Sunday, July 19, 2009

In the Realm of Oshima

The Nagisa Oshima retrospective (In the Realm of Oshima) recently finished at the PFA. The series ran May 29 to July 18. It consisted of 25 screenings of 23 unique programs. Of the 23 programs, I previously watched Boy, The Ceremony and Violence at Noon at last autumn's Cinema Japan: A Wreath for Madame Kawakita program.

I missed Pleasures of the Flesh and Empire of Passion because it conflicted with the Saturday of the Silent Film Festival. I missed Band of Ninja and 100 Years of Japanese Cinema due to having to work late those nights.

That leaves 16 programs that I was able to catch.

Cruel Story of Youth; Japanese with subtitles; (1960)
Diary of a Shinjuku Thief; Japanese with subtitles; (1968)
A Town of Love and Hope; Japanese with subtitles; (1959)
Diary of Yunbogi; Japanese with subtitles; 30 minute short film; (1965)
Death by Hanging; Japanese with subtitles; (1968)
Night and Fog in Japan; Japanese with subtitles; (1960)
The Catch; Japanese with subtitles; (1961)
Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence with David Bowie, Tom Conti and Beat Takeshi; English & Japanese with subtitles; (1983)
Shiro Amakusa, the Christian Rebel; Japanese with subtitles; (1962)
The Sun’s Burial; Japanese with subtitles; (1960)
Three Resurrected Drunkards; Japanese with subtitles; (1968)
A Treatise on Japanese Bawdy Song; Japanese with subtitles; (1967)
In the Realm of the Senses; Japanese with subtitles; (1976)
The Man Who Left His Will on Film; Japanese with subtitles; (1970)
Dear Summer Sister; Japanese with subtitles; (1972)
Double Suicide: Japanese Summer; Japanese with subtitles; (1967)
Gohatto with Beat Takeshi; Japanese with subtitles; (2000)

Let me start by saying that the Cinema Japan series screened the best of Oshima's filmography. Boy and to a lesser extent The Ceremony had traditional narrative structures. Call me unsophisticated but I like movies that have a narrative structure.

Oshima seems to have a number of issues that occupied his thoughts - mistreatment/racism towards Koreans, socialism, disillusionment with socialism, sex, Western influence on Japan, death and homosexuality. That's quite lineup and but frequently Oshima engages in Brechtian techniques. Not being a film or theater critic, the term "Brechtian" makes me head for the exit door. The most succinct definition of Brechtian that I'm aware of is making the audience aware that they are watching a representation of reality as opposed to traditional film making where the purpose is to create images that allow the audience to suspend disbelief and view the film as reality.

Not surprisingly, when Oshima hews to traditional narrative techniques, I enjoy his films. His talents as a director are clearly evident in all his films but the films "based on real stories" are the one I tend to enjoy the most. Boy was based on a true story as was In the Realm of the Senses which vied for my favorite of the films I saw during the series.

In the Realm of the Senses is hardcore porn. There were no "money shots" like modern day porn but there was a scene in which an actress seemed to have a man's penis in her mouth and spits out (what appears to be) ejaculate. That's just one of many copious sex scenes. I think Oshima repeatedly filmed these sex scenes to numb the audience to full frontal (male & female) nudity. The climax of the film involves a fairly graphic castration. Despite that titillating description, the film explored the obsessively co-dependent nature of the couple's relationship. The woman's raw sexuality is the driving force of the plot.

Another favorite was Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence which is likely Oshima best known film among Western audiences. Another film based on real events, Oshima examines the relationship between POWs and their captors as well as Japanese vs Western masculine ideals with a healthy dose of homoeroticism layered on. Buffeted by an oddly effective xylophone score, the film bounces along from one brutality to the next - Takeshi as the brutish sergeant, Bowie failing to come to the aid of hunchback younger brother (in flashback), and most famously, Bowie being buried up to his neck and left to dehydrate in the hot sun.

Oshima's debut effort, A Town of Love and Hope is, to the best of my knowledge, purely fictional but thoroughly enjoyable. Clocking in at a trim 62 minutes, the film's title is deliberately misleading. The studio was worried about the cynical views on class divisions that the film espoused. The plot involves a teenage boy repeatedly selling a homing pigeon but after seeing 19 films by Oshima, the film is more interesting for what it foreshadows in Oshima's career. For some reason, Oshima frequently uses shots of the Tokyo Tower in the background. More significantly, Oshima repeatedly returns, over his career, to two narrative devices - scammers and provocatively precocious teenage girls. In The Sun’s Burial, they run a blood donation scam; in Boy, it's a car accident scam; in Cruel Story of Youth, they run a variation of the Murphy scam (I even surprised myself by knowing that term; thank you NYPD Blue). In Dear Summer Sister, the precocious teenager (14, I believe) consorts with the demimonde in Okinawa while searching for her half-brother; in Double Suicide: Japanese Summer, she's 17 and offering to every guy within earshot, etc.

Likely his final film (Oshima is 77 years old and has suffered a numerous strokes), Gohatto reunites Oshima with Beat Takeshi in this tale of gay samurai. I am reminded of a film (perhaps I'm conflating multiple films) whose name I cannot place. I think it was Jayne Mansfield in The Girl Can't Help It but in the film the woman is absolutely irresistible to every man she meets. Ryuhei Matsuda's samurai character has the same effect on every guy he meets. Straight, gay or in between, they all come under his spell. If not consciously drawn to him, then unconsciously. It gets a quite funny to see every samurai drawn to him or at least be perceived by his peers as being drawn to him. Apparently quite common among the samurai class, homosexuality is rarely depicted in the cinema. Oshima infuses his lead character (Kono) as man of great sword skills but little awareness of the effect he has on others...or does he?

My final word on Oshima is that my opinion of his films is similar to that of Jean-Luc Godard, the French director he was frequently compared with. I like some of his films but as he ventured to more didactic films delivered in less traditional structures, I found his work less than satisfying. All his films have some absurdist moments or clever camera work or blocking but I'm not informed enough on the history of the Japanese Communist Party, mutual security pacts between the US & Japan post WWII or the socioeconomic conditions of that period that gave rise to leftist movements to fully appreciate many of his works. Still, I could enthusiastically recommend a half-dozen of his films off the top of my head - Boy, The Ceremony, A Town of Love and Hope, Gohatto, Dear Summer Sister, Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, etc.

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