In its idiosyncratically alchemic fusion of bituminous humor, fractured narrative logic, bracing social interrogation, and sublimated depictions of perverted sexuality, The Ceremony is a provocative and excoriating satire on the amorphous nature of modern Japanese identity that could only have been forged in the wake of Nagisa Oshima’s increasing disillusionment with the impotence of the left movement: a cultural inertia enabled by the fateful personal and historical intersection of the once radicalized postwar generation’s inevitable maturation, indirection, and complacency – if not collective amnesia – over the nation’s dramatic transformation, public rehabilitation, and international re-emergence as an economic (and consequently, political) world power. This sentiment of frustrated destiny and ambivalent sense of place in a rapidly altering, yet culturally entrenched social landscape is embodied in the somber, world-weary gaze of Masuo (Kenzo Kawarazaki), a Manchurian postwar repatriate (whose translated name, “Man from Manchuria”, is a perpetual reminder of his alterity) and sole remaining legitimate heir to the powerful and highly influential Sakurada clan – a burden of responsibility that is reinforced in the family patriarch, Kazuomi’s (Kei Sato) seemingly paradoxical advice to a young Masuo to lead two lives upon learning of his brother’s death during the family’s flight from the Russians in Manchuria. Unfolding as a series of flashbacks that trace the evolution of the family’s dysfunctional relationships through the empty rituals of formal ceremonies – uncoincidentally, as Masuo and his beloved (if unrequited) “relative”, Ritsuko (Atsuko Kaku) embark on another familial obligation that has been complicated by the arrival of a cryptic telegram from a mutual cousin and Masuo’s romantic rival, Terumichi (Atsuo Nakamura) – the film is also a sobering allegory for the intrinsic corruption, social conformity, and incestuous politics that continue to exist beneath the country’s seemingly profound transformation and inexhaustible economic miracle.
It is within this atmosphere of cultural rigidity, subjugation, and blind allegiance towards a collective good (in Masuo’s case, the survival of the family lineage) that the nebulous parentage of the Sakurada’s postwar generation (who may not only be Kazuomi’s legitimate and illegitimate grandchildren, but his own children as well) – Masuo, Terumichi, Ritsuko, and Tadashi (Kiyoshi Tsuchiya) – may be seen as an allegory for perpetuated, outmoded social customs that seek, at all cost, to retain the veneer of civility through the sanctity of the ritual, even in the face of blatant hypocrisy, moral bankruptcy, and inhumanity. It is interesting to note that in repeating Kazuomi’s ambiguous – and overtly incestuous – relationships with the women within the Sakurada household with Terumichi and Masuo’s own attractions toward Ritsuko and her mother, Setsuko (Akiko Koyama) (and who, in turn, may also have been the erstwhile lover of Masuo’s father), Oshima establishes an intrinsic parallel between Kazuomi’s obsession for the integrity of ritual with the narcissism inherent in maintaining the integrity of the family bloodline. Framed within the context of the Sakurada family as a surrogate reflection of Japanese society, the correlation may also be seen as an indictment of the country’s repressive cultural conformity, monoethnic sameness, and xenophobia.
Moreover, from the early juxtaposition of Masuo and his mother’s repatriation from Manchuria (and subsequent aborted flight from the Sakurada household) with the first ceremony commemorating the death anniversary of Kazuomi and his wife’s (Nobuko Otowa) only child, Masuo’s father (who is later revealed to have committed suicide), Oshima establishes an integral connection between culture and death that not only reflects Japanese postwar sentiment (note the family’s indignation over the prevalence of American occupation in Tokyo that echoes Shohei Imamura’s acerbic satire, Pigs and Battleships), but more intriguingly, reinforces the idea of the societal role of the ceremony – the formality of gesture – as a self-perpetuating (and implicitly, self-inflicted) death ritual: a regressive (and terminal) cycle of deceptive, veiled appearances that is further reinforced in the film’s oscillating narrative structure between haunted past and unreconciled present. Concluding with the recurrent image of Masuo ritualistically straining to hear his brother’s subterranean cries, Masuo’s desperate and impassioned, yet impotent gesture becomes a poignant metaphor for the moral inversion and suffocated humanity of delusive enlightenment and hollow restitution.
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