Bad Boy

Cinema, Censorship, and the State: The Writings of Nagisa Oshima, 1956–1978

by Nagisa Oshima, edited and with an introduction by Annette Michelson, translated by Dawn Lawson
MIT Press/An October Book, 308 pp., $35.00

It is remarkable how often Japanese radicals turn to pornography. It is equally remarkable how often Japanese pornography tends toward cruelty and violence. The connection between Japanese politics and sexual violence, then, is something to explore. And the writings of Oshima Nagisa, former student activist, bad boy of the Japanese New Wave cinema, director of In the Realm of the Senses (perhaps the only intelligent hard-core porno film ever made), dandy, and TV personality, would be a good start.

The trouble with the collection under review is that it is so badly translated that Oshima often sounds not just silly, but incoherent. The following sentence for example:

When one falls prey to the delusion that the essence of sex exclusiveness—because at the moment of their union individuals are exclusionist—one becomes an eternal prisoner of the societal structure behind mistaken idea.

Or this:

As far as this film is concerned, two questions arise: to what does making films mean to me, and how are able people to terrorize themselves?

I can assure you that these passages are incomprehensible even in their contexts. It is difficult to translate Japanese, it is true, particularly in the case of writers whose thoughts run not so much in trains as in meandering streams, but Oshima, with rare exceptions, is not such a writer. He writes in a straightforward style, and his ideas are generally lucid. It isn’t really clear whether these essays were even translated from the Japanese. They were taken from a French publication. Still, not all of the text defies understanding, and Oshima has much of interest to say, even in this haphazard collection. (Why, incidentally, didn’t the editors at MIT make their own choice of Oshima’s essays, instead of following Editions Gallimard? But enough, enough.)

To say that Oshima was and on occasion still is a rebel is not saying very much. What is interesting is the form of his rebellion. What in particular has Oshima rebelled against? Aesthetically, the answer is easily given, especially so far as his early work is concerned. Oshima rebelled against Ozu Yasujiro, or rather the tradition that Ozu represented. In his postwar films, such as Late Spring, for example, or Tokyo Story, or Early Summer, Ozu refined a minimalist, classical style, which Japanese think of as so quintessentially Japanese that they are always astonished at Ozu’s appeal abroad. Ozu’s camera almost never moved, and its gaze was usually fixed at the eye level of people sitting on a tatami floor. Every shot was beautifully composed, with not a flower arrangement, a piece of furniture, or an actor out of place. There was no room for improvisation here. In one famous instance, Ozu made an actress go through the act of picking up a tea cup dozens of times, until she got it absolutely right.

Ozu’s plots tended to follow the predictable course of what Japanese call “home dramas” (Ozu was not much interested in plot): girl takes care of old father;…

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