[short] Diaristic Fragments on Japanese New Wave Film: Nagisa Ôshima’s Empire of Passion (1978), Masahiro Shinoda’s Double Suicide (1969), Shûji Terayama’s Pastoral Hide and Seek (1974), and Shôhei Imamura’s The Pornographers (1966)

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(Still from The Pornographers (1966), dir. Shôhei Imamura)

In the beginning the “Other Suspect Ruminations” part of my site’s title referred to my filmic obsessions. It’s been five years since I’ve posted along those lines. As diligent readers might be able to tell, I am fascinated by the general historical context (and earlier) of the SF decades I enjoy the most—from the Czech New Wave to the Japanese New Wave, from 60s/70s political jazz to the surrealists.

Until a few months ago my experience with Japanese New Wave film was limited to Hiroshi Teshigahara’s collaborations with the Japanese author (of SF and literature) Kôbô Abe—The Woman in the Dunes (1964), The Face of Another (1966) and Pitfall (1962)—and a few surreal Seijun Suzuki yakuza flics including Branded to Kill (1967) and Tokyo Drifter (1966) and Masahiro Shinoda’s hyper-stylized Pale Flower (1964). I highly recommend all of the above, especially The Face of Another (1966) if you’re interested in Japanese New Wave’s take on science fiction.

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(A tantalizing scene from The Face of Another)

Recently my horizons have expanded. I am in no way a scholar of Japan or claim to be knowledgeable about Japanese culture, however, the narrative experimentation and craft of many of the following films fascinates me.

Imagine these are fragments from a film diary rather than reviews.  I recommend the Criterion film essays that accompany many of these movies.

Diaristic Fragments

Double Suicide (1969), dir. Masahiro Shinoda, 10/10 (Masterpiece), IMDB link: The film starts in a modern puppet theater, the director discuss the scenes and the various theatrical styles. The historical drama unfolds, the puppeteers guide the human actors–who replace the puppets–and interact with their movements. Far from passive observers, the puppeteers watch in anguish as they cannot rewrite the plot as they are compelled to manipulate the characters towards their disasterous ends… This layer of artifice meshes with the thematic exploration of individuals who cannot escape from their societal constraints despite their incredible passions. Their anguish is our spectacle.

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(The puppets, soon to be flesh and blood)

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(Gorgeous set design, a stage filled with calligraphic imagery)

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(The puppeteers moving the actors through their agonies)

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(The puppeteers observe, unable to change the course of the script)

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Empire of Passion (1978), dir. Nagisa Ôshima, 7/10 (Good), IMDB link: A claustrophobic and intense ghost story creeping with uncomfortable eroticism. The house, in a small village, in a ubiquitous valley, is a hellish microcosm of the most base human emotions. The dead husband (the ghost) sends the doomed lovers into the throws of desperation, as they search frantically for his body in a swampy well they cannot help but play out their final ritual movements in grotesque strokes (filth and cleansing fire) as the end approaches…

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(A mad descent)

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(The waiting ghost…)

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(The chasm + offerings hastening decay)

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Pastoral Hide and Seek (variant title: Pastoral: To Die in the Country) (1974), dir. Shûji Terayama, 10/10 (Masterpiece), IMDB link: Japan’s El Topo (1970) dir. Alejandro Jodorowsky?  Shûji Terayama, a proponent of avant-garde theater (his troop acts in the film) weaves a poignant, personal, and surreal exploration of memory and time. The director as a young boy plays hide-and-seek in a cemetery with his friends, as he closes his eyes adults emerge from the tombstones. The film is his journey into his memories.  Memories wild and metaphoric, relayed in surreal dreamlike visions across fraught fantasy-esque landscapes…. The film is color-coded, black and white, sepia-tinged, heightened color, each indicates a state of time–the circus and its timeless perambulations, the present, the memories of the past. His young self, but a projection of his present, is a ghost in his own past.

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(Fragments of photographic memories)

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(Rival affections for the circus woman with the inflatable body)

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(The narrator as a ghost in his own past)

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(Ritualistic couplings)

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(Avant-garde theater troop interludes)

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The Pornographers (1966), dir. Shôhei Imamura, 8/10 (Very Good), IMDB link: Imamura and his favorite themes, petty lowlifes and their lustful desires.  All types of relationships and lusts, all observed from voyeuristic angles unfold.  The pornographer lusts after his step-daughter, his mistress obsesses over the presence of her dead husband whom she believes is reincarnated as a carp that swims in a tank in her bedroom…. The camera peers through windows.  The camera observes from the eyes of the fish.  The pornographer feels his profession brings out repressed desires, none of which he questions or judges.  The film is a psychological landscape with every  obsession made manifest.  Unlike a lot of Japanese film, the subject mater might be controversial but the Imamura never resorts to explicit sexual images—they are all left to our imagination.

THE PORNOGRAPHERS, (aka JINRUIGAKI NYUMON: EROGOTOSHITACHI YORI), from left: Shoichi Ozawa, Keiko Sagawa, 1966

(Every scene, voyeuristic…)

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(The reincarnated dead husband)

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(Watching)

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(The fish observing the new man in the bed)

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Next on my watch list: Nagisa Ôshima’s The Man Who Put His Will on Film (1970), The Ceremony (1971), and Diary of a Shinjuku Thief (1969) and perhaps Kei Kumai’s Sandakan 8 (1974) although the subject matter will be tough to take.

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12 thoughts on “[short] Diaristic Fragments on Japanese New Wave Film: Nagisa Ôshima’s Empire of Passion (1978), Masahiro Shinoda’s Double Suicide (1969), Shûji Terayama’s Pastoral Hide and Seek (1974), and Shôhei Imamura’s The Pornographers (1966)”

    1. It “jumps” (or the wife perceives it does) when something bad is about to happen… We observe all the scenes in her bedroom (with her new lover) from the perspective of the fish tank or, with the fish tank central to the scene. What a wonderful viewing experience….

      1. Yes. old Japanese cinema is my favorite of all! Loved the Shinoda, not so sure about the Pornographers, did not “get” Pastoral. I am also thinking of blogging a aeries of posts on world cinema. Starting with Japan!

      2. The Oshima film was definitely the weakest of the four. I suspect some of his earlier stuff (I list a few I want to watch at the very bottom — The Ceremony, etc) is more interesting. Ultimately it felt like a rather straightforward ghost story… He’s famous for In the Realm of the Senses (1976) — which, you might know, is still banned in Japan.

      3. I loved Oshima’s Death by Hanging. So far, that is the only film of his that I have really liked. The Ceremony was pretty good but not exceptional, I thought.

      4. And Oshima’s Death by Hanging (1968) is supposed to be one of the great black comedies… I’ll explore more of his early work before I come to any definite opinion

      5. Why didn’t you “like” The Pornographers? I guess “like” is the wrong word, I found the entire thing incredibly disconcerting, uncomfortable, creepy, morally unnerving — all intended by Imamura. Appreciate and respect might be better terms. The disconnect between the men and their actions terrifies, which again, I think is the point. Like a voyeur, I had the sense that we as viewers (looking through windows, around corners, across streets, through lenses) could only “see” part of the story, as a voyeur would peering into the lives of others…

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