Dear Summer Sister (夏の妹, Nagisa Oshima, 1972)

The complicated relationship between mainland Japan and the Okinawan islands is played out in the youthful identity crises of two adolescents struggling to understand the world their parents have left to them in an uncharacteristically breezy effort from Nagisa Oshima, Dear Summer Sister (Dear Summer Sister (夏の妹, Natsu no Imoto). Part Rohmerian travelogue, Oshima takes a tour around the island in the immediate aftermath of its reversion to Japan but rather than the busy tourist spots explores a legacy of colonialism and exploitation in the islands’ war memorials and red light districts. 

The irony is that Sunaoko (Hiromi Kurita) finds the person she’s looking for immediately after disembarking from the boat she’s taken from the mainland only she never realises it. Having received a letter from a boy, Tsuruo (Shoji Ishibashi), claiming that he may be her half-brother but isn’t entirely sure, Sunaoko has accepted his offer to come to Okinawa where he will show her his “brotherly affection”. Unbeknownst to her, however, he mistook the figure of her father’s much younger fiancée Momoko (Lily) for that of the teenage Sunaoko with the older woman half-heartedly trying to head off a potential crisis while understandably curious and seeking to know the truth behind her future husband’s hidden past. 

The figure of Tsuruo’s mother, Tsuru (Akiko Koyama), comes to stand in for that of Okinawa yet the central problem as we discover is that she was raped firstly by Sunaoko’s father Kikuchi (Hosei Komatsu) and subsequently by local Okinawan policeman Kuniyoshi (Kei Sato) who had previously passed her off as his younger sister. Even so the trio seem to interact with each other as if nothing had happened and they were simply old university friends reuniting after years of separation. Despite his present occupation in law enforcement, Kuniyoshi had been in prison at the time having been arrested as a student protestor and on his release raped Tsuru after she told him she had been raped by Kuniyoshi in an attempt to reclaim her body and send his sperm as a kind of advance division to prevent Kikuchi’s successfully colonising her womb with the consequence that Tsuru cannot of course be sure whose child Tsuruo is settling finally for “mine” in an answer which at least earns her Sunaoko’s respect. 

Obviously still somewhat naive and additionally provoked on discovering the attraction between Momoko and Tsuruo, Sunaoko had been unfairly judgmental in preemptively accusing Tsuru implying that she been immoral in maintaining relationships with two men at the same time. What occurs is a gradual sense of disillusionment in her father the judge when confronted, it has to be said with confusing frankness, with his own immorality in his misuse of Tsuru which is also of course a metaphor for Japan’s misuse of Okinawa, a thread picked up more directly by the old soldier Sakurada (Taiji Tonoyama) who has apparently come to Okinawa looking for a local willing to kill him in atonement for atrocities he half-heartedly claims not to have committed himself but feels responsible for simply as a Japanese person. Ironically enough he finds such a person in Rintoku (Rokko Toura), a teacher of traditional Okinawan folk music who is looking for “a Japanese who deserves my killing him”.

Nevertheless the relationship between the old men turns into one of playful animosity which does not seem to hint towards violence, a playful fight breaking out between the pair on a boat in the middle of the sea in the film’s concluding scenes in which Sunaoko offers an ironic commentary to the effect that the “killer” and his “victim” are still “singing and drinking” despite the earlier claim that there were only two kinds of people, Okinawans and Japanese, in counter to the claim that the only two kinds of people were men and women. Meanwhile, Kikuchi attempts to process the implications of his friendship and actions explaining that Kuniyoshi’s Okinawan roots were not an obstacle between them while admitting that he never thought about the position of Okinawa during their youth and wonders what he thought back then as to Okinawa’s future, whether it should revert to Japan or become independent. Kuniyoshi claims not to remember, while Tsuru explains how difficult it was to travel to the mainland under the occupation and implies that it’s better now that “we can go where we please”. 

The implication is, perhaps, that Tsuruo is his mother’s child but also a kind of orphan creating a new identity in a new Okinawa having symbolically rejected both of his potential fathers if seeking a brotherhood with his half-sister though even in this the waters are muddied with the undercurrents of incestuous desire which seem to run both ways. Even so Oshima hints at the secondary colonisation of America in conducting what doesn’t seem to be an entirely appropriate series of conversations with the young Sunaoko concerning the history of sex work on the island and the number of bars geared towards American servicemen returning from Vietnam with the suggestion that the islands remain economically dependent on the US despite the reversion while Sukurada makes similarly crass comments about his relationships with Okinawan sex workers during the war. They cast themselves as Urashima Taro travelling to the magical underwater palace of the Dragon King but wary of opening the box of truth they’ve been given lest their world crumble beneath their feet. Picturesque and strangely cheerful, Oshima’s Okinawan odyssey shot with breezy immediacy offers a characteristically thorny take on relations between the two island nations but reaches an unexpectedly hopeful conclusion in the young people’s rejection of their parents’ legacy and intention to move forward in mutual solidarity. 


Dear Summer Sister screens at Japan Society New York May 14 at 7pm as part of Visions of Okinawa: Cinematic Reflections

Images: © 1971 Oshima Productions

Gohatto (御法度, Nagisa Oshima, 1999)

Nagisa Oshima once said that his hatred of Japanese cinema extended to absolutely all of it, decrying the hackneyed nativism of “foggy beauty and stupid gardens”, yet his final film is filled with Mizoguchian mist and almost a paen to Japanese aesthetics which ends with a cherry blossom tree in full bloom cut down in its prime. Burdened by the slightly more salacious title “Taboo”, Gohatto is less about love between men in an intensely homosocial world even as it asks what it might mean by “forbidden” or “against the law” than it is about idealism and aesthetics as its band of contradictory conservatives unknowingly approach the end of their world in a coming modernity ushered in by dangerous beauty. 

