Friday, June 05, 2009

PFA: IN THE REALM OF OSHIMA—James Quandt Introduction

Introducing the "In the Realm of Oshima" retrospective, currently running at the Pacific Film Archive through July 18, James Quandt, Senior Programmer of the Cinematheque Ontario, admitted to feeling daunted by the invitation to speak at the Pacific Film Archive—"which has been the gold standard for all of us for so many decades; the institution that we all look to set the standard for cinema curation and preservation"—and acknowledged colleagues Edith Kramer, Mona Nigai, Kathy Geritz, Judy Bloch and "especially my beloved colleague" Susan Oxtoby. "Our loss was your gain," he reminded his audience.

Quandt had just been telling Oxtoby that—when he introduced the series in Columbus, Ohio a few weeks back—the first tornadoes of the season touched down about 45 minutes before his talk, setting off sirens all over the city warning residents to seek shelter. When he got up on the stage he felt like the pastor in Ingmar Bergman's Winter Light, unsure that anyone would even be in the audience. Thus, he was gratified to see such a full house for his PFA introduction.

Apologizing for being a "nervous presenter", Quandt read an edited version of his
introduction to the Oshima retrospective, published on the Cinematheque Ontario website. Notwithstanding, its erudition bears repeating.

* * *

The Pacific Film Archive is the final venue in North America to present a comprehensive retrospective, the first in 20 years on our continent, of the films of Nagisa Oshima or—to use proper Japanese name order—Oshima Nagisa. A towering figure in post-war cinema, Oshima has been called plainly "the greatest living Japanese filmmaker" by Jonathan Rosenbaum and "Japan's greatest living filmmaker" by J. Hoberman of the Village Voice. So why has it been so impossible to see this important body of work when so many lesser directors enjoy full-scale retrospectives and plentiful DVD releases? Famous—or rather I should say infamous—for the rights issues surrounding some of his most important work, Oshima has slid into semi-obscurity, which is why the next few weeks offer you the rarest of opportunity.

Oshima—given to polemical statements—loved to dismiss the entirety of Japanese cinema, including all the great masters of the Golden Age—"My hatred of Japanese cinema includes absolutely all of it."—and I ask you to keep that in mind when you watch his rather perverse tribute to the centenary of Japanese cinema showing later in this series, which gives cursory attention to Ozu, Mizoguchi, Kurosawa, et al., while concentrating on Oshima's own achievements.

Oshima also said he was not interested in making films that could be understood in 15 minutes, emphasizing the complexity and difficulty of his own work. Indeed, I would grant that some of his films can't be understood even after 15 hours of contemplation, especially one of his greatest: Night and Fog in Japan, which I just saw again at the Wexner Center in Columbus. I was dumbfounded yet again. It's a film that you have to see at least maybe five times before you begin to even grasp on it. But even the most daunting of Oshima's works exhibit such wit, beauty, and furious invention, never mind profound feeling, that their conceptual gambits take on sensual and emotional force. Or even humorous effect as in the totally crazed and marvelous film Three Resurrected Drunkards, when Oshima gives projectionists heart attacks and sends audiences bolting to look for the house manager with a structuralist joke that I won't describe here for fear of being accused of being a spoiler. Oshima's films are less the product of a postmodernist sensibility—as some critics have characterized his strategies—than of a desperate intelligence. Oshima made films as if they were a matter of life and death.

"I do not like to be called a samurai," Oshima said, "but I admit that I have an image of myself as fighter. I would like to fight against all authorities and powers." Rejecting the aristocratic lineage and traditional Japanese culture that the samurai appellation implies, Oshima instead emphasizes its warrior aspect. Appropriately so: from his first film forward, Oshima was a fighter, less a maverick than an insurgent, rebelling against every myth, tradition, and piety of Japan Inc. Though born into privilege, the son of a government worker in Kyoto (reportedly of samurai ancestry), Oshima was a nascent socialist whose ideals were formed in his youth by the general strike of 1947; by the Pacific War, Emperor Hirohito's capitulation after the bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the subsequent American occupation of Japan; and by the mass student struggle against the Korean War and, most markedly, against
AMPO, Japan's security pact with cold war America in the early '60s. Steeped in Marxist and Freudian thought from his father's prodigious library, Oshima nevertheless opposed using ideological systems or dogma to probe his nation's psyche: "I am not a Marxist," he insisted. "In fact, I find Marxism and Christianity to be the same thing and both of them are bad."

