townA Town of Love and Hope, 1959. A somber and unassuming adolescent named Masao (Hiroshi Fujikawa), still dressed in his school uniform, pensively sits on the sidewalk of a high-traffic metropolitan park watching over a ventilated wooden crate. An affable, wealthy young woman named Yoko Kuhara (Yuki Tominaga), the daughter of a company director at Koyo Electric, curiously peeks inside to discover the two pigeons that the boy has put up for sale. Touched by the reticent Masao’s desperate circumstances that led him to sacrifice ownership of his pets, she offers to pay full price for the birds. Humbled by her generosity, but too proud to accept charity, he is adamant about returning her change by inserting the money inside the coop – an act of integrity that further captivates the well-intentioned Yoko. However, Masao’s noble display of honesty proves to be tenuous when he explains to his younger sister, Yasue (Michio Ito) that the birds are away visiting their sick mother and will return home in a few days. A subsequent conversation with his ailing mother, Kuniko (Yûko Mochizuki), reveals his guilt at having to repeatedly sell the homing pigeons to make ends meet, knowing they will eventually return.

One day, Masao’s teacher Miss Akiyama (Kakuko Chino) sets free a stray white pigeon that has wandered into the classroom, and tacitly explains to him that she is reluctant to have pets in the classroom because some of the children cannot afford them. Masao attempts to her alleviate her concerns over his family’s financial straits by boasting that he also owns birds, a claim that he later reluctantly acknowledges is a fabrication when Yoko coincidentally encounters them on a street and inquires if a pigeon that had escaped from the Kuhara residence had returned to his home instead. The fateful meeting would prove to be a turning point in Masao’s life, as Yoko and Miss Akiyama, equally concerned with the limited opportunities that are available to the diligent and responsible young man after graduation, attempt to secure an entry level position for him at Koyo Electric.

Nagisa Oshima presents a searing and provocative examination of the socially enabled, self-perpetuating interrelation between poverty and crime in A Town of Love and Hope. As a novice filmmaker, Oshima worked with members of the cast and crew of veteran director, Keisuke Kinoshita, whose 1950s sentimental “women’s” pictures for Shochiku’s Ofuna Studio embodied the Ofuna flavor, which Audie Bock describes as “subscribing to myths of human goodness, romantic love, and maternal righteousness” in Japanese Film Directors. However, Oshima would subvert the familiar elements of the Ofuna melodrama (ushering an artistic direction that encouraged non-traditonal creativity and experimentation that would define the Ofuna new wave) with dispassionate and muted expression (particularly evident in Masao and Yasuo’s seeming emotional detachment) and character framing in predominantly medium and long shots that create a sense of distance and objectivity. It is interesting to note that Yasue’s morbid obsession with dead animals (a childhood trauma similarly portrayed in Rene Clement’s Forbidden Games) bears an imprint of what would become a recurring element in Oshima’s films: a repressed, deeply rooted psychological aberration that manifests in incomprehensible, often destructive behavior (most notably in Violence at Noon, In the Realm of the Senses, and even in later films such as Gohatto). By paralleling the predictably repetitive, instinctual behavior of the homing pigeons with Masao’s patternistic, morally reprehensible sale of the birds, the film serves as a harsh and unsentimental realist document on the disparity of social class and inescapability of poverty.

nightfog_japanNight and Fog in Japan, 1960. Named after Alain Resnais’ essay film on the abandoned landscapes of postwar Auschwitz that bear silent witness to the tragedy of the Holocaust, Night and Fog in Japan, Nagisa Oshima’s fictional deconstruction of the left movement in the aftermath of the ratification of the second U.S.-Japan Security Treaty (ANPO) in 1960 is also a caustic and pointed cultural interrogation into personal and collective accountability that, as implied by Resnais’ film, have been (consciously) obscured by the fog of guilt and memory. The marriage of two Zengakuren members sets the symbolic stage for Oshima’s critical inquiry into the collective failure of the Japanese Left: former activist turned field reporter, Nozawa (Kenzo Kawarazaki), a member of the student movement during the collapsed opposition to the first Anpo treaty in 1950 who now covers the continued political struggle of a new generation of young radicals for the local newspaper (a gesture that he believes demonstrates his continued solidarity with the movement), and the younger Reiko (Miyuki Kuwano), a student protestor who had been injured during recent demonstrations opposing the treaty’s extension. As in Oshima’s subsequent film, The Ceremony, the empty performance of the traditional wedding ceremony becomes a reflection of dysfunctional, antiquated social rituals, cultural displacement, and impotence.

