Even today, when classic Japanese cinema is discussed, three names immediately come up: Kurosawa, Mizoguchi, and Ozu. But by the 1960s, a new set of filmmakers had grown tired of their revered predecessors. In part led by Nagisa Oshima, whose Japanese Summer: Double Suicide (1967) shows at Doc Films on Friday, August 15, the Japanese New Wave was an explosion of style and political critique not seen in the country before.
Japanese Summer opens with Nejiko, a promiscuous young woman wandering the streets and flirting with the few men she meets. She soon encounters Otoko, a man obsessed with idea of someone killing him, but before she can put her charms in action, the two are captured by an anarchist gang preparing for a gang war. Locked in a room with other outcast spirits, Nejiko and Otoko soon learn via a television set of an American shooter killing people in Tokyo, and all resolve to escape their confines and meet this man directly.
This may seem like an exciting action film, but the mastery behind the work of Oshima, writing the screenplay with several-time collaborators Mamoru Sasaki and Takeshi Tamura, lies in the severely underplayed portrayal of the ubiquitous violence. Even while the characters wave around pistols or the highly sought-after rifles, there’s never a feeling of suspense or danger.
Instead, the violence is estranged and treated obliquely. The Criterion Collection website states that Oshima saw a “death drive” in the Japanese youth of the time, and that’s reflected especially in the relationships between the outcasts, Nejiko and Otoko included. All of them talk of killing, especially threatening one another as their time locked in the room wears on, but no one is actually capable of pulling the trigger. They’re just waiting for someone else to go first.
Throughout all of this bounces Nejiko, the prime caricature of disillusioned youth. Nejiko thinks of nothing besides sex. Neither the future or the past exist for her, only the immediate present. As the talk of killing occurs, Nejiko sits in the background, propositioning characters one by one, with very little success. It’s only at the very end that she gets what she wants with Otoko, right before their titular double suicide.
As evidenced by its name, the Japanese New Wave was closely associated with the French New Wave, occurring at the same time, and Oshima particularly with Jean-Luc Godard. Beyond the presence of gun violence and disaffected youth, themes that Godard also liked to employ, both started their careers as film critics, rather than filmmakers, and it’s this critical, theorizing eye that informed the bombastic, rule-breaking style both explored in their films.
Japanese Summer in particular stretches the boundaries of shot composition into strange, abstract territory. Oshima, shooting with cinematographer Yasuhiro Yashioka, aligns his characters on the edges of the wide frame, often too low or too high, creating the sense that everyone present is misshapen for the world that encompasses them. To further emphasize this alienation, much of the city is shot as if entirely deserted. Few people besides the main crew appear on the streets, and the soundtrack is full of eerie silence. Where is everyone in this modern world?
When they finally meet up with the American shooter, the most exciting action in the film occurs in the form of a police shoot-out. However, the film still remains at a distance from this violence, displaying the events primarily in one wide shot that reduces the figures to miniscule size. This is also the moment when most of the characters finally die, the fulfillment of their death wish given little glory or import.
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