Sing a Song of Sex (日本春歌考, Nagisa Oshima, 1967)

20120910022716257Aimless youth wastes its potency on repressed desires in Oshima’s avant-garde treatise on power dynamics and political fallacies. Sing a Song of Sex (日本春歌考, Nihon shunka-ko), less the bawdy romp the title promises than an irony tinged journey through music as a weapon against oppression, is the first of three films Oshima would make in the late ‘60s examining Japan’s complicated relationship with Korea. Its “heroes” however are about as depoliticised as it’s possible to get – they interrupt protests they don’t understand and obsess over a single pretty girl they fantasise about raping in an elaborate classroom based piece of erotic wish-fulfilment. All that matters to them is their craving for physical satisfaction which knows no morality or greater purpose save satiation, conquest, and implied humiliation.

Japan, spring, 1967. Four boys sit their university entrance exams with (externally at least) less seriousness than might be expected. Huddling together away from the snow they smoke cigarettes and gossip about miss 469 whose name they don’t know but caught their eye in the exam hall. The boys, along with three girls, are nominally under the care of their teacher, Mr. Otake (Juzo Itami), who takes them to a pub to “celebrate” before getting extremely drunk and kicking off on an inappropriate lecture about bawdy folk songs and their lasting legacy as the voice of the poor and the oppressed who have no other way of expressing their needs and desires. Lamenting that the young people of today lack the capacity for real feeling, Otake offers to put the kids up in a local inn, perhaps hoping to provoke some kind of awakening among his teenage charges but the loss of innocence he inspires in them is of a very different nature. Still extremely drunk, Otake falls asleep next to a faulty gas heater and dies of carbon monoxide poisoning.

One of the boys, Nakamura (Ichiro Araki), went to see Otake during the night and saw him keeled over in a room that smelt of gas but did nothing. The girls, wailing and distraught, attempt to make their way home while the boys joke about having murdered their teacher and continue to exchange increasingly lewd and disturbing banter about their female classmates including collective rape fantasies (but only of the pretty one). The “other” girl that they collectively decide they don’t fancy, Kaneda (Hideko Yoshida), is disturbed enough by the boys’ murderous joke that she comes back to make sure it isn’t true, accidentally finding out about their dreamscape rape of no. 469 and pushing Nakamura towards paying a visit to Otake’s girlfriend, whom the boys have also been fantasising about, to apologise to her about his possible contribution to Otake’s death.

While Kaneda and the other three set off to track down 469, Nakamura splits off for Otake’s wake where he finds himself alone among a collection of former student protestors with differing views about Otake’s legacy and relation to the cause. The protestors break into a traditional Japanese leftwing anthem, but Nakamura isn’t having any of it. That’s not the Otake he knew. He resists their politicisation of his mentor’s funeral by loudly singing the bawdy drinking song Otake taught them at the pub. The song becomes something like an anthem for Nakamura and his friends who sing it at every conceivable opportunity, delighting in its inappropriateness and ironic similarity to the acts they frequently discuss but seemingly do not directly engage in. Like the peasants Otake idolised, Nakamura takes up the song as a weapon against his own oppression and the unwilling repression of his physical desires.

The battle becomes one of audience and agency. Nakamura sings his song over the hymn of protest being offered by the defeated left while Kaneda later attempts to counter with a female tale of exploitation, snatching a microphone away from some Americanised hippies singing Woody Guthrie and protesting the Vietnam war while dancing round the stars and stripes. Kaneda eventually gets her moment in the spotlight but she pays a heavy and ironic price for it, partly at the hands of miss 469 who re-enters the boys’ rape fantasy after it is directly revealed to her and she dares them to realise their baser desires. Suddenly back in an empty classroom presided over by Otake’s girlfriend, Miss Tanigawa (Akiko Koyama), and the silent spectre of Kaneda now dressed in a sparkly white hanbok, the boys get an intense lesson in Japanese history and more specifically the origins of the Japanese state in the royal courts of Korea.

