I consider only a handful of directors more of an influence than Nagisa Oshima, who passed away today at 80. Luis Bunuel, Orson Welles, Claude Chabrol…not many others. Like anyone, my favorite films would change by the hour, but three are consistently in the top. Bunuel’s The Exterminating Angel, Lynch’s Blue Velvet, and Oshima’s Death by Hanging.
The first Oshima film I saw was Cruel Story of Youth. Made in 1959 and released in 1960, the film is basically Japan’s answer to Breathless (no surprise there: Oshima famously said that he’s not the Japanese Godard, but that Godard is the French Oshima). Much more despondent than Godard’s film, Cruel Story of Youth was a major film in the Japanese New Wave and a stab into the heart of some of the previous, more traditional Japanese cinematic giants – Ozu, Kurosawa, Mizoguchi. Using extreme negative space, and sometimes cutting characters faces in half with the frame, Oshima relates a cynical story of a couple of teenagers nihilistically rebelling:
After Cruel Story of Youth I caught Death by Hanging and Night and Fog in Japan. The former a sometimes hilarious, sometimes Nabakov-ian or Kafak-esque (Invitation to a Beheading meets The Trial perhaps) treatise against the death penalty. The latter, taking a titular cue from Resnais’ famous Night and Fog, is a student-protest in the form of dialogue and cinematic mind games.
And that was Oshima’s M.O. Utilizing a technique and form that was constantly changing, Oshima challenged and remained chameleon-like throughout his career. Though his controversial In the Realm of the Senses, his Bowie vehicle Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence and his last film, the gay samurai picture Taboo are probably his best known, it’s his prolific output from 1960 – 1970 that I like best.
Violence at Noon and Three Resurrected Drunkards, two films now available in the Eclipse box set “Oshima’s Outlaw 60’s” (a great set), were previously very difficult to find, so I jumped on an Oshima retrospective in Toronto several years ago and was able to catch them on the big screen in 35mm. Violence at Noon is a rapid fire editing exercise in non-linear filmmaking and the crime genre, while Three Resurrected Drunkards (made the same year as Death by Hanging – 1968!) is a look at Japanese racism in a fairly surreal color palette and complete with musical interludes.
It’d be difficult to say that the polished cinematography of a Taboo is of the same director’s oeuvre as the handheld long takes from Death by Hanging as the repetitious dollies of Three Resurrected Drunkards.
Oshima’s politics aside (a great quote from the director: “My hatred for Japanese cinema includes absolutely all of it”), he, alongside directors such as Shohei Imamura, Ko Nakahira, and Yasuzo Masumura, completely reshaped Japanese cinema, moving away from the quiet meditation and comedy of Ozu, the female-centric naturalistic narratives of Mizoguchi and the western-influenced cinema of Kurosawa.
It’s hard to overstate his importance.