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December 7 - December 22

Nagisa Oshima and the Struggle for a Radical Cinema

An unflinchingly iconoclastic and ceaselessly inventive filmmaker, Nagisa Oshima (1932- ) has scorched an indelible path across postwar Japanese cinema. Oshima is one of Japan’s original outlaw masters – a rebellious and instinctively anti-establishment artist whose apprentice work bears a resemblance to the films of such contemporary enfant terribles as Sejun Suzuki (1923- ), Koji Wakamatsu (1936- ) and Kiju Yoshida (1933- ), maverick and fiercely independent directors who, like Oshima, all began under studio contracts. Oshima quickly established himself as one of the most politically committed and driven filmmakers of his generation, beginning with the remarkable elegy to the failed student-led protest movement offered by his controversial third feature, Night and Fog in Japan (1960), which was almost immediately pulled from theatrical distribution by his studio, Shochiku, and banned from public and private exhibition.

Devoted to political activism since his days as an outspoken student leader at the prestigious Kyoto University, Oshima was led by the traumatic experience of Night and Fog in Japan towards a different mode of political cinema, increasingly turning away from party politics towards a broader and ultimately more ambitious critique of Japanese history and national identity. In a series of important mid-career films, Oshima adopted controversial crime headlines from across modern Japanese history – the serial killer in Violence at Noon, the cruel, exploitative parents in Boy, the prostitute's murderous act in In the Realm of the Senses –transforming their crimes into desperate but deliberate acts of rebellion against the status quo. The figure of the transgressive criminal outlaw has remained a seminal touchstone of Oshima's cinema, closely linked to his interest in the strange illogic of the sexual unconscious, whether of individuals or of Japanese society as a whole.

Equally important as the political charge of Oshima's cinema is its steadfast devotion to narrative and aesthetic innovation. An incredibly restless and unceasing experimental drive has lead Oshima to invent a radically different formal language for almost all of his films, from the deliberate long sequence-shots of his early youth exploitation pictures A Town of Love and Hope and The Sun's Burial to the complex, fast and often deliberately disorienting cutting of Violence at Noon and The Man Who Left His Will on Film. Yet while Oshima's most formally daring films, such as Death By Hanging, clearly reveal a distrust of cinematic illusionism, the director nevertheless also commands an astonishing eye for unconventional beauty that gives way to the lush, exhilarating sensuality of films such as Cruel Story of Youth, Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence and In the Realm of the Senses.

This complete retrospective of Oshima's feature films offers a rare opportunity to see some of the postwar Japanese cinema's most iconic and important works—an experience that, by contrast, reveals the total poverty of politically engaged art cinema today.

The Nagisa Oshima retrospective and its North American tour were organized by James Quandt for Cinematheque Ontario, Toronto. The following individuals and organizations made the retrospective possible: Nagisa Oshima, Tokyo; Marie Suzuki, The Japan Foundation, Tokyo; Masayo Okada, Yuka Sukano, Atsuko Fukuda, Kawakita Memorial Film Institute, Tokyo; Eiko Oshima, Oshima Productions, Tokyo; Peter Becker, Kim Hendrickson, Fumiko Takagi, Sarah Finklea, Janus Films, New York. Co-sponsored by The Reischauer Institute, Harvard University.


Sunday December 7 at 7pm

Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence (Senjo no merii kurisumasu)

Directed by Nagisa Oshima.
With David Bowie, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Tom Conti
UK/Japan 1983, 35mm, color, 122 min. English and Japanese with English subtitles
Print from Janus/Criterion

Oshima's unconventional adaptation of Laurence van der Post's celebrated memoir of imprisonment in a Japanese war camp adds a lush and at times almost operatic dimension to the book, combining its moving tale of camaraderie and cultural difference with an unusual critique of masculine authority and the homoeroticism of the bushido code. Starring a mesmerizing David Bowie in one of his great film roles, Oshima's late masterpiece also features memorable performances by Ryuichi Sakamoto – who composed the film's incredible score – and Takeshi Kitano in his very first film screen appearance. Made at the height of Oshima's later international period, Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence's exploration of the Japanese nation and image as seen by outsiders offers a fascinating counterpoint to the imperious and insightful scrutiny of the Japanese psyche that cuts across Oshima's work.

