Japanese master Nagisa Oshima dies

The iconoclastic director of In the Realm of the Senses and Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence dies aged 80.

Samuel Wigley
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Nagisa Oshima (right) and Takeshi Kitano on the set of Gohatto (1999)

Nagisa Oshima (right) and Takeshi Kitano on the set of Gohatto (1999)

One of the major directors of the 1960s Japanese New Wave (‘nuberu bagu’), Nagisa Oshima has died from pneumonia, aged 80. Along with contemporaries such as Shohei Imamura and Hiroshi Teshigahara, Oshima envisioned his work in violent opposition to what he saw as the moral and stylistic conservatism of classical Japanese filmmaking. “My hatred for Japanese cinema includes absolutely all of it,” he once claimed.

His early work, such as Cruel Story of Youth (1960), made a stark contrast with the films of the older generation. Filmed on location, making extensive use of handheld camera, and often with iconoclastic political themes, they shared more in common with the radical films emerging in France or Italy at the same time.

Death by Hanging (1968) is a black comedy about capital punishment and racial prejudice in Japan. Diary of a Shinjuku Thief (1968), which begins in black and white before segueing into riotous colour, tells of a young book thief who begins an affair with his female captor. Boy (1969) is a drawn-from-the-news story about a child forced into a dangerous scam to support his wayward family. In The Ceremony (1971), middle-class mores and marriage come under scrutiny.

 

Man Who Left His Will on Film (1970)

Man Who Left His Will on Film (1970)

Oshima’s international notoriety was ensured with In the Realm of the Senses (Ai no Corrida) in 1976, an intense, interior study of the sadomasochistic relationship between two lovers in 1930s Japan. Containing scenes of unsimulated sexual activity, the film had to be registered as a French production to bypass Japanese censorship laws and the footage was sent to France for post-production.

A companion piece, Empire of Passion (Ai no Borei), followed in 1978, winning the Best Director Award at that year’s Cannes Film Festival.

Now a director of worldwide renown, Oshima teamed with actor/singer David Bowie for the 1982 production Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, based on author Laurens van der Post’s experiences as a prisoner of war in Japan during the Second World War.

Max mon amour (1986) is the story of a British diplomat whose wife (Charlotte Rampling) has an affair with a chimpanzee, scripted by Luis Buñuel’s frequent collaborator Jean-Claude Carrière.

A break from filmmaking followed, with Oshima suffering a stroke in 1996. But he returned triumphantly with Gohatto, a story of homosexual longing among 19th-century samurai, which competed at Cannes in 2000. Translated as ‘Taboo’, Gohatto is a fitting final title for a filmmaker who worked to chip away at social and aesthetic boundaries.

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