Tag Archives: Ôshima

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

 

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Oshima’s last film, “Gohatto”/”Taboo”

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I found what turned out to be the last film directed (form a wheelchair, following his first stroke) by Ôshima Nagasi,Gohatto””Taboo” (1999) too long (100 minutes) and/or too slow. Particularly annoying are the inter-titles, which mostly state the obvious, though some signal how much time passes before the next scene. I guess the most defensible of the inter-titles is the series that lays out the samurai code. The samurai code did not prohibit passionate same-sex love. Only someone unable to read the inter-titles (in Japanese or in English) and completely unfamiliar with the history of wakashû-dô—the Tao of loving boys, could think that “homosexuality” was tabooed….

“Gohatto” begins very near the end of the Tokugawa era, in 1865. In the ancient Nishi-Honganji temple, those seeking admission to the Shinsengumi militia are being screened. Only two are accepted: a swaggering hirsute Tashiro Hyozo (Asano Yadanobu) and Kano Sozanburo (Ryûhei Matsuda), a tall, smooth-skinned beauty from a rich family. Given the looseness of the costumes and probably too much background of gender-bending Japanese and Chinese films (Twilight, The East Is Red, etc.), I wondered if the beautiful youth was being played by a female (an exceptionally tall one!). He was not.

Kano’s face may look effeminate, but he is an expert swordsman and more than ready to kill. He gets his first chance immediately, being ordered to behead a samurai who has broken the code. The captains of the militia want to test him, and he passes the test impassively. Indeed, everything he and every other samurai does in the film, they do impassively. There are passionate words, but rarely even a flicker of facial indication of feeling. Except for Mifune Toshiro occasionally looking sardonic, this impassivity in killing, in being killed, in bowing, and in being bowed to is true of the whole library of samurai films.

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The beautiful young (bishonen) samurai desired by many, even those not heretofore drawn to that way (tao), mostly dodges the lusts he inspires, In the one sex scene is impassive as a not-at-all-attractive samurai takes him from behind. As in erotic Japanese woodblocks neither is naked. Especially for Oshima, there is very little sex. Blood splatters, so the movie might have some attraction for an American audience.

The wakashû is fairly sinister: when asked why the son of a rich family wants to be in the militia, he answers: “to have the right to kill.” And though he expects to be the object of desire, he is not a devotee to nanshuko-do. The extent to which beauties are responsible for the excessive reactions to them is an interesting one that I will not attempt to answer here. Nor will I attempt to adjudicate whether the havoc is wreaked by Kano, by his suitors, or by favoritism across ranks.

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The film and even its ending seem to be opaque to many viewers. The audience in which I saw the film seemed surprised by the casual acceptance (by non-samurais as well as by samurais) of boy-love and unable to “read” the ending. I think that all the cultural knowledge that is necessary to interpret the visually striking final scene is that the cherry blossom is a recurrent metaphor for the inevitably brief charm of beautiful boys. (At age 18, the forelocks should be shaved off, marking the extinction of boyish attractiveness of a junior samurai. Kano resists this rite of passage, as he dodges other attempts by Captain Hijikata to defuse his specialness.)

Oshima specialized in aestheticized representation of highly charged desires. “Gohatto” is often visually striking, especially in the final scene and in the prostitute sashaying to her appointment, but presumes a familiarity with a vanished society that even many Japanese lack. The least medieval character is Captain Hijikata (the top-billed actor/director/painter Takeshi “Beat” Kitano). The basis of his special interest in Cadet Kano remains open to multiple interpretations.

The movie was a coproduction between Shôchiku, where ˆÔshima got his start as an assistant director and then director, and the French Canal+. All four of his last four feature films were French coproductions. The costume design was by Wada Emi, who had worked with Kurosawa on “Ran” and “Dreams” and would later work with Zhang Yimou on “Hero” and “House of Flying Daggers.” The music was by Ryûichi Sakamoto, who did not act in the film, as he had in “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence.” Ôshima adapted two novellas by Shiba Ryôtarô.

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

 

A waned Japanese New Wave washes up the Seine

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I see some continuity between the homoerotic obsessions in “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence” (1983) and “Gohatto” (1999), although there was years between their making a major stroke (the first of many). And there was also another feature film in between, “Max, Mon Amour” (1986) filmed in French and English in Paris. It has an obsession that seems more one of affect than of sexuality, one that is heterosexual, but inter-species.

