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Japanese New Left's Political Theories of Subjectivity and Ōshima Nagisa's Practice of Cinema



Although much has been written about the political theories of several thinkers associated with the Japanese New Left, to gain a better understanding of those theories, a perspective that conceives them as a conversation within a unitary (but sometimes contradictory) ideology is needed. Likewise, we know little about how media forms other than the written word contributed to this conversation. To address these gaps in our understanding, this article investigates how the practice of cinema, through the paradigmatic example of shima Nagisa's film Kshikei 絞死刑 (Death by Hanging) (1968), intervened in the important debate within the Japanese New Left on the notion of shuta-isei 主体性 (subjectivity). Relating the different dimensions of an ideology, in this case the political theory and the practice of cinema of the Japanese New Left, will help us to gain a better understanding of both the ideology as a whole and the dimensions comprising it.
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de Vargas, F. [Ferran] (2022). Japanese New Left's Political Theories of
Subjectivity and Oshima Nagisa's Practice of Cinema. Positions: Asia
critique, 30(4), 679-703. doi: 10.1215/10679847-9967305
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Japanese New Left’s Political Theories of Subjectivity and Ōshima Nagisa’s
Practice of Cinema
Ferran de Vargas
Although much has been written about the political theories of several thinkers associated
with the Japanese New Left, to gain a better understanding of those theories a perspective
that conceives them as a conversation within a unitary ideology is needed. Likewise, we
know little about how media forms other than the written word contributed to this
conversation. To address these gaps in our understanding, this article investigates how
the practice of cinema, through the paradigmatic example of Ōshima Nagisa’s film
Kōshikei 絞死 (Death by Hanging, 1968), intervened in the Japanese New Left’s
conception of shutaisei 主体性 (subjectivity). This article first presents the theories of
subjectivity of some of the most influential thinkers in the shaping of the Japanese New
Left ideology (Umemoto Katsumi, Nakai Masakazu, Yoshimoto Takaaki, Tanigawa Gan,
Tokoro Mitsuko), and then explores the contribution of Ōshima’s Kōshikei to them,
showing the limitations of some previous lines of interpretation of the film. Relating the
different dimensions of an ideology, in this case the political theory and the practice of
cinema of the Japanese New Left, will help us to gain a better understanding of both the
ideology as a whole and the dimensions comprising it.
Keywords: Japanese cinema, Koshikei, New Left, Oshima Nagisa, shutaisei
Although much has been written about the political theories of several thinkers associated
with the Japanese New Left, to gain a better understanding of those theories a perspective
that conceives them as a conversation within a unitary (but sometimes contradictory)
ideology is needed. Likewise, we know little about how media forms other than the
written word contributed to this conversation. To address these gaps in our understanding,
this article investigates how the practice of cinema, through the paradigmatic example of
Ōshima Nagisa’s film Kōshikei 絞死 (Death by Hanging, 1968), intervened in the
important debate within the Japanese New Left on the notion of shutaisei 主体性
(subjectivity). Relating the different dimensions of an ideology, in this case the political
theory and the practice of cinema of the Japanese New Left, will help us to gain a better
understanding of both the ideology as a whole and the dimensions comprising it.
In this regard, situating Kōshikei within the subjectivity debate of the Japanese
New Left helps us address the limitations of two of the most recent lines of interpretation
of the film: one that considers the film’s central axis to be the political domination by
ideological state apparatuses, and another that considers the central axis to lie in the
oppression of the Korean minority in Japan. Ogawa (2015) and Ward (2015) argue, as I
will, that the problem of subjectivation lies at the core of Kōshikei, but they do so by
embracing an Althusserian perspective, which is disconnected from the ideological
context of Ōshima’s cinema and is removed from the postulates of the Japanese New Left
reflected in the film (except for the deconstruction of the subject as the starting point). In
contrast, through an ideological analysis of Kōshikei, I show that the perspective of
Ōshima’s cinema is removed from Althusser as it considers the subject to exist prior to
its subjection to ideological state apparatuses. On the other hand, in the same vein as
previous works such as Mellen 1976 and McDonald 1983, Desser (2018) concludes that
the discrimination against Zainichi 在日 (Korean residents in Japan) is the core of
Kōshikei. I argue that this is also a misinterpretation resulting from a lack of ideological
contextualization, which moves the focus away from the fundamental problem addressed
in the film: human subjectivity.
To understand how Kōshikei interacts with and contributes to the subjectivity
conversation within the Japanese New Left, I first present the theories of subjectivity of
some of the most influential thinkers in the shaping of the Japanese New Left ideology,
starting with Umemoto Katsumi (1912-1974), who introduced the concept of shutaisei in
the Marxist philosophy of post-war Japan, and ending with Tokoro Mitsuko (1939-1968),
who attacked efficiency and quantification as values that alienated the subject and thus
maintained the left at a distance from a true revolution. The presentation of these theories
of subjectivity enables an exploration, in the second part of the article, of the contribution
of the practice of cinema to them.
Theories of Subjectivity in the Shaping of the Japanese New Left
The Japanese New Left’s symbolic starting point as a political movement was the
foundation in 1958 of the Communist League or Bund, resulting from the rupture with
the Japanese Communist Party (JCP). This movement broke into the public scene in 1959-
1960 through its leading role during the struggle against the renewal of the Anpo1 and
blossomed between 1966 and 1970 with the Vietnam War as a backdrop. However, the
political thought behind the New Left had already been in development since the
immediate post-war period, and a differentiated ideological space was being created.
Within that space, a debate developed between different ways of claiming the importance
of subjectivity, with the idea of jikohitei 自己否 (self-negation) at its center.
