“We have started a battle we can never win.”
Reflecting on the collapse of the radical protest movement that followed Japan’s 1958 treaty renegotiation with the U.S., which threatened to divert Japan from its constitutional course of peace, Nagisa Oshima for the first time dipped into the distant past. Amakusa shiro tokisada, one of cinema’s starkest studies of official oppression, thus becomes a companion-piece to Oshima’s masterpiece, Night and Fog in Japan (1960).
In 1637 Shimabara, the shogunate is determined to wipe out Christian peasants revolting against it. Cunningly, Oshima advances the age of the young boy who led the actual uprising to that of Jesus, to capture the conflicted position of one who is prompted to mount a bloody assault when his commitment to Christian principle prohibits this course of action. Moreover, his astute judgment tells Shiro that his side isn’t yet strong enough to prevail. All hell breaks loose, and Shiro’s mother and sister are among the fatalities. The film’s postscript refers to the wholesale massacre of Christians in 1638.
Early on, twelve peasants are subjected to “straw dancing”: a pack of straw is attached to each and set on fire. In the foreground of a great shot encapsulating cruel oppression, mounted samurai, enforcing the group execution, look ahead to the blazing, “dancing” victims. Later, the literally crucified are burned to death. All total, in battle some 37,000 Christians died.
Oshima takes two visual tacks. One consists of nearly out-of-body closeups of suffering peasant faces that inevitably recall Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). The other is deep night: symbolically, the earthly Christian ordeal. In one interior shot, luminous peasant faces are like candles in the dark.
Numerous images are variations on a visual theme: ascending flames in pitch darkness.