Nagisa Oshima, the Controversial Japanese Director, Dies

Nagisa Oshima, the Controversial Japanese Director, Dies
Eiko Matsuda and Tatsuya Fuji in Oshima's erotic art-house shocker "In the Realm of the Senses"
(© Argos Films)

After years of ill health, the filmmaker Nagisa Oshima died of pneumonia Tuesday at a hospital near Fujisawa, south of Tokyo. He was 80.

The second most famous Japanese auteur after Akira Kurosawa in the 1960s and ’70s, noted for his stylistic experiments, Oshima was a taboo-breaking controversialist on par with Pier-Paolo Pasolini and Bernardo Bertolucci then, and Lars Von Trier now. He is best known for politicizing destructive sexual love “In the Realm of the Senses” (1976) and its companion piece “Empire of Passion” (1978), for which he won the Best Director award at Cannes.


Oshima also had Charlotte Rampling play a diplomat’s wife in Paris who takes a chimpanzee as her lover in “Max, Mon Amour” – a Buñuelian satire of bourgeois mores and manners that Leos Carax paid homage to in the penultimate scene of “Holy Motors.” When I saw “Max” at Cannes in 1986, I was initially underwhelmed by the flatness of its compositions, subsequently recognizing that they serve the commonplaceness with which Max is integrated into his mistress’s life.

Three years before, Oshima had depicted the tragic love of a Japanese POW camp officer (Ryuichi Sakamoto) for a brightly blond British major (David Bowie) in his charge in “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence.” He was still investigating the theme of illicit erotic desire in 1999’s “Taboo” (“Gohatto”), about a trainee whose beauty inflames other men at an elite samurai police school.

The widely censored “In the Realm of the Senses,” though, remained Oshima’s most controversially graphic film – and perhaps his most beautiful. It was based on the 1936 case of Sada Abe, a sometime geisha, prostitute, and restaurant worker who after days of sex involving erotic asphyxiation strangled her lover and severed his penis and testicles. 

Both an examination of sexual morbidity and sexuality as an escape from repressive Japanese society, it was also a critique of authoritarianism. It was shot against the backdrop of rising militant imperialism and the 1936 army coup against the government that led to the assassination of three elderly leaders and triggered the resignation of Prime Minister Keisuke Okada and his cabinet. Read Donald Richie’s analysis of the film here.

Sakamoto’s Captain Yonoi in “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence” was a contemporary of the “Shining Young Officers” of 1936. Posted to Manchuria, he did not participate in the coup and was thus not executed along with his colleagues. His lasting regret over this aligns him with Bowie’s Celliers, whose guilty secret concerns his early betrayal of his brother. When Celliers breaks ranks and kisses Yonoi on the cheek during a parade ground showdown between the prisoners and the captives, the conflicted Yonoi faints. Their affinity is cemented by Celliers subsequent execution by burial and Tonoi’s unseen death later in the war.

Born on March 31, 1932, the scion of a well-off family with samurai ancestry, Oshima was raised in Kyoto by his mother after his father died when he was 6. He entered the law school at Kyoto University where he was a radical student leader. After working as an apprentice at the Shochiku studio (having allegedly cheated his way to the head of 2,000 applicants) and also as a film critic, he started directing youth films.

Influenced by the French New Wave, particularly Godard, Oshima directed the 1960 neorealist “Night and Fog in Japan,” its title echoing Alain Resnais’s Auschwitz documentary. A scathing indictment of the divisiveness of the Japanese left, comprising just 43 shots, it was pulled from theaters after three days. Marginalized by the Japanese studio system, Oshima founded his own independent production company with his actress wife, Akiko Koyama.

Subsequent Oshima films addressed racist brutality (“The Catch,” 1961, and the Brechtian “Death by Hanging,” 1968), sex crimes (“Violence at Noon,” 1966), sexual liberation’s equation with revolution (“Diary of a Shinjuku Thief,” 1968), and youth crime and the dysfunctional family (“Boy,” 1969). His 1971 “Ceremony” told the post-war history of Japan in less than flattering terms.

Oshima, whose career involved a stint as a talk show host, is survived by his wife.