From the first years of the post-war period, discordant voices emerged that
criticized the historical determinism of the JCP’s official line, which insisted that it was
necessary to wait for the objective conditions of capitalism to mature before the socialist
revolution could be channeled. Umemoto Katsumi was one of the most prominent of
those critical voices from within the party, introducing the concept of shutaisei to
philosophy debates of the postwar Marxist Left. Influenced by his experience in the pre-
war Kyoto School, Umemoto sought to fill what he considered to be a gap in Marxism
regarding the dimension of human subjectivity. At the end of 1947 he joined the JCP after
opening the philosophical debate on shutaisei with his essayNingenteki jiyū no genkai
人間的自由の限界 (“The Limits of Human Freedom”). But in 1960 he would leave the
party, and from that point on he would be considered part of the Japanese New Left
(Koschmann 1996: 96).
In The Limits of Human Freedom Umemoto was critical of the fact that
orthodox Marxism was considered a science and, as such, it observed history as a set of
objects moved according to objective laws. Instead, for Umemoto Marxism was a
worldview, a philosophy of praxis that addressed the dialectics between the subjective
and the objective. Despite assuming as a Marxist that history moves through class
antagonisms, Umemoto wondered why, faced with the same antagonisms, there were
people who were committed to socialism and people who were not; why, in fact, the
communist militants who saw Marxism as just a science devoted their lives to the
attainment of a new society. Faced with those questions, Umemoto considered that class
antagonisms did not offer explanations to all the dimensions of human action, and that
science and pure reason could not explain the capability of the human being to decide.
Instead, he saw a gap in the chain of historical causalities, and it was in that non-
objectifiable space where free human subjectivity lay, the individual’s autonomy from
totality. Using the vocabulary of the Kyoto School, Umemoto ([1947] 1977: 18) referred
to that gap from which human subjectivity arose as ‘mu (‘nothingness’).
But although Umemoto claimed that subjectivity is ultimately inexplicable and
thus ultimately indeterminable, what he thought could be explained were the material
conditions that shape the human being’s choice options, without which subjective election
itself, that is, creative nothingness, would not exist (since subjective choosing would not
exist without choices to choose). These conditions are given by human relations, in a
dialectic between tension and union in every society between the individual and the
totality, defined by the productive forces and the relations of production in each historical
moment (Umemoto [1965] 1977: 43-45). Through this conception, Umemoto distanced
subjective nothingness from idealism, placing it in the field of materialism.
In the structure of human relations, a phenomenon occurs that, according to
Umemoto (1964: 129-31), is key to understanding the possibility of rebellion: the social
alienation generated in class society. For Umemoto, social alienation arises from the
historical moment in which the private property of the means of production appears and
human beings cease to have control over their work. From his Marxist point of view, the
ontology of the human being as a social being is the ability to produce their means of
subsistence, and therefore, by being alienated from production, people are alienated from
themselves and from society. In class society the totality is dominated by a part (a class)
and therefore an alienation of the individual from that totality occurs. According to
Umemoto, the origin of the consciousness of class antagonism comes from the individual
experience of this alienation, an experience that generates at the same time a drive to
subvert alienation itself. This drive increases as consciousness matures, and it contains
the potential for rebellion against the social totality.
Inspired by Marx, Umemoto ([1965] 1977: 47-49) pointed out that the proletariat
is the part of the capitalist totality that holds the historical potential for a new totality
without classes and thus without social alienation. But he wondered why an individual
would be willing, beyond their consciousness and drive for rebellion, to leap towards the
nothingness that is the historical transition from one totality to another, and risk their life
for the attainment of a new society that they probably would not even see. Influenced by
the Buddhist thinking of Shinran2 (1173-1263) (Umemoto had written his graduation
thesis on this historical figure in 1936), he found the answer in the ethics of self-negation
(Umemoto [1948] 1977: 166-75). According to him, to produce a revolution that leads to
socialism, the individual needs to provide themselves with ethics that, in the face of the
human desire of permanence, lead them to deny themselves as a member of the current
bourgeois totality, which is based on selfish interest, and to sacrifice themselves without
expecting reward in order for the proletariat to complete the historical mission of
establishing a classless society for future generations. In this way there is the paradox that
the human being “can accomplish oneself through negating oneself” (Umemoto [1966]
1977: 371).
Just as Umemoto was developing his conception of Marxism in the immediate
post-war period, Nakai Masakazu (1900-1952), another Kyoto School philosopher
influenced by Shinran’s Buddhism (he was born into a family belonging to the Pure Land
sect, and he even spent a year of his youth in a monastery) but less influenced by Marxism,
was developing his own perspective on subjectivity, which had an impact on the
subsequent ideological development of the Japanese New Left.
Nakai’s ([1943] 1981: 102-110) main contribution to the debate was his focus on
the Japanese concept of ki (‘life force’). From his point of view, ki denoted the
subjective, creative and spontaneous potential energy of the masses, able to transform the
concrete reality, and arising from the changing practices, sensations and feelings of
everyday life. It is not a timeless and abstract spiritual energy, but arises from a reaction
to the forces escaping the control of the subject in their concrete daily environment
(related to the wider movement of history) and urging them to act. According to Nakai,
freedom is the capability of the subject to channel this spontaneous reaction through a
democratically organized practice. Since ki is the qualitative basis of relations, the subject
cannot observe objects from a purely objective, rational or scientific standpoint; the
subject takes part in the observed reality through practice, which is inseparable from their
daily sensations and feelings. The importance of ever-changing everydayness leads to
Nakai’s denying, unlike Umemoto, the possibility of objectively defining any teleology,
that is, any specific direction toward which the human being heads through history.
According to Lucken (2018: 607), Nakai’s tendency to see history as a time without end
(or origin) was the result of the influence of Shinran’s doctrine, in which the constant
repetition of mantras was the most immediate access to sacredness.