The cool, elegant Charlotte Rampling plays Margaret, the wife of a British diplomat, Peter Hones, played by a fairly cool and chic Anthony Higgins. The couple has a winsome, blond son, Nelson (Christopher Hovik). Peter wants to know who his wife goes to meet every afternoon except Sunday.

The detective he hires (director Pierre Étaix) reports the location of an apartment she rents, but from which no one other than Margaret emerges. Peter has a key made, and discovers that Margaret is visiting (and keeping) a chimpanzee named Max.

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Peter tries to accommodate that his wife is in love with a chimpanzee. Their son Nelson has less (well, no) problem with that. Other than flickers of jealousy and Peter picking up a prostitute to try to mate with Max, the movie seems like it could have been a Disney product. It is far more difficult to get the mind around this being a movie by the auteur of “In the Realm of the Senses,” etc. That extreme display of eroticism, and “Empire of Passion” were partly French co-productions, and the similarities of early Japanese New Wave and French New Wave are undeniable (though how much Ôshima was influenced by Godard, how much he was independently doing some of the same things and the same time during the early 1960s is unclear). For “Max,” Ôshima had the cinematographer of early Godard movies (not least, “Breathless”), Raoul Coutard, though there are no jump cuts, and the look of a haute bourgeois apartment is pre-New Wave.

That the screenplay was co-written by Jean-Claude Carriere, who frequently collaborated with Luis Bunuel made some people liken “Max” to satires such as “The Discreet Charms of the Bourgeoisie,” though I don’t see it. Maybe the fatuous psychiatrist?

The charming pet and boy (even if the primary relationship is the boy’s mother and the abimal) story, especially the second return of Max, has the look and feel of a Disney movie of the early 1960s. IMHO Ôshima frequently lost sight of the point of his films. A fable needs a point, and an Ôshima film needs more than tolerance for the unusual.

The DVD had no bonus features, not even a trailer.

 

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

Oshima’s “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence”

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South African-born (Afrikaner) Sir Laurens Van der Post (1906-1996) was a British Army officer who surrendered to Japanese forces on Java in April of 1942 and was imprisoned at Bandung. He later wrote three books about his prison experience — A Bar of Shadow (1954), The Seed and the Sower (1963) and The Night of the New Moon (1970). — and another on the two years following Japanese surrender during with the Dutch attempted to re-establish their colony in the East Indies before an independence struggle forced them to leave.

The kinky (In the Realm of the Senses, Empire of Passion) Japanese director Ôshima Nagasi (1932-) adapted The Seed and the Sower (1963) into “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence,” a movie mostly in English and mostly focusing on the Anglophone (British, Australian, New Zealander, and a traumatized Dutch soldier) suffering under the rule of an arbitrary, sometimes sadistic sergeant (Kitano Takeshi  in the first role in which he was seen outside Japan) who pays some heed to a bilingual (Japanese-English) physician, Col. Lawrence (Scottish actor Tom Conti), who is the sanest man around (echoing the physician in “Bridge on the River Kwai”).

The camp is commanded by a young, very elegant and very authoritarian Captain Yonoi (played by Japanese composer and singer Sakamoto Ryûichi , who also wrote the synthesizer-heavy soundtrack for the movie). Capt. Yonoi has nothing but contempt—well, some frustration mixed with contempt for the stubborn prison leader, Group Captain Hicksley (Jack Thompson), who is as obdurate but less elegant and personally brave than Alec Guiness’s commander in “Bridge on the River Kwai”. (Both were stuffed with racist views, but Hicksley is considerably more cloddish.)

Lawrence knows enough about Japanese culture to know the contempt the Japanese soldiers hold for anyone who would surrender, and, unlike Hicksley, knows that Japan was not a signatory of the Geneva Conventions either for the treatment of prisoners or war or against torture. The mysterious new prisoner, Jack Celliers. (David Bowie) intrigues Capt. Yonoi (and Col. Lawrence, who knew him when both were in North Africa). Playing another man who fell to earth, Celliers is a South African paratrooper who was dropped behind Japanese lines to sabotage things. He surrendered to save a Javanese village from being slaughtered, and was set to be executed as a criminal rather than a soldier.

