224. JAPANESE SUMMER: DOUBLE SUICIDE (1967)

Muri shinjû: Nihon no natsu

“I think that our only route to freedom and our only route to pleasure can come after we have first recognized that freedom and pleasure are not possible in this world.”–Nagisa Ôshima

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DIRECTED BY: Nagisa Ôshima

FEATURING: Keiko Sakurai, Kei Satô, Masakazu Tamura, Taiji Tonoyama

PLOT: An oversexed eighteen-year old girl wanders a city looking for a man to sleep with her—any man. She takes up with a strange, reserved older army deserter, but fails to convince him to service her, as he has a death wish and is only interested meeting someone who will kill him. The two are abducted and taken to a compound where outlaws are being recruited to fight in a secret underground war; meanwhile, television reports tell of a foreign sniper killing civilians on the streets, driving all of Japan to hide in their homes.

Still from Japanese Summer: Double Suicide (1967)

BACKGROUND:

  • Disappointed by the timidity of the Japanese studio system and the political controversy surrounding his 1960 movie Night and Fog in Japan, Nagisa Ôshima formed his own production company in 1965. Japanese Summer: Double Suicide was one of the baker’s dozen of self-produced films he directed between 1965 and 1972, and the first one to indulge in wall-to-wall surrealism.
  • Stars Keiko Sakurai and Kei Satô also appeared in Nagisa Ôshima’s next film, Death by Hanging, which was Sakurai’s only other acting credit.
  • Ôshima would go on to cult success in the West with his sexually explicit provocation In the Realm of the Senses (1976), and with Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983) starring .
  • This feature should not be confused with Masahiro Shinoda‘s 1969 arthouse hit Double Suicide, a fourth-wall breaking adaptation of an 18th century Japanese play about doomed lovers. Although entirely unrelated, Shinoda‘s film is worth seeing in its own right.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: In what just might be a bit of symbolic foreshadowing, the two main characters lie down on top chalk outlines around which, moments ago, reverent monks had been circling and chanting. (Curiously, the outlines are sketched on a what should be a busy four-lane highway, yet there is no traffic).

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Virgin nympho; deserted highways; “a Japanese Dallas”

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  Starring a nympho who can’t get laid and a suicidal man who can’t get killed, Ôshima’s surrealistic Sixties satire carves out a unique space somewhere between a ian joke and an extended zen koan.


Original trailer for Japanese Summer: Double Suicide

COMMENTS: When our on-the-make nymphomaniac meets the man with a death wish, her first personal question to him is “how old are you?” (Not that she cares much about the age difference, she’s just making small talk before inviting him to take her virginity). His answer is a weary “a hundred years old.” Amused, and oblivious to his morbidity, she brightly responds, “a hundred? Then I’m zero!”  She is bright and flighty, an empty vessel who needs to be filled with experience; he is prematurely jaded, and needs an injection of love and hope. These are characters who exist only at the extremes. They will soon be joined by a teenage boy who is obsessed with guns and killing, as well as the rogue’s gallery of lesser grotesques they encounter when they shack up overnight in a warehouse housing a gang’s “lone wolves”: a knife-happy killer who must be kept tied up from fear he will slice up his allies, a pistol-packing older gangster who speaks in parables, and a pair who arrive bearing a ceremonial television set. Even the extras are eccentric, like the skinny crook in the black mesh bodysuit who looks like he should be hanging out outside the Tokyo Greyhound terminal.

Nubile Keiko Sakurai, an actress who only appeared in one other film (also directed by Ôshima), is the movie’s center, the only female presence in a world of warring men. The extended joke is that they do not consider the sexpot a prize to fight over; for these men, sex holds little interest. Fighting is its own reward. With her two-toned hair (dyed blond in the front) and the very un-Japanese figure she flaunts (she boasts about her 40-inch bust) Sakurai is a proto-punk goddess. Her fashionable, though not very practical, glasses don’t even have lenses, just plastic fingers that cover her eyes. She is, by design, an incomplete blend of Western and Japanese ideals: a blond-ish bombshell. Although it seems likely Ôshima intended for Sakurai to be a figure of ridicule—the bubble-headed bimbo who has abandoned traditional Japanese values for a preoccupation with sex—viewed today, she’s the most attractive presence in the movie. She may represent the new ways, the emptiness of teen culture, but her elders deserve an equal amount of ridicule. The warrior ethic they cultivate is no longer the code of the samurai: it’s a meaningless devotion to violence for its own sake. (“It’s not a war, it’s just killing!” insists an offended gangster, insulted at the notion that there might be a reason behind the never-explained conflict with unseen rivals). At least Keiko is fun, and you have to agree with her when she rolls her eyes and complains “this is so stupid!” when the men snub her yet again to argue about killing. She may be boy-crazy, but she’s still the sanest person in the ward.

