Nagisa Oshima Film director best known for the controversial 'In the Realm of the Senses'

 

Nagisa Oshima was a film director and screenwriter whose extensive body of work explored questions of identity, sexuality and politics in post-war Japan. He is best known in this country for his controversial In the Realm of the Senses (1976) which challenged taboos and stoked the fiery debate on the question of art versus pornography.

Oshima was born in Kyoto in 1932 and studied law at the city's university. He became involved in student politics, rose to become President of the student association in 1953 and saw action in massive demonstrations on campus. The association was subsequently banned. Although now branded a "Red Student", making job prospects difficult, he joined the film company Shochiku as an assistant director in 1954. His directorial debut, A Town with Love and Hope, followed five years later. Following international success with his second film, Cruel Story of Youth (1960), Oshima established a production company, Sozosha, in 1965, hoping to further the nascent Japanese Nouvelle Vague.

During the late 1960s he produced three films dealing with the Japanese colonisation of Korea, of which Death by Hanging (1968) is best known outside the country. In this humour noir, a Korean man is sentenced to death but survives the noose, with his body's refusal to die symbolising resistance against injustice and raising questions over the state's right to kill.

In the early 1970s he started to consider making a film in which explicit sex was the central theme. "I had resolved not to make that kind of film if there were no possibility of complete sexual expression," he recalled. "Sexual expression carried to its logical conclusion would result in the direct filming of sexual intercourse."

The result was Ai no corrida, or In the Realm of the Senses (1976), a Franco-Japanese production which would confront and challenge his country's strict obscenity laws. Taking advantage of changes in the law on pornographic films in France, he shot the film in Japan and arranged for the undeveloped canisters to be shipped to Paris for editing. The film is a story of an affair between a man and his servant in which sexual obsession turns to violence, mutilation and death. In this newspaper Ben Walsh said, "Confessions of a Window Cleaner this isn't. Instead, we have a love affair without any restraint. Oshima's uncompromising 1976 film is a difficult, often grim, watch, but its composition is never less than exquisite."

The change in attitude to the film by the British Board of Film Classification reflect changes in the wider society and towards the depiction of nudity within the context of artistic works. In 1976 it was released but with a cut to a scene in which woman pulls a young boy's penis; in 1989 that scene was included but with modifications; in 2011 the BBFC considered the film could be released with the scene included, as it was now unlikely to be judged indecent. It remains banned in many other countries.

Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence (1983) was his only English-language film, written with Paul Mayersberg and starring David Bowie and Tom Conti. It was based on the prisoner-of-war experiences of Laurens van der Post and examines the relationships between four men in a Japanese camp.

His life and work were the subject of the film Nagisa Oshima: The Man Who Left His Soul on Film (1983) by Paul Joyce and the book The Films of Oshima Nagisa: Images of a Japanese Iconoclast (1998), by Maureen Turim, who told The Independent: "Nagisa Oshima brought to cinema a complex political engagement, visual and auditory intelligence, and daring philosophical investigations of characters and their relationship to others. To cite just one film from his prolific career, Gishiki (1971), which I prefer to translate in the plural as Ceremonies, he took up a fumigator to spray against all that was unhealthy in Japanese culture, while attempting to explore intimacy beyond the violence to which it could devolve."

***

In the heady days of Channel Four's start-up, when it was still possible to make proper documentaries on cinema subject, I went to Tokyo for the premiere of Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence and to do a film about Nagisa (actually one would never call him thus – rather it would be "Oshima-San"), writes Paul Joyce. Many of his best films were TV documentaries, which I was allowed to view but not to extract from, as almost all were deemed to show the country in a bad light. He espoused the causes of war veterans stripped of their pensions, and the "Korean-Japanese" who in the 1980s were still being treated as second-class citizens. Even his family, who showed me his films, would censor dialogue, though once I saw through the attempted trickery and got a proper translation, it showed that they were so sexually explicit as to make a modern-day audience squirm.

The language of cinema allowed his work to be appreciated in many other cultures and with many different audiences, but he remained unswervingly Japanese, and my visits to Japan to meet him told me enough to know that only a truly Japanese audience could appreciate the subtleties and nuances in his films which grew directly from an ancient cultural heritage. Much of his best and early work remains unavailable for us in the West.

He was a TV star in the 1970s and '80s and would be mobbed in the streets when we were trying to film with him. But he was able to poke fun at himself, while maintaining an aristocratic demeanour. He did a TV ad for cockroach powder in which he dressed as a cockroach killer and would strut about at men's fashion events (they gave him the clothes afterwards). When I was watching one such occasion on TV with his sister, she burst into giggles and pointed at him on the catwalk. I could see nothing funny until she recovered enough to pant, "little legs, little legs!"

Nagisa Oshima, film director and screenwriter: born Kyoto 31 March 1932; married 1960 Akiko Koyama; died Fujisawa 15 January 2013.

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