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HTF DVD REVIEW: Oshima's Outlaw Sixties: Eclipse Series 21



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#1 of 2 ONLINE   Matt Hough

Matt Hough

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Posted May 02 2010 - 09:17 AM

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Oshima’s Outlaw Sixties: Eclipse Series 21
Pleasures of the Flesh/Violence at Noon/Sing a Song of Sex/Japanese Summer: Double Suicide/Three Resurrected Drunkards
Directed by Nagisa Oshima

Studio: Criterion/Eclipse
Year: 1965-1968
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1 anamorphic
Running Time: 472 minutes
Rating: NR
Audio: Dolby Digital 1.0 Japanese
Subtitles: English
MSRP: $ 69.95

Release Date: May 18, 2010
Review Date: May 2, 2010
 
 
The Films
 
Overview
 
For those who have seen Nagisa Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses, you understand that he makes films which exist outside the norm of most commercial filmmakers. His films are often extremely sexual and violent and regularly veer away from conventional norms in terms of cinema technique: nonlinear storytelling, odd experiments with camera placement and sound, surreal episodes dropped in out of nowhere. Irony, satire, and symbolism are also rampant in his movies, and the five films in this latest Eclipse Series box set Oshima’s Outlaw Sixties contain all of these sometimes unsettling and always provocative elements. His movies are an acquired taste to be sure, but these five films represent his style of moviemaking about as well as any, his first films under the banner of his own production company Sozosha.
 
 
Pleasures of the Flesh – 3.5/5
 
Atsushi Wakizaka (Katsuo Nakamura) looks on forlornly as the love of his life Shoko (Mariko Kaga) marries another man. So strong is his love, however, that he seeks vengeance on a man who had molested her as a child and manages to throw him off a fast moving train. He’s observed, however, by embezzler Hayami (Shoichi Ozawa) who offers him a deal: if Wakizaka will hold on to a suitcase containing 30 million yen of stolen money for the five years that Hayami will be in prison for theft, he’ll keep his secret about Wakizaka committing murder. Though he agrees to the deal, four years into the agreement, Atsushi decides he’d rather live a life of luxury in complete wantonness for a year than live a long life without the girl he loves more than life itself. So, he begins a wild spending spree using the stolen money for a year lavishing gifts of money and jewelry on a string of women, all of whom wind up disappointing him and making him feel that he’s not getting his money’s worth. With the year rapidly coming to an end, Atsushi must make some hard decisions about how his final days are going to play out.
 
Nagisa Oshima’s script for the movie combines the expected psychosexual energy and violence with a heavily ironic series of coincidences and surprises which seem poured on a little too thickly for comfort. In fact, the string of Twilight Zone-like climaxes which conclude the movie carry the irony game one or two steps too far though they admittedly are unexpected and bitterly cruel. Oshima films a clever montage of overindulgences early on, but his casting of a series of women who all resemble one another make keeping the various lady-of-the-moment characters separate a bit of a chore, especially since each lady’s departure isn’t always made clear in the script or on screen. Katsuo Nakamura is an agreeable enough patsy for the pitiless whims of fate that come his way in ridiculous numbers, and Shoichi Ozawa makes his couple of scenes as the master embezzler count with a strong presence.
 
 
Violence at Noon – 2.5/5
 
Rapist and murderer Eisuke Oyamada (Kei Sato) has been carrying on his campaign of violence against women for some time, but he’s finally identified by one of his first victims years after the fact: Shino Shinozaki (Sae Kawaguchi) who was raped by this man after he saved her from a dual-suicide pact with her husband (Rokko Toura). Before identifying him to the police, she sends a letter to his wife (Akiko Koyama) to give her the opportunity to talk to him and allow him to surrender to the police. The two women share a strange tie with the troubled man who actually tells his wife he loves Shino and not her.
 
The Takeshi Tamura screenplay is an odd and unsatisfying nonlinear story jumping back and forth in time and randomly into the consciousnesses of the three main characters but never allowing the director to establish any kind of dramatic impetus to the storytelling. Though the rapes are filmed somewhat conservatively (even for 1966), Oshima focuses most of his attention on exploring characters through extreme close-ups of eyes, mouths, and other assorted body parts. Film editor Keiichi Uraoka has a busman’s holiday with the steady progression of quick cuts that pepper the film, interesting for a film student perhaps but a strident, uninvolving movie for a general audience. The performances are all rather tentative and introspective, unusual for so melodramatic a tale.
 
