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Back in the Realm of the Senses and Provoking All Five

AFS Essential Cinema: Smashing the Rules: Films of Oshima Nagisa

By Marc Savlov, February 19, 2010, Screens

"In the first place, to make films is a criminal act in this world."

– Oshima Nagisa

"They were a nation of anxious people, and they could do nothing individually, so they went mad en masse."

– Tom Conti as Lt. Col. John Lawrence in Oshima's Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence

Anxiety, fear, heady eroticism gone horribly awry, and the perils of obsession are the obvious themes and dalliances of Japanese director Oshima Nagisa, whose best-known work – both in the West and everywhere else – remains the sexually supercharged but decidedly unsexy In the Realm of the Senses.

How sexually inflammatory is the film? So much so that Oshima was forced to partner with the French producer Anatole Dauman and then ship the raw footage out of Japan and into France where it could be processed and then edited, far away from the prying eyes of Japanese censors.

(A quick personal aside: I was first introduced to this incendiary work of eroti-horror in the summer of 1982 when it played as a midnight movie in the unlikely Panhandle town of Amarillo. How long its midnight marquee value lasted I don't recall, although I do remember my hormonally flooded 15-year-old self being so utterly disturbed by Oshima's transgressive depiction of hardcore sex and violence that I ended the evening in the adjoining theatre, where the far less disturbing consumerist satire of George A. Romero's original Dawn of the Dead was unspooling. Needless to say, my early encounter with Oshima's version of human carnality put the brakes, however temporarily, on my post-pubescent libido, and I quickly ditched my well-hidden teenage cache of Playboys for the kinder, gentler bloodbaths of Fangoria. Go figure.)

Long unavailable in any form in its home country, Senses became, upon its release in 1976, less a film per se than a scandal about a scandal. Loosely based on actual events from heavily militarized Thirties Japan, it's a nightmare vision of two lovers so engrossed in their hunger for each other that they eventually devolve into little more than human sex drives, fueled only by an all-consuming lust that eventually ends in a gory explosion of outrageous violence. It's a warning, maybe – be careful what you wish for, and for God's sake don't let your libido get the upper, uh, hand – or maybe it's just Oshima pushing the limits once again.

In the Realm of the Senses is a provocation, to be sure, but who or what, exactly, is Oshima aiming to provoke? The sexuality runs the gamut from tame to taboo, but ultimately it's all far too clinical to be titillating. There is a notably subtle leftist political subtext in the film, which is set in 1936. In one of the earliest scenes, former prostitute Sada (Eiko Matsuda), who works as a serving girl in an inn owned by the libidinously ravenous Kichizo (Fuji Tatsuya), is on her way to work when she encounters a group of children (one of whom is pointedly waving the Japanese imperial flag) tormenting a sleeping stewbum by throwing snowballs at his uncovered genitals. Chasing the children away, Sada is recognized by the filthy and bedraggled man: "I used to be your best client," he mewls through a mouthful of some of the worst teeth this side of Quasimodo. "And you were the kindest of them all." The implications – Sada was formerly a prostitute, but a kind one – are unnerving, but not as unnerving as what happens next. In the end, it all goes haywire in a way that's both honest to the story and a slap in the face to traditionally conformist Japanese sensibilities.

Oshima won the Best Director award at Cannes '78 for his follow-up, Empire of Passion, which tackles similar themes but with a far more artistic, not to mention colorful, approach. Senses' palette of crummy oranges and dark, earthy browns isn't likely to turn anybody on, whereas Empire is calculatedly far easier on the eyes, full of bright shades that evoke Oshima's fascination with Jean-Luc Godard and the French New Wave as a whole. (Senses producer Dauman returns here; he had previously worked with Godard, Alain Resnais, and Chris Marker.)

Empire takes place in the 1890s and again features Fuji as Toyoji, a man caught up in a hopeless relationship marked by curdled sensuality and deadly obsession. His object of desire this time is Kazuko Yoshiyuki's Seki, the wife of Takahiro Tamura's sake-loving rickshaw driver, Gisaburo. Oshima abandons the hysteric sexuality of his previous film in favor of a more stylized tale of love and guilt, sex and death, the natural and the supernatural. It's one of Oshima's most gorgeous films to look at, crammed to bursting with shocking bursts of color and sound, and again, it's based on actual historical events.

And then there's the director's artfully strange but no less compelling World War II prisoner-of-war drama Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, starring David Bowie and Tom Conti as Capt. Jack Celliers and Lt. Col. John Lawrence respectively. The androgynous pop star might've seemed like a curious casting choice for Oshima, but Bowie had already proved his acting abilities in The Man Who Fell to Earth and The Hunger and was in the midst of his Serious Moonlight Tour when Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence opened in 1983.

Yet again based on real-world events, Oshima's stately depiction of the shifting balance of power and allegiance within an (obviously) all-male POW camp is one of a mini genre of early-Eighties internationally made war films (Gallipoli, Breaker Morant, Das Boot) that netted both critical and popular accolades.

Still, this is Oshima we're talking about, and so the action takes place in a camp overseen by no less than "Beat" Takeshi Kitano's Sgt. Hara and camp commandant Capt. Yonoi (Ryuichi Sakamoto, who also performs the film's haunting, all-electronic score). One of Oshima's most controlled films – there's barely a hair out of place on the blond, blue-eyed Bowie, and yet he's unmistakably another in a lengthy line of the filmmaker's emotionally explosive characters – Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence is still one of the most unique war films since Toshiro Mifune went head-to-head with Lee Marvin in Hell in the Pacific a decade and a half earlier. Echoing Lt. Col. Lawrence's observation above, Oshima's take on the highly personalized politics of war is anxious, individualistic (crushingly so), and altogether mad.

AFS Essential Cinema

Smashing the Rules: Films of Oshima Nagisa

The series runs Tuesdays at 7pm at the Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar. Admission is free for AFS members and $6 for nonmembers. For more info, visit www.austinfilm.org.

Feb. 23: In the Realm of the Senses

March 2: Empire of Passion

March 9: Japanese Summer: Double Suicide

March 23: The Pleasures of the Flesh

March 30: Violence at Noon

April 6: Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence

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