The Evolution Of Nagisa Oshima

Nagisa Oshima has the reputation for being one of the most controversial and cutting edge filmmakers to emerge in Japan during the early sixties along with Seijun Suzuki (Branded To Kill).  Unlike his contemporary, Oshima’s films do not invite any easy genre label, but stand alone as modernist portraits of a society in trouble, and plagued by social unrest.  In fact, if one were to seek a general approximation of Oshima’s style during the sixties in western filmmaking, one would have to turn to Jean-Luc Godard.  But Oshima differs from Godard greatly in terms of filmic reflexivity.  Even his most experimental film of the period, Four Resurrected Drunkards ignores opportunities to analyze its medium in a formal regard, and only occasionally takes a leap into the Japanese cultural consciousness (this is accomplished by incorporating battle front photography, and the re-enactment of pictured scenarios by the films three main characters, of the Vietnam War).  In this regard, Oshima opts for a more overt statement on the Vietnam War than Godard, who prefers to mask it within his narrative and the criticism of the medium, which works as Godard’s primary narrative device.

The parallels continue, but with a healthy and constant divergence, as if the filmmakers were moving in the same direction but on parallel tracks.  In Oshima’s earlier film, Cruel Story Of Youth, the American genre of rebellious teenagers (Rebel Without A Cause) is addressed.  Oshima avoids the formal trappings of the genre however, and creates a more mature character based structure that functions as a cautionary tale.  The story itself, and the behavior of the characters are so dark and imbued with criminality, that it is merely the age of the characters that ultimately root the film to any genre.  With the narrative in place, Oshima tackles a visual style that is highly sensuous, employing a color palette akin to Raoul Coutard’s photography in Godard’s Contempt.  Oshima prefers to lend a visual sensuality to the graphic sensuality of the characters, but also to juxtapose the violent nature of the prostitution his characters engage in.  Godard on the other hand manipulates his color palette not only to visually mark the three-act structure, to reference the plasticity of the movie image; both tactics in and of them are reflexive.  Reflexivity may be the constant point of divergence between the two filmmakers, but I do not think that puts Godard above Oshima as an intelligent filmmaker.  It’s a style difference.  Oshima is alone in his ability to take those modern film mechanics and successfully employ them in the telling of the narrative in a subtle way, especially when the broader and more reflexive sensibilities of Godard were in vogue.

The observations I have made above are only this apparent now when one examines the latter day works of these two filmmakers.  Godard has famously embraced the more avant-garde side of his filmic style where as Oshima has striven to subdue his own.  If one were to watch Oshima’s 1981 film Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence in succession with Violence At Noon, they hardly seem the work of the same director.  The quick edits, the jump cuts, the saturated color have all been relegated to support the narrative, and more importantly, as subtle visual cues for the audience when it comes to character depictions.  The scripts of the later films, Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence in particular, are more focused on a few isolated themes, as well as being heavily concentrated on character.  The relationship between the Bowie and Sakamoto characters is one of the most articulate of ambiguous relationships to fill the silver screen.  The focus of Oshima is no longer to intellectually engage and understand his films and the characters that populate them; rather it is to engage emotionally, to traverse the narrative via empathy.

Each style and approach Oshima has employed during different parts of his career is of the highest, if not most contrasting, aesthetics.  The exchange of modernism for classicism is rarely such a smooth transition, and rarely is a filmmaker so critically successful.  So it is on that note that I ask you take a look at one of Oshima’s films this weekend.  It’s never a miss.

-Robert Curry

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