Postcard: Tokyo

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 August, 2013, 5:32pm

Nagisa Oshima (1932-2013) began his career in the 1950s at Shochiku studio as a sort of Japanese Orson Welles - a wunderkind shaking up a hidebound film industry. And like Welles, whose Citizen Kane (1941) eviscerated the biggest media mogul of its day, Oshima enjoyed tweaking the noses of the powerful, beginning with his studio boss, Shiro Kido.

In contrast to the humanistic, morally uplifting films that Kido championed, Oshima's early films portrayed amoral youth who indulged in crimes and sex for kicks, filmed with the then-radical techniques of the French New Wave. They also sold tickets - and the ever-realistic Kido was soon dreaming of a profitable Shochiku Nouvelle Vague led by Oshima and his fellow Young Turks at the studio.

But when Oshima's fourth film, Night and Fog in Japan (1960), opened to empty theatres, Shochiku abruptly pulled the film, claiming that a rightist student's recent assassination of a Socialist politician made further screenings inappropriate. Angered by what he considered studio censorship, Oshima quit Shochiku and started his own production company.

The director churned out film after taboo-defying film in the 1960s and 1970s - and reached his popular apotheosis with In the Realm of the Senses, his 1976 hardcore hit about an obsessive love affair.

The most outstanding Japanese director of his generation, Oshima also was a standout public figure who won notoriety for not only his opinionated essays (including one in which he proclaimed his hatred of Japanese films) but also his many appearances on everything from lightweight TV variety shows to deep-think talk shows.

His films subverted conventions, both cinematic and social, while benefiting from the controversy. Violence at Noon (1966) crams nearly 2,000 cuts into its 99-minute running time, far higher than the then average. Also, its story of a fatal love quadrangle, with a charismatic rapist and murderer at its centre, packs a hot sexual charge, as a sultry farmer's daughter and a prim school teacher fall under his spell - and protect him from the police.

Based on a true incident, Boy (1969) tells of a couple who train their 10-year-old son to fake being hit by moving cars so they can extort compensation money from the drivers. The film has a sensational ripped-from-the-headlines surface, but refuses to jerk tears from the plight of the young boy and his infant brother.

Likewise, when Oshima tackled that core Japanese film genre, the family drama, in The Ceremony (1971), he took it in a different direction from the commercial norm. Related almost entirely in flashback, the story of a once-powerful family's decay into empty ceremony and blatant incest can be read as a blackly comic metaphor for the ills of modern Japan, cultural and political (the appearance of the Hinomaru national flag - that symbol of all things bad in many an Oshima film, supports this interpretation).

The film is also a disturbingly powerful object lesson on how rigid social forms - in this case the weddings and funerals that bring together the alienated members of this dysfunctional family - can warp and crush the humanity of their orchestrators and victims.

Not all of Oshima's genre experiments from this period were so dark. Based on a bestselling comic by Sanpei Shirato, Band of Ninja (1967) was his only attempt at anime or, more precisely, kamishibai - the picture story shows that enraptured Japanese children before the advent of TV cartoons. This film about a young samurai's search for vengeance, edited only from shots of the manga, with voice-over narration, brings out the slashing dynamism and beauty of Shirato's comic art.

Oshima often used materials familiar to his audience as a starting point, but he never pandered to familiar expectations. As a director, he always travelled his own road; as a publicist, he always made the trip seem newsworthy, ruts, bumps and all.

Violence at Noon, August 16, 7.30pm, HK Space Museum, August 24, 2pm, HK Arts Centre; Band of Ninja, August 17, 7.30pm, HK Space Museum, August 24, 5.30pm, HK Arts Centre; Boy, August 17, 9.40pm, HK Space Museum, August 25, 2.30pm, HK Arts Centre; and The Ceremony, August 18, 7pm, HK Space Museum, August 25, 5pm, HK Arts Centre. Part of the HK Cine Fan programme