If Thomas Friedman is convinced the world is flat, he needs to take another look at how our movies are distributed. You'd think that with the rise of Netflix and with subtitled "independent films" playing in every other mega-multiplex, you could pretty much see any movie anywhere these days. In truth, most movies made outside the United States cannot be seen by American audiences.
The world doesn't lack for great films, but many of those films lack a North American distributor. Unless you're trolling the international film festival circuit or trafficking PAL-DVDs, you're seeing a very limited slice.
If a Miramax-filtered, Oscar-sieved diet of world cinema doesn't sit well with you, make some room on your calendar for In the Realm of Oshima. The touring retrospective of the films of Japanese director Nagisa Oshima plays at the Walker through the end of the month, and it is well worth a look.
A star of the Japanese New Wave, Oshima shares fellow New Waver Jean-Luc Godard's stylistic bravado and political provocation but has enjoyed pitifully little of the same idolatry and still no Criterion Collection canonization. Fewer than half of Oshima's twenty-three feature films are available on DVD (you'll find five on Netflix) and those that are give a very incomplete picture of a director who challenged himself to make each movie a radical departure from the last.
This latest retrospective organized by Cinematheque Ontario programmer James Quandt addresses the vacuum with loads of new 35mm prints, a twelve-city tour, and (on the Walker leg at least) some programming to help make sense of what you're seeing. One film that won't need translating: Oshima's most well-known film, the 1976 soft-core geisha porn In the Realm of the Senses (Nov. 21, if you dare).
Introducing the screening of Taboo (aka "Oshima's gay samurai movie") last week, Quandt described the decade of negotiations with international distributors and the seventy-six-year-old (now retired) director. Quandt has rescued from obscurity practically the whole Oshima filmography, including the 1960s features that vaulted Oshima on the scene and that remain among his best, but least-seen, work.
If your experience of Japanese cinema is through the lens of Kurosawa or Ozu, you'll be ill prepared for Oshima. His movies are raw, cynical, inordinately interested in sex and violence, and completely uninterested in replicating the aesthetically and emotionally austere national canon of the time. A product of his tumultuous times, the director claimed he hated classical Japanese cinema and whether that hatred was sincere or a stab for publicity, his vitriol was nevertheless very noisy and written all over his movies.
Each film in some way explores the sexual and political rebellions and disillusionments of an infantilized and adrift postwar Japan. But they're not polemics. Like his generational counterparts in France, Oshima framed his stories within familiar genres: gang stories (The Sun's Burial) , war films ( Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence ), film noirs ( Violence at Noon ), even the house-style melodramas of Tokyo's Shochiku Studios with whom he began a tumultuous on/off relationship with his 1959 debut, A Town of Hope and Love.
His characters are street thugs, con men, serial killers, rapists, or (equally deluded in Oshima's mind) activists who had abandoned or corrupted the movement. They're practically all ciphers, inscrutable and mostly unlikable, alienated from the viewer further still by the filmmaker's discriminating use of playful framing devices, intertitles, stagey-looking sets, elements of fantasy, and dialogue lifted from Leftist tracts.
Not all of Oshima's movies go down easy, but then some of the screenings this month are helpfully paired with discussions led by local academics and with tours of the Walker's fortuitously timed Tetsumi Kudo: Garden of Metamorphosis exhibit. (I'll let the tour guides illuminate the specifics, but I'll say this about the contemporaneous provocateurs: They're both obsessed with castration).
The real jewel of the retrospective, Boy , played last night. In the simplest strokes, it's a story of a grifter family of four that has their ten-year-old son to walk in front of moving cars as part of a scheme to extort money from unaware drivers. Shot on location all over Japan and inspired by a real case, the 1969 production was reportedly Oshima's attempt to make a film as if it was his first. Probably that's another way of saying that ten years into his career he wanted to redefine the brand.
Whatever his motivation, the result is a startling and incredibly moving of story of a family and a country in decay. There's a fragility, even a warmth to the film that is uncharacteristic and welcome from a director who is so often the agitated observer.
Which is not to say that Oshima's famous pessimism was on leave. Like so many of his characters, the titular hero of Boy doesn't triumph over his circumstances. The movie...that's another story. Forever relegated the mythological dustbin of "great films you'll never see," this one survived, if only for a night.
I n the Realm of Oshima continues at the Walker Art Center through Nov. 23.