Capt. Yonoi is one of the three judges on the tribunal and makes the case that Celliers is a soldier and should, therefore, be incarcerated with POWS… under Yonoi’s command. There is something erotic but suppressed in Yonoi’s interest in Celliers, as Lawrence does not fail to note. Yonoi’s adjutant considers Celliers an evil spirit and attempts to kill him.

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Celliers gets a variant on the punishment Col. Nicholson received after maddening the Japanese commander of the Kwai camp. Not least in being ultra-blond, Bowie’s Celliers also recalls the masochistic component of Peter O’Toole’s Lawrence of Arabia, while the acquiescence in being sodomized by the enemy (a Korean guard rather than a commander such as José Ferrer Ottomoan officer) is farmed off to the Dutchman (Alistair Browning) in the opening sequence.

“Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence” is unlike the Lean epics “Bridge on the River Kwai” and “Lawrence of Arabia” lacks explosions or other sorts of action scenes… and the American’s romance and derring-do grafted onto “Kwai” for William Holden; Celliers was leading native rebels, but this was before the start of the movie and is entirely offscreen. But like T. E. Lawrence, Celliers cares about the natives (there Arab, here Javanese) and is unconventional if not openly suspicious about His Majesty’s Army’s ambiguous colonizer role in a struggle against one colonizer (Japan_.

I skipped over the first botched seppuku (hara-kiri) by the Korean guard caught in flagrante delicto. There are two more, none of which goes smoothly (I think the blades are thrust in too deeply, so that the body pitches forward, interfering with the clean sword thrust of decapitation). Interracial sex, contempt for it, and ritual suicide all pop up at the start, though the movie is told from the point of view of Col. Lawrence, who attempts to avert disaster both for the Japanese he somewhat likes and respects and for the terminally stubborn Hicksley and Celliers.

A lot of Ôshima movies end with cutting (Gohatto/Taboo, In the Realm of the Senses), and so does this one, though there is a regret-expressing humanist epilogue.

Ôshima set up many shots Ozu-style and there was little camera movement, though there were more close-ups than there would be in an Ozu movie. There are surrealist sequences, reminding the viewer that this is an Ôshima movie. I think the movie drags in a lengthy colloquy between Celliers and Lawrence when they are caged together and Celliers drifts back to a lengthy guilty memory of failing his younger brother.

The Japanese director provides practically no back-story for the Japanese characters, but an elaborate one for Celliers. (We do learn that Yonoi was a supporter of the ultranationalist 26 February 1936 failed coup, but survived its suppression because he was away from Tokyo.)

Though eroticized violence is leitmotif in Oshim’s oeuvre (along with recurrent focus on the mistreatment of Koreans in Japan (Three Resurrected Drunkards, Death by Hanging), and as a lower caste in the Imperial Army in this movie), neither war nor intercultural misunderstanding is. A Japanese director taking an English memoir of captivity by the Japanese during WWII is at least as surprising, and perhaps a bit more than Clint Eastwood making “Letters from Iwo Jima” (distinct from “Flag of Our Fathers,” but still a look at the other side in a battle that provided the iconic image of the US Marines.

The pop singers, David Bowie (1947-2016) and Sakamoto Ryûichi (1952-), both look their parts as elegant loners and play their complicated roles as antagonists with great aplomb (with Sakamoto doing all the visible longing and frustrated erotic aching). Tom Conti (1941-) and Takeshi Kitano (1947-, who was billed simply as “Takeshi”) have less rigid honor-code-dictated roles and greater emotional ranges. Bowie sings “Rock of Ages” off-key and regrets that he cannot sing (which leads the troops to sing the 23rd Psalm). Sakamoto practices kendo and makes no music within the movie, though supplying an interesting soundtrack for it.

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(Kitano and Conti)

BTW, the camp filled with scrawny white people playing POWs was filmed on Rarotonga, not on Java, and  the city (Batavia then, Jakarta now) scenes were shot on New Zealand.

The movie received the full-scale Criterion treatment, with a fine video and audio transfer and a second disc of special features, including the original 4-minute theatrical trailer, a 28-miunte one of co-scenarist (Paul Mayersberg, who also wrote the other great Bowie movie, “The Man Who Fell to Earth” for Nicholas Roeg) 40 minutes of reminiscences about the shooting by Tom Conti, Sakamoto Ryûichi —who also scored ˆÔshima’s last film “Gohatto”and picked up an Oscar for the score of Bertolucci’s “The Last Emperor” in which he also appeared onscreen —,and producer Jeremy Thomas (but not Bowie), 18 minutes by Ryûichi on the soundtrack, a 1995 documentary about van der Post (godfather to Prince William, btw) and a 29-minute 1983 making-of featurette.

