The Films of Oshima Nagisa: Images of a Japanese Iconoclast by Maureen Turim

Maureen Turim’s The Films of Oshima Nagisa: Images of a Japanese Iconoclast, presents an intelligent, comprehensive, articulate, and illuminating critical evaluation of the filmmaker’s subversive, transgressive, confrontational, and provocative body of work. Turim frames the creative and thematic evolution Oshima’s films through the biographical and historical context – as a privileged child from a samurai family alternately marked by the untimely death of his highly literate father and coddled upbringing by his overprotective mother, who, like many intellectuals of the postwar generation, were galvanized by Marxism and radicalized by the left movement in the dysfunctional wake of Japan’s collective amnesia, cultural re-invention, and profound sociopolitical transformation that symptomatically defined the country’s path towards international re-emergence. In particular, Turim makes an astute observation in underscoring the paradox inherent in Oshima’s privileged childhood that had shaped his discourses with a sense of authoritative entitlement towards the very entrenched class and social structures that enable his own consciously willful (and transparently contemptuous) unconformity, even as these institutions have become perennial targets of his uncompromisingly acerbic critical inquiries: “So in this view Oshima becomes the rebellious son whose rebellion is nonetheless informed by his inherited sense of power and will to action.”

In the chapter, Cruel Stories of Youth and Politics, Turim offers another salient proposition in her correlation of Oshima’s representation of social and political dialectic though highly formalized, often theatrical visual strategies – adapted from his critical and ideological engagement with Brechtian and leftist theater (a medium for seeding cultural revolution often associated with Marxist social education campaigns) – with the idiosyncratic disjunctions that define Straub and Huillet’s aesthetic:

Camera movement creates a theatricality that is spatial and subject to reframing, a blocking of character interaction that is specifically visual and cinematic …The element I wish to compare is attention to frame and composition as regards the utterance and dramatic confrontations. In both cases, spoken lines are construed as framed, paced, and composed in a textual order, a semiotic order. The cinema becomes a device for redefining theatrical language.

Curiously, as the focus of Oshima’s gaze shifted from subverting genre conventions popularized (and creatively controlled) by the studio system in such Shochiku-produced films as A Town of Love and Hope (shomin geki), Cruel Story of Youth, and The Sun’s Burial (taiyo-zoku and yakuza) towards more overtly political films – a more self-reflexive, formally experimental, and culturally interrogative period that started with Night and Fog in Japan – the undercurrent of repressed sexuality that had once been relegated to the periphery, often as commercial commodity that alluded to post-occupation economic austerity or as a symptom of the moral ambiguity and social malaise of disaffected youth in the aftermath of a humiliated empire (as indelibly symbolized by the metaphor of the setting sun in The Sun’s Burial), began to integrally surface in Oshima’s social interrogations on ideological revolution, sociopolitical engagement, and cultural identity. Examining the role of sexuality and revolution in Oshima’s Diary of a Shinjuku Thief (a volatile combination that also figures strongly in Violence at Noon) with respect to contemporary Jean-Luc Godard’s own immediately pre-May 68 films (and whose international reputation for innovative filmmaking under the rubric of the French New Wave was often appropriated by the studios to promote Oshima’s own iconoclastic approach to cinema), Turim illustrates the filmmakers’ aesthetic point of convergence in developing the idea of historical revolt as the displacement of sexual dysfunction:

There is finally much that compares Diary of a Shinjuku Thief to Godard’s Masculin-Féminin and La Chinoise, films that in their analytical view of the sixties youth movements are fascinated with the psychosexual dimensions of this discontent. If Oshima is a little close in spirit to the rioters than was Godard before his transformation post-1968 into the production of agitprop films, both directors charted in a postmodern moment is bound to sexual energies and tied to theatrics.

