'In the Realm of the Senses', Nagisa Oshima's controversial film about a housemaid who mutilates her lover, is often dismissed as an art-house porn.
Nagisa Oshima has always had a kamikaze streak. The 77-year-old Japanese director's filmography counts over 25 features, and each serves to contradict the next. "After every film," he says, "I am compelled to destroy it by making another, completely different." This has been Oshima's way of avoiding any kind of classification. International critics called him the Japanese Godard but he snapped back: "Godard is the French Oshima."
And forget comparisons with his predecessors Yasujiro Ozu, Kenji Mizoguchi and Mikio Naruse. His whole career has been a battle against that tradition, starting with banning the colour green from his mise - en - scene - too evocative of gardens, softness and nature - along with any scenes involving actors sitting on tatami mats. In his 1995 documentary 100 Years of Japanese Cinema, Oshima reserved just a few seconds for the grand masters, and placed his work, with that of his peers Yoshishige Yoshida and Shohei Imamura, at the forefront.
In the 1960s, he was tipped as a leading light in Japan's New Wave, though he couldn't stand the term. It was coined partly because he emerged at the same time as the nouvelle vague in France; Oshima made his first film in 1959, the year Truffaut triumphed at Cannes with The 400 Blows.
Both groups wanted to throw national "quality cinema" in the bin. They experimented with form and narrative structure, and exploited lighter cameras and direct sound. They all wrote film criticism before becoming directors. But Oshima found the work of the Young Turks in Paris "too light". He was far more taken with the new, politically charged cinema burgeoning in Poland, Czechoslovakia and Brazil. Unlike the French kids, who at first were all about fast cars and gangsters, Oshima was a militant.
His fourth film, Night and Fog in Japan (Resnais was one Frenchman he did admire), was an anatomisation of the Communist party just after the 1960 student rebellion. But his studio deemed it too politically sensitive and kicked him out. Outraged by this "massacre", he spent 1962-65 travelling around Vietnam and Korea and making documentaries for television on such discomfiting subjects as Korean-Japanese relations.
Many of Oshima's works will be on show at the September retrospective at British Film Institute in London. Selected for the extended run is In the Realm of the Senses, a product of Oshima's 1970s period when, true to form, he again de-routed his route. In 1976, he became a cause celebre with his study of Sada the housemaid, imprisoned in 1936 after cutting off the genitals of her lover and carrying them around in a silk purse. Oshima's film was almost entirely set in the bedroom, and scene after scene showed the couple enjoying various sexual games, before their bond twisted to its extreme conclusion. In the Realm had to be produced in France to avoid Japanese censors, but Oshima promptly faced an obscenity trial back home when the script and stills were published. He was acquitted after the jury were left speechless, unable to answer Oshima's demand that they define what they found obscene.
After In the Realm, Oshima reinvented himself as a popular talk-show host advising distraught housewives on national television, and advertised a brand of insect repellent. In the 1980s, back with the movies, he took on more international collaborations as funding in Japan grew increasingly difficult. He attacked genre cinema through his anti-Apocalypse Now, Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence, starring David Bowie as a British officer in a Japanese POW camp. The love-affair-with-a-chimp saga, Max Mon Amour, was scripted by Luis Bunuel's long-time writer, Jean-Claude Carriere, and shot by Raoul Coutard, but all this couldn't save it from being an appalling film. In the 1990s, after his 100 Years documentary, Oshima suffered a stroke. In 1999, however, he managed to contradict ailing health to make what is likely his last film. Taboo would be a worthy one to go out on. It is an elegant, unique rendition of the samurai genre, centred on the declared and repressed passions between warriors at a training school.
It has been an extraordinary career, sketching a history of Japan from the viewpoint of one of its original postwar artist rebels. Oshima's oeuvre is impressive on the grounds of reinvention and productivity alone. But the BFI's retrospective also allows one to draw out a number of threads binding the whole together. In particular, Oshima's sympathy for criminals and outcasts: the scheming boys and young lovers in A Town of Love and Hope (1959), Cruel Story of Youth (1960) and Boy (1969), the "daylight demon" rapist in Violence at Noon (1966), the convicted Korean in the terrific Death By Hanging (1968), insatiable Sada from In the Realm. A society, Oshima says, gets the criminals it deserves, and a crime is a desperate act by someone who feels he has no power. Political frustration – from disappointed revolutionary hopes to the failure to change inhibiting social mores - is at the heart of Oshima's work. But though Oshima's darkness and pessimism runs deep, like his hero Bunuel's, it is also restless and cannot stand wallowing.
