May 16 2010

Oshima in the Sixties: Outlaw Cinema/Exploitation Cinema

Oshima’s Outlaw Sixties (Eclipse Series 21) (Criterion)

Stylistically adventurous and brazenly confrontational in his filmmaking, Nagisa Oshima was Japan’s young turk of New Wave filmmaking: formally challenging, politically provocative, stylistically audacious and instinctively confrontational. That kind of approach was a bad fit for the studio system, as you can imagine, and he jumped out of the restrictions of conservative studio filmmaking for a five-year freelance sojourn before he and his wife, actress Akiko Koyama, formed an independent production company, Sozo-sha. Oshima’s Outlaw Sixties (Eclipse Series 21) (Criterion), the five-disc box set from Criterion’s no-frills budget-minded label Eclipse, collects the initial five narrative features from this company. To my gaijin eyes appear to be marvelously lurid genre pieces and exploitation films, less reminiscent of Jean-Luc Godard’s politically laced genres blasts that Seijun Suzuki’s mad sixties cinema. But there is something dangerous under the big bold style, which Oshima throws across a succession of CinemaScope canvases, and there’s a familiar strain of self-destruction and obsession behind his outlaw figures.

Three Resurrected Drunkards

Critics more informed than I about both the director and the socio-political culture of sixties Japan make the case that these are in fact rife with political subtext, defined by Oshima’s disappointment with the political left and the student movements of the past and expressed through the violent actions of criminals and killers and repressed citizens who crack under the pressure and indulge in unrestrained excess. (The film notes by Michael Koresky on each disc, the only supplement of the stripped-down release, suggest the same, but the essays don’t make any specific connections between the films and the events and/or cultural conditions that the films confront.)

I can’t speak to that aspect with any authority—I’m learning it myself through supplementary reading (and if I seem hard on Koresky, let me also say that his notes are informative, articulate and very helpful, given the constraints of his word counts). But I had a memorable trip through four of the five films of the set (I did not fit in the 1967 Sing a Song of Sex due to deadline pressures and other assignments) and can share my experience with these weird, wild, provocative movies of (in Oshima’s view) a culture unraveling in the margins. In the margins is Oshima’s preferred vantage point.

Pleasures of the Flesh (1965), an “eiga” or “pink” film (the name for the popular, if disreputable, softcore genre), offers up Atsushi (Katsuo Nakamura), a destitute scholar who, hopelessly in love with a rich beauty who was once his student, is blackmailed into holding a small fortune for a shabby bureaucratic embezzler while he serves his time. All well and good until his spiral into self pity and deluded fantasy finally implodes and he decides to end it all with suicide. After he spends the millions of yen in a final, year-long blowout of hookers (all hired to stand in for the lost love, who keeps reappearing in waking fantasies that only push him farther into madness) and high living, a last (and quite possibly first) blast of pure sensual excess for this repressed intellectual. That he seems to get very little pleasure from his carnival of flesh seems par for the course: he’s after neither comfort nor gratification. “I want to take my pleasure out on your body,” he tells his first stand-in, a hooker he hires by the month until her pimp comes by for a bigger cut, but his heart doesn’t really seem to be in any kind of sado-masochistic experience (unless you count the self-torture of his experience). The narrative leaps ahead from one girl to the next without the complications of explanations or exposition. They’re just stand-ins for his real desire and Atsushi wants nothing to do with their outside identities, even though he can’t help but get involved when those real lives intrude on his fantasy. He’s a strange mix of cruelty and kindness, in one scene objectifying his latest girl, in the next nursing her back to health over the course of the contracted month. The opportunity to lavish such caring attention is as satisfying as anything else he would or could have done to her.

For an eiga it is unusually restrained—at least in terms of nudity (none) and carnal acts (fewer than one would expect)—but as a piece of Oshima exploitation cinema it’s all unhinged excess and a fascinatingly surreal experience. I like to think of it as a twisted Brewster’s Millions with a perverse sexual focus, a suicidal twist and a biting edge of class distinction that tradition has so ingrained in the poor scholar. Scripted by Oshima from a novel by Futaro Yamada, it’s a fever dream fantasy that elicits no pleasure for the dreamer, who is constantly brought back down to the business of sex by the constant intrusions of husbands, pimps, gangsters and others who want their payoffs, until the last wicked twist of the story gives him a final kick in the gut. Irony? Maybe, but it feels less like poetic justice than the last sardonic punchline in the perverse practical joke his life has become.

Violence at Noon (1966), scripted by Taijun Takeda from the novel by Takeshi Tamura, does away with the passive rebellion of Pleasures for a total mad dog of an amoral outlaw: a serial robber with a string of home invasions and sexual assaults. Eisuke (Kei Satô), who has been branded the “High Noon Attacker,” is a completely feral figure who opens the film by raping Shino (Saeda Kawaguchi), a maid to a wealthy family who was once the object of Eisuke’s lust. “I saved your life,” he reminds her as he hauls her up the stairs and removes her panties. Sure enough a jigsaw puzzle of flashbacks fills in their complicated back story and reveals his first assault on a helpless girl, a transgression that plays as both a first act of animal savagery and an (inadvertent) act of grace, an unexpected side-effect that really does a number on them both. Meanwhile Shino writes to Eisuke’s wife Matsuko (Akiko Koyama, Oshima’s wife and production company partner) and soon enough Eisuke’s story becomes secondary to Shino and Matsuko, the women in his life who protect him from the police while they sort out their complicated feelings for him. The film jumps back and forth in time, trades narrators and fragments the narrative in rapid cuts. Oshima, who had spent years exploring the expressive qualities of long takes, reverts to a furious montage style, carving up scenes into slivers and creating a momentum that makes it all feel like it’s spiraling out of all control.

