First up in the BFI’s ATG season, Oshima’s Death By Hanging (koshikei) is an absurd anti capital punishment, anti racist black farce. The film opens in a documentary fashion with a title title card giving the results of a recent poll concerning the abolition of the death penalty, 71% of the population are against will a small minority for abolition and a handful of don’t knows. The narrator then asks if those who voted no to abolition have ever seen the place of execution or an execution itself. He thin takes us to a small corner of the prison and points out the ordinariness of the execution ground, it just looks like an ordinary house, on an ordinary street anywhere. Totally anonymous. He takes us inside and tells us that the walls are salmon pink, there’s a sitting area for the officials, a room for the prisoner that isn’t used, a bathroom with only a male toilet. There’s a small chapel and a Buddhist shine used depending on the religion of the prisoner. The mechanics of the execution and procedures are relayed to us as we see a man blindfolded, led to the noose and then hanged. However, in this case something has gone wrong and the man has not ‘accepted death’. The guards are at a loss and don’t know how to proceed, most are in favour of just trying again but it’s pointed out it might not be legal to hang an unconscious man and anyway the condemned are expected to accept their guilt and their fate which he can’t do in this condition. So they revive him in order they might kill him again but unfortunately he’s not himself, can’t remember his name, his crime or the meanings of simple words and abstractions. What are they to do now?
why of course, re-enact his crime in crude slapstick ways whilst behaving in a fairly racist way in the hope to jog his memory. As the re-enactments become odder and odder, and R, the condemned man, knows nothing things take a turn for the surreal – a murder that might or might not have occurred, a woman only some people can see, a host of bureaucratic conundrums and disappearing bodies. Oshima vividly paints the hypocrisy of the death penalty whilst condemning Japan’s treatment of its Korean population in the postwar period. The audience is made to face its own complicity in both these social crimes, to answer the questions who are we? who am I? Who is he? What or who is a nation, and why then does this abstraction have the right to end a man’s life? This is a truly profound film made in an incredibly innovative way and it’s a great shame it isn’t more well known in the West.