Truth at 24 Frames Per Second

By Steve Sedlak

I can’t possibly begin to define the work of Nagisa Oshima, one of the leading artists of the Japanese New Wave (also one of the last living at the age of 76). Each and every one of his films is like an exercise in whatever he wants it to be. Sometimes his films are color saturated, Cinemascope masterpieces that distract me enough with their visuals that I miss some of the film’s story. But the stories-when I can pay attention to them-are not what you might expect for this grand format. Oshima’s oeuvre is full of stories of the underbelly of Japanese society, but also the youth’s political rage in the 1960s (his most productive era). Historically, the Japanese movie industry was trying to retain its audience, both with new technical improvements of the medium and new, scandalous youth-oriented content in the films themselves. Of course, this did not last long and Oshima ended up leaving Shouchiku (one of the oldest established studios in Japan) in 1961, after controversy surrounded his masterfully theatrical “Night and Fog in Japan.”

Oshima’s films are part of the New Wave, but not the French one. His work varies, from those bearing a resemblance to “Rebel Without a Cause” (where what is being shown is a little scandalous, but the way in which it is shown is pretty conservative) to some avant garde pieces (think disjointed, like Antonioni).

Perhaps it’s Oshima’s extensive commercial background that demanded a certain level of down-to-earthness in his films, so as to be comprehensible by average movie audiences. Or, maybe it really is that pretentious and I just don’t sense it from what I’ve seen. But what I have seen, I like.

You must be wondering why this matters. It matters because the Walker Art Center is putting on an amazing retrospective of Oshima’s work, from Nov. 5 to Nov. 23. These films are difficult to find on DVD, some you can only find on VH, and some not at all, so the opportunity to see Oshima’s work on the big screen with English subtitles is a big deal. While not all of Oshima’s oeuvre will be screened, most of his “greatest hits” will be there, including “In the Realm of the Senses,” the film that won Oshima his international reputation when it played at Cannes in 1976.

Guest lecturers will also appear at many of the screenings, including Macalester’s own Christopher Scott from the Asian Languages and Cultures Department at the screening of “Death By Hanging.” This film is a fascinating illustration of the prejudice, racism, and overlooked criminalization of Koreans in Japan. An expert on Koreans in Japan, Professor Scott suggests that this film-as well as many other works by Oshima’s-begs to be read transnationally. In what ways does the scapegoating of the Korean character in the film reflect not only commonly held anxieties in Japan after the Komatsugawa Incident of 1958, but similar race-related incidents in America, like the brutal killing of Emmett Till in 1955? Come to his pre-screening lecture on Sunday November 16th to find out! Tickets to all screenings are only $8.

If none of this attracts you, can I at least try selling you on “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence?” It has David Bowie in it. That’s right, as a prisoner of war nonetheless. He doesn’t sing, but Ryuuichi Sakamoto’s amazing soundtrack makes up for it.