Nationality: Japanese. Born: Kyoto, 31 March 1932. Education: Studied political history at Kyoto University, graduated 1954. Family: Married to actress Akiko Koyama. Career: Student leader, involved in left-wing activities, early 1950s; assistant director at Shochiku Ofuna Studios, from 1954; film critic and editor-in-chief of film magazine Eiga hihyo , from 1956; directed first film, 1959; left Shochiku after Night and Fog in Japan pulled from circulation, founded production company Sozosha, 1961 (dissolved 1973); made
Ai to kibo no machi ( A Town of Love and Hope ) (+ sc); Asu no taiyo (short)
Seishun zankoku monogatari ( Cruel Story of Youth ; Naked Youth, a Story of Cruelty ) (+ sc); Taiyo no hakaba ( The Sun's Burial ) (+ co-sc); Nihon no yoru to kiri ( Night andFog in Japan ) (+ co-sc)
Shiiku ( The Catch )
Amakusa shiro tokisada ( Shiro Tokisada from Amakusa ; The Rebel ) (+ co-sc)
Chiisana boken ryoko ( Small Adventure ; A Child's First Adventure ) (+ co-sc); Watashi wa Bellet (collective direction, advertising film)
Etsuraku ( Pleasures of the Flesh ) (+ sc); Yunbogi no nikki ( The Diary of Yunbogi ) (+ pr, sc, ph) (short)
Hakuchu no torima ( Violence at Noon )
Ninja bugeicho ( Band of Ninja ) (+ co-pr, co-sc); Nihon shunka-ko ( A Treatise on Japanese Bawdy Song ; Sing a Song of Sex )) (+ co-pr, co-sc); Muri-shinju: Nihon no natsu ( Japanese Summer: Double Suicide ) (+ co-sc)
Koshikei ( Death by Hanging ) (+ co-pr, co-sc); Kaettekita yopparai ( Three Resurrected Drunkards ; A Sinner in Paradise ) (+ co-sc)
Shinjuku dorobo nikki ( Diary of a Shinjuku Thief ) (+ co-sc); Shonen ( Boy )
Tokyo senso sengo hiwa ( He Died after the War ; The Man Who Left His Will on Film ) (+ co-sc)
Gishiki ( The Ceremony ) (+ co-sc)
Natsu no imoto ( Summer Sister ) (+ co-sc)
Ai no corrida ( In the Realm of the Senses ; Empire of the Senses ) (+ sc)
Ai no borei ( Empire of Passion ; The Phantom of Love )(+ co-pr, sc)
Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence
Max, Mon Amour (+ co-sc); Yunbogi no Nikki (+ sc, ph)
Kyoto, My Mother's Place (+ sc)
One Hundred Years of Japanese Cinema (+ sc)
Gohatto (+ sc)
Shinkei gyogun (sc) (unproduced but published)
Tsukimiso (Iwaki) (sc); Donto okoze (Nomura) (co-sc); Jusan nichi no kinyobi (unproduced) (sc)
Yoiyami semareba (Jissoji) (sc)
Level Five (role)
Sengo eiga: Hakai to sozo [Postwar Film: Destruction and Creation], Tokyo, 1963.
Taikenteki sengo eizo ron [A Theory of the Postwar Image Based on Personal Experience], Tokyo, 1975.
Écrits (1956–1978): Dissolution et jaillissement , translated by Jean-Paul Le Pape, Paris, 1980.
Cinema, Censorship, and the State : The Writings of Nagisa Oshima, 1956–1978 , edited and with an introduction by Annette Michelson, translated by Dawn Lawson, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1992.
"Situation et sujet du cinéma japonais (1)," in Positif (Paris), October 1972.
"Je suis constamment concerné par le temps où je vis . . . ," an interview with Noel Simsolo, in Cinéma (Paris), November 1972.
Interview with R. McCormick, in Cineaste (New York), vol. 6, no. 2, 1974.
"Oshima Uncensored," an interview with M. de la F. McKendry, in Interview (New York), November 1976.
"Ecrits," in Positif (Paris), May 1978 and November 1979.
"L'Empire de la passion," an interview with Max Tessier, in Ecran (Paris), September 1978.
"Currents in Japanese Cinema: Nagisa Oshima, Sachiko Hidari," with S. Hoass, in Cinema Papers (Melbourne), September/October 1979.
Interview with P. Lehman, in Wide Angle (Athens, Ohio), vol. 4, no. 2, 1980.
"Tokyo Stories: Oshima," an interview with Tony Rayns, in Sight and Sound (London), Summer 1981.
Interview with Pascal Bonitzer and others, in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), June/July 1983.
Interview with Nick Roddick, in Stills (London), July/August 1983.
"Oshima and Bowie: Culture Shock," an interview with Tadao Sato, in American Film (Washington, D.C.), September 1983.
"Campaigner in the World of the Absurd," an interview with S. Suga, in Framework (Norwich), no. 26–27, 1985.
"Entretien avec Nagisa Oshima," with K. Ueno, in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), November 1990.