From this point of view, the basis of the subject must be under constant self-critical
transformation. Ki is liberating when the subject acts through constant self-negation
(Nakai [1936] 1981: 107). That is, the channeling of the potential energy of the masses
must be carried out through an organized subject that works as a mediation to foster
critical subjectivity, by renouncing the survival and unquestionability of any given
organizational pattern, ideology, political subject or historical mission. Self-negation
would be a revolution of the consciousness through which thought questions everything
the subject takes for granted (Nakai [1951] 1981: 150-154).
In the mid-1950s, the growing disenchantment of sectors of the Left regarding
post-war experiences of elitism and authoritarianism cloaked in the discourse of
emancipation, gave notoriety to thinkers who were suspicious of Enlightenment values,
and especially of the figure of the intellectual. One of these voices was Yoshimoto
Takaaki (1924-2012), who is now considered the most influential figure in the formation
of the most libertarian sectors of the Japanese New Left. Yoshimoto’s work coincided
with some of Nakai’s ideas, and despite following the path opened by Umemoto, he
thought Umemoto had not gone far enough in his criticism of Marxism.
Yoshimoto was also inspired by the Buddhist monk Shinran, but from his point of
view, what Shinran did was break radically with the prevailing Buddhism of his time,
which he considered to be a set of dogmas removed from the people. Shinran intended to
base his thinking on the real and concrete experience of the masses, their daily feelings
and needs. However, his doctrine became dogma over time and was used to prevent the
liberation of the masses on which that discourse was construed. Yoshimoto thought that
in the nineteenth century Marx played a role similar role to that of Shinran. Similarly,
Yoshimoto argued that Marxism also became dogma at the service of power struggles
resorting to an idealization of the masses that prevented their true liberation (Yang 2005:
According to Yoshimoto, what is really important is not that a given subject
discursively expresses their ethical sympathy for the oppressed, but the position the
subject occupies in the whole of power relations in everyday life; when a subject
advocates for the liberation of the masses from a position of power, that very position
itself limits liberation, which remains only in the discursive dimension (Yoshimoto
[1954] 1969: 105-6). While for Umemoto and Nakai liberation necessarily implied a
subjective commitment from the masses, for Yoshimoto true subjectivity of the masses
cannot exist without jiritsu 自立 (autonomy) from any intelligentsia or vanguard. The
alternative he proposes is the intellectual’s self-negation for the masses to be autonomous
and free all their revolutionary energy based on their daily motivations (Yoshimoto
[1960] 1962: 96-104). The intellectual’s function must be more centripetal than
centrifugal: it should consist of permanent self-questioning of their own position as a
subject (not only their thought or behavior), interiorizing the original image of the masses
(the masses just as they are and not as they should be), and developing a liberating action
in everyday life instead of construing a discourse from above to mobilize the people
toward a direction.
Yoshimoto shared many ideas with Tanigawa Gan (1923-1995), who was
affiliated with the JCP in 1949 and expelled from it in 1960. For Tanigawa, the other side
of the coin of alienation as a drive for political action was the communal longing of the
masses, increasingly intense as the modernization process deepens, which alienates
human beings from their communities. This communal sensitivity and not an ideology or
historical mission prescribed from above had to lead to revolution: a revolution without
a worldview.
But Tanigawa was aware that, to fight against the system, something more than
the daily experience of communal sensations was necessary. Some degree of organization
acting as a counter power was needed. On the other hand, he stated that the more
organization, the less energy of the masses (Tanigawa [1957] 1996: 268). However, he
made this contradiction the dialectical tension that should constitute the starting point of
revolutionary action, and not a contradiction to solve. It is for this reason that he defined
himself as someone who belongs to an “anti-political political faction” (Tanigawa [1956]
1996: 84), and rather than the need for organizers he talked about the importance of
facilitators who would fight against the homogenizing elimination of contradictions and
battle attempts by elites (the leftists too) to exert ideological control over the masses, but
who at the same time were able to rouse the very same masses when they were passive.
Moreover, Tanigawa ([1963] 1984: 235-46) talks about the fundamental role the
discrimination against marginalized social groups plays in Japan (where, unlike in
countries such as the United States, the main discrimination is against groups with no
physical differences from the dominant one) in the construction and stabilization of the
nation. According to him, discrimination in Japan is a way to project onto others one’s
own putatively negative characteristics, thereby avoiding self-criticism and keeping
social privileges. Through this exercise, the discriminator becomes less free than the
discriminated, since the former’s social position is supported by their own fears.
Tanigawa claims that all those in a position of social privilege in Japan, himself included,
benefit from the discriminations network, and that with this acknowledgment one must
be able to overcome and free oneself.
Both Tanigawa’s and Yoshimoto’s lines of thought influenced the ideas of the
thinker Tokoro Mitsuko. In 1966 she published an essay titledYokan sareru soshiki ni
yosete” 予感される組織に寄せて (“The Organization to Come”), which had a great
impact on the Japanese student movement of the late 1960s. According to her, a
revolutionary organization could only be one that broke with capitalist alienation, which
was based not only on private property but also on the supremacy of efficiency and
quantification. From her point of view, leftist political parties reproduced capitalist
alienation in their struggle against capitalism itself, since their hierarchical and
centralized structure deprived the rank and file of control causing apathy, and they applied
the principle of efficiency in eliminating excesses considered to be useless for their
objectives through the limitation of internal contradictions. Overcoming capitalism had
to go through the primacy of a clearly anti-capitalist process (and not just an objective),
which meant fostering a permanent discussion among subjects with different views on an
equal footing. This was possible only if each subject denied themselves in terms of
resisting the imposition of their own egos, to generate a void in which the other
subjectivities could fit. With this assembly idea in mind, Tokoro criticized the fact that
political parties saw democracy as a process of quantitative and abstract aggregation
(whether it was votes, party members, number of demonstrators, number of sold
newspapers, energies or salary increases) instead of a process of individual empowerment
and transformation.
