Auteurism's flowering produces oriental fruit

The Films of Oshima Nagisa

July 23, 1999

The films of the Japanese avant-garde director Nagisa Oshima are enigmatic and complex in their political challenge to mainstream concepts of Japanese social organisation and identity - a challenge that forced Oshima out of the Japanese studio system into small Japanese independent studios and ultimately on to the international

art cinema stage, where the thematic concerns of his films moved away from an attack on Japanese social organisation to the universals of human existence. Thus Oshima belongs to a group of well-known Japanese directors, including Yasujiro Ozu and Akira Kurosawa, whose films have specific reference to Japan, while also describing the human condition.

The Films of Oshima Nagisa is a timely attempt by a western scholar to reach an understanding of the complex issues raised in Oshima's films. For, as Maureen Turim acknowledges, Oshima's career pattern has insured that he is "not simply a Japanese film-maker, but an international voice issuing from and formed by a Japanese context". Turim follows an auteurist trajectory, arguing that Oshima is "a product of a certain period of auteurism's flowering". However, perhaps more convincing is the argument that Oshima himself has actively intervened through interviews and his own writings as to how his films should be viewed and understood. For Oshima, along with many politically conscious Japanese artists and thinkers, likes to control not only the making but also the reception of his films - a fact reinforced by Turim's acknowledgement of Oshima's help in the writing of her study.

While the book provides an interesting account of Oshima's films from an international perspective it fails fully to confront and integrate Oshima's Japanese background. Here, the level of factual inaccuracies induces a sense of unease about the author's conclusions. The most striking is the mistranslation of the statistical information with which the film Death by Hanging opens. Turim's interpretation: "Graphics introduce a poll dated June 1957 that gives Japanese attitudes toward capital punishment: 71 per cent for the abolition of capital punishment, 16 per cent against the abolition, and 13 per cent undecided." In fact the poll was taken in 1967 and found that 71 per cent of the poll were in favour of capital punishment and 16 per cent were opposed.

The limited reference to Japanese sources other than Sato Tadao's study further inhibits the analysis, as does the sole reliance on selected translated writings of Oshima. The omission of any reference to Oshima's recent book Oshima Nagisa 1960 and his earlier text Taikenteki sengo eizo-ron further inhibits a satisfactory contextualisation of his films. However, despite the book's inadequacies in dealing satisfactorily with the Japanese context, it does provide the reader with many thought-provoking insights into the reception of Oshima's films as an "international voice" and, as such, it is of great interest to film scholars at a time when debates on what constitutes a national cinema are coming increasingly to the fore.

Isolde Standish is lecturer in Japanese cinema studies, School of African and Oriental Studies, London.

The Films of Oshima Nagisa: Images of a Japanese Iconoclast

Author - Maureen Turim
ISBN - 0 520 20665 7 and 20666 5
Publisher - University of California Press
Price - £40.00 and £14.95
Pages - 314

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