What it is • Here, in this corner of industrial, postwar Japan we have our prison. On the grounds, detached yet enclosed, there is a small compound, complete with a garden and what looks like a little house, surrounded by a fence - to keep in, rather than to keep out. This is the execution chamber. Our narrator guides us through the open corridors and rooms of what will be our location for much of the next two hours, explaining in his matter-of-fact tone that this is where the prisoner goes to the bathroom, this is where prayer services are conducted - Buddhist or Christian, depending upon the faith of the condemned, and this, of course, is where the man is hanged. From this introduction, we proceed to watch the hanging of R., a young Korean convicted of raping and murdering two Japanese girls. He shudders as he is dragged to the trapdoor, the noose is placed around his neck, the door drops, the man falls, and he dies.
Except that he doesn't die.
A note appears onscreen - "The body of the condemned man, R., refuses execution." Why? With this question our story begins.
Why I like it •
Death of Hanging captures one of the most dazzling qualities of sixties cinema: its ability to maintain a strong sense of individual identity while embodying many different tones, styles, and perspectives. At times, Oshima seems to be treating us to a broad, farcical take on Japanese society with the buffoonish guards, priests, doctors, and bureaucrats re-enacting rapes and murders on one another in an effort to playact R.'s guilt so he'll understand who he is and why he must hang (considered a prerequisite for his execution's success). In other moments, the darkness of the comedy becomes genuinely tragic as when R. relives his home life and we see the miserable den of poverty and unhappiness from which he came (as well as the anti-Korean racism in the Japanese officials' interpretations). When R.'s sister appears, she voices a nationalist, left-wing interpretation of R. as the heroic criminal, a reading - given the times and Oshima's own radicalism - we might expect the film to embrace but it allows R. himself to shoot down this justification as he describes his own psychology and sorrow at re-discovering the humanity of his victims. By the end of the film, we have been reminded how many of these Japanese representatives of the law were themselves war criminals, and led to ask what R.'s "guilt" means: if he can't remember his crime or even who he is, is he guilty? If he remembers but has changed, is he? Death by Hanging stakes out a position clearly opposed to capital punishment, but it does so with open-ended questions rather than pat answers. I like it because it is visually controlled, philosophically compelling, humorous, sad, angry, and moving. Somehow, it fuses brilliant ridicule with genuine empathy; many films have trouble with either approach, so finding one that captures both is a genuine discovery.
How you can see it • Luckily, the film is available online here, though who knows for how long. The late Oshima (who passed away in January) has several films on Criterion or Eclipse label, but unfortunately this isn't one of them (nor my other favorite Oshima, The Ceremony, which - like this film - allegorically skewers postwar Japan using its rituals). You can see images from Death by Hanging in my visual tribute "The Hangman Puzzle" and a clip from the film opens "Shadow of '68", Chapter 18 of my video series.
What do you think? • Is this Oshma's greatest film? The best of the Japanese New Wave? Is it your first in each category, and if so, do you want to see more? Is R. guilty in the metaphysical sense? What does his sister represent, to him, to us, to Oshima? Does the film's portrait of Japanese-Korean relations hold true today? Does a film have an obligation to stake out a clear position on a controversial issue it addresses? What did you think of the mixture of tones in Death by Hanging, particularly as it addressed serious subjects, not only capital punishment and racism, but violence against women? What do you make of the public prosecutor's speech at the end of the movie?