(ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 4 No. 22, September 2000



S. Louisa Wei

Cruel Stories of Passion, Brutal Explorations of Extreme




Maureen Turim

_The Films of Oshima Nagisa: Images of A Japanese Iconoclast_

Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998

ISBN 0-520-20666-5

314 pp.


If philosophy demands logic and ration in truth searching, film is at best

when its signs challenge the logical and rational. A filmmaker can only be

called an artist when s/he uses signs to provoke a 'truth' -- be it a

religion, a common sense, a settled belief, or an institutionalized law.

Maureen Turim depicts Oshima Nagisa as just such a film artist, an

iconoclast who disputes every 'truth' about Japan. Turim carefully examines

how Oshima, a critic-turned director, attempts to subvert many aspects of

Japanese tradition, and justifies the import and question of Western

concepts in his films. At many points, Bertolt Brecht, Roland Barthes,

Jacques Lacan, and Sigmund Freud are called into play for both alternative

readings and critique on a Far-Orientalism. Although it is impossible to

crystallize the sense of the many signs in Oshima's cinematic 'empires',

Turim introduces us to an artist who makes every attempt to subvert his own

tradition and the Western understanding of it.


Nowadays Oshima is better known in Japan as a TV commentator. Before he

came back with his 1999 film _Taboo_ ('Gohatto'), he had been absent for

'13 years from the world of feature films'. [1] Many Japanese remember his

second but last feature, _Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence_ (1986), but more

would immediately associate his name with two earlier titles -- _Ai no

korida_ (_Realm of Senses_, 1976) and _Ai no borei_ (_Empire of Passion_,

1978) -- even though these films are still not available in Japan. When I

asked my Japanese colleagues what makes Oshima famous, most of them singled

out the fact that he is the only Japanese feature film director who makes

pornography abroad. With regard to _Realm of Senses_, Oshima thinks that it



'the perfect pornographic film in Japan because it cannot be seen there.

Its existence is pornographic -- regardless of its content. Once it is

seen, [it] may no longer be a pornographic film. That may happen in Europe

and the United States, where it can be seen in its entirety' (267).


In fact, many Western audiences would refer to their experience of _Realm

of Senses_ as something unforgettable. I myself will never forget the

stunned expression on people's faces while exiting the art house cinema

'Bytown' in Ottawa, where the film was shown as a feature during a 'sex

movie week'. The theatre was filled by audiences who came to see 'Japanese

pornography', expecting erotic and exotic scenes beyond their imaginations.

The film, however, challenges its viewers as much as it offers them

voyeuristic pleasure, since its narrative never stops making unpredictable

turns compelling the visuals beyond 'standard' deciphering.


In fact, Oshima's film is never coded in a standard or predictable way nor

does it support any kind of established principles or aesthetics. When

Oshima started filmmaking at the end of 1950s, Kurosawa Akira, Mizoguchi

Kenji, and Ozu Yasujiro had already made Japanese cinema known to the

world. As a film critic, Oshima overtly expressed his detestation towards

traditional Japanese cinema: 'I hated those characters, rooms, gardens from

the depths of my being. I firmly believed that unless the dark sensibility

that those things engendered was completely destroyed, nothing new could

come into being' (21). Here, what Donald Kneene and others appreciate about

Japanese ritual and aesthetic practices, namely the subtlety of suggestion,

mutability, irregularity, and simplicity, are all under attack as something

negative. [2] Implicit in his films and talk is the idea that 'beauty is a

reified value among the Japanese, and what Europe most appreciates in

Japan; therefore, beauty is despicable' (21). Self-negation is a positive

term in Oshima's lexicon (6) since it may serve as a departure point when

rethinking the Japanese tradition. Critical reflection upon 'the West',

which is hardly distinguishable from 'the modern', could only come after a

series of encounters with westerners. In the 1950s Oshima cherished the

coming of the 'sun tribe', which is a youth culture celebrated by

intelligent, decadent, and open-minded students from rich families who

liberated themselves from traditional constrains of ethics and ways of



He also praised films by Masumura Yasuzo, Shirasaka Yoshio, and others, for

turning their back on the ambiguous 'atmosphere and lyricism dominant in

Japanese society and cinema' (33). The 'sun tribe' and gangster

film/literature later became the basis of his youth films that depict the

explosive and destructive strength of juvenile passion/violence while

impelling a new wave of cinema.


