Nagisa Ôshima, I believe, is one of the most fascinating studies in the history of cinema. His films don't tend to be conventionally enjoyable on a par with many other filmmakers of his talent, but they remain, nevertheless, truly fascinating examinations of societal failure and immensely complex exercises in sociopolitical disillusionment. "The Sun's Burial" is no exception. Like every other Ôshima film, it has worlds to say about Japanese society (and, to some extent, society in general), and much of its ideological structure can only be understood in light of Ôshima's larger body of work.
If I had grown up in Japan in the '50s, and seen this film released in 1960 as only Ôshima's third feature as a director, I might not have as many great things to say about it. I would recognize its audacity and, on some level, its intelligence — certainly its social relevance — but the greatest insights the film offers, and my deepest moments of appreciation for its themes and ideas, which were only really possible with some of Ôshima's later work in mind, would have probably been largely lacking from the viewing experience.
Like so many leftist filmmakers who engaged Marxist, communist ideology in cinema, Ôshima ended up disillusioned with the ideals he presumably once cherished. This may partially be a result of the naive underbelly of Marxist ideals, which comprise a faith in humanity that rarely proves in keeping with reality, or it may simply be human nature. Human beings are impatient — often too impatient to wait the time it takes for an idea to seep into the fabric of society — and generally unprepared to deal with the frustration of reality; specifically, the reality that ideals almost inevitably give way to human passions, obsessions, and self-serving behavior. Of course, not everyone will agree with this sentiment — and it is their prerogative not to — but it was certainly the defining sentiment behind Ôshima's unique career as a filmmaker.
The earliest film I've been able to see by Ôshima was his second effort, "Naked Youth", made in 1960, the same year as "The Sun's Burial". Both films feature a portrait of troubled youth that makes "The Outsiders" look like a walk in the garden. Ôshima's camera works in extremely close quarters. He gives us close-ups, but they are the polar opposite of Hollywood's beauty shots. They are, in fact, ugliness shots. Ôshima doesn't look closer in order to see the beauty of faces too perfect to be real, nor does he do it in order to enhance the emotional content of his images; rather, Ôshima looks close in order to see every possible flaw in the human condition, every ounce of ugliness and despair that we might otherwise polish over by maintaining a safe distance from our subject matter. Criticize Ôshima if you must, but one thing that can never be doubted is his commitment to his subject. Much like Pasolini, he gets deep, down, and dirty with the depravity he portrays in his films. He doesn't treat human suffering and degradation with Visconti's rubber gloves, as if afraid to dirty his hands with his own subject matter, nor does he share Hollywood's romanticism. Ôshima is authentic in this regard. He is not portraying misery for dramatic effect. There is absolutely nothing romantic in Ôshima's depiction of poverty.
I'm a bit ambivalent as to whether or not "The Sun's Burial" is a purely Marxist film, or whether it's already expressing the disillusionment with those ideas that Ôshima would ultimately become known for. A bit further into the '60s, Ôshima would make films like "Violence at Noon", in which this disillusionment is evident on an undeniable level, and then, eventually, in the early '70s, films like "In the Realm of the Senses", in which any pretense of political material has been dropped all together, and the only thing left to witness is Ôshima's stunning (and sometimes gratuitous) deconstruction of human self-destructiveness.
Is the "The Sun's Burial" criticizing society from a Marxist standpoint, or is it criticizing Marxism itself — and the failure of the left — from a standpoint of disillusionment? I lean toward the former, but the answer will depend on how you interpret the film's symbols, and consequently will vary from viewer to viewer. "The Sun's Burial" explores the nature of revolution in a fashion reminiscent of Tarr's "Werckmeister Harmonies". Tensions mount and ultimately boil over, but where Tarr depicts regret, Ôshima, I think, depicts only necessity.
Filmmakers like Ôshima and Pasolini have created a truly revolutionary cinema, in that it forces us to reckon with aspects of human nature that we'd rather leave buried. Godard fancied himself a revolutionary once, but was too busy theorizing and intellectualizing to be truly revolutionary. I should make a point to say that, in their own right, I cherish Godard's films as much as anyone else's (see "For Ever Mozart" for another fantastic reflection on political disillusionment), but it's worth noting the distinction between what is radical, and what is truly revolutionary. Of course, each viewer will make his own determination of how much value to place in this idea of revolutionary cinema. I don't place a great deal of value in it in and of itself — I'm not a political person — but I do deeply appreciate Ôshima's insistence on showing us things we don't want to see, as if that in itself might prove an antidote to the very problems he depicts on screen.
I'm not entirely sure if I agree with that notion or not, but I've never felt that agreement is a prerequisite for respect, and my respect for Ôshima could span mountains. "The Sun's Burial" is not a masterpiece, but it's a very strong film, and a must-see for anyone who'd like to develop their understanding of political cinema.
RATING: 8.00 out of 10 stars
The Sun's Burial
Crime / Drama
The Sun's Burial
Crime / Drama
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In Osaka's slum, youth without futures engage in pilfering, assault and robbery, prostitution, and the buying and selling of identity cards and of blood. Alliances constantly shift. Tatsu and Takeshi, friends since boyhood, reluctantly join Shin's gang. Shin's an upstart and moves his gang often to avoid the local kingpin. Hanoko is a young woman with ambitions: first she's in the blood business with her father, then she joins forces with Shin. She soon breaks off that partnership, even though she's taken the sensitive Takeshi under her wing. Double crosses multiply. Those with the closest bonds become each others' murderers.
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November 22, 2022 at 08:42 AM