couple facing each otherA Town of Love and Hope (Ai to kibo no machi)

Directed by Nagisa Oshima.
With Hiroshi Fujikawa, Yuko Mochizuki, Yuki Tominaga
Japan 1959, 35mm, b/w, 62 min. Japanese with English subtitles
Print courtesy of the Japan Foundation

Working firmly within the tradition of the Japanese social melodrama, Oshima's first film assignment for Shochiku offers a poignant and politically charged allegory of class alienation that clearly expresses the profound disillusionment with the repressive caste structure of mainstream Japanese society that unites all of Oshima's work. Oshima's script focuses on the first of many sympathetic criminals that recur throughout his films: a quiet working class schoolboy who enacts a strange form of thievery, selling a homing pigeon trained to return home after the boy has collected his money. To Oshima's chagrin, Shochiku changed his coolly detached original title, The Boy who Sold Pigeons, into a strangely inappropriate promise of melodramatic reconciliation.

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Monday December 8 at 7pm

woman lying down, man holding her handCruel Story of Youth (Seishun zankoku monogatari)

Directed by Nagisa Oshima.
With Yusuke Kawazu, Miyuki Kuwano, Yoshiko Kuga
Japan 1960, 35mm, color, 96 min. Japanese with English subtitles
Print courtesy of the Kawakita Institute

Oshima's still-shocking portrait of reckless adolescence chronicles the doomed, desperate love of a high school couple determined at all costs to categorically reject the mediocrity and mendacity of adulthood. A lucid vision of a lurid and remarkably alive world of dangerous extremities, Cruel Story of Youth finds a pulsing beauty in the neon-lit underworld of irremediably corrupted youth captured by its extraordinary widescreen compositions. A landmark of postwar Japanese cinema, Oshima's second Shochiku film was a surprise box office hit that temporarily repaired his precarious standing with the studio and went on to become an icon of the taiyozoku, or "Sun Tribe," films, the popular cycle of overripe youth exploitation pictures that were an important staple of Japanese cinema during the early 1960s.

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Monday December 8 at 9pm

man and woman smokingThe Sun's Burial (Taiyo no hakaba)

Directed by Nagisa Oshima.
With Kayoko Honoo, Isao Sasaki, Masahiko Tsugawa
Japan 1960, 35mm, color, 87 min. English and Japanese with English subtitles
Print courtesy of the Japan Foundation

Assigned to make a topical youth film, Oshima produced an intense, theatrically inflected study of Osaka criminal gangs that, like the films of Pasolini, finds both dignity and cruelty in the violent world of the criminal proletariat. Oshima uses a fragmentary narrative structure to interweave multiple stories of petty criminality and prostitution into a brutal typology of the underworld emerging in Japan's war-scarred slums. The Sun's Burial is tempered by the unusual beauty of its mise-en-scene and the choreographed long takes that follow the rhythmic rise and fall of the symbolically overripe sun that casts and unnatural glow over the film.

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Friday December 12 at 7pm

man leaning against treeNight and Fog in Japan (Nihon no yoru to kiri)

Directed by Nagisa Oshima.
With Fumio Watanabe, Miyuki Kuwano, Masahiko Tsugawa
Japan 1960, 35mm, color, 107 min.
Print courtesty of the Kawakita Institute

Oshima took full advantage of the directorial carte blanche briefly granted him by the surprise box office success of Cruel Story of Youth to create his first truly radical film. Its title an overt homage to Alain Resnais, Night and Fog in Japan explores a similarly uncompromising and politically charged formal language as his New Wave hero by almost entirely restricting the camera to the extended sequence-shots that would become an important signature of Oshima's early work. The camera's restlessly pans back and forth between the polarized factions at a wedding as they debate the failed legacy of the Japanese student uprisings. Written and filmed in total secret from his Shochiku superiors, Night and Fog in Japan's political outspokennessincensed the studio, who pulled the film after only three days and adamantly refused angry critics' viewing requests.

