An eight-film retrospective, starting this weekend and running all month at the Siskel Center, should provide some clues. The series covers most of the theatrical features Oshima directed between 1968, when he was allying with radical student movements, and 1983, when he made the most respectable-looking film of his career, the international coproduction Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence. (Incidentally that movie also screens in November as part of the David Bowie series at Doc Films.)
Highlights include the new print of Death by Hanging (1968) that screened earlier this year at the Logan Center for the Arts and a new print of Boy (1969). Neither film is available on DVD in this country, nor is his chilling family saga The Ceremony (1971), which plays on October 18 and 22. Boy and The Ceremony find Oshima moving away from the freewheeling stylization of such early successes as Cruel Story of Youth and Pleasures of the Flesh and towards a cooler, more concentrated approach. This new side of Oshima would find its greatest expression in In the Realm of the Senses (1976), which kicks off the series on Friday at 6 PM and screens again on Saturday at 5:30 PM.
Senses' damning, albeit elusive portrait of imperial Japan has long been overshadowed by its explicit sex and fabled production history. (Working in defiance of the country's censorship codes by presenting genitalia in the film, Oshima had to smuggle the negative out of Japan and have it printed in France. Donald Richie's essay for the Criterion Collection tells the whole story and provides useful cultural context for understanding the film.) The obsessive and destructive sexual relationship (based on fact) that takes up most of the film suggests Japanese war hysteria as seen through the other end of the telescope. Much like Japan abandoned civility and common sense in its imperial madness, the lovers of Senses lose touch with reality as they come to pursue physical pleasure at the expense of all else. The film is eerily quiet and controlled, suggesting a military procession rather than pornography. (Catherine Breillat, who cites it as her favorite film, has written, "It made me understand that an image is not pornographic in itself, it's the way we look at it that renders it pornographic.") Theatrical presentation only heightens this association—it's a movie that needs to be seen with an audience.