Masumura Yasuzo And The Cinema Of Social Consciousness Essay

Cinema around the world


World War II physically and economically devastated the film industries of the Soviet Union, Japan, and most European nations. Italy’s early surrender, however, left its facilities relatively intact, enabling the Italian cinema to lead the post-World War II film renaissance with its development of the Neorealist movement. Although it had roots in both Soviet expressive realism and French poetic realism, Neorealism was decidedly national in focus, taking as its subject the day-to-day reality of a country traumatized by political upheaval and war.

Most of the major figures in the Neorealist movement had studied at Mussolini’s Centro Sperimentale, but they vigorously rejected the stagy, artificial style associated with the telefono bianco films in favour of a Marxist aesthetic of everyday life. The first identifiable Neorealist film was Luchino Visconti’s Ossessione (1942; Obsession), a bleak contemporary melodrama shot on location in the countryside around Ferrara. It was suppressed by the fascist censors, however, so international audiences were first introduced to the movement through Roberto Rossellini’s Roma, città aperta (1945; Open City), which was shot on location in the streets of Rome only two months after Italy’s surrender. The film featured both professional and nonprofessional actors and focused on ordinary people caught up in contemporary events. Its documentary texture, postrecorded sound track, and improvisational quality became the hallmark of the Neorealist movement. Rossellini followed it with Paisà (1946; Paisan) and Germania, anno zero (1947; Germany, Year Zero) to complete his “war trilogy.” Visconti’s second contribution to Neorealism was La terra trema (1948; The Earth Trembles), an epic of peasant life that was shot on location in a Sicilian fishing village. In many respects it is more exemplary of the movement than Ossessione, and it is widely regarded as a masterpiece. Neorealism’s third major director was Vittorio De Sica, who worked in close collaboration with scriptwriter Cesare Zavattini, the movement’s major theorist and spokesman. De Sica’s films sometimes tend toward sentimentality, but in Sciuscià (1946; Shoeshine), Ladri di biciclette (1948; The Bicycle Thief), and Umberto D. (1952), he produced works central to the movement.

Neorealism was the first postwar cinema to reject Hollywood’s narrative conventions and studio production techniques, and, as such, it had enormous influence on future movements such as British Social Realism, Brazilian Cinema Nôvo, and French and Czech New Wave. It also heralded the practices of shooting on location using natural lighting and postsynchronizing sound that later became standard in the film industry. Despite its influence, in the 1950s Neorealism disappeared as a distinct national movement, together with the socioeconomic context that had produced it, as the Marshall Plan began to work its “economic miracle” in Europe. Italian cinema nevertheless remained prominent through the films of several gifted directors who began their careers as Neorealists and went on to produce their major work during the 1960s and ’70s.

Federico Fellini had worked as a scriptwriter for Rossellini before directing in the 1950s an impressive series of films whose form was Neorealist but whose content was allegorical (I vitelloni [The Loafers], 1953; La strada [The Road], 1954; Le notti di Cabiria [Nights of Cabiria], 1956). During the 1960s Fellini’s work became increasingly surrealistic (La dolce vita [The Sweet Life], 1960; Otto e mezzo [81/2], 1963; Giulietta degli spiriti [Juliet of the Spirits], 1965; Fellini Satyricon, 1969), and by the 1970s he was perceived to be a flamboyantironic fantasist—a reputation that sustained him through such serious and successful films as Fellini Roma (1972), Amarcord (1974), and E la nave va (1983; And the Ship Sails On).

Michelangelo Antonioni had also collaborated with Rossellini. Accordingly, his first films were Neorealist documentary shorts (Gente del Po [People of the Po], 1947), but during the 1950s he turned increasingly to an examination of the Italian bourgeoisie in such films as Cronaca di un amore (1950; Story of a Love Affair), La signora senza camelie (1953; Camille Without Camellias), and Le amiche (1955; The Girlfriends), and in the early 1960s Antonioni produced a trilogy on the malaise of the middle class that made him internationally famous. In L’avventura (1959; The Adventure), La notte (1960; The Night), and L’eclisse (1962; The Eclipse), he used long-take sequence shots equating film time with real time to create a vision of the reverberating emptiness of modern urban life. Antonioni then began to use colour expressionistically in Deserto rosso (1964; Red Desert) and Blow-Up (1966) to convey alienation and abstraction from human feeling, and all of his later works in some way concerned the breakdown of personal relationships (Zabriskie Point, 1970; Identificazione di una donna [Identification of a Woman], 1982) and of identity itself (Professione: Reporter [The Passenger], 1975).

While Fellini and Antonioni were putting Italy in the vanguard of modernist cinema, the country’s second post-World War II generation of directors emerged. Ermanno Olmi (Il posto [The Job], 1961; Un certo giorno [One Fine Day], 1968; L’albero degli zoccoli [The Tree of Wooden Clogs], 1979) continued the Neorealist tradition in his tales of ordinary people caught up in systems beyond their comprehension. Pier Paolo Pasolini, who had worked as a scriptwriter for Fellini, achieved international recognition for Il vangelo secondo Matteo (1964; The Gospel According to St. Matthew), a brilliant semidocumentary reconstruction of the life of Christ with Marxist overtones. Pasolini went on to direct a series of astonishing, often outrageous films that set forth a Marxist interpretation of history and myth—Edipo re (1967; Oedipus Rex), Teorema (1968; Theorem), Porcile (1969; Pigsty), Medea (1969), Salò (1975)—before his murder in 1975. Like Pasolini, Bernardo Bertolucci was a Marxist intellectual whose films attempt to correlate sexuality, ideology, and history; his most successful films were Il conformista (1970; The Conformist), a striking dissection of the psychopathology of fascism, Ultimo tango a Parigi (1972; Last Tango in Paris), a meditation on sex and death, and Novecento (1976; 1900), a six-hour epic covering 50 years of Italian class conflict. Other important Italian filmmakers include Francesco Rosi (Salvatore Giuliano, 1962), Marco Bellocchio (La Cina è vicina [China Is Near], 1967), Marco Ferreri (La Grande Bouffe [Blow-Out], 1973), Ettore Scola (Una giornata speciale [A Special Day], 1977), Paolo Taviani and Vittorio Taviani (Padre padrone [Father and Master], 1977), Franco Brusati (Dimenticare Venezia [To Forget Venice], 1979), and Lina Wertmüller (Pasqualino settebellezze [Seven Beauties], 1976).

Beginning in the 1970s, the declining European economy compelled many Italian directors to make coproductions with American, French, German, and Swedish companies. In order to maximize profits, several such films featured international stars in leading roles. This dependence on world markets—as well as the increased popularity of television throughout Italy—often led to the loss of national identity in Italian films, although such filmmakers as Roberto Benigni, Carlo Verdone, and Maurizio Nichetti were able to use the new situation to good advantage. Perhaps the most individual voice in Italian cinema during the 1990s was Nanni Moretti, whose humourous, satiric works, such as Caro diario (1994; Dear Diary), critique the social values of the late 20th century. Moretti’s family drama La stanza del figlio (The Son’s Room) won the top award at the 2001 Cannes film festival.


French cinema of the occupation and postwar era produced many fine films (Marcel Carné’s Les Enfants du paradis [The Children of Paradise], 1945; Jean Cocteau’sLa Belle et la bête [Beauty and the Beast], 1946; René Clément’sJeux interdits [Forbidden Games], 1952; Jacques Becker’s Casque d’or [Golden Helmet], 1952; Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Le Salaire de la peur [The Wages of Fear], 1953), but their mode of presentation relied heavily on script and was predominantly literary. There were exceptions in the austere classicism of Robert Bresson (Le Journal d’un curé de campagne [The Diary of a Country Priest], 1950; Un Condamné à mort s’est échappé [A Man Escaped], 1956), the absurdist comedy of Jacques Tati (Les Vacances de M. Hulot [Mr. Hulot’s Holiday], 1953; Mon oncle [My Uncle], 1958), and the lush, magnificently stylized masterworks of the German émigré Max Ophüls, whose La Ronde (1950), Le Plaisir (1952), Madame de… (1953), and Lola Montès (1955) represent significant contributions to world cinema. An independent documentary movement, which produced such landmark nonfiction films as Georges Rouquier’s Farrebique (1948), Georges Franju’s Le Sang des bêtes (1949; The Blood of the Beasts), and Alain Resnais’s Nuit et brouillard (1956; Night and Fog), also emerged at this time. It provided a training ground for young directors outside the traditional industry system and influenced the independent production style of the movement that culminated in the French postwar period of renewal—the Nouvelle Vague, or New Wave.

The most important source of the New Wave lay in the theoretical writings of Alexandre Astruc and, more prominently, of André Bazin, whose thought molded an entire generation of filmmakers, critics, and scholars. In 1948 Astruc formulated the concept of the caméra-stylo (“camera-pen”), in which film was regarded as a form of audiovisual language and the filmmaker, therefore, as a kind of writer in light. Bazin’s influential journal Cahiers du cinéma, founded in 1951, elaborated this notion and became the headquarters of a group of young cinéphiles (“film lovers”)—the critics François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, Jacques Rivette, and Eric Rohmer—who were to become the major directors of the New Wave. Bazin’s basic principle was a rejection of montage aesthetics—both radical Eisensteinian cutting and Hollywood-style continuity, or invisible, editing—in favour of the long take and composition in depth, or what he called mise-en-scène. Borrowed from the theatre, this term literally means “the placing in the scene,” but Bazin used it to designate such elements of filmic structure as camera placement and movement, the lighting of shots, and blocking of action—that is, everything that precedes the editing process.

