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Oshima: A World of Their Own (Chasing Shadows, Take Four of Four)

The final in a four part series of articles on director Nagisa Oshima.

Isn’t there a simpler way of saying all this? The Man Who Left His Will on Film, like so many Oshima movies, spins off in alternate directions from a central scene to pose, as if hypothetically, multiple interpretations; all are simple, and totally inadequate. This time, the central scene is an actual short film, depicting buildings, and the interpretations aren’t Oshima’s but those of his characters, wondering what it means. They are communists and the clip is that of a former member who filmed part of his own death but whose camera was also filmed being stolen by a new member who will be drawn back to that suicidal scene as he is, Vertigo-like, tempted to reenact it. These filmed scenes are integrated into the film proper, as part of them, even though the shaky camerawork evinces an amateur cameraman not behind the other images, and in fact evinces impossible filmmaking, as there is a soundtrack on the reel despite the fact it comes from a Bolex--which is silent. What looks like an attempt at diary neorealism may be a hallucination, and in fact, later on, a girl claims of the dead filmmaker (her ex), “I just made him up. He never really existed.” But then, he may be the ghost behind all the other images as well, for the central scene around which Will spins (the short) is filmed like the rest of the film: placid, non-stylized, black-and-white 16mm still takes. For the most part. As usual with Oshima, we’re meant to wonder (there is no satisfactory answer) just whose perspective is responsible for anything we’re watching. But this is also the question the characters are asking themselves about the film they’re watching. Hence the neutral filmmaking: Will proposes as anonymous a style as possible to propose there’s no such thing.


Because if there were such a thing as anonymous style, it would be true communist filmmaking, everyone’s image and nobody’s image. But even the communists here are auteurists, who in wondering why their dead filmmaker filmed shots of buildings as a last testament, recognize a single source of perception with private intent and private insights to reveal. Or not reveal (for nobody’s quite sure what the shots signify). In any case, they’re furious: “He had a sense of self that could relate to reality.” The communists, it’s immediately obvious, want neither a sense of self nor reality, but to lock themselves up in blank rooms and become anonymous ciphers. “You’ve still got the idea of personal property,” they proclaim, and, “ownership is a betrayal of the proletariat,” and protest the possibility of love (“my lover,” the girl says to the group’s condemnation, and as Oshima films attest, love is a form of possession, often economic). Any private sense of self is contraband. Yet immediately they betray their aims as the film clip becomes something of a Rorschach test: each has an entirely individual hypothesis what it might mean.


Diary of a Shinjuko Thief, which equates artists with thieves (each appropriators) tells us that filmmaking, in its ways, undermines a tyrannical order of reality: the filmmaker claims reality for himself, a private reconfiguration and perversion, distortion of it, and shows it from a single perspective as good as any other. But the fact that everyone has their own perceptions is why communism is impossible: people never can fully relate. Yet they try, as they always try in Oshima movies, by submitting to a mutual fantasy, mutual role-playing and enactments, because, as their discussion of the film proves, they have no concept of a mutual reality to submit to (each has his own interpretation). The hero of Will attempts to emulate the dead filmmaker, and even toys with the possibility of his own suicide, to become his adopted doppelganger and eradicate himself. The affair he has with the filmmaker’s ex is staged in front a blank screen on which they play the filmmaker’s enigmatic clip, which actually ends up playing (distortedly, of course) on their bodies; as she describes a scene, it is suddenly projected on-screen, as if she were summoning a fantasy realm for them to enter. In fact, they’re attempting to reappropriate the art into a personal context that has them in it and making love (as later she will restage the film with herself in the scenes), and they end up choking each other as they force each other submit to blatantly impossible fantasies: “The wind doesn’t blow, water doesn’t flow.” (Back to the lovers’ fabliaux.) Sex, meant as a merging of identities, is once again for Oshima only a means to assert oneself over another.


