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.
Even 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.
By 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.
Self-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.