When Cinematheque Ontario laid out the details of its massive Nagisa Oshima retrospective a couple of months ago, I thought: "Great, I must have half of those on DVD. I'll get an early jump on the piece."
Surprise: There are virtually no Oshima titles available on DVD in North America. The Fox Lorber discs of In The Realm Of The Senses and In The Realm Of Passion went out of print years ago. Lionsgate releases Max Mon Amour, but only in the U.S. - and that's the one where Anthony Higgins watches Charlotte Rampling snog a monkey. Oh, and you can still find Gohatto in Chinatown.
But that's it. Everything else is in limbo. Universal hasn't even bothered to put out Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, a WWII POW drama built around a stirring Ryuichi Sakamoto score and one of David Bowie's finest performances. There isn't even a single Oshima title available under the vaunted Criterion banner - and you won't find a label more supportive of Japanese cinema. (The Criterion DVD of Double Suicide, before you get all huffy, contains Masahira Shinoda's stylized 1969 drama, not Oshima's 1967 thriller.)
Which means, of course, that if you have any interest in seeing these films, you're going to have to brave the late-fall cold and get yourself down to Jackman Hall, where programmer James Quandt has assembled a comprehensive collection of the director's work.
How comprehensive? He's even secured a print of Oshima's 1967 animated feature Band Of Ninja, a title I've half-believed existed only in the imagination of the director's acolytes. (You really should read Quandt's introduction to the series in Cinematheque's current program to fully appreciate his commitment to pulling this all together.)
The Oshima retrospective features 26 titles, many in new 35mm prints. It kicks off with his 1960 breakout Cruel Story Of Youth, screening tonight (Friday) at 7 pm.
Also known as Naked Youth, this was Oshima's reinterpretation of Nicholas Ray's Rebel Without A Cause as the story of a restless girl (Miyuke Kuwano) who hooks up with a charismatic hood (Yusuke Kawasu); the twist here is that she quickly learns not all bad boys are glamorously redeemable. Put into production by Shokichu as one of several B-movies designed to capitalize on the "Sun Tribe" liven up the studio's brand, it's a stylish, assured study of nihilistic teenage rebellion - and a vibrant eruption of rage from the heart of Japanese complacency.
Later that same year, Oshima expanded on Cruel Story's hopeless tone with The Sun's Burial (November 7, 7 pm), a drama about the lives of various bottom-feeders living in the slums of Osaka. Shot entirely with handheld cameras for added immediacy, this film is even darker and crueller than its predecessor; as Jasper Sharp points out in his notes to the UK DVD, the title literally translates as "The Sun's Graveyard", which seems more appropriate to the despairing tone.
Western audiences know In The Realm Of The Senses (November 14, 8:30 pm; repeats November 15, 9 pm) as Oshima's most controversial film. Fair point; it's loaded with graphic sex and violence, and was condemned as violent pornography in a number of markets. (It was banned outright in Ontario for several years.)
But the explicit depiction of the acts presented is an essential storytelling tool - Oshima's dramatization of the Abe Sada affair wouldn't be anywhere near as powerful if it didn't show us the precise details of the sadomasochistic relationship that bound Abe (played without fear by Eiko Matsuda) and her employer (Tatsuya Fuji), right up to its grim climax. We have to take the journey with them, in all of its fleshy excess; otherwise, how can we feel anything at all?
Two years later, distributors tried to frame Oshima's next film, Empire Of Passion (November 30, 3 pm), as a similarly contentious film - even retitling it In The Realm Of Passion to grab North American audiences. While the film can indeed be seen as a companion piece to Senses - both films revolve around compulsive sexual liaisons that go very, very wrong - Oshima introduces moral and supernatural elements that push it into an entirely different genre. But, yeah, there's boobies.
Set in a Japanese POW camp during the Second World War, Oshima's 1983 drama Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (Saturday, 9 pm; repeats November 8, 9 pm) is one of those movies that, quite frankly, I didn't appreciate when I was younger.
Twenty-five years after its release, it's a riveting exploration of military discipline undone by sexual tension, studying the measured give-and-take between a Japanese commandant (composer Sakamoto, in his acting debut) and the English prisoner under his charge (Bowie, never better). Imagine The Bridge On The River Kwai unrestrained by David Lean's British reserve, and with Takeshi Kitano in a typically outsized supporting role.
Made in 1986, Max Mon Amour (December 2, 7 pm), is a sex farce with Charlotte Rampling and a chimp. It is what it is, which is a sex farce with Charlotte Rampling and a chimp.
Oshima's most recent film, Gohatto (December 6, 7 pm), is best seen as a curio rather than a complete work; Oshima made it several years after suffering a crippling stroke, and the story - a further meditation on the military homoeroticism explored in Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, this time between 19th century samurai - feels somewhat second-hand, and not just because Oshima cast Mr. Lawrence's Kitano in a key role. It's also the only Oshima DVD currently in print on this side of the Atlantic, so you might want to focus on any of the other films in the series. I'm just saying.