Or is it vice-versa? For the lovers become each other’s doppelgangers, both with equal grip over the other, both submitting to the same ridiculous fantasies, both attempting to kill each other—and the sense of each other in a real living world in which wind blows and water flows. And of course if you kill your doppelganger you kill yourself. The parallel—Will is a film built on parallels—is the filmmaker’s film. By claiming his film as a last testament, to take his place, he claims it as his own doppelganger, which would attest his identity. Except he’s missing from every shot, and the idea of his last testament is that he expresses his sense of self at the moment he destroys it, so he’s no longer left to give it meaning (could he?). “There is no such thing as landscape. All landscapes are the same. He’s in every landscape and he’s missing every landscape,” someone says with a zen-like sense of self-negation to match the film clip’s own sense of calm. As the lovers must kill themselves to really prove they exist (this is the gist of In the Realm as well), and as the filmmaker must kill himself to validate his last testament, as the film affirms his individual perspective by showing things everyone has seen and anyone could, as the communists attest their beliefs by losing them altogether, so death, here, is the only purchase on self-assertion and self-negation both. "The double," Freud writes in The Uncanny, "was originally an insurance against the extinction of the self... the meaning of the 'double' changes: having once been an assurance of immortality, it becomes the uncanny harbinger of death."


And: one can only prove one’s existence by recognizing a common reality with others; and yet that entailing recognition of a shared reality must deny an entirely private sense of self. We are, Will proposes like so many Oshima films, what we perceive. This, if anything, is the meaning of the filmmaker’s film.


We are what we perceive. But for the most part (if we are Oshima characters), we don’t have the same perception of reality as others. We probably don’t perceive reality. We perceive sadomasochistic fantasies of suicide and try to prove we exist by making someone else recognize them too. The girl in Will has to validate the images of the short film as having personal meaning—not the filmmaker’s, but her own—and so she recreates it with herself in every shot. Chris Fujiwara suggests her decision signifies her need to recognize a physical, bodily reality outside—as if reality, suddenly for Oshima, is real—but her recreation is just more doubling: in reappropriating the filmmaker’s images, she’s not asserting her presence in reality but her presence in a movie she’s seen, as if his film were a fantasy she can make her own. And Will, like almost all Oshima films, asserts that what we perceive, or even what we perceive we’ve perceived, may just be a fantasy or hallucination; the girl denies her ex-lover ever existed as characters in Night and Fog in Japan and The Catch and Death by Hanging repress, deliberately or not, memories of political traumas. Once again, only by dictating our ridiculous fantasies as plots to follow out can we be sure of the reality around us. And then, of course, they’re just fantasies.


People disappear and characters aren't sure they ever existed: Oshima's in Antonioni territory. The problem is how to affirm that the reality around you even exists.



Lovers are artists. The lovers of Will lock themselves up, as the communist unit does, in an all-white room with the looping short film providing a view of reality they’ve watched through enough times to predict what shot will come next. As usual, the abstracted space is a stage and a void that allows them the promise of escaping the outside world, escaping themselves, and escaping the past—all of which, like so many Oshima characters, they are desperate to do. To kill themselves; to lose themselves in a group; to lose themselves in an image; to lose themselves in a lover; to lose themselves in a fantasy. Reality is what we make of it. It should be the motto of any revolution.


But I’ve got my own interpretation of the short film. Oshima, I imagine, is saying what an English woman, who spent the late ’60s at Berkeley, told me a couple weeks ago: her suspicion the revolution failed because it became about music and drugs, private concerns in place of politics and public involvement. Like the moment in Garrel’s Regular Lovers, when the student protesters retire to their rooms to dance and dream of love. “Here’s the face of the society you protest, here’s public reality,” the short film says. “And here are the empty streets. Nobody’s taken to them.” The girl nearly gets the point. She goes out—and makes a movie. Her own variation, though the background images of public life are the same. Completely undisturbed. As Fujiwara suggests, she doesn’t contest this outside world, but instead, for once in an Oshima films, affirms its very existence. Here are people who have made nothing of reality at all.


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Interesting piece. The Man Who Left His Will On Film is a truly great piece of work. I believe much of it is also about Cinema per se – independent of the Marxist reading – how images make meaning, how meaning is imposed on images, how “rushes” out of a camera are meaningless/ empty before they are edited together into an artificial language, forcing meaning upon them. I hope this film gets a restored DVD release someday, along with Boy and Diary of A Shinjuku Thief.

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