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My Favorite Oshima Films

Post by: Kris Hartrum


It has been two days since the death of acclaimed director/screenwriter Nagisa Oshima. He was an artist whose works inspired in me a genuine curiosity about what it means to be human and more precisely, what it means to be Japanese. Of course these questions are forever unanswerable, but I (like many others) believe Oshima to be a part of a select pantheon of artists who will remain timeless and worth a damn. So in the spirit of appreciation, I’d like to name a few of my favorites by the recently deceased filmmaker.

I came to know the work of Nagisa Oshima long after moving to Tokyo. I’d of course seen movies by the classic Japanese masters of cinema like Yasujiro Ozu and Kurosawa, but it wasn’t until I was offered a small collection of films by the Kyoto born director that I began to understand the particular (and very influential) area of Japanese cinema history that owes its blood to Nagisa Oshima.

In The Realm of The Senses (Originally known as 愛のコリーダ Ai no Korīda/ Love’s Bullfight) is  Oshima’s most well known film. It is not coincidental that it was also the most scandalous, made famous due to legal battles which deemed the work pornographic because of its use of non-simulated sex acts. A friend recommended it to me because of my love for another film called Last Tango In Paris by Bernardo Bertolucci. While both films play with the dark channels of eroticism and death, In The Realm of The Senses takes the classic theme a step further with a graphic ending that involves murder by erotic asphyxiation and a severed penis. The film’s authentic quality is not easily forgotten.

My second installment from Oshima’s filmography was 1969′s Diary of a Shinjuku Thief  (新宿泥棒日記 Shinjuku dorobō nikki). With a tone that matches much of the French New Wave that inspired it, Shinjuku Thief is the story of a young shoplifter (played by beloved designer and artist Tadanori Yokoo ) who is caught stealing by a young girl (Rie Yokoyama) posing as a bookstore attendant. These lost youths take part in a surreal adventure through the true and mythical caverns of what was and is Shinjuku while trying to accomplish some great act of sexual liberation.

Although I loved both of these films, it wasn’t until I saw a much more seamless and straightforward movie called Boy (少年, Shōnen) that I became aware of Oshima’s unique and often severe view of the human and Japanese condition. Shonen is based on the true story of a young boy who was forced to throw himself in front of oncoming cars so that his deranged and abusive father could demand large amounts of cash from the drivers. Through years of social estrangement and abuse the film’s protagonist (played naturally by a very young Testuo Abe) creates complex sci-fi fantasies where he is a lost member of a much gentler and selfless alien race.  The story’s mood is warm and accessible, and the direct narrative works well in delivering sympathetic and genuine characters.  Oshima efficiently illustrates a complex portrait of a destructive lifestyle and its effects on the psyche of a young boy.

Oshima was famously critical of his country’s cinema, politics and even its people. At the same time, his work is said to embody the torn spirits of Japan and the rest of humanity. Examine the works of Nagisa Oshima if you are a lover of film and you are interested in extremism, death, eroticism, brutality, criticism of political and cultural ideology and tradition, deconstruction of gender and sexuality, psychological insight and Japan.

K Hartrum