In this weeks instalment of Eastern Premise Jason Julier returns to the cinema of Nagisa Ôshima.

This week Eastern Premise has been compiling a list of previous entries to ensure as panoramic scope as possible. Our quest continues with another film by Nagisa Oshima. At the time of writing, Oshima is our most featured director to date, which may come as a surprise in a territory dominated by Ozu, Kurosawa, Naruse, Mizoguchi and Imamura.

One of the disappointments of the Sight & Sound 2012 poll is the continued absence of Oshima who was not known outside of Japan until the end of the 1960’s. At the cutting edge of the Japanese New Wave movement, he remains best known for his controversial In the Realm of the Senses which ignited the medium in 1976. A powerful and provocative film that still divides today, his work during the previous decade is just as confrontational and political. With Hope Lies celebrating all things Hitchcock lately, it is time seems a perfect time to highlight Oshima’s own brand of Hitchcockian menace; Etsuraku or Pleasures of the Flesh.

Released in 1964, the film marks a change in tact from Oshima who had moved away from feature films after the release of The Rebel (1962), seeking refuge within the realms of television and radio, creating short documentaries. This retreat may have been a surprise to some onlookers given that Oshima directed 6 films in the preceding 3 years. He had become the first director to move into independent production following his experiences at the Shochiku studio, following the release of Night and Fog in Japan. Other directors subsequently followed his lead and moved into the independent sector assisted by the Arts Theatre Guild and their approach to financing films.

Pleasures of the Flesh in many ways is Oshima laying the groundwork for his next batch of projects which would continue his focus on rebellious youth and sex within the traditional structure of Japanese society. As a forerunner to the devastating Violence at Noon, it is easy to write off the film as a disappointment and a melting pot of ideas; it also failed at the box office. Eastern Premise prefers to look at the film as the return of a recharged Oshima; all set to stir up trouble once again with the studio and political establishment. The battle lines were already laid out, as explained by Jasper Sharp’s excellent Behind the Pink Curtain. Oshima was incensed by the treatment of Tetsuji Takechi’s Black Snow; ‘there had never been a year in which film had received so many attacks from the outside. That is why Japanese film needed me. Pleasures of the Flesh was my response to that.’ Oshima was on his way back.  

During this period in Japan, the Yakuza genre had grown in popularity offering cinema goers tales of criminal elite, where the bad guys always got the girl and flaunted the law. Yet in such tales the ramifications of such actions and the subsequent emotional wounds were often missing. Also enjoying tremendous popularity was the Pinku or Pink genre that skirted with sex within the confines of Japan’s strict censorship laws. Black Snow challenged the rules, the ever watchful Allied occupation forces and the US Security Treaty. Pleasures of the Flesh marked a new phase on sexuality, violence, basic human instincts and excess from Oshima that would form the backbone of later films such as Diary of a Shinjuku Thief and Gohatto, his final film. Oshima remained forever critical of Japanese society, which he viewed along with other directors as in decline, chasing the dollar and thus selling its soul.

In Pleasures of the Flesh we experience a tale of deceit, desire and murder. Wakizaka is a recent graduate having to earn a living in a rudimentary job whilst seeking the attention of Shoko.  As a tutor to this young girl, he sees her blossom into a beautiful young woman whilst gaining the trust of her parents. Thanks to this association he has learned her darkest secret, which she has managed to shut away and dispel. When the secret promises to be unlocked, he is called upon by her parents to take care of a despicable individual who raped an eight year old Shoko.

During this deed he is seen by a government official, who is in the midst of embezzling his employers to the tune of 90 million. Expecting to be discovered within the year, this clerk seizes his opportunity to offer his silence if Wakizaka babysits a suitcase full of money. The fraudster expects to serve 6 years for his crime and upon release will return to collect his suitcase. The crime and its ramifications are meticulously planned, having ‘given up his youth for this crime’, the only outside influence he cannot control is the suitcase sitter. Yet he has researched Wakizaka and feels confident that the clean cut and modest man will keep his end of the bargain.

Initially his judgement is well placed. The trigger that causes Wakizaka to implode is his love for Shoko; who marries a wealthy cosmetic owner and remains oblivious to his feelings for her and his actions. This wakeup call forces the bitter and alienated Wakizaka into an excess of spending, where he tries to satisfy his love for Shoko by renting a lookalike for a year and indulging in baser instincts. This is a journey into his regrets and fears whilst haunted by visions of his true love, proving that ultimately money cannot buy happiness. A vicious circle ensues as he rebounds from a series of arrangements with the final dramatic ending providing a fitting finale that Hitchcock would approve of.      

Pleasures of the Flesh is a candid portrayal of human weakness on so many levels. We should feel repulsed by Wakizaka and the pain he inflicts on more unfortunates who are willing to sell themselves for currency. However we can understand his pain and demons. On another level this could be Japan pawning itself to the American dollar and dispensing with its historical traditions. Excluding these political subliminal messages, Pleasures of the Flesh confirms Oshima’s visual mastery of the Cinemascope format and his continued development as a director. Without question this is a far more overt, fluid and mainstream film than his previous offerings or such later projects such as Death by Hanging where the balance is heavily pitched towards the political.

Released on DVD in the UK by the Yume Pictures label, Pleasures of the Flesh is highly recommended and is a fine print accompanied by film notes and trailer.