Film director Nagisa Oshima passed away Tuesday. He was 80.
While at London’s Heathrow Airport in February 1996, he suffered a stroke. Rehabilitation in the succeeding years brought him sufficiently back to health to make what would become his last film, “Gohatto,” in 1999. He also appeared frequently on television variety shows, unashamedly displaying his acerbic take on Japanese culture.
Some criticized him for becoming a popular figure, claiming that this diminished his artistic legacy. But Oshima immensely enjoyed these forays into the world of the commercial hoi polloi. Back in the bubble years of the early 1980s, he marched in step dressed in a primary school uniform in a commercial for “Cockroach S,” a product that warded off and killed cockroaches.
Throughout a more than 30-year-long friendship with him, I frequently witnessed his wicked and pointed sense of humor, directed right at the heart of the Japanese.
There is no doubt but that the prime mover behind his wit and anger — for these were the two things that propelled his message — was the trauma of experiencing World War II. When the war ended in 1945, he was 13 and in his second year at middle school.
“The problem was who in Japan was responsible for it,” he told me in 1985. “Our teachers who up till the day before had been militarists and emperor worshippers started to talk the next day all about democracy and freedom and equality and charity. I keenly felt their unwillingness to accept responsibility for their views. … Also, the Japanese really didn’t know how to relate to non-Japanese people. So later I wanted to make films about Koreans who live here and Okinawans, both people oppressed by the Japanese. If I could depict how they viewed the Japanese, then the denial of responsibility for the Japanese brutalities in the war might be exposed for all to see.”
In fact, in “Death by Hanging” (1968) and in “Dear Summer Sister” (1972), he took up Japan’s complex relationship with Koreans and Okinawans, highlighting Japanese persecution and hypocrisy. His obsession was always with the motivations of the individual within the ethnic group, not the political struggle that is their crucible.
“The first thing I always want to show, ” he said, “is what’s going on inside the individual. The Japanese have always had the sense that wars are things that happen elsewhere, ‘on the outside.’ Even Hiroshima and Nagasaki. While Japanese people know that the atom bomb was dropped on those cities, at the same time they are not truly conscious of it. They live with a self-deception. The fact is that the postwar leaders of Japan were the same people who brought on the war and all its destruction.”
In our discussions over the years, we often came back to the film on which I was his assistant, “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence,” shot on Rarotonga in the Cook Islands in the summer of 1982. This is a film about the uncontrollable enmity and bizarre attraction that exists between people and their enemies.
“I am often asked, when I’m overseas, about the reaction to ‘Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence’ in Japan,” he told me. “They think that I would be attacked in Japan by the right wing for showing the ugliness of the Japanese. But I was not attacked by them, not at all. The reason is that people on the far right in Japan don’t go to see movies like they do in the West.”
“Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence” takes place in a Japanese POW camp where the foreign prisoners are tortured and executed.
“My films are both fiction and documentary. This holds for ‘Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence’ too. The camera is shooting the action, and this becomes a document. What I hate most in cinema is sentimentalism. I want to follow humans in an ultra-logical way. If you do this, the essence of the human comes out and you have something as real as non-fiction.
“When I made ‘In the Realm of the Senses,’ I wanted to show everything possible that happens between a man and a woman. But it is not only that. It is a story that unfolds in the context of an era. But though it takes place in the 1930s, that era is the 1970s. With ‘Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence,’ the story may take place in the 1940s, but the film is about the 1980s. You see, we view the past through the prism of our own era. I don’t make so-called period films. My films are about now.”
In fact, Oshima’s filmmaking method suited the realization of this message down to the ground. He was, in principle, not enamored of the talents of most Japanese actors or well-disposed to their bag of tricks.
“I don’t like ‘acting.’ What I’m looking for is a person’s jinkaku (character, true personality),” he said. “That’s what’s important, not talent. I want to bring that out as it is.”
When, on the set of “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence,” I was once discussing a scene with actors David Bowie and Tom Conti, a resounding voice came like a bullhorn from the back.
“Roger, stop directing!”
He wasn’t admonishing me for doing my job. He was simply against giving any kind of instructions to actors. I very rarely saw him tell an actor what to do. He wanted spontaneity on film, the kind of spontaneity that exists in life. And, most often, he did only one take of a scene.
“Actors are always best on the first take,” he said to me on the set of the recreated POW camp in the island’s jungle-like interior.
He often spoke of being a citizen of “the Republic of Cinema,” feeling deep affinities with filmmakers from around the world. He went to work for the major film studio Shochiku in 1954, when he was 22, but never felt at home there.
“I was an assistant director on their programmed films, and, I can tell you, I hated it. I knew then that when I made my own films they wouldn’t be like those studio films. I was much more attracted to foreign films. I considered the depictions of Japanese life in Japanese films to be false. I saw the Japanese people then as being false to themselves.”
Oshima came from that generation of artists who felt personally insulted by the indoctrination they were given in school and society during the war. He felt it his mission to redress that insult and hold up a clear mirror to the Japanese people, forcing them to see themselves in their true light.
We appeared together for a number of years on the television talk show “Asa made no Nama Terebi” (“Live Television till Morning”). He never pulled any punches. He broke every taboo in the book, speaking his mind openly. This was possible, of course, because the show was broadcast from midnight to 6 a.m., outside the framework of normal viewing. Nonetheless, on that show, in all of his public appearances and, primarily, in his films, he had no equals in being incisive, forthright and free-thinking.
“Everyone was angry with the state of affairs,” he said of his generation. “It’s just that I was the person most aware of what was going on. … I want to live every moment as a director in the frontline, even if it means being a target for the bullets of my enemies.”