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.
He would go even further in terms of depicting some of the harsh realities of Japan in Death by Hanging (1968), a film that was an international breakthrough. The film dealt with racism, the justice system and capital punishment through a psychoanalytic reading of a true story of a Japanese of Korean descent who raped and murdered two high school girls. This string of serious titles took a strange turn in Diary of a Shinjuku Thief (1968) which mixed black and white and colour and has plenty of sex, surrealism and music as a serial book-thief named Birdy encounters a young woman named Umeko and the two begin stealing books together. Oshima went back to intense realism in Boy (1969), a film based on another real life case involving a boy named Toshio who is forced to feign being hit by cars in order to scam motorists out of money for his abusive parents. In this films he managed to mix new wave techniques, expressionism, psychoanalysis and neo-realism.
Despite all of this cleverness it was his 1976 movie Empire of the Senses/In the Realm of the Senses which he is most famous for and gained him notoriety. It is based on a true incident involving a former prostitute turned maid and her master who retreat from the politically sensitive times of 1930’s Japan and engage in sexual experimentation. It involved copious amounts of unsimulated sex and increasing violence until it ended in a memorable bloody ending involving pain and pleasure. To skip Japan’s censorship laws, he had the film processed and edited in France. It would be banned in America and get him prosecuted for obscenity in Japan. These charges were dropped. Its sequel, Empire of Passion (1978) went on to win him the award for best director at Cannes.
His international reputation at its height he would go on to work on Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence (1983), a film which starred Takeshi Kitano who jumped at the chance to leave comedy and make a drama, Ryuichi Sakamoto who also supplied the award winning score, Tom Conti and David Bowie who gives a brilliant performance. It was a Second World War prison camp drama involving the tensions between Japanese captors and British prisoners, the conflict between codes of honour, sexuality and the affinity between men in situations of violence and nationalism. Oshima’s career took a strange turn in France with Max, Mon Amour (1986), a film which starred Charlotte Rampling and Anthony Hopkins and involved an ambassador’s wife and her sexual infatuation with a gorilla.
Following this film he had trouble raising finance for projects and in 1995 during a lecture tour he suffered a stroke that was so debilitating it was thought he would never work again.
He did work again and it was with Gohatto (1999) which looked at homosexuality (shudo) practices amidst an elite group of samurai during the bakumatsu period. It starred Takeshi Kitano, Tadanobu Asano and introduced the world to the actor Ryuhei Matsuda (who was only sixteen at the time of filming) who took the role of the bishouen who makes the samurai go crazy. The film won multiple awards and made Ryuhei Matsuda a major star. Since that time Oshima has worked as a translator and commentator.
He is survived by his wife the actress Akika Koyama and sons Shin and Takeshi
Of all of the directors to emerge from the Japanese New Wave, Oshima became the best known thanks to In the Realm of the Senses, Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence and Gohatto which won major praise from critics overseas.
These were my first experiences with him. This was back in the day when the BBC and Channel 4 screened Japanese films on terrestrial television and ran documentaries celebrating everything from Kurosawa to pink films. I was in high school, I had a television in my room and I was way too young to be watching In the Realm of the Senses let alone understand and appreciate some of the deeper themes and ideas laced in all three films. All I could see was sex, violence and homosexuality without the context of Japanese/masculine culture. It was not until I hit university that I truly appreciated some of what he set out to say in his films but thanks to these experiences I am more familiar with him than I am with Koji Wakamatsu. While I prefer the films of his fellow new wave directors Teshigahara and Suzuki I still admire Oshima’s work and it is sad to see another great director pass away.