"Kyoto, la ville de ma mere," an interview with M. Borgese and others, in Jeune Cinéma , April/May 1992.
"Mes idées actuelles sur le cinéma Japonais," in Positif (Paris), January 1995.
Interview with Pierre-Olivier Toulza and Yoichi Umemoto, in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), June 1995.
"Zwei Gespräche mit Nagisa Oshima," with Ulrich Gregor and Klaus Höppner, in EPD Film (Frankfurt), February 1996.
Sato, Tadao, Oshima Nagisa no sekai [The World of Nagisa Oshima], Tokyo, 1973.
Bock, Audie, Japanese Film Directors , New York, 1978; revised edition, Tokyo, 1985.
Tessier, Max, editor, Le Cinéma Japonais au présent: 1959–1979 , Paris, 1980.
Sato, Tadao, Currents in Japanese Cinema , Tokyo, 1982.
Magrelli, Enrico, and Emanuela Martini, Il Rito, il rivolta: Il cinema di Nagisa Oshima , Rome, 1984.
Polan, Dana B., The Political Language of Film and the Avant-Garde , Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1985.
Danvers, Louis, and Charles Tatum, Nagisa Oshima , Paris, 1986.
Desser, David, Eros Plus Massacre: An Introduction to the Japanese New Wave Cinema , Bloomington, Indiana, 1988.
Nolletti, Arthur Jr., and David Desser, editors, Reframing Japanese Cinema: Authorship, Genre, History , Bloomington and Indian-apolis, Indiana, 1992.
Cheryn Turim, Maureen, Films of Oshima Nagisa: Images of a Japanese Iconoclast , Berkeley, 1998.
Cameron, Ian, "Nagisa Oshima," in Movie (London), Winter 1969/70.
"Director of the Year," in International Film Guide 1971 , London, 1970.
"La Cérémonie," special issue of Avant-Scène du Cinéma (Paris), May 1973.
McCormick, R., "Ritual, the Family and the State: A Critique of Nagisa Oshima's The Ceremony ," in Cineaste (New York), vol. 6, no. 2, 1974.
Dawson, J., "Nagisa Oshima: Forms and Feelings under the Rising Sun," in Cinema Papers (Melbourne), September/October 1976.
McCormick, R., "In the Realm of the Senses," in Cineaste (New York), Winter 1976/77.
High, P. B., "Oshima: A Vita Sexualis on Film," in Wide Angle (Athens, Ohio), vol. 2, no. 4, 1978.
Hughes, J., "Oshima in Paris: Reaching for the Flame," in Take One (Montreal), September 1978.
Polan, Dana, "Politics as Process in Three Films by Nagisa Oshima," in Film Criticism (Edinboro, Pennsylvania), Fall 1983.
Lehman, P., "The Mysterious Orient, the Crystal Clear Orient," and M. Turim, "Oshima's Tales of Youth and Politics," in Journal of Film and Video (Boston), Winter 1987.
"Oshima Issue" of Wide Angle (Athens, Ohio), vol. 9, no. 2, 1987.
Bagh, P. von, "Kolme Tuntematonta Misesta," in Filmihulu (Helsinki), no. 5, 1989.
Lehman, P., "Oshima," in Filmihulu (Helsinki), no. 5, 1989.
Coates, P., "Repetition and Contradiction in the Films of Oshima," in Quarterly Review of Film and Video , vol. 11, no. 4, 1990.
Michelson, A., "Oshima's Choice," in New York Review of Books , 19 November 1992.
Stren, L., "Roads to Freedom," in Sight and Sound (London), February 1993.
Hale, C., "Nagisa Oshima," in Film Dope (Nottingham), June 1993.
Piazzo, Philippe, "Le scandaleux de Tokyo," in Télérama (Paris), 2 October 1996.
Miyoshi, M., "'Bunburying' in the Japan Field: A Reply to Jeff Humphries," in New Literary History , no. 3, 1997.
* * *
Nagisa Oshima, the Godard of the East, spent much of the 1980s engaged in international co-productions. He directed Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence in 1983 for Jeremy Thomas, who was later to produce The Last Emperor for Bertolucci, and he combined with Luis Buñuel's old scriptwriter, Jean-Claude Carrière, on Max, Mon Amour —an Ionesco-like anatomy of bourgeois mores in which Charlotte Rampling has an affair with an ape.
These European excursions seem a world apart from the early work of the former student activist and leader of the Japanese New Wave of the late 1950s. Back in those days, Oshima was telling cruel stories of youth, using the ingredients of American teenage exploitation movies, namely sex and violence, to make a trenchant critique of postwar Japanese society. Railing against the U.S.-Japan Security Pact, and despairing of the old left communists' ability to make a meaningful intervention as the country experienced its "economic miracle," Oshima mobilized delinquency and nihilism. Unlike the French nouvelle vague , who tended merely to aestheticize the exploits of their young petty criminals and misfits—the Antoine Doinels and Jean Paul Belmondos—and who took until 1968 to become obstreperously political, Oshima was engaged from the outset.