Set in the Kyoto of 1865, a scant three years prior to the Meiji Restoration, the film opens with an audition of sorts as the Shinsengumi search for promising new recruits among talented swordsmen. Already a mess of contradictions, the Shinsengumi is, loosely, a kind of official police force dedicated to defending the Shogunate against the revolutionary forces set on restoring power to the emperor. Nevertheless, in an odd way and in contrast to the elite Mimawarigumi which was staffed only by direct retainers to the Shogun, the Shinsengumi was noted for its lowkey egalitarianism in that it made a point of admitting those of ordinary birth as well as lower level samurai and ronin. Of course, the notions of equality only went so far and perhaps only fuelled its reputation for merciless savagery, but also make it a strangely progressive force fighting against progress in defence of the feudal status quo. 

Only two of the hopefuls are thought to be any good, one a young ronin, Tashiro (Tadanobu Asano), and the other a beautiful boy, Kano Sozaburo (Ryuhei Matsuda), the third son of a wealthy merchant whose line were once samurai but are no longer counted among the noble retainers. A talented swordsman, Sozaburo’s dangerous beauty presents an existential threat to the Shinsengumi order, the steely Hijikata (Takeshi Kitano) looking on conflicted in witnessing the way his commander, Kondo (Yoichi Sai), looks at this vision of androgynous beauty remarking that he had not known him to be “that way inclined”.

Being that way inclined does not seem to be a particular issue within the Shinsengumi, it is not against their draconian rules and in fact appears to be tolerated at least as long as it causes no further problems. Kondo is however mindful of the chaos caused by a similar wave of homoerotic lust which took hold shortly before a climactic battle which would prove to be their last success. What Sozaburo seems to arouse in them is something more dangerous than the accepted patterns of love between military men which is in a sense sublimated as a mentor/student relationship, loyalty more than romance. Tashiro, who is of a similar age to the apparently 18-year-old Sozaburo, lets his desire be known, vowing to sleep with him before he dies ironically acknowledging Sozaburo for what he is, an angel of death. 

For his part, Sozaburo remains curiously passive in each of his encounters, aroused only it seems by the act of killing. Yet Hijikata discerns that he has indeed become Tashiro’s lover on witnessing them fight, Sozaburo losing clumsily despite being the more skilled in a dynamic that mimics their relationship in which Tashiro is the dominant partner. Aware of the danger in Sozaburo’s allure, Kondo suggests having a superior take him to the red light district to show him the delights of woman hoping to guide him back towards a less dangerous path, only the attempt backfires on several levels. Firstly, Sozaburo has no interest in women and continues to decline believing his commander is also hitting on him (like everyone else), thereafter determined to seduce him after all. Another retainer does indeed succeed in seducing Sozaburo, developing a mild obsession, but later ends up dead, Tashiro a main suspect in his murder with the motive of sexual jealousy though all of this additional violence is perhaps only an expression of Sozaburo’s dangerous beauty. 

As so often, sex if not love becomes the force which destabilises the social order only here it’s equated both with death and with an alternative mediation of male violence. Perhaps reflecting the way they look to the 18-year-old Sozaburo who makes a faux pas in accidentally suggesting at least one of them is of pensionable age, the ranking members of the Shinsengumi are played by actors already well into their golden years as if relics of a bygone era though in reality most were in their 30s. As Soji (Shinji Takeda), a filial figure like Sozaburo wearing long hair, puts it, there are no old men in their unit which is in essence an anti-revolutionary force. Nevertheless, the Shinsengumi is on the wrong side of history and already living in its end times, perhaps ushered towards its doom by the figure of the beautiful boy. “You were too beautiful”, Hijikata eventually laments as he finally perhaps understands the nature of the revolution he is witnessing. Perverse to the last, Oshima sets his ethereal finale in a stygian fog and pays an ironic tribute to the Mizoguchian classicism he so railed against in his youth, taking a sword to the cherry blossoms as he like Hijikata severs his own legacy in a moment of destructive beauty. 


Gohatto screens at Genesis Cinema on 25th September as part of this year’s Queer East

International trailer (English subtitles)

Street of Love and Hope (愛と希望の街, Nagisa Oshima, 1959)

“You must sell your pigeons or you can’t survive in this world” a less progressive figure than he first seemed eventually admits in Nagisa Oshima’s ironically titled debut feature Street of Love and Hope (愛と希望の街, Ai to Kibo no Machi). As might be expected given the director’s later trajectory, there is precious little love or hope on offer and it seems his particular brand of grumpy pessimism ruffled studio feathers from the very beginning earning him a sixth month directing ban with a top executive complaining “this film is saying the rich and poor can never join hands”. The executive may have had a point in the increasing inequalities of the post-war society in which humanist hypocrisy offers only entrenched division and inevitable class conflict. 

As the film opens, the hero, Masao (Hiroshi Fujikawa), is selling his sister’s beloved pet pigeons because, as his social worker later explains, welfare payments are not enough to live on and his mother Kuniko (Yuko Mochizuki), who usually shines shoes for a living, has TB which leaves her unable to work. Kuniko is keen for Masao to stay in education and attend high school, but he acutely feels the burden on his mother and intends to work while attending evening classes. The trouble begins when Masao sells his pigeons to a wealthy young lady, Kyoko (Yuki Tominaga), who is the teenage daughter of an electronics factory boss. 

Well-meaning as she is, Kyoko tries to give Masao the change from her purchase after he explains he’s selling the birds because he needs money. Ironically she gives one of them to her sickly younger brother, but the problem is that Masao is effectively running a scam. The birds are homing pigeons. Assuming the new owners don’t cage them in properly, the birds will fly right back home and he can sell them again. He’s already done this a couple of times and is at least conflicted about it, especially as it upsets his sister Yasue (Michio Ito) so much, though what else really is he supposed to do?