In addition, in the student movement of the late 1960s Tokoro established the basis
for the development of a new notion of self-negation (Yasko 1997: 37) based on a
victimizer consciousness. This self-negation began with the acknowledgment that one
indirectly oppresses other subjects by being part of certain privileged collectives, or by
performing actions (or non-actions) that reproduce those privileges. From this point of
view, the individual must transform themselves through revolutionary action in everyday
life and within the context of a movement of political opposition, achieving a cycle in
which the transformation of the ego causes the transformation of the network of social
relations and vice versa.
As I have shown, the notion of self-negation weaves a thread of continuity in the
theorization of subjectivity by different thinkers of the Japanese New Left, although each
one of them provides their own approach. Umemoto sowed the seed of Japanese New
Left’s subjectivism, based on the idea that it is from the experience of the individual’s
alienation, and not through the guidelines of a vanguard or an intelligentsia, that the
individual’s political action originates. Even so, Umemoto advocated for the existence of
a vanguard party that was aware of the teleology of history, although he introduced the
idea of self-negation of the subject (which included the party) to the post-war Left. For
Umemoto, self-negation meant both the moral component of sacrifice by the subject for
humanity, and the idea that in order to overcome the bourgeois species one had to negate
oneself as an integral part of this species. By placing the component of everydayness at
the center of his philosophy, Nakai took the idea of self-negation to another plane in
which teleology is questioned, a path that was followed by Yoshimoto, Tanigawa and
Tokoro. In the case of Tokoro, besides her idea of self-negation as a refusal of efficiency
and as an embrace of assembly, we find a marked moral component in line with Umemoto,
but this time in the idea of the subject as victimizer of other subjects, the origin of which
lies in the opposition to the complicity of Japan with the imperialism of the United States
in Vietnam. In Tanigawa we find a similar notion of victimizer with respect to
marginalized minorities within Japanese society, although the self-questioning he
proposed was less moral and more conceived as a requisite for the self-liberation of the
subject. As for Yoshimoto’s self-negation, it was fundamentally based on the idea that
one must question the position of power from which one becomes a subject, to foster the
autonomy of the masses, an idea shared to a certain extent both by Tanigawa and Tokoro
with their respective ideas of the commune and the assembly.
Nonetheless, the conversation about subjectivity within the Japanese New Left
was not limited to the theoretical sphere, but expanded to practical fields such as cinema.
Despite some divergences between directors such as Yoshida Kijū, Matsumoto Toshio
and Ōshima Nagisa in the field of film theory, their film practice contained a sufficient
number of similar elements for a set of their films to be considered part of the same
cinematographic and ideological New Left movement. For instance, although Matsumoto
was critical of the concept of shutaisei explicitly used by filmmakers such as Ōshima and
Yoshida (Raine 2012: 146-47), one notices a similar display of subjectivity in films such
as Matsumuto’s Bara no retsu 薔薇の葬列 (Funeral Parade of Roses, 1969),
Yoshida’s Erosu purasu gyakusatsu エロス+虐殺 (Eros Plus Massacre, 1969), and
Ōshima’s Kōshikei. This sense of subjectivity was displayed through the self-negation of
the director, namely, the refusal to impose one’s own self on the spectator, by employing
distancing resources such as theatricality, experimental music and sounds disconnected
from images, camera instability, the inclusion of photographs and text on screen, and anti-
narrative disorder of scenes.
Beyond the textual features of these directors’ cinema, many of their films
released in the late 1960s and early 1970s were produced through joint funding from the
director’s own production company and the independent film production company Art
Theatre Guild (ATG). These material conditions facilitated the directors’ subjective
freedom to experiment with the film medium to the fullest.
In the next part of the article, I will take Ōshima’s Kōshikei (the first film to be
produced under ATG’s co-funding system) as a paradigmatic example of what can be
called a Japanese New Left cinematographic movement, and I will explore how this
director provided his own perspective on subjectivity as self-negation through his film
practice. The contribution of a film such as Kōshikei to the ideas of subjectivity circulating
among the Japanese New Left cannot be assessed based on a purely empirical perspective,
since the activists of this movement’s strictly political branch were more likely to watch
yakuza films (Oguma 2015: 16); and this habit of film consumption does not mean that
yakuza films were contributions to the New Left ideology beyond their romantic emphasis
on action and self-sacrifice. Likewise, directors such as Ōshima were more concerned
about making films as tools of subjective expression and viewer subjectivation than about
connecting with the masses,3 just as the activists of the political movement claimed: “We
seek solidarity, but don’t fear isolation.” (Muto and Inoue 1985: 68) Thus, such a
contribution should be assessed mainly from the analysis of the discourse involved in film
practice, that is, by considering how the textual features of the film in question are on the
same plane as those of the ideology to which it belongs. Although empirical questions,
such as audience behavior and explicit statements by directors, can strengthen the
observed links between cinema and a given ideology, the basis of these links is the
discourse the films themselves constitute.
The Contribution of Kōshikei to the Japanese New Left’s Subjectivity Debate
Through an ideological analysis of Kōshikei, I will show that the central problem of the
film is the configuration of human subjectivity, which is also the element whose
appreciation constitutes the genesis of the Japanese New Left and the main split from the
orthodox Left led by the JCP. However, my ideological analysis of Kōshikei aims to show
not only how the film places the problem of subjectivity at its core, but also how it
contributes to the debate on subjectivity of the Japanese New Left’s thinkers I have
presented above.
Ōshima largely follows the line of those thinkers, in the focus on the individuals
alienation and the importance of subjectivity as self-negation. However, he incorporates
two main approaches. First, his cinema shows crime and sex as forms close to pure
subjectivity, since they transgress social totality through alienation and the body, and not
through idealizations (such as romantic love) or ideological guidelines set by social agents.
By starting with crime and sex Ōshima avoided imposing as a director the idealizations
and ideological guidelines that limit the viewer’s autonomy to think about the film.
