DIARY OF A SHINJUKU THIEF (Nagisa Oshima, 1968)

If you check my continually transformed file Best Film & Other Film Achievements by Year, you will discover that the impossible has occurred: I’ve replaced L’avventura as 1960’s best film with Nagisa Oshima’s Night and Fog in Japan, which I saw for the first time about a week ago. Those who know me will certainly be surprised; who could have imagined that anything would ever better the Antonioni film in my book? (And something in color!)
     A bizarre and, for me, somewhat opaque film, Shinjuku dorobo nikki reminds one, however, how unreliable Oshima can be. While it intrigues for much of its length, and exhilarates for some of this, it is scattershot and disjointed—and cruel.
     Umeko should not have had to endure multiple rapes. Nor we the steady stream of sexual humiliations inflicted on her, her co-hort in theft, Birdie Hilltop (played endearingly by graphic artist Tadanori Yokoo), and the one-man Greek Chorus who must strip publicly to prove he did not steal (although probably somehow he did). The central idea that Birdie and Umeko must shoplift in order to get really excited? Delightful! It seems a subversive gloss on one of my most cherished films, Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket (1959).
     And I love that books figure so prominently—something worth lifting for the heck of it. (Birdie’s initial target: Jean Genet’s A Thief’s Journal.) In a phenomenal passage, Umeko is alone after hours in the bookstore where she pretends to work; all the books speak, reciting their texts: a symphony of silent voices. Umeko runs her hand across a row of books, like Garbo with the furniture in Queen Christina (1933); and then her full, provocative lips, in closeup, enter the frame. Great stuff.
     The discussion of sex one-third of the way through, among cast members from Oshima’s other 1968 film, Death by Hanging, convinces as either fiction or documentary insert—and I like the ambiguity; but the later remark, “[S]he keeps her legs crossed,” relating Umeko to Japan’s fear of outsiders? Sophomoric.

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