 

© 2016, Stephen O. Murray

Oshima’s “Empire of Passion”

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French-produced, as “In the Realm of the Senses” (Ai no bôrei) had been, the 1978 “Empire of the Passions” is the second panel of a diptych, without the graphic sex. There are still many sex scenes, but no genitalia or pubic hair is on display. Fuji Tatsuya’s character, Toyoji, shaves the pubus of Seki (Yoshiyuki Kazuko), but the scene is shot discreetly.

“Empire” is set in 1895 in a village rather than in the Tokyo pleasure district in 1936—after one war (Sino-Japanese) in contrast to at the start of another (the annexation of Manchuria, leading on to WWII; the backdrop for “In the Realm of the Senses”). There are many scenic shots of rain, fog, autumn leaves rather than ornate inns. And, whereas the woman soon becomes the sexual aggressor in “Realm,” Toyoji rapes a quite unwilling Seki in “Empire,” though she eventually responds and develops a sexual passion for her husband’s murderer. Though she eventually confesses to guilt for the murder (after both are tortured, hanging on the same oak branch), he did it without her participation.

As in James Cain novels (The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity) the newer, younger couple does not get away with murder. With the aforementioned police torture supplementing local gossip, Seki and Toyoji are executed (off camera, mentioned in the final voiceover). Aside from being shot in color, “Empire” is not a noir because it is a ghost story (even if ghosts are created by feelings of guilt). I think both movies move too slowly/ are too long.

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Between watching the two, I watched a recent interview of Fuji in which he reported that he was fasting during the shooting of “Realm” and lost ten kg of weight. He looks tired and haggard by the end, when he assents to being strangled. Fuji was and is cheerful, and more genial than driven. It is the women who seem driven and obsessive in both movies.

I can’t say that I understand what is Marcusean about Ôshima’s movies. In a 20-minute essay primarily on “Realm,” Catherine Russell says Ôshima said he was following Marcuse’s analysis of repression (and repressive desublimation à deux?)

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

Oshima’s notoriously graphic “In the Realm of the Senses”

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I knew where Ôshima’s notorious “In the Realm of the Senses” (Ai no korîda, 1976) was going long before starting to watch it.  After years of avoiding watching it, I buckled up my seatbelt and screened it. I found it excruciatingly slow and just plain excruciating. Not arousing at all, though it ignored the Japanese ban, even in pinku eiga/ poronographic films, on showing pubic hair, not to mention erect penises; there was also a dildo unmistakable shown penetrating another woman (a geisha being initiated by geishas). The movie has never been publicly shown in Japan even forty years after it was made. (The film stock could not even be processed in Japan and Ôshima was prosecuted, though acquitted, of obscenity.)

Some of the woman-riding-the-man scenes must have involved a prosthesis. Though Fuji Tatsuya’s member is not small, it is not big enough to be visible in some of the shots of intercourse with Matsuda Eiko. Oddly, to me it looked circumcised.

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I don’t know that Ôshima intended a cautionary tale about s&m getting more and more extreme. That in the movie may be consensual, but is definitely not safe or sane. Rather, it is desperate and compulsive and surely must disgust males, however voyeuristic (maybe not all females).

 One might ask if Kichi is any more self-destructive than the nation, ca. 1936, and the soldiers he meets marching in one scene. The kamikaze pilots and soldiers determined not to surrender also consented to their annihilation, I guess.

Donald Richie, ca. 2006, wrote: ‘It is this insistence upon alienation that makes In the Realm of the Senses one of the least sexually exciting of sexually explicit films. The couple does not, despite the frequency of their couplings, intend to inflame their audience. It is their political predicament that Ôshima wishes to portray. Sada and Kichizo may have found their sexual identity, but they are alienated from their society. They find security only at an inn where they are not known; he does no work at all, she “works” only just enough to keep them alive. They are indeed antisocial and engage in antisocial acts.’

 Richie also reported that the real Sada and Kichizo were together only for six days; Ôshima lengthened that time period to six months.

 

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

Oshima’s “Ceremony”

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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.

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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