Japanese Cinema: 4x Nagisa Oshima

Nagisa Oshima (born 1932) seems to be a kind of enfant terrible of Japanese cinema. His films often have a political edge to them, and at the same time he’s been “accused” of being sensational. Sounds like a good mix to me. I watched these four movies of his:

  • 1960: Cruel Story of Youth (青春残酷物語 – Sēshun zankoku monogatari)
  • 1969: Boy (少年 – Shōnen)
  • 1983: Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (戦場のメリークリスマス – Senjō no merī Kurisumasu)
  • 1999: Taboo (御法度 – Gohatto)

Boy was a very touching family drama that takes child abuse to the next level: A couple earns money by having their 10-year-old son being hit by cars, whose drivers rather pay upfront than deal with the police. The dysfunctional family travels across Japan with this scam, earning over 700,000 yen. After a while, the boy doesn’t need to fake injury anymore …

Cruel Story of Youth, or Naked Youth as it’s sometimes called, had a similar idea for a scam: A woman hitchhikes with a male driver, all the while her boyfriend follows them on his motorbike. She fakes nausea and asks the driver to stop. If he makes advances on her, her boyfriend turns up and threatens to call the police if the driver doesn’t pay them. The film wasn’t bad, but not at all as touching as Boy.

I saw Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence some ten years ago (I even bought it on VHS!), and I think I liked it.

Now over to what seems to become Oshima’s last movie, Taboo from 1999. It’s set in some kind of samurai school in the last years before the Meiji era (which began in 1868). The title refers to the homosexual love affairs that the beautiful youth Kanō becomes the object of.

There were several things I didn’t like about this movie. For starters, the constant referring to people having “that leaning” or not seems a very 1990s way of seeing things. According to the texts that I’ve read on the subject (Louis Crompton and Paul Gordon Schalow), people in those ages didn’t reflect on homosexuality as a subject as such. But then again, who knows.

Then some of the acting sucked and the production quality was low. I think this film was shot digitally, and it shows. It might work now, but in 1999, it didn’t. It was fun to see Takeshi Kitano again though.

Funny how I loved one of Oshima’s films and disliked one of them almost to the same extent. The films are really totally different. If I’ll see something more by Nagisa Oshima, it will probably be In the Realm of the Senses from 1976, because of its sexual theme, and because of this image:

2 thoughts on “Japanese Cinema: 4x Nagisa Oshima

  1. Oshima is the antidote to Ozu’s sodeska-drama’s of people living according to the seasons. Oshima deliberately set off to making movies that were opposed to Ozu’s style, though he of course acknoledged his genius. Oshima started as a left wing student activist, hence the more rebel-like characters in his movies. The journalist Ian Buruma explains how the failure of the student protests (against the emporor for instance) reflect itself in the nihilistic and confused characters of Cruel story of Youth, who also end up murdered.

    Do you know Buruma’s essays on Japan? He wrote about Mishima’s dandyism, and Tanazaki’s obsession with cruelty, yaoi novels, Banana Yoshimoto, all very intelligently with a lot of knowledge. “A Japanese mirror” is his book about Japan’s heroes and villians in pop-culture.

    Taboo, did not realy do it for me. I also disliked the allusions to ‘leanings’ It was entertainingg but more like a late night TV-movie. Oshima is also, and mostly these days, a TV quiz host and guest in showbiz programs.

  2. Interesting analysis, Erik, about the young couple representing the student protests. Not to mention his being the Ozu antidote! Can’t say I’m surprised. I’m only scratching the surface of each famous Japanese movie director, but I can see clearly how it makes sense.

    Didn’t know Buruma, but now his Japanese Mirror is on the list! Won’t buy it for some time though, there’s so much to read at the moment. Still on page 280 of 430 in Forbidden Colours…

    We should watch movies together sometime. 🙂

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