Times of monumental change, such as the world observed last week, are enough to excuse anyone who hasn’t yet made it to the Walker for its retrospective of films by Japanese director Nagisa Oshima – himself no stranger to history in the making. Impressionably teenaged at the end of World War II and passionately engaged in student activism during the 1950s, the Japanese New Waver behind Cruel Story of Youth – fatherless since the age of six – spent the earthshaking year of 1968 with two films in release and another in production. Evincing Oshima’s radical energy in full flower, all three of these–Death by Hanging, Diary of a Shinjuku Thief, and Boy – remain difficult to see in the United States, and their screenings (in new 35mm prints, yet) lie just ahead in the Walker series. Thus latecomers to “In the Realm of Oshima” hardly need to worry that they’ve missed the highlights.
“Provocations directed at the spectators,” as Japanese critic Hideo Osabe aptly put it, Oshima’s films met the late ‘60s like Molotov cocktails hitting valued property. Death by Hanging, which the
director yanked from the ‘68 Cannes fest by way of greeting the French “events of May,” draws a hard line in its very first minute, with title cards that ask, “Do you support or oppose the death penalty?” and “You, the 71 percent [in favor of it], have you ever seen a public execution?” Hanging (November 16 at 2:00 p.m.), albeit a black-comic satire of forceful persuasion, gleefully gives its audience two hangings for the price of one. Diary (November 23 at 2:00 p.m.), hot off the press, uses the summer riots in Japan to contextualize the scorching sex between a young make-believe thief and the woman who pleasurably catches him in the act. Boy (November 12 at 7:30 p.m.), the one film of this trilogy in color, vividly observes the effects of criminality on the titular 10-year-old, whose parents “work” by faking public accidents and snatching up guilt money.
In these searing critiques of societal absurdity, the audience is made to appear accountable – along with corporations, the state, the nuclear family, and the characters’ animalistic hunger to capitalize on one another. Near the bitter end of Death by Hanging, the marked man – a Korean known only as “R” – comes to ask an essential question of his legal executioners: “What is a nation?” The answer is, uh, left hanging. Maybe the nation is only distinct from the individual for getting away with murder. Oshima’s stark, documentary-style tour of Death Row punctuates the narrative rituals of state execution – last supper, last cigarette, last words, et cetera–by way of exposing the fatal cruelties of convention. “R,” whatever his crimes, doesn’t stick to the script: Miraculously slipping out of the noose in the film’s first minutes, he appears heroic–or at least compared to his ethical army of assassins.
If Oshima has a definition of the word “responsibility,” it’s this: Break the rules. “Let’s steal something,” the lovers of Diary of a Shinjuku Thief decide early in the course of their film-long flirtation. The erotics of theft are foregrounded in this, a sexy movie that, aptly enough, steals from Bonnie and Clyde by way of Breathless. Yet, appearing almost apocalyptic at times, Oshima’s film is uniquely unsettling, not least through camerawork that’s severely shaky even by Dogme standards. In ’68, Oshima’s cinematographic flailing must’ve looked crazy–or else perfectly normal. Indeed, all of Earth seemed to be quaking simultaneously, as Diary acknowledges from the start, with title cards that spell out the exact times of day in New York, Paris, Tokyo, and other cities. Above it all is our hero, Birdey Hilltop(!), for whom chaos is mere foreplay. Whatever the would-be revolution succeeded in bringing to radicals, Oshima suggests, it at least added a smidgen of experimentalism into the sex lives of bourgeois types.
On the evidence of Boy, whose story Oshima ripped from the headlines, societal tumult may have given even the nuclear family license to act out. Stepping in front of cars, accusing the drivers of reckless endangerment, settling out of court, then going out to dinner in a nice restaurant: All in a day’s work for the middle-class clan of Boy. This, in ’68, is how radicalism trickles up the food chain – to settle as a placemat on Mom and Dad’s dining table? Or has conventionally well-off family life always been predicated on such deceitful exploitation? Both, right? And neither?
Nothing is black and white in Oshima’s films, not even the monochromatic ones. As if to make at least that much clear, the director periodically bleaches Boy‘s color in images of the family home, cutting within sequences between shots that match not at all. Leave it to Oshima, who grew up grieving his father, to strip the illusion of stability from the very complexion of Boy, a family movie like no other. Forty years on, this filmmaker’s style must appear even more revolutionary than it did in its own radical time.