The songs of the youthful protestors, some Japanese some co-opted from abroad, have lost their meaning and their fire. Their protest is affected and purposeless, as solipsistic as the boys’ destructive desires. On the one hand, youth embraces the pop culture of rebellion – joining the flower power revolution and adopting the Americanised protests against a foreign war and (perhaps tangentially) their nation’s complicity in it, while age fixes its sights on a recently revived imperial holiday and a rejection of the fascist past (though not a rejection of the imperial past or a recognition of its lingering legacy). Painted in tones of red and white, the rising sun occasionally replaced with the blackened flag of protest, Sing a Song of Sex is a paradoxically nihilistic condemnation of post-war youth who allow their oppression to push them into senseless acts of violence rather towards the noble causes of revolution and social change which might finally set them free.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Violence at Noon (白昼の通り魔, Nagisa Oshima, 1966)

Violence at Noon posterFor Nagisa Oshima, the personal is always political and urges for destruction and creation always inextricably linked. Violence at Noon (白昼の通り魔, Hakuchu no Torima), a noticeable shift towards the avant-garde, is a true crime story but the murder here is of idealism, the wilful death of innocence as manifested in the rampage of a disaffected sociopath whose corrupted heart ties together two women who find themselves bound to him in both love and hate. Each feeling responsible yet also that the responsibility for action belongs to someone else, they protect and defend the symbol of their failures, continuing on in despair and self loathing knowing that to turn him in is to accept the death of their idealism in its failure to reform the “demon” that won’t let them go.

Bright white gives way to the shadow of a man lurking behind bars. He opens a door and gazes at a woman doing the washing, lingering on her neck before he forces himself in. The woman, Shino (Saeda Kawaguchi) – the maid in this fancy household, knows the man – Eisuke (Kei Sato), a drifter from her home town, but her attempts at kindness are eventually rebuffed when she tells him to go back to his wife and he violently assaults her causing her to pass out at which he point he decides to spare her and murders her employer instead. Rather than explain to the police who Eisuke is, Shino offers only cryptic clues while writing to Eisuke’s wife, Matsuko (Akiko Koyama) – an idealistic schoolteacher, to ask for permission to turn him in and end the reign of terror her husband is currently wreaking as a notorious serial rapist and murderer.

Eisuke, Shino, and Matsuko are all inextricably linked by an incident which occurred in a failing farming collective the previous year. Matsuko, a kind of spiritual leader for the farming community as well as its schoolteacher, preaches a philosophy of absolute love, proclaiming that those who love expect no reward and that through the eyes of love all are equal. Meanwhile, Shino – daughter of a poor family, contemplates suicide along with her father after their lands are ruined by a flash flood and they are left without the means to support themselves. She enters into a loose arrangement with the former son of a village elder, Genji (Rokko Toura), exchanging a loan for sexual favours, later beginning develop something like a relationship with him but one which is essentially empty. Nevertheless when Genji suggested a double suicide she felt compelled to accompany him, only to survive and be “saved” by Eisuke who, believing her to be dead, raped what he assumed was her corpse before planning to dump her body in a nearby river.

It is this original act of transgression that underpins all else. Shino believes herself in someway responsible for Eisuke’s depravity, that his rape of her “corpse” was the trigger for the death of his humanity. Matsuko, meanwhile, sees herself as the embodiment of love – she “loved” Eisuke and thought her love could cure his savage nature and bring him back towards the light and the community. Matsuko was wrong, “love” is not enough and perhaps what she has come to feel for the man who later became her husband on a whim is closer to hate and thereby a total negation of her core philosophy. To admit this fact to herself, to consider that perhaps love and hate are in effect the same thing, is tantamount to a death of the self and so she will not do it. She and Shino are locked in a spiral of inertia and despair. They each feel responsible for Eisuke’s depraved existence, but each also powerless to stop him. Shino in not wishing to overstep another woman’s domain, and Matsuko in being unwilling to admit she has given up on the idea of forgiving the man who has dealt her nothing but cruelty.

Literally seduced by nihilism, Eisuke finally rejects both women. He claims they are responsible – that if Shino had married him instead of attempting double suicide with Genji he might not have “gone astray”, going on to characterise his crimes as “revenge” against his wife’s “hypocrisy”, but then he calmly states that he is the man he is and would always have done these terrible things no matter where and when he was born. Passivity has failed, blind faith in goodness has allowed a monster to arise and those who birthed him remain too mired in solipsistic soul-searching to do their civic duty. Too afraid to let go of their ideals and take decisive action, Shino and Matsuko choose to watch their society burn rather than destroy themselves in an act of personal revolution – Oshima’s thesis is clear and obscure at the same time, “Sometimes cruelty is unavoidable”.


