Few film movements have gone as overlooked by the west as the Japanese New Wave; the radical and thought provoking generation of filmmakers who had the misfortune of following what many considered golden age of Japanese Cinema. While filmmakers like Akira Kurosawa, Kenji Mizoguchi, and Yasujirō Ozu remain the face of the country’s cinema, its easy to forget just how many great auteurs Japan has produced: Hiroshi Teshigahara, Masahiro Shinoda, Shohei Imamura, Seijun Suzuki, Yoshishige Yoshida, and Masaki Kobayashi to name a few.
The movement sought to produce more intellectual and rebellious works that not only questioned the country’s politics but the powerhouse directors produced before them. It also introduced some of the country’s finest directors. But when discussing the Japanese New Wave (which took place roughly around the same time as France’s New Wave), Nagisa Oshima often gets singled out. Referred to some as the Godard of the east (and not a comparison that’s far off), Ôshima was able to gain world wide recognition for works like his sexually explicit and controversial In the Realm of the Senses in 1976 and his intelligent anti-war film/David Bowie vehicle Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence in 1983; but his most challenging works are rarely ever seen in the states. Death by Hanging, while having the luxury of being more widely seen than some of his other 60s films, nevertheless remains another one of his overlooked masterpieces.
Working with Brechtian logic, Ôshima’s film is able to find the perfect balance between satire and absurdity. A film that aim to tackle such a controversial and emotional subject yet woven into such an odd farce. The eight-minute-long opening sequence, which could almost be mistaken for documentary footage because of the way it’s filmed, is a perfect example of this. But the straight forward and serious tone of the sequence is merely Ôshima playing the audience, in the words of another great filmmaker, like a piano; setting up his audience expectations before shattering them in the fashion one might expect from Ôshima.
After the convict, a Japanese-born Korean man convicted of the rape and murder of two school girls referred to as R, is hanged, the officials present at the execution, consisting of a prison warden, an education officer, a priest, a doctor, and a few guards, notice the he is still breathing. It creates an odd situation for the officials who don’t have any protocol for such a scenario, and only worsens once R actually regains consciousness and without any memory of his past crimes. In Japanese law, the government cannot proceed with any type of punishment unless the convict is aware of his crime and the punishment that goes with it. So in essence, R’s amnesia saves him from death.
Its here where Ôshima’s film takes a fascinating and devilishly humorous turn: The officials must help R, who in many ways is a new person now, to remember the sins of his past and come in terms of his guilt just so they can execute him. It’s absurd yet nonetheless speaks volumes about most legal systems that exercise capital punishment. The role that ethics plays when justifying death on a government level. Its the type of subject that Bunuel might have made a film on because its perfect for ridicule. And Ôshima doesn’t hold back.
He stages the film in mostly one area so its very reminiscent to an existential play. In many ways Death by Hanging does come off very theatrical, as if it were a work by Sartre or Beckett. But Ôshima’s film is a very much his own and self-conscious one at that, using title cards to separate events, surreal interactions, realty and memories colliding and at times. One of the most memorable moments in the film involves the education officer attempting to recreate parts of R’s life using newspapers to create props and having the other officials play out characters. In other words the education officer takes on the persona of director and everyone around him his actors. They act out different moments from R’s life, explaining the horrors of his ways and deeds; ironically making themselves look worse in the process.
These scenes offer some of the film’s funniest and most bizarre moments, including a segment where education officer directs the guards to role-play a rape. At one point, the education offer’s role-playing gets so out of hand, that the characters actually leave their environment and visit the scene of one of R’s crimes. The official loses control of reality and actually takes the life of an innocent girl in the process.
The film’s most iconic scenes occur when the body of the woman the education officer has killed comes back from the dead, revealing herself to everyone as R’s sister; though her actions sometimes suggest her to be someone or something else. Her role is to provide R a different version to his story, acting as a foil to the other officials. Through her, Ôshima explores one the film’s key issues; Japan’s unfair discrimination toward Koreans. the “sister” tries to convince R that his murders were justified, citing them as acts against the Japan in the name of Korean oppression. She plays the opposite extreme, trying to get R to embrace his Korean identity over any sympathy toward the enemy.
Ôshima’s film was initially conceived as a response to the infamous case of 22 year-old Chin’u Ri. Born in Japan but of Korean decent, the young man made headlines after being arrested for the rape and murder of a Japanese school girl, similar to the crimes of R. The case gained even more notoriety after the release of the book Crime, Death, and Love, which was written by Ri and journalist Bok Junan. Ôshima apparently thought highly of the individual after reading the book and while not condoning his actions, Ôshima viewed him as a victim of a discriminatory society. Ri’s eventual execution was enough reason for a film like Death by Hanging to exist. Yet rather than just filming Ri’s story, Ôshima made a much more original film whose scathing critique of capital punishment and prejudice remains timeless.