Director led postwar New Wave, remembered in West for 'In the Realm of the Senses'

Nagisa Oshima: a leading force in film

by Mark Schilling

Special To The Japan Times

Film director Nagisa Oshima, who died in Fujisawa, Kanagawa Prefecture, of pneumonia on Tuesday at age 80, was a leader of Japan’s postwar New Wave movement.

In the West, however, he became best known for a 1976 film “Ai no Corrida” (“In the Realm of the Senses”), a sexually explicit drama based on the true story of notorious prewar murderess Sada Abe, who strangled her married lover in an erotic game of death.

For decades afterward Oshima was regularly cited by foreign scholars and fans as a leading force in contemporary Japanese cinema, even as he struggled unsuccessfully to bring “Hollywood Zen,” his long-meditated biopic of silent-era star Sessue Hayakawa to the screen.

Catching Oshima on his numerous appearances on Japanese talk and variety shows in the 1970s and 1980s, I wondered why someone so obviously in demand should take such long breaks between films.

After “In the Realm of the Senses,” he made the 1978 followup “Ai no Borei” (“Empire of the Passions”), which won him a Best Director Award at the Cannes Film Festival; “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence” (1983), a World War II prison camp drama starring David Bowie, Ryuichi Sakamoto and Takeshi Kitano that was widely screened abroad; and “Max Mon Amour,” a 1986 comedy starring Charlotte Rampling as an ambassador’s wife who has an affair with a chimpanzee.

By the time I finally met him in 1999, at a screening of his new period drama “Gohatto” (aka “Taboo”) for the foreign press, he had not made a feature in more than a decade and I had come to think of him as a TV celebrity who occasionally directed, rather than any sort of cinematic savior.

He had also suffered a stroke while changing planes at Heathrow Airport in 1996, and was not in the best of health.

A drama set in the ranks of fabled Shinsengumi — a band of elite warriors who defended the shogunate in its death throes — “Gohatto” explored the characteristic Oshima theme of Eros versus Thanatos against a backdrop of political turmoil, though the love object its besotted samurai contend for is a handsome young recruit played by newcomer Ryuhei Matsuda.

Rather than being the last hurrah of a sick man, the film had the richness of image and unabashed sexual power of Oshima at his peak.

Chatting with him afterward, together with other star-struck journos, I said that “Gohatto,” with its intertitles and visually oriented storytelling style, reminded me of Japanese silent films.

“Yes, that’s exactly what I was trying to do!” he exclaimed in his still powerful voice — and in the exchange that followed, I got a brief taste of his passion, intelligence and charm.

But my one interview with him, for the 2000 Japan rerelease of “Ai no Corrida,” was a failure: He was tired and irritable after a long day of dealing with the media — and I was last on his list.

He spoke in curt grunts and monosyllables, obviously bored of talking about a film that he dismissively referred to as “poruno” (porn).

But seeing the new print, which restored five minutes cut from the original Japanese release and covered the actors’ vital parts with more finesse than was possible in 1976, I was impressed again by Oshima’s utter fearlessness and honesty, filming his two obsessed lovers without a leer or a flinch, to the deadly end of their erotic night.

Since then I have revisited Oshima’s earlier triumphs, which started very early indeed.

Born in Kyoto in 1932, he entered the Shochiku studio in 1954 and made his first film, “Ai to Kibo no Machi” (“A Town of Love and Hope”), in 1959.

Soon he was churning out films about young rebels and outlaws with a blithe disregard for social and cinematic conventions that had critics calling him the avatar of a Japanese Nouvelle Vague.

But Shochiku’s decision to pull “Nihon no Yoru to Kiri” (“Night and Fog in Japan”), a 1960 film of few cuts and much dialogue that was highly critical of the radical left, after only a week on release enraged Oshima and he left the studio to start his own production company.

Over the next decade he made a steady stream of indie films, while experimenting freely with style and challenging or mocking social taboos.

His international breakthrough was “Koshikei” (“Death by Hanging”) in 1968, a drama about the failed hanging of an ethnic Korean man that evolves into farce as his would-be executors make the condemned man, whose memory was erased by his recent trauma, re-enact his supposed crimes.

While satirizing the idiocy of the so-called justice system, the film stylizes the action in the manner of the Theater of the Absurd.

This and subsequent films, such as “Shinjuku Dorobo Nikki” (“Diary of a Shinjuku Thief,” 1968), “Shonen” (“Boy,” 1969), “Tokyo Senso Sengo Hiwa” (“The Man Who Put His Will on Film,” 1970) and “Gishiki” (“The Ceremony,” 1971), established Oshima as a leader of the cinematic avant-garde, but as the 1970s progressed the political and social upheavals that had informed his work dissipated, as did the sources of financing for not only Oshima, but many Japanese indie filmmakers of his generation.

For “In the Realm of the Senses” he received funding from French producer Anatole Dauman, while winning back audiences with the film’s racy subject matter. Ironically, this film, which made its concessions to commerce, now represents him to the world at large — and is among his best work.

But there is much more to the oeuvre of this proud, prickly, multifariously talented man, from essays to now-forgotten documentaries — and his death, after more than a decade of illness and silence, will hopefully encourage a needed reappraisal.