Implicit in Oshima’s indictment is the entrenchment of American imperialism into contemporary Japanese culture – an inculcation that had been fostered during postwar occupation and continued to shape the country’s process of political self-determination on its road towards international re-emergence – and with its exerted influence, the formation of a key ideological alliance, not only against socialism, but also towards enabling the U.S. government’s policy of containment (particularly in Asia) during the early stages of the Cold War. Structured in a series of flashbacks as a pair of wedding crashers (and fellow Zengakuren members hiding from the police) confront the guests, some now prominent members of the Communist party, on their culpability over the nebulous circumstances surrounding the fates of two fellow activists – Nozawa’s comrade, Takao (Sakonji Hiroshi), and Reiko’s friend, Kitami (Ajioka Toru) – the film is also an examination into the factionalism, internal power struggles, and petty self-interests that sabotaged the left movement. Revisiting the botched imprisonment of a presumed spy from the group’s student headquarters a decade earlier (an unproven allegation perpetuated by the group’s authoritarian leader, Nakayama (Yoshizawa Takao) despite the membership’s increasing, though unarticulated, skepticism) that lead to Takao’s scapegoating, Oshima not only illustrates the personal (and implicitly selfish) issues that undermined the movement’s effectiveness in promoting a collective agenda (most notably, in Nozawa and Nakayama’s ongoing rivalry for the affections of fellow student activist Misako (Akiko Koyama)), but also exposes its underlying repressive, totalitarian culture that mirrored the heavy-handed government of Stalinist-era communism in the Soviet Union – a tendency towards paranoid suspicions and intolerance for dissent that contributed to its self-inflicted public disfavor and political marginalization. Similarly, the subsequent disappearance of Kitami from a hospital during a violent government crackdown on demonstrators protesting the 1960 Anpo treaty extension (a watershed incident for the radical left that also fatefully brought Nozawa and Reiko together) reveals the younger generation’s increasing disenchantment with the inflexible, out-of-touch Zengakuren leadership that had resulted in the group’s disorganization and irrelevance at a critical stage when the credibility (and sustainability) of the left movement in the shaping of the Japanese political landscape was at stake. By framing the group’s moral dissolution within the context of embittered, unrequited love and consuming self-distractions, Oshima creates an incisive metaphor for the failure of the left movement as an ill-fated love affair – a displacement of unrealized desire and resigned acceptance of convenient, if compromised, ideals.

cruel_storyCruel Story of Youth, 1960. In the film’s chaotically fragmented and disorienting opening sequence, an over-animated, carefree adolescent student named Makoto (Kuwano Miyuki) recklessly runs up alongside a series of randomly selected vehicles caught in traffic and uses her disarming joviality to engage the unsuspecting driver into a polite, subtly flirtatious conversation before to attempting to ingratiate herself into obtaining a free ride home. However, as the anonymous driver soon diverts his automobile from the familiar main roads and onto the obscured, seedier alleys leading to the tawdrily ornamented love motels of the city’s pleasure quarters, complacency turns to anxiety as the instinctually sobered Makoto demands the driver to pull over the side of the road and hurriedly begins to walk away before being captured and overpowered by her unrelenting aggressor. A passerby dressed in a student uniform named Kiyoshi (Kawazu Yusuke) witnesses the violent encounter and immediately comes to the aid of the young woman. Having beaten and effectively subdued the middle-aged driver, Kiyoshi begins to coerce the humiliated offender into accompanying him to the police station in order to report the crime. In a desperate bid to stave off public embarrassment and avoid certain prosecution, the man attempts to buy Makoto and Kiyoshi’s silence with a handful of money, a momentary diversion that allows him to wrest free from Kiyoshi and escape. But Makoto’s circumstances would prove to be equally vulnerable as her rescuer now exploits the opportunity to violate the young woman (in a dysfunctional interrelationship that would be similarly revisited in Oshima’s subsequent film, Violence at Noon). Traumatized by the incident and conflicted about Kiyoshi’s subsequent behavior, Makoto becomes convinced that she has fallen in love with her savior and, following a disapproving lecture by her sister Yuki (Yoshiko Kuga), impulsively decides to move in with the penniless student whose circumstances, unbeknownst to the naïve young woman, includes receiving continued financial support in exchange for sexual services from a wealthy, older woman and renting his room out to friends for their occasional afternoon trysts. Estranged from the watchful gaze of her concerned and protective – but enabling – family, Makoto soon discovers that liberation, too, has a cost as Kiyoshi, emboldened by the unexpected financial windfall resulting from the driver’s guilt-ridden attempt to buy off his transgression, decides to turn the fateful incident into a profitable scam by reenacting the scenario with other seemingly well-to-do businessmen (with Kiyoshi opportunely following behind on a borrowed motorcycle) as the lovers’ lead a life of desperate, thrill seeking abandon.

