Tuesday 22 January 2013

Nagisa Oshima (1932-2013), a Tribute by Geoffrey Nowell-Smith

Screencap from Night and Fog in Japan / 日本の夜と霧 / Nihon no yoru to kiri (Nagisa Oshima, 1960)

Film Studies For Free has the honour of presenting the below tribute to Nagisa Oshima. It is written by the great film scholar Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, now Honorary Professorial Fellow at Queen Mary, University of London.

The tribute has, of course, been added to FSFF's own, earlier homage to the late Japanese filmmaker-- Emperor of the Senses: RIP Nagisa Oshima 1932-2013--a list of links to online studies of his life and work.

FSFF warmly thanks Professor Nowell-Smith for so wonderfully marking the passing of this hugely important and influential director and screenwriter.

Nagisa Oshima (1932-2013), a Tribute by Geoffrey Nowell-Smith

Nagisa Oshima was one of the boldest and most radically innovative of the “new wave” filmmakers of the 1960s, rivalled only by Godard. He only came to world attention in 1968, by which time he had already made twelve features in his native Japan, mostly crime films but including the extraordinary political drama Night and Fog in Japan (1960), which led him to leave the Shochiku studio and make shift as an independent. His early crime films were remarkable for their lack of moralism and their shifting focus of identification, making them hard to assimilate into normal genre patterns as understood by western audiences. In this respect they picked up on a sense of disarray felt by his generation of young people in Japan. Born in 1932 and only thirteen years old at the time of Japan’s catastrophic defeat in 1945, he experienced not only the humiliation of defeat but a deep discontent with the way his country was attempting to rebuild itself under American influence while disavowing the reasons for the catastrophe. From the mid-1960s onwards his films are full of references to the legacy of Japan’s imperial adventures earlier in the century – notably the subjugation of Korea (1905 onwards) and the invasion of Manchuria in 1931. The plight of the Korean minority in Japan is a recurrent theme, for example in A Treatise on Japanese Bawdy Song (1967 – sometimes known under the grotesque title Sing a Song of Sex) and in his first international success Death by Hanging (1968). Manchuria hovers in the background of A Treatise on Japanese Bawdy Song where drunken old men sing songs about their war experiences (to which the young people respond with songs about sex). It is present again in The Ceremony (1971) and even in Oshima’s  most notorious film In the Realm of the Senses (1976 – also known as Empire of the Senses), where the claustrophobia of the sex scenes is interrupted by shots of soldiers marching off to war.

In the last few years some of Oshima’s early films have belatedly been released on DVD in the west, but his reputation resides mostly on his more recent films, from In the Realm of the Senses onwards. Meanwhile the great middle-period films which first made his international reputation, from Death by Hanging in 1968 to Dear Summer Sister in 1972, have disappeared from circulation. These films are both more formally innovative and fiercer in their social and political critique than either the early crime films (made for Japanese audiences only) or the later ones (made as expensive international co-productions for the world market). It was probably inevitable that when these middle-period films reached the west Oshima would be seen as somehow a “Japanese Godard”. But the comparison is misleading. It is true Oshima stood out among his Japanese peers rather as Godard did among the French. Also, like Godard, he made films fast and according to his own recipe, and these films fitted into a climate of a political militancy that was as intense in Japan as anywhere in the West, if not more so. But the similarities do not go far and Oshima himself was eager to avoid any invidious comparisons. Asked at the time what he and Godard had in common, he replied: “Two things: cinema and politics”. The remark should be taken literally, as meaning simply, we both make films and we are both on the left politically. Beyond that, the differences are more significant than the similarities. For Godard in the relevant period – roughly from La Chinoise in 1967 to Tout va bien in 1972 – political films meant films which pursued a political line, with some questioning but with a line none the less. For Oshima, too, politics meant having a line, but film-making was something else. Very few of his films have a message but one that does is The Man Who Left His Will on Film from 1970, and there the message is that making films and doing politics are different and indeed antithetical things. As for doing politics, Oshima’s position, if he has one, was the same in the late 1960s as it was in Night and Fog in Japan nearly a decade earlier – aligned on the left but not with the left and indeed harshly critical of both old and new lefts in contemporary Japan. Most importantly, just as it is hard to find any stable focus of sympathy in any Oshima film, so it is hard to find the expression of a “correct” point of view on politics or anything else. The characters flounder, they are stuck with attitudes and behaviours whose rationale is obscure to themselves and often to the audience as well. There is never a voice of truth in an Oshima film. Some characters may strive harder than others to understand the truth about themselves or their situation but the film as a whole never puts forward their point of view as overriding truth. This is in sharp contract to the “political” Godard, who is always telling the audience what to think, either in an intrusive voiceover or through a character speaking on his behalf.

