uninvited guests, and into the night. Oshima destabilises both filmic perception and ideological certainty, elucidating a political meaning from the relationship between screen and spectator. He once said he wanted "to force the Japanese to look into the mirror"; taking them out of objective reality and into the subjectivity of history.
During the early '60s, Oshima collaborated with novelist Kenzaburo Oe on The Catch and The Rebel, which both focus on oppressed individuals and the insular societies that brutally chastise them. 1966’s Violence At Noon, reversely, follows a real-life serial rapist and killer who perversely rebels against society, in order to reflect on the Japanese psyche and the damage it had endured from centuries of feudalism and World War Two.
Death By Hanging, a diatribe against capital punishment and institutionalised racism – again, based on a real-life case – is about an intelligent young Korean who is executed for the rape and murder of two Japanese girls. One of his most aggressively stylised and difficult films, Oshima feverishly scrambles together pseudo-documentary, absurdist comedy, political polemic, Kafka-esque parable, and surrealism worthy of Buñuel in seven Brechtian chapters.
His next four feature films – Diary Of A Shinjiku Thief, Boy, The Man Who Left his Will On Film and The Ceremony – revealed this unidentifiable, constantly shifting aesthetic further. Oshima strongly believed that to critique and reform a corrupt society, to alter the course of history and change how people think and act, would require a change in how they see and hear.
Diary Of A Shinjiku Thief uses black and white with colour inserts – but never green, he believed it was too 'mild' – and verité techniques; Boy, while his most polished and sympathetic film, uses stark reds to signify loss and abandonment; The Man Who Left His Will On Film questions the effectiveness of political filmmaking with self-referential devices; and many of these techniques and themes are pulled together in The Ceremony – a multigenerational family saga about the fearsome rituals of bourgeois Japanese society.
Oshima is best known, however – although not always for good reason – for In The Realm Of The Senses, his biggest commercial success. A fictionalised treatment of a 1936 cause célèbre of renegade prostitute Sada Abe, who erotically asphyxiated her lover Kichizo Ishida, then severed his penis and testicles and carried them around in her kimono for several days; it features graphic scenes of unsimulated sex which Oshima developed and edited in France to circumvent Japanese censorship laws.
Indeed, In The Realm Of The Senses was, for many – including the Japanese government, who charged Oshima with obscenity – in the realms of pornography. Like Bernado Bertolucci’s Last Tango In Paris, it was an attempt to negotiate the boundaries between the artistic and the pornographic representation of sex on screen.
Oshima deserves to be remembered for more than In The Realm Of The Senses, but this powerfully subversive film deserves to be remembered for more than sexual controversy. Dedicating their lives to uninhibited eroticism, Sada and Kichizo renounce their social being and submit purely to the self engaged in the hedonistic-masochistic sex act; pre-modern, pre-society, only body. Oshima uses kabuki theatre and Japan’s ancient pornographic culture of voyeurism, exploitation and sadomasochism to expose the pieties of Japanese society and the cowardice and hypocrisy of the Japanese government.
The invasion of the private act into the public sphere in In The Realm Of The Senses and Oshima’s next four features – Empire Of Passion; Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence; Max Mon Amour and Taboo, his final film – can be seen as a symptom of his political despair; his desire to retreat inward because no rebellion against society was possible.
Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence mostly famous for the unlikely return of David Bowie to the world’s stage, is framed as a macho-erotic duel between pop stars Bowie and Ryuichi Sakamoto (who also supplies the lachrymose score) in a Japanese PoW camp.
After Buñuelian satire Max Mon Amour, and putting aside directing to become a popular Japanese talk show host, Oshima suffered a series of debilitating strokes and only made one more film, Taboo, a radical and oblique jidai-geki based around outlawed homosexual desires.