Deeply rooted in the dynamic sociopolitical climate of post-occupation Japanese society, Cruel Story of Youth is a stylistically bold, incisive, and provocative examination of hopelessness, victimization, apathy, exploitation, and cultural alienation. From the early image of an international newsreel footage illustrating the April 19, 1960 student uprising in Korea (a contemporary reference and specificity that is also suggested in the newsprint background of the jarring, red painted title sequence) that segues to a shot of the young lovers as literal bystanders at a protest march against the U.S.-Japan Security Pact, Nagisa Oshima draws, not only an implicit contrast between the idealism and impassioned activism of the student protestors and the nihilism and self-gratification of the aimless lovers, but also reflects on the ambivalent (and increasingly invasive) role of the U.S. in Japan’s road to post-occupation self-government. It is interesting to note that the committed (albeit perhaps naïve) ideology and sense of purpose embodied by the student activists is also hinted through the shared history of Makoto’s sensible and emotionally hardened sister Yuki and her former suitor Akimoto (Fumio Watanabe) – now a struggling (and equally disillusioned) physician who subsidizes his income by performing abortions – that serves as a representation of Oshima’s own generation. Oshima further illustrates the film’s underlying theme of cultural rootlessness through recurring episodes of Makoto’s hitchhiking requests to be driven home (a seemingly elusive destination that invariably ends up in dark, dead-end alleys), the couple’s own absence of generational families (perhaps, from self-imposed exile), and the rotating series of couples who rent Kiyoshi’s room for their indiscreet liaisons that constantly flout the bounds of private home and public space. (Note the indelible image of an eerily tranquil and disconnected, almost surreal floating log “world” as a brash Kiyoshi violates Makoto, visually reflecting her profound isolation and emotional ambivalence towards Kiyoshi’s betrayal). In the end, it is through this collective sentiment of failed idealism, transience, and profound disconnection that Akimoto’s illicit, opportunistic, and reprehensible occupation can be seen, not only as a societal symptom of a lost generation’s aimlessness and moral bankruptcy (and lost innocence), but also as the metaphoric desire of a wounded national psyche to erase the unwanted legacy of a forced, and violative, union: to regain sovereign pride and self-determination after a protracted history of a seemingly benevolent – but ultimately embittering and culturally traumatic – imposed external will.

sunsburialThe Sun’s Burial, 1960. In the slums of postwar Osaka, the prospects for economic revitalization prove bleak, and the disenfranchised find themselves eking out an existence through any available means. A band of delinquents led by a resourceful prostitute named Hanako (Kayoko Honoo) approaches desperate shipyard workers eager to earn extra income by selling blood once a week to an unscrupulous doctor who then sells the blood to cosmetic companies in the black market. The petty scheme captures the interest of a lazy itinerant known as the Agitator (Eitaro Ozawa), who proceeds to lure the doctor away from Hanako with promises of a higher cut in profits. A military extremist, the Agitator is stockpiling an arsenal under the delusion that World War III is inevitable, and that he can profit from the sale of arms and make a positive contribution to the restoration of the Empire. Forced out of the organization, Hanako turns her fickle allegiance to Shin (Masahiko Tsugawa), a rival gangleader of a theft and prostitution ring. Shin orders the destruction of the Agitator’s makeshift blood collection clinic, and establishes his own blood peddling racket by recruiting an amoral doctor (Kei Sato) at a nightclub by providing sexual favors. Shin also recruits an impressionable drifter named Takeshi (Isao Sasaki), who immediately earns his trust through the young man’s underlying sense of decency and unshakable allegiance. However, when Takeshi becomes a reluctant accomplice to a rape and assault, he is forced to choose between an uncertain future or a betrayal of his conscience.

