And the list of the world’s great living directors just got a little shorter. Japan’s Nagisa Oshima passed away of pneumonia today after a reportedly long bout of ill health. He was, along with Shohei Imamura, the most important figure of the Japanese Nuberu Bagu (“New Wave”) of the 1960s. I haven’t yet seen his short first feature, 1959’s A Town of Love and Hope, but his next two films, Cruel Story of Youth and The Sun’s Burial (both 1960), were groundbreaking portraits of post-war Japanese malaise whose sheer ferocity still has the power to shock and awe. Oshima was always the most transgressive of the Japanese New Wavers – he embraced radical leftist politics while simultaneously reacting against the “humanism” associated with the Japanese cinema of the 1950s. As the 1960s progressed, he increasingly experimented with form, introducing Brechtian distancing devices, a la Godard, in movies like Violence at Noon (on the short list of great films about serial murderers) and Death By Hanging (a powerful indictment of bigotry against Koreans in Japan). He is best known in the west for In the Realm of the Senses, a 1976 art movie featuring hardcore sex scenes that is still banned in its native country, and its less explicit follow-up, the 1978 ghost story Empire of Passion (an important influence on The Ring). In the 1980s he upped his international profile by making the WWII prison-camp drama Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (partially shot in English and co-starring David Bowie) as well as the French-set Max Mon Amour (a comedy about Charlotte Rampling having an affair with a chimpanzee, to which Leos Carax paid explicit homage in last year’s Holy Motors). Oshima had a debilitating stroke in 1996 but managed to direct one final masterpiece with 1999’s controversial gay-themed samurai film Taboo.
Nagisa Oshima was previously on my list of the 10 Best Living Directors (his place has since been taken by Clint Eastwood). Here is what I originally wrote about him there:
“With his wild, provocative, darkly humorous, misanthropic but highly personal brand of political cinema, Nagisa Oshima single-handedly dragged Japanese movies kicking and screaming into the modern age. No other director was willing or able to depict the pessimism of post-war Japanese society with the savage incisiveness of early Oshima classics like The Sun’s Burial and Cruel Story of Youth. As with most provocateurs, Oshima’s movies became increasingly extreme over time and while he’s occasionally run off the rails (I think it’s particularly regrettable that In the Realm of the Senses remains his best known work), he’s also made more than his share of trailblazing masterpieces; my personal favorites are Death By Hanging, an infernally funny examination of Japanese racism against Koreans, and his likely swan song, the mysterious and haunting ‘gay samurai’ film Taboo. Reportedly in ill-health, it is doubtful Oshima will direct again.
Essential work: Death By Hanging (1968), Boy (1969), Taboo (1999)”
I didn’t always “get” Oshima and he occasionally drove me up the wall but he also provided me with more magic moments than most other directors. I’ll never forget seeing a 35mm revival of Death By Hanging at Facets Multimedia in the 1990s and being blow away by the strangeness and audacity of it. I also caught Taboo on its initial theatrical run at the Music Box and was haunted for weeks by the mysterious finale where “Beat” Takeshi Kitano chops a cherry blossom tree in half with his samurai sword.
I would now say my favorite Oshima film is 1969’s Boy. It is based on the true story of a Japanese family who intentionally got into roadside accidents in order to shake down the “culprits.” It is number 18 on my list of the best films of the 1960s: https://whitecitycinema.com/category/all-best-of-lists/best-films-of-the-1960s/
Taboo is number 18 on my list of the best films of the 1990s: https://whitecitycinema.com/category/all-best-of-lists/best-films-of-the-1990s/
Needless to say, Nagisa Oshima will figure prominently on my Japanese New Wave cinema primer when I eventually get around to compiling it. In the meantime, I raise a metaphorical sake cup in his honor.
Listen to Ryuichi Sakamoto’s very beautiful and justifiably famous theme song to Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence below:
January 15th, 2013 at 10:25 am
Thanks for this excellent memorial. A loss indeed. Gohatto (Taboo) is a stunning achievement which I realize is now overdue for a re-viewing. I recently watched the feature-length interview he did with Kurosawa. It was thrilling watching these two giants reflect on their lives in film
January 15th, 2013 at 10:43 am
I was unaware of the Kurosawa interview. Where can one see it?
January 15th, 2013 at 10:51 am
It is called ‘Akira Kurosawa: My Life in Film’ and I have it on the 3-disc Criterion Seven Samurai. It is wonderful, as is Kurosawa’s autobiography which I had also recently read. I recommend both highly.
January 15th, 2013 at 10:54 am
Oh shit, I have that on the Criterion Blu-ray! I’m way behind in checking out the special features on all of those discs. Thanks for the reminder. Will watch this one soon.
January 15th, 2013 at 1:27 pm
Very interesting bio. Sounds like a fascinating director.
January 15th, 2013 at 10:16 pm
Did you listen to MERRY CHRISTMAS, MR. LAWRENCE yet, Ben? That should be your jam all week long!
January 19th, 2013 at 1:04 pm
Listening to it right now. It.is.awesome.
January 19th, 2013 at 3:40 pm
The YouTube video is the original version of the song from the movie. Even with the very 1980s-sounding synthesizer arrangement, it’s my favorite version. However, the composer Ryuichi Sakamoto has revisited it many times. This version, featuring piano (played by the composer himself) and strings, is also quite lovely: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5mfyCI82lWM
January 17th, 2013 at 9:36 am
Watched Oshima’s oddly titled 100 Years of Japanese Film last night in homage for the late master. Not very useful as a survey of Japanese film but very informative about the politics of the Japanese ‘New Wave’
January 18th, 2013 at 8:01 am
I’ve never seen it but I always thought he was the wrong guy for the assignment. He HATED almost all of the Japanese films that came before him!
January 18th, 2013 at 10:31 am
Actually, the more I think about it, the more I think the title is ironic. He is on record as saying that he hated everything that came before him and in the film he spends about 20 minutes showing clips and stills from Japanese classic films but very rarely identifying them. Look – I think that’s Tokyo Story! I think that’s the scene on the grass from Ugetsu, etc. But when it comes to his films and the films of his fellow ‘New Wavers’ clips are identified and much longer and dealt with in a more incisive manner. The title should more accurately have been ‘From 100 Years Of Japanese Films I Will Let You Know What Is Really Important’.
When you watch the interview with Kurosawa let me know if you don’t also think that this whole ‘I hate all Japanese Film before me’ isn’t a bit of youthful posturing.
The great French conductor and modern composer Pierre Boulez roundly declared that all opera houses should be burned to the ground. He then accepted a conducting gig at the opera temple of ALL opera temples: Wagner’s Bayreuth. I am just saying……..
January 21st, 2013 at 2:56 am
Throughout his career, Ôshima treated the medium of film as one designed to break taboos. An outspoken proponent of left-wing politics, Ôshima learned the art of filmmaking and began using it against a motion picture industry rooted in conservatism and tradition.
January 21st, 2013 at 11:10 pm
I just got around to reading this piece. Very sad he died and i’ve got to watch more of his films.
February 4th, 2013 at 8:43 am
Oshima then headed into Luis Buñuel territory with Max, Mon Amour; Buñuel’s regular writer Jean-Claude Carrière wrote the screenplay for a bizarre story that, again, tested the limits of the taboo. Charlotte Rampling (who else?) plays a diplomat’s wife who falls in love with a chimpanzee, and brings him back to live in the embassy to her husband’s increasing resentment. Played, poker-faced, for laughs, Max would be Oshima’s last film for more than a decade.