Oshima: Death by Hanging (1968) and Boy (1969)

A cemetery mound initiates a conical motif in Oshima’s Boy.

The new retrospective of Nagisa Oshima–widely regarded among experts as the most important filmmaker of the Japanese New Wave–is currently poised between its Los Angeles hosts, the American Cinematheque and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; LACMA begins its half of the series tonight with two masterpieces: Death By Hanging (1968) and Boy (1969).  Both films showcase Oshima’s ferocious sociopolitical edge and preoccupation with the interplay of fantasy and reality, as well as his stylistic diversity: the former is a black-and-white melange of Bretchian techniques and mobile camerawork while the latter is a color film, widescreen and deliberately paced.  Originally curated by the Cinematheque Ontario’s estimable James Quandt (interviewed by LACMA’s Bernardo Rondeau yesterday), the Oshima retrospective is shaping up to be one of the year’s cinemagoing highlights.

Despite Oshima’s international acclaim, I’ve only begun dipping my toes in his oeuvre, and I’m far from the only cinephile to do so: only a handful of his work (from the late-’50s to the ’90s) have been released on VHS or DVD in the US, and even Criterion’s new releases (In the Realm of the Senses  and Empire of Passion) are actually polished reissues of two titles already available on DVD.  Rights issues appear to be one hold-up, but Oshima’s dedication to a cinema that directly challenges notions of convention and acceptability is another; Oshima designs his films to question political assumptions (particularly those held by Japanese viewers), an emphasis he qualified for Joan Mellen (in her mid-’70s Voices from the the Japanese Cinema interview that seems as cross-purposed and disconnected as Schrader’s famous chat with Bresson during the same era): “I am not interested in the surface of politics or in how political issues appear to our society.  I try to look into political perception in the minds of the Japanese, not as an element which you can see, but rather as interior feelings.”

Death By Hanging

By his own admission, Oshima’s farcical and multilayered critique of the death penalty is one of his most issue-driven films, but it also ranks
with Kieslowski’s A Short Film About Killing (1988) as one of the cinema’s supreme works on the subject, making something like Hajime Kadoi’s recent Vacation (2008) seem like a sentimental trifle rather than the reasonably good melodrama it is. Oshima’s film is so thematically and technically aggressive with its wall-to-wall dialogue, textual statements that directly address the viewer, exaggerated ensemble performances, and freedom with degrees of fantasy, it immerses the viewer in a vortex of shifting perceptions that chart the thin line between souls and bodies, thinking and doing.

Beginning with a statistic about the number of Japanese people who supported the death penalty (71%) and moving into a documentary-like examination of a death chamber and the process by which someone is executed, the film then shifts into the realm of black comedy when a Japanese Korean man named R accused of rape and murder doesn’t die after he is hung, created panic and confusion among the presiding officials. The doctors are forced to resuscitate him; the guards want to hang him again but are stymied when R exhibits nearly complete amnesia (they conclude they can’t legally execute him unless he’s aware of his past); the priest believes R’s soul is already in heaven and opposes executing the “new man.” The three figures embody the authoritarian voices of state, religion, and science.

What follows is a farcical, impromptu psychodrama in which the guards act out their interpretation of R’s past and crimes, hoping to spark his memory or instill what they assume were his motives. But R behaves like a benign innocent, and the guards’ histrionics increasingly expose their own inclinations and desires. Their latent racism comes to the fore (speaking in broken Japanese or encouraging vulgar “Korean-like” performances) and the situation prompts several of the guards to recall war crimes they committed. As their imagination grows, Oshima depicts (visually and aurally) their murderous reenactments in the crimes’ original settings, and it’s not long before the guards’ collective imagination and reality become fused, much like R’s initial crimes were set off by his own fantasies. In the end, no one seems entirely innocent.

Oshima makes great use of the cramped rooms of the execution chamber, pivoting his camera to reframe characters as they enter and exit doorways with theatrical flair; while the pace is frenetic, the sound design is increasingly selective, impressionistic, and dreamlike. The film features gutsy, unrestrained performances by the entire cast, and it’s by turns chilling, thought-provoking, and comical: when one of the murder victims transforms into R’s sister, who insists on R’s politicization, one of the guards yells, “Look, this is an execution chamber; it is neither the time nor the place to debate with an imaginary woman!” Yet Oshima masterfully unveils the layers of pretense and hypocrisy that infuse the prison setting.


This film, as quiet and stately as Death By Hanging is verbose and dynamic, is based on a true story about a criminal couple who used their ten-year-old son in an ongoing scheme in which they flung themselves against passing cars and browbeat the drivers into paying for “damages.” While the film is in no way a sentimental examination of the ten-year-old (merely called “Boy” throughout), it is a profoundly moving portrait of the boy’s premature and powerless exposure to a twisted adult world of scheming, extortion, manipulation, violence, and isolation, and its devastating effect on his childlike sense of wonder and imagination (not to mention his ideas of truth, family, and reality).

Oshima expertly uses widescreen compositions to highlight the vacuity of postwar social life: characters are continually confined to the edges of the frame, emphasizing the empty spaces (lobbies, alleys, ferries at sea, deserted stadiums, depopulated cityscapes) and impersonal crowds of urban Japan. Like Tarkovsky’s films, the color is randomly and periodically reduced to monochromatic scales of blue, an effect here that emphasizes the underlying dreariness of a society that could foster such crimes: one of the few social interactions the boy witnesses apart from his parents, ironically, is two thugs who bully a student for accidentally bumping into them. Wandering aimlessly around Japan, the family finds itself in northernmost, wintry Hokkaido, where the bleak snowfields and deserted streets literally seem to embody “the end of Japan” in more ways than one.

The boy occasionally fancies escape but inevitably clings to his parents despite their abuse, though his worldview is so tainted by them that it’s questionable how much psychological autonomy he actually possesses. He becomes a potentially protective figure for his three-year-old brother, who listens–barely comprehending at best–to the boy’s whimsical stories about aliens from the Andromeda galaxy who will one day fly down to earth and destroy all the evil men. The boy’s imagination (symbolized by his obsession over a cheap, yellow Sci-Fi hat) offers one of his few outlets for transcendence, but it’s a different object (a red boot) that ultimately inspires his grasp of reality, a burden inevitably too heavy to bear.

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