Oshima was a leading figure of a movement dubbed the Japanese New Wave; a term he came to loathe, as he thought the analogy it forged with the French New Wave—the nouvelle vague, which emerged concurrently in the late '50s and early '60s—was a false one. Oshima felt the impetus behind a new style of filmmaking in Japan—of which he and Shohei Imamura, as well as such figures as Susumu Hani, Masahiro Shinoda and Hiroshi Teshigahara were avatars—was entirely different from that of Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut and their cofreres in France. Oshima—like the French directors, by the way—was first a film critic before becoming a director. Each movement was rebelling against the national tradition of cinema and shared a concern with sex and politics. But Oshima felt that Japanese films dealt with culturally and politically specific forms and stylistic forms. Oshima was determined to expunge from his own art the signifiers of Japan's cultural conformity and political obeisance that he felt had grown only stronger in the post-war "economic miracle", which culminated in the country's coming out party: the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo.

Oshima shunned traditional shots of the sky or of people sitting on tatami mats and then became more extreme, banishing the color green from his films as a "too comforting" hue—it "softens the heart," he said—because of its association with nature, with the traditional Japanese garden and its proximity to the consolations of home. He also has another essay about the color green where he associates it with the uniforms of the occupying U.S. army. That's another reason why he eschewed the color in his films.

Green forbidden as insidious or anodyne, red would become the marker of Oshima's dire vision of Japan, not only in the motif of the Japanese flag with its burning sun, repeatedly invoked and maligned in the director's films, but also in the many objects keyed to carmine in his extravagant color films. "The blood of this young boy dyes all of Japan red," claimed the trailer for his masterpiece Boy. In the mother's red sweater and dyed hair extension, the little girl's red boot and forehead wound, the ubiquitous Japanese flags and various red objects given prominence in Scope composition, Boy joins such scarlet-scored films as Nick Ray's Party Girl, Godard's Pierrot le fou, Preminger's Bonjour Tristesse, and Bresson's Le Diable probablement, each a portrait of moral drift, corruption, and suicide. Of course, red most readily represents blood, the stuff of life, which is defiled, bought and sold in the black market in Oshima's The Sun's Burial—one of cinema's great visions of Hell—or, conversely, the deathly apotheosis of sexual passion (the sluice of blood that ends the cloistered lovemaking in In the Realm of the Senses).

Extremity, then, defined Oshima's vision, and his stylistics: Night and Fog in Japan was shot in only forty-seven (some say fewer) long takes, while the cutting in Violence at Noon comes on like a Kurosawa hail of arrows: over two thousand edits, several used for one short sequence. Oshima's earliest films were mostly shot in the widescreen and color formats then favored by Japanese studios, but he would readily retreat to the old-fashioned mode of black and white and the 1.37 square aspect ratio for others, as you saw last week in Diary of a Shinjuku Thief and will see again in his very moving The Man Who Left His Will On Film. Oshima could be perverse in his stylistics, using extreme long shot or obscuring chiaroscuro to shoot key events, as in Shiro Amakusa, The Christian Rebel or to develop an unbearable intimacy using relentless close-ups, as in The Man Who Left His Will on Film, whose images of fleshy confinement offer another instance of the claustrophobia of Oshima's cinema, which often features shut-off or isolated settings, most markedly the love-making room in In the Realm of the Senses and the execution chamber in Death by Hanging.

