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; old father tells girl to get married; girl says no, father says yes, girl gets married, both are sad, but such is life. Ozu’s world is like the seasons, hence the titles of many of his films. Harmony and tradition impose their natural order, which it is foolish to oppose. Since chaos is to be feared and freedom an illusion, any attempt to go against the seasons, so to speak, will end in tragedy. To learn this lesson—which Ozu’s characters usually do—is to achieve maturity and wisdom.

Oshima joined the Shochiku studios as a young assistant director just as Ozu was making some of his late masterpieces there. By now, I am sure Oshima would be the first to recognize Ozu’s genius. For despite his conservatism, Ozu was a master. But back then, in the late 1950s, Oshima loathed the kind of thing Ozu, and especially the hacks who copied his style, stood for:

I absolutely could not stand the films that were mass-produced by the studio in which I worked: tear-jerking melodramas and flavorless domestic dramas in which imbecilic men and women monotonously repeat exchanges of infinitely stagnant emotions.

Oshima wanted to destroy the harmony of this artificial world, which was so comforting to a Japanese audience that was battered by high-speed economic development, American pop culture, and the still fresh memories of wartime catastrophe. He hated this hoary naturalism so much that he refused, in his own future work, to use the color green, redolent of gardens, nature, softness. Oshima wanted to express a world of concrete and violence. What was needed was not naturalism, but “bold fiction and free structure.” Cameras would be hand-held, cuts would jump, and “on a very technical level, I tried to eliminate completely all scenes with characters sitting on tatami while talking.” You can’t get much farther away from Ozu than that.


If all this sounds rather un-Japanese, indeed rather French, rather nouvelle vague, this too was deliberate. In the 1960s, when Oshima made his technically boldest films, he felt more affinity with French directors of his age than with his Japanese masters. But slick Hollywood pictures were as much the objects of his scorn as the harmonious Japanese dramas. The interesting thing was that Ozu, too, had been inspired once by untraditional models. His earliest films, made in the 1920s, were so-called nonsense films, zany comedies whose gags were so loosely strung together that the effect was often surreal. As a student Ozu wrote fan letters to Lillian Gish. Like many Japanese, he became more “Japanese” as he grew older.

Oshima’s cinematic style has changed a great deal during his career, from hand-held nouvelle vague grit to the almost static aestheticism of In the Realm of the Senses. But the idea that film making is a form of liberation, political, sexual, social, all three, is a constant theme in his thinking. In 1968, he called the collaborators on one of his best films “my fellow Guevaras.” The picture was Death by Hanging (1968), about the execution of a Korean accused of murder. To make the film at all was to break a taboo of sorts. Not many Japanese artists have shown a sympathetic interest in the plight of Koreans in Japan. One of his “Guevaras” on the movie was Adachi Masao, who disappeared soon after. He has been hiding somewhere in the Middle East for the last twenty years, after being involved in Red Army terrorism. Adachi was once a promising director of violent porno films.

Criminality, of one sort or another, is a theme of most of Oshima’s films. His characters include rapists, murderers, sexual deviants, and, in the most celebrated case of O-Sada in In the Realm of the Senses, a passionate maid who cut off her lover’s penis—after strangling him, of course. Interest in underdogs and sympathy for anti-heroes were common attitudes everywhere, particularly in the 1960s: Bonnie and Clyde, Butch Cassidy, Belmondo in many movies, good and bad. One of Oshima’s most interesting essays, not included in the present collection, is about James Dean and his influence on Japanese cinema. But perhaps the idea of the artist as a semicriminal outsider himself is less common—though it is by no means unknown—in Europe or America than it is in Japan. Indeed, until not so long ago, about a century at most, it was more than an idea: print artists, fiction writers, actors, and playwrights really were on the fringe of an underworld. The brothel, the gangster, and the playwright were part of the same thing.

It may have been a bit presumptuous of Oshima to claim, in 1978, two years after he made In the Realm of the Senses that he thought “only from the viewpoint of ‘suffering’ women like O-Sada…” But unlike the many Shochiku films about poor, virtuous people battling through life with a tear and a laugh (the so-called shomingeki, or “small folks dramas”), Oshima was never sentimental about the downtrodden. Films such as Tomb of the Sun (1960), about life in an Osaka slum, or his debut, A Town of Love and Hope (1959), are tough-minded without being politically strident. There is always an element of voyeurism in watching the sordid lives of slum dwellers in a comfortable cinema, but, even so, Tomb of the Sun is voyeurism of a high order.

