Director Nagisa Oshima often quoted the phrase “the republic of the cinema” as if film was a country and he one of its citizens. He combined the very best stalwart Japanese qualities with a forthright and radical international outlook.

Oshima had a remarkable gift for portraying the innocence and special sensitivities of children, as shown in one of his earliest films, a short work put together from stills taken on the Korean Peninsula titled “Diary of Yunbogi.” He would have preferred to film the true story of a little Korean slum orphan compelled to work in order to provide for his brother and sisters; however, when he went to South Korea with his movie camera, Korean-Japanese relations were still fraught with animosity and Japanese filmmakers were not permitted to use them. The year was 1965. Although diplomatic relations between the two countries were normalized later that year, all Japanese films, music and books were still banned in South Korea. The two-pronged soundtrack features entries from the 6-year-old Korean boy’s diary and a diatribe against Japanese imperialism on the Korean Peninsula.

I bring this up at the outset because Japan’s treatment of Koreans in the past and present comprised one of Oshima’s primary cinematic preoccupations.

“I have felt that I myself am being essentially oppressed (here in Japan),” he said to me in the mid-1980s, “and so I feel sympathy for others who are similarly oppressed and want to make films about that and about others who are oppressed here, such as resident Koreans and Okinawans.” (His 1972 film, “Natsu no Imoto,” or “Dear Summer Sister,” took up the complex relationship between Japanese and ethnic Okinawans in that year of the return of the islands to Japan.)

Another film dealing with the life of a little boy made with great sensitivity and compassion is “Shonen” (“Boy”). The boy in the title is little Toshio. Toshio, who moves around the country with his unemployed parents, is pushed against moving cars by his father then used as fodder in a scam to extort cash on the spot from unsuspecting terrified drivers. Believe it or not, the story is based on the experiences of a real family. I saw “Boy,” a film from 1969, long before I met its director and have always considered it one of his best films, along with “In the Realm of the Senses” and “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence.”

I think that Oshima may have identified with sad little boys (as did director Yasujiro Ozu), for although his mother lived a long life and was dedicated and affectionate toward him, he lost his father when he was 6 years old. Despite his reputation as an angry hard-headed polemicist, Oshima was one of the most deeply caring, tolerant and soft-hearted people I have ever known, especially when it came to people, young and old, who found themselves victims of arbitrary or planned brutality.

As for “Boy” and its full-frontal condemnation of child abuse, he told me on a trip he made to Australia in 1981, when I acted as his interpreter and guide, that true feelings for your country can take a number of forms.

“Many Japanese people have been critical of my depicting such an awful Japanese phenomenon as that perpetrated on the boy,” he said. “But love of country is a strange thing. Just puffing out your chest with national pride and telling people how wonderful your country is does not constitute love of country as I see it. You have to tell the truth about your country, whatever it is.”

Agenda of the ’60s

Oshima set his agenda at the beginning of the ’60s and it became the agenda of that decade for all Japanese, whether they liked it or not.

In 1954, he had landed a prized job at the leading film production house of Shochiku. By 1960, he was designated by them and the critics as one of the representatives of their “new wave.” His “Nihon no Yoru to Kiri” (“Night and Fog in Japan”) of that year is an impassioned polemic, often violent, depicting the radical student movement as it was gaining momentum in its struggle against the renewal of the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between Japan and the United States.

On Oct. 12, 1960, Inejiro Asanuma, leader of the Japan Socialist Party, was run through with a sword by a right-wing terrorist while his speech was being televised. Naturally, the nation was shocked. Shochiku responded the very next day, in a display of typical Japanese terror of causing any form of controversy, by pulling “Night and Fog in Japan” from screens on what was the film’s fourth day after release. In even more blatantly typical Japanese fashion — masters that people wielding power in Japan are of the mealy-mouthed excuse — they claimed that they were withdrawing the film because it wasn’t reaching box-office expectations … after three days of release!

Oshima was incensed. He used the occasion of his wedding to actress Akiko Koyama some three weeks later to roundly denounce the decision.

“I vow to fight resolutely,” he declared in his elegant dark suit and striped tie before some 300 guests, “until this oppression is overturned!”

This highly theatrical and seemingly inappropriate mixing of occasions was indicative of his style. It flowed into a constant current in his life: his disgust with a corporate culture and media that cower before any hint of controversy on matters concerning politics or nationality.

“That the same people who prosecuted the war continued to be leaders after it,” he once said to me, “is a disgrace.”

Taken together, his films of the 1960s constitute a virtual document of the decade. There is no place for political correctness in Oshima’s films. The rationale behind the motives of their characters is compulsion, not morality; the driving force of their personalities is obsession, not self-righteous goodness.

“Etsuraku” (“Pleasures of the Flesh”) is about lust, both female and male. Its two lead characters sink deeper and deeper, without inhibition, into crime. Their lust knows no end and, for this, needless to say, they pay for their sins. Society is unforgiving of the unbridled excesses of the ego.

Yet nothing could be farther from the moral sop of Hollywood’s triumph-over-pseudo-evil-by-synthetic-good than this film from 1965. (Oshima’s films are much closer in spirit to European, particularly French, cinema than American, attesting to the fact that their reception has always been far better in Europe than the United States.)

In 1968, he released “Kaette Kita Yopparai” (“Three Resurrected Drunkards”). The title is taken from the hit song of pop group The Folk Crusaders, three of whose members play the film’s heroes. (The intertwining of the popular and the radical became a feature of the thematic structure of his films.) It opens with what looks like a mock re-enactment of the iconic photograph taken by Associated Press photojournalist Eddie Adams in which a South Vietnamese general puts his pistol up to the head of a Vietcong officer and blows his brains out as American jet fighters soar overhead.