 
Sing a Song of Sex – 2.5/5
 
Four frisky teenaged boys (Ichiro Araki, Koji Iwabuchi, Kazuyoshi Kushida, Hiroshi Sato) finish their university entrance exams and are ready to celebrate. They’re fixated on a beautiful girl whose name they don’t know, but to work off some sexual tension decide to go out for a lark drinking and staying the night at a local hotel with some girl friends and one of their teachers Mr. Otake (Juzo Itami). During the course of the evening, the drunken Otake turns on the gas heater in his room without the flame igniting and later dies as a result, even though Nakamura (Araki) had visited the teacher that night, had noticed that the gas was running without a flame but had done nothing about it. The next morning after being questioned by the police, the four boys, unemotional about the death of their former teacher, engage in more hijinks: fantasizing about raping the girl from class and trying to disrupt some other students who are staging peaceful demonstrations about the Vietnam War singing songs of protest and liberation. Their only interest is in finding some girls to satisfy their sexual needs.
 
Oshima’s stinging indictment of a generational split where some young people are committed to change while others are indifferent or openly hostile to anything except gratifying their own needs is clearly presented but isn’t very stimulating entertainment. The satire is laid on pretty thickly by the director who takes a co-writing credit for the script (the film was mostly improvised) with three other writers. The fantasy sequences of rape along with the director’s experimentation with the camera moving off of the speaking actors and exploring other aspects of the frame are straight out of Godard earning Oshima the well deserved moniker of “Godard of the East.” The sexual song with its ten bawdy verses gets sung and repeated ad nauseum by the four leading actors, none of whom can actually carry a tune. Better are the Vietnam era folk songs mostly sung in English by the committed teenagers strumming guitars: “This Land Is Your Land,” “Goodnight Irene,” “We Shall Overcome,” and “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore.” They’re like gems in a sea of banality when those boys continue wailing their tired sex tune. The most committed performance is by Akiko Koyama who plays the girl friend of the dead teacher and the one adult who’s trying her best to understand and enlighten this generation of apathetic teenagers who are living only for the moment and thinking only of immediate carnal pleasures.
 
 
Japanese Summer: Double Suicide – 2/5
 
Seven men ranging in age from 17 to 51 find themselves being held prisoner by one of the many Japanese gangs currently waging war amongst themselves and the establishment in 1967 Japan. Along with them is the promiscuous Nejiko (Kéiko Sakurai) who cares nothing for politics or gang warfare but only about living in the moment and getting laid as often as she can. News on television of an American foreigner also waging war on the police causes the group to want to break free of their captivity and join his anarchist efforts.
 
This tiresome allegory by Takeshi Tamura, Mamoru Sasaki, and director Nagisa Oshima must have been grounded in the international youth rebellion of the late 1960s which found many cultures of young people opposing their individual establishments of the time. This film, set mostly in the prison bunker these eight characters share for a vast majority of the running time, reads and performs like a lousy off-Broadway play complete with caricatures instead of characters (the young reckless rebel, the sage old timer, the strong, silent type, the brutish physical specimen, the mechanical nerd) and pithy comments on their various ineffectual ways of proclaiming their outrages against the world, mostly uttered by the tempting lone female who spends almost the entire picture trying to entice the various men to sleep with her, always failing (is this some supposed slap by the director about the potency or lack thereof of the Japanese male?). It’s talky and stagy and defiantly undramatic, at least until the film’s final quarter hour when the group makes a break for it and attempts a rendezvous with the American rebel. Oshima films these scenes with some much needed pace and vivacity, but by then, it’s too little, too late. Apart from the plaintive Kei Sato who plays the strong, silent Otoko with some reasonable intensity about his death wish, the other players either overact or don’t act at all.
 
 
Three Resurrected Drunkards – 3/5
 
Three nitwit Japanese buddies (Kazuhiko Kato, Norihiko Hashida, Osamu Kitayama) celebrate the end of the school year by taking a swim in the ocean. While they’re busy frolicking in the surf, two sets of clothes are swiped by two defecting Korean soldiers (Kei Sato, Mako Midori) who don’t want to go to Vietnam. What follows is a ridiculous series of mistaken identity situations where the Koreans pretend to be Japanese and vice versa. Then the entire movie starts over again with the three boys making somewhat different choices but somehow ending up in a similar series of events as local officials continue mistaking them for the Korean defectors.
 
Oshima is in a much more playful mood in the fifth and final film in this set. Though the film would undoubtedly play better within the cultures for whom it was made, there is enough goofy good fun and several wink-at-the-audience moments that suggest Oshima has a firm knowledge of the Hope-Crosby Road movies with the actors always in on the joke that they’re in a movie. When after forty minutes the film seemingly restarts and the characters begin going through similar situations only to change small things hoping for a different outcome, the movie loses a bit of its sense of fun and suggests darker themes that never seem to reach fruition. Kei Sato gives the film a firm foundation on which to hang the manic comedy of the three blithering idiots of the title. Fumio Watanabe plays a minor league femme fatale whose character needed more presence and injection into the events of the movie. It’s a farce that simply needs to be funnier.
  
