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Nagisa Oshima

July 25, 2007

Night and Fog in Japan, 1960

nightfog_japan.gifNamed after Alain Resnais' essay film on the abandoned landscapes of postwar Auschwitz that bear silent witness to the tragedy of the Holocaust, Night and Fog in Japan, Nagisa Oshima's fictional deconstruction of the left movement in the aftermath of the ratification of the second U.S.-Japan Security Treaty (Anpo) in 1960 is also a caustic and pointed cultural interrogation into personal and collective accountability that, as implied by Resnais' film, have been (consciously) obscured by the fog of guilt and memory. The marriage of two Zengakuren members sets the symbolic stage for Oshima's critical inquiry into the collective failure of the Japanese Left: former activist turned field reporter, Nozawa (Kenzo Kawarazaki), a member of the student movement during the collapsed opposition to the first Anpo treaty in 1950 who now covers the continued political struggle of a new generation of young radicals for the local newspaper (a gesture that he believes demonstrates his continued solidarity with the movement), and the younger Reiko (Miyuki Kuwano), a student protestor who had been injured during recent demonstrations opposing the treaty's extension. As in Oshima's subsequent film, The Ceremony, the empty performance of the traditional wedding ceremony becomes a reflection of dysfunctional, antiquated social rituals, cultural displacement, and impotence.

Implicit in Oshima's indictment is the entrenchment of American imperialism into contemporary Japanese culture - an inculcation that had been fostered during postwar occupation and continued to shape the country's process of political self-determination on its road towards international re-emergence - and with its exerted influence, the formation of a key ideological alliance, not only against socialism, but also towards enabling the U.S. government's policy of containment (particularly in Asia) during the early stages of the Cold War. Structured in a series of flashbacks as a pair of wedding crashers (and fellow Zengakuren members hiding from the police) confront the guests, some now prominent members of the Communist party, on their culpability over the nebulous circumstances surrounding the fates of two fellow activists - Nozawa's comrade, Takao (Sakonji Hiroshi), and Reiko's friend, Kitami (Ajioka Toru) - the film is also an examination into the factionalism, internal power struggles, and petty self-interests that sabotaged the left movement. Revisiting the botched imprisonment of a presumed spy from the group's student headquarters a decade earlier (an unproven allegation perpetuated by the group's authoritarian leader, Nakayama (Yoshizawa Takao) despite the membership's increasing, though unarticulated, skepticism) that lead to Takao's scapegoating, Oshima not only illustrates the personal (and implicitly selfish) issues that undermined the movement's effectiveness in promoting a collective agenda (most notably, in Nozawa and Nakayama's ongoing rivalry for the affections of fellow student activist Misako (Akiko Koyama)), but also exposes its underlying repressive, totalitarian culture that mirrored the heavy-handed government of Stalinist-era communism in the Soviet Union - a tendency towards paranoid suspicions and intolerance for dissent that contributed to its self-inflicted public disfavor and political marginalization. Similarly, the subsequent disappearance of Kitami from a hospital during a violent government crackdown on demonstrators protesting the 1960 Anpo treaty extension (a watershed incident for the radical left that also fatefully brought Nozawa and Reiko together) reveals the younger generation's increasing disenchantment with the inflexible, out-of-touch Zengakuren leadership that had resulted in the group's disorganization and irrelevance at a critical stage when the credibility (and sustainability) of the left movement in the shaping of the Japanese political landscape was at stake. By framing the group's moral dissolution within the context of embittered, unrequited love and consuming self-distractions, Oshima creates an incisive metaphor for the failure of the left movement as an ill-fated love affair - a displacement of unrealized desire and resigned acceptance of convenient, if compromised, ideals.

Posted by acquarello on Jul 25, 2007 | | Comments (3) | Filed under 2007, Nagisa Oshima

April 4, 2007

The Ceremony, 1971

ceremony.gifIn 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.