The Cahiers critics embraced mise-en-scène aesthetics and borrowed the idea of authorship from Astruc. In proposing la politique des auteurs (“the policy of authors”), christened the auteur theory by the American critic Andrew Sarris, they maintained that film should be a medium of personal artistic expression and that the best films are those imprinted with their makers’ individual signature. As a logical consequence of this premise, the Cahiers critics rejected mainstream French cinema and its “tradition of quality” in favour of the classic mise-en-scène tradition (exemplified in the films of Louis Feuillade, F.W. Murnau, Erich von Stroheim, Renoir, Welles, and Ophüls), the films of Hollywood studio directors who had transcended the constraints of the system to make personal films (Howard Hawks, Josef von Sternberg, Hitchcock, and Ford), and the low-budget American B movie in which the director usually had total control over production.

The first films of the New Wave were independently produced dramatic shorts shot in 16-mm by the Cahiers critics in 1956–57, but 1959 was the year that brought the movement to international prominence, when each of its three major figures made their first features. Truffaut’s Les Quatre Cents Coups (The 400 Blows), Resnais’s Hiroshima, mon amour, and Godard’s À bout de souffle (Breathless) were all in their different ways paradigms of a fresh new style based on elliptical editing and location shooting with handheld cameras. This style was both radically destructive of classic Hollywood continuity and pragmatically suited to the New Wave’s need to make its films quickly and cheaply. Its ultimate effect was to deconstruct the narrative language that had evolved over the previous 60 years and to create a reflexive cinema, or meta-cinema, whose techniques provided a continuous comment on its own making.

The critical and commercial success of the first New Wave features produced an unprecedented creative explosion within the French industry. Between 1960 and 1964, literally hundreds of low-budget, stylistically experimental films were made by cinéphiles with little or no experience. Many of these ended in failure, and the New Wave as a collective phenomenon was over by 1965. But the three figures who had initiated the movement, and a small group of sophisticated and talented filmmakers—Chabrol, Rivette, Rohmer, Louis Malle, Agnès Varda, and Jacques Demy—dominated French cinema until well into the 1970s, and several continued to make significant contributions into the next century.

François Truffaut was the most commercially successful of the original New Wave group, and, through such films as Jules et Jim (1961) and the autobiographical “Antoine Doinel” series, which began with Les Quatre Cents Coups, he acquired a reputation as a romantic ironist. Truffaut’s range also extended to parodies of Hollywood genres (Tirez sur le pianiste [Shoot the Piano Player], 1960), homages to Hitchcock (La Mariée était en noir [The Bride Wore Black], 1967), historical reconstructions (L’Enfant sauvage [The Wild Child], 1970), reflexive narratives (La Nuit américaine [Day for Night], 1973), and literary adaptations (L’Histoire d’Adèle H. [The Story of Adele H.], 1975; Le Dernier Métro [The Last Metro], 1980).

Jean-Luc Godard was the most stylistically and politically radical of the early New Wave directors. Some of his early films were parodies of Hollywood genres (Une Femme est une femme [A Woman Is a Woman], 1961; Alphaville, 1965; Pierrot le fou, 1965), but the majority of them treated political and social themes from a Marxist, and finally Maoist, perspective (Le Petit Soldat [The Little Soldier], 1960; Vivre sa vie [My Life to Live], 1962; Les Carabiniers [The Riflemen], 1963; Bande à part [Band of Outsiders], 1964; Une Femme mariée [A Married Woman], 1964). With Masculin féminin (1966), Godard turned from narrative to cinema verité-style essay, and his later films became increasingly ideological and structurally random (Made in U.S.A., 1966; Deux ou trois choses que je sais d’elle [Two or Three Things I Know About Her], 1967; La Chinoise, 1967; Week-end, 1967; One Plus One [also called Sympathy for the Devil], 1968). During the 1970s, Godard made films for the radical Dziga Vertov production collective (Pravda, 1969; Le Vent d’est [Wind from the East], 1969; Letter to Jane, 1972) and experimented with combinations of film and videotape (Numéro deux [Number Two], 1975; La Communication, 1976). In the 1980s Godard returned to theatrical filmmaking, purified of ideology but no less controversial for it, with such provocative features as Sauve qui peut (la vie) (1980; Every Man for Himself), Passion (1982), Je vous salue, Marie (1986; Hail Mary), and Éloge de l’amour (2001; In Praise of Love).

Alain Resnais was slightly older than the Cahiers group, but he identified with the New Wave through style and theme. His most famous film is the postmodern mystery L’Année dernière à Marienbad (1961; Last Year at Marienbad), which questions the processes of thought and memory—central concerns in Resnais’s work. Muriel (1963), La Guerre est finie (1966; The War Is Over), Stavisky (1974), Providence (1977), and Mon oncle d’Amérique (1978; My American Uncle) are all in various ways concerned with the effects of time on human memory from both a historical and a personal perspective.

Other important New Wave figures with lasting influence are Claude Chabrol, whose entire career can be seen as an extended homage to Hitchcock; Louis Malle, a master of film types who relocated to the United States; Eric Rohmer, whose “moral tales,” including Ma nuit chez Maud (1968; My Night at Maud’s) and Le Genou de Claire (1970; Claire’s Knee), established the ironic perspective on human passion that he maintained in later films; Agnès Varda, famed for her improvisational style; Jacques Demy, whose best films are homages to the Hollywood musical; and Jacques Rivette, the most austerely abstract and experimental of the Cahiers group.

Few national movements have influenced international cinema as strongly as the French New Wave. By promoting the concept of personal authorship, its directors demonstrated that film is an audiovisual language that can be crafted into “novels” and “essays”; and, by deconstructing classic Hollywood conventions, they added dimensions to this language that made it capable of expressing a new range of internal and external states. In the process, the New Wave helped to reinvigorate the stylistically moribund cinemas then found in Britain, West Germany, and the United States; it created a current of “second waves” and “third waves” in the already flourishing Italian, Polish, Czech, Hungarian, and Japanese cinemas.

The New Wave made France the leading centre of Modernist and postmodern film and film theory, a position it continued to hold for many years. By the 1990s France had followed the lead of other European countries in assimilating into the world market. The influence of the New Wave was still evident, but increased demands for commercial fare resulted in several crime thrillers and period costume dramas, genres that were often specialties of young directors.

Unique among European filmmakers, however, many French directors remained unfettered by commercial demands. At the turn of the 21st century, Chabrol was still a dominant force, with films such as La Cérémonie (1995; Judgment in Stone) demonstrating his continued mastery of the psychological thriller. Prominent young directors included Manuel Poirier, who specialized in affectionate, offbeat romances and “buddy pictures,” such as Western (1997); Claire Simon, who, after several years of directing documentaries, adapted her characteristic ironic humour to such fiction films as Sinon, oui (1997; A Foreign Body) and Ça c’est vraiment toi (2000; That’s Just like You); and Robert Guédiguian, a writer-producer-director known for works such as Marius et Jeannette (1997) and Á la place du coeur (1998), which effectively blend affectionate character studies with biting social satire.

Great Britain

In Great Britain the post-World War II cinema was even more literary than in France, relying heavily on the adaptation of classics in the work of such directors as Laurence Olivier (Henry V, 1944; Hamlet, 1948; Richard III, 1955), David Lean (Great Expectations, 1946; Oliver Twist, 1948), and Anthony Asquith (The Importance of Being Earnest, 1952). Even less-conventional films had literary sources (Carol Reed’s Outcast of the Islands, 1951; Michael Powell and Emeric Pressberger’s The Red Shoes, 1948, and The Tales of Hoffman, 1951). There were exceptions to this trend in a series of witty, irreverent comedies made for Michael Balcon’s Ealing Studios (Kind Hearts and Coronets, 1949; The Lavender Hill Mob, 1951; The Man in the White Suit, 1951), most of them starring Alec Guinness, but, on the whole, British postwar cinema was elitist and culturally conservative.

In reaction, a younger generation of filmmakers led by Lindsay Anderson, Czechoslovak-born Karel Reisz, and Tony Richardson organized the Free Cinema movement in the mid-1950s. Its purpose was to produce short low-budget documentaries illuminating problems of contemporary life (Anderson’s O Dreamland, 1953; Richardson’s Momma Don’t Allow, 1955). Grounded in the ideology and practice of Neorealism, Free Cinema emerged simultaneously with a larger social movement assailing the British class structure and calling for the replacement of bourgeois elitism with liberal working-class values. In the cinema this antiestablishment agitation resulted in the New Cinema, or Social Realist, movement signaled by Reisz’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), the first British postwar feature with a working-class protagonist and proletarian themes. Stylistically influenced by the New Wave, with which it was concurrent, the Social Realist film was generally shot in black and white on location in the industrial Midlands and cast with unknown young actors and actresses. Like the New Wave films, Social Realist films were independently produced on low budgets (many of them for Woodfall Film Productions, the company founded in 1958 by Richardson and playwright John Osborne, one of the principal Angry Young Men, to adapt the latter’s Look Back in Anger), but their freshness of both content and form attracted an international audience. Some of the most famous were Richardson’s A Taste of Honey (1961) and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962), John Schlesinger’s A Kind of Loving (1962) and Billy Liar (1963), Anderson’s This Sporting Life (1963), and Reisz’s Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment (1966).

