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Oshima Nagisa

Oshima Nagisa
Courtesy of Kyodo Photo Service

Oshima Nagisa is quite possibly the most controversial, and best dressed, movie director Japan has produced. Born on March 31, 1932 in Kyoto, Oshima graduated from the prestigious Kyoto University and was subsequently hired by the movie company Shochiku Ltd. In 1954 Oshima started out as an assistant director on two features and quickly progressed to directing his own films.

During his time at Shochiku the young Oshima also wrote film criticism, stressing the importance of freedom of expression, spontaneity and avoiding commercialism. He was a firm supporter of the burgeoning feminist movement and, mixing with other French-inspired leftists in the Golden Gai area of Kabukicho, Oshima developed his Weltanschauung, making it known that he despised Kurosawa, Ozu and the other postwar humanists. He was dubbed the leader of the burgeoning avant-garde movement, a title he vehemently disowned, stating that as he worked within the structured studio system his films, nihilistic though they may be in content (1960' Cruel Story of Youth for example), his work could not be considered truly avant-garde. It was this essential lack of autonomy that led to Oshima's highly public break from the studio in 1961.

In 1965 Oshima established his own independent production company, Sozosha, where he embarked on the second phase of his movie career with Etsuraku (1965) and, surprisingly, the animated movie Ninja Bugei-cho (1967). It was during this period that Oshima began to find his feet again, and he wrote and directed some remarkable movies that included Koshikei (1968), Death by Hanging (1968) and Diary of a Shinjuku Thief (1968).

Merry Christmas, Mr LawrenceOshima's best known films of the seventies are the companion pieces Ai no Corrida (In the Realm of the Senses) and Ai no Borei (Empire of Passion). Ai no Corrida (1976) is the story of a claustrophobic and passionate affair, based on actual events, which ends in a brutal and disturbing crime. Oshima elected to film the movie with hard-core sex scenes and so he turned to a French producer. The movie was shot in Japan and the undeveloped cans of film were then shipped to France to be processed to avoid censorship and problems with customs. The release of the movie sparked an intense debate on censorship in Japan, Europe and the US, and Oshima campaigned vociferously on behalf of his movie. Even today the only version of the movie available here is a mosaic-ed one.

Oshima decided to practice self-censorship in his next movie. Like its companion film, Ai no Borei (1978) deals with an intense adulterous relationship but in a much less explicit manner. Oshima received the Best Director award at the 1978 Cannes Film Festival, welcome recognition following the troubles of his previous production.

Over the following decade Oshima's once prolific output slowed considerably and with the feeling that Japanese cinema was stagnating Oshima focused his attention on Europe. His next two productions were the well-received British co-production Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence (1983) and the problematic Max, Mon Amour (1986) which featured an all-European cast.

The nineties have seen Oshima return to Japan to film the highly personal Kyoto, My Mother's Place (1991) and Nagisa Oshima's 100 Years of Japanese Cinema (1994). After suffering a stroke in 1996, plans for a new movie were shelved until earlier this year when Oshima returned to the helm for his latest production, Gohatto. Starring Matsuda Ryuhei and Kitano Takeshi, the movie has been entered at this year's Venice Film Festival and fans of the director eagerly anticipate a return to form. The Japanese industry is finally willing to recognize Oshima's genius, and will award him the Makino Shozo Award at the Kyoto Film Festival later this month.

Oshima once said, "I no longer know who I am. That's the subject of my films." Perhaps Gohatto will illuminate more of one of Japan's true masters.

Matt Wilce

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