For two weeks this month, BAMcinématek presents a retrospective of two directors considered to represent the apotheosis of art cinema in their respective countries: Japanese political avant-garde filmmaker Oshima Nagisa, and French New Wave auteur Jean-Luc Godard. The comparison between the two has been made before—indeed, for over fifty years. Although the bulk of the films presented during this retrospective are considered masterpieces of film art, their juxtaposition is fraught with contention. At best, the series is old-fashioned; at worst, it is deeply problematic.
Oshima is often described as the “Japanese Godard,” but, as the Japanese filmmaker famously quipped, he would prefer Godard be called the “French Oshima.” This oft-repeated narrative is described within BAM’s promotional materials, which focus on the two men as figureheads of their respective New Wave movements. However, the term “Japanese New Wave” has a difficult history: it was originally used by the executives of Shochiku Studios to increase ticket sales, and to draw attention to their new crop of young filmmakers, including Imamura Shohei, Masumura Yasuzo, Yoshida Yoshishige, and, of course, Oshima Nagisa. This term, however, was not supported by the filmmakers themselves.
In 1960, Oshima wrote a scathing article addressed to “art journalists” who all-too-easily co-opted the “New Wave” title for profit. Oshima argues that these new Japanese filmmakers were far more politically engaged than the label “New Wave” would suggest. As Oshima writes, “Have you ever used the term “New Wave” as anything other than a synonym of sex and violence?” In the Japanese context, the label New Wave denoted something more formal and superficial—light-years away from the deeply divisive and political works of Japan in the 1960s.
This superficial categorization is reflected in the BAM retrospective. The Godard films are an assortment of his most famous works, ranging from À bout de souffle [Breathless] (1960) to Numéro deux [Number Two](1975). Although there are a few important gaps in this best-of compilation—for instance, La Chinoise [The Chinese] (1967) and Le Mépris [Contempt] (1963)—the Godard films shown are impressively varied. Films range from the deeply, obviously political, such as the staunchly Marxist-Leninist Tout va bien [released in the U.S. as “All’s Well,” and internationally as “Just Great”] (1972): a Brechtian parable in which Jane Fonda and Yves Montand are trapped in a sausage factory by its striking workers. Others, such as Pierrot Le Fou (1965), are delicious eye-candy for the cinephile, featuring Anna Karina and Jean-Paul Belmondo as well-dressed renegades on the run from the law.
Oshima Nagisa’s half of the retrospective, however, lacks some of his most important and political works, such as Nihon no Yoru to Kiri [Night and Fog in Japan] (1960) or Kōshikei [Death by Hanging] (1968). The retrospective does include a few notable titles rarely seen in American theaters: for instance, Shinjuku dorobô nikki [Diary of a Shinjuku Thief] (1969) depicts two characters, a tomboy and a dandy, traipsing through carnival-like Shinjuku—a Tokyo neighborhood which was the heart of political engagement and artistic fervor around 1968. Likewise, Tôkyô sensô sengo hiwa [The Man Who Left His Will on Film](1970) is a melancholic, meta-cinematic fable about a young filmmaker involved in the student protest movement who sees—or appears to see—another man jump to his death. The rest of the films chosen, however, tend to be crowd-pleasers: from the stylish, tragic love story Seishun zankoku monogatari [Cruel Story of Youth] (1960) to the Franco-Japanese Ai no korīda [In the Realm of the Senses] (1976), perhaps the only hard-core-pornography-qua-elite-art-film ever created.
While Oshima’s films share Godard’s iconoclasm and preoccupation with the risqué, the resemblance largely ends there. Godard’s films did not start explicitly addressing politics before 1967, but Oshima had been there from the start: films such as Night and Fog in Japan depict the ever-increasing rift between the Old and New Left. Even Breathless or Vivre sa vie [My Life to Live](1962) can, by comparison, only seem helplessly bourgeois.
What unites Godard and Oshima, then, aside from a certain predilection for iconic eyewear, is their status as auteurs and intellectual figureheads, beloved by aesthetes in both countries. Oshima, who passed away in 2013, was the most well-known filmmaker of his generation. His many articles were compiled and translated into English in 1992. The connection to Godard was made immediately, and, to Oshima’s great annoyance, it stuck—despite the evolutions of both filmmakers’ styles and politics. Rather than providing a more nuanced perspective, this series cherry-picks films from Oshima’s catalogue which support, however vaguely, his most “Godard-like” elements. It might be high time to retire this overwrought comparison.
“Oshima x Godard” runs March 3 – 16, 2017 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (30 Lafayette Avenue, Brooklyn).
Julia Alekseyeva is an adjunct professor of Cinema Studies at Brooklyn College, and is finishing a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature at Harvard. She is also an author-illustrator whose debut graphic novel, Soviet Daughter: A Graphic Revolution, was published in January by Microcosm Publishing.