The holiday season is here and so…uh…um…hmmm…
A girl…I will call her N…has recently turned 18 and has just got dumped. So, she is single and ready to…have sex with any guy whom she sees. Well, maybe not the men who are painting over the graffiti in the public bathroom. She is annoyed with them destroying the artwork as well as preventing her from peeing, so she messes up part of the paint job, knocks over one of their paint cans, and runs off.
While throwing some of her underwear off of a bridge, N encounters a patriotic parade. At first, she is delighted to see so many young men in military uniform, but eventually gets confused and nervous, wondering what festival it is. She appears to be the only person for miles who is watching the march, and none of the marchers will tell her what it is for. Is it for…Japan? Who knows? One person tells her that it is politics, but elaborates no further. N seems genuinely upset that men not much older than her can take part in this parade without question. She is even more bewildered when a group of monks appear to be performing some sort of funeral rite on the bridge after the marchers have left.
Among the monks, a man suddenly appears. He is wearing military garb, but is not taking part in the parade. He is also the only person to engage her in conversation, even if his responses to her questions are kind of esoteric.
N figures that this Soldier can be her new boyfriend, so they walk to some desolate part of the city. He seems completely uninterested in her blatant attempts to seduce him, which irritates her.
In any case, the particular spot that they chose is where a group of gangsters hid a cache of guns. Since Soldier stuck around long enough to see the guns, the gang forces both him and N to go with them to a hideout, which looks like a military compound. Well, “forces” is a bit of a strong word. N goes along willingly due to the prospect of meeting more men. Soldier goes along…for other reasons.
The gang tells N and Soldier that they may not leave the hideout until after a planned killing spree has ended the next morning. While N complains that she still needs to pee, Soldier starts to antagonize the gang by saying that none of them would kill anyone. One of the gang members pulls a knife on them, but neither of them is scared; in fact, they seem to intimidate the gang member.
Finally, N is allowed to go outside to pee. It is at that time, though, that a seventeen-year-old boy tries to sneak into the compound. N helps in inside, thinking that he will have sex with her. This student, however, is interested only in stealing a rifle to help his gang. N tries to persuade him to drop his violent ambitions and just have sex with her instead. As a compromise, they agree to have sex if she helps him find a gun.
Unfortunately, the gang captures both of them and throws them into a room with six other pseudo-prisoners, including Soldier. Student claims that he heard about the impending massacre and wants a gun to take part. When one gang member points a gun at him, Student lunges at it, begging to hold it. He is denied, and told to stay in the room overnight.
One man is tied up, probably because he is a serial killer and tried to stab the gang members. N ignores the warnings and unties him after he promises to having sex with her. Once untied, though, he just goes to sleep. As Soldier tries to pry…uh…let’s call him Knife…for details on his murderous tendencies, a frustrated N goes to sleep as well.
As N is sleeping, two men get into a fight over who gets to have sex with her first. This wakes up Knife, who runs over, eager to stab both men. Soldier stops Knife, say that it is he whom Knife really wants to stab. Knife agrees to kill him, but a elderly man yells at Knife to stop. He pulls out a handgun and orders Knife to drop the knife. Soldier goes over to…uh…Mauser…and admits that he wishes to be murdered and see himself through his killer’s eyes as he dies. Knife promises to kill him the next morning, but Student doubts this.
After watching a movie by director Nagisa Oshima called Death by Hanging, I decided to check out other movies that he had made. A set of DVDs by Criterion called Oshima’s Outlaw Sixties was available in my library system…though, for some reason it is not there anymore and I had to sign up for the Criterion streaming system this weekend to watch it again. No biggie, there are bunch of movies that are on my WTF ASIA list there as well as a bunch that I would like to watch at some point. In any case, the DVD set had five movies by Oshima and this one was, by far, my favorite of the bunch. Some of it may have been due to the (relatively speaking) lack of rape in the storyline, but I think that there was this oddly subdued sense of fun throughout the movie.
