Nagisa Oshima Interviewed by Nick Bornoff

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Reprint of August 1983 article

You switch on your TV set any day of the week and there’s Oshima Nagisa conversing about things sociological on a mid-day women’s program or on the panel of a “Whodunit” murder-quiz or, a few days ago, introducing the highlights of Star Wars. He even appears clad in shorts and wielding a butterfly net in a current anti-cockroach TV commercial. Ten years ago, Oshima Nagisa was the darling of dissent, the hirsute enfant terrible of the Japanese cinematic New Wave which he had virtually created in 1960. Whatever Oshima was then, it was and still is impossible to hang a label on him. His radical ideas and politically oriented films placed him in the camp of the leftists, but his Night and Fog in Japan denounced the power-hungry in-fighting and monolithic structure of Japan’s leftist factions. In a country in which everyone voluntarily ascribes to one group or other, Oshima stands alone.

All Oshima’s films are different, for each one is a personal challenge, an approach to new, always controversial subject matter which no one else can predict. His reputation abroad has grown, as in Japan, through films such as Boy, Death by Hanging and The Ceremony, and what these films hold most in common is a clean-cut, impartial exposure of the human condition and an airing of some of the skeletons Japan’s Establishment would rather see kept in the closet. His TV documentaries and early films dealt with discrimination against Koreans in Japan; others considered the criminal as an irresponsible product of society.

The French producer Anatole Dauman once jokingly suggested that Oshima make a porno movie. Seeing this as a challenge, Oshima took Dauman at his word and had him produce Ai no Corida (The Realm of the Senses) in 1976. Oshima’s most controversial film to date, it depicted the tremendous and pathetic power of physical love as no film has ever done before or since. Graphically erotic, it has never been seen in Japan in any form other than a version so mutilated by censorship as to be devoid of meaning.

Ai no Corida has been playing for over five years in a single Left Bank cinema in Paris. It is not just because of the appeal of the subject matter for Japanese tourists eager for the uncensored version; it is also because Oshima’s films are particularly popular in France. Oshima’s Japanese New Wave and the French Nouvelle Vague have much in common conceptually and ideologically. The jury at this year’s Cannes Film Festival however, was less enthusiastic than critics and audiences, and Oshima’s stunning new Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence gleaned no prizes. Since its opening in Paris last month, the film has nevertheless been playing steadily in theaters packed to the rafters, and its release is eagerly awaited in Europe and the United States.

Despite cutting a flamboyant figure in his lilac suits or embroidered dinner jackets on TV, Oshima is reserved. Having trimmed the wild shock of hair of his earlier radical image, Oshima has mellowed and looks leonine and dignified. He grins readily as he talks and his infectious laughter wells up not infrequently, as if the thought of 24 years of controversial, provocative films jabbing into the side of an increasingly standardized Japanese film industry amuses him. We asked him what moved him to make Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence. “I was very attracted to something in Laurens Van Der Post’s novel, The Seed and the Sower. I’m not quite sure why, and it’s because I wasn’t sure that I decided to turn it into a film. I knew it was going to be difficult, that I’d have to work partly with a foreign cast – in English.” 

Shot in the tropical paradise of Raratonga, the film centers on a brutal World War II POW camp. With Japan eager to sweep its wartime role under the carpet, the subject is controversial enough to be perfectly suited to Oshima. The difficulties involved with shooting it constitute a perfect challenge, an essential Oshima prerequisite for making a film. The script left leeway for spontaneity; Oshima holds that a movie should make itself. “I hate lengthy discussions” he laughs. Moreover, like France’s Robert Bresson, Oshima dislikes using professional actors. “They act too much.” 

Oshima saw David Bowie onstage in The Elephant Man in New York City, and in a kind of flash of inspiration, he knew that Bowie was “right.” “Bowie was the key figure,” says Oshima, “The rest of the cast came later.” Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, apart from the immediately obvious story of a POW camp in the second world war, is for Oshima the stage for an allegory about a love-hate relationship between the West and Japan. Thus, with Bowie as the British POW hero, rock-star Sakamoto Ryuichi was the obvious choice for Bowie’s Japanese counterpart, the rigid fascist doll, Captain Yonoi. TV comedian Beat Takeshi portrays brutal Sergeant Hara, a man instinctively abusing the power bestowed upon him by a regime he lacks the intellect to either understand or contest. Simultaneously criminal and victim, he is a typical Oshima figure to be seen in films past.

As the film progresses, action concerning the Japanese side seems to be expressed as a kind of perpetual ceremony, with Westerners acting more along the lines of conventional realism. “The Japanese army,” Oshima maintains, “was a very rigid ceremonial affair. Ritual was inherent in it. But curiously, while we were shooting the film, I noticed that Japanese actors, too, took the entire business of making a movie in ritual terms. Westerners, on the other hand, were more natural, I decided to let it happen, to exploit this phenomenon as I went along.” 

The fact that Oshima casts stars such as Bowie and Sakamoto has led some to think that his motives were purely commercial. Oshima grins. He agrees. “But I would never,” he adds seriously, “Have used any of them if I hadn’t simultaneously known that they perfectly suited my intentions.” One of these intentions was the usual deliberate rejections of conventional realism, this time to achieve more impact on an allegorical level. The object was also to attract young audiences. This is not only because there is an entire generation in Japan who know nothing about the last war, but it is also a contribution towards breaking down the barriers preventing understanding between Japan and the West. 

He feels that there are subtle differences between Japanese and Western interpretations, particularly in the key scene, which sees condemned POW David Bowie kissing his captor Yonoi, who hero-worships him, on the cheek. “Young Japanese, especially women, saw in this kiss a kind of Christ-like compassion.” I doubt whether a Western audience would see it the same way. It would seem to be more of a gesture of defiance.” As to what his opinion might be, Oshima remains silent, delighting in the enigma, the possibilities which can make an audience think. 

“It’s not just that I want young people in Japan to know more about the war. More specially, I want to remind the Japanese that they invaded other Asian countries and treated their populations very badly. Although this is not mentioned directly in the film, I implied it symbolically by showing the brutal treatment of a Korean soldier. The Japanese, having lost the war, turn more towards their victors. They forget about the people they once invaded and consider themselves part of the West.” 

As to what Oshima will do next, it is an enigma as usual. He will spend most of this year travelling to the four corners of the earth, promoting Mr. Lawrence and trying to fulfill at least some of the countless demands for interviews and TV appearances. He has been reported to say that he would like to make a film abroad again, this time with a completely non-Japanese cast. “I built up a loot of confidence through working with a foreign cast with Mr. Lawrence. Making a film with an entirely foreign cast is something I’m actually working towards.” What such a film will be, Oshima declines to mention. Whatever it is, it will be unexpected, controversial and a challenge for the director. It will be undoubtedly be pure Oshima Nagisa and well worth waiting for. tj 

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Written By:

Nick Bornoff


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