Original trailer (no subtitles, incorrect aspect ratio)

Pleasures of the Flesh (悦楽, Nagisa Oshima, 1965)

Pleasures of the Flesh posterHaving joined Shochiku apparently on a whim, Nagisa Oshima dramatically walked out on his home studio when they abruptly shelved his incendiary film Night and Fog in Japan citing political concerns following the assassination of the Socialist Party president by a right wing agitator. Oshima’s decision to abandon the studio system and form his own independent production company would eventually develop into a small movement, leading into that which would retrospectively be termed the “Japanese New Wave”. The first film produced by Sozo-sha, Pleasures of the Flesh (悦楽, Etsuraku), was perhaps a shift towards “pink film” aesthetics though, as in much of Oshima’s work, eroticism is more tool and trap than it is a mechanism for liberation. Ironically titled, Pleasures of the Flesh is a tale of desire frustrated by an oppressive society provoking nothing more than nihilistic need for psychological abandon.

Wakizaka (Katsuo Nakamura), an unsuccessful young man, pines for his first love – a young girl he tutored when he was a college student and she a precocious high schooler. Shoko (Mariko Kaga) has, however, married – her new husband someone more in keeping with her class and social standing. Wakizaka sees himself attend Shoko’s wedding, dreaming of her running away from the altar in her wedding dress to return to him but, no, he remains little more than a pleasant memory for the woman who has come to define his life. So devoted to Shoko was Wakizaka that when he learned from her family that a man who had molested her when she was just a child had returned to cause yet more harm by attempting to blackmail them, Wakizaka wanted to help. Seeing the man and paying him off convinced Wakizaka that the man would never give up and there would be no final payment or assurance of silence. Following him onto his train home Wakizaka took drastic action for justice, or perhaps it was revenge, or even out of a strange kind of jealousy, but nevertheless he transgressed by pushing the man from a moving train and thereby ending the threat posed to his beloved.

Wakizaka’s problems, however, are far from over. As ever in Japanese cinema, someone is always watching – in this case, a corrupt government official looking for a likely stooge with whom to stash a large amount of embezzled cash. Irony, a minor theme of the picture, rears its head as Wakizaka finds himself blackmailed over the murder of a blackmailer. The official makes a deal with him – Wakizaka must keep living in his same old horrible apartment and hang on to the suitcase full of money without opening it until he gets out of jail which is where he assumes he will shortly be headed now that his scam is reaching the tipping point. Wakizaka has little choice but to agree but when Shoko marries someone else he comes to believe his original transgression has been in vain, his life is now meaningless, and all that remains for him is a lonely death. Hence, he might as well go in style by spending all of that stolen doe, committing a bizarre act of revenge against Shoko and an unkind society by enjoying a year of debauchery followed by suicide before the official gets out of jail and turns him in as another act of retaliation.

Rejected in love, Wakizaka’s quest becomes one of continual search for conquest as he attempts to force himself on various women he wants to pretend are Shoko though of course knows are not. His approaches are many and various but begin with the obvious – he rents a fancy apartment and convinces a bar girl who looks a little like Shoko to live with him as his wife in return for a generous salary and the promise that the arrangement will only last a year. Hitomi (Yumiko Nogawa) is willing enough to submit herself to Wakizaka’s demands but he is dissatisfied by the inescapable hollowness of the relationship, uncertain who is using whom in this complicated series of transactions. His second choice is a married woman whose ongoing misery arouses in him a taste for sadism, convinced that the only way to make her “happy” is to plunge her into pain and suffering. The third woman, Keiko (Hiroko Shimizu), proves his biggest challenge – a feminist doctor afraid of men, she keeps him at arms length until he finally attempts to rape her, though this too she manages to frustrate insisting that he marry her even if they divorce a month later when Wakizaka’s time limit rolls around. Sick of Keiko’s resistance, Wakizaka opts for a mute prostitute who literally cannot talk back to him but finally makes her own defiant act of self actualisation despite Wakizaka’s attempt to assert total dominance over her existence.

