THE SUN’S BURIAL (Nagisa Oshima, 1960)

A nobler sequel of sorts to his Cruel Story of Youth, Nagisa Oshima’s Taiyo no hakaba studies hopeless, desperate, violent youth in an Osaka slum and their interactions with older gangsters who control the neighborhood. Oshima launched the Japanese New Wave the preceding year, a Leftist filmmaking movement focusing on Japan’s social and economic dislocations and demoralization as a result of its defeat in the Second World War and subsequent U.S. military occupation.
     In the neighborhood human blood is procured in exchange for food and clothing and then profitably sold to industry, primarily cosmetic companies. This sounds like a metaphor, and it certainly becomes that in the film; but Western audiences need to know that this was an actual illegal racket in Japan fostered by poverty and starvation and donors’ exploitation by greedy criminals and youth who also were poor and starving.
     As the title suggests, the flaming sun, Japan’s national symbol, figures prominently in the film, but as a setting or dying sun rather than a rising one. In one shot, such a sun is glimpsed by nobody (but us) from the perspective of a hole into which a gang victim’s corpse has been tossed. The film concludes with arson that razes the neighborhood—an inferno likened to the atomic destruction by which the U.S. ended the war.
     Some viewers take the dehumanized characters—constantly they killingly turn on one another—as evidence of Oshima’s inhumanity rather than as commentary on forces that dehumanize humanity. Where is the humanity? In Oshima’s visual poetry—for instance, the weariness of gray skies that distills the sadness and wreckage of these human lives.
     A bit overheated, the film is nevertheless trenchant. Its worthiness becomes especially clear when it’s compared with Hollywood’s syrupy-sentimental West Side Story (1961).

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