Nagisa Oshima, one of the Young Turks who launched Japanese cinema’s New Wave in the 1950s and later became the most internationally prominent Japanese helmer of his generation, helming the erotic drama “In the Realm of the Senses” and the WWII drama “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence,” died of pneumonia on Tuesday, Jan. 15. He was 80.
Born in the ancient capital of Kyoto, Oshima joined the Shochiku studio in 1954 right out of college. In 1959 he was promoted to director and began making pics, such as “Cruel Story of Youth” (1960) and “The Sun’s Burial” (1960), that expressed the rebelliousness and desperation of the era’s youth with a freshness and boldness of style that recalled the French Nouvelle Vague.
But following the B.O. catastrophe of “Night and Fog in Japan” (1960), a drama about the failures of the radical left full of long cuts and lengthy speeches, Oshima left Shochiku and launched his own production company, though Shochiku later distribbed some of his pics.
In the 1960s and 1970s, he rose to international prominence as a fearless indie filmmaker who defiantly challenged taboos in subject matter, while experimenting freely in approach. “Death by Hanging,” a 1968 pic about the bungled execution of a young ethnic Korean man convicted of rape and murder, commented on discrimination in Japanese society and the injustice of the Japanese justice system with an acid wit and theatrical techniques borrowed from Bertolt Brecht.
Abroad, however, Oshima became best known for “In the Realm of the Senses,” an erotic drama based on a notorious prewar incident in which a former prostitute, Sada Abe, strangled her married lover and kept his severed penis as a love token.
Knowing that the explicit sex scenes would get him into hot water with local authorities, Oshima had the negative shipped to France, where the pic was recognized as a French production. A big, if controversial, hit around the world, the pic made Oshima one of the few Japanese helmers known widely aboard. His 1978 follow-up, “Empire of Passion,” earned him a best director prize at the Cannes fest.
In 1983, Oshima returned to Cannes with “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence,” A WWII POW camp drama based on the experiences of writer Laurens van der Post, the pic starred Tom Conti, David Bowie, composer Ryuichi Sakamoto (who also supplied the soundtrack music) and helmer-to-be Takeshi Kitano as a brutal camp guard.
Oshima reunited with Sakamoto and Kitano for the 1999 period drama “Taboo,” about the erotic tensions that divide an elite unit of samurai warriors when a handsome new recruit (Ryuhei Matsuda) joins their number. At this time, however, Oshima was still suffering from the effects of a 1996 stroke and, following the pic’s successful bow, including a screening in the Cannes competition and 10 noms for Japan Academy Awards, his condition worsened and he never worked again.
In addition to helming, Oshima was, at his peak, a prolific essayist as well as an articulate regular on TV talk and variety shows, using his fees from the latter to help fund his pic projects.
He is survived by his wife, former thesp Akiko Koyama, and his sons Takeshi and Shin.