Oshima Nagisa: Politics is Pulp (Intro/The Catch/Boy)

David Phelps

Over the next month, we’ll be highlighting some of the films of the traveling Oshima Nagisa retrospective.

Lead provocateur of the Japanese New Wave (which he's always disowned), Oshima Nagisa was and remains a critic and filmmaker, and often both at the same time. His films, which, in both senses of the term, “forge” just about any style, can be seen as formalist fuck-yous to society; they’re often inquests into the failure of Japanese politics and history on even the most personal level, from Cruel Story of Youth’s goon teen hooligans, Nick Ray’s rebels given murderous cause, to The Ceremony’s affected aristocrats, strung with all the hypocrisies of a ruling class pretending it’s not dead. Politics inevitably infiltrates the private sphere, as characters seek an outlet for their wrath, itself the product of a society that has, so much of the time, betrayed its members politically and then demanded they closet their worst inhibitions. The outlet is sometimes rape and sometimes suicide, but always, needless to say, some form of exploitation that only leads to more betrayals; if Oshima’s characters are so frequently betrayed by their own class, whatever class it is, it’s all they can do to find people exactly like themselves to hurt. Like the characters of Tati or Antonioni or Resnais or Kubrick from the same period, Oshima’s rebels really just rebel against anonymity—only to find doppelgangers everywhere.

But Oshima’s films are not revolutionary hymns; they’re more revolutionary filmmaking. Like so many of the great 60s filmmakers—Tati etc., or Godard, or Brakhage, or Dreyer, and so on—Oshima shows how our perception of the world defines it; his characters always act in accordance to the style—the perception—he’s chosen each film around, furious when the editing is, mannered, as in The Ceremony, when the perfectly symmetrical mise-en-scène insists on it. Noël Burch: “On the one hand are films like The Catch, Violence at Noon, Koshikei (Death by Hanging, 1968), Shinjuku Dorobo Nikki (The Diary of a Shinjuku Thief,1969) and Tokyo Senso Sengo Hiwa (The Man Who Left His Will on Film, 1970), each of which in a characteristically different way tends to subvert the codes of narrative transparency, designating them as codes and organizing their parameters with the same movement that ‘deconstructs’ them. The other tendency, which has always alternated with the first, seems on the contrary to subsume those codes, more or less uncritically, and to centre the ‘creative’ effort on the narrative as such (acting). True, the fundamental linearity of such films as Shonen (Boy, 1969) and Gishiki (The Ceremony, 1971), two of Oshima’s major successes in Europe and the United States, does not prevent them from being remarkable social and psychological studies, among the most sophisticated to have been made anywhere in the last decade; but to my mind, they are far less important than the anti-linear, dialectical films mentioned above” (from Cinema: A Critical Dictionary, Vol. 2).

Like those other greats, Oshima means to reorient us constantly within his small towns and big cities; he makes us re-perceive his worlds constantly. His films are full of abstractions, visual or aural (often blank backgrounds and selective soundtracks), or in the constant ellipses in his stories, since, like Kubrick or Brakhage, if so much subtler, Oshima often reconceives of society as a mock-up of order: lights and lines, seen at a distance, as if suspended over an abyss (see Boy, below), and preposterous rules followed mindlessly. One example: like 2001, and so many of his own movies, Death by Hanging starts with a statement on the world and ends in total abstraction, as it follows the logic of the law to the point of such absurdity that the validity of anything on-screen is questioned. Eventually, agents are chasing a somehow unwitting rapist around a roof and the government has evidently morphed into the Benny Hill show—maybe Ishtar. As usual, Oshima parallels the failure of reason and order with increasingly abstracted designs until white walls dominate, and the characters seem to move in a void, even as they run outside. At worst, this form-content match is neat academicism; at best, as in Boy, it’s simply filming of the real world, so perfectly calibrated, that feelings of regimentation and chaos both are pretty much obligatory. After all, Oshima, a Brechtian, almost never really attempts to show the real world, at least realistically; like Brakhage, he shows us so many of the ways we can re-color and re-compose and reinterpret (not just visually, but even through the narrative's own recreations and constant performances) basic scenes and premises from reality—recurring again and again in his films, and even, as in Resnais, within a film—so that the viewpoint is never objective, and always, even within the film, phenomenologically-based, or more simply put, stylized right to the breaking-point of recognition. There’s no trusting authority; there’s no trusting instinct; and often enough, there’s often no trusting what we see, except as a hallucination in which slightly abstracted or absurdly exaggerated characters and gestures take on the figurative import of memory and dreams. We're not too far from Hitchcock, and indeed, when Hitchcock takes his hallucinations to neorealist content, in The Wrong Man, he's not too far from Oshima in revealing everyday life as nightmare (except for the detail that Oshima's protagonist would be guilty of the crime, and a great many others, and probably have to live with it privately without ever getting caught). Oshima's, like Hitchcock's, is an ongoing project finding new angles to the same themes, as each film presents a new way of distilling society’s abuses. Compare Oshima, then, to another shifting stylist: not Godard, who cleverly experiments when Oshima cleverly designs, but genre-parodist Mel Brooks. If Oshima’s films are pulp tragedies of people, they’re also parodies. But parodies of civilization.