"I always try to deny the style I used in a previous work ... I never make films in the same style," Oshima told Joan Mellen, which helps account for his swing from Nicholas Ray histrionics or the kino-fist aesthetic of Sam Fuller (in films like Cruel Story of Youth and The Sun's Burial) to the refined modernism of European masters Alain Resnais or Michelangelo Antonioni (in The Ceremony), from stern alienation effects (Night and Fog in Japan) to pop-modernist playfulness (Three Resurrected Drunkards), all the while maintaining his singular sensibility. Oshima told another interviewer: "I have to agree with someone like Ozu who said that he could only make 'tofu' movies. Bean curd was the only thing he knew how to cook and so he could not make a 'beefsteak' movie.... I feel that what I've been doing in my films, perhaps, is something much closer to making sake. Sometimes my films approach the full blends and rich flavor that the sake should have, and at other times they're very raw and they become the kind of sake that burns your throat as it goes down."

Throat-burning mostly, I would have to say. The director instantly became a pariah with his first film, the cheerily named Town of Love and Hope. Not only was the title forced on him by the Shochiku studio—Oshima preferred his blunt original, The Boy Who Sold His Pigeon—but the director was also expected to hew to the studio's popular Ofuna-style family melodrama in his tale of a poor boy befriended by a rich girl. Japanese film historian Tadao Sato is entirely correct when he says that in Town of Love and Hope the essence of Oshima can already be discerned. (The scam by which the boy supports his family—reselling a homing pigeon over and over—was the first statement of a key theme in Oshima: that of extortion, imposture, crime, delinquency; the director's clear-eyed sympathy with the cheating boy—which was the first of many self-portraits in his cinema, which include the pimply Motoki in The Man Who Left His Will on Film, and even, Oshima insisted, "that demonic rapist in broad daylight" of Violence at Noon. This established his identification with young outcasts and criminal aliens, which would define his subsequent cinema.)

Foreshadowing the masterpieces of Oshima's middle period—especially Boy—but more classically neorealist in style, this black and white Scope debut [Town of Love and Hope] employs a simple tale to complicated ends and succeeds with heartbreaking acuity. Oshima delivered neither the optimistic humanism demanded by the studio nor the prescribed social message. "This film is saying that the rich and the poor can never join hands," studio head Shiro Kido fumed, suspending the director for six months and declaring Town unhealthy and leftist. Whenever Oshima returned to the studio system, sometimes as a gun for hire, he would turn familiar Japanese genres—the samurai film in Shiro Amakusa, and again in Gohatto, the family chronicle in The Ceremony, anime in Band of Ninja, the so-called "sun tribe" films of disaffected youth—into reflections of his own concerns.

Those concerns centered on sex, crime, and death. Oshima insisted that the "unaware" and unconscious nature of both sex and crime made them the central obsessions of his cinema; "behavior with clear motivation is uninteresting," he insisted. However, the enticement of psychology, of biographical reduction, when interpreting his films is great. To abridge Oshima's early work to a vast psychodrama of parental abandonment would be unconscionable, but when Oshima says, "I always want to go back to my boyhood" because of the loss of his father at age six—a deprivation he wrote movingly about in an essay—one wonders if that familial yearning could help explain the many incomplete and broken households in his cinema, the preponderance of children, adolescents, teens, few of them innocent, all participants in or witnesses to the criminal world of adults. (Note, for instance, the marked presence of children at the communal evils committed in The Catch or the broken families in tonight's first film.) The stark title of Boy emphasizes this violation, the film's manipulation of scale and repeated disconnection of the supposedly unified family within the widescreen frame stressing the boy's isolation and vulnerability. Similarly, Oshima describes the harsh world of the amoral teens in Cruel Story of Youth in Scope images of the abject and precarious: for instance, the intensely compacted composition of Makoto's midriff in plaid skirt, a wad of bills and sheet of directions to an abortionist clutched in her hand, or the rape among the logs in Tokyo harbor, a travesty of the traditional understanding of "the floating world," rendered with virtuosic but unstable travelling camera. (Oshima's hand-held pans and tracking shots sometimes judder, not to signify authenticity as they do in contemporary cinema but to transcribe his characters' restless, tenuous existence.)

