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January 17, 2013

Nagisa Oshima: 1932 - 2012

French poster for Boy

All I have to rely on is my memory, which isn't always reliable. But my earliest awareness of Nagisa Oshima was probably from one of the British film magazines I use to read in the late Sixties, early Seventies. It may have been a still from Boy, or maybe an article on Diary of a Shinjuku Thief. What little knowledge I had of Japanese cinema was from reading Donald Richie, and seeing a few films by Akira Kurosawa.

What happened next was that the New Yorker Theater had what was probably the first retrospective of Nagisa Oshima's films. I can't pinpoint the date, other than that it was sometime in 1971 or 1972, because the most recent film was The Ceremony. Aside from that film, I also have hazy recollections of Boy, Diary of a Shinjuku Thief, Death by Hanging and The Man who left his Will on Film. I could well have seen some other films, but it never occurred to me that I'd be writing about films I've seen, forty years later.

diary of a shinjuku thief.jpg
Poster for Diary of a Shinjuku Thief

In retrospect, I was a relatively ignorant viewer, not knowing much, if anything, about the various cultural and political issues being addressed by Oshima. But I was dazzled by his challenges to conventional film narrative, and thought of Oshima as the Japanese equivalent to Jean-Luc Godard.

I did find it curious to discover that Oshima interviewed Akira Kurosawa in 1993. In Joan Mellen's interview with Oshima, the younger filmmaker expressed is disdain for the man who personified Japanese cinema for many western cinephiles, making a pointed remark about Kurosawa's most recent film at that time, Dodes'kaden. But this change of heart is not entirely surprising as age has a way of making us feel more sympathetic towards our elders. One can only wonder what films we might have had seen, had Oshima had the same kind of health, or perhaps simple tenacity, that kept Kurosawa active at a time when the younger man could only make one more film.

I would hope that the rest of Oshima's films become available on subtitled DVDs. Most articles on his death refer to Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence and In the Realm of the Senses, his best known films, to be sure, but not necessarily the best films. What has stuck with me over forty years are the story of a the title character of Boy, faking getting hit by cars as a way of supporting his family, and the marriage scene in The Ceremony, where a family's commitment to formalities means that nothing gets in the way of a wedding, not even the absence of the bride.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at January 17, 2013 08:07 AM