This central question is the one that eventually comes between Masao’s progressive schoolteacher Miss Akiyama (Kakuko Chino) and Kyoko’s sympathetic older brother Yuji (Fumio Watanabe) who works in HR at his father’s factory. Another of Oshima’s mismatched, ideologically opposed frustrated couples, Miss Akiyama and Yuji find themselves on either side of a divide. It seems that the factory does not ordinarily employ city boys, preferring to recruit from the countryside and house employees in dorms because the boss is convinced rural youth is less corrupted by amoral urbanity. Hoping to help Masao, Kyoko and Miss Akiyama team up to convince him to change his mind and give Masao a chance, but they eventually fail him during the exam because it accidentally uncovers his pigeon scam and therefore proves the boss’ point. 

That isn’t all it exposes, however, as even the seemingly progressive Yuji expresses some extremely outdated, quite offensive prejudices even as he insists they didn’t fail Masao because he comes from a single-parent family. According to the boss, children of “broken families” become “twisted human beings” which is unfortunate because “corporations value stability”. Even while not disagreeing with his father’s logic, Yuji explains that he can’t employ Masao not because of his fatherless status but because he’s fundamentally dishonest as proved by his pigeon scam. Miss Akiyama who’d previously described him as the kind of boy who never lies, is shocked but later reflects on his circumstances and her own. In its own ways, her life is also hard and she can see how it might happen that she too may have to “sell her pigeons” (a handy piece of wordplay hingeing on the fact the Japanese for pigeon, “hato”, sounds similar to the English word “heart”) in order to survive. She can forgive Masao for doing the same in the knowledge he had no other choice, but believes Yuji wouldn’t nor would he forgive her if he discovered that she too had sold herself. She cannot be in a relationship with a man who is so “heartless” and unforgiving and it is this which creates the unbreachable gulf between them itself informed by their differing socioeconomic circumstances. 

These differences in standing are also brought out in the youthful idealism of Kyoko who wholeheartedly believes she can help Masao by giving him money and then trying to improve his circumstances by getting him a job in her father’s factory. Both her father and her brother dismiss her altruistic desire to help as childish, Yuji pointing out that there are millions of poor people not just one and you can’t help them all, while their cynicism is eventually validated in the exposure of Masao’s “fraud” which accidentally brands those living in difficult economic circumstances as duplicitous criminals even as it directly implies that it is an unfair society which turns honest boys like Masao who never lie and just want to take care of their mothers into “heartless” bird traffickers. You can see why Shochiku didn’t like it, the hope of the post-war era shot down by the gun of a conflicted industrialist. 


Cruel Story of Youth (青春残酷物語, Nagisa Oshima, 1960)

More interested in politics than cinema and never quite at home in the studio system, Nagisa Oshima began his career at Shochiku as one of a small group of directors promoted as part of the studio’s effort to reach a youth audience they feared their particular brand of inoffensive melodrama was failing to capture. Like The Sun’s Burial, Cruel Story of Youth (青春残酷物語, Seishun Zankoku Monogatari) is a nihilistic tale of a fracturing society, but it also looks forward to Night and Fog in Japan in its insistence that youth itself is a failed revolution and this generation is no more likely to escape existential disappointment than the last. 

The film opens with teenager Makoto (Miyuki Kuwano) and her friend Yoko (Aki Morishima) trying to get free rides from skeevy middle-aged men rather than having to pay for a cab. As you might expect, that’s a fairly dangerous game and while it might be alright while there’s two of you, as soon as Yoko has been dropped off, the driver changes course and suggests going for dinner only to park in front of a love hotel and try to drag Makoto inside. Luckily, or perhaps not as we will see, she is “rescued” by young tough Kiyoshi (Yusuke Kawazu), a student and angry if politically apathetic young man. Struck by his manly white knight act, Makoto takes a liking to Kiyoshi but he too later rapes her under the guise of satisfying her curiosity about sex to which he attributes her ride hailing activities. After this violent genesis, they fall in “love” but continue to struggle against an oppressive society.

We assume that the “cruel story of youth”, and it is indeed cruel, that we are witnessing is that of Makoto and Kiyoshi, but it’s also that of her slightly older sister Yuki (Yoshiko Kuga) and her former lover Akimoto (Fumio Watanabe) who has become a conflicted doctor to the poor betraying himself by financing the clinic through charging for backstreet abortions. Yuki complains to her apathetic father that they were strict with her in her youth, that she’d get a hiding just for coming home after dark, whereas Makoto can stay out all night and not get much more than a stern look. Her father explains that times were different then, “We thought we had new horizons. We started again as a democratic nation, and it was a responsibility that went hand in hand with freedom. What can I say to this girl today?” admitting both the failures of the past and the mistaken future of a society that actively resists change. 

Yuki and Akimoto were part of the post-war resistance, left-wing students like the older generation of Night and Fog in Japan, who’d actively fought for real social change but had seen that change elude them. Yuki, we hear, left Akimoto for an older man but perhaps now regrets it along with her half-finished revolution. She may not approve of her sister’s choices, but she also on some level admires her for them or at least for the strength of her rebellion even if it will ultimately be as fruitless as her own. “This is a cruel world and it destroyed our love” Akimoto laments, mildly censuring the youngsters in suggesting that his love was pure and chaste because they vented their youthful frustrations through political action whereas this generation is already lost to the mindless hedonism of unbridled sexuality. 

He forgives them, because he feels that their plight is a direct result of his failure to bring about the better world, but there is also a suggestion that it is a lack of political awareness which is somehow trapping the young. Oshima cuts from footage of the April Revolution in Korea which is described as a “student riot” in the news to a protest against the Anpo treaty at which Kiyoshi and Makoto look on passively from the sidelines. “I think taking part in the demonstrations is stupid”, Makoto’s friend Yoko tells a prospective boyfriend, “why don’t we think about getting married instead?”, drawing a direct line between social conservatism and political inaction. 