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Friday December 12 at 9:15pm

The Catch (Shiiku)

Directed by Nagisa Oshima.
With Rentaro Mikuni, Sadako Sawamura, Hugh Hurd
Japan 1961, 35mm, b/w, 97 min.
Print courtesy of the Kawakita Institute

Immediately following his angry break with Shochiku over their unyielding suppression of Night and Fog in Japan, Oshima turned to an adaptation of an unsettling and politically trenchant fable by Nobel laureate Kenzaburo Oe. The story of an African-American pilot captured by the inhabitants of a remote mountain village in the final days of WWII, The Catch's study of the Japanese peasant as national archetype offers perhaps the closest link to the work of Shohei Imamura, the contemporary with whom Oshima is most often compared. With its vehement insistence on the collective guilt of the Japanese people, The Catch makes clear Oshima's categorical rejection of the humanistic interpretations of the war prevalent in postwar Japanese cinema.

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Saturday December 13 at 7pm

Boy (Shonen)

Directed by Nagisa Oshima.
With Fumio Watanabe, Akiko Koyama, Tetsuo Abe
Japan 1969, 35mm, color, 105 min. English and Japanese with English subtitles
Print courtesy of the Kawakita Institute

Based on the shocking story of a young Japanese couple jailed for throwing their ten-year old son into traffic in order to extort money from unwitting drivers, Boy offers an indictment of the Japanese family as an inherently corrupt and exploitative intergenerational trap while depicting a sympathetic portrait of an intense struggle for survival and dignity. One of Oshima's most beautiful, restrained and accessible films, Boy is set apart from his more radical and experimental work by its classicism of form and its use of an intensely linear narrative to delve the extreme emotional depths into which the characters are perilously thrown. Making brilliant use of widescreen cinematography, Boy sets the family's cross-country wanderings within a remarkable series of expressive landscapes and cityscapes.

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Saturday December 13 at 9pm

Pleasures of the Flesh (Etsuraku)

Directed by Nagisa Oshima.
With Katsuo Najamura, Mariko Kaga, Yumiko Nogawa
Japan 1965, 35mm, color, 90 min. Japanese with English subtitles
Print from Janus/Criterion

In the mid-1960s Japan witnessed a rush of artistically ambitious soft-porn pink films inspired by the gradual liberalization of Japan's censorship regulations and the audacity of rebellious young auteurs who found a creative haven within the popular genre such as Koji Wakamatsu, Takechi Tesuji and, briefly, Oshima, with Pleasures of the Flesh. Centered around a man's decision to dedicate the last year of his life and a cache of embezzled money to the unbridled pursuit of his sexual fantasies, Oshima's sole foray into the pink film clearly anticipates In the Realm of the Senses' exploration of relationships bonded by sexual intensity. Pleasures of the Flesh also marks a more controlled and restrained visual and narrative style, hereby restricting his signature sequence-shots to the extended erotic scenes.

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Sunday December 14 at 3pm

Shiro Amakusa: The Christian Rebel (Amakusa Shiro Tokisada)

Directed by Nagisa Oshima.
With Hashizo Okawa, Satomi Oka, Ryutaro Otomo
Japan 1962, 35mm, color, 100 min. Japanese with English subtitles
Print courtesy of the Kawakita Institute

The dismal reception of The Catch forced Oshima back into the studio fold at Toei where, most appropriately, he was assigned a film about an inveterate rebel and iconoclast, Shiro Tokisada, the legendary leader of Japan's most significant peasant rebellion. Virtually impossible to see today, Shiro Amakusa is an important bridge between Oshima's early youth films and his politically and formally ambitious later work. A violent and beautiful widescreen film, Shiro Amakusa captures the spirit of radical upheaval so central to Oshima's generation, updating the Christian rebel's revolutionary saga into a relevant cautionary tale about the necessary price of subverting authority.

Diary of Yunbogi (Yunbogi no Nikki)

Directed by Nagisa Oshima.
With Hosei Komatsu
Japan 1965, 16mm, b/w, 30 min.
Print from New Yorker Films

A two-month research trip to South Korea in 1965 resulted in Oshima's lyrical and sharply polemical documentary short, the first of several works to grapple with the still-taboo subject of Japanese imperialism and Japan's troubled relationship with Korea and Japanese of Korean descent. Distressed by the epidemic of child poverty in South Korea, Oshima crafted a powerful montage of his own still photographs of Seoul street children with a soundtrack that interweaves readings from the gripping diary of a six-year old Korean boy and a fierce invective against Japan's legacy of imperialist aggression.