The backstory involves a collective farm founded by Matsuko, an ideal that collapses in bad weather, capitalist ambition and an attempted double suicide that all the flashbacks circle around. (Oshima historians make the connection to the director’s disillusionment with the political left in the self-destruction of the commune.) Unambitious farm worker Eisuke becomes a violent criminal whose motivations can be pinpointed but not exactly explained—guilt, desire, obsession, lust and hate all collide and explode in this shiftless character—but behind his dead eyes is a fire that drives him to more transgressive assaults. Death and destruction and disappointment hang over the film (it ends with the hauntingly nihilistic, “I’ve failed to die again and I’m only 20″). He never says, “Stop me before I kill again,” but it seems to be his unspoken cry. Unlike Godard’s rebel heroes, Oshima has no admiration for Eisuke. Sympathy perhaps, but he’s neither rebel nor hero, merely a product of his failed society sealing his own doom with every anti-social stab. Oshima is less interested in his psychosis is the unearned loyalty of the women he betrayed.

Saeda Kawaguchi in "Violence at Noon"

“(A)n almost Sartrean study of dead-end youth and the death drive in Japanese culture,” is how essayist Michael Koresky describes the savagely satirical and nearly abstract Japanese Summer: Double Suicide (1967). A frustrated nymphomaniac (Keiko Sakurai) follows a parade of student protesters (looking for someone, anyone, to give her a tumble) and meets a suicidal military deserter (Kei Satô). They drift into the desert and are captured by a group that may be a criminal gang or a political cell (we’re never quite sure) that is more excited by the opportunity of unleashing violence than any perceived goals. Locked in a dungeon-like cell of a crumbling compound with other prisoners (each as single-minded in their own pursuits) hear reports of a killing spree by a “foreigner” from a broken television and eventually sneak out into a surreal world of empty, rubble-strewn cityscapes and troops moving in to take on the summer of violence (“It’s like Dallas, but a Japanese Dallas,” insists the media reports). It’s a reference to the Kennedy assassination, but when we finally meet the American killer, he has an eerie resemblance to another Texas-based killer: Charles Whitman.

Japanese Summer: Double Suicide is completely warped, a collection of insane caricatures utterly disconnected from one another, swapping slogans and non-sequiturs in an abstract world where violence isn’t a means to an end but an end to itself. One of the prisoners, a young would-be gang-member, gushes over every weapon revealed in his presence and, when he finally gets his chance to start shooting, goes after the first targets that present themselves. He doesn’t care who they are, he just wants his chance to shoot someone. This is as cheerfully, absurdly nihilistic as anything I’ve seen come from the sixties, a strange and weirdly funny portrait of culture without a philosophy, indulging its most base desires—sex, violence, rebellion for its own sake—at any cost.

The final film in the set, Three Resurrected Drunkards (1968) is a sureal satire of Japanese bigotry in relation to Korean immigrants and he puts his most blistering commentaries and confrontational images in absurdist comic scenes. Three schoolboys at beach prance and goof and recreate the famous war photo of the bullet in the head execution of a Vietcong prisoner by an officer, while a maddeningly inane and weirdly nihilistic pop song (sped up to chipmunk-style voices) plays over the soundtrack. When their clothes are stolen, replaced with Korean uniforms, they are suddenly mistaken for undocumented Koreans (“Crack Down on Stowaways Week,” reads on sign at the beach town) and hide from both the police and the actual illegal aliens, who are determined to kill the boys and leave their corpses for the cops.

Full of references to the Vietnam war (in one fantasy sequence, the boys end up on the front lines of the war) and punctuated by dream scenes and mock-documentary interludes, the film pulls its greatest gag halfway through when it suddenly begins all over again, literally replaying the opening sequence scene by scene before the boys, recalling what happened the first time through, try to change their fate with some different choices. It’s a comic a bit of sly self-reflexivity in a film that is all self-aware socio-political commentary in the guise of youth film comedy. The film bounces the idea of identity and nationality through various collisions and skits until the boys’ own identities become blurred and confused. Whether or not they are what they wear, they are certainly treated that way.

Sing a Song of Sex (1967), about a student weekend getaway of drinking, desire and apathy, completes out the set. These are strange, fractured films from the youth culture of sixties Japan by a politically savvy filmmaker disillusioned with both the conservative society and the culture of the left, full of references incomprehensible to most Americans (me included). I confess that I probably miss the majority of specific political and social commentaries but I’m captivated by his madcap humor and outrageous excesses and the mix of political content and cinematic farce. The creative energy and visual invention drives them with a momentum that can keep you riveted to them. Five discs in separate thinpak cases in a paperboard sleeve.

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