Japanese Summer is very Japanese in its brand of surrealism, but the futility-based scenario makes it hard not to draw comparisons to Luis Buñuel’s Surrealist jokes. Sakurai’s inability to find a man to sleep with her is like a gender-reversed version of the erotic frustration the French master would tackle in That Obscure Object of Desire. Like guests at a dinner party, the gang in the warehouse waits for a battle that will never arrive. And the idea of a suicidal man who can’t find anyone to kill him—either the would-be murderer loses his nerve, or the gun misfires, or they are interrupted by other characters asserting their own agendas—seems like a dream Buñuel would kick himself for not having. The frustration of dreams, where our desires float before us like phantoms we cannot grasp, motivates both men’s work. Ôshima delights in this tease, drawing out tension by playing the game as long as he can, denying his characters the sex or guns or death they crave for release.

But Ôshima departs from the Buñuelian formula by eventually granting his characters’ wishes—and letting them experience the disappointment that comes from achieving your heart’s desire. Double Suicide‘s teens desire to break down the walls that separate them from the adult world, but once the youths break through, there’s nowhere left for them to go. With no battle to fight, and no men to conquer, the remaining outcasts betray their own culture and side with a foreign sniper, drawn to the white man’s silent nihilism. Ôshima is not very subtle in his hints that the seductions of American culture are responsible for the social corruption sweeping across the streets this Japanese Summer. With a foreign killer on the loose and gangsters roaming the streets, the television commentator compares the situation to “a Japanese Dallas.”

Ôshima described Japanese Summer: Double Suicide as an exploration of “the Japanese death drive.” The film firmly sits in 1967 Japan, rooted in anxiety that the countercultural upheavals in Western countries might be migrating to Japanese shores. It is set in a world where the old values are eroding, and even the gangsters no longer have honor. The timely title seems intended to refer to the current season. Yet, the existential themes the story invokes are mythic and timeless. This movie’s world is a sort of void; regular society exists only intermittently, as the plot requires. The city streets are deserted when citizens are not needed to advance the main story. The primary characters have an archetypal persistence: the female fool, a life force in spite of herself; the world-weary wanderer seeking release from the burdens of existence; the wise old mystic who helps the lovers along with words of wisdom. Ôshima’s movie may be aimed at a contemporaneous audience and grounded in a specific time and place, but the theme of anomie in the upcoming generation, of a society headed nowhere, resonates always and everywhere.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… obtuse by design, and Oshima provides no magic decoder ring to sort it all out…  From the liner notes, I am led to believe that Oshima would be pleased that I was confounded by his movie; however, I am not sure how he’d feel about me being bored by it.”–Jamie S. Rich, Criterion Confessions (DVD box set)

“…as cheerfully, absurdly nihilistic as anything I’ve seen come from the sixties, a strange and weirdly funny portrait of culture without a philosophy, indulging its most base desires—sex, violence, rebellion for its own sake—at any cost.”–Sean Axmaker, seanax.com (DVD box set)

“It creates a disorienting effect that illustrates the disorientation of an entire lost generation that is trying to reestablish itself in impossible times. One gets a distinct Bunuel vibe…”–Matthew Blevins, Next Projection

IMDB LINK: Japanese Summer: Double Suicide (1967)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

Japanese Summer: Double Suicide (1967) – The Criterion Collection – Criterion’s page for the movie (part of their Eclipse set “Oshima’s Outlaw Sixties”) has the trailer, links to quotes from Ôshima, and Michael Koresky’s essay on the director’s work in this period (including a few paragraphs on Japanese Summer)

DVD INFO: Long unavailable and considered one of Oshima’s rarest movies, the Criterion Collection rectified this oversight in 2010 with the release of the five film “Oshima’s Outlaw Sixties” set (buy) on their Eclipse sub-label. Original Japanese trailers and an essay book are the only special features. Besides Japanese Summer, the other films in the set (spanning 1965-1967) are the “pink” film Pleasures of the Flesh, the experimental serial killer excursion Violence at Noon, the dark rape-fantasy satire Sing a Song of Sex, and the wacky Three Resurrected Drunkards, a free-form farce sometimes compared to a Japanese Head. For most reviewers, Japanese Summer: Double Suicide is usually either their favorite, or their least favorite, movie in the set.

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