by Allan Fish
(Japan 1968 117m) DVD2 (Japan only, no Eng subs)
For all the Rs out there…
p Masayuki Nakajima, Takuji Yamaguchi, Nagisa Oshima d Nagisa Oshima w Tsutomo Tamura, Mamoru Sasaki, Michinori Faukao, Nagisa Oshima ph Yasuhiro Yoshioka ed Sueko Shiraishi m Hikaru Hiyashi art Jusho Toda
Yun-Do Yun (R), Kei Sato (prison warden), Fumio Watanabe (education officer), Toshiro Ishido (chaplain), Masao Adachi (chief of guards), Akiko Koyama (Korean woman), Rokko Toura (doctor), Hosei Komatsu (District Attorney), Masao Matsuda (secretary), Nagisa Oshima (narrator),
A pivotal film in the Japanese new wave and in the career of Nagisa Oshima, Death by Hanging is also, quite possibly, his most political film. Oshima was never one to shy from controversy, whether in his own films of the early sixties, Cruel Story of Youth, The Sun’s Burial and Night and Fog in Japan or in his support for censored filmmakers, such as the trouble Tetsuji Takechi suffered upon completing Black Snow. He continued a trend towards the shocking in The Pleasures of the Flesh and Violence at High Noon, but his was a shocking meant to rouse Japanese audiences out of their complacency. There are indeed comparisons to be made to Violence at High Noon in the fact that both centre around a murderer. The earlier film detailed the actual rapes and killings of the so-called Phantom Killer, told from the point of view of the killer, his wife and his potential victims. Death by Hanging rather tells the story of the consequences of the murders.
A nameless Korean – referred to as R – is sentenced to die for the rape and murder of two Japanese girls. He admits to the crime and is cold in his description of the crimes as he is sentenced. However, when they come to hang him, in the words of a caption in the film, “the body of the condemned man R refuses execution.” The problem is that, though they have hanged the condemned, his pulse hasn’t stopped after the usual time and it becomes apparent he hasn’t been hurt by the execution, for whatever reason. The authorities, from the prison warden to the education officer are desperate to hang him again, but the chaplain and a legal representative have moral and ethical doubts. Things are complicated further when R forgets his crimes and has to be re-educated as to his guilt and the officials both perform re-enactments of the crimes and even invite R’s own sister to awaken his identity.
On one level Oshima’s film is a morality play about the rightness or wrongness of the death penalty. As a caption asks, “have you ever seen an execution?” It discusses the very nature of murder, of crime, or guilt and responsibility, and does so in a richly and blackly comic way. Indeed at times, when the officials are inviting R into a sort of role-play re-enactment of his crimes, it descends into black farce. On another level, however, it’s deadly serious, finding time to comment on the very notion of nationality and prejudice, in the form of analysing the treatment of the Koreans by the Japanese. R is guilty, and we know he should hang for what he’s done, but we also realise the Japanese are also guilty in their treatment of the Koreans. At best, they treat them with absolute condescension, as when an official tells R “you’re very bright, for a Korean”, as if he thinks it’s a compliment. It becomes an almost Brechtian discussion piece, as if told by Jean-Luc Godard, in which none of it seems entirely real, and one which appropriately culminates in a finale where, upon being executed a second time, R appears to vanish.
Fascinating as a precursor of his later work, and the first in a string of challenging work that stretched to his The Ceremony three years later, it mixes its divers ingredients into a stunning evening’s entertainment for those wishing to approach it on the terms it deserves. Some critics have compared it to the later Kieslowski film A Short Film About Killing, but that was explicitly a treatment of the consequences of a random killing, told in very matter-of-fact style. Oshima’s film is equally about the consequences of the punishment as the crime. It’s a stunning parable, too long unseen in the UK.