Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Nagisa Oshima | 絞死刑 Kōshikei (Death by Hanging)

body and soul
by Douglas Messerli

Nagisa Oshima, Michinori Fukao, Sasaki Mamoru, and Tamura Takeshi (writers), Nagisa Oshima (director) 絞死刑 Kōshikei (Death by Hanging) / 1968

Like so many of the best films, Nagisa Oshima’s Death by Hanging of 1968, represents several genres in one. It begins as a kind of mock documentary, showing a large prison complex before taking us inside to see the death chamber. As the narrator’s voice (the director himself) announces that a larger portion of the Japanese public wishes to maintain the death penalty, the camera, as film critic Jake Cole has observed, “…calmly establishes an execution chamber and its efficiency in such a way as to tempt the audience to accept, even admire, the dispassionate letter of the law.”

      But soon after, when the terrified shaking prisoner R (Yung-do Yun) is brought in and we catch a glimpse the hanging noose over the trap door through which the prisoner will soon fall to his death, that objective-like perspective immediately shifts as we recognize that we are about to witness an actual death or—to put it another way, a state-sponsored murder.

      A few seconds later, after R has been “hung” and is found to still have a beating heart, the film changes once more, moving into a work of a series of moral dilemmas as the Warden (Kei Sato), the Education Chief (Fumio Watanabe), the Doctor (Rokko Toura), the Security Chief (Masad Adachi), Chaplain (Toshiro Ishido), and Prosecuter (Hosei Komatsu) crowd around the would-be corpse, arguing what further should be done. While some argue for an immediate re-hanging, others point out that, since the prisoner is now unconscious they may be charged for killing an outwitting man. The Chaplain, in particular, argues that R is no longer R, for he has lost his soul, and is, therefore, no longer guilty. “The prisoner's awareness of his own guilt is what gives execution its moral and ethical meaning,” he argues.
       Finally, as R is revived and it becomes clear that he is suffering amnesia, one of them determines that in order to re-hang R they must help him regain his conscience, to discover who he is. It is here that the work becomes a kind of black comedy in the tradition of Kafka’s The Trial and other such works. These men, in a kind of mini-Brechtian drama, begin acting out various of R’s crimes, his attempted rape of a young Japanese schoolgirl and his murder of another young woman soon after. If their ridiculous play-acting begins rather clumsily, they quite soon grow into their roles, absurdly humping one another, strangling each other—one, in particularly, almost succeeding in murdering his colleagues—and re-enacting, in general, what Oshima titled his film of a year earlier, “bawdy” behavior.

       When even those enactments do not seem to rouse R’s memory, they begin to recreate events from his poverty-stricken childhood, attempting to remind him his many hungry nights, of how, as a Korean living in Japan, he was abused and kept apart from the advantages of the Japanese-born citizens, thus proving their own cultural awareness of how R and the many like him have been abused by the culture at large. Seeing this today, we can only be reminded the lopsided incarceration particularly of blacks and Hispanics in US prisons today, along with the further recognition of there being more minorities than whites sentenced to death.

       When even those tactics do not work, they rush to the streets to provide R with a short visual tour of his own past world, returning to find the ghost of his older dead sister (a sister who may or may not have existed), who also attempts to restore R’s memory—but this time so that he can recognize his murders as being in retaliation for the suffering all Koreans in Japan have had to endure, basically the radical and Communist positions. One should recall that this story is based on a real event, wherein the prisoner wrote a brilliantly popular book which moved many Japanese readers.
      Finally, it is only the ghost who begins to help R understand. He and the ghost talk while all around them the prison employees begin a drinking bash, which quickly turns into an even darker bacchanal, as some recount war-time crimes, others revealing smaller sins, and the drunken Chaplain attempting to sexually molest each of them, madly kissing and groping his fellow colleagues.

      By this time Oshima has brilliantly made his satirical themes without even needing to further side with any particular view; and immediately after, R, recognizing his crimes, is summarily hung for a second time.
      Death by Hanging, restored in DVD and Blu-Ray disks this year by Criterion, is certainly one of the best Japanese films of the 1960s, a work which uses theater to its advantage while revealing that film need not resist its roots in staged works. As Howard Hampton writes in the liner notes to that Criterion edition, if Oshima is often compared with Godard, “it would be more accurate to call him the reverse-angle JLG: instead of converting flesh and blood and tragedy into glamorous abstractions, Oshima’s “renders ideology in skeptical, frank, and expressed in kitchen-sink terms.” Given his contrarian nature, Oshimia remains “committed to the human condition,” with all of “its full kaleidoscopic, unsanitary overabundance.” 
     If nothing else, Oshima is a filmmaker who is not afraid to express his anger and rage over political issues, and in that sense, perhaps, he has a closer kinship to Britain’s angry young men (and women) of the late 1950s and 1960s. Yet, unlike them, Oshima is seldom a realist, preferring instead to use all the theatrical tropes available to him; and it his inclusiveness which help make his films so very different from those of nearly any other filmmaker of the 60s decade.

Los Angeles, October 26, 2016


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