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Oshima and “Waiting for Armageddon” on DVD

Oshima and “Waiting for Armageddon” on DVD (photo)

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We live in a strange day and age, when the very idea of a filmmaker apostate rebelling against the status quo of mainstream cinema strikes us as unattractive or even silly. Not since the ’50s has cinema as we see it in the United States been so conformist. Sure, Tarantino and Kaufman and a handful of little-seen imported directors “break the rules,” but if the films aren’t brimming with amenable showbiz zest, they hardly stand a chance.

Not that there’s anything wrong with showbiz zest, per se. But there was a time when tumult and experiment were de rigueur, when New Waves were breaking on the shores of urban theaters everywhere, and it’s hard to blame the filmgoer who looks at the prickly, risky, fuck-you movies of the ’60s and ’70s and finds them more modern and resonant and relevant than what’s happening in theaters now.

One of the fieriest cases in point is Nagisa Oshima, who’s most famous for the shitstorm raised by “In the Realm of the Senses” (1976) but who was already the Japanese New Wave’s most recalcitrant barn-burner long before, a world-class pain in the ass.

The new Criterion Eclipse set of five rarely seen ’60s films comes off as a set of cherry bombs tossed down our film-culture toilets, but really the more accurate-yet-outrageous simile might be to see the films as anarchist gasoline fires set in the rock gardens of traditional Japanese culture.

05252010_OshimaThreeResurrectedDrunkards.jpgEven in the context of the other crazy New Wavers — Suzuki, Imamura, Masumura, and so on — who were all vividly enthusiastic about critiquing postwar Japan as a dogpit of whores and lunatics, Oshima was a nose-thumber without parallel, taking cues directly from Godard and betraying audience reflexes at every turn.

Take “Three Resurrected Drunkards” (1968), a knockout title disguising an absurdist goof assembled around political screed about how the Japanese has oppressed its Korean minority, and, in this case, treated Korean immigrants looking to escape conscription in the Vietnam War like criminals. This is not a movie that’d play well in Arizona at the moment, but in reality, it’s hard to imagine it playing “well” anywhere, even in Japan. (Oshima often expressed his loathing for his studio, Japanese films and Japan itself.)

The widescreen schtick begins with the three titular idiots, gamboling Monkees-style, going swimming only to have a mysterious hand pop out of the sand and replace their clothes with Korean duds. From there, they are persecuted and pursued (why? “Because we’re them.” “Oh, yeah.”), captured, shipped out to war and back, constantly changing clothes in order to better conform but never quite succeeding.

Then Oshima’s trump card, and the justification for his title, arises. After a documentary fissure where the characters interview people on the street (who all say they’re Korean), the entire film begins again, at the beach, often using the same shots but gradually separating from the first half, as the three heroes cease resisting being defined one way or another ethnically but instead embrace however they’re perceived.

05242010_pleasuresoftheflesh.jpgBy the end, after the three goofballs suggest that they remember the first half and reenact the famous Nguyen Van Lem execution photo in multiple ways, they barely know what they are. “Let’s go back to the beach and redo it,” one grumbles, complaining like Godard figures that the film they’re in was “made by some stupid Japanese director.”

Famously an eclectic stylist, trying on new visual approaches like jackets, Oshima could make genre films, often harping on the commodification of the vagina in Japan. “The Pleasures of the Flesh” (1965) begins with a beautiful noir set-up — a young bachelor in love with a reluctant woman gets away with murdering her rapist, only to then have a bureaucratic embezzler who knows about the killing blackmail him into keeping stolen cash during the crook’s jail sentence. But, typically, the movie ends up a sardonic parable on the ridiculous doom that awaits you if try to buy love, not just sex, with a billion yen.

“Violence at Noon” (1966), the most well-known film in the pack, launches into another murder/rape scenario, but focuses on how Japanese culture (and its women) nurture sociopathy and misogyny, scrambling it all up with a famous 2000 cuts and lighting that seems ten steps too close to the sun.

But it’s a thriller compared to the uneasy narrative essay of “Sing a Song of Sex” (1967) — the ludicrously trite English retitling for what actually translates as “A Treatise on Japanese Bawdy Songs” — which begins with a stream of blood puddling on red paper, and then catching on fire.

05252010_OshimaSingaSongofSex.jpgSelf-analyzing cultural poison follows, as four students chase women after their exams, imagine compounded rape scenarios, wonder why they’re not bummed about the death of a professor, and generally stand in for the soulless, aimless generation Oshima witnessed caring little for adult society but barely even caring about the carnage of Vietnam.

Like “Three Resurrected Drunkards,” “Sing a Song of Sex” was never released in the States, yet it’s absolutely of a piece with “If…,” “La Chinoise” and Bertolucci’s “Before the Revolution.” Entirely improvised, the film is one of the late ’60s key documents, a generational holler with double-bladed edges.

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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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