Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Adam Hartzell's Oshima Reading Guide

Brian here. Lots of cinematic happenings on Frisco Bay this week! The Another Hole In The Head festival of indie horror, sci-fi and other genre film opens Friday at the Roxie; it's been heavily previewed by Jay Blodgett, though I liked Coming Soon more than he did I think. The SF Film Society Screen at the Kabuki cranks into gear again starting the same day with a week-long booking of Carlos Saura's Fados. But for me, the most exciting events occur in Berkeley at the Pacific Film Archive, where critic and programmer James Quandt will be in attendance for two evenings of screenings in the Nagisa Oshima retrospective that began last weekend. I shamefully have only seen two Oshima films so far (at least one of them, Death By Hanging is clearly a masterpiece even to a newbie like myself). But since my buddy Adam Hartzell is one of the most devoted fans of this living legend that I'm aware of, I'm absolutely thrilled that he has offered to provide a guide to navigating the Oshima ocean that this retrospective may appear to be, and to share with Hell on Frisco Bay readers. He shows me up starting from his first sentence, using the proper Japanese name order (surname first, personal name second) that I haven't trained myself to adopt. Here's Adam:

The Pacific Film Archive is in the realm of Oshima Nagisa for the next month and a half. James Quandt of the Cinematheque Ontario has done the hard work of rounding up the prints and rights to screen a all but one of Oshima’s feature films, along with a couple his documentaries. Having taken his series on the road, we had to wait until the end of the run to get our chance to see Oshima films rarely screened anywhere in North America before, let alone the Bay Area, such as Three Resurrected Drunkards, or films screened occasionally, but since they aren’t available on (English-subbed) DVDs yet, one is completely reliant on screenings to re-view them, such as two of my favorite Oshima films Death By Hanging and Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence. (Why that latter film is not on DVD with English subtitles yet is completely confounding since it features David Bowie and composer Ryuichi Sakamoto in a sublimated Gay love story and also features Beat Takeshi.)

But rather than recommend more films from the series, I wanted to take this time to recommend a reading list instead. So here are the books in my library that I recommend you seek out to help you formulate your own theories and questions while watching a treasure trove of Oshima’s oeuvre on hand this early summer.

Maureen Turim – The Films of Oshima Nagisa: Images of a Japanese Iconoclast (University of California Press, 1998)

This is the definitive book on Oshima and the one that has made me so anxious for this retrospective. Turim discusses so many films to which I have yet to have access. But thanks to Quandt and the PFA, I can now compare Turim’s arguments with what I see when watching, A Town of Love and Hope, Shiro Amakusa, the Christian Rebel, Pleasures of the Flesh, A Treatise on Japanese Bawdy Songs, Diary of a Shinjuku Thief, Three Resurrected Drunkards, Dear Summer Sister, and the documentary Yunbogi’s Diary. (Two other films I have yet to see that will be screening, but not addressed in Turim’s book, are Band of Ninja and Double Suicide: A Japanese Summer.) Thanks to Quandt and PFA, I can revisit films I once owned on VHS, Cruel Story of Youth, The Sun’s Burial, Violence at Noon, In the Realm of the Senses, and Empires of Passion after which I can then revisit Turim’s commentary. (I say ‘once owned’ because money concerns recently had me cashing them in at Amoeba. So if you want to snag them, they are likely still there. Thankfully, I held on to Max Mon Amour, Oshima’s fully French-funded film that features actress Charlotte Rampling playing an upper-class woman who has begun an affair with a chimpanzee. Sadly, this is the only Oshima feature film not on offer at the retrospective Quandt has compiled.) I can also revisit both film and theory with Night and Fog in Japan, The Catch, Death by Hanging, Boy, The Ceremony, the Man Who Left His Will On Film, and Oshima’s contribution to the British Film Institute’s Century of Cinema project, 100 Years of Japanese Cinema, films that had previously shown at the PFA, SFMoMA, and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. (Gohatto will also be part of the retrospective; it was released in the Bay Area but it was made after Turim’s book was published.)

Oshima Nagisa – Cinema, Censorship and the State: The Writings of Oshima Nagisa (The MIT Press, 1992)

Or perhaps you want to become acquainted with Oshima’s own words on his own films. If so, then you’ll definitely want to check out Cinema, Censorship and the State. In this collection of Oshima’s writings you will find valuable complimentary commentary on Oshima’s trips to impoverished South Korea, (this was pre-economic-miracle, when South Korea was nothing like it is today), a nice companion piece to the screening at the retrospective of the documentary Yonbogi’s Diary. Also, invaluable to the screening of In the Realm of the Senses, is Oshima’s commentary on the obscenity trial that followed that film. Ironically, it appears it was never screened, ehem, uncut in Japan until 2000.

And speaking of In the Realm of the Senses, if you haven’t heard it spoken of before, it is Oshima’s take on the Abe Sada story. If you’re a film fanatic, you surely have already heard about the significant moments that occur within this film. But spoiler ethics keep me from going into too much detail. Let me say this though. Do not go with a date, unless you are very, very comfortable with that person. Also, don’t bring your parents or grandparents. Finally, let me say, as a man, I have seen this film roughly five times, and although I can keep my eyes open during the mid-climaxes, I have yet to be able to keep my eyes open at the final climax. I agree with many who argue In the Realm of the Senses is not just a glorified porno flick. (In Japanese, it’d be better to compare this film to a ‘Pink Film’, which are considered separate from what most of us intend by the moniker ‘porno’.) Many consider it a film of high quality and one that makes significant commentary on the encroaching Japanese empire of the time in which the film is set. The British Film Institute felt similarly, and included In the Realm of the Senses in its film monograph series. Joan Mellon does the honors for this monograph and includes a nice short overview of Oshima’s work and themes. Another British publishing house, Wallflower Press, includes an essay on In the Realm of the Senses by Samara Lea Allsop in The Cinema of Japan and Korea, part of their 24 Frames world cinema series. (This is where I’m obligated to say I also have an essay in the same book. Mine is on Hong Sangsoo’s The Power of Kangwon Province (1998). And this is also where I’m obligated to apologize for the personal plug.)

