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nagisa oshima
(born 1932)

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           nagisa
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oshima


n a g i s a   o s h i m a  :   b i o g  ]


"No matter what political system we live
under, people at the bottom stay there."

- Nagisa Oshima


biography | books | dvds | videos
merry christmas mr lawrence
nagisa oshima
david bowie | ryuichi sakamoto | david sylvian
jean cocteau | fritz lang
alfred hitchcock | jim jarmusch | aki kaurismaki
f.w. murnau | wim wenders | orson welles


oshima


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biography


      Nagisa Oshima - a one-man 'New Wave' at the start of his career - is now regarded as the father of a revolutionary young generation of Japanese film-makers. But in the West he is best known for the erotic Ai No Corrida (Empire of the Senses)

    Nagisa Oshima has been called the least inscrutable of Japanese directors. But as the leader and chief theroretician of the 'New Wave' movement, which started in Japan at the same time as it did in France, he has also been thought both difficult and inaccessible. He is, however, a remarkable film-maker, known widely in the West mainly through Ai No Corrida (1976, Empire of the Senses), a treatise on physical sex, made for a French producer, that rivalled Bernardo Bertolucci's Ultimo Tango a Parigi (1972, Last tango in Paris) for notoriety. To some, it was a strange movie for so radical and socially conscious a director, but to him, Sada and her lover are not crazed libertines; they are drop-outs from society at a time (in the Thirties) when Japanese imperialism was imposing a puritanical ethos upon the nation. 'Make love, not war' was at least a subsidiary text in the film.


    Cruel story of youth

    Oshima was born on March 31, 1932 in Kyoto. His father, the descendant of a samurai, was an accomplished amateur painter and poet who died when the boy was six, leaving a library which included a large number of Marxist and socialist texts. These Oshima read in the solitude of a lonely childhood, and by the time he left high-school he was ready to become a fully-fledged student activist as well as embryo writer and dramatist. Studying law at Kyoto University, he led a student group that got into trouble with the authorities: when the Emperor visited the campus, the group held aloft placards imploring him not to allow himself to be deified because so many had died during the war in the name of his divinity.

    When he graduated, he joined the Shochiku Film Company in 1954 as an assistant director, despite his reputation as a 'red student' and the fact that there were over 2,000 applicants for only five jobs. Five rather desultory years later, he was entrusted with his first films as director: Ai To Kibo No Machi (1959, A Town of Love and Hope) and Seishun Zankoku Monogatari (1960, Naked Youth), two of the teenage yakuza (gangster) genre then popular. In 1960 he also made Taiyo No Hakaba (The Sun's Burial), a violent story about slum life in which a community of tramps, junies and the unemployed sell their blood for food and clothing.

    Each of these films contained obvious social comment as well as the kind of excitements required of a commercial director, but his fourth film, also made that year, lost him his job. Nihon No Yoru To Kiri (1960, Night and Fog in Japan) was an attack on both the traditional Left and the muddled activists of the student movement, calling for real action from a new radicalism. When a socialist leader was assassinated a few days after the film's release, it was hastily withdrawn from circulation.

    Oshima reacted by setting up his own production company and making Shiiku (1961, The Catch), in which a black American airman is imprisoned and eventually killed by villagers who are unaware that World War II has finally ended. It was an angry rejection of traditional moral values, suggesting that Japan's fierce nationalism and hatred of foreigners were responsible for the war. Only the village children are seen as a hopeful portent - in the last sequence a young boy moves away from the communal fire and quietly builds one of his own.

    The man who left Japan on film

    His next features were all highly critical of Japanese society, and made in an easily-assimilated naturalist tradition that he finally began to eschew in 1967 with Nihon Shunka-ko ( A Treatise on Japanese Bawdy Songs). In this extraordinary film, a band of students visiting Tokyo react to the alienation they feel by singing their songs and end up, in a fantasy scene, strangling a rich girl who has been the object of their erotic dreams.

    In Muri Shinju: Nihon No Natsu (1967, Japanese Summer: Double Suicide) he again left realism behind with a story about a man who wants someone to kill him and a woman who wants a lover. The two meet, get involved, are mixed up in gang warfare and ultimately kill each other before the police can get them. Oshima's pessimism at this time seemed to know no bounds.

    His first film to be shown extensively in the West was Koshikei (1968, Death by Hanging), based on a true story of a young Korean in Japan who raped and killed two girls and was hanged years later after he had confessed and reformed. In the film, the hanging fails and the hypocritical and mindless authorities force the Korean to go through a re-enactment of the crime before killing him. By now, Oshima's films had become frankly revolutionary in both form and content, and were influenced as much by Jean-Luc Godard as those of many other radical directors of the day all over the world. And again, the West was to be startled by Shinjuku Dorobo Nikki (1969, Diary of a Shinjuku Thief), a fractured story full of life and vitality about the sex problems of a young student who steals books in Tokyo's version of Soho.