Turim’s critical essays on Oshima’s films from the late 1960s to the early 1970s that represent the zenith of Oshima’s artistic synergy between his sociopolitical acuity and creative innovation (a more oblique film form demanded by studio restrictions stemming from the abruptly pulled distribution of Night and Fog in Japan shortly after it was released in the unfortunate wake of the assassination of Socialist Party President, Asasuna Inejiro) – producing such seminal films as Death by Hanging, Boy, The Man Who Left His Will on Film, and The Ceremony – collectively provide a thorough and insightful analysis on Oshima’s now familiar themes of repression resulting from culturally ingrained conformity, deeply rooted xenophobia and racism fostered by the myth of Japan’s social monoethnicity, the displacement of desire through violence (a prefigurative theme for Oshima’s notorious In the Realm of the Senses), and lastly, scams as a metaphor for economic (and specifically, capitalist) inequity.

A chapter that I found especially insightful is the essay on Max mon amour, a film that Oshima co-authored with legendary, late period Luis Buñuel scenarist, Jean-Claude Carrière that I had always found problematic – and a bit too quintessentially and puzzlingly outré – in its unclassifiably eccentric and unrelenting satirical assault on the stultifying amorality and hypocrisy on bourgeois manneredness. Turim ingeniously places the film within the contemporary argument of popular right wing rhetoric that seeks to denigrate (if not outright demonize) homosexuality by equating it to such social and moral taboos as bestiality and pedophilia under a generalized, overarching classification of aberrant sexuality. Framing Margaret’s infidelity through a more abstract desire of an unconventional other, Turim proposes an incisive corollary to her attraction to the chimpanzee, Max, by posing her transgressive compulsion as being akin to that of embarking on a lesbian affair. It is within this intriguing context that the film may be seen, not as a self-indulgent work of a filmmaker in decline, but rather, as an attempt to engage in a relevant, contemporary discourse on the violative intrusion – and politicization – inherent in entrenched social conformity and the perils of imposed moral values. Moreover, through the film’s prevailing themes of sexual repression and psychological displacement, Max mon amour provides an integral connection to the evolution of Oshima’s late period films, not only with respect to expounding on the surfacing homoeroticism and androgyny of Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, but also anticipates the thematic ideas in Gohatto, a film that, at the time of the book’s writing, was still in production.

Also worth noting is Turim’s illuminating essay, Documents of Guilt and Empire, a comprehensive evaluation of Oshima’s documentary films that, in many ways, serve as a complement to the recurring themes and preoccupations of his feature films. In Forgotten Soldiers, Oshima directly confronts the nation’s history of racism and imperialism implicit in Death by Hanging and Three Resurrected Drunkards by chronicling a group of ethnic Korean veterans, conscripted by the Japanese during the failed Pacific War campaign, who are denied pensions by the government under the flimsy rationale that Korean immigrants should seek compensation from the South Korean government, despite their residence and service (and sacrifice) to their adopted country. In hindsight, the 1968 documentary, The Pacific War is a logical corollary to Oshima’s creative period of revolution and experimentation. Composed of incisively edited propaganda and newsreel found footage, the film traces the trajectory of Japanese history during the early half of the twentieth century through the country’s increasing militarism, engagement in the Pacific War, and finally face-saving historical revisionism and trivialization of casualties in the aftermath of the country’s defeat, and in the process, reveals not only the elaborate mechanism of blatant lies and hypocrisy used by the government to justify the engagement (and protraction) of war, but also exposes the psychological denial intrinsic in the population’s pervasive sense of victimization and collective amnesia. Like Forgotten Soldiers, the tragedy of the Pacific War is combined with the debunking of Japanese monoethnism in The Dead Remain Young, a documentary chronicling the memorial service for the sinking of the Tsushima maru, a boat carrying women, children, and the elderly who ordered evacuated from Okinawa by the Japanese government that came under torpedo attack by a U.S. warship and sank in 1944. By focusing on the mourners’ expression of grief, Turim presents Oshima’s exposition within the context, not only of the trauma of war, but also the implicit re-assertion of an irrepressible, indigenous cultural identity:

The role of this documentary is directly linked to Oshima’s Dear Summer Sister in its focus on Okinawa, particularly on the children of Okinawa. They stand as a kind of double innocence in relation to the Japanese war effort, first as children but also as a conquered people with a different culture and language from the alleged homogeneity of other Japanese islands. That homogeneity breaks down with any closer look at regional, ethnic, and class differences, especially those conditioned by the separateness of an island identity.

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