Cage fight: Oshima pushes social boundaries in Cruel Story of Youth.

Social Fury 'In the Realm of Oshima' at PFA

Matt Sussman June 11, 2009

"Banish Green!" That was the self-imposed restraint director Nagisa Oshima put on himself when making his first color film (and second feature) Cruel Story of Youth (1960). Green, as Oshima goes on to explain in an essay recounting his decision, was the color he most associated with the symbolic center of Japanese domestic life: the tatami mat-lined living room, usually adjacent to a small, cloistered garden. This room had been long occupied by a previous generation of Japanese filmmakers such as Yasujiro Ozu (whose "pillow shots" couldn’t be greener) and Kenji Mizoguchi. For Oshima, it was a cage. "Characters, rooms, gardens were all utterly repellant," he writes, "and I firmly believed that unless the dark sensibility that those things engendered [was] completely destroyed, nothing new would come into being in Japan."

Oshima’s fervent, restless need to negate what he saw as an ossified social order — one that could only be undone by continuously pushing filmmaking into new radical areas of form and content — would become the defining characteristic of a four-decade-long career that has rarely displayed the stylistic cohesion often attributed to auteurs. And yet, In the Realm of Oshima, the massive, James Quandt-organized Oshima retrospective that starts in on its second week at the Pacific Film Archive, leaves no doubt that the now 77-year old director has made the title entirely his own.

The term "auteur" itself harkens back to an older age of film criticism and reception in which the medium was treated with a greater reverence and, arguably, thought to be of greater consequence. As Dennis Lim mentioned in his recent New York Times appraisal of In the Realm..., in the ’60s and ’70s Oshima was often discussed in the same impassioned breath as Godard and Resnais and given the title "the godfather of the Japanese New Wave." (Oshima would later counter, saucily, that Mr. Godard should be known as the Oshima of France). Unfortunately, Oshima’s reputation and stature among a certain generation of cinephiles has often dwarfed the unavailability in this country of all but a handful of his films — a shortcoming that this historic retrospective urgently redresses.

Like his French counterpart, Oshima’s output grazed on familiar genres, such as the youth-gone-wild and domestic drama, while freely incorporating elements from avant-garde and documentary filmmaking. Though his films are often stylistically at odds with each other (the frequently cited example is Violence at Noon’s over 2,000 edits compared to Night and Fog in Japan’s fewer than 50) and play fast-and-loose with narrative structure, time frames and mise-en-scene, Oshima’s overriding concern can be summed up in the title of Jim Jarmusch’s latest: the limits of control. His protagonists are often those who haunt the edges of the social order — criminals, sexual outlaws, political dissidents and the marginalized — and who like the director himself, seek to define themselves through their infractions against it. (Oshima went so far to say that, "to make films is a criminal act in this world").

What Oshima referred to as the necessity of "constant self-negation and transformation [...] to continue to confront circumstances as a filmmaker," largely came out of his hands-on political education. Having grown up steeped in his government official father’s extensive library of Communist and Socialist texts, Oshima came of age as a filmmaker during one of the most turbulent times in Japan’s history. His first three films — A Town of Love and Hope, Cruel Story of Youth and The Sun’s Burial, collectively known as his "youth trilogy" — were made between 1959-60, the same years that the U.S.-Japan security pact was renewed amidst much protest from the left.

Oshima and many of his peers saw the Japanese Communist Party’s eventual denunciation of student-led movements as "radical fringe groups" as nothing short of a betrayal of ideals, and the fall-out from the left wing’s failure would continue to preoccupy him as a filmmaker. Addressed most didactically in the Brechtian Night and Fog in Japan (1960) — which uses the debates that break out at a wedding of two Communist Party members to take the Old Left to task — Oshima’s long post-mortem would eventually turn to investigating the psycho-sexual ticks of the youth culture that flourished in the wake of his generation’s political disillusionment, as he did in Three Resurrected Drunkards (1968) and A Treatise on Japanese Bawdy Song (1967).

This late ’60s period marked an extraordinary creative streak for Oshima, and saw him direct two of his most politically damning and formally bold films. Death by Hanging (1968)—an excoriating critique of Japan’s colonial legacy in Korea and capital punishment based on news story of a Korean boy accused of raping and killing a Japanese woman— and The Ceremony (1971)—a brilliant condensation of the history of postwar Japanese society through the lens of the Sakurada clan, as they cycle through an increasingly hellish progression of funeral, wedding and Buddhist ceremonies.

Fittingly, the series comes to a close with the film from which it takes its title: In the Realm of the Senses (1976). Realm is arguably Oshima’s most extreme film and one that marked a radical departure for Oshima in many ways. Since Realm was a French co-production, Oshima could carry out his goal to film "sexual expression carried to its logical extreme" (the explicit depiction of sex acts resulted in the film being banned in Japan for many years). Although it was Oshima’s largest commercial success, Realm’s Sadean protagonists, Sada and Kichi, are perhaps the most terrifyingly literal embodiment of Oshima’s quest for "constant self negation." Cloistering themselves from the outside world to literally screw each other to death, Oshima’s doomed lovers represent the next logical, inward turn of the revolutionary impulse he had seen fail to materialize on the political stage.

In the Realm of Oshina arrives at a time when the "pillow shot" seems to be having its moment among directors working at the vanguard of contemporary Japanese film. The two Japanese films to garner critical praise this past festival season —Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Tokyo Sonata and Hirokazu Kore-eda ‘s Still Walking —were both family dramas, which while finely attuned to the stressors affecting their respective post-Bubble clans, were far from the trenchant, formalist critiques thrown down by The Ceremony or Boy (1969). Even Takashi Miike’s Visitor Q (2001), for all its comic-grotesque scenes of incest and necrophilia, was fundamentally about the preservation of the family unit. In light of these films, the realm of Oshima is both a relic of an earlier era of revolutionary filmmaking and reception that is perhaps no longer possible, and an inspiration to avoid complacency and discard well-worn creative safety nets. As Oshima himself cautioned in a 1962 essay: "Reality is always changing. [...] Thus, the filmmaker who is unable to grasp it immediately ceases being a filmmaker and degenerates into a mere crafter of images."