Japanese Director Nagisa Oshima Dies at 80

merry Christmas Mr Lawrence - H 2012
courtesy of the San Sebastian Film Festival

The controversial auteur’s erotic “In the Realm of the Senses” had to be taken to France for postproduction due to its explicit content.

TOKYO – Japanese director Nagisa Oshima died of pneumonia on Tuesday in Fujisawa, south of Tokyo, where he had been living since his retirement from filmmaking.

He had moved there after Taboo (Gohatto), his 1999 movie about gay samurai, which competed at Cannes.

Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983), Oshima’s only English-language work, starred David Bowie as a man in a Japanese POW camp, with fellow musician Ryuichi Sakamoto, who wrote and performed the score, as his guard. The film also featured Beat Takeshi, who went on to a successful directing career as Takeshi Kitano.  

Born in Kyoto, Japan’s ancient capital, Oshima entered the Shochiku studio after graduating from the city’s university with a law degree.

Beginning his career at 26 with 1959’s A Town of Love and Hope, the director went on to make a series of politically charged films through the 1960s that were credited with helping to create the new wave of Japanese cinema.

His 1960 film Night and Fog in Japan was deemed too controversial and was pulled by Shochiku after a few days, leading him to leave and set up his own production company. However, Shochiku continued to distribute his films, right up to Taboo.

In the Realm of the Senses (Ai no Corrida), his 1976 film based on a real incident in Japan during the 1930s, told the tale of sexual obsession between a hotel owner and his maid. The sex in the film, executive produced by Koji Wakamatsu, who died last October, was reportedly real. The film had to be taken to France for postproduction due to its explicit content. Its uncensored version remains unavailable in Japan.

His 1978 film Empire of Passion (Ai no Borei), a similar erotic tale that featured the same male lead, Tatsuya Fuji, as In the Realm of the Senses, won Oshima the best director award at the Cannes Film Festival that year.