The Essential Films of Nagisa Oshima

A man standing in front of George Clooney et al. posing for the camera

More than 10 years after directing his last film, Japanese filmmaker Nagisa Oshima has passed away mid-January 2013, leaving behind him an important body of work that has deeply influenced Japanese movies.

In the West, the director has been widely known with In the Realm of the Senses, Mr Lawrence or Taboo, so we thought you might be interested to discover some of his early essential works! Just so you know where to find these films, some of them haven’t been released officially, but english subbed bootlegs do exist.


Youth without a cause. In the early 60s, one of the most important studios in Japan, Shochiku, decided to promote young promising talents to renew their production lineup. These young men were offered the opportunity to direct their films, aiming at young audiences. This marketing stunt is known as the “Japanese New Wave”, and of course, these young directors were smart enough to create real subversive films dealing with the issues of their times — the americanization of Japan, the sexual liberation, the student movement…

Among these talents, Nagisa Oshima, who created this unglamorous love story, with young people trying to figure out where they belong in that society, what they really want and, ultimately, who they are. Characters are lost and manipulative, they’re from the lowest parts of society, willing to do anything to achieve their ends. As the title states, it’s cruel, nothing too naive here! Plus, just like young french directors of that time, Oshima went shooting out of studio, filming exactly what was happening in the Japanese streets, mixing reality and fiction together to underline his message.

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The very same year, in 1960, Oshima completed three films — Cruel story, Sun’s Burial and Night & Fog in Japan. The young director will be fired by the studio soon after, his political/critical content wasn’t that appreciated by the studio execs… Nonetheless, with Sun’s Burial, Oshima is delivering a general statement about the people who have been forgotten by the economic boom, those living in the slums far from the “new” Japan — cities have been widely rebuilt after the war.

The director simply depicts that cold harsh reality most people would love to forget. This film completely ignores the very idea of “hope”, it’s a depressing and violent story about poor people trying to find ways to make ends meet, while living in the worst conditions possible — dead bodies floating in the river, mud everywhere, simple shacks… That was the other face of Japan.

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Like the other “Japanese New Wave” directors, such as Shohei Imamura, Kiju Yoshida or Masahiro Shinoda, Oshima will launch his own production company during the 60s. As a result, he’s free from commercial constraints and he can do whatever he likes — being political isn’t a problem anymore, as well as being creative.

That’s really when Oshima starts to create incredible works, exploring sensitive issues while finding original cinematic ideas to express his point of view. Take Death by Hanging, it’s an absurd satire about the death penalty and racism in Japan. A film in which the “criminal” survives the execution, forcing the prison authorities to question their own actions, and to go further, to hear the personal experience/story of the main character. Oshima questions the very idea of Justice, the influence or (lack of) humanity of the authorities.


Yet another experimental work from Oshima, who begins to (openly) take into consideration the cultural activity of Tokyo — at the time, the district of Shinjuku is the place to be when it comes to learn/read/share “new” ideas.

The film portrays the strange (love) story of two young Japanese people, discovering writings and ideas from westerner philosophers or writers. These ideas are influencing the two characters, who start to question their own perspective of the world, and how the Japanese society has changed over the years — for example, the sexual liberation, the fact women are beginning to refuse traditions, but it’s also about the impact & role of cultural ideas.



Oshima returns to his first love, focusing here on the student movement, the state of the Japanese left wing, the way to share ideologies, and the power of images. That film can be quite a challenge, as the director is working on a metaphorical-abstract level to tell this particular story, in which a young man finds a camera with a roll film, he then tries to understand the meaning of what has been shot — protests, places… — by repeating exactly what he’s seeing on the screen. One can easily wonder if that’s enough to become politically-involved, or to change the world.

As complicated as it can be, the movie works like an interesting puzzle, with Oshima approaching some of the questions as a cinematic theorist — for instance, there’s one fantastic scene: images are imprinting the flesh of a young student! You can even feel the influence of European directors, like Antonioni or Godard.



That’s the comprehensive work of Nagisa Oshima, it sums up every themes he has explored since his first films. That’s a dark and nihilist artistic movie, about a traditional Japanese family facing internal difficulties. The story is both metaphorical and literal, describing the Japanese society through many different aspects — the weight of hierarchy, the power of rules, the many sexual & ideological taboos, the gap between generations, the lack of hope & future…

It’s a real suffocating experience, first on the dramatic level — it’s basically a fucked-up family in every sense of the word — but also visually, as Oshima carefully creates a dark mood in which characters are almost fighting to find lights, to come out of the darkness. An inspiring and thought-provoking film that can be considered as Oshima’s masterpiece.

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