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Sunday December 14 at 7pm

Ceremony (Geshiki)

Directed by Nagisa Oshima.
With Kenzo Kawarazaki, Atsuko Kaku, Kei Sato
Japan 1971, 35mm, color, 122 min. Japanese with English subtitles
Print courtesy of the Kawakita Institute

Among Oshima's most ambitious films, The Ceremony is a soaring, psychoanalytically inspired epic that parallels the cruel spiraling story of a rigidly patriarchic family with the rise and fall of militaristic Japan. The Ceremony focuses on the tortured scion of a merchant clan and his struggles to break free from the crushing ritualistic cruelties of family and tradition that are his birthright and bitter fate. Oshima's brilliant melodrama is structured around a series of devastatingly absurd set pieces – a wedding without a bride, a phantom baseball game  – that savagely critique the psycho-sexually corrosive abuses of power at the heart of the modern Japanese family and nation.

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Sunday December 14 at 9:30pm

Three Resurrected Drunkards (Kaettekita Yopparai)

Directed by Nagisa Oshima.
With Kazuhiko Kato, Osamu Kitayama, Norihiko Hashida
Japan 1968, 35mm, color, 80 min. Japanese with English subtitles
Print courtesy of the Japan Foundation

A zany, biting satire of the racist and chauvinist assumptions of postwar Japan, Three Resurrected Drunkards follows the comic misadventures of three bumbling students mistaken for Korean stowaways. A visually stunning and exuberant work, Three Resurrected Drunkards uses itsscrewball fable to reveal the militaristic vestiges of Japan’s nationalist past lingering in Vietnam War-era nation and the dramatically expanding gulf separating youth from the prewar generation.

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Monday December 15 at 7pm

Band of Ninja (Ninja Bugeicho)

Directed by Nagisa Oshima.
Japan 1967, 35mm, b/w, 100 min. Narrated in English
Print courtesy of the Kawakita Institute

Oshima adopted a decidedly unorthodox approach for his one and only anime, a spirited adaptation of Sanpei Shirato's popular manga epic about the struggle of a young samurai warrior to avenge his father's death. Out of respect for the unique artistic and textual qualities of Shirato's celebrated graphic novel, Oshima restricted his production to filming the drawn pages themselves and matching the images to the film's layered music, sound and voice tracks. An inspired follow-up to Diary of Yunbogi's powerful montage of still images, Band of Ninja offers a totally novel and effective mode of adaptation and a fascinating meditation on the relationship between the comic book and the cinema.

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Monday December 15 at 9:15pm

Treatise on Japanese Bawdy Songs
(Nihon shunka-ko)

Directed by Nagisa Oshima.
With Ichiro Araki, Hideko Yoshida, Koji Iwabuchi
Japan 1967, 35mm, color, 103 min. Japanese with English subtitles
Print courtesy of the Japan Foundation

A bizarre and bewitching film, Treatise on Japanese Bawdy Songs is equal parts ribald comedy and radical mode of cultural anthropology. Oshima makes innovative use of a diptych structure to juxtapose the film's first half—the quest of three sexually imaginative high school students to pass their university placement exams—with the students' later encounter with a hard-drinking teacher determined to instruct his protégés in the rough poetry and revelatory history of the Japanese drinking song.

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Thursday December 18 at 7pm

Violence at Noon (Hakuchu No Torima)

Directed by Nagisa Oshima.
With Saeda Kawaguchi, Akiko Koyama, Kei Sato
Japan 1966, 35mm, color, 90 min. Japanese with English subtitles
Print from Janus/Criterion

Violence at Noon is based on the notorious nationwide killing spree of the "Daylight Demon," a brutal murderer who took the lives of over thirty victims during the late 1950s, all women and all killed in the middle of the day. In Oshima's version, the killer is also part of a failed cooperative farm in rural Japan whose members include two idealistic women who become involved with the future killer. Violence at Noon introduced a new formal complexity into Oshima's cinema, abandoning the extended long takes that were the staple of his early films to embrace a radically fragmented montage style that mirrors the women's attempts to understand their traumatic memories. A disturbing study of the criminal mind and a moving elegy to failed dreams, Violence at Noon is Oshima's first great masterpiece.