Growing up during the Pacific War, a time of extreme political repression

in Japan, Oshima's adolescence 'was a coming to terms with the nation's

fallibility and the deceit practiced by the powerful and the respected. The

realization apres-coup of the Japanese propaganda machine having been a

false foundation of childhood truth' (8) left a sense of shame to this

generation who became doubtful towards Japan as both a nation and a

tradition. At the time many younger Japanese, including the sun tribe, were

looking to the West for things they could learn. Oshima was also

well-versed in Western philosophical writings. Meanwhile, as a young man

with an aristocratic background and a descendant of a Samurai family, it

was almost predetermined that Oshima would rebel and his rebellion would be

radical and, 'informed by his inherited sense of power and will to action'

(7). The protagonists of Oshima's 'youth films' who dare to act against the

norm are comparable to those in Nicholas Ray's _Rebel without a Cause_

(1955), but Oshima's film 'presents violence not as romantically rebellious

but as detached' (50). There is no character development in Oshima's film

that pleads for 'a social and psychoanalytical explanation' as Ray's film

does (50). Oshima's stories of youth explore more about the 'cruelty' of

youth and life -- not only through violent scenes of murders, rapes, and

gang fights, but also through repeated depictions of the youngsters'

indifference and lack of guilt towards sins and crimes.


Female characters are utilized to further advance the exploration of

cruelty exactly because they are expected to be more sympathetic and

vulnerable. If we think of the way that Mizoguchi's traditional female

roles are configured, then Oshima's are modern bad girls who stand 'as the

brutalist alternative for the tradition' (22) -- practical, tough by heart,

and as indifferent to ethics as their male counterparts. The best example

of such girls is probably Hanako in _Burial of the Sun_ (1960), who shows

no emotion while watching her lover raping another girl. As a sexually

desirable object of more than one man, both her body and sexuality are

exploited by her father and lovers. At the end of the film, however, she is

the one who survives the violence and replaces all those who once exploited

her. The detachment in her attitude is shocking, especially when it is

supported by a cinematic imagery that is 'visually lush without being

romantic and participatory' (51). Hanako really stands out as a

stronger-than-ever female character, even when comparing her to the sun

tribe girls, such as Eiko in _Season of the Sun_ (1957 by Furukawa Takumi)

who dies of the abortion. _Burial of the Sun_ and _Cruel Story of Youth_

(1960) are among the best examples of a genre called 'cruel stories of

youth'. Thirty years later, the film title became a term borrowed by

Chinese critics in discussing contemporary Chinese film and literature

involving violence and rebellion among youngsters.


As Turim points out, 'negation perhaps creates its own imprisonment' (65),

but Oshima's lush images and intriguing narratives are leading to the

matrix of an even more complex ideology, which employs every means to break

the constrained, the controlled, the understated, the lyrical and the

subtlety in traditional Japanese cinema and aesthetics. This may explain

why Oshima's subjects are always associated with crimes engaging

provocative elements, and why his narration of such crimes often focalizes

on an unexpected time and space.


_Death by Hanging_ (1968), for instance, is about a man identified as R who

is 'rendered amnesiac through a failed hanging and thus is unconscious of

his crime' (65). A simple solution for officials is to rehang him, but

according to 'some interpretations of Japanese law presented in the film, a

man who has no memory cannot be legally punished, as he is neither

cognizant of his crime nor able to understand its punishment' (65). In

_Ceremonies_ (1971), Setsuko was found nailed to a tree by a knife. In the

garden, her corpse dressed in a kimono 'gives the most direct feminist

moment' (255). In _Cruel Story of Youth_, the rape of Makoto, a female high

school student, takes place 'in a section near Tokyo bay dominated by the

lumber industry' (30). She lies on the logs that fill the screen,

indicating the Buddhist concept of the floating world. One tender moment of

the film is in a clinic room, where Makoto's sister is getting an abortion.

