I don’t doubt that Ôshima Nagasi intended the recurrent assemblages of the Sakurada family at weddings and funeral in his 1971 “Ceremony” (the Chinese characters adapted by Japanese for “Gishiki,” don’t indicate singular/plural, but English marks this and the English title should be “Ceremonies”) to look like feudal courts. They are presided over by the palely sinister (crepuscular) patriarch Kazuomi (Satô Kei) who is the grandfather of the protagonist Masuo (Kawarazaki Kenzô), and father of Masuo’s cousin (and the love of his life), Ritsuko (Kaku Atsuko). Ritsuukô’s mother, Satsuko (Koyama Akiko), was the love of Masuo’s father’s life, but was taken (I’d guess raped rather than seduced) by his father, so that she is his half-sister, though is of the age to be his aunt, and is sometimes called that.
The movie opens in 1971 with Masuo and Ritsuko unable (because of weather) to fly to Kyushu in response to a telegram announcing the death of another cousin, Terumichi (Nakumara Atsuo). The flashbacks are numerous and, blessedly, linear. The first one goes back to the 1947 arrival of Masuo and his mother from Manchuria, which Japan had occupied during the 1930s. Masuo had a younger brother, who seemingly was buried while still breathing in the flight through Manchuria.
Masuo’s father had left his family behind and had committed suicide (following the renunciation of immortality by the Emperor). Masuo is the only legitimate Sakurada descendant of Kazuomi, and has a part to play that is very unwelcome to him as the scion of a prominent rural family. Kazuomi was not tried as a war criminal, but was excluded from political office. He is depurged before Masuo’s mother dies in 1952. Masuo is off pitching baseball in Tokyo and does not see his mother before she dies. He renounces his baseball career in self-punishment and does not have sex with Ritsuko.
Following the wedding of his communist uncle Isamu (Komatsu Hôsei, who had been directed by Ôshima in “The Sun’s Burial” “Death by Hanging” and “Three Resurrected Drunkards”) in 1956 (with a long sequence of character-defining songs; Masuo refuses to sing one). Temrumichi watches Setsuko submitting again to Kazuomi’s embraces, then gets her to teach him how to have sex, Temrumichi beds her daughter, Ritsuko. There is later reference to their wedding, but it is not shown, and the two may not actually have wed. Masuo is devastated and certain that he would have been happy with Ritsuko, though it is difficult to picture him happy.
Masuo’s own wedding is a total farce. He had been pressured by his grandfather to marry a well-connected girl who fled. The official excuse delivered by her father is appendicitis on the way to the wedding ceremony. Kazuomi insists that the wedding go forward, even without a bride, and the many guests accept the fiction. Masuo carries the fiction through by simulating deflowering his pure Japanese bride using a pillow wrapped in his grandmother’s coat and then substituting his grandfather for the pillow… and then removing the body of his rightist policeman cousin’s body from a casket and getting in, later pulling in Ritsuko. After taking one hand of Ritsuko while ordering Masuo to take the other and to hold on, Temrumichi leaves the family home (and his position arranged by Kazuomi (who may be his father or grandfather) and flees to a difficult-to-access island off Kyushu.
Alas, what makes the charismatic Temrumichi, who has greater self-confidence than Masuo even back in 1947, tick is not explored, though why anyone in the movie does what he or she does is generally obscure (and what is officially passed off as another suicide is obviously a murder).
Ôshima despised the war-making generation of fascists (Kauomi), despaired at the failure of the chronically singing leftists of his own generation (as abundantly illustrated before that in “Night and Fog in Japan”, “Sing a Song of Sex” and “The Man Who Put His Will on Film”), and their impotent communist elders (Isamu et al.), and for all his fascination with eroticism (from “Cruel Story of Youth” through “Gohatto”), did not see it as salvation for Japan. (Nor was baseball the answer, though providing some relief to Masuo, who refused placements arranged by his grandfather to take on coaching the team of the high school for which he had pitched while his mother was alive. Ôshima’s vision here, as elsewhere, is bleak, though the black comedy of Masuo’s wedding is very funny, especially the burlesque on Japanese “purity” counterpoised to the rampant incest of the Sakurada family tree (brush). And the cinematography of Toichiro Narushima deserves praise.
©2016, Stephen O. Murray