Kôshikei (1968) (Death By Hanging)
Nagisa Oshima
Japanese

 

Death By HangingTroublemaker 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.

Manzan Benigaki (2001) (Red Persimmons)
Shinsuke Ogawa, Xiaolian Peng
Japanese

 

Red PersimmonsRed Persimmons (2001) begins with a movie crew watching the fascinating A Visit To Ogawa Productions (1981), in which the late Shinsuke Ogawa, that Japanese filmmaker who pushed the limits of documentary filmmaking like no other, talks to Nagisa Oshima about his then current project A Japanese Village (1982), a work that is so oppressively modest that it turns out avant-garde. This absence of Ogawa haunts Red Persimmons, which Chinese filmmaker Xiaolian Peng helped complete, especially when it uses on-screen text instead of Ogawa’s usual, casual voiceover. Less digressive than the typical Ogawa picture but as sensitive and attentive to the rhythms of the countryside as any of his works, Red Persimmons attempts to trace the history of Kaminoyama with the science and commerce of persimmon farming, which forms the lifeline of the village, at its focal point. We see how personal and collective histories are tied to the production of this fruit, how persimmons have use, exchange and even symbolic value for the villagers and how the technology that develops alongside evolves primarily to address necessities and reduce effort than for expansion or multiplication of revenue. We observe, through the course of the film, that the persimmon itself becomes representative of ‘the Japanese village’ in the way it goes from being an organic part of a lifestyle, through being a commodity under simple capitalism and then a fiercely competitive economy, to gradually losing its ritualistic qualities and finally ending up as a low-demand produce. Beautiful, like a Dovzhenko film, humble, essential.