Tag Archives: eroticism

Retrospect of Ôshima Nagasi films



The Japanese movies I most revere were made by Ichikawa, Kinoshita, Kobayashi, Kurosawa — the generation between the masters who were already established before the Second World War (Mizoguchi, Naruse, Ozu) and the “New Wave” (Ôshima, Imamura, Shinoda, Teshigahara) that began making movies around 1960. I put off running through the Ôshima films I’ve seen (19 of his 26 feature files, none of his 21 documentaries, three tv movies and one 13-episode tv series) because there are few that I like — maybe only one (Pleasures of the Flesh), though I find “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence” (which is mostly in English) very intriguing and don’t think he went off the rail to an extent close to that of Jean-Luc Godard, the French New Wave director to whose work Ôshima’s was compared early and often.

Ôshima was dismayed by the failure of Japanese opposition politics (the student movement) in 1960 and became increasingly alienated from his countrymen in general and Japanese cinema in particular

I know that Ôshima is historically important, in some ways the first independent Japanese filmmaker (though he began and ended his career directing for Shochiku). He was particularly critical of the discrimination those of Korean descent (many born in Japan) faced.

I also think his fascination with erotic obsession and and the recurrence of rape (often multiple rapes)  in many of his movies unhealthy, and contributing to my impatience with many of his movies. From his third movie on, they tended to drag and were often dramatically incoherent. I have already quoted the acute analysis of Donald Richie: 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.”

As with Imamura, there were lengthy stretches in which Ôshima directed no feature-length fiction films. A chronological list with my ratings on a 10-point scale of the ones that are available here (on Criterion and/or Hulu) follows


A Town of Love and Hope (1959) 7

Cruel Story of Youth/Naked Youth (1960) 6

The Sun’s Burial (1960) 2

Night and Fog in Japan (1960) 1

Pleasures of the Flesh (1965) 7

Violence at Noon (1966) 1

Sing a Song of Sex (1967) 4

Japanese Summer: Double Suicide (1967) 4

Death by Hanging (1968) 6

3 Resurrected Drunkards (1968) 5

Diary of a Shinjuku Thief (1969) 1

Boy (1969) 4.5

The Man Who Put His Will on Film (1970) 2

The Ceremony (1971) 5

In the Realm of the Senses (1976) 2.5

Empire of Passion (1978) 3

Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983) 9

Max, Mon Amour (1986) 5.5

Gohatto/Taboo (1999) 5.5


©2016, Stephen O. Murray


Oshima’s “Ceremony”


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


Late Kawabata: “The House of the Sleeping Beauties” and “One Arm”


I can understand the reluctance of the Swedish Academy to give a Nobel Prize for literature to Mishima Yukio, who was only 43 when it gave the first prize to a Japanese writer. Though he had published more than 40 works of fiction, they surely thought they could get back to him later and did not realize he would be dead in another two years.

They had missed giving the prize to Tanizaki Jun’ichiro before his death in 1965, and gave the Nobel Prize in Literature for 1968 to Kawabata Yasunari (1899-1972), longtime president of PEN Japan (and like Mishima, a Japanese writer with many contacts with western writers). All three strike me as authors of quite kinky fiction and personal obsessions, though the specifics of the obsessions differed among them.


Kawabata and Mishima (pictured together above) seem to have thought a lot about the ravages of aging. Mishima decided not to experience them. Kawabata was already writing about misanthropic old men in his 1933 story “Kinjû” (Of birds and beasts). Though Kawabata does not seem to have been as antisocial as the unnamed protagonist of the story, like him, Kawabata had many house pets, dogs and caged birds. The misanthropic protagonist had decided that “he did not like people. Husbands and wives, parents and children, brothers and sisters: the bonds were not easily cut even with the most unsatisfactory of people” He is pretty cavalier about the deaths of his pets, too, losing interest in newly acquired ones fairly quickly.

Nihilist though he is, the protagonist had dropped out of a love suicide pact earlier. As with other Kawabata fiction, the story ceases rather than ends. He wrote it one night before a deadline and did not return to attempt to craft an ending.