Oshima was born in Kyoto in 1932. His father was a civil servant. He picked up Marx and Freud from the family library, and his political formation came through the immediate postwar tensions in Japan: the general strike of 1947; the Pacific war; Emperor Hirohito's capitulation after the atomic bombings, and America's subsequent occupation; and, especially, the mass student struggles against the Korean war and Japan's renewal of the Security Treaty with the US. In retrospect, Oshima locates the dashed ideals of his generation in their failure to block the Treaty's ratification.
After studying law, he was hired in 1955 as an assistant director at Shochiku studio. It was an exciting time in the industry: the "sun tribe" films - so called for being adaptations of the popular novels centred on the shenanigans of teenagers on the beach - were causing a real stir.
Punishment Room and Crazed Fruit especially shocked Japanese audiences for their raw, lurid portrayals of rich-kid delinquency - a new demographic in the country, and certainly on cinema screens. To the young Oshima, the films marked a shift away from the dominant production-line mentality of directors.
One of his most famous early works of criticism came after seeing the latest sun tribe offering in 1958, when he wrote the article "Is This a Breakthrough? The Modernists in Japanese Cinema" for the film magazine he ran for three years with fellow director Yoshida. Oshima concluded there was, "in the sound of the girl's skirt being ripped and the hum of the motorboat slashing through the older brother, the tide of a new age . . . a powerful irresistible force had arrived in Japanese cinema."
The director quickly contributed to this tidal change with A Town of Love and Hope. (The saccharine title was not his own: the studio rejected his The Boy Who Sold Pigeons.) The film follows a child as he chases a fast buck by selling pigeons in the knowledge they will fly back to him so he can "sell" the birds anew. Oshima's deeper artistic project was to mount a full-scale attack on traditional Japanese cinema. The "holy trinity" of Ozu, Mizoguchi and Naruse were undisputed masters the world over, but to the 27-year-old Oshima they were merely an expressionof the cinema he despised.
The Japanese had experienced defeat not once but twice: in the forced opening up to the west as the Edo era came to an end at the 19th century; and in the second world war. Victimisation, Oshima believed, was ingrained in the national psyche, and such films as Ozu's taught audiences - through their dignity, still camera, domestic-based plots and meticulous composition (Ozu forced one actress to pick up a cup dozens of times over to get the action just right) - that all struggles against the grain, against the seasons, against the "way things are", were futile. True wisdom and maturity would only be achieved when one accepted this. In fact, Ozu was never simplistic: he made mischievous black comedies in the 1920s, and his heroine Noriko truly battled with marriage in his Tokyo trilogy. But Oshima did not care for the subtleties of interpretation, and audiences usually took away one clear message.
Japan's claustrophobic studio system meant he immediately embraced the auteur role. French critics at Cahiers du Cinema had given the notion a history and a future, tracing a lineage from Griffith, Murnau and Lang through to Hawks, Hitchcock and Preminger, and then reinvented it on the Champs-Elysees. Oshima, however, understood the term in his own way: subjectivity was key, but this could and should change with every film, rather than being an eternal essence leaving its discernible mark in each work. An aesthetic revolution alone was never Oshima's goal. Like the Young Turks, he wanted passionately to throw off the shackles of the dominant cinema de papa of the time, but Godard, Rivette and the rest also wanted to establish film's autonomy in France against its use as an ideological tool in the cold war. Oshima, however, was already politicised when he started making films, and always saw his work as a "social act". His primary struggle was against the very fact that film in Japan was considered an art and yet he couldn't bear its rule book. Formal brilliance could still convey conservative messages.
