Saturday, September 11, 2010


Do you remember that famous scene in Casablanca when the Germans start singing their song, and then the French start singing their song, and they try to outsing each other but the crowd drowns out the Nazis? Now imagine a film with the same sort of conflict running through nearly its entire length, except that you have no clue whatsoever who the good guys and bad guys are, though you have a strong feeling that something terrible will happen soon. That's not what pops into your mind when you see the English title of this film from Criterion Eclipse's Oshima's Outlaw Sixties collection. You'd be excused for expecting something funnier or at least bawdier. Oshima's actual title, which translates into "A Treatise on Japanese Bawdy Songs," is in the mock-academic mode I've seen in other Japanese films (e.g. Shohei Imamura's "Entomology of Japan," known in America as The Insect Woman). The Japanese title still doesn't advertise the ominous quality of Oshima's vibrantly bleak portrait of student life in flux. If I'd been distributing this film in the U.S., I'd take my title from a non-sex song sung in the film: The Festival of the Black Sun. Does that sound too much like a horror film? Perhaps, but if it inspires a slight sense of dread as you sit down for the show, then there'd be truth in advertising.

It's late winter, 1967: time for college entrance exams amid the light snow and campus protests against the Vietnam War. Oshima follows four young men who seem less concerned about how they did on the test than with finding out the identity of the girl who sat in seat number 469, who signs an anti-war petition "Fujiwara XXX." She's not unworthy of young men's obsession, but their pursuit is sidetracked while they attend a class party at a tavern thrown by Professor Otake, a literature teacher and expert on the titular bawdy drinking songs. He teaches his co-ed cohort one that we'll hear through the rest of the picture. It opens:

Let's begin with the first case, hoi!
Doing it with an only daughter, hoi!
Ask her parents' permission first, hoi!

Future director Juzo Itami plays Professor Otake at his last banquet.

During various reprises, singers will take us as far as the twelfth case, but Otake moves on to a ranting reading from a favorite author in favor of rebellion before he passes out drunk. He and the four lads end up overnighting in the girls' dorm. One of the guys ventures out of their guest room and blunders about the halls, encountering Otake, freshly passed out, in his own room with a gas heater in disarray. In the morning, the kids learn that Otake has died of carbon monoxide poisoning.

Reeling from the news, the boys, with their ringleader Nakamura feeling certain that he killed Otake somehow, rekindle their obsession with No. 469, and imagine themselves gang-raping her in the exam room. While Nakamura crashes Otake's wake and confronts his mistress, Miss Tanigawa, the other three guys hook up with a Korean girl and head to a protest concert in search of 469. At the wake, Otake is lauded as an activist who had led protests against the reinstatement of the traditional "imperialist" Founder's Day holiday. Friends sing protest songs at the wake to honor his memory, but Nakamura disrupts the remembrance by reprising "Let's start with the first case." It's a protest of his own, his insistence that death has no meaning of the kind Otake's friends want to impose on it. It's also an assertion that the bawdy song expressed Otake's essence more than the political lyrics.

Akiko Koyama, last seen in Oshima's Violence at Noon, as Tanigawa

The boys adopt the song as a mantra, as if they can make it the one constant in their uncertain existence. Other characters have songs as well; the Korean girl, for instance, has a number about the hard life of a prostitute. The importance of music to the story and the cultural moment in which it's set becomes most clear when she and the other three boys reach the protest rally. On this ostensibly anti-American occasion, we find Japanese students playing western instruments and singing American folk songs in English: This Land is Your Land, We Shall Overcome, and from a single riveting voice, Goodnight Irene.

Kaneda, the Korean, reprises her song and is asked by the clueless folkies whether it comes from America or Africa. We hear a kind of cultural synthesis in the making as the students perform a Japanese-language, American-style folk song. Finally, No. 469 takes the stage and sings the ominous song about the Festival of the Black Sun. Nakamura's pals try to drown her out with "Let's start with the first case," then with confessions of their imaginary rape of her.

"The Festival of the Black Sun is upon us: Japan, Spring 1967." Talent search winner Kazuko Tajima as Mayuko Fujiwara, "No. 469."

Amazingly, Miss Fujiwara dares them to make the rape real, setting up a climax in the exam hall that includes an oration by Miss Tanigawa on the Korean origin of Japan's divine dynasty, one more counter-reprise of the first-case song, the stretching out of a stripped Fujiwara as if upon an altar, with just enough hints of Dies Irae from composer Hikaru Hayashi to sell the sacrifice metaphor, and an admonition that what's happening is real that simultaneously dares us to question the premise.

Nihon Shunka-ko, to let the title speak for itself, is a coming-of-age film for a nation in tumult. The students are waiting to learn their future while worrying about the future of their country and the wider world. The songs in the picture express competing if not incompatible worldviews, and the cumulative effect is a carefully calibrated cacophony giving voice(s) to the uncertainty of "1967: Spring in Japan." The real-life protests included in the film give it an authentic sense of urgency, while the long takes with which Oshima shows us the musical protest rally sympathetically convey the students' own sense of its significance while sustaining suspense as we await the inevitable confrontations. Oshima immerses us in the atmosphere of the moment, from the weather to the music to the light of the bonfires. The "you are there" quality of this film is particularly strong, and cinematographer Akira Takada deserves much of the credit for that.Oshima completists may want to make something, given one of his best-known later films, of the repeated references to "Lawrence," with the students wondering whether D. H. or T. E. is meant, but since I haven't yet seen Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence I'll say no more on the subject.

Scenic views by Akira Takada

Instead, I'll strongly recommend Sing a Song of Sex, since we have to call it that, as a fascinating film that takes a critical yet sympathetic look at the Sixties generation without succumbing to the Pop Art temptations of the era. Oshima has shown enough versatility in the Eclipse box set to make me certain that he could make a Pop Art film if he wanted to. Fortunately, with no offense intended against Pop Art, the director made a film that has dated less and is probably more accessible now than many contemporary exercises in style for its own sake. Almost without intending it, also, Oshima has made a true musical film in which songs express character and advance the plot without the songs being "numbers" that people burst into implausibly. Nihon Shunka-ko is a one-of-a-kind film and an extraordinary achievement.

Criterion Eclipse doesn't give you trailers, but Criterion has uploaded one for this film on its YouTube page. It doesn't do the film justice, either, but take a look anyway.


Alex DeLarge said...

Nice review! I just posted a review of Oshima's THE PLEASURES OF THE FLESH and have finished the Criterion Eclipse set. Glad to see Oshima getting released on DVD but we need BOY, NIGHT AND FOG, and DEATH BY HANGING...though I love that Criterion is releasing MERRY CHRISTMAS, MR. LAWRENCE on blu-ray later this month!

Hellbilly Hollywood said...

Yes, nice review!
It saddens me how most americans think Ringu started "good" Japanese cinema.

If you havent, you should check out House.