“Above all,” Oshima said in an interview in Cahiers du cinéma shortly after the film’s release, “I hope that people will talk about the content of Death by Hanging” – the content in question being not so much the ostensible one of the death penalty but issues of identity and violence and, inevitably, the Korean question (the man to be hanged is Korean). Content is paramount in Oshima’s films and tends to revolve around a stable core of themes and motifs, despite their variations in form. Formally, in fact, the films are very varied indeed. There are only forty-five shots in Night and Fog in Japan, but two thousand in the 1966 Violence at Noon. Some films, such as The Ceremony, have a very composed look, whereas The Man Who Left his Will on Film, Diary of a Shinjuku Thief (1969), and Dear Summer Sister are more obviously freewheeling, with lots of hand-held camera. Narration is mostly impersonal, though The Boy (1969) contains scenes inviting identification with the boy of the title. Overt reflexivity is rare, with only The Man Who Left his Will on Film inviting the audience to reflect on the status of the narrated fiction, but in A Treatise on Japanese Bawdy Song and Death by Hanging there are disconcerting shifts in the level of reality to be attributed to the events on the screen. Tone also varies, sometimes subtly, sometimes vertiginously. Even the most solemn films (for example The Ceremony) have comical moments, and in Dear Summer Sister the former war criminal’s final crime is played entirely for laughs, while the mostly comical Treatise on Japanese Bawdy Song receives a brutal final twist which is chilling in its effect.

The content around which these formal variations revolve has two elements. On the one side there are certain recurrent externalities, which Oshima was not alone in commenting on. These include the disavowed legacy of Japan’s military adventures and subsequent defeat, the disorientation of a younger generation growing up after 1945, sexual mores in a changing (but sometimes regrettably unchanging) society, criminality, and a combination of violence and sexual dysfunction whose predictable outcome is rape. Taken by themselves, however, these externalities fall far short of explaining the originality and power of Oshima’s films, particularly those that he made in his extraordinary burst of creativity between 1967 and 1972. To get beyond the commonplace one has to go deeper, to understand how the various external features are brought together by a view of the world which was profoundly pessimistic about what Sigmund Freud memorably called the discontents of civilization – any civilization, not just European after the First World War as in Freud’s case or Japanese after the Second as in Oshima’s. The Japanese critic Tadao Sato has commented that in Oshima’s early films criminality emerges out of an obscure need to express something that society prevents from being expressed and is therefore potentially revolutionary. But from the mid-1960s onwards, Sato suggests, “he seems to be experimenting with the idea of a human craving for freedom that cannot be satisfied through social revolution and he almost always repeats the despairing view that if people seek freedom they can only become criminals.” The qualification “experimenting with” is important, because the films in which this radical pessimism emerges are all experiments, exploring ideas about things that might happen, rather than purporting dogmatically to describe the world as it is. But this tentative, experimental quality is a logical consequence of Oshima’s own observation that when desire runs up against its limits one needs to be able to take a leap into the deeper realm of the imaginary. It is this hazardous leap into the imaginary that gave his films from A Treatise on Japanese Bawdy Songs onwards their compelling power.

  • Oshima interviewed by Pascal Bonitzer, Michel Delahaye, and Sylvie Pierre, Cahiers du cinéma 218, March 1970
  • Tadao Sato, Currents in Japanese Cinema (Tokyo: Kodansha, 1982)

This tribute is adapted from a chapter on Oshima which will shortly appear in the revised version of Geoffrey Nowell-Smith's book Making Waves: New Cinemas of the 1960s, to be published by Bloomsbury in June 2013. Some parts of it have also appeared in FilmQuarterly 64:2, Winter 2010

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