Sunday, January 20, 2013

RIP Nagisha Oshima, 1932-2013

Nothing that is expressed is obscene. What is obscene is what is hidden.
– Nagisha Oshima

At work on Friday we were talking about Oshima's most famous, or rather infamous film, 1976's Ai No Corrida (no, we don't just talk football and sex, though the film, translated as In the Realm of the Senses, contains plenty of the latter). I first saw the film with my brother in a double bill with Woman of the Dunes in the old Everyman Cinema in Hampstead. I was about 18 years old, my brother only 14. We had no idea what to expect (we went there mainly for Woman of the Dunes); certainly not a relentlessly sexually explicit exploration of obsession which makes Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris (1972) look like a CBBC production. We emerged from the cinema speechless, mortified and quite possibly blushing profusely. (I was about the say it remains the only time I've seen hardcore pornography (cunningly disguised as art) in a public cinema but then I remembered seeing Thundercrack (nowhere near art), equally sexually relenting, though at least it has some jokes.)

The Japanese director Nagisa Oshima died last week on 15 January, aged 80, in a career spanning fifty years which included films and TV documentaries. His early films exposed the conservatism of Japanese society and politics in which he borrowed stylistic innovations from the French New Wave to suggest the sweeping away of the old order. But it was In the Realm of the Senses which immediately caused worldwide controversy, featuring unsimulated sex, strangulation and castration (sorry for the spoiler). 1978's Empire of Passion was a less explicit Ai No Corrida, and won the best director prize at Cannes. Oshima's most commercial hit and his first in English, Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence (1983), was set in a Japanese prison camp and featured David Bowie and Tom Conti. Oshima's most bizarre and Bunuelian film (notably featuring several Bunuel collaborators) was the 1986 Max, Mon Amour starring Charlotte Rampling and her lover, a chimpanzee (the DVD states it's 'the greatest ape romance since King Kong', obviously not having seen Thundercrack).

In his last years Oshima worked as a translator, translating into Japanese books including John Gray's hugely popular Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. A suitable coda to Ai No Corrida, perhaps.

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