The film is a mesmerizing, frenetic, and profoundly disturbing portrait of Japan’s lost, postwar generation. Using fragmented narrative, an ensemble cast of characters, and frequent camera movement, Nagisa Oshima reflects the pervasive sense of nihilism and chaos in the aftermath of war. Visually, Oshima depicts Japan’s loss of national, cultural, and spiritual identity by juxtaposing a lurid color palette against the modern, highly westernized setting of Osaka slums and the red-light district. In essence, the saturation of colors, stifling heat, and repeated shots of the sun on the horizon serve as a visual perversion of the idealized image of old Japan – the land of the rising sun – symbolically embodied by the red sun against a white background of the national flag. The Sun’s Burial is a relevant examination of hopelessness and moral decay – an elegy for the obsolescence of cultural heritage in a modern, and increasingly materialistic world – a provocative indictment of the systematic self-destruction of a national soul.

ceremonyThe Ceremony, 1971. In its idiosyncratically alchemic fusion of bituminous humor, fractured narrative logic, bracing social interrogation, and sublimated depictions of perverted sexuality, The Ceremony is a provocative and excoriating satire on the amorphous nature of modern Japanese identity that could only have been forged in the wake of Nagisa Oshima’s increasing disillusionment with the impotence of the left movement: a cultural inertia enabled by the fateful personal and historical intersection of the once radicalized postwar generation’s inevitable maturation, indirection, and complacency – if not collective amnesia – over the nation’s dramatic transformation, public rehabilitation, and international re-emergence as an economic (and consequently, political) world power. This sentiment of frustrated destiny and ambivalent sense of place in a rapidly altering, yet culturally entrenched social landscape is embodied in the somber, world-weary gaze of Masuo (Kenzo Kawarazaki), a Manchurian postwar repatriate (whose translated name, “Man from Manchuria”, is a perpetual reminder of his alterity) and sole remaining legitimate heir to the powerful and highly influential Sakurada clan – a burden of responsibility that is reinforced in the family patriarch, Kazuomi’s (Kei Sato) seemingly paradoxical advice to a young Masuo to lead two lives upon learning of his brother’s death during the family’s flight from the Russians in Manchuria. Unfolding as a series of flashbacks that trace the evolution of the family’s dysfunctional relationships through the empty rituals of formal ceremonies – uncoincidentally, as Masuo and his beloved (if unrequited) “relative”, Ritsuko (Atsuko Kaku) embark on another familial obligation that has been complicated by the arrival of a cryptic telegram from a mutual cousin and Masuo’s romantic rival, Terumichi (Atsuo Nakamura) – the film is also a sobering allegory for the intrinsic corruption, social conformity, and incestuous politics that continue to exist beneath the country’s seemingly profound transformation and inexhaustible economic miracle.

It is within this atmosphere of cultural rigidity, subjugation, and blind allegiance towards a collective good (in Masuo’s case, the survival of the family lineage) that the nebulous parentage of the Sakurada’s postwar generation (who may not only be Kazuomi’s legitimate and illegitimate grandchildren, but his own children as well) – Masuo, Terumichi, Ritsuko, and Tadashi (Kiyoshi Tsuchiya) – may be seen as an allegory for perpetuated, outmoded social customs that seek, at all cost, to retain the veneer of civility through the sanctity of the ritual, even in the face of blatant hypocrisy, moral bankruptcy, and inhumanity. It is interesting to note that in repeating Kazuomi’s ambiguous – and overtly incestuous – relationships with the women within the Sakurada household with Terumichi and Masuo’s own attractions toward Ritsuko and her mother, Setsuko (Akiko Koyama) (and who, in turn, may also have been the erstwhile lover of Masuo’s father), Oshima establishes an intrinsic parallel between Kazuomi’s obsession for the integrity of ritual with the narcissism inherent in maintaining the integrity of the family bloodline. Framed within the context of the Sakurada family as a surrogate reflection of Japanese society, the correlation may also be seen as an indictment of the country’s repressive cultural conformity, monoethnic sameness, and xenophobia.