And second, Ōshima incorporated the centrality of imagination as one of the main
manifestations of the creative nothingness that, from an Umemotian-rooted philosophy,
constitutes human subjectivity. According to Heath (1976: 59), the power of imagination
in Kōshikei is linked to an extreme subjectivity with echoes of existentialism. It is no
coincidence that Ōshima claimed in an interview about Kōshikei that the philosopher he
admired most was Sartre (Müller 2009: 192), which was common in the circles of the
Japanese New Left, where it became virtually de jure for activists to carry and read his
books along with those of Yoshimoto (whom Ōshima also mentioned as an influence)4
and Marcuse (Yang 2008: 126). The Umemotian nothingness (mu) is on a similar plane
to Sartrean existentialism, inasmuch as it is based on the notion that there is a gap in the
chain of causalities from which the capability of the human being to take decisions
emerges, holding the subject fully responsible for their actions, outside superior
determinations. In this regard, imagination is a manifestation of this subjective
nothingness since it is a projection of alternative realities emerged from the subject’s mind,
however much their environment pushes them into a supposedly objective reality.
Kōshikei is based on the 1958 Komatsugawa Incident. Ri Chin’u, a young Korean
resident in Japan, made an anonymous call to the Yomiuri newspaper giving details about
the death of a Japanese girl who had been raped and murdered some days before. The call
was recorded, and the police broadcasted it on the radio in case someone identified the
voice. This caused public opinion to become particularly involved in the case. Ri Chin’u
was eventually arrested, tried, sentenced to death, and executed in 1962.
Ōshima was inspired by those events, among other reasons, because a sexual
crime allowed him to display his own approach to shutaisei, and because the intense
media debate that was incited between different ideological agents provided an
opportunity to reflect on the clash between collective discourses and the subjective
consciousness of reality. Several social agents made public their own views on why the
boy committed the crime, some to reinforce his culpability, and others to exonerate him.
In contrast, Ōshima, in the philosophical line of Yoshimoto presented above, claims in
Kōshikei the autonomy (jiritsu) of the subject with respect to discourses that fit the crime
with the preconceived ideological view of the criminal.
The starting point of Kōshikei moves away from the actual case to give the film a
tone of absurdity: the convicted is hanged but does not die; instead he completely loses
his memory, after which the prison officers conclude that to be legally able to hang him
again they must make him recover his self-awareness. The whole film is about how the
execution witnesses try to make the condemned remember who he is and the crime he
committed, bringing to stage, like in a play, the official narrative of his past. The
increasingly theatrical and absurd tone of Kōshikei makes it one of Ōshima’s most
Brechtian films, in his quest to generate a distancing that fosters the subjective reflection
of the viewer.
Each execution witness symbolizes a social agent that tries to rebuild the convict’s
subjectivity by offering their own explanation of why he committed the crime. The fact
the convict is known simply as ‘R’ reinforces the feeling that he is an empty subject, like
a container into which the agents surrounding him try to pour their respective ideologies
to make him fit what he should be according to their preconceptions. The prison officers
and the prosecutors represent the bourgeois state, which bases the explanation of R’s
crime on the stereotyped narrative of his past in a poor immigrant family in which, from
their point of view, only misery and unhappiness leading necessarily to the crime are
possible. R’s imaginary sister (the first of them, since two different ones appear in the
film) represents the Japanese old Left and Korean nationalism, and she explains her
brother’s crime as an act of revenge by the oppressed Korean nation against Japanese
imperialism. The Catholic priest represents religion, and he explains R’s crime as a carnal
sin against God; he disagrees with the execution, not on his own initiative but because it
is against Christian morality. The doctor, who explains the rape and murder committed
by R by his repressed sexual drive, represents science.
Although at first there seems to be a contraposition between an R without
subjectivity and social agents with subjectivity, as the film goes on this impression is in
fact reversed, and the feeling is increasingly transmitted that it is R who, through
experience, reaches a high degree of individual autonomy, whereas the other characters
assume the function of mere gears. While R ends up assuming responsibility for the crime
he committed, the execution witnesses never assume their responsibility for R’s hanging,
hiding behind duty and the law (as when some of them justify their crimes during the
Second World War), which reveals their deficit of subjectivity.
As noted in the introduction of this article, two of the most interesting analyses of
Kōshikei so far, by Ogawa (2015) and Ward (2015), also start with the focus on
subjectivation as the central problem. However, both authors place excessive emphasis
on the dual relationship of state-individual subjection in the configuration of subjectivity.
Ogawa (2015: 314) claims that “R’s sole function is to represent the sovereign power
through its dejected, passive and vulnerable existence”, and Ward (2015: 57) states that
“R merely functions as a fictional presumption from which Ōshima is able to develop the
mechanisms of state subjection”. By using Althusserian approaches to analyze the film,
Ogawa and Ward see R’s subjectivation as a product of the ideological state apparatuses
that address him. According to the Althusserian perspective, the fact that R’s
subjectivation succeeded would mean that the state apparatuses would have made him
interiorize ideology until he reproduced it autonomously (or, rather, believing he is acting
autonomously); otherwise, subjectivation would be considered unsuccessful, and we
would be talking about a non-subject.
However, the development of R’s subjectivity does not come from outside
himself, in the subjection to external powers, but develops from within the individual in
his relationship with the social totality. In this regard, Ōshima displays in Kōshikei an
outlook more in line with the materialist subjectivism of Umemoto, by placing at the
core of subjectivity an ultimately indefinable nothingness (mu). In fact, with the hanging
at the beginning of the film, R does not become, as Ogawa (2015: 310) and Ward (2015:
41) define him, a non-subject: his subjectivity does not get annulled, but rather his self-
identity. R exists as an empty subject, but as a subject after all. His subjectivity develops
through contact with the ideologies addressing him: not through the subjection to those
ideologies, but through the response to them. From an Umemotian perspective, it is
through the experience of alienation, of the denial of control over his own being by
external social powers, that a rebel subjectivity arises in R in relation to those powers.
