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Best of the New York Film Fest's Nagisa Oshima Tribute

The radical who left his will on film

"Stop using the term 'New Wave' once and for all! Evaluate each film on its own merits!" protested a critic-turned-auteur from Kyoto named Nagisa Oshima in an angry 1960 denunciation of both Shochiku—the studio that funded his daring anti-Stalinist milestone, Night and Fog in Japan, before pulling it quickly from theaters—and the lazy critics who excused what Oshima deemed censorship with the argument that Japanese New Wave films were simply in decline.

Ever the feather-rustling outsider, even among his like-minded peers, the now 76-year-old Oshima is the radical mind and guts of an iconoclastic filmmaking generation (once removed from the postwar humanists: Kurosawa, Kobayashi, Ichikawa) whose questioning, prodding, and deconstruction of its society's codified corruption and hypocrisy ran parallel to La Nouvelle Vague. (The knee-jerk comparison of Oshima to Godard makes sense, since both figureheads' films spill over with politics, sex, youth, discourse, and experimental rigor, though Oshima may be the more dedicated to his lefty, anti-authoritarian cine-activism.)

Perhaps you've seen 1976's In the Realm of the Senses, 1960's Cruel Story of Youth, or his 1969 masterpiece Boy, but the odds are that "In the Realm of Oshima"—a rare, near-complete retrospective currently screening as the sidebar to this year's New York Film Festival—will be a revelation to most. Pinpointing which of the program's 26 films to see isn't an easy task: Some, like the inspired Band of Ninja or The Ceremony, are so anchored in their time and place that a basic understanding of the era's sociopolitical nuances is crucial. As for 1986's stilted, Buñuel-lite farce Max Mon Amour, in which Charlotte Rampling's husband invites her chimpanzee lover home to roost with the bourgeois fam, all I can say is that it takes resolute curiosity to chase down Oshima's own Howard the Duck. Heading into NYFF's second week, here are five highlights, which—and Oshima was right on this—should be evaluated on their own merits.

Sand oddity: David Bowie in Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence
Senjou no Merii Kurisumasu
Sand oddity: David Bowie in Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence

Death by Hanging (1968)

A staggering majority of the Japanese people opposed the abolition of capital punishment, a statistic that Oshima clinically lectures on while touring a death chamber, forcing us to watch the austere step-by-step procedure of an execution. It plays like a sobering doc until the condemned man—known only by the Kafka-friendly initial "R." (a reference to the notorious case of Ri Chin'u, a Korean who murdered two Japanese girls in 1958)—survives the noose, then develops amnesia. Suddenly, the tone hops to absurd theatrical comedy (the gallows humor in Dr. Strangelove's war room now literal) as the guards begin dangerously re-enacting R.'s crimes to jog his memory—after all, killing a man who feels no guilt would be murder! Oshima is unsubtle in his critique of Japan's persecution of Koreans, and in his questioning of whether collectively imagining crimes, villains, or justifications can make them come true.

Diary of a Shinjuku Thief (1968)

Disaffected, effeminate young dropout Birdie Hilltop (renowned graphic artist Tadanori Yokoo) shoplifts from a Tokyo bookstore and is caught by an aggressively flirtatious girl posing as a store clerk. After he confesses that stealing is the way he gets his rocks off, the two embark on an increasingly perverse affair. Dedicated to Jean Genet (as its title nods), Oshima's deliriously horny celebration of youth revolts—sexual and political—is his most Godardian film in its patchwork shape and self-reflexive technique (sudden shocks of color stock, jump cuts and clipped sound, flashes of pop icons like Henry Miller and Muhammad Ali). Half in the bag, the cast of Death by Hanging debates the definition of sex, and an aging therapist directs the new couple to strip naked to better open their hearts—all demanding that we fight the system by fucking as much as possible.

Three Resurrected Drunkards (1968)

While hapless school buddies swim in the sea, a hand rises from the beach to replace their clothes with Korean military uniforms; whenever they manage to recover their duds, mysterious enemies force them back into the Korean garb, sometimes at gunpoint. For a blistering critique of Korea's role in Vietnam, this must-see Oshima rarity is zippy and zany in seemingly impossible ways: When the leads become convinced that they're Korean because someone told them so, it's easy to equate the gag to the old Bugs and Daffy "pronoun trouble" routine, but imagine the scandal in '68 when the boys took turns jokingly twisting up their faces to see who could best mimic the executed Viet Cong prisoner from Eddie Adams's famous photo, taken mere months before the film's release. Oshima has never used color more vibrantly, and I'll vouch that the new 'Scope print is an event all its own.

The Man Who Left His Will on Film (1970)

Anybody who still gives a damn about film criticism today needs to join Oshima's richly didactic call-to-arms laid out here. A member of a radical film collective chases an off-screen cameraman who then leaps from a building to his death, thus enacting the title. When the activist in pursuit loses the cameraman's Bolex to the cops, his concern isn't what they'll see on the film, but rather that they won't know how to use the camera properly. Wielding a filmmaker's tools like ideological weapons, Oshima challenges us to realize the possibilities of cinema's language—switching perspectives, altering realities, resurrecting on-screen ghosts, even evaluating himself (the left-wingers name-check the director). Satirizing the collective's all-talk inaction, Oshima charges that it's not enough to simply learn the medium; we must make waves to keep the culture alive. Grab a camera and rise up!

Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983)

From Oshima's later career (after one stroke, he made 1999's Taboo; after two strokes, it's unclear whether he'll direct again), most notable is this bilingual, end-of-WWII tearjerker about forgiveness and understanding between cultures, which could have been dubbed The Man Who Fell to Java. A parachuting major with a secret (David Bowie) is captured and brought to a Japanese prison camp run by a repressed gay captain (pop star Ryuichi Sakamoto, who also composed the very-'80s synth score) and his crude underling (Takeshi "Beat" Kitano), who first greets the new inmate upside-down. "What a funny face. Beautiful eyes, though," deadpans a bemused Bowie, in what seems a tailored role. Who else could eat a flower as a forceful act of POW defiance?

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