Posted by acquarello on Apr 04, 2007 | | Comments (2) | Filed under 2007, Nagisa Oshima

June 8, 2006

Boy, 1969

boy.gifThe idiosyncratic color shift of the title sequence in Nagisa Oshima's trenchant and acerbic coming-of-age tale, Boy provides an incisive metaphor for the imbalanced natural order that lies beneath the veneer of the modernized, national recovery of post-occupation Japanese society, as a seemingly de-saturated, black and white Japanese flag prominently placed in the center of the widescreen rigidly confines the visual elements of the screen to within an inner subframe twice bounded by the demarcation of the black sun circle within the center of the white flag. The expectation of the seeming monochromatic aesthetic represented by an anemic national flag is then subverted by the superimposition of bold red calligraphy that culminates with a portrait of the film's titular, innocent-faced Boy (Abe Tetsuo), a defacement that also foretells the intrinsic cruelty and violence that the Boy suffers at the hands of his aimless, self-absorbed family. This notion of subverted expectation continues with the establishing shot of the Boy briefly, inexplicably crying while precariously - and symbolically - standing at the edge of a heavily trafficked street - the pedestrian sidewalk having been demolished as part of a nearby construction site - in an apparent, perhaps frustrated, wait for an opportunity to cross the busy intersection. A subsequent episode then illustrates the insidious context of the elaborate confidence game behind this curious posture as the Boy's stepmother (Koyama Akiko) walks alongside a stream of cars before picking a suitable (or more appropriately, gullible) mark and rushing headlong into the side of the automobile with an audible slap on the vehicle's body before falling away, seemingly unconscious, into the nearby curb, the Boy dutifully falling to the ground in feigned trauma over the severe "accident", followed immediately on cue by the even more guilt-inducing pre-scripted plot of the father (Fumio Watanabe) rushing from across the street to attend to his (common law) wife's injuries while simultaneously holding a flag waving baby (Tsuyoshi Kinoshita) in his arms. The often-played scenario would then bring them to a nearby clinic where the prospect of sustaining job-threatening, long recovery injuries invariably lead to the father's increasingly aggressive tone and threats of police involvement in a ruse to extort money from the unsuspecting driver in exchange for a waiver of liability for the incident. Performing their scam from town to town along the Sea of Japan, the Boy begins to take increasing responsibility for "working" the faked accidents, assuming the role of victim to his stepmother's outraged, panic-stricken parent, until a fateful encounter with a young girl in the northernmost city of Hokkaido - the edge of Japan - drives the Boy to profound confusion and despair over his own culpability and guilt.

In returning to the confidence games of his earlier films, most notably A Town of Love and Hope and Cruel Story of Youth, Oshima expounds on his recurring themes of rootless materialism, alienation, and victimization that were endemic within the culture of Japanese postwar society. Shooting the characters predominantly in medium and long shots from the peripheral margins of the camera frame, Oshima reflects, not only the family's marginalization within contemporary society, but also the moral decentralization and intrinsic rupture of the very notion of Japanese tradition - and in particular, the support system of the extended family - as the Boy is not only uprooted from a proper education and his hometown because of the family's evasive itinerancy, but also his biological mother (who may or may not be terminally ill) and his grandmother (whose emotional attachment has been psychologically manipulated by his father through insensitive comments about the Boy's abandonment and unwantedness). This recurring interrelation - and transposition - between emotional and economic extortion is further reflected in the stepmother's recurring attempts to ingratiate herself into the Boy's trust: first, through the boy's impetuous demand for a baseball cap perched atop a life-sized robot as an inducement for finding the courage to play his new role of the victim for the scam, then subsequently, for a calendar watch in exchange for his silence over her intentionally skipped appointment with an abortionist. In both occasions, the extorted object becomes not only a surrogate for human affection, but also the transactional currency of all familial intimacy, where communication is reduced to the silent, coded signals of identifying the next confidence mark, and deciding on the proper amount of money to be extorted that will meet the family's short-term financial needs (note the father and son's complicit discussion in the men's room of a restaurant planning the details of the Boy's role in their next scam). Placed within the context of the crying Boy pacing the edge of the excavated sidewalk that opens the film - where the ground has literally been removed from under his feet - the introductory image of the confused, alienated, defeated young hero serves as an allusive, reinforcing national sentiment of profound rootlessness and bewilderment over the upended, disposable values of an alien, intraversable modern world of commodified humanity.

Posted by acquarello on Jun 08, 2006 | | Comments (5) | Filed under 2006, Nagisa Oshima