On this matter it is worth quoting Eagleton (1991: 146) regarding the word subject in
the Althusserian vocabulary: “It is possible by a play on words to make ‘what lies
beneath’ mean ‘what is kept down’, and part of the Althusserian theory of ideology turns
on this convenient verbal slide.” That is, in fact, the individual is a subject because they
have a dialectical relationship with a superior social totality, but not because they are
subjected to it.
Further from the focus on the problem of subjectivity, Desser (2018: 172-73)
argues that the film focuses on the discrimination against Zainichi (Korean residents in
Japan) and the death penalty imposed on a member of this minority. However, although
there is little doubt that Ōshima was very concerned about the Zainichi problem, I
consider it to be a resource through which he deploys a more general reflection on the
configuration of human subjectivity, transcending the denunciation of specific cases. It
reminds us of how Tanigawa ([1963] 1984: 235-246) was concerned about the
oppression against marginalized minorities in Japan not from the humanist perspective
consisting of denouncing human evil, but from a cooler analysis of the function this
oppression has in the configuration of the social network of subjectivities.
Desser seems to follow the line of previous works such as Mellen 1976 and
McDonald 1983 by placing the Korean issue at the center, although these two authors
show signs of a greater lack of ideological analysis by making deterministic conclusions
about Kōshikei. Mellen (1976: 421) states that the re-enactment of past circumstances
“serves finally only to repoliticize R, to reawaken his consciousness of himself as a
Korean, and to inspire him to rebel -the inevitable response of the oppressed minority to
those in authority” (emphasis mine). As for McDonald (1983: 148), she says that through
the film “we recognize the deterministic forces that shaped R’s existence and led him to
commit murder” (emphasis mine), referring to the oppression against Koreans by the
Japanese nation. But, in fact, I consider Kōshikei to be based on a position opposite to
this interpretative line. To understand Ōshima’s true intention, it is appropriate to start
from the criticism he wrote on La Battaglia di Algeri (The Battle of Algiers, 1966), one
of the most influential films of the 1960s worldwide:
Films can’t be used for political purposes. A film can be truly political only when it
deeply moves the individual spectator. A film speaks only to the individual. In Japan
today, cheers -whether for racial independence or for terrorism- are nothing more
than emotions that are already at hand. There are already many kinds of melodrama
that appeal to these emotions. Nevertheless, the fact that Japanese film critics as a
whole are praising The Battle of Algiers, -which is for the most part merely a
melodrama- to this extent is enough to convince one that they are experiencing a
temporary stoppage of thinking. (Ōshima [1967] 1992a: 140)
On this matter, Ōshima ([1967] 1992a: 142) added a criticism of the “foolish
Japanese intelligentsia, who thought, like the Italians, that as long as it was a people’s
struggle for racial independence it was a good thing, no matter where or how it was
portrayed”. What Ōshima intended with Kōshikei was not to impose a closed message on
the viewer based on empathy towards a nationally or racially oppressed minority, but to
make them think about the various issues of the film. When Ōshima claims that a film, to
be political, should not have political ends, he means it is in the means of expression, and
not in the meaning of the message, where the most political of cinema lies. This emphasis
on means above any teleology recalls the ideas of Japanese New Left thinkers.
For example, it is worth remembering that Nakai stated that, since practice makes
a stable observation of the object impossible, it was not legitimate to claim an objective
view of reality that helps to establish a teleology. As such Nakai proposed a mediating
subject (in the case at hand, it would be the film director) that started from a permanent
self-questioning in order to free the subjective energy (ki) of the masses (or here, the
spectators). But the refusal of Ōshima to impose a message is based not only on the refusal
of an objective position and a teleology, but also of any position of power. Ōshima, just
as Yoshimoto conceived intellectuals’ activism, saw mainstream cinema as a means that
ultimately limits the spectator’s autonomy, since it expresses itself from a position of
power. Therefore, Ōshima filmed as if the only way to promote subjectivity was by using
cinema as a medium that self-denies and makes the viewer feel uncomfortable in their
passivity. In this regard, cinema was for Ōshima similar to what an assembly was for
Tokoro: a space where the activist (in this case the director) negates themselves so that
other subjectivities (the spectators) fit, and where the efficiency of results (in this case the
efficiency of message generation) is replaced by a process of non-conclusive discussion
(here between the film and the viewers). In all these cases, the contradiction underlying
self-negation is not something to be overcome, but the starting point of action. Thus, just
as Tanigawa defined himself as a member of an anti-political political faction, Ōshima
could be defined as a member of an anti-cinematographic cinematographic faction.
It should be noted that Ōshima’s self-negation is made up of two sides of the same
coin: the director’s self-negation in relation to the spectator, and the director’s self-
negation in relation to the characters. In the case of Kōshikei, in order not to impose an
ideology on the viewer, Ōshima refuses to impose an ideology on the main character.
This means refusing to portray the main character as he is or as he should be, which is in
line with the ‘original image’ of the masses advanced by Yoshimoto and presented in the
previous section. It is decided, instead, to show a character that becomes through
experience, and is not determined by ideas, circumstances, and the chain of causalities.
From this point of view, interpreting R’s action as explained by his oppression as
a member of the Korean collective entity, means ignoring his individual subjectivity. The
fact that Ōshima believes that personal acts have political and thus social signification,
does not mean that social circumstances explain those acts, much less determine them. In
the same vein as Umemoto’s existentialist thinking, Ōshima shows in Kōshikei that
circumstances enable the choice options of the main character, but the one who decides
is him. The core of R’s action is his subjectivity, ultimately indefinable and inexplicable,
and thus free. There is nothing better to cinematographically portray the nothingness (mu)
constituting the core of human subjectivity, than using as the starting point the total loss
of memory and identity of the main character. On this matter, one can agree with
McDonald (1983: 149) that Kōshikei has a noticeable Marxist quality, but not in fact
because it offers a deterministic view but quite the opposite, because of its Umemotian-
rooted subjectivism, based on a non-deterministic dialectic between the subjective and
the objective.
