Judge Victor Valdivia's Outlaw Nineties compiles security camera footage of his arrests for public drunkenness.
The Godard of the East.
With a title like Oshima's Outlaw Sixties, you'd be forgiven for expecting a lot form this boxed set. Part of the Criterion Collection (actually, Eclipse Series 21), this set compiles five films director Nagisa Oshima made after he founded his own studio, Sozo-sha, after working at Shochiku. The mouth positively waters at the thought of a director who had to form his own studio to release his films, especially when those films have titles like Violence at Noon and Sing a Song of Sex. Well, your mouth will keep watering, because far from being rollicking outlaw tales of sex, crime, and savagery, these are slow, talky, interminable art films that seem more like film school exercises. The only criminal activity here is from Criterion's marketing department.
Facts of the Case
Here are the five films collected in this set:
• Pleasures of the Flesh
• Violence at Noon
• Sing a Song of Sex
• Japanese Summer: Double Suicide
• Three Resurrected Drunkards
Sitting through all five films in this set is a trying experience. There's no question that they are quintessential products of their times and that they represent the absolute state-of-the-art filmmaking had to offer in the mid-Sixties. The problem is that by today's standards, they're badly dated, tedious, pretentious, and clumsy. They contain cardboard characters, tin-eared dialogue, and plots that alternate between meandering and nonexistent. Worst of all, there's nothing remotely thrilling or illicit about any of them. You can get more outlaw thrills watching an episode of She's the Sheriff.
For one thing, these films are not at all subtle. In Pleasures of the Flesh, when the corrupt politician appears in the film to blackmail the protagonist, his dialogue consists of the sentence, "Hello. I am a corrupt politician who has embezzled millions of yen. I will blackmail you to hold it for me." In Three Resurrected Drunkards, Oshima desperately wants you to get the point that he composed many of the shots after the infamous newsreel footage of a Viet Cong commander being shot in the head, so not only does he constantly have the actors reenact it, he actually sets the last five or so minutes of the film in front of a giant mural with that very scene painted on it. Oshima makes Oliver Stone look like a master of nuance, which makes this set the filmic equivalent of repeated blows to the head with a ball-peen hammer.
Okay, so how about the writing? The characters are all one-dimensional cardboard cutouts. The nympho party girl in Japanese Summer spends the entire film begging every single other male character in the film to have sex with her. That's it—that's her whole role in the film. The other characters in the film are even less well-defined—the suicidal soldier spends the entire film begging the others to kill him, there's a young punk who spends the whole film begging for someone to give him a gun, and so on. At least these are more individual than the students in both Three Resurrected Drunkards and Sing a Song of Sex. Though there are three in the first film and four in the second, it really doesn't matter since there's absolutely no distinguishing characteristics to any of them. You could interchange them from film to film and not make one bit of difference. There's also not much in the way of actual storytelling. Japanese Summer spends most of its time in the prison bunker, going on and on interminably as the characters yammer away repeating their lines. Three Resurrected Drunkards purports to examine how Korean immigrants are treated by the Japanese, but it abandons this premise quickly in favor of fantasy dream sequences and a structure in which much of the first half of the film is repeated, slightly modified, in the last third. Sing a Song of Sex starts off as a study of four randy young men looking to discover the truth about female sexuality but ends up an incoherent mess of rape fantasies, folk-singing anti-war protestors, and a lecture on the history of Japan's imperial family. Scintillating, no?
That leads to the biggest flaw in this set: there's no actual outlaw behavior at all. Well, that's not entirely true. Yakuza members make an appearance in Pleasures of the Flesh and, as is their wont, they take someone's little finger. Apart from that, though, most of the outlaw behavior here is all talk and little action. The protagonist in Pleasures of the Flesh pretty much gives up on his quest for hookers early on and spends most of the film moping about in whiny self-pity. For all the sex talk in Sing a Song of Sex, there isn't any actual copulation, only a bawdy song sung over and over and over until you'll never want to hear it again. Similarly, for all the talk of some sort of gang war in Japanese Summer, we never actually get to see any of it, since most of the film takes place in the prison. These flaws highlight that Oshima is more interested in the trappings of experimental film—needlessly intricate visuals, supposedly daring thematic elements, avoiding conventional ideas about narrative and characterization—than in actually making watchable films. Sure, it was the Sixties, and everybody else was doing it, but that doesn't mean it's any fun to watch now.
At least technically, Criterion has done a stellar job. The anamorphic transfers on all five films are sharp and clear, with no scratches or dirt. Violence at Noon and Japanese Summer are both in black-and-white and look pristine, while the other three are in color and look vivid and bright, just as they were shot. Similarly, the mono mixes on all five films are also nice and loud, particularly for mono mixes. You won't miss a thing, even the tiniest audio detail. Since this is part of the Eclipse collection, there are no extras, but none are really needed.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There are two elements here that are worth mentioning. First, visually, the films are at least pretty. There's a montage of consumerism in Pleasures of the Flesh that's as visually exciting as a TV commercial. Oshima's storytelling isn't worth a hill of beans, but at least his visual sense is stellar. As portraits of their time, specifically the artsy Sixties of Japan, Pleasures of the Flesh and Three Resurrected Drunkards in particular capture the visual flair of their era, even if they aren't particularly entertaining as films.
Second, the one film in this set that at least tries for storytelling complexity (as opposed to cheap experimental theatrics) is Violence at Noon. The idea of making the story about the relationship between the two women, as opposed to the killer, is novel, and the unveiling of the complex history between them is handled with some appropriate tension. It's just that the characters themselves aren't that interesting, the dialogue is rather flat, and the film gradually devolves into a numbing repetitive structure where the two women have the same exact argument over and over until a final decision is reached. In its repetitiousness and lack of emotional depth, it's still ultimately just as unsuccessful as the other films in this set, even if it does aim higher.
None of the films in this collection are great or even particularly good. Instead, they only serve to prove that nothing dates worse than ultra-hip self-conscious artiness. Unless you're the type of collector that simply must have everything with the Criterion logo on it, there's little reason to buy this set.
Like arty collegiate poseurs acting as if they're swaggering tough guys, the five films in this set are hopelessly guilty.
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Scales of Justice, Violence At Noon
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Scales of Justice, Japanese Summer: Double Suicide
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Scales of Justice, Sing A Song Of Sex
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Scales of Justice, Three Resurrected Drunkards
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