Moreover, from the early juxtaposition of Masuo and his mother’s repatriation from Manchuria (and subsequent aborted flight from the Sakurada household) with the first ceremony commemorating the death anniversary of Kazuomi and his wife’s (Nobuko Otowa) only child, Masuo’s father (who is later revealed to have committed suicide), Oshima establishes an integral connection between culture and death that not only reflects Japanese postwar sentiment (note the family’s indignation over the prevalence of American occupation in Tokyo that echoes Shohei Imamura’s acerbic satire, Pigs and Battleships), but more intriguingly, reinforces the idea of the societal role of the ceremony – the formality of gesture – as a self-perpetuating (and implicitly, self-inflicted) death ritual: a regressive (and terminal) cycle of deceptive, veiled appearances that is further reinforced in the film’s oscillating narrative structure between haunted past and unreconciled present. Concluding with the recurrent image of Masuo ritualistically straining to hear his brother’s subterranean cries, Masuo’s desperate and impassioned, yet impotent gesture becomes a poignant metaphor for the moral inversion and suffocated humanity of delusive enlightenment and hollow restitution.

violencenoonViolence at Noon, 1966. A haggard, expressionless drifter named Eisuke (Kei Sato) encounters the object of his obsession working as a maid at a private residence. Her name is Shino (Saeda Kawaguchi), a former coworker from a failed collective farm in the province whose life he once saved. As Eisuke proceeds to terrorize Shino to the point of unconsciousness, he becomes aware of Mrs. Inagaki’s (Ryoko Takahara) presence in the house, and violates and kills her, sparing Shino’s life. Soon, Eisuke’s criminal pattern of sexual assaults and murders emerges, as Shino becomes a reluctant witness and accomplice to Eisuke’s increasing acts of violence. Shino appears to cooperate with the police on creating a composite description of the assailant, but secretly, withholds her crucial knowledge of his identity. Resigned to complicity for Eisuke’s crimes by not revealing their mutual acquaintance, Shino, in turn, writes letters to Eisuke’s trusting and dutiful wife, a schoolteacher named Jinbo (Narumi Kayashima), in order to expose his true nature, and induce her into turning Eisuke over to the police. Soon, the complex circumstances behind Eisuke’s rescue of Shino at the collective farm is revisited, revealing the dichotomous, dual image of Eisuke as both criminal and savior in the eyes of Shino that forms an inextricable bond between victim and attacker. Shino insinuates herself into the investigative process by following Inspector Haraguchi (Fumio Watanabe) as he pursues clues and interviews victims, attempting to understand Eisuke’s destructive impulses in the unspoken, self-reproaching belief that, as his first victim, she is the underlying cause for his violence.

Nagisa Oshima presents a taut, intelligent, and visually spellbinding portrait of repression, victimization, and guilt in Violence at Noon. Profoundly influenced by Alain Resnais’ themes of altered time and haunted memory, Oshima creates a seamless visual transition of three disparate chronological events to reflect Jinbo’s guilt-ridden conscience as she returns to the collective farm: a flashback sequence involving the community leaders connects to the present day with a dream sequence of Genji (Matsuhiro Toura) at a cemetery, and continues with a reluctant reunion with her fugitive husband.

Shot in high contrast and using frequent jump cuts (more than 2000, mostly stationary shots, according to Max Tessier’s essay, Oshima Nagisa, or the Battered Energy of Desire in Reframing Japanese Cinema), isolated framing, changing character perspective, and elliptical narrative, Oshima reflects the mental polarity and deviant behavior of an amoral predator: the photographic police chronicle of the attack on Mrs. ‘M’; the frenetic jump cuts during Shino’s pursuit of Jinbo during a school field trip; the constant panning of the camera during Shino and Jinbo’s final conversation on a train. Eisuke’s entrance into the Inagaki home further alludes to his psychological fissure as he is presented in a series of fragmented and increasingly claustrophobic close-ups that culminates with a shot of his eye, then cuts to a montage of Shino’s awkward (and decidedly unseductive) body as she washes the laundry, emphasizing the disconnection of Eisuke’s body from his aberrant mind. Yet inevitably, despite Jinbo’s continued devotion to her abusive husband and Shino’s attempts to psychologically deconstruct the mind of her attacker, Eisuke’s fatal compulsion remains senseless, irredeemable, self-destructive, and ultimately, tragic.

