Kôshikei (1968) (Death By Hanging)
Troublemaker extraordinaire Nagisa Oshima’s Death by Hanging (1968) is a tar-black comedy in the vein of Dr. Strangelove (1964), straddling the polar realms of docu-drama and over-the-top absurdity, and begins with a documentary passage that tells us that about a recent survey which reveals that most Japanese are against the abolition of death penalty. Following this statistic, we are shown the process of execution of a prisoner step-by-step, with voiceover commentary that befits one of those state-sponsored awareness raisers, before being abruptly thrust into a world of Kafkaesque fiction. Authorities overlooking the execution discover that the hanged prisoner R (Do-yun Yu) is not dead yet and has lost his memory. Not having encountered this situation before, they scramble for law books and scriptures, before deciding that they would have to rekindle R’s memory and make him aware of his guilt so that he can be hanged again. What ensues is, as it were, a theatre of the absurd, with officials role-playing, reconstructing in great detail R’s past – right from his possibly troubled childhood – based on popular knowledge, their biases, neuroses and fantasies. “The Law is always prepared to lend you a spare brain in order to condemn you without remorse”, wrote Barthes. In Oshima’s film we witness that tendency in all its viciousness, as the officers channel their repressed racism and sexual frustration onto the ethnic outsider R, who becomes a Christ-like figure bearing the consequences of the prejudices of a whole nation. Oshima is unabashedly agenda-driven and uses a host of devices, which no doubt recall Godard, that distances the audience – who are explicitly implicated and grilled – from the central drama. With a moralist’s anger and a filmmaker’s flamboyance, he creates a cold, caustic work that presents a ruthless Japan that haunts its youth with the ghosts of an imperial, feudal, terrorizing past.