Death by Hanging (Kôshikei)

Director: Nagisa Oshima
Screenplay: Tsutomu Tamura, Mamoru Sasaki, Michinori Fukao, and Nagisa Oshima
Stars: Yung-do Yun (R), Kei Sato (Warden), Fumio Watanabe (Education Chief), Rokko Toura (Doctor), Masao Adachi (Security Chief), Toshiro Ishido (Chaplain), Hosei Komatsu (Prosecutor), Masao Matsuda (Assistant Prosecutor), Akiko Koyama (Korean Woman), Shizuo Sato (Guard), Takashi Ueno (Guard), Nagisa Oshima (Narrator)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1968
Country: Japan
Death by Hanging Criterion Collection Blu-ray
Death by HangingNagisa Oshima’s Death by Hanging (Kôshikei) was released near the beginning of the controversial Japanese New Wave auteur’s most fertile period of filmmaking, a 10-year stretch between 1966 and 1976 when he directed a dozen feature films and half a dozen television documentaries (the latter of which he did mostly to pay the bills, as he was, at the time, a rare director who worked almost entirely outside the Japanese studio system). His work during this period is best described as feverish, with each year bringing one or more new features, none of which was ever like the one that preceded and the one that followed. Oshima was blazing his own trail, refusing to follow standards or expectations, least of all the idea that an auteur will have a consistent style and set of themes. Oshima always bristled at the idea that a film should contain just one theme, and his films of this period together formed their own mini-revolution in Japanese cinema, which is why he is often discussed in the same breath as politically charged European New Wave pioneers like Jean-Luc Godard and Dusan Makavejev.

Death by Hanging is definitely (and defiantly) a curious, messy film, and you can’t help but admire its brashness and willingness to flaunt convention at almost every turn, although as a whole it is hampered by both a thundering repetitiveness that borders on monotony and a few too many surrealistic twists and turns that muddy its ideas considerably. Shorn of about half an hour, the film would probably work as a piece of experimental cinematic deconstruction that simultaneously satirizes the means by which state-sanctioned murder (that is, the death penalty) is rendered acceptable by mundane, sanitizing practices and routines and the horrible manner in which minority Koreans were treated in Japanese society (this was the second of three films Oshima made during this period that dealt with “the Korean problem,” the first being Sing a Song of Sex [1967] and the third being Three Resurrected Drunkards [1968]). Unlike Akira Kurosawa and Yasujiro Ozu, the towering titans of postwar Japan cinema, Oshima largely held Japanese society in contempt, and his films are a cavalcade of criticisms of everything from nationalism, to social injustice, to sexual mores. Thus, it is hardly surprising that he would tackle the death penalty and racism in the same film.

The opening sequence in Death by Hanging, which introduces us to a relatively ordinary building inside a penal complex where executions take place, are both morbidly fascinating and humorous. Oshima (who narrates) takes time to point out seemingly meaningless details, like the kinds of trees planted outside the building and the color of the paint on the walls, which is meant to underscore how a heinous practice can be sanitized via the veneer of normality. We watch as the various dark-uniformed officials go about their work preparing a condemned man to die, and we watch as the door opens and his body plummets the preset distance to just a few inches above the floor below. But, then, something goes wrong. The man doesn’t die. Everything was done right, all the procedures were followed to the letter, every man did his job correctly, but as one character puts it, the condemned man, while rendered unconscious by the hanging, simply refuses to die.

Once he is resuscitated, the condemned man, who is called R (Yung-do Yun), appears to be a complete amnesiac, without even a basic understanding of the world in which he lives. He spends a great deal of the film staring blankly like a beautiful statue, which makes him an obvious visual counterpoint to all the fussing, bickering, and worrying by the officials who have no idea what to do with him now. Japanese law stipulates that a person must be aware of his crimes to be executed for them, so it seems logical that R cannot be rehanged (if that’s a word) because he doesn’t even know who he is now, much less the nature of the rape and murder of two young schoolgirls for which he was convicted. The Catholic chaplain (Toshiro Ishido) who conduced R’s last rites is convinced that R’s soul is gone from his body and the man in front of them is no longer the man who was convicted and therefore cannot be executed. The warden (Kei Sato) remains largely composed in dealing with the confusion, while the prison’s education chief (Fumio Watanabe) becomes more and more histrionic in insisting that they somehow return R to his previous mental state so they can tie the noose again.

