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Now on DVD: Shapeshifting Songs of Sex

The movies of Nagisa Oshima famously change shape—genre and style—from one to the next, but perhaps most surprising inside this accepted generalization is when the films change within themselves. Sing a Sing of Sex—the director's 1968 feature about a male quartet of recent high school graduates on the afternoon after their university entrance exams—nearly jumps the shark half way through, but its first half is one of the most outrageous and inventive of the director’s many galling openings. It also seems one of the purest of existentialist movies, employing a narrative neither digressive nor wandering, yet somehow freeform, based on choices arbitrary, willful, and fantastic.

The boys focus initially more on sex than on their exams or their future, and especially on the identity of an unknown but beautiful female student spied during the tests. In lieu of being able to find out who she is, the students find some girls they do know—less cute but imminently easier to tease—and end up toasting their high school days goodbye with the girls and a beloved professor. In a similar kind of limbo-like funk of confused sexual desires and frustrated future as his young students, the professor drags the co-ed group to several increasingly more off-putting bars and lectures drunkenly on how ribald, sexually suggestive folk songs were authentic expressions of the lower classes. (Both Oshima and fellow Japanese New Wave director Shohei Imamura would definitely agree.) They party well past the last train—in a repeated gag, the drunken, frustrated night seems to loop, the group impossibly passing by the same place twice in the same shot, the first time instantly doubling back after they walk out of frame, the second time exiting frame left and entering frame right to repeat the scene!—so the group retires to an inn for a night of horny fidgeting. The boys make joking and pretty pathetic attempts to get into the girls' room down the hall, and the lead boy, checking his professor's room, finds the gas stove overturned and the professor sound asleep in the poisonous air. After another rendition of Sing a Song of Sex's musical anthem of masculine precaution before bedding various kinds of women ("if a girl is an only child, you must ask her parent's permission; if the girl is ugly, sleep with a rag over her head…" etc.) the boy simply walks away from the unconscious, dying man.

The incredible moral choice made by the student instead of being focused on by the film is carried along by its freeform, youthful movement. The next day, after a police investigation, the four boys tease the girls by saying they killed the professor, and the lead boy stoically turns over in his head his passive decision to let the man die. The climax of the film’s first half, and what undoubtedly prompted Jonathan Rosenbaum's flat-out untrue judgment of Sing a Song of Sex in a 2008 issue of Cinema Scope as "rape-happy," is a tremendous sequence where the boys slowly walk down the underground hallways of a subway station and thoughtfully postulate various scenarios of raping the mysterious, beautiful girl they spied at the beginning of the film. These introspective thoughts are fascinatingly portrayed as a kind of collective fantasy: the boys taking turns variously raping the girl in front of a class full of test takers as the others look on, snickering. Oshima's characteristically post-synced soundtrack—like many of his other films eliminating nearly all ambient noise from his film and leaving just the lonely sounds of dubbed voices and scattered sound effects when necessary—has the boys' voices whispering overlapping comments, suggestions, and questions from outside of the fantasy, as if the scene is a visualization of their dialog as their walk through the subway, or theirs is an audio commentary on an interactive movie they are all watching together.

Afterward, the lead boy tries to confess his guilt and takes the film down an even stranger route of folk music and protest group parodies, as well as a late-act appearance of a common Oshima subject—the link between Korean and Japanese national identity. It all gets decidedly weirder—and as the title promises, the songs and the sex don't stop; there is at least one more implied rape (one far more disturbing than the already frighteningly constructed fantasy sequence) and an endless amount of American folk songs sung in Japanese-English. But Sing a Song of Sex never quite regains the fluid ease and freedom of its first half. The atmosphere was of a terrifying freedom of association and possibility, of boredom and culpability, of lust and the tangents of politics, ethics, and individuality it inspires. The surprise at this inspired storytelling was even greater after the film changed midway through for the worse and the weirder. In a narrative whose inspiration was in its unexpectedly free movements, Oshima, forever shape shifting as a filmmaker, reveals that he can even shape shift mid-film.

***

Sing a Song of Sex is a part of The Criterion Collection's Eclipse Series 21: Oshima's Outlaw Sixties

Thanks for writing about this, Danny. For me, this was the single greatest discovery of last year’s touring Oshima retrospective. I attended all three screenings in Chicago and discovered new things about it each time. Personally, I don’t think the second half of the film is a let-down, but one of Oshima’s greatest provocations. The degeneration from a bawdy youth-culture picture into so much awful behavior (the boys’ apathy at the peace rally, the rape fantasies) suggests a growing skepticism at the students of Japan circa 1968. It’s worth noting that the victim of the final scene is Korean, a reminder of Japan’s imperial past as well as its ongoing chauvinism. And by staging this scene half-way between dream and reality, Oshima ties these sins directly to what you term the collective fantasy—which is something a lot harder to fix than outright behavior. For me, the mix of pop art exuberance and political critique makes “Sing a Song of Sex” the only other film of its time worthy of comparison with Godard’s “La Chinoise.” And while both are products of the zeitgeist, neither feels at all dated.
Hi Ben, glad someone else has seen this! I think I only felt the second half a let down in that the spontaneity of the film devolved into a morass. It was clearly an intentional structural move, and that section absolutely is scathing, funny and horrible, but also less dynamic, and, I thought, less interesting. Agree completely on your final point too. In that retro did you happen to catch My Summer Sister? That for me was the real find, but unfortunately it’s not on video.
“My Summer Sister”… I think I did. Was that the one from the early 70s that looked like a soft-core film? If I’m thinking of the right one, I recall liking it but feeling a little adrift on the allegorical aspects. Apparently (and, again, assuming we’re talking about the same thing), Oshima made it immediately after Okinawa returned to Japanese control. I thought it was both a strength and a limitation that the political sentiments ran so fast and loose. I’m sure, given the cultural anxiety of the time, it must have been refreshing in context, but I prefer the aesthetic density of “Sing a Song” or “Man Who Left His Will on Film,” which I find every bit as confrontational.
I guess I was so used to Oshima being so severe that I was shocked by _Summer_’s similarity to the freer early seventies French art films I like so much, like _Du côté d’Orouët _ and Celine and Julie. I wrote about it here.
Dear Summer Sister was released on DVD in Japan. Good-quality English subs are floating around online — I won’t link to them, but they’re easy enough to find.

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