The 100 Essential Directors Part 7

Kenji Mizoguchi to Satyajit Ray

by PopMatters Staff

21 August 2011


Nagisa Oshima

Nagisa Oshima
(1932 - present)

Three Key Films: Cruel Story of Youth (1960), Death by Hanging (1968), In the Realm of the Senses (1976)

Underrated: Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence (1983)

Unforgettable: Is it possible to consider the entirety of In the Realm of the Senses one unforgettable moment? How helpful would it be to divide the individual instances of pornographic beauty; how could one weigh the shocking force of one over the other? In the Realm of the Senses marks the entry of pornography into the art cinema, which subsequently inspired some of the best films from artists as diverse as Catherine Breillat and David Cronenberg. The film is based on a true event that transpired during the 1930s, in which a prostitute and a wealthy man secluded themselves in a private inn and copulated until they were literally spent.

The key to the film is in its distancing from the graphic sex obsession through the beauty of its mise-en-scene; the un-simulated sex scenes seem even more natural surrounded by ornate lanterns and floral screens. The accumulation of all the bawdy beauty finds thunderous release in the climactic scene of the film, which I won?t spoil for you here if you haven’t seen it, but is truly climactic in all senses of the word. The real challenge when watching the film is keeping oneself from blushing, which makes the film an excellent choice for movie night with some unsuspecting friends!

The Legend: Nagisa Oshima is to Japan as Fassbinder was to Germany and Godard to France. Born in 1933 and still alive today (although he seems to be retired after his last film Taboo, 1999) Oshima has made 27 feature films, dozens of television documentaries (including the BFI commissioned One Hundred Years of Japanese Cinema, 1994), and has published several volumes of film criticism and theory.

Ever the provocateur, Oshima once remarked that he hated what most people would call Japanese cinema, rebelling against the naïve humanism of past Japanese masters and the political agenda of so-called new wavers. Cruel Story of Youth serves as an excellent introduction to his style and politics, insofar that the style serves to highlight the absurdities and booby traps of Japan’s societal politics. The bulk of his work is composed of flashy, almost anarchist rebellion films that morph into detailed studies of dark obsessions in the later films.

From the murderous farce of Death by Hanging, to the Genet/Bresson inspired Diary of a Shinjuku Thief (1968), all the way to the little-seen bestiality comedy Max Mon Amour (1986) Oshima’s films walk the fine line between the absurd and the sublime recalling the likes of David Lynch or Pier Paolo Pasolini. But far from the reclusive, bitter artist type, Oshima is widely beloved in his home country. Jonathan Rosenbaum recently described Oshima as an Oprah-like television personality in Japan, for unbeknownst to many in the West, Oshima has had his own television talk show for decades in which he dispenses his opinions and advice on topics as broad as current political events and relationship advice for troubled couples. 

The most popular (or infamous) of Oshima’s works are available on DVD or home video in the US thanks to the Criterion Collection. Titles to check out other than those listed here would be his 1978 winner for best direction at Cannes Empire of Passion, a ghost story set in 19th century Japan; or his last film about homosexual samurai Taboo. If you?re familiar with the films of Ozu, Kurosawa, Mizoguchi or Naruse and want to see a different side of Japan, Oshima has to be on your radar. Corey Briscoe Gates


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