These films and others like them brought such prestige to the British film industry that London briefly became the production capital of the Western world, delivering such homegrown international hits as Richardson’s Tom Jones (1963), Schlesinger’s Darling (1965), Richard Lester’s two Beatles films, A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and Help! (1965), Schlesinger’s Far from the Madding Crowd (1967), and Anderson’s If… (1968), as well as such foreign importations as Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965) and Cul-de-sac (1966), Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451 (1966), Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966), and American Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and A Clockwork Orange (1971). This activity inspired a new, more visually oriented generation of British filmmakers—Peter Yates, John Boorman, Ken Russell, Nicolas Roeg, and Ridley Scott—who would make their mark in the 1970s; but, as England’s economy began its precipitous decline during that decade, so too did its film industry. Many British directors and performers defected to Hollywood, while the English-language film market simultaneously experienced a vigorous and unprecedented challenge from Australia. In the 1980s, amid widespread speculation about the collapse of the film industry, British annual production reached an all-time low.

Great Britain’s film industry, however, has a long history of rebounding from periods of crisis. A major factor in the revival of British cinema during the late 20th century was the founding in 1982 of Channel 4, a television network devoted to commissioning—rather than merely producing—original films. Its success led to the establishment of a subsidiary, FilmFour Ltd., in 1998. Internationally acclaimed films produced or coproduced under either the Channel 4 or the FilmFour banner include A Room with a View (1986), The Crying Game (1992), Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994), Trainspotting (1996), Secrets and Lies (1996), The Full Monty (1997), and Welcome to Sarajevo (1997). Also contributing to the resurgence of British film was the National Lottery, which, after its establishment in 1994, annually contributed millions of pounds to the film industry.


Germany’s catastrophic defeat in World War II and the subsequent partitioning of the country virtually destroyed its film industry, which had already been corrupted by the Nazis. Rebuilt during the 1950s, the West German industry became the fifth largest producer in the world, but the majority of its output consisted of low-quality Heimatfilme (“homeland films”) for the domestic market. When this market collapsed in the 1960s because of changing demographic patterns and the diffusion of television, the industry was forced to turn to the federal government for subsidies. In recognition of the crisis, 26 writers and filmmakers at the Oberhausen film festival in 1962 drafted a manifesto proclaiming the death of German cinema and demanding the establishment of a junger deutscher Film, a “young German cinema.” The members of this Oberhausen group became the founders of Das Neue Kino, or the New German Cinema, which was brought into being over the next decade through the establishment of the Kuratorium Junger Deutscher Film (1965; Young German Film Board, a grant agency with funding drawn from the cultural budgets of the federal states), the Filmförderungsanstalt, or FFA (Film Subsidies Board, which generated production funds by levying a federal tax in part on theatre tickets), and the independent distributing company Filmverlag der Autoren (1971; Authors’ Film-Publishing Group), with additional funding from the two West German television networks.

These institutions made it possible for a new generation of German filmmakers to produce their first features and established a vital new cinema for West Germany that attempted to examine the nation’s unbewältige Vergangenheit, or “unassimilated past.” The first such films, which were deeply influenced by the New Wave, especially by the work of Godard, included Volker Schlöndorff’s Der junge Törless (1966; Young Torless) and Alexander Kluge’s Die Artisten in der Zirkuskuppel: ratlos (1968; The Artists Under the Big Top: Disoriented). In the 1970s, however, three major figures emerged as leaders of the movement—Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Werner Herzog, and Wim Wenders.

Fassbinder was the most prolific, having made more than 40 features before he died in 1982. His films are also the most flamboyant. Nearly all of them take the form of extreme melodrama, ending in murder or suicide—Warum läuft Herr R. amok? (1969; Why Does Herr R. Run Amok?), Die bitteren Tränen der Petra von Kant (1972; The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant), and Angst essen Seele auf (1973; Ali: Fear Eats the Soul)—and several are consciously focused on German wartime and postwar society (Die Ehe der Maria Braun [The Marriage of Maria Braun], 1979; Lola, 1981; Veronika Voss, 1982).

Herzog’s films tended more toward the mystical and the spiritual than the social, although there is nearly always some contemporary referent in his work—the image of idealism turned to barbarism in Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes (1972; Aguirre, the Wrath of God); the hopeless inability of science to address the human condition in Jeder für sich und Gott gegen alle (1974; Every Man for Himself and God Against All, or The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser); the inherently destructive nature of technology in Herz aus Glas (1977; Heart of Glass); the incomprehensible nature of pestilence in his remake of Murnau’s Nosferatu (1979).

Wenders, on the other hand, was profoundly postmodern in his contemplation of alienation through spatial metaphor. In such works of existential questing as Die Angst des Tormanns beim Elfmeter (1971; The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick) and Im Lauf der Zeit (1976; “In the Course of Time”; Kings of the Road), he addressed the universal phenomena of dislocation and rootlessness that afflict modern society.

The state subsidy system enabled hundreds of filmmakers, including many women (e.g., Margarethe von Trotta) and minorities, to participate in the New German Cinema. With the exception of the work of Fassbinder, Herzog, and Wenders, however, the New German Cinema did not find a large audience outside West Germany. Yet in terms of exploring and extending the audio-language system of film, it was to the 1970s and ’80s very much what the New Wave was to the ’60s, and its influence was widely felt.

By the reunification of Germany in 1990, a national identity had still not been forged in any of the various arts. Several outstanding German directors and production artists did emerge, but most of them achieved their greatest success in Hollywood. Roland Emerich (Independence Day, 1996; The Patriot, 2000) proved to be a skillful practitioner of the action-adventure genre, and Wolfgang Petersen, who received international acclaim for Das Boot (1982), earned a reputation for tense thrillers (In the Line of Fire, 1993) and unrelenting visual spectacles (The Perfect Storm, 2000). German cinematographers (Michael Ballhaus, Karl Walter Lindenlaub) and composers (Hans Zimmer, Christopher Franke) were also among the more notable artisans working in Hollywood films at the turn of the 21st century.


The development of an indigenous film culture in Africa occurred at different moments in the history of the continent. The various timelines are related to the political, social, and economic situations in each country and to the varying effects of colonialism on the continent. Only Egypt had a truly active film industry for the first half of the 20th century; the development of cinema elsewhere on the continent was largely the result of individual efforts. One such example is Paul Soumanou Vieyra, the first African graduate of the French film school Institut des Hautes Études Ciné, who joined with friends to produce the short film Afrique sur Seine (1955), considered the first fiction film by black Africans.

Some countries, such as Morocco, did not develop a strong national cinema; others, such as Algeria and Tunisia, nationalized all or parts of their film industries. Several African nations joined the Fédération Pan-Africaine des Cinéastes (FEPACI; “Federation of Pan-African Filmmakers”), formed in 1969 to oversee the political and financial problems of the film industries throughout the continent.

As the 20th century drew to a close, many filmmakers and scholars began to examine the questions of, first, what constitutes an “African film” and, second, how film can best deal with the diaspora of the African people. On one hand, African filmmakers had to acknowledge and learn from the conventions of Western film. On the other, they wanted to highlight and preserve aspects of African culture that had been threatened by Western colonialism. As part of this search to define the goals of African cinema, African filmmakers often used the medium to explore the social issues plaguing postcolonial Africa. Directors such as Adama Drabo (Ta Dona [Fire], 1991) and Moufida Tlatli (Les Silences du palais [The Silences of the Palace], 1994) explored such matters as education, the environment, and women’s rights and suggested that traditional approaches to such issues had to be adapted to the realities of contemporary Africa. Aspects of these realities were examined by such directors as Tsitsi Dangarembga (Everyone’s Child, 1996) and Salem Mekuria (Ye Wonz Maibel [Deluge], 1995), who dealt with the AIDS crisis and political violence, respectively. Colonization itself was examined by such directors as Bassek ba Kobhio, whose satiric study of Albert Schweitzer, Le Grand Blanc de Lambaréné (1995; The Great White Man of Lambaréné), shows how colonialism damaged both the colonizer and the colonized.


Although more than half of Japan’s theatres were destroyed by U.S. bombing during World War II, most of its studio facilities were left intact. Japan, therefore, continued to produce films in quantity during the Allied occupation (1945–52). Many traditional Japanese subjects were forbidden by the Allied Command as promoting feudalism, however, including all films classified as jidai-geki (period dramas). Nevertheless, the film that first brought Japanese cinema to international attention belonged to that category: Kurosawa Akira’s Rashomon (1950), which won the Golden Lion at the 1951 Venice film festival. The film, a meditation on the nature of truth set in the medieval past, marked the beginning of the Japanese cinema’s unprecedented renaissance . During this period, new export markets opened in the West, and Japanese filmmakers produced some of their finest work, winning festival awards throughout the world. Kurosawa, who was already well known in his homeland for a number of wartime and postwar genre films, became the most famous Japanese director in the West on the strength of his masterful samurai epics—Shichinin no samurai (1954; Seven Samurai), Kumonosu-jo (1957; Throne of Blood), Kakushi toride no san akunin (1958; The Hidden Fortress), Yojimbo (1961), and Sanjuro (1962)—which raised the chambara, or “sword-fight,” film to the status of art. He made films in other genres, including literary adaptations, gendai-geki (modern dramas), gangster films, and period films that cannot be categorized at all (Akahige [Red Beard], 1965; Dersu Uzala, 1975); but Kurosawa always returned to the samurai form for his most profound statements about life and art (Kagemusha [The Shadow Warrior], 1980; Ran, 1985).

Two other established directors who produced their greatest films in the postwar period were Mizoguchi Kenji and Ozu Yasujirō. Both had begun their careers in the silent era and were more traditionally Japanese in style and content than Kurosawa. Mizoguchi’s films, whether period (Sansho dayu [Sansho the Bailiff], 1954) or contemporary (Yoru no onnatachi [Women of the Night], 1948), were frequently critiques of feudalism that focused on the condition of women within the social order. His greatest postwar films were Saikaku ichidai onna (1952; The Life of Oharu), the biography of a 17th-century courtesan, and Ugetsu (1953), the story of two men who abandon their wives for fame and glory during the 16th-century civil wars. Both were masterworks that clearly demonstrated Mizoguchi’s expressive use of luminous decor, extended long takes, and deep-focus composition. As one of the great mise-en-scène directors, Mizoguchi can be compared to Murnau, Ophüls, and Welles, but his transcendental visual style makes him unique in the history of cinema.

