Tag Archives: Koreans

Retrospect of Ôshima Nagasi films

 

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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 “Death by Hanging”

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“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.

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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.)

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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

 

 

 

Oshima’s “The Sun’s Burial”

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Ôshima’s 1960 “Taiyô no hakaba” (The Sun’s Burial, Tomb of the Sun) is a sort of sequel that ups the ante of alienation and violence from “Cruel Story of Youth”/”Naked Youth.” (also shot by Kawamata Takashi, though less elegantly).

A hooker by night, during the day Hanako (Kayoko Honoo) is involved in an illegal blood bank, luring in (mostly Korean) dockworkers to supply what sure looks like ketchup to me. As a prostitute, she works for the established Osaka crime syndicate headed by Ohama (Shimizu Gen), while the blood racket is a collaborative venture with the younger upstart would-be gang lord Shin (Tsugawa Masahiko). Shin is constantly changing hiding places to evade Ohama’s punishment.

sunsburial.jpgAgitator (Ozawa Eitarô) is constantly raising the spectre of a Soviet invasion of Japan. In one of the bizarre scenes in a movie filled with doom and gloom, Hanako asks him if there will be slums in the new world of restored Japanese imperial glory. She does not get a clear answer, though the whole movie indicates that nothing is going to get better in the Hobbesian world of the setting sun.

A bigger mystery is why Shin tolerates violations of the yakuza code from a reluctant new recruit, Takeshi (Sasaki Isao), whereas his friend Wasu (Kawazu Iusuke, the baddest boy of “Cruel Story of Youth” unable to hold his own in the rough slum company here) is beaten up with increasing severity.

I have to say that the fights and beatings are very hokey/unbelievable. The grunge of lower-depths wardrobe is also, though some have claimed that “Burial” has a quasi-documentary look.

Aside from the unrelenting ugliness (look and action) of the movie, the profusion of characters makes the storyline difficult to follow (the theme that life is nasty, brutish, and short is clear enough). Ôshima’s fascination with downtrodden Koreans in Japan was already evident in his third movie, as rape was in his second.

©2016, Stephen O. Murray