Almost every film of Oshima's challenges the bureaucrat and all other

settled institutions with his choice of subjects and the way he presents

the stories, but his philosophical exploration of the extremes and all

possible limits goes beyond social criticism of any sort.


I call his exploration 'brutal' not only because his sharp insights violate

all norms, but also because he does not spare any audience from being

provoked. If, up to here, I read Turim's explication of Oshima as a

Japanese iconoclast more in the sense of an iconoclast against Japanese,

_Realm of Senses_ makes him an iconoclast who happens to be Japanese. So

far this is Oshima's best known film with the widest circulation outside

Japan. The film is based on a sensational scandal 'The Abe Sada Case' of

1936. [3] The case itself has a surprisingly dramatic plot. The police

found a dead man (Kichi) with his penis missing, and then a woman (Sada)

with it in her bag. On trial, the woman persuaded the judge that he died

before she cut the part off and she did it out of love. In Oshima's film

version, the 'constant demand for sexual arousal . . . becomes the driving

force of the narrative' (135). Although Kichi is the one who initiates the

seduction, the seduction is turned into a 'bullfight' (as suggested by its

Japanese title which literally means 'Bullfight of Love') when Sada gets

more aggressive. The exchange of desires thus becomes a competition between

the two in their exploration of each other's desire. Despite the colorful

play with 'a samisen, an egg, a dildo and a silk sash' (131) and the

company of geishas, the lovers exhaust the audience as they exhaust bodies

for a perpetual orgasm. The 'voyeurism' gives way to a sense of impending

tragedy when Sada starts to use her sash to cut Kichi's breath in order to

sustain his erection and her ecstasy. Kichi loses his life when he gives

himself over 'to an ideal quest for Sada's satiation' (135).


The narration takes a turn with a dream like sequence towards the end. Sada

is lying on a stone platform of a graveyard with a lost expression on her

face, exposing her white skin from edges of her red kimono. Two children

are playing hide and seek around her and repeating a question-and-answer

that is part of game. 'Are you ready?' One asks. The other replies: 'No,

not yet.' The innocent dialogue takes a metaphorical meaning, as if

reminding Sada that she has lost her partner. It is only when her quest for

desire is ended by Kichi's death that emotion returns: now the bullfighter

is grieving over the dead bull. It is at that moment when the film reaches

both its end and eternity, turning the entire story into a philosophical

search for a truth that is impossible. Here sexuality is employed not just

for visual pleasure, but to break the seemingly tranquil surface sustained

by ambiguity in Japanese cultural discourse, while slapping in the face of

those who expect a showcase of oriental exoticism.


Turim offers a rather comprehensive and intriguing analysis of Oshima

Nagisa as a film auteur who writes extensively about his own films.

'Japanese iconoclast' is the red thread with which Turim puts all her

chapters together. Following this thread, we can learn how Oshima attempts

to deconstruct Japanese aesthetics and the Western appreciation of it. By

analyzing a repertoire that always calls for the dual context of the

specificity of Japan and an international arena, Turim introduces a method

to help us advance our understanding of film with a different cultural



Josai International University, Togane City, Japan





1. Isabel Reynolds, 'Back with A Splash: Nagisa Oshima Returns to the

Director's Chair with A Stunning Success', _Daily Yomiuri_, Jan 6, 2000, p.



2. Donald Kneene, _The Pleasure of Japanese Literature_ (New York: Columbia

University Press, 1988).


3. There are three film versions of the Abe Sada story. The first is _The

True Story of Abe Sada_ (1975) by Tanaka Noboru, and the latest one is

titled _Sada_ (1998) and directed Obayashi Nobuhiko. Both _Realm of Senses_

and _Empire of Passion_ are produced by French producer Anatole Dauman, who

provides conditions of shooting Oshima would never be able to enjoy in

Japan. The English titles of the films are translated from the French

titles, _L'Empire de sens_ and _L'Empire de passion_. _L'Empire de sens_

echoes Roland Barthes's _L'Empire de signs_, a collection of essays on

Japan which came out shortly before the film.



Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 2000


S. Louisa Wei, 'Cruel Stories of Passion, Brutal Explorations of Extreme',

_Film-Philosophy_, vol. 4 no. 22, September 2000





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