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Oshima in New York: "Dear Summer Sister"

Case in point for the unreliability of what may come next from this ever unpredictable director is another one of the Oshima retrospective’s most startling finds, Dear Summer Sister. This film from 1972 strips the director's duly noted and deservedly praised formal compositions resembling a cross between Antonioni's architectonic modernism and a comic book's brash stylization for—believe it or not—a typically early 70s, handheld, verité layabout ease. And taking place mostly on the beachfront of Okinawa, Dear Summer Sister falls very near the look of a brief art-house trend of looseness and fresh air from the same time period, especially in French cinema. Think Celine and Julie Go Boating, Jacques Rozier's Du coté d'Orouet, or any other film from 1970-1974 shot in 1.33 and a documentary fashion (preferably near an ocean or lake) that lends a shambling, inconsequentiality to character activity and lets atmosphere soak in. Realism as the documentation of quirky behavior in pastoral settings. Yet initially Dear Summer Sister isn't quirky at all, and Oshima seems very far away. It is simply the story of a fiancé looking for the old mistress of her husband-to-be, and tagging along is the man's daughter, who thinks that the mistress may have born the young girl a half-brother. Combine with quaint vacation setting and we're rearing up for some real melodrama, tears, and sun-soaked self-discovery!
Think again—as always Oshima comes with the pointed end first. This is the story of two pretty young Japanese women learning just how incestuously tied to Okinawa they are. Immoral doesn’t even begin to describe the Okinawan-Japanese entourage. As my colleague David Phelps put it—"is there anyone in this movie who hasn't slept with anyone else?" A tour through downtown Okinawa promises a rattling off of such facts as the price of firearms and the number of hookers in the area near the U.S. base ("Really?" enthusiastically asks the 14-year old daughter Sunaoko, "let me out, I want to walk around!"). The fiancé finds the half-brother first; and she decides to seduce him by pretending to be his sister from Japan. (Wait, what?) An Okinawan resident—ex-criminal of course—has his own claims on the patrimony of the boy, and a drunken old codger (studio familiar face Taiji Tonoyama) toddles along asserting that his war crimes on the island demand that he die, and he must find someone to kill him.
Turns out the "realism" of the aesthetic is, first and foremost, to let all of sunny Okinawa shine through, tombs, bars, and brothels all ("the Okinawa girls are the best," praises the codger, "you just touch them and they are wet down to their knees"). Secondly, this style is used to encompass the wild array of acting styles Oshima employs to ratchet Dear Summer Sister up a notch of immoral lunacy on a scene by scene basis. Father Hosei Komatsu is a bulky lunk singing lustfully in the presence of his mistress, daughter, fiancé, and old rival, and presumably is the one who suggested a beachfront banquet of a dozen bottles of Johnny Walker Black Label to solve the group's problems. Wife-to-be and faux-incestuous lover, the fiancé is played by the freckled actress known as “Lily,” who bewitches in the Rivettian vein—an independently minded young woman unto herself, mysterious in motivation, wandering in behavior, but committed in aspect. And, if to only mention one more wonderful cast member, the young daughter played by Hiromi Kurita is fantastic in an erratically non-professional performance of mugging every line like the character is an actor in a play that's inside the movie ("This time I'm the lead," she squeals). Inventive and ribald in the most off-guard kind of way (versus Sing a Song of Sex' very deliberate and inevitable sexuality), Dear Summer Sister seems to be not finding itself as it goes along, but always tripping over itself only to think of something new—and then film it. It is fresh and fast and utterly hilarious—and, since it is Oshima, it is utterly, blindingly scathing.

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