Oshima’s Death By Hanging: Human Folly and The Specter of Chauvinism
Nagisa Oshima’s Death by Hanging does not feature the on-screen sex and violence, or visual panache of the films of Jissoji or Wakamatsu, but it shares in common with them a brave curiosity and querulousness about societal traditions and conventions. In fact, despite its staid and reserved appearance, almost like a courtroom drama, it presents in many ways an even farther reaching and scathing indictment of both Japanese and American culture – casting a darkly satirical and fiercely intelligent eye on hypocrisies surrounding the death penalty and state execution.
A young Korean man, “R,” who has committed murder and rape, “fails” his execution and miraculously lives after he has been hanged. R awakens with an overarching amnesia and simple innocence that transforms him into an unlikely Holy Fool character: not only can he cannot remember who he is, he does not seem familiar with most of the motives of human nature. If he is psychologically a different person now, and (according to the priest in attendance) if his soul has already been taken and cannot be subject to religious “double jeopardy,” how do the officials determine the status of his guilt and complete the execution? Or is it all a clever ruse, a play, to escape punishment?
Unsure how to handle the situation from both a theological and legal perspective, the priest, bureaucrats, and officials responsible for R’s fate descend into a hilarious and chilling farce as they try to recreate R’s crimes of rape and murder with each other. Foisting all of their neuroses, confusion, and taboo impulses onto the blank slate he represents, they attempt to jog his brain and get him to recall who he is (or was), and what drives a man to horrible acts, so that they can properly dispense not with a man unaware and thus not culpable, but with an actual criminal. In effect, they are trying to reform him in reverse: back to his criminal self! Oshima’s film is a minor classic, an absolutely devious and witty critique of our conceptions of time, guilt, persona, the death penalty system and the thin veil of propriety that often protects “honorable” men. In the midst of trying to solve a preposterous dilemma, Oshima’s prison handlers spare no area of human relationships ridicule: dimensions of class, gender, religious dogma, racial identity, institutional brutality, and sexuality are all held mercilessly to the fire.
Oshima also sheds light on his fellow filmmakers. In the films of Wakamatsu, Jissoli, their contemporaries, and running as common thread through many types of post-war Japanese cinema up to today, not only in the pinku genre but in more serious-minded dramas and horror films, there is often present a glaringly chauvinistic treatment of women, usually in the form of psychological dominance or a sexually sado-masochistic context. Rather than people with individual erotic agency, women are repeatedly treated as objects and vehicles by which males (and male filmmakers) may project, intellectually process, and inflict all of their conflicting and distorted attitudes about the masculine psyche’s relation to the feminine upon. Sex is often tied to violence in multi-faceted and disturbing ways (rape is a very common motif in many of these films – certainly fetishized, and sometimes portrayed as a nearly default line of communication); whether it is used as exploitation or examined in a serious manner, used to play out fantasies or revealed as an ugly reality, there is no mistaking a tangled relationship toward femininity in which beauty, passion, tenderness and vulnerability are closely tied, and often inseparable from, hostility, lust, obsession, aggression, and power.
Perhaps the phenomenon is tied to a shift in Japanese culture away from a period during which women were previously regarded largely as simplified icons of lust, awe, and reverence, or pawns in males games of dominance, to an era in which women too were discovering new modes of liberation and selfhood – and is due in part to the resulting reactionary resistance of the male psyche to such radical change. During scenes in Death By Hanging depicting the doltish prison handlers trying to explain and act out to the uncomprehending R why and how he came to rape and murder a young girl, providing unwitting justifications and exposing their own hidden chauvinism, Oshima notably becomes one of the only auteurs in the New Wave to shine a light of blistering satire on such male attitudes themselves, portraying their inherent danger in darkly hilarious ways.
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