233. DEATH BY HANGING (1968)

Koshikei

“You mustn’t think our film is just labored theorizing. The officials’ attempts to convince R that he is R are amusing and bizarre. I think it’s a spot-on depiction of all us Japanese in all our amusing bizarreness.”–Nagisa Ôshima

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Yung-Do Yun, Fumio Watanabe, , Akiko Koyama

PLOT: After the failed execution of a Japanese-Korean double murderer, various state functionaries are at a loss as how to proceed when the criminal’s body refuses to die. Going to increasingly outlandish lengths to remind the convict of why he is there and condemned, the prison’s officials inadvertently explore the nature of crime, nationality, and culpability. Eventually a young woman is introduced to the group, and the captors decide to get drunk.

Still from Death by Hanging (1968)

BACKGROUND:

  • The criminal in Death By Hanging is based on Ri Chin’u, who also murdered two Japanese school girls. In addition to his crimes, Ri Chin’u gained a degree of fame for his extensive writings while in prison.
  • Much of the dialogue between R and his “sister” is taken from actual correspondences between Ri Chin’u and a Korean journalist.
  • Death by Hanging came during Ôshima‘s most experimental period, made back-to-back with the Certified Weird satire Japanese Summer: Double Suicide. Like most of Ôshima‘s mid-to-late 1960s work, Hanging was initially ignored in America, not even screening for the first time until 1974 and not officially reaching home video until 2016.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The movie is stuffed to the gills with claustrophobic shots of slapstick fused with philosophy, none more so than the penultimate scene: an unlikely combination of prison officials getting hammered around a “table” while the convict “R” and his (probably imaginary) sister discussing the nature of guilt. The drinkers take turns discussing how they came to this kind of work while R, reclining with the young woman beneath a Japanese flag, comes to the conclusion that though he committed his crimes, he is not responsible for them.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Stubborn corpse; rape re-enactment; hallucination participation

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Death By Hanging starts with a very traditional documentary approach, including narration reeling off statistics and some expository shots of a nondescript execution facility in a prison compound. Quickly, however, the aura of formality disintegrates as the hapless officials endeavor in vain to make sense of the film’s central conceit: a young convict refusing to die. Their efforts to restore his memory and edge him toward accountability grow desperate and extreme until a point is reached where everyone involved in the process begins to believe in the unreal.


Original trailer for Death by Hanging

COMMENTS: While most leftist directors merely point a shotgun at their targets, Nagisa Ôshima uses a much more accurate, though still highly powered, Webley revolver against his bugbears. His anti-death penalty black farce, Death By Hanging, is populated by archetypes of Japanese society. The twitching execution victim is ushered through the grisly, clinical motions of the prison’s Warden (previously an officer in World War II), the Catholic Chaplain (a vacillating proxy for Western-leaning citizenry), and other assorted allegorical stand-ins. Most prominently featured, though, is the Education Chief (Fumio Watanabe), who bears most of the burden of re-acquainting the condemned with his history. Overseeing all this officious maneuvering is the State Prosecutor, a gentleman so devoid of expression that at times he seems to be a wax statue of himself.

A documentary-style introduction sets the stage. Ôshima himself provides the narration leading up to the botched execution of “R” (Yung-Do Yun), explaining in banal detail the dimensions, layout, and even wall colors of the execution facility tucked away in the corner of the prison complex. We first see R only from behind, as he attempts to control spasms of fear. The spectators are duly described (Prosecutor, Warden, Security Chief, et al.) before the rug is pulled from under us when the sardonic prison doctor, monitoring the slightly swinging body, notes that the pulse is strong even after twenty-three minutes (“R’s body refuses to be executed,” he quips). What follows is a string of vignettes interspersed with explanatory intertitles: R Does Not Accept He Is R, R Perceives R To Be A Separate Person, R Tries To Be R, and so on. Pushing R along his journey are the eager but minimally prepared prison officers who were not expecting to deal with anything more than a corpse.

The denizens of the execution chamber face their awkward task because of Rule 479 of the penal code, forbidding execution of the mentally incapacitated, quoted with aplomb by the Prosecutor’s secretary. As one remarks, “if we try executing him again, we’d be breaking the law.” They must restore R’s memory of his crime before they can legally execute him. And so the society begins its labors. At the top of the pile, and barely speaking until the end, is the Prosecutor, the representative of Japanese law. He makes his position clear early when he responds to a procedural query with, “I’m only here as a formal overseer. The methods are up to you.” The Warden, as the senior official, is a nice proxy for the government: he disapproves of capital punishment in theory, but facilitates its execution in practice. The lecherous Doctor could easily be construed as a symbol for the seemingly high-minded educated class, deriving unwholesome thrills from the execution as well as the reenactment of R’s crimes. The hapless Education Chief oozes concern and anguish tempered with brief moments of hope: as a transition figure between pre- and post-War Japan, he is torn between his devotion to precedent and a pesky understanding of the human condition. Stuck in the middle is the increasingly aware R, a Japanese citizen of Korean ancestry. As he watches the officers and then joins them, he begins to realize that, in regards to his crimes, his circumstances in life are at least as much to blame as his own choices.

