Pleasures of the Flesh (1965)

12 10 2008

With all the exciting buzz surrounding Nagisa Oshima’s retrospective in New York, I decided to re-introduce myself to a man who I once considered my favorite director. It’s been a little less than a year since I saw Death By Hanging and The Man Who Left His Will on Film, the two least enjoyable Oshima films I’ve encountered. Watching these two in such quick succession turned me off for awhile, but watching this, I’m beginning to remember just what I liked about Oshima in the first place. This isn’t an emotionally overwhelming masterpiece or anything, but just a really good movie.

The film starts out on a perhaps all too J-New Wave sort of setup: a violent and impulsive man, Wakizaka, falls for Shoko, a young and naive girl. In an act of love, he kills a man that violated Shoko when she was eight years old. A man visits Wakizaka a few days after and tells him that he witnessed the murder. This mysterious man is about to spend five years in prison and asks Wakizaka to watch over a large amount of cash that he embezzled. He accepts, but a year before the man’s release Wakizaka becomes terribly depressed and decides to spend it all within year and kill himself afterward.

That sense of tragic romance that is so prominent in a lot of films in the Japanese New Wave is here too, and it is somewhat of a negative characteristic in my opinion. All the men seem to be proned to violent reactions and everyone seems to be seriously considering suicide. Combine that with a man essentially looking for a reason to justify his existence and you probably won’t get a particularly inspiring movie. Oshima works well within this region, though, with a rigorous style that perfectly compliments the coldness that Wakizaka feels. This came a couple years before both Boy and The Ceremony, the two more well-known examples of Oshima’s “cold and distant” cinematic form but it is just as technically refined.

If there’s anything really negative I can take away from the experience of this film, it’s that my original impression of Oshima that was created from Cruel Story of Youth and The Sun’s Burial has been completely destroyed. While those are probably the least “mature” films I’ve seen from him, they are also the most accessible and most immediately enjoyable. It’s not like these later, less energetic films are deep, subtle, profound character studies, either. It seems with time that Oshima’s style got a lot more heavy, which makes some of his work from this period seem a little too self-conciously serious.

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