    Tokyo Senso Sengo Hiwa (1970, The Man Who Left His Will on Film) developed from this anarchic superstructure, its protagonist being a young man who photographs student demonstrations in Tokyo, and tries to find within all his footage how a friend has disappeared. What he discovers, in fact, is that he himself has almost disappeared in the general worthlessness of his own life.


    Empire of disillusion

    But between these two films came a remarkable change of course, as if Oshima was trying to find some way of appealing to a wider audience. Shonen (1969, By) was a much more direct narrative, a moving story, again based on actual events, about a couple who wander across Japan, having trained their small son to run in front of passing cars and pretend to be injured so that they can claim compensation. Eventually they are cornered, but the boy - loyal to the last - cannot be made to confess. Using the child as a pathetic yet amazingly dignified emotional shuttlecock within a family of parasites, Oshima constructs an almost classical film which does not so much accuse the parents as blame a society that has produced such a perversion of the norm.

    Gishiki (The Ceremony), made in 1971, was less obviously universal in appeal but perhaps Oshima's finest demonstration of the film-making art. The chronicle of a wealthy provincial family from the end of World War II to the present, it is punctuated by the marriages and funerals at which the family is drawn together. Dominated by an authoritarian grandfather, the older members show themselves to be both militaristic and feudal in their outlook, much to the disillusion of the younger elements. The film, formal in structure and stunning to look at, yields riches even to western eyes trying to decipher its many layers of meaning. By contrast, Natsu No Imoto (1972, Dear Summer Sister) is virtually impenetrable without knowing that Okinawa - where it is set - was once part of the Japanese empire and also Japan's Ulster. Even then, the story of a Tokyo girl looking round the island for her long-lost brother and finding he is the tourist guide with whom she has had an affair, seems an allegory without a centre.

    It scarcely prepared the world for Ai No Corrida, based on an incident during the Thirties when a Tokyo woman was found wandering the streets with her lover's severed penis in her hand. He had literally died of love, allowing himself to be strangled and mutilated in a final ecstasy of pleasure. It is all superbly filmed - an illustration of French writer George Bataille's thesis that equates th orgasm with la petite mort. But if the West was amazed and sometimes scandalized, in Japan the film was regarded as a blow for sexual equality, since, in their sexual encounters, the maidservant and the owner of the geisha house are shown as having become absolute equals, giving and taking what each wants. The woman on whom the film was based, incidentally, has long been a heroine of the women's movement in Japan, and Oshima underlined why.

    After passion

    In 1978, Oshima made another film in France for the same producer, and the fact that it was called Ai No Borei ( Empire of Passion) suggested to some that he was trying to repeat that box-office truimph. In fact, the film was a ghostly thriller in which an adulturer is hounded by th epolice after plotting with a woman to kill her husband. There were social but hardly political implications, suggesting that Oshima, the 'activist samurai', might be beginning to lose his way. Yet, over all, he is undoubtedly assignificant and skilful a director as most of the great Japanese film-makers of the generation before him. If he only occasionally evinces the universality of a Kurosawa or Ichikawa, his concerns are different and less reliant on commercial appeal.

    Oshima clearly sees Japan developing blindly, its old values corrupted and its new ones worthless. Once a politicized director, he now says:

      'No matter what political system we live
      under, people at the bottom stay there.'

    It is those people with whom he is most concerened, who await a revolution that never seems to come. In particular, the plight of the Japanese woman interests him greatly - for some time in the mid-Seventies he hosted a programme especially for them on Japanese television, with huge success.

    Similar success greeted Oshima's first truly international piece Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence (1983) a Japanese POW story, from a Laurens Van Der Post novella. The casting of pop giant David Bowie as one of of the put-upon inmates may have helped, but there is no denying his directional skill in presenting the erotica of the androgynous - as well as his concern, not for one nation only, but for all races. With this viewpoint, Oshima's subsequent films, Max mon amour (1986), Kyoto, My Mother's Place (1991), and Gohatto (1999) have all been fine films.


oshima



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biography | books | dvds | videos
merry christmas mr lawrence
nagisa oshima
david bowie | ryuichi sakamoto | david sylvian
jean cocteau | fritz lang
alfred hitchcock | jim jarmusch | aki kaurismaki
f.w. murnau | wim wenders | orson welles

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