The Catch (1961) —Oshima’s Dogville (was Oshima the Von Trier of the ’60s?), in which an innocent, black GI becomes the scapegoat and outlet for a small town’s hypocrisy and rage during World War II. Oshima is, as usual, even more enraged—or rather, outraged—than his characters, as every problem the town has or can invent is excuse for the guy’s torture; as nearly every emotional state of each of the grotesque small towners is just a cover for blood-thirst. Oshima’s almost as interested in how simpletons find complex ways to justify themselves to themselves, as they diplomatically discuss terms of action: foreplay to the kill. Mostly, though, this is a lot of drunken fury (literally—compare Oshima’s drunks to Ozu’s, whose thoughts and emotions are directed inward instead), and fire-and-brimstone moralizing, probably right, that there’s no possibility of duty or love in a solipsistic post-war world—but didn’t Ozu and Naruse show the foundations cracking in actual everyday life? The style-play this time is long-take verité, with people coming in and out of doors, and everyone assembled at a distance in what’s either a forum or lynch mob or, most of the time, both. And there are the amazing last shots—the black-and-white fires in the night—including a few-minute take of the whole town throwing dirt onto a grave. Held and held and held and zoomed into the abstraction of hands and a hole, the shot has no choice but to take on symbolic weight of a whole policy and history of repression; the movie’s not just about bad people and deeds, but how they’re all covered up.


Above: Abe Testuo as the eponymous Boy.

Boy (1969) —About the out of the ordinary; forged out of the ordinary; and according to Donald Richie, "Oshima's best film." Against drab grey-green cities, perfectly composed in the lines of railings and roads, modernist stripe-design, endless chic plush—one of those ultra-functional cities we’re getting in Playtime, The Trial, or L’Eclisse—Oshima lets low reds of vests and boots and night lights flash and move emboldened, a bit apart from their environment. In a movie about a family of scammers relying on their kid to fake getting hit by cars, cars are everywhere, often in the immediate foreground or far background, just beyond the scene’s focus, which swish by silently—as if they also don’t quite belong to the scene. And there’s the obvious subtext of aliens, and the kid’s obsession with them. “I wanted to be that alien,” he says as he speaks for once (of a particularly displaced alien of his own imagination), “but I can’t. I’m just a kid. I can’t even die.” More quiet dislocation, then, only enforced by switches to black-and-white, and full scenes of sandwich-eating and clothes-dressing (as the boy calmly gets up in the middle of the night, dresses, and abandons his family), while a scene of a genuine car crash is told mostly off-screen and with a muted montage of ambulances coming and going while it snows. Finally, in winter, the movie moves towards total abstraction as the whiteness covers up all those city grids, and leaves its characters looking both freed and totally dislocated at last. Human life is not only, for the most part, a lifeless hum—the movie is using the same premise of both Crashes, that human interaction can only be mediated through machinery, and even then must be antagonistic—but set against a constant void of silence, solitude, and vacancy.

Lest Boy sound avant-garde—which it is—it’s also the simple, particular story of a father and stepmother and two boys, in which, as seems to be usual for Oshima, everyone is living a lie. Even the disguises the family boasts for society are underscored by the lies the family members tell each other, so that there may not even be any underlying truth or feeling; every confession of the titular boy (Tetsuo Abe) is about how he's unable to relate, and when confronted by his wicked stepmother that he despises her, as well he should, he simply responds, a bit distractedly, "I don't hate you. I never did." Here, for once, Oshima maintains his guise of naturalism—plot, characters, scenes, from the everyday lives of aliens—without simply exploiting them as societal symbols. The family’s definitely something of a microcosm of capitalism’s abuses, as the basis for every relationship, in and out of the family, is money, and the basis for money is lies and exploitation, possible on any level. Yet there’s warmth, mostly in the dallying moments in-between the drama, as when the kid and stepmother, not giving a damn about each other but bound together for a few hours by a mutual lie, go to the local park, to the swings. Like Henry James’ quite similar What Maisie Knew, Oshima’s scathing simplifications of money-grubbers come filtered through the consciousness of the child the adults exploit, a child who at best is curious because he or she is bored and there’s not much else to do. And as with James’ style, the taking-up of a perspective means we can see out of the kid’s vantage point without ever looking in. Boy—Oshima even names the kid Boy!—remains a cipher, playing dead, like most children (or children of '68), a bit estranged. Like Dreyer and Antonioni, who also stick to spaces instead of characters, as characters walk by, Oshima here films the world to make it completely otherworldly, an impossible place to belong to. Boy is, finally, his alien movie, his Red Desert, his Solaris, Western History, in which society looks like a tinny tin construct of grids and flickering lights laid over some blank canvas of fog and snow and sky. About Oshima’s most subdued film, it’s audacious as anything, a vision of people and cars passing through and probably going nowhere.


The Catch and Boy are playing at the New York Film Festival's sidebar retrospective, In the Realm of OshimaThe Catch is playing on Tuesday, September 30 at 6:20pm; Boy is playing on Thursday, October 9 at 6:30pm. Earlier: Violence at Noon/The Ceremony.

Don't miss our latest features and interviews.

Sign up for the Notebook Weekly Edit newsletter.


Long Reads
Please sign up to add a new comment.


Notebook is a daily, international film publication. Our mission is to guide film lovers searching, lost or adrift in an overwhelming sea of content. We offer text, images, sounds and video as critical maps, passways and illuminations to the worlds of contemporary and classic film. Notebook is a MUBI publication.


If you're interested in contributing to Notebook, please see our pitching guidelines. For all other inquiries, contact the editorial team.