While the lesser-known Imamura Shohei and Hani Susume are important figures in Japan’s new wave cinema, the most influential filmmaker and pivotal figure of this movement remains Nagisa Oshima. The Japanese new wave can in no way be compared to the French New wave or the British new wave, as each of this movement came into being in a specific societal constellation. In the case of the Japanese new wave, the movement was concerned with revealing the societal contradictions specific to Japan and, often, to underline the rise of materialistic values (Desser, 1988).
While much has already been written and said about the Japanese new wave cinema and Oshima Nagisa, there still remains more to be said about this movement. So, as a humble beginning, let’s take a closer look to one of Oshima Nagisa’s most well-known narratives, Diary of a Shinjuku Thief.
One day, Birdie Hilltop (Tadanori Yokoo) roams Shinjuku’s Kinokuniya for books. Choosing various books to steal, he is caught in the act by Umeko Suzuki (Rie Yokoyama), who seems to work at the bookshop. Seemingly attracted to each other, they ultimately end up having sex. But contrary to Birdie’s expectations, Umeko Suzuki feels nothing special about her defloration. No pain, no pleasure, she felt, in fact, nothing at all.
This impossibility of satisfying Umeko, instigates their quest for Umeko’s enjoyment – an enjoyment subtly linked to the phallic competence of Birdie. Eventually, Moichi Tanabe (Moichi Tanabe), the owner of the famous Kinokuniya, decides to oversee their search for Umeko’s satisfaction. He refers them to Tetsu Takahashi (Tetsu Takahashi), a famous Freudian sexologist (Narrative-note 1).
The main themes and main signifiers of cinematographical association of Diary of a Shinjuku Thief touches upon are the two interlinked dimensions of the sexual relationship that is impossible to write: aggression and sexual satisfaction. It is through this associative line, as composed by these signifiers, that the narrative touches upon very diverse but interrelated aspects, such as lesbianism, the illusion of becoming one in the act of coitus, desire and love, gender expectations in a paternal society, the (im-)possibility of sexual freedom, the source of sexual enjoyment, gender confusion and so on.
There is nevertheless another dimension that crosses the aforementioned trinity: the dimension of the tension between tradition (stagnation) and modernism (evolution). This dimension is subtly evoked by the narrative space of Shinjuku’s Kinokuniya bookstore as such. A less subtle evoking of this tension is to be found in one of the first books Birdie tries to steal, Jean Genet’s “The Thief Journal”, which, as the resembling title implies, inspired this narrative (General-note 1). Nevertheless, besides evoking this tension, Oshima does not fail to underline the ‘sexual’ attraction towards this space of signifiers and knowledge exists, a space that also unsurprisingly houses the potential for societal change.
But the tension is also present in one other facet of the narrative: in Umeko’s and Birdie’s counseling sessions with Tetsu Takahashi, the famous progressive Freudian sexologist. In his counseling, it is evident that Takahashi does not aim to understand anything about them – note that Umeko and Birdie are framed as silenced. And even though Takahashi believed in the ubiquity of ‘sexual perversity’, he ignores the generational divide that is underlined by his act of pouring out his knowledge. Nonetheless, this sequence is enlightening as it reveals some of Takahashi’s liberal thoughts and, at the same moment, his rather authoritarian work-method.
Ultimately, as the narrative’s themes and signifier associate, the associative line uncovers the true problematic dimension: the mysterious dimension of women’s enjoyment. If the narrative uses the then contemporary context of student upheaval, it is to, by association, underline the problematic nature of that female enjoyment in relation to a paternal society. In other words, Diary of A Shinjuku Thief points to the restricting effects of such paternal society on female subjectivity and sexuality.
If we look closer to the cinematography of Dairy of a Shinjuku Thief, one cannot but call it a creative and energetic mix of various techniques. What is most remarkable about the cinematography, is its use of close-ups, its integration of Jūrō Kara’s musical intermezzo’s – ever referring to aggression and enjoyment – and its long temporal shots, that are often shaky as well. Other aspects that have to be mentioned are Oshima’s fine sense of geometry in its compositions and his choice to apply, at certain moments, intertitles, which ever evoke pre-war Japanese cinema.
It is easy to sense that Oshima aims to exploit the image and realize its inherent expressive dimension – Oshima is not concerned with objectively framing the narrative space. This is, first of all, evident in the associative nature of the narrative development. Rather than rationally composing the structure of the narrative, scenes flow into each other based on the associative line mentioned above – revealing the fundamental symbolic axis of a cinematographical narrative as such. Even the seemingly random shifts from black and white to colour – for example the shifts with red as central colour – are meaningful in light of the associative stream and the symbolic contrast it creates.
Furthermore, one should not mistake the shakiness that characterizes many shots as solely focused on grounding the narrative in the certain framed reality. While the shaky shots referring to the student upheaval do ground the narrative in the then contemporary societal situation, others shaky shots are primarily concerned as to evoke the emotionality (e.g. excitement) of certain characters, most notably of Birdie Hilltop.
Dairy of a Shinjuku Thief is the very product of a director that utilizes the cinematography not to frame a narrative as such, but to express in a powerful way an idea through various interrelated themes. As such, the themes, besides creating a associative narrative, determine the various artistic choices that dictate the cinematographic flow. In short, Nagisa Oshima created an extremely impressive and impactful associative narrative mix about that existence of the female subject and her mysterious enjoyment as such, a subjectivity and enjoyment that is, in light of a patriarchal societal system, highly problematic.
Narrative note 1: In the end, Umeko comes to be able to enjoy as she, in a true subjective act, undress herself. This undressing is not only in front of Birdie but also in front of the entire paternal society as evoked throughout the narrative. In the act of undressing, she shows her radical acceptance of the fact that she enjoys, beyond the limiting impact of traditional society, as a woman.
General Note 1: Jean Genet’s “The Thief Journal” concerns a string of homosexual love affairs and male prostitution between the anti-hero, which is also the author, and the various criminals, con artists, pimps, … etc., he meets on his path. The main theme of the novel concerns the inversion of ideals.
Desser, D. (1988). Eros Plus Massacre: An Introduction to the Japanese New Wave Cinema. Indiana University Press