Ozu Yasujirō too was a stylist, but the majority of his 54 films were shomin-geki, a variety of gendai film dealing with the lives of lower-middle-class families (Tokyo monogatari [Tokyo Story], 1953; Higanbana [Equinox Flower], 1958; Ukigusa [Floating Weeds], 1959). They were all very much alike and, in a sense, were all part of a single large film whose subject was the ordinary lives of ordinary people and the sacred beauty therein. Ozu’s minimalist style—originating in both Zen Buddhist aesthetics and the fact that most of his films were shot within the confines of a typical Japanese house—was based on his use of low-angle long takes in which the camera is positioned about three feet (one metre) off the floor at the eye level of a person seated on a tatami mat. This practice led Ozu to an especially imaginative use of offscreen space and “empty scenes.”

The second postwar generation of Japanese filmmakers was mainly composed of Kobayashi Masaki, Ichikawa Kon, and Shindo Kaneto. Kobayashi is best known for Ningen no joken (1959–61; The Human Condition), his three-part antiwar epic set during Japan’s brutal occupation of Manchuria, and the beautiful ghost film Kwaidan (1964). Ichikawa’s major works were the pacifist films Biruma no tategoto (1956; The Burmese Harp) and Nobi (1959; Fires on the Plain). Shindo is best known for his poetic semidocumentaryHadaka no shima (1960; The Island) and the bizarre, folkloristic Onibaba (1964).

The third generation of postwar directors was most active during the 1960s and ’70s. The group was deeply influenced by the French New Wave and included Teshigahara Hiroshi (Suna no onna [Woman in the Dunes], 1964), Masumura Yasuzo (Akai Tenshi [The Red Angel], 1965), Imamura Shohei (Jinruigako nyumon [The Pornographers], 1966), and Oshima Nagisa (Ai no corrida [In the Realm of the Senses], 1976). In the mid-1960s, however, competition from multiple-channel colour television and from American distributors forced the Japanese film industry into economic decline. A decade later, two major studios were bankrupt, and film production was increasingly dominated by two domestic exploitation genres: the yakuza-eiga, or contemporary urban gangster film, and the semipornographic eroducti on film, which mixed sex and sadism. During the 1980s and ’90s, Japan continued to produce the highest annual volume of films of any country in the world, but the studios remained in decline, and most serious productions, such as Kurosawa’s Kagemusha, were funded by foreign interests. At the turn of the 21st century, funding for films remained low, although the market for films was the greatest ever. This situation led to the mass production of low-budget films, as well as to the increased popularity of amateur and experimental films.

China, Taiwan, and Korea

Other Asian nations have had spotty cinematic histories, although most developed strong traditions during the late 20th century. The film industries of China, Taiwan, and Korea were marked by government restrictions for most of the 20th century, and the majority of their output consisted of propaganda films. The loosening of many restrictions in the 1980s and ’90s resulted in a new wave of Asian directors who attained worldwide prominence. At the turn of the 21st century, China’s “Fifth Generation Cinema” was known for such outstanding young directors as Zhang Yimou, who specialized in tales of political oppression and sexual repression. Korea’s cinematic history is difficult to assess, because virtually no films made prior to World War II exist, but works produced during the 1950s and ’60s—the “golden age” of Korean cinema—gained a strong international reputation. The most successful Taiwanese directors of the late 20th century were Ang Lee, who directed films ranging from American morality tales such as The Ice Storm (1997) to the lavish martial-arts fantasy Wo hu zang long (2000; Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon); and Hou Hsiao-hsien, who was best known for his sensitive family dramas (Hao nan hao nu [Good Men, Good Women], 1995).


Serious postwar Indian cinema was for years associated with the work of Satyajit Ray, a director of singular talent who produced the great Apu trilogy (Pather panchali [The Song of the Road], 1955; Aparajito [The Unvanquished], 1956; Apur sansar [The World of Apu], 1959) under the influence of both Jean Renoir and Italian Neorealism. Ray continued to dominate Indian cinema through the 1960s and ’70s with such artful Bengali films as Devi (1960; The Goddess), Charulata (1964; The Lonely Wife), Aranyer din ratri (1970; Days and Nights in the Forest), and Ashani sanket (1973; Distant Thunder). The Marxist intellectual Ritwik Ghatak received much less critical attention than his contemporary Ray, but through such films as Ajantrik (1958; Pathetic Fallacy) he created a body of alternative cinema that greatly influenced the rising generation.

In 1961 the Indian government established the Film Institute of India to train aspiring directors. It also formed the Film Finance Commission (FFC) to help fund independent production (and, later, experimental films). The National Film Archive was founded in 1964. These organizations encouraged the production of such important first features as Mrinal Sen’s Bhuvan Shome (1969; Mr. Shome), Basu Chatterji’s Sara akaash (1979; The Whole Sky), Mani Kaul’sUski roti (1969; Daily Bread), Kumar Shahani’s Maya darpan (1972; Mirror of Illusion), Avtar Kaul’s 27 Down (1973), and M.S. Sathyu’s Garam hawa (1973; Scorching Wind) and promoted the development of a nonstar “parallel cinema” centred in Bombay (Mumbai). A more traditional path was followed by Shyam Benegal, whose films (Ankur [The Seedling], 1974; Nishant [Night’s End], 1975; Manthan [The Churning], 1976) are relatively realistic in form and deeply committed in sociopolitical terms. During the 1970s the regional industries of the southwestern states—especially those of Kerala and Karnataka—began to subsidize independent production, resulting in a “southern new wave” in the films of such diverse figures as G. Aravindan (Kanchana sita [Golden Sita], 1977), Adoor Gopalakrishnan (Elipathayam [Rat-Trap], 1981), and Girish Karnad (Kaadu [The Forest], 1973). Despite the international recognition of these films, the Indian government’s efforts to raise the artistic level of the nation’s cinema were largely unsuccessful. During the 1970s, India was a land of more than one billion people, many of them illiterate and poor, whose exclusive access to audiovisual entertainment was film; television was the medium of the rich and powerful middle class. The Indian film industry was for much of the later 20th century the world’s largest producer of low-quality films for domestic consumption, releasing on average 700 features per year in 16 languages.


Australia was a country virtually without a film industry until the late 1960s and early ’70s, when the federal government established the Australian Film Development Corporation (after 1975, the Australian Film Commission) to subsidize the growth of an authentic national cinema, founded a national film school (the Australian Film and Television School, later the Australian Film Television and Radio School, or AFTRS) to train directors and other creative personnel, and initiated a system of lucrative tax incentives to attract foreign investment capital to the new industry. The result was a creative explosion unprecedented in the English-language cinema. Australia produced nearly 400 films between 1970 and 1985—more than had been made in all of its prior history.

With financing from the Film Commission and such semiofficial bodies as the New South Wales Film Corporation (by the end of the decade each of the federal states had its own funding agency), the first films began to appear in the early 1970s, and within the next few years several talented directors began to receive recognition, including Peter Weir (Picnic at Hanging Rock, 1975), Bruce Beresford (The Getting of Wisdom, 1977), Fred Schepisi (The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith, 1978), George Miller (Mad Max, 1979), and the first AFTRS graduates, Phillip Noyce (Newsfront, 1978) and Gillian Armstrong (My Brilliant Career, 1979). Unlike the productions financed with foreign capital by the Canadian Film Development Corporation during the same period, these new Australian films had indigenous casts and crews and treated distinctly national themes. By the end of the 1970s, Australian motion pictures were being prominently featured at the Cannes international film festival and competing strongly at the box office in Europe. In 1981 Australia penetrated the American market with two critical hits, Beresford’s Breaker Morant (1980) and Weir’s Gallipoli (1981), and the following year it achieved a smashing commercial success with Miller’s Mad Max II (1981; retitled The Road Warrior, 1982). In the 1980s, many Australian directors worked for the American film industry, with varying degrees of success (Schepisi: Barbarossa, 1982; Beresford: Tender Mercies, 1983; Armstrong: Mrs. Soffel, 1984; Weir: Witness, 1985; Miller: The Witches of Eastwick, 1987). Despite this temporary talent drain and a decline in government tax concessions, the Australian cinema remained one of the most influential and creatively vital in the world. Prominent younger directors helped to maintain Australia’s world status, including Baz Luhrmann, noted for his flamboyant visual style in such films as William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet (1996) and Moulin Rouge (2001), and P.J. Hogan, known for biting social comedies such as Muriel’s Wedding (1994) and My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997).

Russia, eastern Europe, and Central Asia

b. March 31, 1932, Kyoto, Japan
d. January 15, 2013, Fujisawa, Kanagawa, Japan

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Nagisa Oshima’s interest in politics began at a young age. His father, a government official (reportedly of samurai lineage) (1) who died when Oshima was six, left behind an extensive library of Socialist and Communist texts, which the young man read through as he came to maturity. He attended Kyoto University, studying law while dabbling in theatre and becoming deeply involved in student activism. The years of his youth were turbulent ones for Japan, as the nation rebuilt itself after its defeat in World War Two. Food shortages and depressed wages sparked a surge in labour-union activity. The threat of labour unrest, and the dawning of the Cold War mentality, led to crackdowns and “Red purges” of suspected radicals. Slowly, the American occupiers were transforming Japan into a stable capitalist democracy, and as the Cold War got underway, the U.S. came to see its new client state as an essential ally in the region. In 1951, the American occupation officially ended. That same year, the signing of the U.S.-Japan mutual security pact established a permanent U.S. military presence in Japan. Japanese leftists, fearing a return to authoritarianism and militarism, stepped up their demands for greater freedom. At the time of the security pact signing, Oshima was an officer in Kyoto University’s left-wing student association, and led the student body in a series of protests. (In one famous incident that occurred while Oshima was a student leader, the Emperor’s visit to Kyoto University was disrupted by a mass demonstration.)

