“Stop using the term ‘New Wave’ once and for all! Evaluate each film on its own merits!” protested a critic-turned-auteur from Kyoto named Nagisa Oshima in an angry 1960 denunciation of both Shochiku — the studio that funded his daring anti-Stalinist milestone, Night and Fog in Japan, before pulling it quickly from theaters — and the lazy critics who excused what Oshima deemed censorship with the argument that Japanese New Wave films were simply in decline.
Ever the feather-ruffling outsider, even among his like-minded peers, the now 77-year-old Oshima is the radical mind and guts of an iconoclastic filmmaking generation (once removed from the postwar humanists: Kurosawa, Kobayashi, Ichikawa) whose questioning, prodding and deconstruction of its society’s codified corruption and hypocrisy ran parallel to La Nouvelle Vague. (The knee-jerk comparison of Oshima to Godard makes sense, since both figureheads’ films spill over with politics, sex, youth, discourse and experimental rigor, though Oshima may be the more dedicated to his lefty, anti-authoritarian cine-activism.)
Perhaps you’ve seen 1976’s In the Realm of the Senses, 1960’s Cruel Story of Youth or his 1969 masterpiece Boy, but the odds are that “In the Realm of Oshima” — a retrospective running through May 23 at LACMA — will be a revelation to most. Pinpointing which of the program’s 13 films to see isn’t an easy task. Here are two highlights from the first weekend that — and Oshima was right on this — should be evaluated on their own merits. —Aaron Hillis
A staggering majority of the Japanese people opposed the abolition of capital punishment, a statistic that Oshima clinically lectures on while touring a death chamber, forcing us to watch the austere step-by-step procedure of an execution. It plays like a sobering doc until the condemned man — known only by the Kafka-friendly initial “R.” — survives the noose, then develops amnesia. Suddenly, the tone hops to absurd theatrical comedy (the gallows humor in Dr. Strangelove’s war room now literal) as the guards begin dangerously re-enacting R.’s crimes to jog his memory — after all, killing a man who feels no guilt would be murder! Oshima is unsubtle in his critique of Japan’s persecution of Koreans, and in his questioning of whether collectively imagining crimes, villains, or justifications can make them come true.
From Oshima’s later career (after one stroke, he made 1999’s Taboo; after two strokes, it’s unclear whether he’ll direct again), most notable is this bilingual, end-of-WWII tearjerker about forgiveness and understanding between cultures, which could have been dubbed The Man Who Fell to Java. A parachuting major with a secret (David Bowie) is captured and brought to a Japanese prison camp run by a repressed gay captain (pop star Ryuichi Sakamoto, who also composed the very-’80s synth score) and his crude underling (“Beat” Takeshi Kitano), who first greets the new inmate upside-down. “What a funny face. Beautiful eyes, though,” deadpans a bemused Bowie, in what seems a tailored role. Who else could eat a flower as a forceful act of POW defiance? (Los Angeles County Museum of Art Bing Theater; through Sat., May 23. www.lacma.org)