 
Video Quality
 
Pleasures of the Flesh – 3.5/5
 
All of the films are presented in 2.35:1 and are anamorphically enhanced for widescreen televisions. The image is remarkably clean for a film of this age though the color timing tends to give the image a slight brownish hue through much of the movie. Colors are well presented, however, and there is no noise or smearing in their presentation. Black levels are never the deepest black, and shadows often swallow detail. The white subtitles are very easy to read. The film has been divided into 11 chapters.
 
Violence at Noon – 3/5
 
The grayscale for the anamorphically enhanced 2.35:1 film is mediocrely presented with a slightly milky contrast leading to poor black levels and a picture that looks a bit murky and rather dated. The image is rather grainier than one might expect, and even with anamorphic enhancement, there are moiré patterns to be glimpsed in shirts and some crawling pixels in a wide landscape shot. The white subtitles are easy to read (though sometimes fly by too quickly), and the film has been divided into 14 chapters.
 
Sing a Song of Sex – 3/5
 
This anamorphically enhanced 2.35:1 transfer is very erratic in quality. Though some of it presents nicely saturated color and good sharpness (particularly in close-ups), much of the image is soft and drab without much detail to offer. Blacks aren’t particularly impressive either. The white subtitles present easy reading, and the movie has been divided into 12 chapters.
 
Japanese Summer: Double Suicide – 4/5
 
The theatrical 2.35:1 aspect ratio is faithfully reproduced in this anamorphically enhanced transfer. With a much sharper image boasting better contrast and more accurate grayscale rendering than Violence at Noon, this image is very pleasing to watch for the most part. True, blacks aren’t as deep as they could have been, and there are some problems with aliasing in a couple of places (particularly in a striped blouse). The image is clean and free from scratches or debris. The white subtitles are quite clear and readable, and the film has been divided into 14 chapters.
 
Three Resurrected Drunkards – 4/5
 
The anamorphically enhanced 2.35:1 transfer looks quite impressive for a film of its age. There are no age related artifacts, and color purity and sharpness are exemplary. If there are occasional shots that don’t quite match the exactness of much of the rest of the film, they’re few and far between, and black levels are acceptable if not as deep as they could have been. The white subtitles are easy to read, and the brief film has been divided into 11 chapters.
 
 
Audio Quality
 
Pleasures of the Flesh – 2.5/5
 
The Dolby Digital 1.0 audio track is very dated with its brittle highs and nonexistent lows. There is low level hiss throughout the soundfield, and you’ll also hear some hum in the quietest moments as well as flutter fairly often and even some crackle from time to time.
 
Violence at Noon – 3/5
 
The Dolby Digital 1.0 sound mix is noticeably quieter than that of the previous film lacking the omnipresent hiss and crackle though there are a few random clicks late in the movie. Overall, the sound is acceptable but rather tinny in fidelity likely representative of this era of post synched sound recording.
 
Sing a Song of Sex – 2.5/5
 
The Dolby Digital 1.0 audio track is awash in low level hiss, and there is also occasional flutter to be heard. Since the film was entirely post synched, the flatness and dryness of the audio track is not a surprise.
 
Japanese Summer: Double Suicide – 3.5/5
 
The Dolby Digital 1.0 audio track is not burdened with excessive hiss or flutter as some of the other films are in this set. Though the mono track has that flat, dry sound connected with post synched recording, it’s certainly well recorded despite its lack of impressive fidelity.
 
Three Resurrected Drunkards – 3.5/5
 
The Dolby Digital 1.0 sound mix features a sprightly score by Hikaru Hayashi that’s very appealing for the farcical nature of much of the movie. Otherwise, all of the dialogue and effects are ADR-produced and contain that same flatness of tone and lack of vividness that marks most such soundtracks. On the plus side, there is no bothersome hiss or noticeable crackle, flutter, or pops to mar the listening experience.
 
 
Special Features
1/5
 
The Eclipse series does not include bonus features on the discs, but each of the five movies is contained in its own slimline case, each of which contains very interesting liner notes written by film authority Michael Koresky.
 
 
In Conclusion
3/5 (not an average)
 
Nagisa Oshima’s films are definitely not for those looking for a conventional flick to wile away the evening hours. His films are eccentric, are often off-putting, and require some study and thought in order to fathom the director’s artistic intent. Oshima’s Outlaw Sixties brings five films to our shores which haven’t had a lot of exposure in the West, and for that reason, the set is to be welcomed by fans of the director or adherents of the avant garde in cinema.
 
 
 
 
Matt Hough
Charlotte, NC
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#2 of 2 OFFLINE   BethHarrison

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Posted May 02 2010 - 01:43 PM

Thank you for the review. I'm very much looking forward to this set!