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)