Senses and sensibility

Pub date May 27, 2009
WriterMatt Sussman
SectionFilm FeaturesSectionFilm Review

"Constant self-negation and transformation are necessary if one is to avoid debilitation and continue to confront circumstances as a filmmaker," filmmaker Nagisa Oshima wrote in a 1961 essay. Oshima’s declaration of restlessness presages what would become a four decades-long career defined by that continual struggle to "confront circumstances" — to challenge postwar Japan’s stagnant social order by pushing filmmaking into new areas of form and content. "In the Realm of Oshima," the first major U.S. retrospective of the director’s work in more than 20 years, is a staggering reaffirmation of the now 77-year old director’s persistence of vision. Frequently hailed as Japan’s answer to Jean-Luc Godard, Oshima’s reputation and stature among a certain generation of cinephiles has often dwarfed the unavailability of all but a handful of his films (Oshima would later counter, saucily, that Mr. Godard should be known as the Oshima of France).

Like his French counterpart, Oshima’s output grazed on familiar genres, such as youth-gone-wild and domestic dramas, while freely incorporating elements from avant-garde and documentary practices. As much as he sought to break from what he saw as the sentimentalism of the previous generation of Japanese filmmakers like Yasujiro Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi, Oshima also spent a great deal of time dissecting the struggles and failures of the radical left, as vertiginously condensed in the debates between disillusioned former comrades of Night and Fog in Japan (1960). But Oshima’s larger interest has been with, to borrow the title of Jim Jarmusch’s latest, the limits of control — and those who infract upon the social order. Fittingly, the series comes to a close with Oshima’s most extreme film, In the Realm of the Senses (1976), whose Sadean lovers, Sada and Kichi, are perhaps the most terrifyingly literal embodiment of Oshima’s quest for "constant self-negation."


May 29–July 18

Pacific Film Archive, 2575 Bancroft, Berk.

(510) 642-5249,