Friday, November 21, 2008


The elusive Japanese Summer: Double Suicide reveals itself. Although many of Nagisa Oshima’s films are considered rare and unavailable, this film was one of the most unavailable of the unavailable. Belied by vague descriptions and nonexistent information, Japanese Summer ambiguity intrigued me. Only now, can I fully appreciate that abstraction is inherent in the film, making it just as hard to pin down thematically as it has been to pin down physically. The narrative is completely cut lose and allowed to unfurl into a free-form allegory.

The richness of Japanese Summer is in its characters, sketched into ambiguous icons. These characters allow Oshima to explore a found reality that is neither literal nor logical. Any attempt to offer a plot description will quickly lead down a rabbit hole, and, with only one viewing under my belt, near impossible. Japanese Summer is like a road movie without the road or the car. Nejiko and Otoko are on a trek, nonetheless, that eventually leads them to a secret hideout of anarchist thugs. Held prisoner, they find themselves locked in a room of kindred outcast spirits. Over the coarse of the evening, they learn of reports about a man randomly shooting people in Tokyo. This throws the thugs (and whatever plan they seem to have had) into a state of frenzy.

Despite what it sounds like, this is no action thriller. The grand finale may be a shoot-out, but the film is much more akin to science fiction: set in a nether world, caught between the past and the future. The apocalyptic settings of empty freeways and abandon warehouses seem timeless. Without contextual reference for the characters or the abstract scenes, Japanese Summer exists outside of our cognizant time frame.

Nejiko is a devil-may-care young woman prone to whimsy despite circumstances. We meet her as she is “celebrating” a breakup by tossing her undergarments over the side of a bridge, if only to entice a group of swimming men below. Audacious in style and sexuality, Nejiko wears her hair short on one side and long on the other, with steaks of highlights. She lives a life of provocative carpe diem, willing to give any man a chance. It is not love or sincerity she looks for, but unambiguous physical pleasure. Although Oshima’s films are not without dynamic female characters, Nejiko is unique. Her boldness defies the stereotype of a Japanese woman, and goes against the grain of a typical Oshima female character normally subjugated to object or victim. Nejiko is defiantly neither.

Nejiko meets Otoko early in the film and puts him in her sights as her next conquest. He offers a cerebral contrast to Nejiko without being her antithesis. Otoko is unnaturally obsessed with dying, or, more accurately, obsessed with being killed by another man. He imagines that moment before death as a pinnacle moment when both killer and victim confront mortality together. He wanders with the goal of surrounding himself with potential killers, with Nejiko in tow.

Although Nejiko and Otoko are the film’s two springboards, nearly a dozen characters come and go, adding dynamism to the film. Foremost is a young man who finds the hideout (literally coming in through a bathroom window) in search of a weapon. His only desire is to kill. However, he hardly has the look of a bloodthirsty killer in his cropped khakis, sweater vest and sweet young face. Much like how Otoko and Nejiko initially fail to make an obvious connection, this young killer is also not the one to fulfill Otoko’s death wish. Another man that descends on the hideout is equal part yakuza and diplomat. His prize possession is his television, which is carried by his loyal lackey. Also added to the mix of characters is an elderly war veteran who is more than aware of the reality of death and an American responsible for the shootings. Among them all, Nejiko is the pulse of the film. I can’t help but think of the planetary personification in Bela Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies: in the case of Japanese Summer: Double Suicide, they would all be sober and Nejiko would be the sun with the men, and all their fatalism, spinning around her.

Near the end of the film, our outcast heroes find that they sympathize with the American who seems to be randomly shooting people. They traipse off like happy vagabonds ready to meet their destiny and join the American in fighting off the police. It is a finale that works in glorious hyperbole as Nejiko and Otoko finally have an epiphanic moment together.

Also known as Night of the Killer, Japanese Summer: Double Suicide is yet another Oshima film that seems like no other Oshima film. Working in an anti-auteur style from film to film, Oshima was constantly reinventing himself. He relished the fact that Mishima proclaimed he could not understand Japanese Summer. And perhaps it is not to be fully understood, but simply experienced. I’ve always thought that the greatest compliment a director can give his audience is taking the risk to present a challenging work. Doing so in this case seems to have sent this film down the road to obscurity. However, seeing the Janus logo at the beginning of this new print makes me very hopeful that I may be able to see this film again.

Only three more Oshima films left at the Walker! The Ceremony, Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence and Diary of a Shinjuku Thief.


Anonymous said...

"However, seeing the Janus logo at the beginning of this new print makes me very hopeful that I may be able to see this film again."

What? Really? Janus<=>Criterion!

Kathie Smith said...

Yes indeed. Janus (aka Criterion) helped fund some of the new prints of the Oshima films. Although I don't think we'll see them anytime soon (the retrospective travels for the next year) eventually Criterion will probably put some of these out.

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