Nagisa Oshima and the Japanese New Wave

May 3, 2009 § 1 Comment

Miyuki Kuwano and Yusuke Kawazu in "Cruel Story of Youth/Courtesy

The recent Oshima retrospective at the American Cinematheque in Hollywood–continuing at LACMA–was a bracing reminder of the Japanese New Wave, which lasted much longer than the French one– from the mid-1950s to the mid-1970s–and whose directors included Shohei Imamura, Seijun Suzuki and Hiroshi Teshigahara. Unlike their French counterparts, who mostly began as film critics, most Japanese New Wave directors  came up through the studio system, serving traditional apprenticeships before rebelling against the restrained filmmaking styles of their elders (Ozu, Mizoguchi) .

No one pushed the envelope more than Oshima, who in his rejection of tasteful indirection also depicted an amoral new generation of Japanese–mods and punks, gangsters and juvies–flailing their way through life in a developing superpower. The post-war images of genteel city dwellers in the black-and-white films of Ozu give way to Oshima’s blasts of 1960s neon, bouffant hairdos and stylish outfits, showing the world just how much had changed in Japan during the 50’s.

In “Cruel Story of Youth,” a pretty, aimless high school girl takes up with a sadistic but handsome petty criminal, with predictably tragic results. In “Pleasures of the Flesh,” a besotted young university student’s obsession with his high school tutee leads him to commit murder on her behalf, a crime that renders him both a victim of blackmail and his own bottomless appetite for self-destruction.

The films take place in the Tokyo of my childhood, whose locations–Shibuya, Yoyogi, Asakusa–I recognized with delight. I was far too young to have seen any of them when they came out and it would be decades before they were available on video, so seeing them for the first time was both a relevation and a reminder of how many decades have passed since rich Japanese men aspired to big American cars  (which they apparently used to cruise jailbait on the Ginza).  Oshima’s characters–however stupid, violent or wrongheaded–are so vivid that the screen barely contains them; in their determination to get rich, get the girl,  get revenge, they seem on the verge of bursting through the frame.

The strangest of the Oshima films I saw last weekend was “Japanese Summer: Double Suicide,” in which a hilarious, nihilistic, nymphomaniacal teenage girl hooks up with a suicidal stranger in hopes of having sex. The two wind up in a bunker of paramilitary assassins preparing for the start of a gang war. The result is an unforgettable mashup of Godot’s “Weekend,” “Waiting for Godot,” and “The Wild Bunch.” The female protagonist–ballsy, profane and unlike any other–is still making me laugh a week later.

Other directors have been compared to Jean-Luc Godard, but in this case the comparison is apt; not only do Oshima’s early films and their concerns mirror his, but both men came to filmmaking the same way, starting as critics, which made Oshima atypical in Japan and Godard typical in France. Like Godard, Oshima writes his own scripts and is a master of unexpected dialog. “She’s mute and a little crazy, but she’s nice,” says a madam about one of her prostitutes in “Pleasures of the Flesh.”

The first Oshima film I ever saw was the also the first I was aware of: “In the Realm of the Senses.” When it opened the New York Film Festival in 1976, the police shut it down; arrests were made. It caused rioting in Cannes and has never been shown in its uncensored form in Japan. When it finally came out on video in the early 90’s, I rushed out to rent it, mentioning to the cashier at Rocket Video that I had been too young to see it when it was new. “You may still be too young,” he laughed, and he had a point. What I saw was not only the first hard-core pornography of my life but also the most purely artistic film I’d ever seen, one that burned so deeply into my mind that I remember it vividly nearly two decades later. (It opened the Cinematheque retrospective, but I missed it because of a shut-down of Hollywood Blvd. for a Depeche Mode concert.)

“In the Realm of the Senses,” obsessed me for days, during which I talked about it to any adult who would listen. My tendency to ruminate on it unnerved my boyfriend at the time, who once threatened to get out of my bed if I didn’t stop describing the plot to him. (Spoiler alert: the heroine, a prostitute swept up in a amour fou, cuts off her lover’s penis and carries it around in her obi for a few days, until the police catch up with her. It’s a true story that took place in the 1930s.)

Eventually I stopped talking about the film, but I’ve never stopped thinking  about  its amazing power. Oshima’s psychological fearlessness, coupled with his superb visual and writing styles, are keys to his greatness. His work puts him head and shoulders above most of today’s directors, even the best of whom care more about “likeability” (both their characters’ and their own) than depicting life in all its beauty, brutality and complexity. In a time of increasingly inane and boring cinematic pablum, it’s a relief to know that–at least on DVD–there are brilliant alternatives.

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