death_hangingDeath By Hanging, 1968. A clinically presented series of stark white, unembellished placards illustrates the sobering statistical data for the overwhelming public sentiment against the abolition of the death penalty as an off-screen narrator (Nagisa Oshima) provides a snide, but impassioned rebuttal to popular opinion by presenting a objective documentary of the austere and impersonal milieu associated with the methodical process of carrying out a state execution through the specific example of the appointed hanging of a convicted rapist and murderer known only as ‘R’ (Do-yun Yu): an empty, minimalist sitting room that provides an illusive, parting glimpse of a semblance of home for the condemned prisoner as he makes his way into the execution room, an assembly of unnamed official guests waiting in a segregated viewing room to witness the macabre ceremony, a procedural rehearsal of the chamber’s fail-safe sequence as the prisoner is blindfold and fitted with a noose, the actuation of trap door, the median measured time of 18 minutes before the heart completely stops and a staff physician (Rokko Toura) is able to record the official time of death. However, the seemingly predictable execution script fails to correlate as expected, as the doctor continues to detect R’s breathing for several minutes beyond the expected point of expiration. The unexpected development shifts the film’s tone from observant polemic to wry, dark comedy as the guards – eager to disavow any culpability that may have led to the malfunction – are thrown into helpless confusion on how to proceed with the seemingly half-dead hanged man in order to complete their assigned task. Imploring the doctor to promptly resuscitate R as an ironic humane gesture so that he can regain consciousness before being put to death again (and therefore, have an awareness of his guilt), the guards soon realize that the trauma of the failed execution has resulted in the prisoner’s amnesia. Acting on the advice of the education officer (Fumio Watanabe), the officials begin to re-enact episodes from the trial transcripts before an impassive and oblivious R in order to trigger his memory, revealing a more insidious and pervasive cultural malaise that cannot be set right by the empty gestures of inequitable justice.

Inspired by the notorious, real-life execution of a convicted murderer named Ri Chin’u who had killed two Japanese schoolgirls in 1958 (and subsequently courted publicity for his crimes through the newspapers and the police), Death by Hanging is an ingeniously conceived, subversive, provocative, and elegantly modulated tragicomedy on intolerance, assimilation, and capital punishment. Using recurring imagery of circles – in particular, the hangman’s noose, the Japanese flag (a motif similarly used in Oshima’s earlier film, The Sun’s Burial), and the upended, spinning bicycle wheel – that is further reflected in the film’s circular narrative structure, Nagisa Oshima illustrates the overarching public complicity that has perpetuated the cycle of dehumanization, racism, and violence and continues to provide the ideological bulwark for the nation’s codified, postwar social policies that foster mono-ethnicity and conformity at the expense of inclusion and diversity. Through repeated episodes of role-playing and transference, Nagisa Oshima further creates an analogy for the collective subconscious that exposes the underlying hypocrisy of its entrenched (and obsolete) ideology: the physician’s suppressed history of committed wartime atrocities (that broadly reflects the nation’s prewar militarism, isolationism, and imperialism); the vulgar stereotypes of ethnic Koreans employed by the guards in an attempt to re-instill R’s ethnic identity (note the use of a non-diegetic German language soundtrack as R is brought to the beach that further reinforces the historical legacy of racial intolerance); the awkward (and absurdly comical) re-enactments of the victims’ abduction and violation that reveal the participants’ own sexual neuroses and ambiguity over shifting traditional gender roles in modern society. In the end, the provocative and intrinsically incendiary issue of death penalty merely provides an integrally self-enclosed structural framework (and microcosm) for the film’s more contemporarily relevant examination of marginalization, guilt, and social justice – a reluctant, but necessary expurgation rooted in the collective conscience of an unreconciled cultural identity.

boyBoy, 1969. The idiosyncratic color shift of the title sequence in Nagisa Oshima’s trenchant and acerbic coming-of-age tale, Boy provides an incisive metaphor for the imbalanced natural order that lies beneath the veneer of the modernized, national recovery of post-occupation Japanese society, as a seemingly de-saturated, black and white Japanese flag prominently placed in the center of the widescreen rigidly confines the visual elements of the screen to within an inner subframe twice bounded by the demarcation of the black sun circle within the center of the white flag. The expectation of the seeming monochromatic aesthetic represented by an anemic national flag is then subverted by the superimposition of bold red calligraphy that culminates with a portrait of the film’s titular, innocent-faced Boy (Abe Tetsuo), a defacement that also foretells the intrinsic cruelty and violence that the Boy suffers at the hands of his aimless, self-absorbed family. This notion of subverted expectation continues with the establishing shot of the Boy briefly, inexplicably crying while precariously – and symbolically – standing at the edge of a heavily trafficked street – the pedestrian sidewalk having been demolished as part of a nearby construction site – in an apparent, perhaps frustrated, wait for an opportunity to cross the busy intersection. A subsequent episode then illustrates the insidious context of the elaborate confidence game behind this curious posture as the Boy’s stepmother (Koyama Akiko) walks alongside a stream of cars before picking a suitable (or more appropriately, gullible) mark and rushing headlong into the side of the automobile with an audible slap on the vehicle’s body before falling away, seemingly unconscious, into the nearby curb, the Boy dutifully falling to the ground in feigned trauma over the severe “accident”, followed immediately on cue by the even more guilt-inducing pre-scripted plot of the father (Fumio Watanabe) rushing from across the street to attend to his (common law) wife’s injuries while simultaneously holding a flag waving baby (Tsuyoshi Kinoshita) in his arms. The often-played scenario would then bring them to a nearby clinic where the prospect of sustaining job-threatening, long recovery injuries invariably lead to the father’s increasingly aggressive tone and threats of police involvement in a ruse to extort money from the unsuspecting driver in exchange for a waiver of liability for the incident. Performing their scam from town to town along the Sea of Japan, the Boy begins to take increasing responsibility for “working” the faked accidents, assuming the role of victim to his stepmother’s outraged, panic-stricken parent, until a fateful encounter with a young girl in the northernmost city of Hokkaido – the edge of Japan – drives the Boy to profound confusion and despair over his own culpability and guilt.