Makoto and Kiyoshi rebel by using, or to a point not using, their bodies as a direct attack on the society. Following their rather odd and troubling meeting, the pair earn their keep through repeating the experience. Makoto picks up men who will inevitably have an ulterior motive, and Kiyoshi rescues her, extorting money from their targets. Yet it is Kiyoshi who is forced to prostitute himself, gaining financial support as a gigalo kept by a wealthy middle-aged housewife who is just as sad and defeated as Yuki and Akimoto, dissatisfied with the path her life has taken and in her case attempting to escape it through passion and control exerted over the body of a young man. Though the consequences of a becoming a kept man may be different than those Makoto would face should the less “nice” delinquents get their hands on her, they do perhaps fuel his sense of violent emasculation which he channels into a pointless act of revenge against the society in the form of its most powerful, wealthy middle-aged men whose misogyny he claims to abhor while simultaneously mirroring and directly exploiting.

“Someone needs to be responsible” a strangely sympathetic policeman insists, chiding Kiyoshi that at heart he’s just a petty criminal who liked having money no matter how he might have tried to dress it up. “You’re just like them, you’re a victim of money too”, he adds correctly diagnosing the flaws of an increasingly consumerist society. Only, no one takes responsibility. Kiyoshi’s lady friend pulls stings. It turns out her husband does business with Horio, one of Makoto’s pick ups who despite being nice and kind still had his way with her and then reported Kiyoshi for extortion. Akimoto explained that their failures would drive them apart, but Kiyoshi swore they’d always be together only to wonder if in his love for her the only thing to do is save Makoto from his corrupting influence though she does not want to leave him. We won’t be like you, Kiyoshi countered, because we have no dreams with which to become disillusioned. But youth itself is a failed revolution, and the force which destroys them is perhaps love as they meet their shared destinies at the hands of an increasingly cruel society.


Cruel Story of Youth is currently streaming on BFI Player as part of the BFI’s Japan season.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Catch (飼育, Nagisa Oshima, 1961)

The Catch poster1960 was a turbulent year for many, not least among them Nagisa Oshima who dramatically broke his contract with Shochiku after the studio withdrew Night and Fog in Japan on grounds of sensitivity after the leader of Japan’s Socialist Party was murdered by a right-wing assassin live on TV. 1961’s The Catch (飼育, Shiiku), an adaptation of a novel by Kenzaburo Oe, was Oshima’s first post-studio picture and as uncompromising as anything else he’d worked on up to that point. Unlike many other filmmakers of the post-war generation who had been keen to use the corruption of the war as an excuse for a failure of humanity they now thought could be repaired, Oshima suggests that the rot was there long before and all the war did was give it justification.

In the summer of 1945, a small village captures a black American airman (Hugh Hurd) shot down over a nearby forest. They are originally quite jubilant about their act of heroism, believing that they will eventually be rewarded by the authorities, but are then irritated by their new responsibility. They are already low on food, and now they’ll have to feed this full grown man or risk being branded as amoral war criminals. Predictably, nobody wants to be saddled with looking after him until the authorities arrive with further instructions or knows what to do now, so in time-honoured fashion they tie him up in a shed and hope for the best. Only latterly when one of the children points it out do they realise that they should probably remove the bear trap attached to the airman’s foot which may already be infected seeing as he seems to be in a considerable amount of pain and is running a high fever.

It goes without saying that villagers are extremely racist, using quite pointed racial slurs and dehumanising language to describe their captive, even when others stop to remind them that he is after all human too even if he’s an enemy. Just as their sons and husbands are overseas fighting, and dying, bravely for the emperor so was this man valiantly risking his life for his country. Shouldn’t he be accorded some respect just for that? Wouldn’t they want that for their sons too?

Sadly thoughts are thin on the ground, as is food. Jiro (Toshiro Ishido), a young man shortly to enlist, wants a bag of rice off his dad to take into town to buy a woman, but his dad doesn’t have any because he’s already in debt to the immensely corrupt village chief (Rentaro Mikuni). Jiro eventually satisfies himself with a sexually liberated high school girl evacuated from the city and thereafter disappears – the first of many negative events to be randomly blamed on the captive airman. Meanwhile the village chief is responsible for a series of problems because of his out of control need for sexual dominance which sees him apparently abusing his daughter-in-law (Masako Nakamura) and attempting to assault a young widow (Akiko Koyama) with two children evacuated from the city and otherwise undefended in the village.

The rot here is feudalism, the idea that gives free rein to the village chief to misuse his position for his own satisfaction – extracting sexual favours from the women and controlling the men economically. Because he’s the village chief no one really questions his authority or his orders, so when he says all the problems are new and caused by the “black monster” they’ve brought into the village then everyone believes it to be true. The airman, who cannot be responsible for any of these crimes because he is still recovering and locked up in the shed, becomes a scapegoat for every bad thing that has ever happened in the village. More than an embodiment of the war, he is a symbol of all the external pressures that the village would like to pretend are the reasons it has turned in on itself.

Yet the airman is only one kind, the deepest kind, of other. The village hasn’t quite even integrated its evacuees who also constitute a secondary community. The young woman’s two starving children are repeatedly caught with their fingers in other people’s rice jars and receive little sympathy from the villagers, but their crimes only expose the fact that the man who has sheltered them, and also owns the shed where the airman is kept, has been keeping quiet about people thieving his potatoes. He knows it’s not the widow because there are simply too many taken to feed a small family of three, which means that there are probably several “thieves” among the villagers, content to betray their neighbours in thinking that the wealthy farmer won’t miss a measly few root vegetables.