For those of you who were concerned, in the end, order is restored—but not before the compound’s inhabitants go through some unlikely ordeals. The reenactments of R’s crimes (and then life) become increasingly broad, culminating in a field trip into a bustling city and the actual murder of one of R’s surrogate victims—at the hands of the Education Chief, no less. Back in the prison, the ensemble becomes increasingly cognizant of the young woman, quickly resurrected, and the underpinning themes of race and history are brought to the fore. Despite more heavy-handedness than one might prefer, Ôshima’s blistering critique of capital punishment (and then some) remains, first and foremost, entertaining. The claustrophobic set and camera-work, the Kafkaesque farce, and the plausibility of the actors all come together to make Death By Hanging that rarest breed of leftist protest films: one that is a well-crafted movie above everything else.

G. Smalley adds: Death by Hanging begins grounded explicitly in normality: documentary-style, with a step-by-step description of the execution protocol and an inventory of the surprisingly ordinary premises, right down to the number of bathrooms (one, men’s only). Of course, what goes on inside the execution chamber is by no means ordinary, and especially not today. Ôshima almost immediately throws his first Kafkaesque wrench in the machine. The prisoner, dehumanizingly designated by the single letter “R,” survives his hanging. This is an occurrence that has happened before in history, but is rare enough to be on the very outer edges of plausibility. The frustrated execution challenges the officials’ reality and throws them into a bureaucratic quandary: how, in a civilized and legal manner, can they destroy the cancer represented by R and restore social order? This leads to the long satirical section of the film, highlighted by the buffoonery of Fumio Watanabe’s insistent “Education Chief,” where the functionaries’ absurd (and bigoted) attempts to recreate R’s crime in order to stoke his memory send the film into a new level of weirdness. In the aftermath of a field trip into the city where the Chief’s efforts result in R’s crime being literally recreated, Ôshima ratchets the bizarreness up yet another notch. The penal system’s shaky realities completely fall apart, challenged by R’s continuing obstinance and refusal to submit to the State’s thanatopic whims, until the officials decide the sanest course left is to get drunk on sake and confess their own sins. Arguably, Ôshima loses his grip on his own methodology by the film’s end. His absurdist technique grows less focused, devolving into didactic dialogues between R and his “sister,” followed by mouthpiece speechifying by the soon-to-be-rehanged criminal.  But that feeling that the film is spinning out of control is part of what makes the movie weird, isn’t it? “A dream seems real, reality seems a dream. Such things happen, don’t they?,”  R speculates. They do in Death by Hanging.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“As long as ‘Death by Hanging’ sticks to capital punishment, it is, in its absurd way, provocative and entertaining. But the film’s interests keep widening, its methods become increasingly, arbitrarily Godardian (read Brechtian), until it reaches a point of total confusion.”–Vincent Canby, The New York Times (1974 U.S. Screening)

Death by Hanging is definitely (and defiantly) a curious, messy film, and you can’t help but admire its brashness and willingness to flaunt convention at almost every turn, although as a whole it is hampered by both a thundering repetitiveness that borders on monotony and a few too many surrealistic twists and turns that muddy its ideas considerably.”–James Kendrick, Q Network (Criterion release)

“At a certain point the film abandons logical unities… The last minutes are pretty bizarre.”–Glenn Erickson, Trailers from Hell (Criterion release)

IMDB LINK: Death by Hanging (1968)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

Death by Hanging (1968) – The Criterion Collection page includes the trailer and an essay by Howard Hampton

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

Cinema, Censorship, and the State: The Writings of Nagisa Oshima (October Books) – Includes a short piece by Ôshima titled “About Death by Hanging

DVD INFO: The Criterion gang come up trumps once more with their DVD treatment of Death By Hanging (buy), providing the requisite good transfer and fix-up of sound and video along with a couple of insightful documentaries. Of the two, the early poetic short from director Nagisa Ôshima, Diary of Yunbogi (1965), is the more compelling. Through contemporary photographs and a lyrical protagonist/narrator “conversation”, Ôshima presents an unremittingly bleak picture of life for a young and impoverished Korean in a post-war slum. The second documentary, a half-hour interview with film critic Tony Rayns, is more traditional and provides some insights to the film proper. As usual with Criterion releases, this one is highly recommended.

Of course, Hanging is also available on Blu-ray (buy).

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