Tuesday, August 18, 2015

An Appreciation: Nagisa Oshima

A Town of Love and Hope (1959) *** - “Broken families often produced crooked children.” So says the wealthy brother of Kyoko (Yuki Tominaga) about her downtrodden, pigeon selling friend Yuji (Fumijo Wantanbe). And the class distinction that would infuse so much of Nagisa Oshima’s work is established within the first 30 minutes of his debut film. A simple effort, “A Town of Love and Hope” blithely observes the interaction between affluent girl Kyoko and poor Yuji. There’s never any hint of sexual attraction. Instead, Kyoko’s inherent desire to help Yuji stems more from her possible abjection of class structures. Also trying to better Yuji’s situation is his teacher Miss Akiyama (Kakuko Chino), desperately urging the local factory bosses- namely Kyoko’s own father and brother- to take on some of her students. Oshima narrows his focus on the relationship between these three, avoiding large sentiment or huge narrative moments. In fact, the most startling revelation has to do with the destruction of a pigeon cage. Like all of Oshima’s films, the emotion is often curdled in the most inanimate actions. A nice debut. Not available on DVD.

The Sun’s Burial (1960) **½ - When so many other New Wave Japanese filmmakers were still working in black and white, the most revolutionary idea about “The Sun’s Burial” is its incandescent color and signs of growth by Oshima through some startling tracking shots and strong mise-en-scene. The story doesn’t quite live up to the technical aspect, though. Charting the various relationships between rival gangs, its double and triple crosses feel like precursors to the more aggressive stylizations of Kinji Fukasaku and consequently, less impactful than Oshima’s barbed jabs at the squalid quarters of his cinematic inhabitants. Nothing is quite as desolate as watching an old man casually dump a dead body in the water, then nonchalantly salvage a half-destroyed wicker basket from a trash heap nearby. Oshima’s jaded ideas are intact, they just sometimes become overshadowed by a complicated roundelay of thugs and pimps posturing.

Cruel Story of Youth (1960) ***½ - If “The Sun’s Burial” studied the carelessness of Japan’s youth and their proclivity towards criminality, then “Cruel Story of Youth” takes things a step further and establishes a moral wasteland where its young couple (female Miyuki Kuwano and male Yusuke Kawaze) are doomed from the very beginning. After all their relationship, built on two rapes and the boyfriend’s bone headed scheme for his girlfriend to seduce and then allow the ’johns’ to be blackmailed, isn’t the epitome of wholesomeness. Regardless, this isn’t a film where anyone really cares for the other. It’s a tattered expression of indolence, stagnation and ultimately personal ruin and stands as one of Oshima’s great early works.

Night and Fog In Japan (1960) ** - One’s appreciation of “Night and Fog In Japan” will depend on how informed they are about the political landscape of Japan in the early 60‘s. It’s a highly intellectualized sermon about the divisive beliefs of two sections of people (the more Left wing student organizations vs. the middle class peace ‘treatyists‘) whose war of wills comes to a head at a wedding. This irony is not lost, of course, as Oshima sets his philosophical war at the most banal and supposedly happiest of all places. Still, it’s a dry meditation, with little to grab onto, and endlessly convoluted as its “Rashomon” style of storytelling tracks and backtracks through a series of past events between the political activists. If anything, though, it’s trendsetting idealistically, surely a huge influence on the radicalized efforts of filmmakers such as Godard and Bellocchio who would later infiltrate cinema’s passivity and create playfully aggressive political statements. Available on Region 2 DVD.

The Catch (1961) *** - The basic message here is no matter how much changes, everything stays the same. Even when talking about the loss of a nation in war. “The Catch” is a microcosm of this nation, played out in a mountainous village with a variety of people (men, women, children) and social stature (village elders, political bureaucrats and simple peasants). Their lives are upended when members of the community capture and bring home a downed American soldier who becomes unwittingly forced to participate in the village’s evolving moral ambiguities and lecherous relationships to one another. It’s all observed in Oshima’s mannered style of long takes, shifting bodies within the frame and a few moments of heightened tension that eventually explodes. Even though the American soldier (who happens to be African-American) is reduced to some unfiltered, racially charged sentiments throughout “The Catch”, Oshima is just as relentless against his own people in the end. Not available on DVD.