So far, I have seen eight Oshima films. They seem to be mostly about the inability of outsiders to live up to societal expectations while retaining their own identities. There is also usually quite a bit about violence and sexual hang-ups. I am not going to say that I like him as a director, but his films do make for some interesting food for thought, at least in terms of messaging.
I find his movies to be extremely esoteric and alienating. I have read reviews and essays that analyze his various movies that say that this was all deliberate. Which, sure, fine. Still, I just wonder if I saw the same movies as the ones that these people saw. This is especially true regarding Sing a Song of Sex and The Resurrection of Three Drunkards, which were supposedly meant to be blistering attacks on Japan’s treatment of Korea…WHAT?? HOW?!?! Yeah, there was maybe a statement made by some character that Japanese people discriminate against Koreans…and then there is a whole bunch of incomprehensible metaphors and nonsensical symbolism that is so subtle and multi-layered as to be impossible to unpack. There are some films that I read up on after watching and feel like I can appreciate them on a different level. With Oshima films, I just feel like a dumb dumb.
I have been told that Oshima’s films are supposed to be looked at from an intellectual level, but I found it very difficult to engage with some of these movies that way, if only because they seemed to go out of their way to bury their own messages, criticisms, and questions under complete nonsense. And I felt no incentive to make the effort to work it all out. Thus, there was only the emotional level: did I actually enjoy the film as a viewing experience? For some, I did; others, I did not. With this movie, I definitely did.
It took me a little bit to get into the groove of this movie, but it was pretty smooth sailing once I was able to do so. Basically, I stopped seeing the characters as just people acting bizarrely and more as characters in an absurd and surreal world. Japan in the late 1960s seems to be stuck in a state of aimlessness. A treaty signed in 1960 has given the United States a lot of military power over pacifist Japan. Japanese society, however, has not tempered the militant spirit of its people, leading to a lot of men born during or after WWII with no external outlet for their aggression. It is not just the standard macho posturing; this is about killing. Killing and dying. The previous generation would kill and die for the Emperor and the Empire, because that is what was to be done. Now, what is there? The nation? The gang? The sake of killing and dying? There seems to be a conflict between the Japanese need to commit violence and the tendency towards compliance. Thus, why a group of murder-happy men stay together in a room overnight even when there is not much really keeping them from forcing their way out.
One thing that I find interesting is that the obsession with killing is not really matched with a fear of death. Sure, only Soldier expresses a wish to die, and a few of the characters react to an immediate threat of death with some survival instinct reflex, but almost none of them seem to be scared of death. Death seems to be treated more like something that they don’t want to experience right now because they still have stuff that they want to do…like kill people. To die in battle is glorious. To die simply because you annoyed someone else is less glorious. The gang members may try to intimidate the people and the news reporters may tell people to be safe, but it does not really cause fear. People are either compliant enough to unemotionally do what they are told or they are too crazed to care. It is like in A Clockwork Orange, only everyone would tell Alex to shut up.
Aside from not getting names throughout most of the movie, the characters are pretty broad and deliberately left vague. This could be a storytelling shortcut or it could suggest that the lives of the characters are hollow and unknown even to themselves. Soldier appears melancholy and rather detached until someone threatens violence against someone else. It has been suggested that he is Absent Without Leave, but that is not brought up. His reasons for wanting to be murdered suggests a lack of identity, and that he can find it only through death at another person’s hand. For most of the men in the main cast, they can assert their identity only through violence. Perhaps they were cast out of the society of automatons and this is their only way of rebelling. For them, there is anger and apprehension. Life is meaningless. Lives do not matter. Their lives do not matter. Like that manga said, all they need is kill.
Yeah, this movie may be artsy smartsy and politically radical and whatever, but it is also a highly enjoyable in goofball way.
WTF ASIA 86: Cart (South Korea: 2014, approx. 104 minutes)
This WAS available on Netflix, but now it is just…online.