Predictably, rather than deal with the problem, everyone obsesses over the idea that the corruption is born only of the airman and if they could just eliminate him everything would go back to “normal” – i.e. the feudal past in which everyone does what the village chief says and lives in superficial harmony without complaining about their reduced status as lowly peasants forced to live in penury by an unfair and essentially corrupt system. To cure the discord between them, they decide that the airman must be killed, no longer caring about the censure they may face from the authorities. Only two young boys stick up for him, remaining sane amid the madness all around them in insisting that the airman is a person too, is unrelated to the village drama, and deserves his dignity and respect. Sadly, however, the madness has already taken hold.

On learning that the war is over, the villagers refuse to reflect on their behaviour and seek only to bury the past, superficially smoothing over their barbarity with convenient justification. They receive the news that the American authorities do not trust the Japanese with surprise and hurt, despite the fact they are living proof of the reasons why they would be foolish to do so. We gave him white rice while we ate potatoes, he had goats milk, they say, what more could he have wanted? The answer is self evident, but it’s already been forgotten. The villagers start blaming each other, and eventually settle on another scapegoat – a deserter, as if another death could tie all of this into a neat bundle to be burned away on a funeral pyre as if it never existed at all. The evacuees are invited to leave, and the villagers start thinking about the harvest festival, as if the evil has been excised and everything is returning to the way it’s supposed to be, but this “peace” is brokered on the back of secrecy and an abnegation of responsibility. A grim exposé of man’s essential cruelty and selfishness, The Catch rejects the tenets of post-war humanism to suggest that the corruption of feudalism has not and may never be eliminated at least as long as a nation remains content to bury its past along with its shame.


Short clip (English subtitles)

Night and Fog in Japan (日本の夜と霧, Nagisa Oshima, 1960)

night and fog in japan posterUnlike many of his contemporaries, Nagisa Oshima entered the world of filmmaking almost by chance. While studying law at Kyoto University, he’d become deeply involved in the leftist student movement and reportedly joined Shochiku’s assistant director program in 1954 solely because no other company would hire him. His path there too was hardly typical and saw him become a leading light of the studio’s extremely temporary bid to play Nikkatsu at their own game with a series of gritty youth dramas which included the melancholy Cruel Story of Youth and infinitely bleak The Sun’s Burial. It was his fourth film, however, which proved the most controversial perhaps unexpectedly given its otherwise dry subject matter. Named for Alain Resnais’ incendiary documentary, Night and Fog in Japan (日本の夜と霧, Nihon no Yoru to Kiri) was pulled from cinema screens following the assassination of the leader of Japan’s Socialist Party by a right-wing nationalist just three days after the film’s release.

Oshima’s film is in itself an attack on the left, though one from an entirely different angle. The failure of the student movement would become a preoccupation for the left-leaning avant-garde movement of the early ‘70s, but one could argue that though the movement had been dealt a huge blow by the failure to stop the renewal of the ANPO treaty despite the mass protests of 1960 it had not yet “failed”. Indeed, protests continued and intensified throughout the 1960s until weakened by a government crackdown in the run up to the treaty’s renewal in 1970 and were only really ended by the horror exposed by the Asama-Sanso Incident in 1972.

In a strange way, Oshima’s impassioned attack on the misguided rigidity of radical student politics almost presages the dark place into which the movement would eventually fall through the already emergent generation gap between the earnest contemporary students keeping up the fight, and the jaded post-war generation who have long since given up the struggle for bourgeois comforts. He opens, of all places, at a wedding notable for its solemnity as a young student radical, Reiko (Miyuki Kuwano), weds a newspaper reporter, Nozawa (Fumio Watanabe), she met at the climatic June 15 protest. The wedding is later interrupted by two melancholy outsiders – one the leader of the students currently on the run from the police, and the other an older man coming in from the cold, though both with the intention of confrontation.

As we might have assumed, the younger man, Ota (Masahiko Tsugawa), is not the jilted lover of the bride. It’s the revolution he’s come to accuse her of betraying through her rejection of their comrade, Kitami – missing since the failed raid on the Diet building, whom Ota assumes to have been her lover now thrown over for the “cage” of family. Reiko’s “betrayal” is mirrored in the drama between the older generation as we gradually discover the complicated history between the groom and Misako (Akiko Koyama), the dejected wife of the current head of the Socialist Party, Nakayama (Takao Yoshizawa).

The demands of ideological purity are mirrored in the strangely moralistic attempts to police female desire in suggesting that both women have made “practical” choices at the expense of their personal integrity. The major drama, however, revolves around the older students’ overreaction to having caught a “spy” in their dorm, keeping him imprisoned while they try to bully him into betraying his true masters. One student however, Takao (Masahiro Sakon) – nursing an unrequited crush on Misako, refuses to believe the man is guilty and is thereafter accused of betraying the movement by allowing him to escape. Takumi (Ichiro Hayami), the second ghost at the feast, has come to ask if it was the movement which betrayed Takao by ignoring his emotional fragility, causing him to abandon faith not only in it but in himself.

Throughout it all, Nakayama remains the stoical voice of authority, blaming anything negative on the nebulous figure of the “imperialists” while insisting on superficial “unity” which really means do as I say and don’t rock the boat. The students want more and they look to the older generation for guidance, but the old guard have lost the faith. Even among the youngsters, few think the cause can be won. The struggle is between those who give up, and those who keep fighting anyway for the right to “march towards a brighter tomorrow”. As a student, Nakayama had dismissed the “spy” as unworthy of their revolution because he was an uneducated worker, but now dismisses the students because they exist outside of the economic structure and therefore cannot occupy a space within a workers’ movement. This wedding, which might have been the unification bringing together the old and the new, has become a funeral that marks the death of post-war idealism, betrayed by the bourgeois need for respectability. The students know their movement will fail, but they move anyway. Nakayama, meanwhile, makes speeches about unity to his dejected contemporaries, berating the students for their lack of “realism” as if insisting that the route to social change lies in concession to populist conservatism.