Finally, before or after the PFA’s screening of The Catch, you might want to read the Oe Kenzaburo story on which the film is based. Oe, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1994, is my favorite fiction writer. I have read every book by him that has been translated into English. His novel A Personal Matter is one of the few books I’ve read more than twice. (Another is Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling. And the reason I was so strongly drawn to both authors was limned when I read Oe’s Rouse Up O Young Men of the New Age. Ironically, it’s not the William Blake reference of the title that stuck out for me but the confirmation in the novel that the ethical quandaries of the Abraham and Isaac story were indeed a concern throughout Oe’s oeuvre.) 'The Catch' is a story that explores the theme of racism as transference where a Japanese village’s psychosexual issues are thrown upon an African-American soldier whose plane crashes into their village during World War II. The translation I have of ‘The Catch’ is actually entitled 'Prize Stock', a title I find more in sync with the story’s theme, and is found in a wonderful collection of Oe's short stories entitled Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness (Grove Press, 1994).

So there are some titles to checkout either at the library or one of the many independent bookstores in the Bay Area to enhance the already wonderful experience the Pacific Film Archives is providing for us cinephiles.


  1. Hello Brian,

    Very nice! I've been thinking quite a bit about Japanese cinema lately, so coming across your post, with its informative coverage of the PFA Oshima retrospective and helpful links, was really serendipitous. I've learnt a lot - thanks very much for this! :-)

  2. Jenna, thanks for the comment! To be clear, my regular contributor Adam Hartzell wrote up all but the italicized portion of this post, so I join you in thanking him for sharing his knowledge and passion!

    However, I collected the links (mostly from the PFA website) myself, so I'll accept your thanks for those! ;-)

  3. Adam, great comprehensive overview. I'm looking forward to interviewing Quandt this week and your research helps immensely. Anything youu want me to ask him?

  4. I'm not Adam, but I'd like someone to ask him why I can't find his Apichatpong Weerasethakul book anywhere I've looked. I'm dying to read it!!!

  5. Thanks for stopping by Michael and I'm glad to be of help. Let me know if you want to borrow anything from my library.

    As for questions, I'm curious about a few things -

    1) I haven't read anywhere how Oe felt about the cinematic portrayal of THE CATCH/PRIZE STOCK. I'm curious if Quandt has come across any commentary by Oe. (Btw, in case you aren't familiar with Oe, it's pronounce long O, long A.) And I'm equally curious if Quandt knows much about Oshima's feelings about Oe, what drew him to this story and if he ever had thoughts of making any other films based on his work. Oe's quite the taboo breaker too.

    2) I'm very interested in Public Domain issues these days, particularly how the over-extension of U.S. copyright inhibits creativity and access to works and how the U.S. is pushing other countries to implement similar over-extensions of their copyrights. So I'm curious to hear about how Japanese copyright laws made accessing these films easier or more difficult for Quandt.

    3) And the only feature film he didn't bring was MAX MON AMOUR, so, of course, I want to know what kept that film from being included. Seems like there might be a story around that.

  6. Brian, you can be so scholarly and thorough that it puts me to SHAME! Thanks for the shout out, though!

    Also thanks for the Amoeba heads up! It was on my agenda today, as part of my ongoing effort to procrastinate typing up my Frameline short subject programs previews!!

    I guess I can understand giving up IN THE REALM OF THE SENSES, as I can't even bring myself to OWN SALO..., which had pretty much the same visceral effect on me. Though it's been 20 years since I've seen Realm...!

    I have GOT to get the PFA into some sort of commuting habit of mine! I just don't cross the bridge enough!!! And I take your DEATH BY HANGING recommendation seriously!!

  7. p.s. MERRY CHRISTMAS MR. LAWRENCE is available on R3-Australia, PAL. There are probably converted copies out there, in the underground of which I am so fond of... ;)

  8. Thanks for the comment, Jay, and for the detailed coverage of HoleHead- that's puts me to shame.

    But really this is Adam's scholarliness and not mine; to be clear on this point, I've amended the post title and my own introduction slightly emphasizing that. I wish I were this knowledgeable on Oshima, and I'm excited to attend tonight's screening of Town of Love and Hope, my first time back at the PFA in a month. I still have a lot of catching up to do on this director!

  9. Jay, you're welcome to be my guest at any PFA screening that Michael Hawley hasn't already claimed. Let me know.

    I'm very excited about interviewing Quandt, all the more so because it's at PFA's request. I've been researching Oshima and the traveling retrospective extensively. Thanks for the proposed questions, Adam. I'll aim to fit them in.

  10. Thanks Michael!

    Of course, I would have to find that thing... it is underground and goes under the Bay... uh,... BART? >:)

    Not to mention, that I MUST TYPE UP Frameline postings until my fingers BLEED!!

    But Adam H. has me all drooling to DO get caught up!

    Later guys!