Nagisa Oshima (1932-2013)

One of the leading voices of Japanese post-war avant-garde cinema, the film director Nagisa Oshima, died Dec 15 at hospital in Fujisawa, Kanagawa Prefecture, due to complications arising from pneumonia. He was 80 years old.

Oshima was born in Kyoto in 1932. He first became involved in theatre while studying at Kyoto University, where he was also chairman of the leftist Kyoto Prefecture Federation of Student Self-Governing Associations. After graduating from university, he was hired in 1954 by the film company Shochiku-Ofuna, where he completed his first films, the short Ashita no taiyou (Tomorrow’s Sun) and the feature Ai to kibou no machi (A Town of Love and Hope), in 1959.

From the start Oshima’s films explored a heady mix of disaffected youth culture, radical politics, sex, violence and Japanese identity. In 1960, Seishun zankoku monogatari (Cruel Story of Youth) was Oshima’s first hit, earning him newcomer of the year honors from the Directors Guild of Japan. However, that same year Oshima’s critical appraisal of his experiences in the Kyoto student movement, Nihon no yoru to kiri (Night and Fog in Japan), was pulled from circulation by Shochiku after only four days of screenings over concerns about the film’s sensitivity in the wake of the assassination of Japanese Socialist Party leader Inejiro Asanuma by a young right-wing extremist during a live, televised political debate in Tokyo. The suppression of his film prompted Oshima to leave Shochiku and start his own production company.

This was followed with a turn by Oshima toward television production, which continued until the mid-1960s, when he released a series of films reflecting on the nature of democratic governance and society in Japan, including Etsuraku (The Pleasures of the Flesh, 1965), Hakuchu no tourima (Violence at High Noon, 1966) and Nihon shunka-kou (Sing a Song of Sex: A Treatise on Japanese Bawdy Songs, 1967). Working with the pioneering Art Theatre Guild, Oshima also made films such as Koushikei (Death by Hanging, 1968), Shonen (Boy, 1969) and Gishiki (The Ceremony, 1971).

After this flurry of creativity, Oshima slowed in his pace of production, although the works made between 1970 and 1999 include some of his most internationally recognized, namely the French-Japanese co-production Ai no corrida (In the Realm of the Senses, 1976), notable for its use of explicit sex in depicting the events around the 1936 Sada Abe incident, and the loose sequel Ai no bourei (Empire of Passion, 1978). The latter earned Oshima the award for Best Director at the 1978 Cannes Film Festival. Released in 1983, the British-Japanese co-production Senjou no meri Kurisumasu (Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence), starring the musicians David Bowie and Ryuichi Sakamoto, and the comedian Takeshi Kitano, in a story of cross-cultural, homoerotic and hierarchical tensions set in a Japanese-run prisoner of war camp during World War II, has also become a cult classic.

Suffering a stroke in 1996, Oshima directed his final film, Gohatto (Taboo, 1999), from a wheelchair. In 2000 he was conferred the Purple Ribbon Medal of Honor for academic and artistic achievement. He is survived by his wife, the actress Akiko Koyama, who appeared in some of his most memorable films.

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