By the time Oshima graduated in the mid-1950s, he had lost interest in practicing law. Steady employment was hard to find in the post-war, pre-boom years, particularly for a young man with a record of leftist activism, so when a friend notified him of an opening at Shochiku Ofuna studios’ assistant-director training program, he applied, though he was not a passionate cinephile. He was admitted, and began to work his way up the ranks as a screenwriter and assistant director.

In 1959, as the renewal of the U.S.-Japan security pact (stipulated to occur every ten years) approached, student activists joined forces with the Socialist and Communist parties, intellectuals and labour unions. Strikes, boycotts, rallies and occupations of official buildings erupted nationwide. Revolution seemed a real possibility. Amid the disorder, the Japan Communist Party shifted its stance and denounced the student groups as dangerous extremists, selling itself as “a responsible, civic-minded opposition party working against the security treaty and for the independence of Japan” (2). Many on the left, Oshima included, saw the JCP’s actions as a betrayal of the young by their elders. Nevertheless, demonstrations continued, sometimes ending in violent clashes between protestors and police. The treaty was renewed in 1960, the fledging revolutionary movement defeated, but a new spirit of radical agitation had been released into the culture – years before “the sixties” as such really began in the U.S. and Europe(3).

During the years leading up to the great disruptions of 1959-60, Oshima was learning his craft at Shochiku, waiting for the opportunity to make a feature. He had also started writing film criticism. In a 1958 essay called “Is It A Breakthrough? (The Modernists of Japanese Film),” he assessed the new crop of Japanese directors (“modernists”) – most of them, except for Yasuzo Masumura, unknown to Western audiences today:

The modernists are at a crossroads. One road would lead to gradual degeneration of their innovations in form into mere entertainment, bringing about their surrender to the premodern elements that are subconsciously included in the content of their films. In that case, they would simply live out their lives as mediocre technical artists. Another road requires them to exert all of their critical spirit and powers of expression in a persistent struggle that strongly and effectively pits the content of their works against the premodern elements of Japanese society (4).

There are several things to note here. First, the condemnation of the “premodern” Japanese mentality: feudalistic, xenophobic, undemocratic, hostile to personal liberty, mired in dead traditions. Second, the importance granted to cinema: the belief that Japanese cinema can profoundly influence the direction of the Japanese nation. (For the better, and for the worse: Oshima has always disdained the great humanist tradition of Japanese film, seeing it as the artistic embodiment of those “premodern elements of Japanese society” he opposes) (5). Third, the warning against “degeneration” and “surrender”: the fear that bold, innovative young filmmakers might lose their nerve and become “mediocre technical artists” (this from a man still in his twenties, whose first feature would not appear until the following year). Finally, the notion of persistent struggle: the awareness that in the war against a reactionary and repressive society, no true and lasting victory can be won. One must be forever vigilant, must will oneself constantly forward, or be dragged down into corruption and waste.

Through the 1960s and into the early ’70s, Oshima put his youthful theories into practice with a series of films that retain their power to provoke and surprise. Politically and formally radical, they are remarkable documents of their era and constitute a major contribution to the various “new waves” that swept through world cinema during the ’60s. As a director, Oshima never settled into an identifiable aesthetic, a particular mode of address; the films range from neorealist naturalism to pseudo-documentary to avant-garde modernism to surrealist farce. There is no such thing as a “typical” Oshima shot or scene. As a result, his detractors have accused him of lacking a style or voice of his own. But form, for Oshima, serves as a vessel for content (see (5)). His subject matter was new: post-war alienation among Japanese youth, the failures of left-wing political movements, the rise of capitalism, the hangover from the imperial past. These new stories could not be told in the old ways; new content demanded new forms. Traditional forms – the classical style of conventional studio filmmaking – reflected the political and cultural status quo. To critique and reform a corrupt society, to change the way people think and act, would require a change in how they see and hear. The lack of a signature style, the search for new forms, is part and parcel of the never-ending struggle to see contemporary Japan with fresh eyes. Restlessness equals development and growth; repetition leads to self-satisfaction and the weakening of the will. From a 1961 essay:

This accumulation of new images [discovered during shooting] becomes a work and thereby gives the filmmaker a new consciousness of reality. When he is preparing for the next work, it shapes his total dynamic vision of the inner person and outer circumstances. The filmmaker goes on to discover new images as he works on each production, testing and negating his vision….

Reality, however, is always changing. Thus, the filmmaker who is unable to grasp it immediately ceases being a filmmaker and degenerates into a mere crafter of images.

Constant self-negation and transformation are necessary if one is to avoid that debilitation and continue to confront circumstances as a filmmaker. Naturally, that means preparing a new methodology. Moreover, those transformations and that methodology must not themselves be made into goals of the ego, but, as weapons used to change reality, must always follow through with their objective of revolutionizing consciousness. With this in place, the law of self-negating movement is not merely a law of production or of the filmmaker, but a law of human growth and of the development of the human race – a law of the movement of all things.

The filmmaker must uphold that law(6).

“Reality” in this passage stands for the thing to be resisted, struggled against, overcome. Reality is the way things are, the received wisdom of the social order. The artist pursues a personal vision that will lead to a new consciousness of reality, but once that vision has expressed itself in a particular work, an act of self-negation must occur, to clear the way for new visions. The creation of an oeuvre, the ego-gratifications of artistic success: these are mere by-products of the true quest, to change reality, and to revolutionize consciousness. However: the radical filmmaker seeks these goals, but knows that ultimately, they can never be achieved. It is not a question of reforming a certain law, or bringing a particular issue to light. There is no victory over the horizon, only the persistent struggle, the movement of all things.

This was how the young Oshima defined his mission. But, as we shall see, even in his earliest films, theory did not always walk hand in hand with practice. The films display tremendous anger at social and political corruption, but also great scepticism about the possibility of effecting positive change. The aspiring revolutionary becomes a brilliant anatomist of failed revolutions; the rebel youth who set out to reform society ends up making film after film exploring the twisted, murky psychology of the rebel.

Early Films

Oshima got the chance to direct his first feature after a series of box-office failures led Shochiku’s management to promote some of its more promising assistant directors. A Town of Love and Hope (1959) sounded acceptably conventional in outline: a social-realist drama about a poor teenage boy who sells a homing pigeon to gullible buyers as a pet, only to later recall the pigeon and sell it again. A close friendship with a rich girl ends when the girl discovers the boy’s scam, and orders the pigeon shot. But, Japanese critic Tadao Sato reports:

[i]n the original script another scene followed in which the teenagers agree not to let their friendship end on such a sour note, and there was the brave, heartwarming message that together they would build a more genuine society. However, Oshima’s film ended with the slain pigeon falling – an image which pierced the viewer to the core. It was a compelling ending because the viewer, who had been an objective, detached observer, was suddenly and forcefully confronted with the question: Where do you stand?(7) According to Sato, Shochiku disliked Oshima’s harsher ending, with the studio head scolding the director, “This film is saying that the rich and poor can never join hands!” The company promptly buried the film, releasing it in only a few small theatres.

The success of his next feature, Cruel Story of Youth (1960), put Oshima back in his employers’ good graces. Cruel Story is often compared to Rebel Without A Cause (Nicholas Ray, 1955): a juvenile delinquent and a “good” girl fall in love and manoeuvre their way among disapproving adults and dangerous youth gangs. But Oshima’s film is set in a meaner milieu, and he lacks Ray’s romantic idealism. The couple in Cruel Story operate a scam in which the girl lures middle-aged lechers into driving her home, then, once the marks make their moves on her, the boy appears and shakes them down. These are not Rebel‘s wounded innocents, but tainted people in a dirty world, predators as well as prey. Where the film does resemble Rebel is in its supercharged, hot-blooded style: bold colours, intense close-ups, a mood of coiled tension that periodically explodes in sex and violence. Cruel Story is Oshima’s splashiest, most pop-besotted work, a grim tale that’s great fun to watch.

Social commentary shares the foreground with the tale of the two lovers. The boy’s close friend is a student protestor taking part in the anti-security-treaty demonstrations, real footage of which appears in the film. And the girl’s older sister is a former activist of Oshima’s generation; watching her younger sister’s heedless flouting of convention reminds her of her own vanished youth. She reconnects with her former lover, now a doctor, but their meeting ends in disillusionment and a sad recognition of compromised ideals: she settled down with an older man for security, while he supplements his meagre income performing back-alley abortions. The doctor is arrested (after giving the heroine an abortion) and the young lovers meet separate, bloody ends.

Oshima’s next film presented an even harsher view of lowlife Japan. The Sun’s Burial (1960) depicts the struggle between two criminal gangs in an Osaka slum. Prostitution, black-marketeering, identity theft, rape and robbery are the going concerns in this ensemble piece. Oshima repeatedly ends scenes with cityscapes of the sun setting over the decrepit slum. The Sun’s Burial, with its corrupt, conniving characters, its squalor and cruelty, is the director’s disgusted mockery of the nation’s self-image as the “land of the rising sun”.

