Nagisa Oshima was one of the most respected Japanese filmmakers. The '60s brought about such creativity and vision for him that could only be described as part New Wave and part constructive randomness.
The Criterion Collection brings five of Oshima's least viewed films as part of its Eclipse series. The five-disc DVD set Eclipse 21 – Oshima's Outlaw Sixties brings restored versions of Pleasures Of The Flesh, Violence At Noon, Sing A Song Of Sex, Japanese Summer: Double Suicide, and Three Resurrected Drunkards.
Pleasures Of The Flesh (1965)
If you had money and you knew death would soon come, how would you spend your final days? Would you enjoy it peacefully? Violently? Excessively? Watch Life As A House with Kevin Kline if you chose option one. Watch Natural Born Killers if you chose option two. And watch Pleasures Of The Flesh if you chose option three.
Pleasures Of The Flesh portrays excess as a burden of lost dreams, unattainable love, requited lust, and universal greed. Atsushi Wakizaka (Katsuo Nakamura) falls for a girl (Shoko), commits a crime in her name, and is blackmailed by a witness of that crime.
The blackmail isn't something as lurid as murder, but instead something as unbelievable as safeguarding a load of money. The witness is a corrupt official (Hayami) who embezzled 100 million yen. Hayami anticipates getting caught and serving five years in prison. He entrusts Atsushi with 30 million yen in exchange for not telling the police about the murder.
However, Atsushi mustn't spend the money or else. Without much to look forward to since Shoko is married to another man, Atsushi decides to spend all of the money and commit suicide before Hayami is released.
Atsushi mixes love and lust repeatedly as he attempts to enjoy the seemingly last few months of his life. Atsushi lives the excess life (which might just serve as inspiration for the next MTV fake reality show) and soon realizes that he really cannot buy happiness.
Referred to as Oshima's venture into the then-popular Japanese eiga or "pink film" (soft-core) genre, Pleasures Of The Flesh has more elements of film noir than pornography (relatively speaking for 1960s Japanese cinema). Atsushi's spree of excess speaks louder in terms of the women who willingly join him than it does his own deliberate descent into madness.
Violence At Noon (1966)
"You mustn't expect a reward when you love."
"Love seeks no reward."
You hear these messages of love all the time. You say them just as often. You trust the feelings are reciprocated, but they aren't always. Even then, how can you really know?
Based on actual events, director Nagisa Oshima tells the stories of two women, Shino (Sae Kawaguchi) and Matsuko (Akiko Koyama), and the impacts on their lives from being raped by a man Eisuke (Kei Sato) they both know.
All three lived in a peaceful village founded on love. But that collective spirit clouds real emotions such as unhappiness and desire from developing to instead breed the more extreme versions.
No, Violence At Noon isn't a revenge film despite the fact that Matsuko is Eisuke's wife. And no, it isn't a romance despite the fact that Shino defends and protects Eisuke. It can be best described as a narrative of unrealistic expectations and humanity's true beast of nature as told through the fragile eyes of a criminal's victims.
Sing A Song Of Sex (1967)
Boys will be boys. I guess that old saying applies very much so to Oshima's Sing A Song Of Sex where actions and words flow freely from one to the next without a single care or thought. Imagine, after having just taken their university entrance exams, what are four young lads to do?
Boys will be boys, indeed. But Oshima takes a much more hands off approach by filming without a script. So what you really see are boys being boys, especially during the scenes of them singing songs, chasing girls, and moving from one place to the next.
Set during Vietnam War-era Japan, the film is full of scenes where fantasy and reality blur. The most troubling aspect is that even the apparent dream sequences seem plausibly real. Did one of the boys kill their teacher? Did the boys rape a girl they'd been ogling? Are the boys completely unaware of what's happening to the country around them with so many activists protesting and singing proudly of a better world?
Apathy pervades the film. It's obvious. But with life's endless possibilities at their fingertips, the four young men are content to keep their future at an arm's length.
Japanese Summer: Double Suicide 1967)
"I wish I could tie up all the men in Japan," the sex-obsessed Nejiko (Keiko Sakurai) proclaims as she sits in an underground room filled with Japan's most undesirable men — including a military deserter and a trigger-happy kid — and many guns.
Nejiko is just one of the weird characters in Nagisa Oshima's look at dysfunction and social unrest in Japanese Summer: Double Suicide. Any tension between the characters is multiplied by the fact they're all prisoners inside a small locked room.
I was reminded of a study I heard about researchers putting a large number of mice inside a ridiculously small cage. The result: the mice killed each other. To make matters worse, the only glimpse of the outside is a television that constantly shows news of the nonstop killings of a sharpshooting foreigner.
As foreboding as that may sound, it might be more unnerving that Oshima is actually more interested in the characters' desensitization to immorality and craving for violence than unhesitant murder, random sex, and impulsive rebellion against authority. Here's some food for thought. When asked about why he's killing people, the foreigner answers that he's only 20 years old.
Three Resurrected Drunkards (1968)
Had Three Resurrected Drunkards been made today, an unsuspecting viewer would swear it was directed by David Lynch. Oshima begins the film with three young men having their clothes stolen and replaced as they swim. Unfazed, the three men wear the clothes and are mistaken for undocumented Koreans.
I'll call the next 40 minutes a series of comedies of errors that have the three men running from authorities, mysterious figures, and the actual undocumented Koreans the authorities are looking for. While these 40 minutes could be better described as a series of unfortunate events, outside of a scene that has the three young men fighting in Vietnam I found it hard to fully grasp Vietnam War-era Japan.
I understood feelings of mistrust and hopelessness, but Oshima further complicates matters by seemingly restarting the film over again for its second half. However, as the three young men start running from the authorities, they begin to believe they really are the undocumented Koreans.
If you're already confused, please join the characters that play the actual Koreans. It's quite unsettling to see the young men lose their identities for seemingly no real reason. It's even more unsettling to see the young men lose their youth and all of that optimism in exchange for fleeting visions of dignity and splendor.
The Box Set
All five films were shot in a 2:35:1 widescreen aspect ratio, and Criterion enhanced the video for 16:9 televisions. Three films — Pleasures Of The Flesh, Sing A Song Of Sex, and Three Resurrected Drunkards — were shot in color, and the other two — Violence At Noon and Japanese Summer: Double Suicide — were shot in black and white. The films in color look dreary and drab to match the less than cheerful storylines; likewise, the films in black and white look dark.
All five films include their original mono sound tracks, which are unsurprisingly not sharp and muffled at times. There are English subtitles. As with all films in the Eclipse series, Oshima's Outlaw Sixties comes with no bonus features.