So many things have already been written about the wonderful Nagisa Oshima, who was, until he died today of pneumonia, the greatest living Japanese director. Tons of basic information is available on his Wikipedia and IMDB pages, in a lengthy introduction from Senses of Cinema, and a page from Criterion. There have already been many thoughtful obituaries: from the Guardian UK, another one, another one, and yet another one, because the Guardian writers understandably love him, the BFI, a visual tribute on the Criterion site, the A.V. Club, and many more. There’s also a must-read article from Jonathan Rosenbaum, reprinted from Art Forum. My favorite is the simple entry from Film Studies for Free who encourage you to read (for free) more about this great director and his impactful films. If you prefer to pay for your reading and do it away from a computer, check out The Films of Oshima Nagisa from Maureen Turim, Eros Plus Massacre by David Desser, A Hundred Years of Japanese Film by Donald Richie, or The Midnight Eye Guide to New Japanese Film by Tom Mes and Jasper Sharp.
There are a lot of things I could write about Oshima's life and cinema, but since you can read all of those things above, I decided to write about what he meant to me. Like many others budding cinephiles, I heard about Oshima through his most infamous film, In the Realm of the Senses (1976), which remains my favorite, though there are others rightly considered superior. I saw the film when I was about 19 or 20, right around the time I started having an active sex life. The two things are probably not coincidental. Due to a lengthy history of abuse, sex was something I discovered later than most of my peers and regarded with anxiety and suspicion. It was largely meaningless to me outside of its political uses: to act out a social game that I recognized but didn’t really understand, as an effective tool of manipulation, as a necessary life experience I was supposed to have because people wrote novels and songs and films about it, etc. By this point I had seen many movies with implied, softcore, or hardcore sex, but most of them were horror movies or porn and had little emotional resonance.
In the Realm of the Senses was a major turning point for me. It was the first film I had ever seen (and remains to be one of maybe a dozen total) where another person showed me -- through cinema -- what sex and intimacy were supposed to (or could) mean and that intimacy is not purely about sexual contact, it’s about vulnerability. Granted this particular film was banned for obscenity and the two main characters became obsessed with one another and killed themselves during sex, but in every scene they are in together it is evident -- often painfully -- that they feel something overwhelming. Whether they are characters experiencing a passionate, disturbing level of intimacy or actors feeling very un-simulated sexual activity, Oshima captured every horrifying ounce of feeling. He made it vulnerable, terrifying, utterly unsentimental.
Writing this felt selfish and stupid. but hopefully it remains a testament to Oshima's skill as a director and talent for molding the transgressive and the extreme. Here is a list of his feature films, though there are many more documentaries and shorts. Watch any or all of them.
A Town of Love and Hope (1959)
Cruel Story of Youth (1960)
The Sun’s Burial (1960)
Night and Fog in Japan (1960)
The Catch (1961)
Shiro Amakusa, the Christian Rebel (1962)
A Small Child’s First Adventure (1964)
It’s Me Here, Bellett (1964)
Band of Ninja (1967)
Death by Hanging (1968)
The Who Put His Will on Film (1970)
The Ceremony (1971)
Dear Summer Sister (1972)