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Thursday, Jan. 17, 2013

Donald Richie on 'Koshikei (Death by Hanging)'


Director Nagisa Oshima occupies somewhat the same place in the Japanese cinema that Jean-Luc Godard does in the French. A complete intellectual, he is much more interested in ideas than stories, and has more respect for the word, written and spoken, than he does for the cinematic image itself. Something of a social philosopher, he is more interested in compelling intellectual statement than he is in an emotional moving image and is consequently drawn toward the more burning issues of the day (the Vietnam war, the student movement, etc.)

At the same time, he rarely sees any of these issues through to any logical conclusion, maintaining that it is precisely the illogicality of the issues themselves which ought command our interest; that his is the role of social critic, calling their absurdity to our attention.

Perhaps for this reason he refuses to allow any of his films an autonomous life of their own. One is always aware of the director, manipulating his material, making certain that we understand that it is his statement rather than that of the actors playing his characters. Consequently there is no indirection, no implication — we are talked at and ordered to think; we are not requested to feel.

These varied strengths and weaknesses are well displayed in Oshima's latest film "Koshikei (Death by Hanging)," which opens on Feb. 3 at the Nichigeki and Shinjuku Bunka Art Theaters. Based upon the well-known case of a young Korean student's having raped and murdered two Japanese schoolgirls several years ago, it is a powerful but eventually unsatisfying essay which touches upon and then skirts such important issues as murder, punishment and identity.

R., the young culprit (beautifully played by Korean Yundo Yun) is officially hanged at the beginning of the film (a very gripping sequence this, done completely realistically) but when he is cut down he is discovered to be still alive. Since this has never happened before, the officiating police are confounded and have no idea what to do. The little martinet (underground-director Masao Adachi, very effective in his first acting role) wants to string him up again. But the Catholic priest (screen-writer Toshio Ishido) will not hear of this, and neither (for altogether different reasons) will the officiating doctor. Finally, one of their number, a kindly bumbling, stupid cop (Fumio Watanabe), prevails upon the chief (Kei Sato) and the others to extract a second confession.

The trouble is that young R., having regained consciousness, has no idea of who or where he is nor what he is accused of (The Kafka influence is here seen, reinforced by the fact that the Japanese name of R. is K.) Consequently (in the best section of the film, really the best thing that Oshima has ever done, a brilliantly contrived sequence) the police set out to reenact the crime, each one playing a role.

This device (very Brechtian, very Godard-like) finds them first imitating the rape and murder before the uncomprehending eyes of the boy, and then going back to pantomime has earlier life. Or, rather, their idea of what his early life in Korea was like. Being, first, Japanese, and, second, cops, their ideas of childhood in Korea are bizarre indeed and Oshima skillfully underlines both the comedy of their utter lack of imagination and the horror of their complete lack of comprehension.

These inept pantomimes alienate to the extent that we understand the irony of this crime within a crime within a crime, the latter being capital punishment itself. Cops are more obsessed with the ideas of crime than any criminal is. Consequently, from a misguided wrong-doer they literally create the role of "criminal."

This is brilliantly suggested when one of the cops, carried away (we have moved from reality, out of the death-chamber, into imagination) actually kills. He was so intent upon creating a role that he became it; person and persona have become one.

At this point I would have ended the film. The statement is clear, direct, double-edged, and brilliantly delivered. Oshima, however, is only hallway through his picture and so the Korean sister (Akiko Koyama) comes in and there is an idyll (prettily photographed) between the two, and the cops get drunk and hold a wake (Japanese style, with lots of breast-beating and assurances of how guilty they all are), and all of this turns into a long discussion (with lots of written chapter headings rather like Godard's in "Vivre Sa Vie") about identity and whether R. is really R., and the doctor tries to kill with his stethoscope (heavy irony), and the priest turns out to be queer as a $3 bill (heavy irony again, I guess), and they finally hang the Korean again but, at the end of the picture, they find the hangman's loop empty.

I don't know what any of this means and doubt that Oshima does. The picture unravels, getting more and more woolly-headed while the words come thicker and longer and faster. The director always allows himself great spontaneity while shooting and this invariably leads him into license and self-indulgence, and eventually (all his pictures are bad-conscience films) to the limits of intellectual masochism. This picture is different from his others in that the script (by Takeishi Tamura, Mamoru Sasaki, Michinori Fukao and Oshima himself) is up to a point, so good and that, despite the ending, important questions remain because the film has revealed them as important: cops hoisted on their own petards, law displayed as impossible without crime and the unassailable logic of the young Korean's observation, upon being warmly assured that it is indeed very bad to kill, that "then it is bad to kill me."

This review was originally published on Sunday, Jan. 28, 1968.

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