These first three pictures showed Oshima working largely within the boundaries of conventional genre storytelling: A Town of Love and Hope was an urban melodrama, and Cruel Story of Youth and The Sun’s Burial were approved and marketed by Shochiku as part of the then-popular Taiyo-zoku (or “Sun Tribe”) films about rebellious contemporary youth. Oshima’s fourth feature, and (astonishingly) his third to appear in 1960, marked a significant breakthrough – an audacious and original work, conceptually rigorous, blisteringly political.

Night and Fog in Japan begins at the wedding of a thirtyish journalist and a younger activist, who met a few months earlier at the bloody height of the security treaty protests. The groom’s friends are from Oshima’s generation, those who took to the streets in the early 1950s. Some have left the movement, some have consolidated their power within it, some hang on at its margins. The bride’s friends are from the younger generation, the students freshly wounded in the recent protests. (The contrast between the two generations recalls the older and younger pairs of lovers in Cruel Story of Youth.) The wedding’s formalised serenity is very quickly broken, as guests invited and uninvited begin to speak of their shared pasts. Night and Fog in Japan takes place during three separate time frames: the present of the wedding, the recent past of the 1960 demonstrations, and the more distant past of the older generation’s activism during the early 1950s. As the guests’ tongues loosen and memories take hold, recriminations and accusations are flung about, and old jealousies and resentments come to light.

With Night and Fog, Oshima (and his co-screenwriter Toshiro Oshido, also a former student activist) comments on the immediate moment of the 1959–60 protests while simultaneously crafting a memory-piece about his own political coming-of-age in the early ’50s. The film can be read as Oshima’s indictment of the Old Left’s leadership: how they betrayed one another when young, and how they sold out their successors several years later. The constant flashbacks begin to exert a relentless, vertiginous pull, as if history is grabbing the characters by their necks and dragging them out of the present. One character’s j’accuse leads to a flashback furnishing the evidence for the indictment, but then the accused gets a chance to speak and the viewer is plunged into an alternative version of the past events, and then on to the next argument and counter-argument. The quest for truth, for meaning, for a final settling of accounts, circles back on itself in a spiral of confusion, and the film ends on an ambiguous note. The fugitive of the group is arrested, the guests stand in pensive disarray, and the group’s leader, by now revealed as an unprincipled Stalinist control freak, reasserts order with a speech (surely inspired by the Marquis’ words at the close of Renoir’s La Règle du Jeu [1939]) about the need for unity. The camera drifts past the characters, through the enveloping fog, and into the night.

Stylistically, the film departs from the naturalism of Oshima’s first three features. During the wedding scenes, the actors, spread out along the wide Cinemascope screen in neat rows, stand motionless while the camera pans and tracks across their faces, registering their expressions as they take in what’s happening and think back on the past. The stiff, still tableau of the wedding, traversed by the restless camera, correlates to the state of the characters’ lives, frozen in the present as their history swells and swirls around them. Many scenes are filmed in a heavily theatricalised shorthand – call it minimalist expressionism: a massive protest march is rendered as the sound of crowds chanting, glimpses of waving flags and flashing lights, and a lone protestor stumbling through shadows.

Night and Fog in Japan is a demanding viewing experience, but a rewarding one. We don’t sink comfortably into the flow of the story but instead are constantly thrown out of it, forced to shift our conception of what has happened to these people as more facets of their past are revealed. Oshima doesn’t want us to “like” his characters, but to understand them, and to see how contemporary social history plays itself out through their lives. Though some first-time viewers might be put off by Oshima’s obsessively detailed re-creation of decades-old Japanese political infighting, ultimately the film works as a portrait of any movement of true believers that falls apart when truth and belief prove hard to hold onto (the critic Paul Coates calls Night and Fog a “prescient post-mortem of 1968 before the fact”) (8).

A few days after the film was released, Shochiku withdrew it from circulation, claiming concerns about social stability following the assassination of Inejiro Asanuma, chairman of the Japan Socialist Party. Oshima was furious, denouncing the studio in the press for its cowardice, and even (like a character in his film) making a grandstanding anti-Shochiku speech to the guests at his own wedding to actress Akiko Toyama. He left Shochiku to form his own independent production company, Sozosha (Creation). Thus ended his career as a studio filmmaker, to the relief of both studio and filmmaker.

The 1960s and Early 1970s

The next few years saw Oshima collaborating with novelist Kenzaburo Oe on a film about a Japanese village holding an American POW during the war (The Catch, 1961), making a biopic about an eighteenth-century revolutionary (Amakusa Shiro Tokisada, 1962) and travelling extensively in Korea and Vietnam. His Asian travels led to a series of documentaries for Japanese television (9). Then, in 1965, he returned to features with Pleasures of the Flesh, about a criminal who pursues a life of dissolute sensualism. Pleasures of the Flesh signalled the beginning of a remarkably fertile period: over the next eight years, Oshima would turn out a dozen features.

Many of these films are difficult to find today. But at least half of them made their mark on international contemporary cinema; they form the better part of Oshima’s filmmaking legacy. The first of these was Violence at Noon (1966). The story was inspired by a real-life serial rapist and killer who terrorised the nation in the late 1950s. Oshima and his screenwriter Tsutomu Tamura (working from a novel by Taijun Takeda) make their criminal, Eisuke (Kei Sato), a fugitive from a collective farm that had failed a year before, adding a social and political backdrop to this noir tale of private perversion.

Oshima was by now reinventing his style for each new work. No two films from this prolific period look alike: the director was living up to his credo of “constant self-negation and transformation.” Violence at Noon, in stark contrast to the long sequence shots of Night and Fog in Japan, consists of some 2,000 shots. Scenes seem to break apart and re-form before our eyes, as Oshima jump-cuts from angle to angle with unsettling speed, fracturing space like a cubist. The fragmented style brings us into the criminal’s consciousness, a jumble of fetishised memories and uncontrollable urges. By the end, Eisuke has receded in importance next to the two women whose lives he has haunted: his schoolteacher wife and his first rape victim. Eisuke is brought to justice, but the women find no comfort, no escape, no happy ending (significantly, Eisuke’s capture and execution are never shown but reported from offscreen, denying us any sense of relief).

Oshima’s obsession with crime and criminals runs deep, from the boy with the homing-pigeon scam to the killers who populate his later work. (Audie Bock: “[I]n every Oshima film at least one murder, rape, theft or blackmail incident can be found, and often the whole of the film is constructed around the chronic repetition of such a crime” (10)). In his writings and interviews, Oshima sometimes equates the outlaw with the artist: both live lives of risk and uncertainty, closer to the edge than those who conform to social norms. This is not an original or profound observation, and Oshima can sound naïve, vain, or foolish when expounding on the theme in print:

In the first place, to make films is a criminal act in this world.

Doesn’t this also explain why it is difficult to establish a movement in the film world? It is easy for one person to commit a crime, but it is really difficult to commit a crime in a group. People who try to commit a crime in a group are inevitably shot down (11).


Rather than being our own, the labors of our days are merely a series of things we are made to do by those outside ourselves. We live lives that are even more evanescent than the bubbles floating along the stream – and even more meaningless.

The reason we show an abnormal interest in crime and scandal is that a life, which usually drifts by, thereby appears caught up by a pole in the river’s flow. A drowning man grasps at straws. For we find, in crime and scandal, a tiny trace that reminds us of human dignity….

The path to human dignity lies through the act of one who, having been previously involved in a crime or scandal, chooses that option for himself once again, in the very midst of the flow(12).

But in his films, Oshima’s identification with the outlaw becomes considerably more interesting than these passages might indicate. One complicating factor is how Oshima’s empathy with the criminal colors his identity as a political activist. Like the outlaw and the artist, the would-be reformer takes a rebel stance against normative behaviour. In almost every film, Oshima’s main character or characters, whether artist, criminal or activist, makes the conscious choice to live in defiance of the law. Bock reports that the director had recurring nightmares in which he committed rapes and mass murders, and felt guilty and ashamed upon awakening:

He gradually came to the conclusion that his guilt feelings were related to the impurity that had entered his attitude toward revolution – he was, after all, a filmmaker and not a revolutionary…While he still expresses admiration for the determination of filmmakers like Godard concerning their avid commitment to a revolutionary purpose in the filmic medium, Oshima is adamant in his belief that such a goal is doomed to frustration; hence the criminality complex apparent in his own films(13).

The activist’s mission is to speak truth to power, to do good works in the world, to live by a higher morality. But in private he dreams of crime, perversion, and self-gratification. How does the artist deal with this split in the self? Oshima’s ’60s and ’70s films tie together his personal demons and political critiques in increasingly knotty, fascinating ways.

Oshima’s concern with the legacy of Japan’s former colonisation of Korea manifested itself in three films from the late ’60s. A Treatise on Japanese Bawdy Song (1967) touches on the subject as part of a larger study of sexual fantasy. Three Resurrected Drunkards (1968) is a mistaken-identity comedy about a Korean soldier and a Japanese student. Death by Hanging (1968), the only one of the three to be widely seen outside Japan, is essential Oshima, an aggressively difficult, feverishly inventive film.

Once again, the director and his scenarists started from a real-life story. Chin’u Ri, a poor 22-year-old born in Japan to Korean parents, had been arrested, tried, and executed for raping and killing a Japanese schoolgirl. Ri’s case made headlines, particularly after a journalist published a book of Ri’s letters showing him to be, in Oshima’s words, “the most intelligent and sensitive youth produced by post-war Japan” (14). Ri’s defence team had argued that his actions must be understood in the context of his second-class social status:

[Ri] had been systematically denied his heritage as a Korean yet denied access to economic and social advancement because he was Korean… To many Japanese critics of the courts, it seemed hypocritical, at least, to discriminate against someone of a different ethnic background while at the same time to expect him to act like a member of the dominant society(15). Part of Oshima’s interest in Ri’s story was the chance to voice his opposition to both the death penalty and the systemic prejudice against ethnic Koreans in Japan. But Death by Hanging is more than a simple message picture. Oshima expands his critique beyond specific social structures to call into question, at least for the running time of the film, our very notions of reality and identity.