A large middle section of the film bogs down in what feels like a repetitive one-joke premise, with the officious officials bumbling around as they re-enact, and re-enact again, and re-enact again R’s life and crime in the hopes of jogging his memory. There is a blackly comic sensibility at work here, and at first the sight of all these previously upstanding officers reduced to utter absurdity has a subversive appeal. But, as the sequences drag on and on, you start to get the feeling that Oshima and his coscreenwriters Tsutomu Tamura, Mamoru Sasaki, and Michinori Fukao are just buying time by playing different riffs on the same absurdist situation, which becomes less and less amusing and insightful (it is in this section that we learn about R’s upbringing in poverty as a persecuted ethnic minority).

There is something else around the corner, and we finally get to it when the education chief, in one of his fits of desperation, re-enacts R’s crime by strangling to death a young girl, whose body they bring back to the execution chamber. But did he kill her? Somehow she arises from the dead (or perhaps was not dead at all or maybe doesn’t even exist) and starts claiming to be R’s sister, which brings R out of his previous shell of silence and kicks off a third act that discards much of the film’s previous focus on the ethical potholes in capital punishment and the state bureaucracy built around it and becomes a wandering, increasingly bizarre and untenable philosophical rabbit hole about identity. It is also in this last section that we learn more about the various officials, particularly their rather unseemly backgrounds and otherwise hidden predilections, which naturally casts aspersion on their role as representatives of law and order. Most of this is rather obvious, with the officiating doctor getting secret thrills from watching executions, the warden having a past as a war criminal, and the priest being a sexual deviant who, once having had enough to drink, starts coming on to all the other men by licking them like a dog.

There is no argument that Oshima is an inventive filmmaker, particularly in the way he draws from numerous sources and inspirations while making it all feel decidedly his own. With its limited, claustrophobic setting, Death by Hanging could easily translate as a stageplay, and critics have seen the fingerprints of both Brecht and Ionesco all over its fourth-wall-breaking meta-self-awareness and spiral of absurdity narrative devices. Stylistically, Oshima utilizes the camera to enhance the claustrophobia, often giving the lens a less than ideal placement within the action so that we’re stuck looking at the backs of people’s heads and shoulders, craning to see through the thicket of bureaucratic panic that defines the film’s tone. Oshima is working from a well of both anger and inspiration, and while it’s ultimately quite clear what he’s getting at, the means by which he gets there become more irritating than enlightening.

Death by Hanging Criterion Collection Blu-ray

Aspect Ratio1.85:1
AudioJapanese Linear PCM monaural
Subtitles English
  • Video interview with critic Tony Rayns
  • Diary of Yunbogi (1965) short documentary
  • Trailer
  • Essay by critic Howard Hampton and a 1968 director’s statement by Oshima
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateFebruary 16, 2016

    Criterion’s new high-definition transfer of Death by Hanging, which marks the film’s debut in Region 1, was made from the original 35mm camera negative. According to the liner notes, there has been some dispute as to the format in which the film was shot. According to Criterion’s researchß, rather than using Paramount’s 8-perf VistaVision process (as is commonly reported), it was actually shot in a 4-perf variation known as Japanese Vista. I can only assume that Criterion’s research is correct, although I noted throughout the film a lot of strange compositions that left the tops of many heads cut off, which again I can only assume was Oshima’s intent. The overall image is good, with a solid black-and-white presentation that doesn’t have much depth, but is generally clean and clear. The monaural soundtrack was transferred at 24-bit from the 35mm soundtrack positive and digitally restored. Like the image, it is a bit flat and you can tell that a lot of it was recorded in postproduction, but it seems to be an accurate presentation of the film’s original sound.
    There aren’t a ton of supplements here, but what is included is definitely worth your time. First we have a half-hour interview with film scholar Tony Rayns, who has written several books on both Japanese and Korean cinema. Rayns is, as usual, erudite and informative in discussing Nagisa Oshima’s career, the socio-cultural background of Japan in the 1960s, and the nation’s relationship with Korea, as well as dissecting the film itself. Also included on the disc is Oshima’s extraordinary 1965 short documentary Diary of Yunbogi, which explores the life of an impoverished South Korean boy by combining narration drawn from a book of the same title with hundreds of photographs that the director took while travelling in Korea. Although presented in high definition, the quality of the print used for the transfer was pretty scratchy and faded, but it is still well worth a watch. The disc also has a trailer, while the insert fold-out includes an essay by critic Howard Hampton and a short director’s statement by Oshima that was originally published as a foreword to the screenplay.

    Copyright ©2016 James Kendrick

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    Overall Rating: (2.5)

    James Kendrick

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