Most cinephiles are at least superficially familiar with Nagisa Oshima’s work, as his sexually explicit but intellectually inert In the Realm of the Senses is, for obvious reasons, easily one of the most watched and well-known Japanese language films outside of Japan. But ultimately Oshima’s more significant cinematic legacy will be that of his avant-garde and polemical films like Boy and Death by Hanging.
Death by Hanging, a Brechtian masterpiece, also ranks as one of the finest dark comedies of world cinema. Kubrick’s Dr.Strangelove is perhaps the only English language film that comes rivals it in terms of sheer biting satire. But the avant-garde Brechtian techniques that Oshima incorporates into the film assure it a unique and esteemed place in cinema history.
The film is actually based on the real-life story of an ethnic Korean who in 1958 murdered two Japanese schoolgirls. The case became highly sensationalized, as this young man not only confessed to the crimes, but became a sort of an anti-hero among Japanese youths by writing a best-selling book about his crimes. Perhaps many young people equated this R (as he is simply referred to in the film) with the character of Raskolnikov from Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, the sort of narcissist who professes to have killed as an intellectual act of transcending norms and mores and who mistakenly believes that such act will propel him to the heights of Nietzschean übermensch status.
Oshima neither romanticizes nor celebrates the character of R. And of course, he shouldn’t. After all, as brilliant or sensitive a youth as the real-life R apparently was by all accounts, he was a murderer. R’s culpability is never an issue in the film, as he had confessed to his crimes. What Oshima is concerned with here are the societal conditions that propagate such heinous behavior and the societal reactions to that behavior. He examines Japan’s horrific treatment of its Korean ethnic minority and the idea that the death penalty might just perpetuate the cycle of violence rather than ending it. There will always be profoundly damaged individuals who commit heinous crimes. The only things society can do is to try to ameliorate the conditions which give rise to such psychosis and to react as sensibly as it can when that psychosis manifests itself in tangible misdeeds.
Towards the end of the film, one of R’s executioners tells him, “It’s the nation that does not permit you to live.” And R replies, as he is facing death by hanging, “I don’t accept that. What is a nation? Show me one! I don’t want to be killed by an abstraction.”
To be killed by an abstraction… It really does not seem like anyone should be killed by an abstraction. But that is where human civilization stands at this particular juncture. Human beings no longer have to bonk each other over the head with a club due to scarcity of food or resources. That kind of violence, while not pretty, was once upon a time an inevitable part of the inexorable drive for survival and propagation. But enough scientific and cultural advances have now been made that no human being on this earth has to go hungry. Yet millions die from hunger every year. Human beings no longer have to kill each other over shelter, food, or reproductive partners, so they kill each other over abstractions like ideas of statehood and religion.
Is there any moral difference between the Muslim Saudi 9-11 hijackers who drove those planes into the World Trade Center while yelling “Allahu Akbar” and the Christian American drone operators who dropped bombs remotely on clusters of human beings while humming “God Bless America”? How is it that both sides in such a conflict see individual human lives only as “collateral damage” ? It is because we assign abstractions like nationality to ourselves and others, creating what the filmmaker Jean Renoir referred to as a Grand Illusion of differences and boundaries. “You belong to the other. You are the other. Therefore I can deny you your reality and your humanity and your essence and your existence. I can kill you, rape you, degrade you. And people from my tribe will celebrate me as a hero and a patriot.”
No one should ever be killed by an abstraction. But abstraction kills.