Wakizaka uses the money for a life of “pleasure” but finds only despair and emptiness in each of his manufactured relationships. Having failed to “earn” it, he tries to buy love, but what he really chases is death and oblivion along with a way out of his ruined life and the humiliation he feels in his perceived failure to win Shoko’s heart. An idealised figure of elegance and purity, Shoko is an unattainable prize – the parents gentle pressing of an envelope into his hands following his “handling” of the blackmail case a subtle reminder that he is a servant, and now one perhaps cast out as tainted with a scandal they all wish to forget. Money, another recurrent motif, brings with it only sorrow and resentment. The embezzled cash didn’t do anyone any good, and neither of the blackmailers manages to make their scheme work out for them. Wakizaka is a haunted man, not so much by his crime which he sees as morally justified and feels no particular guilt over, but by his unresolvable desires as surfacing in his frequent hallucinations of Shoko who echoes in and round each and every woman in a form created entirely by her adoring suitor. In the end, reality betrays where the simulacrum remains true, but it is Wakizaka who betrays himself in allowing his pure love to become perverse revenge in the ultimate individualist act of self harm.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Capone Cries a Lot (カポネおおいになく, Seijun Suzuki, 1985)

1040003_lNever one to be accused of clarity, Seijun Suzuki’s Capone Cries a Lot (カポネおおいになく, Capone Ooni Naku) is one of his most cheerfully bizarre movies coming fairly late in his career yet and neatly slotting itself in right after Suzuki’s first two Taisho era movies, Zigeunerweisen and Kageroza. Though not part of the so called “Taisho trilogy” (this would be completed with Yumeji in 1991), Capone Cries a Lot begins its tale in the short lived period between the ages of Meiji and Showa when the world seemed open and foreign influence flooded into this once isolated nation. Could that influence also travel upstream? Naniwa-bushi, for example, could could a Naniwa-bushi singer on the run make something of himself in the New World?

Like most of Suzuki’s movies, plot is a secondary concern. However, loosely speaking, our protagonist is Jun – a man who wanted to learn the art of Naniwa-bushi from its accepted master but ultimately ran off with another man’s wife and ended up in 1920s America. Once there he hooks up the Japanese gangster Gun-tetsu who makes use of Jun’s sake making experience to assist in his bootlegging business during prohibition. This brings them in contact with the Capones, firstly with Frank and eventually with Al (who Jun amusingly mistakes for the president of the United States). Meanwhile, Jun’s girl, Kozome, has left him (to an extent) and become a prostitute. However well things seem to be going for Jun, he’s still a foreigner in a strange, and sometimes unkind, land. Is this the sort of place where dreams can survive?

Suzuki films the whole thing in Japan at an abandoned theme park which is 100% Americana – the Old West tricked out with cowboys, saloons and guns. Now it’s strange kind of new city populated by runaway Japanese criminals gambling and whoring their way through life. Jun wants to sing Naniwa-bushi in this odd place even if no one understands him. Originally he’s annoyed by the foreigners laying a hand on his shamisen or making attempts to join in with their jazz inflected modern music, but eventually he’s singing new Naniwa-bushi songs about the plight of the Native Americans and finally joining the jazz band for a full on musical fusion number. Suzuki does not shy away from the racial politics and problems inherent in his critique of American imperialism even up to an including the KKK and the Japanese internment camps.

In contrast to the previous two Taisho set films, Capone is much lighter in tone and obviously more playful even if it includes a similar level of oblique surrealism. Chaplin references and slapstick humour mix with absurdist dialogue and cosmic silliness to create a popcorn candy world that’s still somehow sad and strange. It’s a vision of America filtered through ‘20s gangster pics and B-movie westerns, equal parts bubblegum and tommy guns. It doesn’t make a great deal of literal sense but offers plenty of Suzuki’s psychedelic eye for colour, surprising editing choices and all round idiosyncratic approach to storytelling.

There may be ample reasons why Capone Cries a Lot has never found an overseas audience, it’s a little overlong for one and its comments on race are perhaps a little uncomfortable from several different angles. Nevertheless, it’s another characteristically zany effort from Suzuki and full of colourful pop aesthetics that are much more playful than the rather heavier Zigeunerweisen and Kageroza. Well worth the long strange ride, Capone Cries a Lot is a trip to 1920s candy land that few of the directors devotees will be able to resist.


(Unsubtitled) Scene from midway through the film