(Nagisa Oshima, 1968)
When it is released next year, Oshima's Death by Hanging will join an Eclipse set and three main line titles, In the Realm of the Senses, Empire of Passion, and Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, in the Collection. Interestingly, the director's two most generally well-regarded films, The Ceremony and Boy, are available on Criterion's Hulu page but remain unreleased on disc. Although there is an obvious excuse for this, which is that it's likely this film was simply ready for blu-release before those two films, Death By Hanging also represents a drastic departure from his films already in the mainline collection, making it a valuable additional facet of Oshima's oeuvre.
What's most interesting about Death By Hanging is its tone, which swerves from straight-faced documentary to vicious satire to broad farce to biting social commentary, finally settling on a haunting ending that implicates the viewer in the crimes of the film. This wide range might initially feel like it's drowning the film in metastructure. It's worth noting that every review I could find on the film (including ones by Donald Richie and Vincent Canby, both of whom gave the film a slightly negative review) mentions Godard. In fact, Richie's first sentence is a direct comparison between Oshima's role in Japanese cinema and Godard's similar role in France. This connection is significantly less likely to be noticed when viewing Oshima's later films already in the collection, while the tone, overt politics, and surreal structure of Death By Hanging makes the comparison almost obligatory.
Despite its complexity as both a narrative and a political statement, the movie can be roughly divided into two sections. The first focuses on the crime and punishment expected by the title of the film. The convicted murderer, named simply R, is set to be executed, but the hanging does not go as planned and he survives. Oshima uses a documentary style as he leads up to the execution, mimicking the supposed removed and somber role the state plays in implementing the death penalty. This makes the failure of the execution stand out and gives the swing toward chaos even greater heft: when we switch from documentary to farce, it's as if the whole movie - and therefore the world it depicts - has fallen apart. The scenes where the men argue over what to do in order to avoid trouble (they seem less concerned with the right thing to do) are often laugh-out-loud funny, and this stretch of the movie plants a flag firmly in the dark comedy camp.
But once the deeper reenactments begin, as the men attempt to reconnect R with his past to get him to acknowledge his crimes, the film takes its tongue out of its cheek and begins to tear down more than just the question of whether or not the state should kill a person. Much as it would be impossible to ignore the relationship between black people and the American death penalty, Oshima confronts the larger issue of race in Japan, weaving in R's experience as a Korean raised in Japan. This second half is not as tightly plotted as the first - and it often suffers from dated intellectual signposts like Freud and Brecht, two other figures inevitably cited in reviews of the film - but it opens up Oshima's statement and in many ways makes the film harder to ignore.
There have been countless films against the death penalty over the years, just as there were countless intellectual films in the 60s that flirted with radical structure and politics. The value in Oshima's film is its willingness to go where the material takes it and avoid settling into an easy opposition to the status quo. For me, this makes Oshima less of a parallel Godard and more of a clear compatriot of Masaki Kobayashi and Kaneto Shindo, a rebel even among these iconoclastic legends. Godard's form certainly began to be tied directly to his politics, especially from Pierrot Le Fou on, but Oshima's form was from his very first film inseparable from his politics. Although he never lacked for technical skill, none of Oshima's work seems to love movies the way Godard's early films do. He is intently focused on what is on screen, using cinema as a tool rather than an art itself. Death By Hanging makes this relationship clearer than Oshima's later films, and it's what makes the movie both an admirable condemnation of state-sponsored murder and a vital addition to Oshima's Criterion films.