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Thursday December 18 at 9pm

Japanese Summer: Double Suicide (Muri-Shinju: Nihon No Natsu)

Directed by Nagisa Oshima.
With Keiko Sakuai, Kei Sato Japan 1967, 35mm, b/w, 98 min.
Japanese with English subtitles
Print from Janus/Criterion

Among Oshima's least known films, Japanese Summer: Double Suicide is a darkly comic romance about a couple on the run: a sex-crazed young woman and her suicidal boyfriend who are drawn into a band of violent gangsters. Declared by Oshima to personify the "death drive" in Japanese culture, the irrationally violent and unsympathetic gangsters in Japanese Summer: Double Suicide suggest a more pessimistic and absurd dimension of the outlaw anti-heroes so central to Oshima's films.

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Introduction by Abé Mark Nornes
Friday December 19 at 7pm

In the Realm of the Senses (Ai No Corrida)

Directed by Nagisa Oshima.
With Eiko Matsuda, Tatsuya Fuji, Taiji Tonoyama
Japan/France 1976, 35mm, color, 105 min. Japanese with English subtitles
Print from Janus/Criterion

Oshima's abiding fascination with the most dangerous extremes of sexual desire gave way to his pornographic masterpiece, one of the most intensely debated films of the 1970s and one of the first to artistically depict explicit sex. Marking a triumph for Oshima's visionary melding of eroticism and politics, the release of his first French-financed project resulted in a major international scandal and a trial on obscenity charges hurled against Oshima. Based on the true story of a tempestuous affair between a dangerous prostitute and a gambler in the 1930s, In the Realm of the Senses is both a sumptuous period piece, with a vivid ukiyo-e inspired color scheme and architectonic compositions, and a fascinating study of the intermingling of sex and death.

 Listen to this evening's introduction.

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Friday December 19 at 9:15pm

Dear Summer Sister (Natsu No Imoto)

Directed by Nagisa Oshima.
With Hosei Komatsu, Hiromi Kurita, Akiko Koyama
Japan 1972, 35mm, color, 95 min. Japanese with English subtitles
Print from New Yorker Films

On the occasion of Okinawa's release from American control, Oshima offered this poetic and wonderfully unpredictable exploration of the island and its inhabitants as a distorting mirror of Japan's complex and tumultuous modern history. Loosely following a spirited young Tokyo woman's travels through Okinawa in search of the half-brother she has never met, Dear Summer Sister leads us through a series of mysterious vignettes about the girl's extended family and new found Okinawan acquaintances, each of whom hold sharply different opinions about the island's history and future.

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Saturday December 20 at 7pm

Diary of a Shinjuku Thief (Shinjiku Dorobo Nikki)

Directed by Nagisa Oshima.
With Fumio Watanabe, Kei Sato, Tadanori Yokoo
Japan 1968, 35mm, b/w, 94 min. Japanese with English subtitles
Print courtesy of the Japan Foundation

Oshima launched a guerilla assault on narrative continuity and political neutrality in his playfully experimental fable about a sexually confused book thief loose in Tokyo's boisterous Shinjuku neighborhood. Diary of a Shinjuku Thief's freeform meditation on the psychosexual ambiguities of the postwar counterculture interweaves the awkward romance and sexual therapy misadventures of the thief and his captor with a series of avant-garde kabuki performances. Set against the vivid background of the massive student-led riots against the American Security Pact and the Vietnam War, Diary of a Shinjuku Thief adapts an energetic mode of cinema vérité to capture the violent protests and the radical street theater enacted by Oshima's cast and, at times, crew.

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Saturday December 20 at 9pm

Death by Hanging (Koshikei)

Directed by Nagisa Oshima.
With Kei Sato, Fumio Watanabe, Toshirô Ishido
Japan 1968, 35mm, b/w, 117 min. Japanese with English subtitles
Print from New Yorker Films

The late 1960s marked a remarkably productive and creatively intense period for Oshima as he began to define a truly revolutionary approach to narrative. Death by Hanging marks a high point of these fertile years as one of Oshima's most potent, stylistically daring, and intensely debated works. His first film to draw the attention of international critics, Death by Hanging was inspired by the highly publicized death sentence received by a Korean youth for the strangling of two young female schoolmates. The film opens with a gripping documentary style reenactment of the execution that is suddenly derailed by an uncanny and inexplicable mishap, plunging the film into a dizzying mode of political theater where the authority of the executioners and truth claims of cinema are brilliantly put on trial. An uncompromising ode to Brechtian aesthetics, Death by Hanging is an awe inspiring and urgent work of political cinema..