Oshima’s interest in criminal outcasts is more than voyeurism, however. He is on their side, intellectually, because he sees crime as a political, or meta-political act. In an essay about an older director, Masumura Yasuzo, he makes an interesting point about Masumura’s portrayal of a gangster, played by the novelist Mishima Yukio. Normally, Oshima wrote, Masumura “depicted modern heroes and heroines. He portrays and praises characters who expose their desires straight-forwardly and act on them.” Mishima’s gangster, however, is a wretched figure. This, Oshima implies, is a reactionary view, not at all in keeping with Masumura’s usual standards. Oshima’s criminals are never wretched, even though they might come to sticky ends.* Their crimes represent our deepest desires. Even the “hero” in Violence at Noon (1966), who goes around the country raping and killing women, earning himself the sobriquet Daylight Demon, is not entirely beyond the pale:

At the press conference announcing the production, I said I made the film because I am the Daylight Demon, and Sato Kei, who plays the demon, said the same thing.

Now before the Michael Crichtons of this world say, ah hah, so the Japanese are after all kinky and amoral, I should point out that Oshima is not so politically incorrect as to actually admire a rapist. What he says is that every society deserves the criminals it gets, and that the society, rather than the criminal, is usually at fault. Actually, he goes further than that. He sees crime as the only refuge of people who have no political power to affect change and expand their freedom. Crime, in other words, is a substitute for politics. Crime includes sexual deviance. So is the preponderance of sex and violence in Japanese entertainment a sign of political desperation? I think in some cases it is.


The extraordinary cruelty of nineteenth-century woodblock prints by, say, Yoshitoshi, or the stylized violence of many Kabuki plays, or indeed the celebration of murderous antiheroes in the plays by Tsuruya Namboku (1755–1829), can be read in different ways. One interpretation is that in the imagination—the theater, the brothel, the novel, the print—anything goes. Japanese morals are social, not religious, and so it is all right to fantasize. Indeed, fantasy is the institutionalized escape from an oppressive society. Another interpretation is that the taste for sadism and excess in the early nineteenth century, the fin de siècle, the 1920s, and the 1960s was a reflection of societies in great flux. The dates, interestingly enough, correspond pretty much to similar developments in the West.

Both interpretations are plausible. But there is another one, namely that Japanese social life was so politicized—by removing any chance of actual political discourse—that assaults of social taboos were the only way to rebel. Japan under Tokugawa rule, lasting from 1615 to 1867, was a police state, or, more precisely, a spy state. Political opposition to the Shogunate was impossible. Government informants were everywhere. As in totalitarian dictatorships, social control was maintained by circumscribing every aspect of people’s lives, including their dress, the way they decorated their houses, even the manner of their death. Suicide, for example, was a samurai privilege. The many Kabuki plays about love suicides by commoners were in effect celebrating criminal acts.

It is often said—not least by Japanese themselves—that the Japanese are not a religious people, and that, therefore, sex or violence is not subject to religious constraints. Sadean, or Buñuelesque, or indeed Rushdiean, attacks on the Church, one might conclude, have no counterparts in Japan. In fact, however, they do. Apart from a relatively short period of extreme emperor worship, the presence of an official Church is indeed not so apparent in Japan. But religion, ethics, and law were all instruments of political control, and to some extent they still are. The distinction between religious, social, and political control is not easy to draw in Catholic or Muslim countries. It was impossible in Japan. To challenge the state was to challenge religion, and vice versa.

It might seem far-fetched to project the social system of Tokugawa Japan onto Oshima’s work. After all, there are no Shoguns, no sumptuary laws, no official isolation from the outside world. Japan has a democratic form of government, in theory anyway. There is freedom of the press. And so on. Yet you can see how Oshima’s preoccupation with sex and violence is very much the result of political frustration. You can even trace, in his own films and writings, how and when this came about.

In 1960, Oshima could still write about his film Night and Fog in Japan that it was a “weapon of the people’s struggle,” but he would rarely use that kind of political rhetoric again. The film itself was a New Left critique of the Communist Party in student politics. The political setting was the general failure of the left to stop the revised US–Japan Security Treaty in 1960, which was forced through parliament by Prime Minister Kishi, the former vice minister of munitions during the war. It was an event of crucial importance in postwar Japanese politics, which scarred leftists of Oshima’s generation for life. Never before had so many people come out in protest against government policy. And never would so many do so again. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the treaty itself, the protest was to be the last serious challenge to the virtual monopoly on power of an elite of bureaucrats, industrialists, and conservative politicians.