Just as he rejected the Japanese New Wave rubric, Oshima chafed at the inevitable comparisons critics made between his films and Jean-Luc Godard's. Though he would respond politely to questions about the latter's influence with evasive statements about shared enthusiasms and common concerns (predominantly politics and cinema), he took to calling Godard "the Oshima of France" after one too many comparisons or accusations of being an imitator. The similarities between the two run to a substantial list—none diminishing Oshima's originality, it must be emphasized—but in hindsight, Oshima seems to me to have as much affinity with the German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder in his extraordinary prolificacy and swift, single-take shoots (look at Oshima's output in the years 1960 or 1968 alone!); his sometimes sentimental sympathy for outsiders—sexual, ethnic (particularly Koreans), and political; his development of a "house" technical and acting troupe, which he employed in film after film; his use of music as alienation device and such Brechtian strategies as the intertitles in Death by Hanging or the theatrical friezes in Night and Fog in Japan; and his acerbic view of human nature and how sex often subverts both emotions and politics.

In his late "international" period, several of his films were financed by French producers and Oshima seemed to mellow as a modernist, taking on the suave tone of late Buñuel (a director he once claimed as his favorite) in Max Mon Amour, a brittle comedy of manners about a British diplomat's wife who falls in love with a chimpanzee. Critics have argued over whether Oshima remained an iconoclast or succumbed to conservative nostalgia, particularly when they analyzed the last film of his career: Gohatto. I have a long analysis of Gohatto, which would take us to the end of the retrospective; but, I'm going to skip it because we're running out of time here. But I just wanted to say that Oshima provided the clue for this transition, to this more classical and serene tone of his later cinema; a transition from his youthful anger and political activism to this more conservative and accessible aesthetic. Love finally became the third element in his cinema, he commented, along with sex and crime.

As I've essentially dealt with the first feature in tonight's double-bill, I just wanted to make a few comments about the second one tonight—Three Resurrected Drunkards—whose reputation has grown over the years, though many audiences (I should warn you) still find it irritating or baffling. A programmer on this tour—I won't name him but he's from Washington—sent me an email. They've had great success with a number of our touring programs of Japanese cinema—Nabuse, Imamura, Mizoguchi, Ichikawa—but he said the Oshima retrospective was the first time he'd ever been cornered by a group of his audience afterwards who were very hostile and asked him why he showed the film? I shouldn't tell tales, but I was just saying at dinner that both my bosses walked out of it in the first half hour when I showed it in Toronto. So…. It's a film I really deeply love and I hope you do too. It's such a moving film for me because of the period that it comes from and the way it segues from a kind of pop Hard Day's Night into something really political and moving in its last sequences. Anyways, Drunkards is shot in eye-popping widescreen and pulsing color—from purple underwear to paisley trousers to hot pink outfits sported at an onsen (hot spring)—and scored with crazed insistence (the music veers from James Bond parody to a pop song by lead actor Kazuhiko Kato, celebrated singer of the Sadistic Mika Band and the tall one of the three lead actors). All the better to serve its Hard Day's Night tale of a trio of hapless young guys who have their clothes stolen while cavorting in the sea, are mistaken for Korean stowaways, and become involved with a young woman whose brutal older mate, sporting an eye patch and metal hook, represents Japan's repressive wartime generation. I think Oshima shares here with Susumu Hani a concern with the sins of the fathers, of patriarchs and overseers. This is 1968, after all, and amid the hi-jinx, chases, conceptual jokes and flash costume changes (including one into female drag), Oshima injects stinging commentary on the Vietnam War, Japan's war guilt, and prejudice against Koreans—an enduring concern of the director's, which is also a theme in tonight's short film Diary of a Yunbogi Boy and Saturday night's Death By Hanging. Reminiscent moment to moment of Frank Tashlin, Godard, Sam Fuller, and Buñuel, Three Resurrected Drunkards remains for me one of Oshima's most touching works.