Every era in the life of a country begs for creators to define it and give it momentum for its society to progress. Politicians, economists and bureaucrats seem to believe that culture rides on the wave of the economy — but the opposite is true. It is on progressive waves of culture that economic achievement rides and moves forward.

This is particularly true of a close-knit society such as Japan’s, where ideas, images and trends circulate swiftly, due largely to the power of the national print and electronic media. Here, various forms of cultural expression have given meaning and direction to society since the end of World War II . . . with the embarrassing exception of the era we are living in today.

The poverty of our present times is doubly dire: poor in spirit, poor in lifestyle choices. The Japan that is greeting the year 2009 is, in a word, adrift.

Except for the war years, Japan is now in a cultural doldrums the likes of which it hasn’t experienced since its opening to the outside world in the mid-19th century after more than two centuries of self-imposed sakoku (national isolation). There is here a meek reluctance to face the immense social problems that a large swath of the population — from underemployed, disaffected young people to neglected elderly — is being forced, day after day, to endure.

The leaders of this country are remarkably lacking in vision: Their only backbone is the one needed to bolster expedient, retrogressive deals. Meanwhile, the popular culture, as defined and led by the media, is, today, vacuous; and national aspirations are concerned with the cute, the salacious and the mundane.

A look back to the work of one film director can give perspective to this, and perhaps a bit of hope.

No artist of the era of protest illuminated Japanese issues — social and political — more sharply than filmmaker Nagisa Oshima. The renewed and heightened interest in Oshima’s cinema and writings over some three decades from 1959 reflects nothing so much as our need for new direction today.

The publishing house Gendai Shichoshinsha is in the process of issuing his essays and articles in four volumes collectively titled “Oshima Nagisa Chosakushu” (Nagisa Oshima’s Collected Writings). Volume 1 was published last year with the apt sub-title “My Anger, My Sorrow.” It covers much more than his early films. In fact, it is a kind of autobiography in which Oshima discusses his childhood in Kyoto, his years as a student at Kyoto University and his political radicalization in the 1950s. Volume 2 has just come out; and the final two volumes will deal with his thoughts and creative output up to his last film project, the never-made “Hollywood Zen.” (Funding for that film fell through when it was in pre- production.)

One of the editors of this series is Inuhiko Yomota, professor of film studies and comparative literatures at Meiji Gakuin University in Tokyo. Yomota brings to the discussion of Oshima’s work a vast knowledge of worldwide film culture, having written on those of many countries, including South Korea, the United States, Iran and Cuba. Since February 2008, he has also been contributing a series titled “Nagisa Oshima and Japan” to Chikuma, a monthly journal published by Chikuma Shobo.

Yomota rightly compares Oshima with Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini and German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder, both iconoclasts who exposed the comfortable postwar moral hypocrisy of their respective nations. Oshima did precisely that for Japan.

“The former fascist allies that formed the Axis gave birth to [these] directors,” writes Yomota, “the likes of which had not been seen before. . . . They revealed their countries’ continuing prosperity as being brought about through the concealment of the crimes of their fathers’ generation. . . . They went out on their own, having been cast out by the big film studios. . . . Nagisa Oshima is the most important filmmaker of the postwar period; and I would even go as far as to say of 20th-century Japan.”

Consider these. Oshima’s bitingly satirical attack on Japanese chauvinism in his 1971 film “The Ceremony”; his open handling of Japanese racism against Koreans in “Death by Hanging” (1968); his exposure of domestic violence in “The Boy” (1969); his profound treatment of eroticism against the backdrop of war in “In the Realm of the Senses” (1976); and his exploration of love and hatred among enemies at war in “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence” (1983). This is only a partial list of the social, historical and artistic issues taken up in Oshima’s work.

But there is another aspect to his creativity that, having worked with Oshima, I became familiar with over the years. “When we were making ‘The Boy,’ ” he told me some 25 years ago, “my wife (actress Akiko Koyama) had to do kimono ads around Shikoku so that we could afford the next days’ shoot. And the budget was so low on ‘Death by Hanging’ that I decided to limit the set basically to one room and to cover the walls with newspaper.”

In other words, Oshima used poverty as an advantage, to sharpen his message. He didn’t rely on the largesse of the film establishment. Yomota alludes to this when he refers to Oshima having gone independent, which he did very early in his career, after the release of “Night and Fog in Japan” in 1960.

One of his great achievements is that he managed to give a voice to an entire generation and define an era’s esprit despite antagonistic opposition from the film establishment. That his films and writings are coming back to us today demonstrates that our times are devoid of contemporary radical cultural heroes who defy society in order to save it.

Some of Oshima’s films are available on DVDs issued by Shochiku. Kinokuniya Bookstore is now bringing out his other major works in a DVD boxed set. Soon, all his longer films will be available. Today’s Japanese filmmakers would do well to study them in detail.

“A filmmaker,” Oshima said to me back in August 1981, “may be highly critical of phenomena in his country, but be motivated, at the same time, by a strong love for it.”

Japan today, largely mute in terms of leadership, utterly aimless in social direction, is crying out for this kind of tough love. If we don’t get it, we are destined to remain adrift, as we have been for the past 15 years — just drifting, drifting and drifting . . .

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