The three pranksters are mistaken for illegal Korean immigrants and deported to Pusan, South Korea. Before long they find themselves fighting on the front in Vietnam. The presence of Mako Midori playing the beautiful girl who removes her top adds an eroticism that appears in one form or another — both heterosexual and homosexual — in virtually all of Oshima’s films.

But out of sex, lies and politics, it is the lies that he is most directly focused on: the lies your elders and superiors tell you; the lies your country strives to inculcate into you.

It was before the backdrop of those lies that the dramatic polemics of the 1960s found their platform and their expression in his films.

Childhood in Kyoto

Oshima was born on March 31, 1932, in Okayama Prefecture where his father was working as an expert on fisheries for the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry (hence the name Nagisa, which means “beach”). Their use of the name Oshima derives from the father’s ancestral home, the island of Tsushima. The location of his roots between Japan and Korea, where the island lies, was not lost on him in later life.

His mother took him and his younger sister, Eiko, to her family home in Kyoto, where the two children were raised. Oshima was 9 years old when Pearl Harbor was attacked in 1941. His indoctrination in wartime propaganda during his early school years affected him significantly. He remarked to me on a number of occasions how he felt personally deceived by his teachers who miraculously transformed themselves overnight, at the end of the war, into confirmed advocates of democracy. Oshima may not have suffered fools gladly; but he never suffered them at all if they adorned their lack of personal conviction with a clumsily disguised hypocrisy.

He entered Kyoto University in 1950, participating in protest activities of the student movement. He also founded a drama group there. However, he soon became aware that he mistrusted the staginess of acting in the theater. Later, in his films, he preferred that his actors not rehearse a scene. He felt that a film was best when it captured spontaneity in people, and he wouldn’t retake a shot unless absolutely necessary. In this way, his films become a kind of documentary.

“I don’t believe there is a gap in film between documentary and fiction,” he said. “What I mean by this is that the camera is documenting what is in front of it. … A film is just the subjective structuring of time.”

Hard times followed him and his wife after they both left Shochiku in protest at the company’s high-handed treatment of his film. They founded their own production company, Sozosha. Even during a shoot the money might run out, as it did when they were in Shikoku making “Boy.” Koyama had to approach local shops and businesses to make appearances in ads for them, plowing the fees into the production.

One incident speaks volumes for Oshima’s sense of stubborn conviction.

He and Koyama were asked to appear in a commercial for a manufacturer of curry sauce. They were to be paid ¥10 million together. This enormous sum in the mid-1960s was enough to finance a film.

They completed the rehearsal and were about to do the shoot of them happily consuming rice accompanied by the company’s curry sauce when the director of the commercial told Oshima to change out of his usual Japanese kimono into Western dress. Oshima refused. He had made it a point to appear in public wearing kimono.

The director of the commercial stood his ground too. The result was that the commercial was cancelled, and the Oshimas, who had been paid in advance, were obliged to return the money.

“My father’s personality ran the gamut of emotions,” said the Oshima’s younger son, Arata, who now runs Oshima Productions. “Love and hatred and anger were in him in quantities far exceeding those in the average person.”

Man of modesty

Oshima, however, was a man of great modesty.

On the night before the first day of principal photography on “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence,” he came up to me in the restaurant of the hotel on the Pacific island of Rarotonga, the film’s location, put his hand gently on my knee, and said: “Roger, the coming weeks may be very gruelling, and I’m sorry if there will be difficult moments for you. But, you know, it’s no big deal being a film director.”

To him, real genius was reserved for those creators who achieved supreme artistry without the help of others — painters, composers, poets. He felt that his art relied crucially on his staff, crew and actors.

“A director’s joy,” he said, “comes from creating a new production method for a film and from encountering people different from those you’ve known before.”

As such, each film of his is a departure point to the ones that come later, and they are often marked by discontinuities of style. In some films he uses prolonged shots, only to break such a filmic pattern down into a choppy edit in another.

But there are continuities, too.

“In the Realm of the Senses,” his 1976 film that takes the actions of love between a woman and a man to an extreme, leads on to “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence,” which depicts what he called “the unbreakable bond between victim and victimizer,” all of them men. And though he told me many times how profoundly he disliked sentimentalism in the cinema, “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence” is, in its own tough way, a very sentimental film.

These were all qualities in Oshima’s character. While his films deplore decorum and propriety, he valued the decorum of personal relationships and was a man of tremendous warmth and generosity. Every letter I wrote or small gift I gave was answered with a letter of acknowledgement and thanks. He sent telegrams to my wife and me on the birth of our children, and exquisite orchids were delivered to the hospital.

When I was working as literary editor of the Mainichi Daily News back in the early ’80s, I asked him to write a regular column of film criticism. He produced brilliant pieces of incisive logic, totally devoid of the syrupy waffle seen in domestic journalistic criticism. He was always very correct in dealings of a professional nature.

Although many in the West see him as a political filmmaker, to my mind he was not that at all. He certainly was no ideologue. Every emotion in every character emanates not from some conceptual or ideological conviction but from their conscious needs and subconscious desires.

If you want to know the real Nagisa Oshima, read a book that he wrote for his two sons. It is a beautifully illustrated volume titled “Takenoko Gohan” (“Rice with Bamboo Shoots”) published posthumously by Populasha in August 2015. It is a personal story of his life at school during the war, filled with the most profound empathy for all who suffer, particularly children.

Oshima is buried in Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture. On his gravestone are words, engraved in his own hand, written by poet Kaijin Akashi that he considered a motto for himself and all others:

“If you yourself do not burn like the fish that live in the depths of the sea, there will be no light anywhere.”

Roger Pulvers’ latest novel is “Hoshizuna Monogatari” (“Star Sand”), which was written in Japanese and published by Kodansha. The English-language version will be published in May by AmazonCrossing.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.