How a studio trained director quit the system to go independent and become one of the most influential filmmakers in Japanese history.
NAGISA Oshima, one of Japan’s most influential and controversial film directors, died January 15 in a hospital near Tokyo at the age of 80. Several years prior I attended a few screenings of his work at a Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s retrospective, the first showing of his films in North America in over two decades. It was during the “In the Realm of Oshima” retrospective that I discovered the genius of Ôshima, a genius to be honored with his passing.
Kyoto, Shochiku Company Ltd.
Nagisa Oshima was born March 31, 1932 to an affluent family in Kyoto. He studied law at Kyoto University and was actively involved in the student politics and protest movement of the time. In 1954, he began as an apprentice at the Shochiku Company movie studio and became a director before the end of the decade. Shochiku saw the need to attract the country’s growing youth movement and responded by giving new talent a chance, lifting some of the studio restrictions on the films these new directors wanted to make. Ôshima made his first films at Shochiku before forming his own production company, Sozosha, with the actress Akiko Koyama, whom he married in 1960.
The Japanese New Wave, or Nûberu bâgu, describes a group of Japanese filmmakers emerging out of the late 1950s and through the early 1970s who sought to push the creative boundaries of the studio system and extend Japanese film beyond standard conventions. Ôshima is one of several Japanese film directors considered to have been instrumental to the movement. Unlike France’s New Wave, or La Nouvelle Vague, the movement in Japan had its genesis in the film studios but quickly found momentum in independent production companies. Ôshima had a kinship with the French movement through leftist activism and from his work as a film critic and then editor-in-chief of the film magazine Eiga Hihyo before joining the studio system. Films of this period include:
”Night and Fog in Japan” (Nihon no Yoru to Kiri, 1960) is an indictment of the disunity within Japanese leftist politics. The film was quickly pulled following the assassination of a Socialist politician by a right-wing student.
”The Catch” (Shiiku, 1961) was Ôshima’s first independent movie. It tells the story of an African-American POW held hostage by a small village. “Violence at Noon” (Hakuchû no Tôrima, 1966) is an obscure study of a rapist and two of his victims.
”Death by Hanging” (Kôshikei, 1968) is a darkly humorous film about a young Korean being hanged for the rape and murder of two Japanese girls. But his body refuses to die. The film becomes more surreal as it progresses.
”Diary of a Shinjuku Thief ” (Shinjuku Dorobô Nikki, 1969) looks at a young student caught shoplifting in a bookshop by a girl masquerading as an assistant, and with whom he goes on to have an affair.
In the Realm of the Senses, Empire of Passion, Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence
”In the Realm of the Senses” (Ai no Corrida, 1976), based on actual events, tells the story of a hotel owner and a geisha who retreat from the imperialist rise of the 1930s into a world of obsessive sexual fantasies. Ôshima, a critic of censorship, was determined that the film should feature unsimulated sex and thus the undeveloped film had to be transported to France to be processed and edited. An uncensored version of the movie still isn’t available in Japan.
”Empire of Passion” (Ai no Bôrê, 1978) portrays a crime of passion followed by a ghostly haunting. The film won Ôshima the Palme d’Or for best director at the Cannes Film Festival.
Ôshima’s only English-language film, ”Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence” (Senjô no Merî Kurisumasu, 1983), is set in a Japanese POW camp. It attempts to show some of the more noble qualities of some soldiers despite the wartime atrocities they committed.
Many of Nagisa Ôshima’s films continue to hold their impact and message with the passing of time and after his death, and they will continue to influence cineastes and filmmakers the world over. tj
The complete article is available in Issue #271. Click here to order from Amazon