In a (plot-spoiling) introduction by Kawabata’s protégé, Mishima Yukio praised the ending (that might be considered open) of the novella Nemureru Bijo (The House of the Sleeping Beauties, first serialized in 1960-61). The age of its protagonist, Eguchi, is repeated noticeably often: 67 (seven more than Kawabata’s at the time). He begins visiting a special kind of bordello where impotent old men are relieved of performance anxieties and disappointments by going to sleep with drugged naked virgins.

Eguchi is “still a man,” though thinks that going to permanent sleep with a beautiful, naked virgin would be a good way to go. This fantasy (within a fantasy) is partly dispelled when another client does die on site and is carted away unceremoniously.

Neither Kawabata nor Eguchi not the proprietress seems to have given any thought to the clients having tongues and fingers… Well, the proprietress believes the referral system screens out those who might not be “gentlemen” who would take advantage of the sleeping beauties beyond the prescribed limits. Eguchi reflects that “for an old man who was no longer a man, to keep company with a girl who had been put to sleep was ‘not a human relationship.’” Not “a living doll” or a “living toy,” but for an old man she “could be life itself,” unconscious of itself and of who was spending the night being warmed by her youthful heat and able to enjoy gazing on beauty without being seen or judged… or known.

Aside from my subversive thoughts about policing what the clients do, I find the setup extremely creepy (I don’t share Tanizaki’s foot fetishism, either…) What I like about the novella is the memories and dreams that flood Eguchi on each of the five nights he spends (with different drugged women). The use of stream of consciousness was already present in “Of birds and beasts.” In “The House of the Sleeping Beauties” the memories are of women with whom Eguchi had been intimate. I find the flashbacks in both stories more interesting than the conduct being narrated.

Though I have not read any of it, Kawabata apparently wrote some surrealist fiction between the world wars. “Kataude” (One Arm, 1964) opens with “’I can let you have one of my arms for the night,’ said the girl. She took off her right arm at the should and, with her left hand, laid it on my knee.” The narrator is able to tell form the arm that the woman is a virgin (to put it mildly, Kawabata was hung up on virgin women). He replaces his own arm for a while with it, but when he wakes up is frightened to see his own arm lying there. He is only in his 30s, and the arm can speak (unlike the drugged beauties). The isolation from anything like normal human relationships and embrace of quite abnormal (not just unusual!) relationships of all three male protagonists makes the three fictions fit together, and I guess the setup of “House of Sleeping Beauties” could be considered almost as surrealistic as the substitution of limbs. (Indeed, Eguchi thinks that the elbow of one of the sleeping beauties seemed alive as well as beautiful.) The objectification of women is pervasive in Kawabata (and Tanizaki) fiction, though “House of Sleeping Beauties” takes it to an extreme, even beyond “One Arm” (in which the arm speaks, so has some agency).

“One arm” was the last work that Kawabata finished. Like many a Nobel Prize winner, after the award he gave lectures but did not do any more of the kind of work that won him the prize. One may wonder if Mishima would have continued to churn out fiction and plays had he won the award that he badly wanted. The second (in 1994) Japanese Nobel Prize laureate, Ôe Kenzaburô (1935-), who has psychopathologies of his own to nurse/revisit, has (two novels, along with considerable punditry, however).

– – –

Kawabata’s and Ôe’s Nobel lectures are both online at nobelprize.org. In his, Ôe spoke at length about Kawabata’s, in particular Kawabata’s differentiation between Zen detachment and western nihilism.

I also recently wrote about Kawabata’s Thousand Cranes, the substance of which has already evaporated from my memory, as that of Snow Country has despite having read it twice.

Mishima: “Because a virgin ceases to be a virgin once she is assaulted, impossibility of attainment is a necessary premise for putting virginity beyond agnosticism. And does not impossibility of attainment put eroticism and death at the same point?” As is often the case, I don’t follow Mishima’s logic, and also don’t share his feeling while reading House of being on a submarine using up its oxygen in reading the novella.”


©2016, Stephen O. Murray