Towards the end of the Second World War, a downed U.S. pilot is captured and imprisoned by rural Japanese villagers, who await official instructions as to how to proceed with their “catch.” The villagers constantly refer to the soldier, who is black, as “the nigger,” and the fascination he draws—although there are those who are hostile from the start—quickly devolves into wider, and deeper, anger and contempt. The silent prisoner becomes a touchstone for tensions and discordance among the villagers, and a convenient scapegoat—an ultimate means of denying responsibility for all manner of crimes, including the war itself. Word comes of the death of a soldier from their village. The prisoner is blamed for this and, also, the death of a village child. The villagers murder the innocent soldier and rehearse the lies they will tell to cover up their crimes. They feel betrayed by the Emperor when word arrives that the war recently ended in defeat for Japan.
Based on a novella by Oe Kenzaburo, Shiiku is one of Nagisa Oshima’s most corrosive and brilliant works, its widescreen black-and-white images, including delicately choreographed long-shots, an index of the villagers’ “togetherness” barely concealing their antagonisms toward each other and, of course, to the rest of the world. The scene of the prisoner’s burial astounds: over a gaping hole in the earth, hands of villagers, including those of children, reaching into the frame, at least one with rapidly flexing fingers, forming a sacred circle predicting remembrance. The village crimes, however, are not yet finished, and only one lone “Ishmael,” a teenaged boy, Japan’s haunted future, may tell the tale.
Grim and relentless, Shiiku exposes Japanese xenophobia, hypocrisy and denial-tendencies, and even implicitly opposes the continuation of these through Japan’s schooling of its children.
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