In returning to the confidence games of his earlier films, most notably A Town of Love and Hope and Cruel Story of Youth, Oshima expounds on his recurring themes of rootless materialism, alienation, and victimization that were endemic within the culture of Japanese postwar society. Shooting the characters predominantly in medium and long shots from the peripheral margins of the camera frame, Oshima reflects, not only the family’s marginalization within contemporary society, but also the moral decentralization and intrinsic rupture of the very notion of Japanese tradition – and in particular, the support system of the extended family – as the Boy is not only uprooted from a proper education and his hometown because of the family’s evasive itinerancy, but also his biological mother (who may or may not be terminally ill) and his grandmother (whose emotional attachment has been psychologically manipulated by his father through insensitive comments about the Boy’s abandonment and unwantedness). This recurring interrelation – and transposition – between emotional and economic extortion is further reflected in the stepmother’s recurring attempts to ingratiate herself into the Boy’s trust: first, through the boy’s impetuous demand for a baseball cap perched atop a life-sized robot as an inducement for finding the courage to play his new role of the victim for the scam, then subsequently, for a calendar watch in exchange for his silence over her intentionally skipped appointment with an abortionist. In both occasions, the extorted object becomes not only a surrogate for human affection, but also the transactional currency of all familial intimacy, where communication is reduced to the silent, coded signals of identifying the next confidence mark, and deciding on the proper amount of money to be extorted that will meet the family’s short-term financial needs (note the father and son’s complicit discussion in the men’s room of a restaurant planning the details of the Boy’s role in their next scam). Placed within the context of the crying Boy pacing the edge of the excavated sidewalk that opens the film – where the ground has literally been removed from under his feet – the introductory image of the confused, alienated, defeated young hero serves as an allusive, reinforcing national sentiment of profound rootlessness and bewilderment over the upended, disposable values of an alien, intraversable modern world of commodified humanity.

will_filmThe Man Who Left His Will on Film, 1970. A young activist named Motoki (Kazuo Goto) comes into the view of a rolling Bolex camera as he accosts the silent, unseen operator to demand its return, arguing that the presumptuous filmmaker can shoot landscapes at any time while his need to film a nearby demonstration in order to create “a documentary of the struggle” is far more pressing and socially important. Refusing to relinquish custody of the camera, the two men struggle to wrest control of the object, destabilizing the image of the filmed, unfolding altercation into a near indistinguishable, uninterrupted sequence of wild pans, odd angles, and unfocused, herky-jerky frames, before the faceless filmmaker breaks free and runs off with the camera still in hand down the street. The perspective then shifts from the disorienting images of the stolen camera to one of ominous foreboding as Motoki carefully surveys the street in search of the filmmaker, spotting him as he leans over the side of a building, only moments before deliberately leaping to his death. Making his ways past the crowd that has inevitably gathered at the gruesome site and through the makeshift police containment area that has been set up to secure the scene for an investigation, Motoki discovers that the camera has sustained little damage as a result of the fall, and impulsively snatches it from the hand of the dead man. Unable to run away before being intercepted by the police, the camera is promptly whisked away into the back of a squad car for confiscation as material evidence, before Motoki is able to break free from the authorities and continue his pursuit of the camera on foot, the interminable (and visibly fruitless) chase seemingly ending within the obscured recesses of a long, dark tunnel. However, the reality of the preceding sequence would soon prove to be amorphous when Motoki awakens from an extended sleep in the presence of members from his film collective who have assembled to plan a course of action in order to retrieve the camera that, as the group asserts, was taken from Motoki (who had apparently been subsequently beaten into unconsciousness) by the authorities as he was filming the Okinawa Day civil protest. In confusion, Motoki turns to the filmmaker’s lover, Yasuko (Emiko Iwasaki) who equally subscribes to the collective’s version of the preceding day’s events, but soon becomes increasingly convinced of her troubled lover’s (former) existence when they become witnesses to a curious footage of unedited landscape shots – a high (crane) shot of a tree-lined, residential roofline; a narrow, bustling market street; a low angle shot of a retaining barrier on the other side of a high traffic street; a mailbox situated on the side of an underpass; a blocked shot from between a pair of rough hewn, concrete posts that overlooks a shop across the street; and a shot of high voltage, electrical poles – that had been recorded by the phantom filmmaker as an abstract, silent testament of images that he would enigmatically leave behind.

