Sunday, 21 August 2011

Night & Fog in Japan

An unsteady zoom shot finds us at the centre of a wedding reception. The opening scene, and the focal point of the action throughout the film, is a peculiarly joyless union of two former student activists, Nozawa and Reiko. Instead of being a celebratory occasion, it turns into a moral inquisition as various wedding guests and associates come forward to tell their story. In so doing, they gradually poison the atmosphere with accusations of political and personal infidelity.

Oshima's contempt for the ineffectiveness, as well as the hypocritical, bourgeois tendencies of the leftist Zengakuren movement is plain to see. As the history of Nozawa's faction unfolds, revealed through a series of flashbacks, their collective will is shown to be fatally undermined by internal power struggles. The demonstration against the US-Japan AMPO Treaty, a key battleground in the Zengakuren struggle, is lost. Characters like Nakayama, the group's vainglorious and didactic leader, are more interested in feathering their own nests than putting into practice the Marxist ideology they espouse.

In some ways, this austere, serious film about the generation gap (symbolized by Reiko, Nozawa and their professor at the bridal table) and the failure of matrimony and fraternity to bridge that gap, could be viewed as a triumph for Oshima; it was daring for its time, not just politically but also in a filmic sense - the expressionistic use of shots and overt theatricality are bold choices. But they are also bad choices, to my mind. The unrelenting dryness of the subject matter, the dark lighting, spatial constraints and humourlessness of everyone involved induces a grim ennui (it took me 4 separate attempts to get through it!). Likewise, the staginess of the production doesn't lend itself naturally to film. The AMPO demonstration, for instance, is given a symbolic treatment - pitching the set into darkness and spotlighting key protagonists in static postures of insurrection, like paintings of war in a dark, silent gallery. Your imagination is supposed to fill in the blanks. It's the kind of thing that works well on stage, but transplanted to the screen, just seems lifeless and self-consciously stylized.

In truth, this is a film that has become stratified in time. Taken out of the context of its very specific historical locus, stripped of its political relevance, it serves only to document a darkly remembered undercurrent of Japanese post-war history. On a narrative and dramatic level, it simply fails to engage.

Dir. Nagisha Oshima, 1960

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