“Death by Hanging” (Kôshikei, 1968) is a not uninteresting critique of capital punishment, though, like most Ôshima films, it goes on far too long (117 minutes to be exact).
The start has a documentary look at an open side-view of two floors in a Japanese prison: the top one is where the noose is put around the neck of the condemned (for raping and murdering two Japanese women when he was a teenager) Korean man, referred to as “R” (Yun Yundo). A trapdoor opens and the person being executed falls through, which should break his neck.
In this case (based on a real instance) it did not. After hanging for about 20 minutes, he is still alive. Taken down, he has lost his memory. Most importantly, he no longer remembers the crimes for which he was being executed.
The prison/government officials are determined to carry out the sentence, but discomfited about executing someone who at first is unconscious, and then does not know what he did that led to his death sentence. The Catholic chaplain (Ishido Toshio) takes the position that the man’s soul was released, even though his body remained alive. He does a Pontius Pilate, i.e., washing his hands of the matter.
The attempts to jog R’s memory include re-enactments that are so realistic that the women playing the part of the dead ones are very nearly killed. The officials seem as callous and sadistic as R. They also pantomime their conception of what Japanese Korean life is like—which R does not recognize as having anything to do with him, and probably doesn’t. (I presume he really raped and killed the Japanese young women; at least Ôshima provides no indication that R was innocent of the crimes for which he was condemned to be hanged. I’m not quite clear whether the policeman playing the role of the Korean killer imagines he kills the woman playing the victim or “really” does.)
The movie then veers into a sentimental reunion of R with his sister (Koyama Akiko), the prison officials hold a drunken wake, and there are two divergent endings.
(Refreshingly, Richie wrote: “I don’t know what any of this means and doubt that Oshima does. The picture unravels, getting more and more woolly-headed while the words come thicker and longer and faster. The director always allows himself great spontaneity while shooting and this invariably leads him into license and self-indulgence, and eventually (all his pictures are bad-conscience films) to the limits of intellectual masochism.”)
“Death by Hanging” grew out of a 25-minute 1965 documentary about a Japan-born Korean who was rejected (abandoned?) by his mother after he visited Korea. “Diary of Yunbogi” is one of the bonus features on the Criterion Collection release, which also includes a 5-minute trailer and a half-hour 2015 interview of film historian Tony Rayns about Ôshima’s career. As Donald Richie aptly remarked, Ôshima was more interested in ideas than in stories. Richie continued that Ôshima “rarely sees any of these issues through to any logical conclusion, maintaining that it is precisely the illogicality of the issues themselves which ought command our interest; that his is the role of social critic, calling their absurdity to our attention. Perhaps for this reason he refuses to allow any of his films an autonomous life of their own. One is always aware of the director, manipulating his material, making certain that we understand that it is his statement rather than that of the actors playing his characters. Consequently there is no indirection, no implication — we are talked at and ordered to think; we are not requested to feel.”
Discriminated-against Koreans in Japan and sexual violence are Ôshima leitmotifs. In one of her last projects Susan Sontag chose to include “Death by Hanging” in a series of Japanese films screened at the Boston Fine Arts Musem (The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On was another). It was curiosity about this movie that led me to Hulu, where I saw many other Japanese films, including other Ôshima ones.
@2016, Stephen O. Murray