Nagisa Oshima: In the Realm of the Senses (Truly) Iconoclastic Filmmaker dead at 80
Nagisa Oshima, best known as the director of the sexually charged 1976 psychological drama Ai No Corrida / In the Realm of the Senses, died of pneumonia on Tuesday, Jan. 15, at a Fujisawa hospital, near Tokyo. Oshima, who in the last 15 years had suffered a series of strokes, was 80. (Image: Eiko Matsuda, Tatsuya Fuji in Nagisa Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses.)
Some refer to the likes of Quentin Tarantino or Spike Lee or Martin Scorsese or Terrence Malick as “iconoclastic filmmakers.” Those people clearly haven’t bothered learning the definition of the word. Having said that, “iconoclast” is the perfect label for Nagisa Oshima. For once, in fact, laudatory obituary headlines – those announcing the “iconoclastic” Oshima’s death – perfectly reflect the personal and social standing of the deceased.
Really, if Tarantino, for one, were a true iconoclast, his movies would never have become major box office hits, nor – barring a miracle of Cries & Whispers-ian proportion – would they have been nominated for Best Picture Academy Awards. The Django Unchained and Inglourious Basterds director is as much a part of the system as every megamillionaire rapper – or Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga. Not so Nagisa Oshima.
Nagisa Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses: Controversy and censorship
Unsurprisingly, the “moron masses” – as referred to by Alfred Hitchcock – mostly stayed away from In the Realm of the Senses, considered by many to be Nagisa Oshima’s masterpiece. Although others may prefer, say, Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence or Taboo, In the Realm of the Senses certainly caused the biggest splash among the director’s films.
On the surface, the story of a serving girl (Eiko Matsuda) and an innkeeper (Tatsuya Fuji) who become sexually obsessed with one another, the “inspired by a true story” In the Realm of the Senses is an examination of the connection between power, pleasure, and death. It should come as no surprise that the film’s Japanese title is supposed to translate as “Bullfight of Love.” After all, from the get-go we know what must happen to either the bull or the bullfighter – or both. Too high brow? Then check out the egg-laying scene.
Needless to say, upon its release In the Realm of the Senses was banned in dozens of countries, including a number of so-called “democracies.” The film itself, officially a French-Japanese production, had to be developed in France so as to bypass Japanese censorship laws. Labeling it “obscene,” the United States’ Customs Service prevented In the Realm of the Senses from being screened at the 1976 New York Film Festival. (A few weeks later, a federal judge overturned the decision.) In Canada, Nagisa Oshima’s film was initially banned in most of the country, except for more open-minded Quebec.
A curious case took place in Brazil, where the sex-obsessed censors of that country’s right-wing military dictatorship refused to allow the film’s release even after the military began losing their grip on power. It took a private screening – in which the Minister of Justice’s teenage son was present – for Brazil’s much-ridiculed censorship board to finally allow In the Realm of the Senses to be shown publicly.
Nagisa Oshima movies: From Death by Hanging to Taboo
Among Nagisa Oshima’s other seminal works are Death by Hanging (1968); and the Cannes Film Festival entries Empire of Passion (1978), Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence (1983), Max Mon Amour (1986), and Taboo (1999), which turned out to be Oshima’s last effort. With the exception of Max Mon Amour, the Cannes titles were also nominated for multiple Japanese Academy Awards, including Best Picture. (Image: Nagisa Oshima.)
Much like In the Realm of the Senses, Death by Hanging was inspired by a real-life incident: the botched hanging of a young Korean man convicted of rape and murder. In Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, David Bowie plays a World War II prisoner of war who has a complex Billy Budd-like – desire/hate – relationship with a Japanese captain (played by rock star Ryuichi Sakamoto, who also composed the film’s score).
Despite its title and the presence of Tatsuya Fuji, Empire of Passion isn’t a sequel to In the Realm of the Senses (“The Empire of the Senses” in the original French). In the crime thriller, a variation on The Postman Always Rings Twice, a young man (Fuji) falls in love with an older, married woman; the couple then plot to get rid of her husband.
In the Cannes Film Festival entry Max Mon Amour, co-written by Nagisa Oshima and frequent Luis Buñuel collaborator Jean-Claude Carrière, Charlotte Rampling plays a diplomat’s wife who becomes enamored with her recently acquired chimpanzee. Unwilling to lose his wife to a fellow primate, the diplomat (Anthony Higgins) offers the possibility of an interspecies menage à trois of sorts.
In the deliberately paced, dreamlike Taboo, my personal favorite among the Oshima films I’ve seen, the director expands on the Mr. Christmas Mr. Lawrence theme of forbidden desire: based on several Ryotaro Shiba novellas, Taboo is set in 1800s Japan, when the appearance of a young, handsome samurai (Ryuhei Matsuda) upsets the status quo at a training compound.
A few more Nagisa Oshima films: Night and Fog in Japan (1960), which revolves around a group of political activists during the time Japanese youth attempted to rid Japan of the U.S. government’s political interference; the World War II-set The Catch (1961), in which Japanese villagers find a black American soldier in their midst; and the satire The Ceremony (1971), about a wedding that must proceed despite the bride’s inconvenient absence.
‘Hatred’ for Japanese cinema
From 1980 to 1996 (the year he suffered his first stroke), Nagisa Oshima somewhat incongruously served as president of the Directors Guild of Japan. After all, Oshima once said, “My hatred for Japanese cinema includes absolutely all of it,” apparently including everything from Godzilla and Mothra to Akira Kurosawa and Yasujiro Ozu. And as reported in the New York Times, his 1994 documentary 100 Years of Japanese Cinema “concludes with the hope that Japanese cinema rid itself of its ‘Japaneseness.'”
An English-language translation of a collection of Oshima’s essays and articles, Cinema, Censorship and the State, was published in 1993, while his actress-wife Akiko Koyama’s book of memoirs, As a Woman, as an Actor, in which she discusses the couple’s relationship, came out in 2011.
The greatest Nagisa Oshima line, delivered while he was testifying in a Japanese court about In the Realm of the Senses: “Nothing that is expressed is obscene. What is obscene is what is hidden.”
Eiko Matsuda, Tatsuya Fuji in Nagisa Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses photo: Argos Films.