“I feel empty and sad” the post-war students lament, watching their movement withering on the vine. Betrayed by the older generation, the contemporary students have no role models to follow and no real hope for the future, but still they fight on earnestly. A fierce condemnation of political hypocrisy, dogmatic rigidity, and bourgeois paternalism, Night and Fog in Japan sees no way out of its existential malaise as its would-be-revolutionaries remain lost in a fog confusion with no exit in sight.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Sun’s Burial (太陽の墓場, Nagisa Oshima, 1960)

sun's burial poster“Love and hope for the youth!” reads a prominent sign in the middle of a hopeless slum in Oshima’s bitterly nihilistic youth drama The Sun’s Burial (太陽の墓場, Taiyo no Hakaba). Then at Shochiku, home of polite melodrama, Oshima was one of a handful of youngsters (that also included Kiju Yoshida and Masahiro Shinoda) bumped up to director ahead of schedule in an attempt to find voices who could speak to youth in much the same way Nikkatsu was doing with its incendiary tales of the new bright young things. The Sun’s Burial would be Oshima’s penultimate film for the studio before he stormed out after they pulled his next film Night and Fog in Japan from cinemas fearing its fierce critique of a divided left torn apart by dogmatic rigidity and generational conflict was too on the nose in wake of the assassination of the Socialist Party leader by a right-wing nationalist.

Set in the slums of Kamagasaki, Osaka, The Sun’s Burial follows a collection of desperate adolescents trying to survive in an intensely hostile environment. Our “hero” the conflicted Takeshi (Isao Sasaki), is inducted into a street gang after getting beaten up by young tough Yasu (Yusuke Kawazu). Along with his friend Tatsu, he is originally quite taken with the idea of becoming a gang member, but blanches when he passes a room full of captive women, one of whom is being beaten for having conceived a child.

Meanwhile, across town, his polar opposite, the cynical survivor Hanako (Kayoko Honoo) is running a blood racket, literally bleeding the proletariat to sell their bodily fluids on to the cosmetics trade. Technically operating under the aegis of her petty thug father Yosematsu (Junzaburo Ban), Hanako is in business with a doctor and a couple of minions but later has her authority undercut by a mad old imperialist known as “The Agitator” (Eitaro Ozawa) who keeps insisting that the Russians are coming and they have to be ready.

Not permitted to maintain power in her own right, Hanako is forced to shuttle between male protectors, occasionally pitting one against the other in a bid to come out on top. In addition to her blood business, she also engages in casual sex work and seemingly has no qualms about wielding her sex appeal as a weapon in order to manipulate male power. Pushed out by The Agitator, she turns to gang leader Shin (Masahiko Tsugawa) for a temporary alliance. When he too cuts her out, she thinks about tipping off the area’s big Yakuza boss, Ohama (Gen Shimizu), to Shin’s whereabouts, always looking a few moves ahead while the callous Shin remains wary and ever vigilant.

In a move which surprises and disturbs the naive Takeshi who is nevertheless captivated by her cynical self assurance, Hanako is entirely indifferent to the suffering of other women, willingly co-operating with Shin while knowing that he runs an abusive prostitution ring. Takeshi’s loss of innocence comes early when he is sent to go out and find some victims with his friend Tatsu who convinces him to club a high school boy canoodling with his girlfriend over the head so they can rob him. Takeshi looks on in mild confusion and horror as Tetsu proceeds to rape the young woman, turning to Hanako for guidance but all she does is shrug. The high school boy later commits suicide, presumably unable to bear the shame of having failed to protect his girlfriend, leaving Takeshi feeling as if he has blood on his hands. To Hanako, however, the boy’s death is no one’s fault but his own, a product of his own weakness. A strong person, she posits, would have sought revenge. What sort of person ups and dies without a fight?

Meanwhile, back in the slum, a man hangs himself after falling victim to The Agitator’s latest scam – getting involved with a dodgy gangster’s exploitative scheme to buy up legitimate IDs from desperate people and sell them to even more desperate undocumented migrant workers. Full of tales of Empire, The Agitator declares that he’s going to march them all up to Tokyo and teach those noisy students a lesson, proving somehow that populist militarism is not yet dead in quiet corners of Japan. The Agitator has several followers among the middle-aged and older denizens of Kamagasaki, taken in by his bluster and lacking any other sources of hope. They follow him because he demands to be followed and because he made them a series of promises. Only when they realise his plans rest on exploiting people even more unfortunate than they are, and suddenly realising he never got round to paying them either, do they finally rebel, burning down the slum in protest of their hopeless circumstances.

Berated for her cynicism by the now compromised Takeshi, Hanako offers only the defence that she has survived and will continue to survive where others may not if they allow their consciences to take precedence over self-preservation. Bleak as it gets, Oshima ends on with a note of anxious industry as his determined heroine dusts herself off and gets “back to work”, escaping from the ruins of the burned out slum in the bright morning sun. “No hope for Japan now” an embittered member of the older generation laments, and Oshima, it seems, is apt to agree.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Diary of a Shinjuku Thief (新宿泥棒日記, Nagisa Oshima, 1969)

Shinjuku thief posterIn Sing a Song of Sex, Nagisa Oshima had lamented the depressing decline of political consciousness among the young who remained so preoccupied with their sexual desires that they’d forgotten all about the revolution. In Diary of a Shinjuku Thief (新宿泥棒日記, Shinjuku Dorobo Nikki), once again a story told through song, he examines the same problem from the other side – if repressed desires frustrate the battle for social change, then perhaps the sexual revolution must precede the political.

