Night and Fog in Japan i

Dir. Nagisa Oshima; Scr. Toshiro Ishido and Nagisa Oshima

107 min.

Night and Fog in Japan, made by Nagisa Oshima in 1960, is the least compromising commercial film one can imagine. As formally radical as it is politically uncool, for its twenty-eight-year-old director the film was a virtual act of self-destruction. With sublime aesthetic opportunism, Oshima exploited the success of his early youth films, a crisis of confidence within the Japanese film industry, and the most intense period of political unrest in postwar Japanese history to uncork a fiercely stylized, ferociously left-wing harangue on the deficiencies of the Japanese left.

A complicated story of youthful fanaticism and class resentments, sexual jealousies and generational conflict, Night and Fog jumps back and forth from the early 1950s to 1960, spiraling around key incidents of political betrayal. The wedding of a journalist who had been a Sta-linoid student militant during the Korean War to a young student radical for the 1960 AMPO (Japan-American Security Treaty) struggle becomes a bitterly acrimonious trial. With mad, drunken, ideological compulsion, his friends and hers begin to claw at each other's generations as well as their own. (If The Sun's Burial is Oshima's Los Olvidados, Night and Fog—which, flashbacks aside, takes place in and around a single garden pavilion — is his Exterminating Angel.)

Made directly after Cruel Story of Youth and The Sun's Burial, two ambiguous celebrations of teen punkery run wild, Night and Fog is another movie about the arrogance of youth. Here, however, the intellectuals have center stage and — in its totally unsparing view of student activism — Night and Fog is a harbinger of such New Left analyses as Godard's La Chinoise or Jancso's The Confrontation. Japanese critic Tadao Sato called it "one of the most beautiful films about youth in the history of Japanese movies." But beauty in this case is a function of both Oshima's formal control and his brutal honesty.

Ironic, nihilistic, and megalomaniacal by turns, Oshima's young radicals are universal types. The pompous jargon-spouting leader with his collection of Shostakovich — "the greatest socialist, he's even popular in America" — and bogus calls for unity is maddeningly oblivious of the privileges his family's wealth confers on him; the sardonic intellectuals are reduced to backbiting and sour banter; the ineffectual faculty adviser ("He's nice but stupid") is unable to take a stand even when his young charges flagrantly break the law by holding an alleged "spy" prisoner in a dorm closet. ("Hey, spy," the militants taunt this pathetic character, "you're taking up our precious study time!")

The issue of the spy, his roughing up and escape, and the suicide that may or may not have been a result of the incident is the central episode in Night and Fog. It's a mistake, however, to see the film as a Rashomon or an Agatha Christie novel whose narrative secrets will either be schematized or revealed. Guilt here is universal and freefloating, absorbed from one heedless generation to the next. "What a bunch of Stalin zombies you are!" the unshaven Ota, a comrade of the bride, explodes in exasperation after a succession of painful confessions. "Call this a wedding? It's a funeral!"

Night and Fog — the title is an allusion to Alain Resnais's famous short about the Nazi death camps — has a ferocity born of experience. Oshima came of age with the general strike of 1947 and, like his Stalinist protagonists, was a leader of the Communist Party-founded Zengakuren (All-Japan Student League) during the Korean War. It was a period in which the Japanese Communist Party embarked on a disastrous course of domestic terrorism and preparation for armed revolutionary struggle. Its main achievement was triggering a right-wing reaction in the form of the Subversive Activities Prevention Bill. Both Oshima and his coscenarist Toshiro Ishido participated in the ensuing so-called Molotov Cocktail struggle of 1952, and, in large measure, Night and Fog is their corrosive self-portrait.

Oshima's politics hindered his career, but his first films appeared amid the largest mass movement in Japanese history, the 1959-1960 struggle against the renewal of the Japanese-American security pact. With students demonstrating daily in the streets during the spring of 1960, the Japanese government was obliged to cancel President Eisenhower's state visit. But that was the movement's greatest victory. The security pact was passed over their snake-dancing bodies. In light of this failure, Oshima made Night and Fog with the utmost urgency. The film was released in October 1960 and yanked from distribution three days after its theatrical premiere. The assassination of the Socialist Party leader by a right-wing student was evidently used by the Shochiku studio as an excuse.

What's truly amazing is not that Shochiku suppressed Night and Fog but that the studio allowed it to be made at all. Not only is this a film of continual, impassioned talking—with a blandly exhortatory youth anthem segueing from one foggy nighttime flashback to the next (the title is absolutely literal; Oshima permitted no daylight after The Sun's Burial) — but it's also a long-take tour de force fashioned out of a mere forty-three setups. (There are virtually no reverse angles; the first scene is a deftly choreographed six- or seven-minute shot that maps out the ideological terrain of the entire wedding party.) With its restless tracking camera—moving from face to face or sweeping over a gaudy stretch of rainy, banner-strewn pavement—and well-exploited wide-screen format, Night and Fog unfurls like a scroll. The dominant tone is midnight-blue illuminated by the flash of orange bonfires, set off by bloody bandages.

Juxtaposing 1952 and the present through the use of dramatic blackouts, evoking demonstrations and ghosts through blatantly theatrical stylizations, Night and Fog demands real concentration. And yet, even as Oshima's superb stock-company actors use body language to underscore their ideological positions, it's a film whose emotional power transcends its immediate historical framework. Night and Fog in Japan doesn't cozy up to you like The Big Chill, but it's some kind of great movie. For anyone who served time in the turbulent streets or smoky college cafeterias of the 1960s or the 1930s, the chill here is a cold shock of recognition. [J. Hoberman, 2/15/85]

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