“This isn’t a wedding, this is a funeral!” spits an angry wedding crasher in Oshima’s Night and Fog in Japan (Nihon no yoru to kiri). The wedding, not a particularly happy one at this point, is between two members of the left-wing student movement in Japan; the funeral is for the movement itself, its members retreating into bourgeois comfort, their dreams and ideals interred along with them. It’s the fallout after the bloody protests surrounding the signing of a treaty between Japan and the United States — and the death of a former comrade — that haunts the film’s characters, but it remains politely repressed until the accusations fly across the room like bullets. Unlike the “spy” they captured earlier (and from whom they extract no information), the guests (and bride, and groom) end up reluctantly spilling their secrets and suspicions.
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Death by Hanging (Koshikei) begins with a question – no, a demand: Are you for or against the abolition of the death penalty? It’s a demand specifically directed at the audience, and the film allows for no fence-sitting. This claustrophobic, angry, powerful black comedy demands to be seen as well. I can honestly say I’ve never seen a movie quite like this.*
Oshima’s answer should be obvious from the start. The narrator (Oshima himself) begins to describe, in clinical and banal fashion, the interior of the execution chamber and its procedure. (“The walls are painted salmon pink.” “The curtains are dark yellow.” “Then he is given cakes and fruit for his last meal.”) He continues to describe the events almost without affect, while all we hear on the soundtrack is the sound of metal handcuffs clinking incessantly due to the blindfolded prisoner’s trembling hands.
The condemned man – with the Kafkaesque name of “R” — is accused of raping and murdering two women. There’s a problem, though: R’s heart is still beating. The prison officials are thrown into a quandary: is it legal to hang him again? Can one execute an unconscious person? Is the doctor obliged to resuscitate him just so that he can be hanged again? The priest is convinced that R’s soul has departed, and therefore the condemned man is “not R” anymore. It’s a sacrilege, the priest cries, to return a soul when it has already left, but the Education Officer argues, “I’m doing this for humanitarian reasons!”
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Nagisa Oshima’s debut feature film, A Town of Love and Hope, also known as Street of Love and Hope (Ai to kibo no machi) – a title apparently forced upon the movie by the studio, which freaked after seeing it the first time – is set in a Tokyo with not much of either. Certainly not the latter (hope), and the former (love) is tinged with an uneasy calculatedness. It’s this hint of duplicity which makes A Town of Love and Hope a little different, I think, from the standard neorealist drama, because there’s a palpable tension lingering in the words and motivations of the characters.
The film revolves around a boy who sold his pigeon (the original title Oshima preferred) – namely, Masao (Hiroshi Fujikawa), who we see sitting with two elderly shoeshine ladies in the Ginza district. The pigeons are sold to Kyoko (Yuko Tominaga), a high school sophomore of wealthy means who takes pity on Masao. But it’s all a fairly harmless scam that Masao has been running begrudgingly for quite some time with the encouragement of his mother: the homing pigeons, of course, end up flying back to the slum where Masao, his mother, and his mute younger sister live, practically in the shadow of the factories’ smokestacks. Once they return, he sells them all over again to the next dupe.
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