Oshima, Oshima, Oshima. How do I love thee? Let me count the ways: 1. Death by Hanging. 2. Three Resurrected Drunkards. 3. Violence at Noon. 4. Night and Fog in Japan. 5. Cruel Story of Youth. 6. Taboo. 7. In The Realm of the Sense. 8. Sing a Song of Sex. 9. Your supposed insistence that Godard is the “French Oshima” and not the other way around…
And now #10 comes in the form of the Criterion Collection’s Eclipse Series release of Pleasures of the Flesh.
Pleasures of the Flesh begins as a standard thriller, but anyone familiar with Nagisa Oshima can guess that it will be anything but. An innocent man becomes a murderer to protect the name of the woman he loves. When blackmailed into keeping an eye on (and not spending) 30 million yen by a soon-to-be-jailed embezzler, he agrees.
What ensues takes on the form of hedonistic/nihilistic psycho-drama as the lead – Atsushi (Katsuo Nakamura) – pays woman after woman absurd amounts of money to sleep and live with him for months on end in place of his now-married love Shoko (Mariko Kaga).
The film reeks of irony and in its ending reminds of recent, easier to interpret films such as A Simple Plan and Shallow Grave. All comes full circle when (SPOILER) the once-innocent-turned-murderer is saved from blackmail by another innocent-turned-murderer. All comes full(er) circle when he is turned in by the very woman he pines after. Why does she turn him in? Did she never love him in the first place? Is she a defender of justice? Is it done on a whim or out of spite? We’re never treated to a real answer, but one gets the idea that this is the point – Atsushi spent a year spending 30 million yen in order to forget Shoko. When she shows up again at the end only to turn him in after hearing his confession one must only assume that he’ll spend the next years in prison trying to forget her again.
Pleasures is stylistically tame for an Oshima film. Gone are the handheld long takes of Death by Hanging and the rapid-fire editing of Violence at Noon is also nowhere to be found. Instead we are treated to gorgeous slow-motion moments and point-of-view camera tricks. Oshima really pushed the idea of negative space as the dominant portion of the frame in his early Cruel Story of Youth and that idea is also on display here.
Pleasures of the Flesh is actually devoid of much pleasure for the main character. The love he buys is shallow and false. His first lover leaves him after tiring of him. His second leaves to be with her husband and children. The third leaves after finding his mental state too fragile and intolerable. The only woman who returns to him is a deaf/mute implying that she is truly in it for only the pleasures of the flesh, and little else.