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Sunday December 21 at 3pm

Max mon amour

Directed by Nagisa Oshima.
With Charlotte Rampling, Anthony Higgins, Victoria Abril France/USA/Japan 1986, 35mm, color, 98 min. French and English with English subtitles
Print courtesy of the French Ministry

Oshima's long admiration for Luis Buñuel finds its full flowering in this provocative tale of amour fou written in collaboration with Buñuel's frequent screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere. Charlotte Rampling stars as a diplomat's wife whose amorous attention to an affectionate gorilla infuriates her husband and sparks a wonderfully deadpan and deliciously unpredictable farce. Oshima's unexpected comic talents shine in this inspired and subversive cross-breeding of King Kong and Belle du Jour.

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Sunday December 21 at 7pm

The Empire of Passion (Ai No Borei)

Directed by Nagisa Oshima.
With Takahiro Tamura, Kazuko Yoshiyuki, Tatsuya Fuji
Japan/France 1978, 35mm, color, 106 min. Japanese with English subtitles
Print from Janus/Criterion

The lesser known of Oshima's international productions—and his second project for maverick French producer Anatole Daumon—is also one of the director's great late films and among those works most ripe for rediscovery. Empire of Passion centers around the obsessive, deadly affair between a young soldier and an older married woman in 19th century rural Japan. A mysterious, stylized ghost tale in the tradition of Kobayashi's Kwaidan, Oshima’s controlled extravagance of camera, color and light lends a mysterious and almost mystical dimension to the ill-fated lovers’ fight against a repressive and unfeeling world.

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Sunday December 21 at 9:15pm

The Battle of Tokyo: The Man Who Left His Will on Film (Tokyo-Sense Sengo Hiwa)

Directed by Nagisa Oshima.
With Kazuo Goto, Eimiko Iwasaki, Sugio Fukuoka
Japan 1970, 35mm, b/w, 94 min. Japanese with English subtitles
Print from New Yorker Films

A Marxist film collective struggles to understand the mysterious suicide of a frustrated young colleague by examining the footage shot in his last minutes and recovered from his death scene. The Man Who Left His Will on Film uses a nouveau roman mode of topographical narrative to construct a suspenseful riddle about truth and fantasy in the cinema that radically questions the power and promise of the political cinema defined by Oshima himself.

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Monday December 22 at 7pm

Taboo (Gohatto)

Directed by Nagisa Oshima.
With Takeshi Kitano, Ryuhei Matsuda, Shinji Takeda
Japan 2000, 35mm, color, 101 min. Japanese with English subtitles
Print from New Yorker Films

In the late 1990's Oshima miraculously recovered from a debilitating stroke to direct the wonderfully subversive and stylish samurai film that will most likely remain his very last work. Set during the mid-19th century twilight of the samurai era, Taboo tells the story of an androgynous young fighter's enrollment into the training academy of the Shinsengumi, an elite force tasked with protecting the shogonate. The strange beauty of the would-be samurai brings out the unspoken desires and homoerotic tensions within the closed community of samurai trainers and disciples and builds towards a perverse challenge to the hierarchical disciplinary order. Oshima's brilliant camera work, consummate editing and insouciant, self-reflexive titles astonished critics and fans alike by revealing his edgy iconoclasm to have in no way dulled during his years of sickness and inactivity. The film's final haunting image vividly captures the struggle to reconcile beauty and violence that runs throughout Oshima's long career.

Kyoto: My Mothers Place

Directed by Nagisa Oshima.
Japan 1991, video, color, 50 min. Japanese with English subtitles
Print from the BBC

An autobiographical grace note from very late in Oshima's long career, the lovely and little-known Kyoto: My Mother's Place is a nostalgic documentary describing the maternal associations of his hometown. Commissioned for British television, the film is an insightful and personal reflection on Oshima's childhood and the city that helped shape his artistic and political sensibilities.

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