Often referred to as Japan’s answer to Jean-Luc Godard—though he wanted Godard to be referred to as France’s answer to him—the great Japanese director Nagisa Oshima has died at age 80.
As a thumbnail sketch of Oshima’s sensibility, the Godard comparison isn’t a bad one: Both men started making movies around 1960, and both were consummate outsiders whose work was marked by a political and aesthetic restlessness. Early films like Cruel Story Of Youth, a rough-hewn portrait of outlaw lovers, and Night And Fog In Japan, a political statement so incendiary that it got pulled from release after three days, quickly established Oshima as a fierce independent, anxious to challenge the mores of Japanese society and cinema. And that outré reputation was sustained through his final film, 1999’s Taboo (Gohatto), a gorgeous mood piece that introduces homoeroticism to the world of samurais in the mid-19th century.
Oshima had a prolific career—up until the mid-’70s, anyway, when his output slowed considerably—and essays by James Quandt and Dennis Lim, written on the occasion of a Quandt-curated, traveling Oshima retrospective a few years ago, are a great place to start for critical biographies. For those who haven’t experienced his work, I can recommend these five films for the queue:
Pleasures Of The Flesh (1965)
Available as part of Eclipse’s “Oshima’s Outlaw Sixies” set, Pleasures Of The Flesh is Oshima’s answer to the softcore exploitation known as “pink films.” The plot is a nasty little nihilistic fantasy, following a lonely young man who agrees to stash a suitcase full of embezzled money while the embezzler sits in prison. Instead, he blows the money on women and other indulgences until it runs out, at which time he intends to kill himself. It’s a grim conceit for a subgenre bent more on giving pleasure than examining it.
Violence At Noon (1966)
The jewel of the “Oshima’s Outlaw Sixties” box—and the most essential viewing of the five films listed here—Violence At Noon finds Oshima in a highly experimental mood, mashing images together at such a furious rate that there are over 2,000 cuts in 99 minutes. The film’s formal radicalism supports an appropriately disturbing story about a serial killer who gets protection from two unlikely women: his ex-wife and a former victim. Oshima examines the motives of everyone involved while arranging the narrative in the form of a disorienting puzzle.
In The Realm Of The Senses (1976)
Oshima’s most famous and notorious film invited censors at home and abroad for its use of unsimulated sex—in fact, the explicit footage itself had to be sent to France for processing. Eiko Matsuda plays a former prostitute who lands a job at a hotel; Tatsuya Fuji plays the hotel’s proprietor, a man so overwhelmed by Matsuda’s beauty and sexual voraciousness that he leaves his wife and family. The bulk of In The Realm Of The Senses covers their acrobatic escapades in the bedroom, which intensify and darken until something truly horrific occurs. Finding an uncut version of the film has not been easy in the past, but Criterion has this and Oshima’s follow-up, Empire Of Passion, on DVD/BD.
Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983)
Oshima’s first film in English suffers from the expected awkwardness of bringing a diverse class under an uncommon language, but it also features one of David Bowie’s best performances, as a major from New Zealand who gets thrown into a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp in 1942. Bowie’s resistance puts the more acquiescent eponymous character (Tom Conti) in a tough spot and invites the torments of his keepers. It’s a strange, haunting, and surprisingly beautiful film given the subject matter, and it also features an unforgettable score by Ryuichi Sakamoto (who acts in the film, too).
Taboo (Gohatto) (1999)
A great cinematic swan song, Oshima’s final film takes place among the samurai class in mid-19th century Japan, but it was surprisingly resonant for American arthouse audiences at the time in light of the issue of gays in the military. Worries about competency and group morale and togetherness apply here, too, as an androgynous 18-year-old swordsman (Rhuhei Matsuda) enters a samurai training school at a time when the entire class is fading into obsolescence. Takeshi Kitano stars as one of Matsuda’s superiors, who’s most unnerved by the young man’s strange, dangerous allure. Sakamoto again contributes a lovely score.