The Rebel (1962) *** - Oshima’s contribution to the samurai fold follows the seventeenth century uprising by farmers and peasants against the Shogunate after having their religious beliefs (Christianity) outlawed and deemed punishable by death. Also called “The Christian Rebel; Shiro Amaksu” (played by Hashizo Okawa), Oshima refuses to create a linear biopic, taking a much wider stance on the ideological clash by following a number of supporting characters such as Shiro’s old friend Shinbei (Ryutaro Otomo), his wife (Satomi Oka) and the various differences of opinion within the Christian sect. In fact, Shiro almost becomes a marginal figure in the film until the end. What slowly emerges is a violent history lesson… one in which the ideals of faith purport innocence but breed malevolence. Just like his previous film “The Catch”, Oshima seems to be defining the morose sadness of history repeating itself endlessly. Not available on DVD.

Pleasures of the Flesh (1965) **½ - The book title this film is based upon, “The Pleasures of the Coffin”, makes for a far more intriguing perspective since the main protagonist, Atsushi (Katsuo Nakamura), literally condemns himself to death the minute he begins spending the stolen loot he’s been entrusted to protect. And all because of the spurned love of young Shoko (Mariko Kaga). It’s interesting to see Oshima toy with a noir set-up, but, as usual, he has far more penetrating things on his mind such as the deteriorating effect money has on the soul and its alluring effect on women even when they don’t particularly like the man spending it. If there’s a fault, its theme becomes repetitive.

Diary of Yunbogi (1965) ** - Oshima’s experimental film that uses still photos to tell the story of ten year old Yunbogi and his travails as an orphan. It’s a bit repetitive and the voice-over, going for some sort of haikoo, feels over cooked. Available streaming.

Violence At Noon (1966) ***½ - A dazzling exploration of the sorted history and complex emotional reactions between four people (two couples) who love each other’s partner and then have to deal with the evolving consequences when one of the men (Kei Sato) later becomes a serial rapist and murderer. Full of raging passion, stifled sexual attraction and uncontrollable suicidal tendencies, this is certainly Oshima’s darkest effort yet. Besides the bleak subject matter (that even ventures into necrophilia!), “Violence At Noon” marks a radical departure in Oshima‘s formal style. Gone are the roving tracking shots and static long takes, replaced by sharp, almost harsh, edits and perspective shots that fragment the story and character psychology even more.

Band of Ninja (1967) **½ - The first filmed graphic novel? No one can ever claim Oshima is nothing if not adventurous in his cinematic choices. A sword and samurai tale told through filmed stills of cartoon drawings that somehow exert energy and movement in their black and white lines and bold framing. The story itself is a bit lackluster (and even confounding at some points) but visually its terrific. Not available on DVD.

Sing A Song of Sex (1967) ****- A completely unusual, amorphous effort that, regardless of Oshima’s sordid and challenging history so far, feels like nothing else he’s done yet. Four male students, fresh out of school, go on a trip with their teacher and three female schoolmates. Their main purpose is to screw around, maybe get laid and dwell in their imaginary sexual flights of fancy wherein they rape another attractive female student (Kazuko Tajima) they only briefly witnessed leaving school the previous day. Refusing to foreground the male students with anything resembling a personality, “Sing A Song of Sex” becomes an aimless assault on everything from structured relationships to the war in Vietnam. Not quite as overtly violent as “A Clockwork Orange” or aggressively provocative as Lars vonTrier’s “The Idiots”, Oshima’s vision is still that of numbing, disaffected youth and the careless bile they spew outward onto society. This is the Oshima film one never hears about, but deserves to be seen.

Double Suicide (1967) *½ - If “Sing A Song of Sex” alienates some people and reveals the experimental Godardian slant in Oshima’s visual and thematic polemics, then “Japanese Summer; Double Suicide” is his take on the challenging Dziga Vertov years. A completely abstract assault on violence, lustful disobedience and the media’s representation on said violence, it’s a film that sounds more intriguing than it really is. A sexually starved 18 year old (Keiko Sakurai) runs into suicidal Otoko (Kei Sato) and they inadvertently become mixed up with a group of socially dangerous mobsters and murderers, watching as an American grips the city in fear as he goes on a shooting spree. A major product of its time, “Japanese Summer; Double Suicide” just feels like Oshima straining to make his points, laboring them intensely. I have to admit, this film felt like a three hour chore, even though it only runs a little over 90 minutes.

