Mr. Nagisa Oshima, the filmmaker who, perhaps more than any other, challenged the conventional morality and sober certainties of Japan, died of pneumonia Tuesday at the age of 80. His films earned respect around the world and broke restraints on what could be shown and told within cinematic art. Japan could use more iconoclasts like him.
Mr. Oshima’s films were provocative and bold, two attitudes that are rare in Japanese society. His films pushed the boundaries of acceptability and criticized the country’s conformist tendencies with energy, passion and dark humor. They showed the other side of Japan, where outcasts and misfits were human beings with universal desires, plus the necessary truths that the rest of society still needed to learn.
In interviews, he said he wanted Japanese to look in the mirror, but he never said they would like what they saw. From his first film in 1959, “A Town of Love and Hope,” to his last feature film in 1999, “Taboo,” Mr. Oshima presented anti-heroes who challenged the status quo and wanted freedom from the forces of materialism, industrialization and escapist consumerism.
Those criticisms deserve to be heard in any age, and his films feel almost as shocking now as they were when first released.
Mr. Oshima’s best known work, “In the Realm of the Senses” (“Ai no Corrida”) released in 1976, was an erotic, violent and shocking film that was initially banned in America and Japan. Like many of his other films, the story was based on a real story, but was uninhibited in presenting the explicit sexuality and overpowering passion of two lovers. During a court case about this film, he argued, “Nothing that is expressed is obscene. What is obscene is what is hidden.”
In all of his films, Mr. Oshima sought to expose the repressions of Japanese society as social criticism and as a sort of therapy. He was critical of Japanese society, but remained deeply immersed in it. His films showed sympathy and compassion for young people, lawbreakers and minorities. Without glorifying their choices, he had his characters express often-violent, anti-social and alternative attitudes as a powerful critique of mainstream Japanese society and culture.
Though many viewers find the intensity and challenge of his films hard to take, one of the roles of an artist in society is to stand outside what is accepted and offer different visions, metaphors and opinions. That point of view, confrontational as it might be, is a road to self-understanding and critical thought.
Tough, unrelenting and daring, Mr. Oshima will be greatly missed but his legacy will live on.