The story, or rather the argument, of this rather talky picture, is organized around a wedding. As the ceremony unfolds, the failures of the student movement are rehearsed, over and over, in monologues, in debates, in appearances at the wedding, quite literally, of an accusing ghost from the past. It was an interesting film with limited popular appeal. But it upset the studio bosses enough for them to pull the movie from distribution. Oshima called this “a massacre.” What killed the film, he wrote, was “the same thing that killed Kamba Michiko and Asanuma Inejiro, and I protest with unrelenting anger.” Kamba was a female student who got trampled to death during a clash between students and riot police in the 1960 anti-treaty demonstrations. Asanuma was the chairman of the Japan Socialist Party, who was assassinated by a right-wing extremist that same year.

So far as political failure was concerned, Oshima knew what he was talking about. He had been a student activist at Kyoto University, where he studied law. His organization was forced to disband in 1951, after the “Emperor Incident.” The students wanted to have an open discussion with the emperor during his visit to the university. When this was turned down, they demonstrated with a placard imploring the emperor not to lend himself to deification again. As a result, the Kyoto Prefecture Student Alliance was banned. It was revived in 1953, but crushed after a violent demonstration, which followed the university’s refusal to let the students meet on the campus. One of Oshima’s professors, Takikawa Yukitoki, published a statement saying that the authorities should have been tougher on the students after the “Emperor Incident.” This was the same man who had been purged in 1933 for writing a liberal paper. Takikawa’s example had inspired Oshima to study law. And now it had come to this.

But 1960 was really the left’s last stand, even though there were to be more student demonstrations during the 1970s. Its failure, which Oshima blames on the authoritarian Communists as much as on the repressiveness of the government, bred nihilism and despair. In that year Oshima made another film, apart from Night and Fog in Japan, entitled Cruel Stories of Youth. It is about a handsome young man and his girlfriend, whose games of mild sex and violence escalate to the point of death. He gets killed by gangsters, she jumps from a speeding car. All hope is lost, all dreams are smashed. Kicks are all that’s left.

It is interesting to compare this film to the more famous In the Realm of the Senses, made sixteen years later. The story of Abe Sada and her lover, Kichizo, is also about a sexual game ending in death, but the spirit is different. Whereas an air of despair and nihilism drives the actions of the young couple in Cruel Stories of Youth, O-Sada and Kichi-san are not nihilistic at all, or frustrated. On the contrary: they have voluntarily locked themselves up in their passion. Although freedom, even in their small private universe, proves elusive, sexual love is celebrated with almost revolutionary gusto. Passion is all. They communicate just through their bodies, in the language of sex. When they speak, it is only to heighten their passion. What is subversive about the film is that it positively wallows in the power of female sexuality. O-Sada is not a passive tool of her lover’s pleasure, the usual pattern in Japanese porn, where the simpering heroine spends most of her time trussed up in ropes. No, in this case his penis is her instrument of pleasure. She is on top. He gives, and she sucks the life out of him.

But it is a brittle paradise they live in. Obsessions cannot be satisfied: one always wants more. Nor can they completely isolate themselves from the world. The story takes place in the 1930s. In an ominous display of displaced sexual energy, soldiers are already marching outside the sliding doors of Kichi and Sada’s love nest, off toward the war in China. However much we might try, we cannot change anything; order will prevail. “I think that our only route to freedom,” Oshima wrote in 1965, “and our only route to pleasure can come after we have first recognized that freedom and pleasure are not possible in this world.” In a way, is this not what Ozu was saying, too?

Well, yes, but only in a way. An important footnote to one of Oshima’s essays in the collection at hand (the footnotes, by the way, are both informative and better written than the translated text) mentions the work of Wakamatsu Koji. He was at least as deeply involved in the protest movements of the 1950s and 1960s as Oshima was. But after the defeat, he turned to the production of pornographic films, or “ero-ductions.”

One of these was shown at the Berlin Film Festival in 1965, which caused a rumpus in Japan. The film, entitled The Secret in the Wall, showed people having various kinds of sex in a high-rise public housing apartment. On the wall, as though watching over the proceedings, is a poster of Stalin. The idea, so the footnote writer guesses, is to show the limitations of the proletarian struggle for power. It is a plausible explanation, in keeping with the almost tragic spirit of many activists turned pornographers.