Evoking the ingeniously constructed logic puzzle and oblate reality of Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad and Chris Marker’s La Jetée, along with the densely structured parallelism and tongue-in-cheek cerebrality of Raoul Ruiz (most notably, Three Lives and Only One Death), The Man Who Left His Will on Film is an elegantly wry, engagingly challenging, and provocative exposition on identity, fantasy, and memory. Using bookend structure, recurring permutations of imagery and dialogue, and narrative disjunctions through film projection (and figurative interpenetration, as represented by Yasuko’s (self) arousal as the footage from her dead lover’s film is projected onto her body), Nagisa Oshima creates a virtual, infinitely recursive film within a film that explores the conceptual dualism (or more appropriately, multiplicity) innate in the filmmaking process. One aspect of this conceptual dualism is the idea of the camera as a revolutionary weapon, a philosophy that is farcically embodied by the highly ideological – but also perpetually idle and ineffective – film collective whose engagement in the social revolution is limited to trite, reductive regurgitations of Marxist one-liners, distanced (and botched) film documentation of an uprising (note that a member subsequently rationalizes that being in a demonstration does not necessarily mean that one is part of it), and principled acts of subversion through group authored formal protests (for the police seizure of the camera). This metaphor of “film as a weapon” is subsequently reinforced in an apparent daydream sequence as Motoki attempts to revisit the sites captured by the phantom filmmaker in order to drive his ghost away: Motoki begins to chase the phantom through the streets, and the image is unexpectedly intercut with a shot of a running Motoki rapidly firing a machine gun into the street. Contrasting the (comedic) inertia in the film collective’s inability to act independently of one another, the film illustrates the innate hypocrisy (and inutility) of armchair intellectualism and unrealistic, impractical application of ideology as a means of effecting social change.

Oshima further explores a second aspect to film’s dualism in its capacity to enrich culture through artistic creation, an implicit power of the medium that the film collective trivializes as simply the empty aesthetic of beautiful images (such as that of a couple gracefully dancing, as a member suggests) and a wasteful (and meaningless) misuse of its true potential. In an episode near the conclusion of the film, a traumatized and violated Yasuko declares her victory over her dead lover – and consequently, over Motoki – by deliberately “not seeing” his landscape. Ironically, the act of not seeing becomes a dual negation: initially, as Motoki attempts to reconstruct the images from the “phantom” film in order to exorcise the ghost of the dead lover, then subsequently, in Yasuko’s intentional self-insertion into each re-staged composition shot in order to prevent its exact visual replication by her surrogate lover, Motoki. The unforeseen consequence of this defiant intrusion into the (re)creation of images inevitably becomes the realization of an apparent reality that cannot truly be reconciled with the characters’ own perceived reality – a sense of irreparable rupture and profound dislocation that is similarly captured in an earlier scene through the film collective’s failed hope for social change when the Okinawa Day Unity march devolves into factionalism and chaotic violence. It is in this contextual conflation of “film as art and revolutionary weapon” that the phantom filmmaker’s “will on film” may be seen, not as visual abstraction from the imminent concerns of cultivating social transformation, but rather, as an unarticulated (and perhaps, inarticulable), underlying reflection of the invisible travails of the human soul – a quixotic quest to capture an ephemeral state of enlightenment, transitory beauty, and self-actualized immanence that is hopelessly foundering, unregarded, against the banality of cultural turmoil, instinctual brutality, and willful ignorance.

Acquarello 2001-2007 [reprinted]