It begins like a documentary about capital punishment: a prisoner, “R” (Yundo Yun), is led to the gallows, and his body drops through the trapdoor. But the prisoner survives, and now a clearly fictional drama starts to unfold, about the not-dead R and the Japanese jailers who must figure out what to do with him. For the botched hanging has induced amnesia in R, and by a legal technicality, he can’t be executed if he’s not aware that he committed a crime. An absurdist comedic tone takes hold as the jailers try different ways to get R to acknowledge his guilt so they can kill him: from verbal interrogations and abuse, to psychological probing, to explorations of R’s past. We move far afield of conventional realist storytelling into a kind of dream-world, as the spaces of the courthouse become the rooms of R’s childhood, and as R and the jailers find themselves at the scene of the crime, re-enacting the assault. Then the rape and murder “victim” comes to life as R’s “sister,” urging him in long, didactic speeches to embrace his identity as a Korean in Japan, representative of an oppressed minority. Finally, R accepts that he is R, and submits to hanging a second time. A voice-over thanks us for watching. Character and narrative continuity, spatial and temporal logic: all are systematically undermined in Death by Hanging as Oshima scrambles together political polemic, Brechtian alienation effects, Kafkaesque parable and a surrealist assault on perception worthy of Buñuel. (And as in much Buñuel, the comedy is magnified by the solemnity with which the characters go about their business, seeming all the crazier for their attempts to behave “rationally” in a mad world.)

Oshima continued this extraordinary creative streak with his next four films: Diary of a Shinjuku Thief (1968), Boy (1969), The Man Who Left His Will on Film (1970) and The Ceremony (1971). Shinjuku Thief juxtaposes the story of a sexually frustrated young couple (aggressive female; passive/masochistic male who can only find sexual release by stealing and being caught) with the account of an avant-garde theatre production and documentary footage of student riots: the links between crime, art and political protest are made explicit, as the couple seeks personal liberation in acts of social rebellion. The acclaimed Boy was, like Violence at Noon and Death by Hanging, inspired by a true story. A man and a woman travelled around Japan with their young son, whom they had trained to run in front of moving cars and pretend to be struck and badly injured. The parents would then demand money from the frightened drivers. Oshima returns to a more straightforward narrative style with Boy; the film, one of his most affecting due to its sympathetic depiction of the title character, is a savage vision of Japanese family values (patriarchy, filial obedience) grown poisonous at the root.

By 1970, the U.S.-Japan security pact was once again up for renewal, and a younger generation of student activists (further energised by their opposition to the U.S. war in Vietnam) took to the streets in protest. But history repeated itself: despite massive demonstrations, several of which ended in violence, the treaty was renewed. There was, however, one thing that made the youth protests of ’69–70 different from those of ’59–60: cinema. The international New Wave had happened. Godard and Oshima, et al., had happened. It was the period of cinema verité, the camera stylo, and “truth 24 times a second,” of a new generation that saw filmmaking as a weapon in the battle for social change. The Man Who Left His Will on Film focuses on one such group of young men and women. In the opening scene, Motoki (Kazuo Goto) is seen through the lens of a camera carried by one of his friends. The cameraman runs away – we see only a rushed blur of street movement – with Motoki in pursuit. Motoki’s friend commits suicide by jumping off a roof. Motoki grabs the camera from the police, but they catch him and take custody of the dead man’s footage.

Motoki and his peers, a collective of young Marxist filmmakers, recover the footage and screen it. The dead man was supposed to be filming political demonstrations, but his camera captured only dull street scenes: uninflected, unexciting quotidian reality. In a bravura sequence, Oshima shows us the footage as we hear voice-over debates among the spectators about what they’re watching: “But what was he thinking when he shot this?” “Watching this is a waste of time. He was bankrupt, politically and artistically.” “Maybe he figured that by linking meaningless shots he could make meaning by paradox.” In our heads we join Motoki and his friends in the debate, searching for meaning and coherence in the seemingly random footage. Soon Motoki grows obsessed with the dead man, initiating a romance with Yasuko (Emiko Iwasaki), the deceased’s girlfriend, and eventually restaging and reshooting the scenes we watched earlier. As in Death by Hanging, identity is a fluid process and not a fixed fact: we, and Motoki himself, aren’t sure if Motoki is on the trail of a mystery with a plausible solution, or if he’s losing his mind in attempting to take the dead man’s place. In the end, Motoki becomes the victim of his obsession: he takes a camera up onto the same roof seen at the start of the film, and jumps to his death. A hand reaches into the frame and steals Motoki’s camera, just as Motoki himself had earlier grabbed the camera from the cops. The end. We realise: Motoki himself was the dead man, and the story we just watched has formed a Möbius loop of repetition compulsion. Motoki’s despair at his own ineffectiveness as a filmmaker-revolutionary, evident in scene after scene, is shown to be the same despair that led his “friend” to take his own life in the beginning. Noël Burch writes that The Man Who Left His Will on Film ties together a number of Oshima’s concerns:

…the contradictions within the radical movement, Japan’s multiply divided self, and the dilemma of Oshima himself, unable to establish a dialectical relationship between his art and his politics…. [A]n ambitious attempt to develop a dialectical narrative form [that considers] the mechanisms of the unconscious in relation to the contradictions of political filmmaking(16).

Next came The Ceremony, a multigenerational family saga in the mode of The Godfather 1 and 2 (Francis Coppola, 1972/74) and City of Sadness (Hou Hsiao-hsien, 1989). Like Coppola and Hou’s films, Oshima’s covers several decades, but while theirs are sprawling, expansive (if elegiac) epics, his traces another claustrophobic closed circle of failure and frustration. The central character is Masuo (Kenzo Kawarazaki), a high-school baseball coach in his late youth. As the film begins Masuo is on the way to visit one of his three cousins. The cousins belong to the Sakurada clan, a well-to-do family presided over by Masuo’s grandfather Kazuomi (Kei Sato, the killer in Violence at Noon). A series of flashbacks spanning the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s show the family members gathering at various ceremonies: weddings, anniversaries, funerals.

The Ceremony pulls together themes and devices from several of Oshima’s previous films into a masterful summation. As in Night and Fog in Japan, the flashbacks qualify and condition our understanding of the present: the family, for all its outward prosperity, is rotting from the inside out, and from the top down. Kazuomi is a fearsome patriarch whose cruelty and love of power have stunted the succeeding generations. Also like the earlier film, the traditional rituals of Japanese society (the wedding in Night and Fog, and nearly every flashback scene here) are shown to be shams, empty ceremonies masking broken spirits and wasted lives. Though much of the story is presented in a relatively (for Oshima) conventional way, there are frequent detours into the Brechtian anti-realism of Death by Hanging: in one extraordinary scene, Masuo’s arranged marriage to a woman he’s never met is about to be cancelled once the bride-to-be sends word that she will not be arriving, but Kazuomi insists the ceremony continue as planned. Bride or no bride, the forms of tradition must be obeyed, so the gathered guests watch as the humiliated Masuo stands at the altar alone, “marrying” nothing but air. And, as in so many Oshima films, the path to personal freedom is blocked by crippling psychic compulsions: The Ceremony ends with Masuo reliving a childhood memory, taking part in an imaginary baseball game with his absent cousins. Masuo’s escape into childish fantasy seems poor compensation for his ineffectiveness in the real world. The film suggests that modern Japan, like the Sakadura clan, is trapped between past and present. The older generation, authoritarian, patriarchal, supporters of the nation’s imperialist and militarist traditions, continues to hold power over Masuo and his contemporaries, who have no new ideals or beliefs with which to resist the old order.

The International Years

After making one more film, the little-seen Dear Summer Sister (1972), Oshima’s career took a new turn. Though sex plays an important part in almost all his films, he had for years wanted to make a picture that took sexuality as its central concern. But he held back:

I had resolved not to make that kind of film if there were no possibility of complete sexual expression. Sexual expression carried to its logical conclusion would result in the direct filming of sexual intercourse(17).

Now, censorship restrictions had been lifted in many countries, and French producer Anatole Dauman (a nouvelle vague veteran who produced films for Resnais, Godard and Marker) offered to back him in making an erotic – or pornographic – film. Oshima dissolved Sozosha, his production company, and set to work on a script inspired by the case of Sada Abe, a madwoman who in 1936 was found walking the streets of Tokyo holding the severed penis of her dead lover. In the Realm of the Senses (1976) was financed with French and Japanese money, and shot in Japan with a Japanese cast and crew, then (to circumvent Japanese laws) the footage was sent to France to be processed and edited. Oshima followed up on Bertolucci’s earlier provocation Last Tango in Paris (1972), but went further: Realm caused an international sensation with its explicit depictions of fellatio, penetration and S&M. (Oshima’s film was banned in Japan for many years.) The two films also share a theme: the desire to shut one’s social being entirely out of one’s sexual life, to shed one’s everyday self in the sex act – to fuck your way to freedom. And both portray uninhibited eroticism as a road ending in death.