Because Oshima's filming techniques were not wholly different from those of Godard or Rivette, he initially received a lukewarm reception: he was "mediocre" and had "nothing new to tell us". Violence at Noon, for example, based on the true story of a rapist who terrorised Japan in the late 1950s, is made up of some 2,000 shots, involves skewed camera angles, jump cuts, pans and hand-held sequences, and is held together by a narrative reminiscent of Last Year at Marienbad, as it follows the jumbled memories
of two traumatised women. The characters all have the icy quality of Belmondo in Breathless or Moreau in Jules et Jim: restless, attractive but never endearing.
The apolitics of the New Wave lasted until 1965. Godard started to think more about the possibility of militant film-making, Chris Marker collected short films for the anti-auteur Far from Vietnam and Rivette shook it all up by booting out the old reverence for mise en scene and telling audiences he would pull them out of their cocoons: the golden age of cine-clubs and cinephilia is dead! It was at this point that French critics really started to take notice of Oshima's work, along with that of Glauber Rocha in Brazil, Andrzej Wajda in Poland and John Cassavetes in the US. The French Maoists-to-be decided these political, narrative-busting works from independent directors were the future of film.
The importance of France for Oshima increased as his career developed, most notably in the making of In the Realm of the Senses in 1976. This was his first collaboration with the maverick nouvelle vague producer Anatole Dauman, who funded the film. Dauman was capitalising on the lifting of censorship laws in France in the 70s (which led to an influx of porn films made and screened in the country) and offered to back Oshima's project of putting onto the screen the erotic tragedy of Sada and her lover.
Bertolucci's popular success with Last Tango in Paris in 1972 proved audiences had an appetite for the risque, and Pasolini had just raised the bar for graphic artistry so high with Salo that just about anything seemed possible.
In the Realm was very much of its time. From a director such as Oshima, it was provocative because it was so apolitical. This was deliberate. By choosing a purely physical, narcissistic subject-matter, Oshima was making a point about the retreat of collective political movements by the mid-70s.
Misleadingly, the film is often seen as art-house porn and as a high point in Oshima's career; but really it's a pity the BFI selected it for the extended run. It is easy to get hold of - Criterion have just released a Blu-ray version - and there is not that much to see. To Oshima's credit, though, the constant run of sex scenes are not just stylised pornography.
You watch and think - the latter being what porn denies - as the increasingly complicated dynamic between Sada and the rather sweet but disturbingly passive Kichizo works itself out. The film grapples with what Simone de Beauvoir might have called the infuriating otherness of the other. If you love and desire your partner, how can you bear their independence? How, in short, can love be anything but masochistic? In the Realm is interesting for showing how these problems play out in a Japanese context, but it is by no means Oshima's masterpiece.
Luckily, the real gems are also on show in London. What makes Oshima an exceptional figure in modern cinema is not two hours of erotica culminating in genital mutilation; anyone can show that, and lately many have. Far more important are Oshima's sharp analyses of Korean-Japanese relations, explored in the television works. Until now, no programmer had managed to clear the rights to show them. Formally experimental documentaries, they reveal the historical depth to Oshima's rebellion against Japanese
tradition: he uses a wealth of newsreel footage and builds in criticisms of the imperial system and the rise of militarism. Among the unpalatable subjects he took on was the fate of "the forgotten army", the injured Korean veterans living in Japan who had fought in the Japanese army.
Alongside this, the BFI will screen his feature on Korean-Japanese relations, Death by Hanging; and then Boy, The Ceremony, Diary of a Shinjuku Thief and Three Resurrected Drunkards. These films represent the peaks in Oshima's oeuvre, and after viewing them one might just about forgive his airbrushing Ozu, Mizoguchi and Naruse from the history of Japanese cinema to make way for his own work.
It is possible, though, to admire Oshima along with the "holy trinity", because Ozu and his peers have so much to teach us about aesthetics, as well as Japanese history and culture. Ozu once said he could only make "tofu" movies, and Oshima agreed: "Bean curd was the only thing he knew how to cook. He could not make a 'beefsteak' movie. I feel that what I've been doing in my films is something much closer to making sake. Sometimes my films approach the full blends and rich flavour that the sake should have, and at other times they're very raw and become the kind of sake that burns your throat as it goes down." Bean curd we shouldn't do without, but sake makes the whole picture of modern cinema that much more interesting.
© Guardian News & Media 2009