Death by Hanging (Nagisa Oshima / Japan, 1968):

Bravura vaudeville, through "the gate of hell" and into 1968 Japan. Nagisa Oshima kicks off with a pokerfaced parody of j’accuse polemics by taking the camera into the execution chamber and proceeds to dismantle the chamber in tandem with the mise en scène, so that the clinical image becomes a mirror of falsehood. The Korean student (Do-yun Yu) is sentenced to hang but survives the noose, an act of rebellion that greatly inconveniences the institutional figureheads watching from the bench. A new hanging is a multi-pronged pain ("If we do it again we might be breaking the law"), the dazed, amnesic survivor must have his memory jogged so that his identity and his sense of guilt can be restored -- he has to be reconstructed so he can be destroyed. Doctor, priest and prison official scramble to mimic the man’s childhood and crimes, the walls are plastered with newspapers to simulate a ghetto upbringing, the public prosecutor (Hosei Komatsu) watches from a window, haloed by the Rising Sun. Performance is essential in an exercise in indoctrination, the bespectacled education officer (Fumio Watanabe) wants Yu to remember his offense by reenacting it on a passerby (Akiko Koyama) but in a rush of enthusiasm he takes over and shows the prisoner how it’s done ("See, you did this," he declares over the violated body). At the center of all this Japanese spazzing is the Korean outsider’s inert revolt, a conscience that, once revived, refuses the verdict. Oshima’s astonishingly fertile revue registers Camus’s death penalty remark ("The instincts warring in man are not, as the law claims, constant forces in a state of equilibrium") and makes it about the medium itself, stacking layer on top of layer and then pushing the whole pile down the hangman’s trapdoor. The comprehensive breakdown leaves no stone unturned: It is about cultural identity and imperialism, justice and cinematic representation, Mizoguchi’s female ghosts even ("When the race is sad, we women are especially sad," Yu’s victim/sister says). The punchline offers a "successful" execution, the audience is thanked for having watched. With Kei Sato, Toshiro Ishido, Masao Adachi, and Rokko Toura. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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