Oshima: Perspective Matters, Take Three (of Four)

David Phelps

Theater of the Revolution again. Oshima’s Shiro of Amakusa takes up the perspective of a blank stare—mostly minute-long takes, from positions fixed as corpses, only for a quickly forgotten camera to reassert its presence at dramatic moments, to track slowly in or out or around—transfixed on revolution. The revolution is initiated, like most, by the squandered proletariat and, like all of Oshima revolutions, doomed: not a revolution at the end, but a revolt. Specifically, it’s the 17th century revolt of Shiro, the Christian rebel who led bands of starving peasants to pointless martyrdom. Yet for all of Shiro’s discussions of historical protocol, Oshima’s not being specific at all (an identical story will be repeated in Oshima’s Band of Ninja); Shiro is sheer, blatant allegory. “No tyranny or ideals!” runs Christian mantra here—the meek shedding meekness to inherit the earth—as does “I never thought of myself,” as if these Christians, bound together for entirely secular purposes, were the communists out of Oshima’s The Man Who Left His Will on Film, almost a decade later, or Wakamatsu’s United Red Army, unsure just how to spend their days without any ideals beyond societal and self-eradication to pursue. Yet as in Renoir’s La Marseillaise and Jancso’s The Red and the White (as Renoir claimed he intended to do in the former), Oshima, as if in commitment to the populist ideals of his subjects, films from a distance so that the leaders and the peasants and the heroes and the hanged all rule the frame equally, democratically. There are tracking shots of spectators to emphasize each of them matters. This is a story of the people.

Or: As in Renoir’s La Marseillaise and Jancso’s The Red and the White, Oshima films in single takes armies milling by: he stages war’s fly by slaughters as self-sustaining pomp, the usual inevitabilities over which nobody has control, captured by a documentary camera left running and helpless to interfere.

It’s two ways of looking at it.

Actually, Shiro is not about Shiro, but a peripheral figure ignored by the anonymous masses. He’s an artist; like the filmmakers of The Man Who Left His Will on Film, he means only to capture reality for what it looks like and, like them, is suspected, his work embargoed, by the supposedly free-thinking communists. (He rants, Lear-like). For the censors understand art best: that viewers will always read meaning into it. That it’s commentary, perhaps most incisive when it’s neutral. That—once again, Oshima’s favorite theme, not only driving his works but frequently one of their subjects—that style, a distillation and a limited viewpoint, can not be gotten rid of. Objectivity is not ever a possibility, because there is always another perspective.

Four Oshima features pretend objectivity, each differently; three of them concern artists to undermine it. Diary of a Shinjuku Thief is filmed in shaky 16mm as handheld newsreel flipping events every ten or fifteen minutes, but turns out to rhyme sequences in their ritualization: they’re all staged. The Man Who Left His Will on Film, done mostly in smoother 16mm, hints at a Borgesian labyrinth in which everyone is being filmed all throughout, the subjects of a documentary we’re watching, but demonstrates the censoring Christian’s worries more overtly, that people find personal resonance and meaning wherever they look (as in Diary, if every shot is mediated by some invisible presence, the shots not only seem more objective, severed as they are from their subject, but seem more subjective, tied as they are to someone’s vision). Dear Summer Sister, which doesn’t follow artists beyond the usual Oshima folk singer or two, is breezy travelogue that nevertheless ends up in brisk, Seurat-like abstractions, with a few plastic red accoutrements of civilization (a couple chairs, a tent) planned neatly against a beach as, appropriately and as usual, artificial civilities crumble. And Shiro of Amakusa mounts its camera and militias, clogged in traffic of men, run to battle in congested jog, as the frame slowly yields thousands of men to a single one. Fires burn lands in far-distant backgrounds and tortures are enacted to one side of the screen in the foreground, strategic discussions to another, all anticipating Brakhage on the Rubens adaptation he’d do for Hollywood: “You'd have subplots where they'd roll off the bridge where they're fighting and get entangled with each other lustfully. And you'd have a great love affair spring up in the lower right-hand corner. It would be fabulous.”

Such practicalities deflate any visceral thrills of combat, of course, but Oshima’s matter of facts vs. the usual romance of battles is only a pose of objectivity—Steven Soderbergh, attempting Renoir or Oshima’s pretense of artlessness actually achieves it in Che, with (a voice-over or two aside) none of their interest in the mechanics of war or routine brutalities—as the epic flame-lit spaces of every shot belie any notion of an impartial cameraman or director. For each shot is perfectly composed in classic Renaissance perspective: lines of men may criss-cross one way or another, or they may stand still, but almost any Shiro-shot is neatly delineated, often against solid black or white void skies, by columns of retreating soldiers retreating toward a central vanishing point where a ruler might sit deep in background, or an artist might mumble to unseen stars. Almost certainly, Shiro is Oshima’s most awing work of artistry. The point isn’t just Oshima’s usual one, that civilization establishes a sense of order (Oshima establishes it visually) in a barren world where instinct tends toward chaos, nor just Oshima’s usual one that communism is a sham when order calls for hierarchies (also established visually, sympathetic tracking shots aside, and even if all men here are specks equal before death), nor just Oshima’s usual one that objectivity is also a sham when an artist, as he must, orders elements into a composition.

The point (another point) is also Oshima’s usual one, that any men of hopes or delusions are artists: they rebel against an order only by advocating new configurations, perversions of the old. Shiro’s artist isn’t Oshima’s surrogate; Shiro is himself. Ostensibly, he’s the one who’s lined his men up neatly to look worthy of a Rembrandt tableau.

Above: Rembrandt's The Adulterous Women, Oshima's Shiro of Amakusa, Warhol's Vinyl, and Titian's The Slaying of Marsyas.

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