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July 25, 2007

Night and Fog in Japan, 1960

nightfog_japan.gifNamed after Alain Resnais' essay film on the abandoned landscapes of postwar Auschwitz that bear silent witness to the tragedy of the Holocaust, Night and Fog in Japan, Nagisa Oshima's fictional deconstruction of the left movement in the aftermath of the ratification of the second U.S.-Japan Security Treaty (Anpo) in 1960 is also a caustic and pointed cultural interrogation into personal and collective accountability that, as implied by Resnais' film, have been (consciously) obscured by the fog of guilt and memory. The marriage of two Zengakuren members sets the symbolic stage for Oshima's critical inquiry into the collective failure of the Japanese Left: former activist turned field reporter, Nozawa (Kenzo Kawarazaki), a member of the student movement during the collapsed opposition to the first Anpo treaty in 1950 who now covers the continued political struggle of a new generation of young radicals for the local newspaper (a gesture that he believes demonstrates his continued solidarity with the movement), and the younger Reiko (Miyuki Kuwano), a student protestor who had been injured during recent demonstrations opposing the treaty's extension. As in Oshima's subsequent film, The Ceremony, the empty performance of the traditional wedding ceremony becomes a reflection of dysfunctional, antiquated social rituals, cultural displacement, and impotence.

Implicit in Oshima's indictment is the entrenchment of American imperialism into contemporary Japanese culture - an inculcation that had been fostered during postwar occupation and continued to shape the country's process of political self-determination on its road towards international re-emergence - and with its exerted influence, the formation of a key ideological alliance, not only against socialism, but also towards enabling the U.S. government's policy of containment (particularly in Asia) during the early stages of the Cold War. Structured in a series of flashbacks as a pair of wedding crashers (and fellow Zengakuren members hiding from the police) confront the guests, some now prominent members of the Communist party, on their culpability over the nebulous circumstances surrounding the fates of two fellow activists - Nozawa's comrade, Takao (Sakonji Hiroshi), and Reiko's friend, Kitami (Ajioka Toru) - the film is also an examination into the factionalism, internal power struggles, and petty self-interests that sabotaged the left movement. Revisiting the botched imprisonment of a presumed spy from the group's student headquarters a decade earlier (an unproven allegation perpetuated by the group's authoritarian leader, Nakayama (Yoshizawa Takao) despite the membership's increasing, though unarticulated, skepticism) that lead to Takao's scapegoating, Oshima not only illustrates the personal (and implicitly selfish) issues that undermined the movement's effectiveness in promoting a collective agenda (most notably, in Nozawa and Nakayama's ongoing rivalry for the affections of fellow student activist Misako (Akiko Koyama)), but also exposes its underlying repressive, totalitarian culture that mirrored the heavy-handed government of Stalinist-era communism in the Soviet Union - a tendency towards paranoid suspicions and intolerance for dissent that contributed to its self-inflicted public disfavor and political marginalization. Similarly, the subsequent disappearance of Kitami from a hospital during a violent government crackdown on demonstrators protesting the 1960 Anpo treaty extension (a watershed incident for the radical left that also fatefully brought Nozawa and Reiko together) reveals the younger generation's increasing disenchantment with the inflexible, out-of-touch Zengakuren leadership that had resulted in the group's disorganization and irrelevance at a critical stage when the credibility (and sustainability) of the left movement in the shaping of the Japanese political landscape was at stake. By framing the group's moral dissolution within the context of embittered, unrequited love and consuming self-distractions, Oshima creates an incisive metaphor for the failure of the left movement as an ill-fated love affair - a displacement of unrealized desire and resigned acceptance of convenient, if compromised, ideals.

Posted by acquarello on Jul 25, 2007 | | Filed under 2007, Nagisa Oshima


This is a big subject and the analogy between marriage and politics particularly apt as you note. Even though it's a little difficult to follow the quick succession of this large ensemble cast, the film succeeds to identify each of them in the end. But what stroke me was the dreadful amateurish camerawork... pans too fast, jerky travellings, errors of composition. It makes a film difficult to watch. I wonder what happened, because it's not Oshima's young experience that is to be blamed here. They released 5 of his early films in France this summer, and the others that precede this one are quite beautifully made in comparison : The Sun's Burial, Cruel Story of Youth, A Town of Love and Hope.

But the way he theatralizes the headshots with a spotlight in the dark, to freeze a scene or to summarize the protests is very interesting to isolate the characters from their context, like iconic figures. A scenography a little similar to Lars Von Trier's Dogville.

I can't find what this film reminds me of in terms of mise-en-scene, where characters reveal past secrets in public during a ceremony, and through successive flashbacks completing the story. There is something of Rashomon (the many versions of the "spy" escape), maybe The Ceremony too. What is the Kurosawa film that opens on a wedding ceremony? (The Bad Sleep Well?). Isn't there a counterpart in the west?

Posted by: HarryTuttle on Sep 03, 2007 2:46 PM | Permalink

I agree about Night and Fog in Japan being a kind of a blueprint for Ceremony too, but definitely more rough hewn. Oshima worked on three film in 1960 so I wonder if the slapdash quality of the film has something to do with it. On the other hand, I can also see that he was trying to create a kind of docufiction by creating the look of guerrilla reporting to match the revolutionary themes inherent in the film. In this case though, it's all the more jarring because the film is otherwise so formalist (von Trier is a good analogy between this fusion of dogme "naturalism" and theatricality).

Posted by: acquarello on Sep 04, 2007 10:35 AM | Permalink

I doubt the mannerist pans back and forth between headshots (at the wedding) were meant to be guerilla reporting. But the rough look of cinéma-vérité, or handheld homemovie style aren't difficult to watch, because the action matches the camerawork. Though I wonder if it might have been the old print that was broken and fixed too many times, missing too many frames...

Oddly enough, The Bad Sleep Well was made the same year. But I can't remember if the wedding ceremony keeps coming back in the storyline until the end. The beguinning is very similar, with the reporters speculating on the gossips about a mysterious suicide, with flashbacks always coming back to the ongoing wedding.

Posted by: HarryTuttle on Sep 06, 2007 7:51 PM | Permalink

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