From an Umemotian-rooted conception of subjectivity, R’s crime has the political
and social significance of being committed by a subject from an oppressed minority (a
Zainichi) against a subject from an oppressor majority (a Japanese), but this significance
does not itself constitute an explanation or determination of the crime. In this regard, the
following dialogue between R’s (first) imaginary sister and the doctor about the reasons
for the crime is illustrative:
SISTER: He did not want to be born in Japan. No Korean does. R’s father was
brought to Japan as a serf. You never understand how we Koreans feel. R’s crime
was caused by Japanese imperialism. (…)
DOCTOR: If we follow your logic, 600,000 Koreans living in Japan must all
commit murder.
Likewise, a very revealing conversation happens between R and his (second)
imaginary sister about the reason why he used to imagine himself committing crimes:
SISTER: But why imagine crimes… things that lead to no better future? When
people are most oppressed, they long for the brightest of lights.
R: Such people may exist. But I was different.
These dialogues suggest that, ultimately, it is up to each subject to respond in one
way or another to the social circumstances they experience. Here imagination is presented
as a subjective contraposition to deterministic narratives of reality. There is a turning
point around the middle of the film from which this contraposition clearly surfaces and
starts to have an active subjective function. While the prison officers, to make R
remember who he is, urge him to re-enact his past in a theatrical scene by following the
stereotypical depiction of a poor immigrant family, R moves away from the official
portrait and starts to imagine a utopian and happy walk with his siblings. But after a while
one of the prison officers cuts the scene by saying: “This is all beside the point.”
Right then, to limit the increasingly more developed subjectivity of R and make
him fit more strongly into the official narrative, the film goes abruptly from the
theatrically decorated execution room to the real scenery of the city. However, while one
of the officers does his best to implant in R the thoughts that, according to the official
narrative, led him to commit the crime, R instead focuses his attention on a cat. The cat,
as Heath ([1976] 1981: 64-69) points out, occupies an ‘impossible’ space considering the
perspective angle. Therefore, it can only be the product of his imagination. This cat
functions, through its space disruption, as a deconstructive criticism of the spectator’s
omniscient gaze in the narration of classic cinema, a narrative symbolized by the officer’s
voice-over, which is intended to teleologically guide R just as a conventional film would
guide the viewer. Moreover, the cat plays the same function as the imaginary walk with
R’s siblings shortly beforehand and reaffirms his subjectivity in opposition to the
narrative being imposed on him. From this scene on there is no longer a point of return in
the film: R will become increasingly detached from external narratives and
simultaneously more active.
R reaches a full degree of subjective autonomy when the first imaginary sister,
who symbolized the old Left, becomes the second one, who can be considered a
representation of the New Left’s ethos. The second sister symbolizes the self-negating
role that, from Yoshimoto’s perspective presented in the previous section, the activist
intellectual must play to foster the autonomy of the masses. Unlike the first sister, the
second one does not interact with R from an external position or try to instil in him a
discourse to subjectivize him from above. The second sister is no longer wearing a
traditional Korean dress (which symbolizes nationalism) but she is naked next to R, who
now also appears naked, both under the same Japanese flag (which symbolizes state
oppression) and on the same level. Likewise, unlike the first sister, the second one talks
with R (letting him speak mainly) instead of talking to R (almost without listening to him).
An observation should be made here about the role of the female figure in Kōshikei.
Although the imaginary sisters are depicted as empowered women, both constitute a
mediation for the subjective development of the man (R) and, ultimately, for his salvation.
The most powerful symbol of this man’s salvation by a woman is the image, in the last
section of the film, of R in his sister’s arms, similar to the biblical motif of the Pietà. This
contradiction, added to the fact that the sister saving R is a product of his imagination
unlike the other characters surrounding him, all of whom are men, can be considered an
unconscious reflection of the Japanese New Left reality: it was a political space where,
although female figures such as Kanba Michiko (killed in a demonstration in 1960 and
made into a martyr by the movement), Tokoro Mitsuko (who died right before the 1968
student uprising in the campuses leaving the movement’s leadership in the hands of a
man, Yamamoto Yoshitaka) and later Shigenobu Fusako (who would take center stage
far from Japan, in the Middle East) were extolled in the collective imaginary, they were
no more than mere symbols while, in practice, men dominated the movement.
Finally, I want to focus on the ending of the film, which is highly open to
interpretation. The prosecutor, the highest representative of the state in the execution
room, points to the door and says to R that if he does not feel guilty of his crime, he is
free to leave. R heads towards the door, and when he opens it, he is dazzled by a blinding
light that prevents him from leaving. How can this apparent rejection of freedom be
explained? According to Ogawa (2015: 310) and Ward (2015: 49), this blinding light
expresses the omnipresence of the state’s power of subjection. However, my analysis
suggests the interpretation that the light is R’s own subjective consciousness. The priest
says to R that the light preventing him from leaving is God, who makes him feel guilty
for his sin. As for the prosecutor, he states that the light is the nation, in the presence of
which R feels guilty for his crime. But R fully rejects both explanations. He still does not
feel guilty. Nevertheless, if R escaped the death penalty just because the state has allowed
to do so, he would in fact be renouncing his subjectivity; it would be a state victory over
the subject.