In Realm, Sada (Eiko Matsuda) is a former prostitute now working as a maid at an inn. The master of the house, Kichi (Tatsuya Fuji), exercises his privileges and takes her to bed. A great passion sparks in both of them. Kichi leaves home with Sada, and they travel the countryside staying in different inns, spending all their time in bed. In its early scenes, the film seems like a portrait of many a new love affair: the endless fascination of the other; lots of sex, sex talk, testing of sexual boundaries. But Sada and Kichi go further, leaving their “regular” lives behind. Apart from Sada’s two visits to an old sugar daddy to raise money for their food and lodging, she and Kichi keep to themselves, giving their entire existences over to sex. Their rooms grow increasingly filthy (and, humorously, even the geishas are scandalised by their nonstop sucking and rutting). Sada is insatiable: she demands ever-greater pleasure, endless pleasure. Soon they escalate to S&M games, hitting and choking each other. She can’t stop, but Kichi begins to wear out. The bold, energetic seducer of the earlier scenes seems dried up, emptied; he lives only to fulfil Sada’s desires. In the end, with his blessing, she strangles him to death in a sex ritual and lovingly cuts his penis off his body.

Some accused Oshima of opportunism and commercialism in making In the Realm of the Senses, but in hindsight it looks like a necessary move from an artistic point of view as well. The utopian ideals of the ’60s had collapsed. Social revolution seemed an impossibility and Oshima no longer felt at home making films within the Japanese system (18). Where could the Oshima protagonist go, then, except turn inward? In Realm, the characters’ search for freedom has no political or social dimension; it is a purely selfish act. No rebellion against society is possible or desirable, only a shutting-out of society and an obsessive focus on one’s own pleasure (and pain). At one point, while Kichi is awaiting Sada’s return from a rendezvous with her sugar daddy, he wanders outside, where a regiment of the imperial Japanese army is marching off to war. A crowd of citizens stands by the road cheering them on. This is the film’s only acknowledgment of the world outside the lovers’ bedroom, the world where history is being made, armies are massing, nations falling and rising, great causes being lost and won… Kichi, uncaring, walks past the crowd and retreats to his room.

In 1978, Dauman and Oshima reunited for Empire of Passion. Like Realm, Empire of Passion starred Tatsuya Fuji, had a period setting (this time the 1890s), and centered on a doomed love affair. It was even titled In the Realm of Passion in some English-language releases. But the transgressive intensity of the earlier film was replaced by a sombre study of guilt and remorse. Toyoji (Fuji), a labourer in a provincial village, falls in love with Seki (Kazuko Yoshiyuki), the wife of a rickshaw driver, Gisaburo (Takahiro Tamura). Toyoji and Seki kill her husband to prevent him from discovering their affair, but when Gisaburo’s ghost begins to haunt Seki, the lovers slowly fall apart. Despite some steamy sex (far less explicit than In the Realm of the Senses) and horror-shocks, the storytelling is mostly restrained, the mood mournful and tender. Oshima blends film noir (the early scenes in particular have the heat and tension of a James M. Cain thriller), ghost-story, and period-piece tropes to make this one of his most accessible and entertaining works. Overshadowed at the time of its release by its more sensationalistic predecessor, the film is due for rediscovery.

The two collaborations with Dauman inaugurate a shift – the central dividing line, in fact – in Oshima’s body of work. He becomes an international filmmaker, dependent on international co-production deals for financing, and (for his next two films after Empire of Passion) working with international casts and crews, in foreign languages. He seeks a larger, more global audience. In an essay titled “Perspectives on the Japanese Film,” Oshima explained the reasons for this change. With the internationalisation of the Japanese economy, foreign films – in mass terms, that meant largely American films – ate away at the domestic box-office share of Japanese films. Raising money became more difficult, with more filmmakers competing for fewer production and distribution opportunities.

Films conceived in the multiracial United States can become global films just as they are. Their expansive investments in production are possible because of a firm belief in this fact.

I don’t work under these conditions.

However, even if I can’t attract large audiences everywhere in the world, I can make films that are sure to attract audiences everywhere, even if they are small. Although the numbers in each country will be small, they will add up to a certain total worldwide. That is probably what makes it possible for me to make my next film. This is how I would like to make international films…

Oshima’s dilemma, and his proposed solution to it, are shared by filmmakers worldwide; he has “confirmed this in conversations with Wim Wenders, Bernardo Bertolucci, Paolo Taviani, Theo Angelopoulos, Jim Jarmusch, Mrinal Sen… Chen Kaige and Lee Jang ho” and others:

But why is this trend global? It is because the film worlds of their own countries are ghettoes for these film people….

Not one country has been able to find a breakthrough point – which is to say that industrially the size of film audiences only decreases, while practically no films are made that broaden the artistic possibilities of the form(19).

Due to difficulties raising money, and a debilitating stroke in the 1990s, Oshima was far less prolific during this second, internationalist half of his career: eighteen features between 1959 and 1973, only five since 1976. (In the ’90s, he also completed two documentaries: Kyoto, My Mother’s Place [1991] for the BBC, and the Japanese episode of the British Film Institute’s The Century of Cinema series [1995].) Inevitably, this diminishment in productivity has given the later films the impression of an artist in search of a subject. (20) Nevertheless, the five features from this period are impressive works. The radical formal experimentation of the ’60s and early ’70s mindfuck films is replaced by a more classical, easy-to-read style; the social inquiry and psychological complexity remain, but head into new territory.

Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983) was adapted by Oshima and Paul Mayersberg from the novel The Seed and the Sower by Laurens Van der Post. (It was produced by Jeremy Thomas, who also worked with Roeg, Bertolucci, and Crone berg; he later produced Oshima’s Taboo [1999].) Mr. Lawrence is set in a Japanese POW camp in Java during World War Two. The repressed, aristocratic Captain Yonoi (pop star Ryuichi Sakamoto, who also composed the score) runs the camp with the assistance of the earthy, rough-and-tumble Sergeant Hara (television comedian and future auteur Takeshi Kitano in his first dramatic role). POW John Lawrence (Tom Conti) is a British officer who has lived in Japan and is comfortable with the language and culture of his captors. The camp is thrown into chaos with the arrival of another British officer, the Afrikaner Jack Celliers (David Bowie). Celliers exerts a strong homoerotic pull on Yonoi, whose frustrated urges begin to eat away at his psyche. Yonoi’s men think Celliers is a devil sent to kill their captain’s spirit. In the name of maintaining order, the devil must be destroyed.

Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence is based on an English-language novel, and co-written by an Englishman. English actors get more screen time than the Japanese, and though the film is bilingual there’s more English than Japanese spoken on the soundtrack. We learn much about Lawrence and Celliers’ pasts, less about Yonoi and Hara’s. And yet the film is Oshima’s most thorough fictional treatment of the Japanese during World War Two, teetering between the high noon of their imperial ambitions and their imminent, ignominious defeat. Lawrence explains to Celliers: “They were an anxious people. They could do nothing individually. So they went mad en masse.” Oshima is working on an international scale for a global audience, but he uses the “foreign” point of view to take a fresh look at his own nation’s history.

His next film was in essence an entirely European venture, filmed in French and English. Max, Mon Amour (1986) was produced by Serge Silberman, co-written by Jean-Claude Carrière, and made in France with a French crew led by cinematographer Raoul Coutard. Silberman and Carrière were Buñuel’s partners during his late flourishing in France in the ’60s and ’70s, and much about Max resembles Buñuel’s work. An English couple residing in Paris, Margaret and Peter Jones (Charlotte Rampling and Anthony Higgins), have their lives thrown into disarray when Margaret falls in love and carries on an affair. The film is a light domestic farce satirising bourgeois manners – with the added twist that Margaret’s lover Max is a chimpanzee. The social satire fuses with the kinky-surrealist monkey business and yields some comic gems, as when Max joins a dinner party but ignores the food and drink to stroke, nibble, and kiss Margaret in full view of the guests (who are too polite to object), or when Peter grows crazed with jealousy wondering just what it is Max and Margaret actually do in bed. Along with the Buñuelian elements of the story, Oshima and Coutard also seem to have borrowed Buñuel’s late style: simple camera setups, unobtrusive editing, no flash and dazzle; the bizarro events onscreen are made more real to us by the director’s lack of interest in hyping them up with jazzy angles and cutting. Max, Mon Amour is minor Oshima – in so many ways it hardly seems like “an Oshima film” – but it’s a fun joke, enjoyably sustained over the film’s running time.

Oshima spent a few years trying and failing to raise money for Hollywood Zen, a biopic about the Japanese American movie star Sessue Hayakawa. He returned to Japan to make Taboo instead, but a stroke in 1996 derailed those plans. He recovered sufficient strength to direct the film a few years later, albeit from a wheelchair. Taboo, based on a novel by Ryotaro Shiba, is set in 1865, when the shogunate had taken control of the nation from the emperor. The Shinsengumi, a samurai militia serving the shogunate, is recruiting new members from the peasant class. One of the new inductees is Kano (Ryuhei Matsuda). Kano, a young man of feminine delicacy and mysterious motives, becomes the locus of homoerotic and homosexual desire among several members of the militia. The group’s leaders, Commander Kondo (Yoichi Sai) and Captain Hijiketa (Takeshi Kitano), try to maintain order but the lust Kano inspires in the men leads to jealousy, dissension and betrayal.

Taboo seems, on the surface, to be Oshima’s least original film. It’s full of generic hand-me-downs: cherry blossoms, swordplay, dialogues about samurai honour and duty. It has the feeling of something we’ve seen before – except that at its heart it’s a study of gay desire. The samurai film is a venerable Japanese genre, and Oshima obeys its codes only to inject this unfamiliar element into its bloodstream – to blow up the tradition from within its gates. But the director is not interested in scoring easy points off the social prejudices of an earlier era (as Todd Haynes was in the accomplished but smug Far from Heaven [2002]): the warriors accept man-on-man love as a natural occurrence in military life. What links Taboo to Oshima’s earlier work is its depiction of the social order shaken by unstoppable human urges. (Taboo most obviously resembles Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence

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