Oshima was born on March 31 1932 in Kyoto into a family of samurai decent. Following the death of his father his mother worked to support him and his sister. He enrolled at Kyoto law school in an era of great upheaval and student protests following the war. It was the place which moulded his political leanings as he became a socialist and highly critical of the Japanese establishment and sought to explore the way people repress themselves. His politics would be reflected in the themes of his future works which tackled social issues and taboos ranging from sex, homosexuality, capital punishment and racism.
Following his studies he thought film would be the best way to get his message out and so applied for the position of assistant director at Shochiku studio where he worked on films like Kaneto Shindo’s Onibaba and Kuroneko from 1954-59. Not that being an assistant director was his only job as he wrote scripts and developed a body of film criticism that attacked the Japanese film industry.
His ascent reflects a mixture of the traditional path for Japanese filmmakers, following a sort of apprenticeship with a more experienced director and what was happening with the French new wave where film critics like Alain Resnais, François Truffaut, Jean-luc Godard and Claude Chabrol branched out into film attacked “Papa’s Cinema”, films that adapted safe literary works in a staid way, and branched out into making films themselves, films that threw away the formulaic ways of making films, the staginess and respectability of the past and engaged in telling stories in a much more visual an inventive way.
Indeed, he is one of a number of directors including Shohei Imamura, Seijun Suzuki and Hiroshi Teshigahara to emerge from the Japanese New Wave from the 1950’s to the 1970’s. Their generation followed the likes of Akira Kurosawa, Kenji Mizoguchi and Yasujiro Ozu, masters of Japanese cinema who have cast long shadows that some modern directors still feel the need to challenge.
Oshima’s efforts at writing brought him to the attention of producers and executives but it was actually a canny move on the part of the Japanese studious to let him directors create their works since Godard et al were making a lot of money for their producers. Oshima’s first script to be filmed was The Boy Who Sold His Pigeon (1959) which as renamed A Town of Love and Hope. The titular boy lives with a disabled sister and sick mother. To support them he shines shoes and sells pigeons. A bourgeois schoolgirl buys one of the pigeons in sympathy a homing pigeon keeps coming back. It was a film about the gap between rich and poor and it portrayed it with great realism.