Our “hero” if you can call him that, is a man calling himself “Birdey Hilltop” (Tadanori Yokoo). Birdey gets off on shoplifting books from the huge Kunokuniya bookstore in Shinjuku. One day he is caught by a feisty young woman, Umeko (Rie Yokoyama), who we later discover is merely posing as an employee in one of the film’s many acts of role play. Umeko drags the shoplifting Birdey up to see her “boss”, Mr. Tanabe (the real life boss of Kunokuniya playing “himself”), who, to be honest, isn’t very interested in dealing with a petty thief but is quite interested in this strange pair of awkward young people and becomes something between invested audience member and accidental director in setting them off on a journey to explore the nature of their peculiar sexualities.

These largely seem to lean on the idea of anonymous theft, that neither Birdey nor Umeko are able to accept the reality of altruistic connection and value only that which is actively taken (preferably in secret). Umeko allows herself to be “stolen” in skipping out on already arranged date with a man who had threatened to take what he wanted by force to undergo an unfulfilling sexual experience with Birdey which nevertheless provokes in her a desire to shatter the realities of time and space. Given money to enjoy themselves, neither of the pair quite want to accept it – the idea of splitting it amicably isn’t appealing, or perhaps the magnanimity of insisting the other take it all more pleasurable, but neither of them want anything that isn’t in some way a transgressive transaction.

Yet perhaps what it is they long to steal is an identity. Neither Birdey nor Umeko has been entirely truthful with the other and they are each only too happy to inhabit various other roles as they act their way through life. The final apotheosis of the self occurs solely in the theatrical realm but apparently carries a level of essential truth which finally allows the pair to integrate their identities into a comfortable whole which liberates their bodies from sexual repression and perhaps becomes a kind of revolution of its own.

Nevertheless, their strange journey is massaged by a number of dubious guides from the sex therapist who reaches a series of bizarre conclusions based on little more than appearance and vague reactions to classic pornography to the gentle machinations of Tanabe who eventually declares himself too old for this particular game, and the entire legacy of world literature which crowds their heads with competing thoughts and leaves no room for originality. During their “therapy” session the pair are encouraged to get literally naked in front of the analyst who correctly points outs that they are each wearing masks (though his eagerness to see them disrobe does not seem entirely innocent) while also poking and prodding at their various dualities – Birdey is too “effeminate” and Umeko “too strong”, their gender atypicality apparently the root of all their problems. Birdey wonders if on some level he would rather be a woman, and if Umeko would rather be a man before deciding to search for himself on the stage.

Another of the dubious mentors, avant-garde stage performer and legendary figure of the Japanese underground theatre movement Juro Kara makes frequent appearances throughout the film strumming a guitar and singing a song about Alibaba while dressed in a deliberately gaudy modern take on traditional stage costuming. One of several real life figures Oshima cast in the film, Juro Kara more than any of the others is here to remind us that everything we see is affectation – something Oshima further rams home with his jarring transitions from elegant black and white photography to oversaturated colour filled with the deep red of passion and desire. Frequent title cards, surrealist imagery, rapid shifts in tone and style, and a free floating approach to narrative – Oshima out Godards Godard and even if his messages are obscure in the extreme, his images hold their power all the same.


Diary of a Shinjuku Thief was screened as part of the Japanese Avant-garde and Experimental Film Festival 2018.

Opening sequence (no subtitles)

Three Resurrected Drunkards (帰って来たヨッパライ, Nagisa Oshima, 1968)

Three Resurrected Drunkards posterThe pop star movie has a long and distinguished history in Japanese cinema, but one might not have expected it to include Nagisa Oshima – a legendary iconoclast and conscientious objector to this particular strain of pop culture frivolity. Then again, taking a much hated form and turning it in on itself as a multifaceted form of protest is exactly the sort of thing one might expect Oshima to do. Therefore we find him in 1968 teaming up with The Folk Crusaders – a folk rock band enjoying a sudden flash of popularity after pressing their own indie record and seeing it go gold when radio stations picked up their North Korean themed Imujingawa and turned it into a giant hit. The band’s best known hit remains Kanashikute Yarikirenai which was released the same year, but it was perhaps Imujingawa with its melancholy Korean theme which attracted Oshima’s attention. A Monkees-esque surreal pop-star vehicle, Three Resurrected Drunkards (帰って来たヨッパライ, Kaette Kita Yopparai) is the third and most direct (strangely) in a series of films critiquing Japan-Korea relations, pushing further into the contemporary era with additional questions to ask about American imperialism and the complicity of both nations in the ongoing conflict in Vietnam.

Three students, played by the three members of The Folk Crusaders, frolic on a beach recreating the famous Vietnam war photo of General Nguyen Ngoc Loan executing a prisoner in the street, before stripping off to go swimming. While they’re enjoying the waters, a hand rises up from beneath the sand and exchanges their clothes for a set of Korean military uniforms and some cash. The boys put on the strangers’ clothes and try to go home, but run into trouble when they try to scam an old grandma running a tobacco stand by pretending to have forgotten the price of cigarettes has gone up by 10 yen, assuming a dotty old grandma out in the sticks might not know anyway. Instantly suspicious, and seeing as this is “crack down on stowaways week”, the grandma tips off the authorities. After all, no Japanese person could be unaware of the rise in the price of cigarettes, so our heroes must be the “them” everyone is looking for.

What transpires is a surreal adventure of mistaken identities and rampant xenophobia in which our three students become temporarily transposed with their Korean counterparts – a draft dodging corporal trying to escape being sent to die in Vietnam, and his friend who’s come with him in the hopes of getting into a Japanese university. The third student, “Beanpole”, gets to keep his “Japanese” identity as a kind of control, but finds himself punished alongside his “Korean” friends as they face the harshest of punishments in this increasingly cruel and arbitrary world.

