The Nation Collapsing Under its Own Weight

Koshikei (Death by Hanging)

Timothy Iles, Department of Pacific and Asian Studies, University of Victoria [About | Email]

Volume 5, Issue 2 (Film review 3 in 2005). First published in ejcjs on 31 October 2005.

Dir: Oshima Nagisa (1968)
Cast: Sato Kei, Watanabe Fumio et al.
Distributor: Pony Canyon
Black and White, Mono, Japanese, 117 minutes
Rated: Unrated
DVD Release (Japan): 20 September 2000

Of all the films I would love to see released in restored, digital form, this is by far the most political and very possibly the most important, serving as it does as a focussed, courageous, thorough, and savage attack on the inhumanity of the Japanese social apparatus of the late 1960s. By this time Oshima Nagisa had established himself as a biting critic of hypocrisy in general and Japan in particular, through such gritty films as Seishun zankoku monogatari (Cruel Story of Youth, 1960), Taiyō no hakaba (The Sun's Burial, 1960), and Etsuraku (The Pleasures of the Flesh, 1965), but it was with Kōshikei and its deconstructive exposition of Japan's racist attitudes towards its Korean minority that he struck his most powerful blow against the destructive and dehumanising processes of Japanese statehood.

The film is based on an incident that had occurred several years earlier, and tells the story of 'R' (played by Yu Do-yun), a Korean youth accused, tried, and sentenced to death for the rape and murder of two Japanese girls. However, R fails to die during the execution—that is to say, he is hanged, but even after 15 minutes, his heart continues to beat, and he remains conscious. He has lost his memory and his identity, though, and so in order to accomplish the correct meting out of justice, the prison officials present at R's hanging go about re-educating him, re-instilling in him his identity, and re-enacting his crimes. It is through these processes of re-creation that Oshima reveals the official representatives of Japan's national institutions to be the parties truly responsible for R and for the crimes committed against the Japanese girls.

Oshima structures the film simply and realistically—after showing the layout of the prison yard with its execution chamber, a neat, cream-coloured building, separated by some small distance from the general prison space. He brings us inside the chamber to show us the actual mechanisms involved in hanging the condemned. We witness R's execution and so become parties to the process of justice which has resulted in the necessity of re-educating R. The various officials represent the usual social institutions—the Education Officer (Watanabe Fumio), the Doctor (Toura Rokko), the District Attorney (Matsuda Masao), the Priest (Ishido Toshirō), the Chief of Guards (Adachi Masao), and the Prison Warden (Sato Kei). These characters find themselves in a fine dilemma as they try to reason through their predicament, with the Priest and Doctor exchanging some particularly pointed rationalisations for either killing R again or for releasing him. Can R; with no identity, perhaps with no longer a soul, be accountable for the crimes of which he had been convicted? Is it justifiable to hang him again? Should his identity and guilt be explained to him? Explain to him they do, and yet R refuses to accept his identity; refuses to accept his guilt; refuses to accept the position in which Japan has placed him.

The film is brutal in its accusation of Japan as a racist, closed-minded nation—as the characters re-educate and re-socialise R, they act out his home life (unwittingly showing him to be a calm, serious, sensitive young man determined to complete his schooling and so improve the living conditions of his family), playing on the stereotypes of Koreans in Japan as violent, emotional, and alcoholic. The dignity with which R meets these stereotypes is telling, as is the vulgarity and obvious comfort with which the Japanese officials slip into their personas, portraying either of R's siblings, parents, or neighbours. It is this simple presentation of the officials' barely-concealed barbarity, as they themselves become more and more drunk, which reveals the true depth of Japan's culpability in creating R as a criminal. Oshima accomplishes this presentation with ease and clarity using the behaviour of his characters, but more convincingly using the often complex mise en scène of his camerawork to convey powerfully and semiotically the forceful association of Japan with an institutionalised smugness—a national arrogance determined to relegate the Korean minority to marginalised, subservient status as cheap labour and potential criminals. This camerawork and set-design create an immediately comprehensible situation of R as a helpless and powerless individual, completely hemmed-in by a hostile social structure. The walls of R's apartment, as re-created by the prison officials, are the newspaper pages telling of Japan's daily reality; the District Attorney, ponderous, impassive, is seated before a large hinomaru flag, the weight of the nation at his back; R's body, draped under the Japanese flag, supports that weight.

Despite the highly specific nature of the story, the plot and writing (by Oshima and collaborator Fukao Michinori) allow the film to achieve a universality—at root, it is the struggle of the downtrodden against an uncaring state machinery designed to maintain itself at the expense of those who sustain it. It is very much a product of its times, coming as it does one year after, for example, Abe Kōbō's play Tomodachi (Friends) received its debut, with its story of a Man held captive in his own home by a group of strangers, a family determined to help him overcome the error of his anti-social ways. But Kōshikei is much more than merely an example of 1960s anti-establishmentarianism. The issues with which it deals are timeless and important, pitting the legitimate rights of the individual against the exploitative expediencies of a justice system which trivialises the marginal to find a convenient conclusion to complex issues of race, agency, exclusion, and disenfranchisement. Oshima's conclusion is no less convenient but rings truer. It is the blindness of the State to the realities of its own responsibilities which lies at the bottom of its guilt in creating criminals of an entire segment of its population; it is the State's contrarily sharp perception of race which lies at the bottom of its willingness to create that class of criminals; and it is the wilful collaboration of the citizenry which permits the State to evade its obligations to all of its constituents. Oshima emphasises this last point at the film's close, which famously thanks the officials for doing their duty in the ultimately successful execution of R for crimes of which by now we realise he is not guilty—for this close to the film thanks us, as well, for our involvement, placing on our shoulders the burden of maintaining a social apparatus which we have come to see as perilously close to collapsing under the weight of the guilt it tries to support.

A truly great film, and one which deserves far wider accessibility in the form of a re-mastered DVD—definitely high on my wish list for works I'd love to see available.

About the Author

Timothy Iles is Assistant Professor of Japanese Studies at the University of Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, where he teaches Japanese culture, cinema, and language. He has an MA from the University of British Columbia in Modern Japanese Literature, and a PhD from the University of Toronto, also in Modern Japanese Literature. He has taught courses on Japanese literature, theatre, culture, and cinema in Canada and the United States, and has published articles on those subjects. He is also author of Abe Kobo: an Exploration of his Prose, Drama, and Theatre (Fuccecio: European Press Academic Publishers, 2000).

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