Oshima: Theater of the Revolution, Take Two (of Four)

David Phelps

Restart. Capitalism, hard-wired for subjugations, turns relationships into staged exchanges. Everyone is under some sort of control and wants some more. Rebellion is transgression is sexual. Oshima rebels against definitive conceptions of realities (anyway built of lies, fantasies, and repressions) by conceiving alternate variations of stories and scenes. Diary of a Shinjuku Thief plays as his one’60s free-for-all collage: that anything-goes pastiche of skits and documentary footage and reenactments and stock footage (not all present here), loosely tied together by undeveloped themes of self-reflexive filmmaking and sexual rebellion paralleled by the filmmaker’s own flouting of order and structure, that wannabe anarchists like Robert Downey Sr., Brian DePalma, and Matsumoto Toshio were tossing off around the same time. More than any of Oshima’s others, it’s a film founded and unfounded, based and debased, on switches: not just the switch from segment to segment, narrative to documentary, but the switch from black-and-white to color (eye-popping scarlets, mostly). Oshima doesn’t just play some segments one way and some another, but suddenly, in the middle of the scene toggles a shot into color, and it’s as though the scene has changed altogether; the 16mm black-and-white taken, by convention, for on-screen reality is undermined entirely when the perspective changes to give a much more accurate view of the way the scene would actually look (colorful). As if there’s only one.

Again: one reason there’s no actual reality to grasp is because everything is staged. The story that Diary doesn’t really concern involves a boy who gets off (actually) stealing books—and getting caught by a cute employee who may just have taken the job to catch him. Such control games become a ritual, pointless but for its own sake; “Miss Suzuki, you don’t need to bring me every shoplifter you find,” the store’s boss says. “I’m quite busy.” Commentators have noted almost all of Diary films rituals of one sort or another (like so many Oshimas—another effect of the same scenes recapitulated in Hanging or Drunkards is to turn them into variations off a rite). The time, specified throughout to the hour, is 1968, which is why time is ousted in an opening montage of shattering clocks (freedom from daily regulations—the great regulator!), but the public demonstrations here are neither chaotic nor political. Men stand on their head in unison and a sort of noh play plays on and on and, as if by invocation, a mock-rape staged by lovers ends up enacted by a bunch of men who punch the boy and rape the girl on the street (more questions about why this performance is any more “real” than the boy’s). “I believe even sex with animals or incest would help,” states one interviewee, one of the drunken cast and crew of Hanging questioned in the “documentary” segments throughout, discussing freedom for the human race. As elsewhere in Oshima, the transgressions aren’t simply instinctual relief, but practical, predetermined solutions to play at some semblance of personal control (if not self-control) against overwhelming societal impotence and chaos under governments or revolutions. Rituals.

Diary of a Shinjuku Thief, it’s called, like Yunbogi’s Diary follows a story through still-photos: both playing at objectivity, in Thief’s handheld 16mm, in Yunbogi’s found photos, when of course there’s no such thing. Reality isn’t captured, but formed—and performed. To somebody’s fantasy or another’s everyone else’s subjugated. Through them characters find closed, closed-in environments to release their rage, sexually, usually (In the Realm of the Senses is the prime case). In Oshima’s 1968, a boy doesn’t steal to promote communist freedom from private property, but to cum; as in Pleasures of the Flesh, an order is needed to transgress against. That Lubitsch told a similar story, of people who need the titillation of burglary and charades and threats of exploitation and, in Trouble in Paradise’s final scene, time-honored rituals to maintain a love affair; that then, sublimely, Hitchcock told that one again, of people who sublimate their sexual longings into metaphors of thievary ("Look John. Hold them," Francie says looking down. "Diamonds.") and fireworks ("I have a feeling that tonight you're going to see one of the Riviera's most fascinating sights") and fried chicken ("A wing or a breast?") in To Catch a Thief only demonstrates that Diary’s point isn’t its achievement. (Its achievement is its point.) Color switches on and plots are sublimated into theater pieces. The reminder throughout Diary that—as its title also indicates—everything is seen subjectively, from one perspective as good as another, is a reminder as well, in its way, that everything we see, no matter how “true” or truly felt the emotions expressed, is a construct, like Hanging or like Drunkards, one viewpoint on the way things might have looked.

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