The three “stowaways” are then chased by the “real” Koreans who want to kill them and fake their own deaths to become Japanese. Later the three turn the tables on their pursuers but find themselves unable to pull the trigger because “Koreans don’t kill other Koreans”. In a bold piece of narrative reframing, Oshima abruptly resets the narrative halfway through, literally “resurrecting” our three drunkards who are instantly aware of what’s going on and determine to do things differently this time around – offering the grandma the right money, not taking the Korean uniforms with them when they leave the bathhouse etc, but they still get caught by the “real” Koreans and manage to survive only by “becoming” Koreans themselves, owning their new identities and rejecting their Japaneseness whilst turning their captors’ questions back on them and accusing them of being Japanese.

Meanwhile, the students take to the streets for an extended voxpop session in which they ask the question “are you Japanese?” to which all of their interviewees reply “No.”, asked “so how’s that then?”, they all calmly state it’s because they’re Korean. Aside from a pointed shot at a Westerner, Oshima seems to be making the rather banal point that Japanese and Koreans cannot be distinguished visually despite what some rather ignorant people might think – hence the identity confusion resulting from putting on “Korean” clothes, but he goes a little further in muddying the waters with a comparison between ongoing American imperialism and that of the Japanese past. Koreans in Japan experience oppression and xenophobic racism, but their nation as a whole also suffers from external oppression born of their government’s reliance on America for military support in the event that their truce with the North will someday be broken. Hence they find themselves packed off to another controversial war killing other Asians at the behest of a foreign government and its intense cold-war paranoia. 

Japan of course is also subject to this same oppression in reliance on American military power and so is also complicit in the horrors of Vietnam. These twin threads meet not only in the melancholy folk song penned by The Folk Crusaders, but in the final image which sees the executed Vietnamese man replaced by a Korean “stowaway” and the soldier by a Japanese policeman. Concentric circles flash in and out but Korea is always left in the middle, suffering at the hands of external powers, though Oshima remains largely silent on that presented by the authoritarian government of the day save criticising its determination to cling to American military might. A pop star movie with a title named for one of the band’s biggest hits – the high pitched and cartoonish Kaette Kita Yopparai which is itself a nonsense adventure of silliness, Three Resurrected Drunkards is a psychedelic treatise against systemic prejudices, complicity, and the seemingly inescapable cycle of geopolitical manoeuvring such prejudices fuel and enable.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Imujingawa

Japanese Summer: Double Suicide (無理心中日本の夏, Nagisa Oshima, 1967)

Japanese summer double suicide posterThe youth of Japan can’t get no satisfaction in Nagisa Oshima’s 1967 absurdist odyssey Japanese Summer: Double Suicide (無理心中日本の夏, Muri Shinju: Nihon no Natsu). A liberated woman craves sexual pleasure but can find no man willing to satisfy her, so obsessed are they with their solipsistic concerns of death, violence, and the search for self knowledge. The nymphomaniac and disillusioned warrior yearning for a death that will restore his sense of self meet on an empty highway only to wander on aimlessly until reaching their mutually “satisfying” yet inevitable conclusion.

Nejiko (Keiko Sakurai), a sexually frustrated teenage woman, watches some municipal workers scrub at the word Japan graffitied on a bathroom wall but takes off when she realises no one here is going to give her what she wants. Throwing her underwear off a bridge in a symbolic act of abandon she catches sight of naked swimmers trailing a Japanese flag before running into collections of marching soldiers and chanting monks. She takes up with a deserter, Otoko (Kei Sato), who is on a quest for death though his desire is not so much for the act of non-existence as it is for self knowledge. He does not want to kill himself, but to be killed by another person in whose eyes he will see himself reflected and, in his final moments, reach a realisation of everything he is.

After wandering arid, sunbaked deserts the pair are picked up by a mysterious paramilitary group who keep them prisoner in a kind of bunker where they eventually meet a gun crazed teen who just wants to kill, a middle-aged man who gets his kicks through the penetrative act of stabbing, and a wise old gangster who knows what it is to carry the weight of a weapon of death. Meanwhile, once a vengeful guy with a TV turns up, they become aware of a crisis in the outside world involving a rampaging foreigner loose with a rifle on a random shooting spree.

Guns and knives are persistent obsessions. These men are obsessed with phallic objects but indifferent to their phalluses. Nejiko pleads with each of them to satisfy her sexual frustrations but none of them is interested. Her need is for pleasure and relief, seemingly free of social or cultural taboos and born of naturally given freedom. The male urge is, by contrast, destructive – they chase death and violence without pretence or justification. When questioned, one of the bunker henchmen retorts that the situation outside is not war but only killing. All there is is violence without cause or explanation, existing solely because of male destructive impulses.

The situation outside is eerie in the extreme. This is a Japan of silence and emptiness where monks chant on the motorway and shadows people the landscape. Nejiko and Otoko find themselves frequently trying to fit in to human shapes cut into the Earth, finding them far too big or in someway constraining. Yet they also become these shadow figures, birthing new shades of themselves to leave behind as they shed evermore aspects of their essential selves. What caused this situation is not revealed, but everyone seems to be carrying on as normal. There is a crazed killer on the loose and the police have asked civilians to remain in their homes but civilians have ignored them for the most characteristic reasons for uncharacteristic insubordination – they all went to work.

Eventually Nejiko manages to convince some of the men to make love to her, but she remains unsatisfied. Likewise, the teenage “gang member” who wandered into the bunker looking for a gun gets one and succeeds in an act of random killing but discovers that it was not “exciting” after all. Desire is misplaced or its satisfaction unattainable. In this world of pure nihilism there is no pleasure and no relief, no need can be met and no peace brokered. All there is is senseless violence, devoid of meaning or purpose and born of nothing more than a desperation to quell a need which can never be fulfilled.

Death and Eros approach the same end – the “double suicide” of the title though even this is essentially passive and desperate. Youth wanders blindly towards its inevitable conclusion, lacking the will or the strength to fight back. There is no self, there is no higher purpose. All there is is a great expanse of emptiness peopled by shadows, fading slowly from a world gradually falling apart.


Original trailer (no subtitles)