I am not aware of any of Wakamatsu’s ero-ductions actually being banned in Japan. I suspect it is because they are not taken very seriously. Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses, on the other hand, drew so much international attention that the police decided to bare their censorious teeth. The film, produced by Anatole Dauman, was shot in Japan, but developed and edited in Paris. It still has not been shown in Japan in an unmutilated form. The bizarre ways in which sex scenes are censored—genitals obscured by black squares and so on—turn acts of tenderness into something prurient. One third of the film was doctored in one way or another. But at least it was not banned. Then a book came out in Tokyo containing the script of the film as well as still photographs. This was the chance for the police to crack down. Oshima, who was not the publisher of the book, was charged with obscenity.

It was the police, and not government censors, who charged Oshima, since this ill-defined crime is in the criminal code, as a convenient leftover from prewar days. Censorship is actually prohibited by the constitution. Oshima’s attitude to the trial was as brave as it was succinct: “Obscenity? What’s wrong with obscenity?” The outcome was a Japanese compromise: the charges were dropped, but the book was banned. This compromise was reached because Oshima put his prosecutors on the spot. He asked them to define what was obscene about the book, and they could not come up with a reasonable answer.

Why, in any case, would the sight of genitals, or adults making love in a relatively conventional manner, offend anybody’s sensibilities in a culture which had never connected such matters with sin? The answer is that it doesn’t, really. Normally, the fantasy world of the brothel or the pornographic work is tolerated, even, until not so long ago, institutionalized in special licensed city districts. But once in a while the state must show its power, to keep people in their places, to show who is boss. The sight of naked genitals has nothing to do with sin; it is just a convenient peg, so to speak, for an act of censorship.

Morality is the subject of one of Oshima’s most interesting essays. He describes a meeting with a conservative politician, who asks Oshima to explain the origins of manners and customs. They have, the politician says, more power to change society than politics. Oshima disagrees. It is true, he writes, that manners and customs are changed by “guerrillas,” and that new mores begin as expressions of dissatisfaction with a political system, which uses customs to support the status quo. But—and here Oshima puts his finger on the sorest point of Japanese politics—“it is not, as that LDP Dietman said, that mores have more power to change society than politics; rather the forces unable to change society through politics shift to manners and customs.” Hence Oshima’s cri de coeur that “to make films is a criminal act in this world.”

Laws, in such a society, blur with customs, not in the manner of laws based on precedence, as is the case in Britain, but in a vaguer sense, something more akin to the idea of absolute harmony. Propagandists for absolute harmony, or unity, do not recognize conflicts of interest, or individual rights vis-à-vis the authority of the state. Harmony protects the natural order, the existing hierarchy. If the law is used to safeguard this hierarchy against pornographers and other potential troublemakers who upset the customs and manners that foster deference to the people in power, then the law will be corrupted. This has often been the case in Japan. But no one, anywhere, can afford to be complacent. Too many Japanese are. This is what makes Oshima’s voice so refreshing, so bracing, of such critical importance.

Oshima, the critical spirit, however, is not what most Japanese see today. His voice is not exactly muted, but it has lost much of its edge. He still looks striking. The last time I saw him, he was dressed in a pea-green suit, and a maroon (or was it purple?) shirt. He is a much favored guest on Japanese television shows, grinning his way through quizzes and counseling distressed housewives. He spends more and more time between film projects. But when he does make a movie, he still manages to break a few taboos. His last film, Max Mon Amour, features Charlotte Rampling having an affair with an ape. And the previous one, Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, with David Bowie as a British officer in a Japanese POW camp, is the only Japanese film, so far as I know, that shows Japanese brutality toward Europeans.

This last film, despite its grim subject matter, revealed a side of Oshima which was always there, but which has grown stronger over the years. It is a rather showbizzy side, flashy, like his purple or pea-green suits, and interested in pop figures and performance. From student activism, to pornography, to show-business dandy—it is actually not a bad summing-up of postwar Japanese culture. Oshima’s latest project is a film about Sessue Hayakawa, a Hollywood matinee idol in the 1920s, but better known perhaps as the camp commander in David Lean’s Bridge On the River Kwai. It could prove to be a happy choice of subject. Hayakawa was a somewhat melancholy figure, who played “Japanese” in Hollywood for most of his working life, and then decided to return to the country of his birth, where he could no longer fit in. He had lost his Japaneseness. This is not Oshima’s own predicament, but it is one he would understand.

This Issue

October 8, 1992