Death By Hanging (1968) **½ - Rendered like an absurd play (only a few spare settings and the camera bouncing among a host of principal players), “Death By Hanging” is a complex and layered work that deals with the botched execution of a rapist (simply named R), then spends the next 90 minutes parlaying the question of just exactly who is crazy here. The police, doctors and hangmen desperately try to convince the now awakened R that he really is a criminal and should be re-executed even though his “soul” doesn’t remember his actions. Mordantly funny and visually disorienting in the way it blends fantasy and reality, the film’s only deterrent is its unequivocal dryness in hammering home its political agenda. Not available on DVD.  

Three Resurrected Drunkards (1968) *** - After lacerating the Vietnam War, capital punishment, and the media in his last few films, what’s left for Oshima to fry? Well, look no further than 1968 and Beatlemania, or rather that weird, sprightly genre where 60’s British rockers were turned into Chaplin-esque actors. Here, three bell-bottomed soldiers go for a swim and have their clothes switched out by two AWOL Korean soldiers. Their travails- mistaken identity, political subterfuge and random bullying- is played out in three concurrent scenarios with the same characters yielding drastically different outcomes. The mod hairstyles, emphasis on innocent violence, and Oshima’s use of music all add up to a trippy experience.

Diary of a Shinjuku Thief (1969) ** - This story of a kleptomaniac and the girl who continually pushes his desires further and further coalesces Oshima’s experimentation and oblique social commentary. It’s just no fun. Available on Region 2 DVD.

Boy (1969) **** - Oshima’s masterpiece, mostly because he finally breaks free of his rigorous anti-establishment filmmaking prowess and crafts a humanistic portrait of a young child (simply called Boy) caught up in the amoral greed and sexual dissatisfaction of his parent figures as they teach him how to fake being hit by cars then extort the drivers for money. Based on a true story and told through the perspective of Boy (Tsuyoshi Kinoshita), Oshima’s spare cinematography is economical and precise and the unnerving score (at times sounding like a cosmic soundtrack to a sci-fi movie) weave a transfixing sentiment. And through it all is the innocent, confused gaze of Boy, desperately trying to understand the deviant emotions of father and stepmother and haunted by the images rooted in his memory by their evil transgressions. The moment he tackles and destroys the snowman he built is as powerful as anything yet in Oshima’s oeuvre. Not available on DVD.

The Man Who Put His Will On Film (1970) ***- Seeing as how the film takes place during the tumultuous student protests of the day, Oshima’s “The Man Who Put His Will On Film” could be read as a statement on cinema’s place in documenting those rowdy times. The story, essentially about a student who has his film camera stolen by another student right before he commits suicide, spins in so many directions without being anchored to one cohesive idea that it forgoes the usual explanations and turns into a messy, ambivalent affair about what’s real or not. Needless to say, it’s a heavy watch and may grow in stature over repeat viewings. Not available on DVD.

The Ceremony (1971) ***½ - Like his earlier film “Night and Fog In Japan”, Oshima institutes a rigorous ideological and moral decimation of a tightly knit group of people during a supposed harmonious event. In “The Ceremony”- which is a far better film than “Night and Fog In Japan” incidentally- those events are various weddings, funerals and celebrations over the course of twenty years with the Sakaruda family. The youngsters in the clan, led by young Masuo (Kenzo Kawaraski) Ritsuko (Atsuko Kaku) and Terumichi (Atsuo Nakamura), are the expressive heart of Oshima’s generational confrontations, rallying against their elders social wealth and falling in and out love and infatuation with each other. It all comes to a shattering conclusion as the film is bracketed by Masuo and Ritsuko’s journey back home to grapple with the harsh realities they’ve been running from the entire time. Alongside “Boy”, this is probably Oshima’s most well rounded effort simply because his radical aesthetic is matched with a story that pulsates with human emotion and grounded feelings. Not available on DVD.

Dear Summer Sister (1972) *** - A young girl (Hiromi Kurita) travels to Okinawa in hopes of finding her suddenly known half brother. Traveling with her guardian Momoko (Japanese actress Lily), not only do the young women become embroiled in the tenuous decades long post-war wounds of the island, but the almost aloof nature of the adults who haphazardly started the trouble both intimate and epic. Even knowing Oshima directed this, it’s a complete departure from the remainder of his work, eschewing any of his experimental style and somewhat composed shots for a completely nervous handheld aesthetic and performances that range from deceptively good to poor (in the case of young actress Kurita). Still, what does overshadow the film’s weaknesses is Oshima’s penchant for grafting a seemingly ordinary domestic story on the broad shoulders of a heavy metaphorical framework- as if each character (like in his previous film “The Ceremony”) are the idealized visages of some shred of post-war malcontent. One of his harder to find efforts, but worth the hunt. Not available on DVD.

