(Death by Hanging)
Director: Nagisa Oshima
Production: Sozo-sha and A.T.G.; black and white, 35mm, Vistavision size; running time: 117 minutes. Released 1968, Japan. Cost: 10 million yen.
Producers: Masayuki Nakajima, Takuji Yamaguchi and Nagisa Oshima; screenplay: Tsutomu Tamura, Mamoru Sasaki, Michinori Fukao and Nagisa Oshima, from a newspaper story; assistant director: Kiyoshi Ogasawara; photography: Yasuhiro Yoshioka; editor: Sueko Shiraishi; sound: Hideo Nishizaki; sound effects: Akira Suzuki; production designer: Jusho Toda; music: Hikaru Hayashi.
Cast: Kei Sato (Officer in charge of the execution); Fumio Watanabe (Official educator); Yun do-Yun (R); Mutsuhiro Toura (Doctor); Hosei Komatsu (Prosecutor); Akiko Koyama (Woman); Toshiro Ishido (Priest); Masao Adachi (Security officer); Masao Matsuda (Official witness).
Awards: Kinema Jumpo's Best Screenplay Prize and one of Kinema Jumpo's Best Films of 1968.
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* * *
Death by Hanging is an excellent example of the marriage of Oshima's stylistic experiments to his thematic concerns. Inspired by the true story of a Korean youth condemned and hanged for raping and murdering two Japanese girls, Oshima confronts us with the problems of discrimination against Koreans in Japan, the protagonist's discovery of his own identity, nationalism and the function of the state, and the relationship of imagination and reality.
Oshima cleverly arranges a situation in which the execution of R (identified by his initial to symbolize all Koreans in Japan) fails, or, as a written title explains, "body of R refuses to die." The dismayed officers try to stimulate his memory by reenacting the roles of R and the people around him, while R, in a state of amnesia, keeps asking them naive questions, thus confronting the officers and the audience with fundamental problems—for example, the meaning of the state, the definition of a "Korean." Through their discussions and actions, the executioners' prejudice, their dishonorable past lives as warcriminals, their sexual frustrations, and blind faith in the authorities are revealed. The poverty and internal struggles of R's family are also illustrated, as is the historical context of Japanese importation of Koreans as forced laborers.
The intensity of the mise-en-scène is related to the closed and fixed space of the set of the execution ground. This set's artificiality and claustrophobic atmosphere (partly necessitated by the film's low budget) is marvellously contrasted with the open space, natural light and sound of the outdoor sequences. When the film returns to the original prison setting, it becomes more abstract and surrealistic.
One victim's body, which is visible to the audience from the beginning, is recognized by the officers one by one, and finally it comes to life as a symbolic "sister" of R. Her role is to agitate R politically, and awaken in him his identity as a Korean in Japan. R then refuses to be executed, condemning the nation as murderers if the execution is carried out. Finally, although he believes he is innocent, R returns to be executed, accepting it for "all the R's in the world." However, the scene with the empty noose after the execution conveys the idea that the authorities are not capable of executing R.
The Japanese authorities, and Oshima's ideological position in relation to them, are represented by the director's favourite symbol, the national flag in which the rising sun appears black (because the film is black-and-white). The flag appears on the wall, frequently behind the faces of the public prosecutor and R.
Oshima also employs various experimental methods. Single actions are portrayed twice from different angles. Hand-written titles accompanied by discordant music are used to divide the film into sequences or to express the protagonist's emotions. The continuity of action between shots is intentionally broken during the first half of the film. The characters, particularly R, often talk to the camera directly. Oshima's ideological concerns require this Brechtian style.
The film's primary purpose is to provoke the audience through the visual and auditory images. It was not, despite winning the highest critical acclaim, commercially successful in Japan.