He learned his craft as an assistant-director at the Shochiku Studios, where he directed his first features. However, the controversy surrounding his fourth film, Night and Fog in Japan (the title was deliberately designed to echo Resnais's "gas chamber" documentary), pushed him toward working as an independent. A despairing indictment of the disunity of the Japanese left—the old left were felt to have betrayed the new— Night and Fog is as notable for its formal characteristics as for its topical content. For a start, it contains only 43 shots. (Compare this to his 1966 work, Violence at Noon , which is a masterpiece of frenetic cutting, boasting over 2,000 shots in its 90-odd minutes, and you realize that Oshima is a formalist jackdaw, ready to experiment in whatever way he thinks fit.) And it was made in CinemaScope. Oshima, like Godard in A bout de souffle , has a penchant for hand-held camera shots. These, though, are rather more jarring when used in 70mm than in 16mm.
Cast out on his own when Shochiku withdrew Night and Fog only three days after its release, Oshima remained active in both film and television throughout the 1960s. His first independent movie, The Catch , set the tone for much that was to follow. It tells the story of a black American POW, held hostage by a small village. While waiting for the military police to remove their "catch," the villagers make the man a scapegoat for all their own problems, eventually murdering him.
In its concern with racism and brutality, whether institutional or practiced by private individuals, The Catch anticipates Oshima's most famous film of the 1960s, and the one that finally brought his work to the attention of the West. Shown out of competition at Cannes, Death by Hanging is as gruesome a film about capital punishment as one could ever wish to see. Based, like many of this director's works, on a "true story"—of a young Korean sentenced to death for the brutal murder and rape of a Japanese high school girl—the film operates on several levels, both formally and thematically. Japanese racism toward Koreans—for so long the untouchables of Japanese society—the mindless bureaucracy involved in state licensed murder, and good old adolescent existential angst are amongst its narrative components. As Noel Burch has observed, the film's style is constantly shifting: it starts as drama-documentary, shot in sober black and white, but it later develops into a self-reflexive avantgarde text in which the audience is addressed directly. It uses theatrical masquerade, paying homage to the tradition of Japanese kabuki theatre. Its early "classical realism" is utterly usurped. The Korean fails to die when he is hanged. The officials—wardens, priests, police—must recreate his crime for him because he has lost his memory. In their bid to remind him of his guilt, they actually repeat his murder.
Jean Genet, the French vagabond thief and writer, is Oshima's constant inspiration. With its emphasis on crime, sexuality, and role playing, Death by Hanging is akin to Genet's The Balcony. Oshima borrowed a Genet title for his Diary of a Shinjuku Thief , and his rather more whimsical Three Resurrected Drunkards , an exemplary modernist text that literally starts again halfway through (at the 1983 Edinburgh Film Festival there was a minor riot from patrons certain that the projectionist was accidentally replaying the opening reel), looks at the question of Korean immigration in terms of costume and identity. (Three Korean immigrants steal the clothes of three drunken Japanese youths. The three Japanese, with nothing to wear and no money, become "honorary" Koreans and are appropriately persecuted.)
It is perhaps unfortunate that Oshima's best known film remains In the Realm of the Senses , a work customarily shown in late-night double-bills with Last Tango in Paris and, like the Brando vehicle, generally esteemed as the perfect marriage between art and pornography. Another "true story," this time of the notorious case of Abe Sada, who strangled and castrated her lover, Kichizo, and was arrested with his genitals in her pocket, it marks Oshima's most intimate meshing of the political with the sexual. Politics constitute the film's structuring absence. It is 1936, the high point of Japanese militarism; the two lovers' retreat into the realm of the senses must always be seen against this historical backcloth. The links between political and sexual repression are obvious, but it seems somewhat glib to view this innately tragic story as being about a straightforward liberation of female sexuality, a sort of "geisha's revenge." A familiar male response to the movie, as to Bataille's novel The Story of Eye , is to welcome it as a scathing critique of the male gaze: instead of being a film about a couple making love, it is transmogrified, becoming a film about what it means to be a spectator of a film about a couple making love. And, of course, it sells out every time it shows.
Almost five years after In the Realm of the Senses and Empire of Passions (1978) came another international co-production, Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence , in 1983. Pop icons David Bowie and Ryuichi Sakamoto were cast in this film, aptly helping produce what critic Janet Muslin called a "curiously dislocated quality." This highly stylized picture is filled with erotic tensions, though this time ones homoerotic and interracial in the era of war and confrontation. Repressed sexual energy, in the form of the platonic kisses Bowie (a POW) placed upon Sakamoto's (the commander of the camp) cheeks, was released probably more in the viewer's displaced projection than in the digests; Sakamoto's character was relieved of his command while Bowie was brutally executed.
Max, Mon Amour (1986) proved to be ill-received—it took three years for it to be released in Britain—and since then Oshima has been working mainly for television as a talk show host. The once ardent advocate and leader of the Japanese New Wave seems to occupy a different orbit that puzzles his admirers and critics alike.
—G. C. Macnab, updated by Guo-Juin Hong