In the Realm of the Senses (1976) *** - Even though it dwells on the sexually explicit nature of the relationship between Eiko Matsuda and Tatsuya Fuji, “In the Realm of the Senses” is a compelling examination of the consuming aspect of passion. Certainly deserves the “X” rating, though.

Empire of Passion (1978) ***½ - Film noir done Asian style- replete with rabid sexuality, village gossipers, and pale faced ghosts wallowing in the margins. All of this transpires after wife (Kazuko Yoshiyuki) and her lover (Tatsuya Fuji) kill her husband and have to deal with the hard part of denying their guilt for several years. Gloriously atmospheric and visually precise, “Empire of Passion” continues Oshima’s growth towards more mature works after the liberal and experimental works of the 60’s. With this film and “In the Realm of the Senses”, (plus the films that were ahead) he’s essentially grown from a look-at-me provocateur to a filmmaker concerned with mature people struggling with cultural and sexual identity. Without completely denying the audacity of his earlier films, I certainly admire the more mature Oshima.

A Visit to Ogawa Productions (1981) * - I’m not sure if Oshima staged this as a joke or not, but it has to be, perhaps, the most uninteresting documentary I’ve ever seen. Sixty-three minutes of a man talking about his documentary project in the mountains where he’s observed families, fields and the traditions of rice growing for the past eight years. It’s just a static shot of the man talking to Oshima while others look on about his theories on rice and his own pompous reasoning for the literal rooms full of footage he’s shot. Not sure where it can be found outside the bootleg I watched.

Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983) **½ - Probably the film Oshima is most recognized for here in the West, it’s also one of his most passionless. The story of a POW camp of Allied soldiers on a Japanese island gives Oshima some opportunity to comment on the physical and mental tug of war that existed between captive and captor, but too much of it (especially the relationship between newcomer prisoner David Bowie and camp commander Ryuichi Sakamoto) is muddled and strained, yearning for something cosmic… which probably explains why he cast two pop stars as leads. More concise, heartfelt and genuine is the relationship exemplified by the titular prisoner Lawrence (Tom Conti) and camp sub commander Takeshi Kitano. If the film had focused on this pair, it might have ascertained the glorious humanity it strived for in other places. Terrific score though.

Max, Mon Amour (1986) ** - Oshima doing Bunuel… especially because the screenwriter of this film (Jean-Claude Carrierer) wrote many of the Spaniard’s surreal classics, yet “Max Mon Amour” is largely unsuccessful because it feels so intentional. Charlotte Rampling begins an affair, which is suspected from the very beginning by her husband (Anthony Higgins). A quick investigation reveals her lover to be a chimpanzee. What does a cuckold do but move the ape into their plush Paris home and try and live with him, of course. For the first time in his long career, Oshima feels a bit withdrawn here, as if he’s on autopilot, allowing the farce to play out on its own. Everyone plays their roles straight as well. There’s something in there about the absurd nature of marriage and jealousy, I’m sure, but the tone, flat images and disconnected acting (so emotionless by Rampling especially) all add up to a large bore.

Kyoto, My Mother’s Home (1991) ***½  - What begins as a documentary about Oshima’s mother soon turns into an elegy for something greater, such as the region of Kyoto, its customs and the defining personal tendencies of Oshima himself. Loving, informative and probably the film any Oshima viewer should start with since it strives to give a deeper meaning to the man himself.  Available on R2 Japanese import.

100 Years of Japanese Cinema (1993) **½ - Oshima’s swift condensation of Japanese cinema from the silents to his own work in the 80’s is a wonderful treasure trove of film images, yet it’s oddly cold and detached, far removed from the loving recollections assembled by other filmmakers such as Martin Scorsese and even Jean Luc Godard. I understand Oshima wasn’t the most passionate person, yet his previous documentary “Kyoto, My Mother’s Home” managed to pierce the veneer and reveal an emotionally complex director behind the screen. “100 Years of Cinema” is all business. For entry level film studies, it’s fine, but someone searching for a deeper understanding of the artist and how these images correlate with his sensibility, look elsewhere.

Taboo (1997) *** - Oshima’s final film, aptly named, about the upheaval of a shogun society when one of it’s swordsman begins various relationships with other men in the group. Lushly old fashioned visually- full of wipe pans and gentle editing- clashes wonderfully with its progressive ideas about homosexuality and the overall impact of love regardless of the gender.

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