Unlike the execution witnesses, shaped by guilt (a feeling externally inspired,
either by the law or by Christian morality) but not by responsibility (they do not feel
individually responsible for the hanging), R rejects guilt but not responsibility. He rejects
an external power as that which condemns or frees him, and he assumes his responsibility
as a way to defend his autonomy in the face of the state. Finally, after claiming that he is
doing it for every R, he is hanged by his own will. The final hanging is, thus, the most
powerful symbol of self-negation in the film. Once the trapdoor has opened, the last shot
shows the rope empty, without R’s body. Since Ogawa (2015) considers that in Kōshikei
the centrality of the theoretical problem of state apparatuses is inseparable from the
thematic question of the Zainichi (309), he denies the possibility that the disappearance
of R’s body expressed a utopian scape, because that would involve adopting the view that
Korean freedom can only be found outside Japanese sovereign territory (312). However,
in light of the Japanese New Left political theories of subjectivity and beyond specific
national problems, the empty rope symbolizes the impossibility of the state to constrain
the rebel subject, calling into question the state’s raison d’être.
With this image on screen, a voice-over thanks the execution witnesses for
having taken part in the hanging, and then directly addresses the spectators and thanks
them as well. Kōshikei is, thus, a call for the responsibility of the subject in the face of
the reality in which it lives. The final voice-over is in line with the self-negation
advanced by the thought of Tokoro, insofar as it urges the viewers to recognize
themselves as victimizers, namely, to assume that they indirectly take part in the
execution of the death penalty through their passivity in real life. This standpoint is in
line with Ōshima’s ([1969] 1992: 198) statement that every Japanese person is
responsible for the political situation in Japan.
Both the political theories of subjectivity and the films of the Japanese New Left ideology
of which Kōshikei is a paradigmatic example, constitute an interesting philosophical
exercise, but at the same time they have great limitations in practice. On the one hand,
this ideology managed to break into the Japan of the 1960s with a powerful energy
emanating from the critical and conscious, not accidental, contradiction of the subject’s
self-negation. But on the other hand, that contradiction had two main problems in terms
of political pragmatism.
First, the instability generated by a subject on a constant search for self-negation
impeded the stability and survival of the movement (in this case, both its strictly political
variant and its cinematographic one), which quickly collapsed at the beginning of the
1970s (although also for reasons exogenous to the thinking system itself). And second,
despite being an ideology concerned with the revolution, it had serious difficulties taking
root among the masses in Japan. In the case of cinema, the high complexity of films ended
up having a distancing effect with respect to majorities. Something similar happened with
the strictly political movement, more focused on the self-transformation of its members
than on organizing an effective tool to add majorities together and transform the structures
of the post-war Japanese system.
All the same, it is still an ideology of great interest, and its special concern for
reflecting on the autonomy of the human being to think and act by itself outside of
influences from superior social agents, even those expected to question the status quo
(just as the Japanese old left defined itself), prevails.
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I am publishing this article as a Juan de la Cierva-Formación postdoctoral fellow
(FJC2020-042854-I, Ministry of Science and Innovation, Spanish Government) at the
ALTER Research Group within the Arts and Humanities Department, Universitat Oberta
de Catalunya. The project was supported by the GREGAL Research Group
(2017SGR1596, AGAUR, Catalan Government) and by the GETCC Research Group
(FFI2014-52989-C2-1-P, Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness, Spanish
Government), both at the Department of Translation, Interpreting and East Asian Studies,
Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona. I am grateful to Dr Chris Perkins from the University
of Edinburgh for his interest in the project and his invaluable advice during its completion.
I also thank the journal’s reviewers for their insight and generosity.
1Anpo安保 is the abbreviation by which the Security Treaty between the United States
and Japan of 1952 is popularly known, which put Japan’s territory at the disposal of the
US army with the objective of protecting the interests of the capitalist block within the
context of the cold war.
2 Shinran was a Buddhist monk considered to be the founder of the Jōdo Shinshū 浄土真
(True Pure Land) doctrine. He tried to bring Buddhism closer to ordinary people. He
maintained that it was faith rather than the Buddhist practices carried out by monks, which
led to salvation. According to Shinran, the impossibility of achieving salvation through
moral practice led the subject to self-negation or resolution toward death, and it was this
self-negation that led to the death of one’s former self and the birth of a new self released
from karma (Koschmann 1996: 117-118).
3 ATG’s model fostered the focus on artistic experimentation above mass consumption.
The Shinjuku Art Theatre, the official venue of the ATG, reduced its seating capacity
from 600 to 400 seats, and in opposition to the big commercial cinemas, prohibited
standing or entering late during the screening; moreover, its target was the politically
conscious and middle-class intellectual youth (Standish 2011: 6-9).
4 Ōshima ([1967] 1992b: 150-153), who had been collaborating with the Shin Nihon
Bungaku 新日本文学 (New Japanese Literature) group (which advocated for the
formation of a cultural intelligentsia to guide the masses towards a social revolution),
acknowledged the influence of the anti-avant-garde criticism by Yoshimoto on his
decision to leave this movement; likewise, Ōshima acknowledged his affinity with the
decentralized model of the student movement in the late 1960s.
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This introductory essay contextualizes the articles that comprise the special issue by focusing on a historical period known as the ”Japanese long 1968” or the “season of politics” (roughly 1966 to 1972), in order to address the trends in the period’s cinematic production as a social and political expression of its time. The prevailing socio-political unrest – from the massive student occupation of university campuses, to the campaign against Japan-US alliance within the framework of the Vietnam War, to the struggle against the construction of the Narita International Airport – had a considerable impact on the way some Japanese filmmakers conceived cinema. Beginning with a review of those events, the article demonstrates how analyzing the impact of the Japanese long 1968 on cinema, and how filmmakers intervened in that phenomenon, enables us to reach not only a better comprehension of the films in question, but also of the way they reflect and interact with the historical moment in which they were produced.
The late auteur Oshima Nagisa might be best remembered for his successful collaboration with French producers, notably for In the Realm of the Senses (1976). It was Korea, however, that he visited when overseas travel again became possible to the Japanese in 1964, an experience that continued to inform his works both on formal and thematic levels during his most prolific decade of the 1960s. Articulating the centrality of Korea in Oshima's oeuvre is important both from film historical and theoretical viewpoints. From Deep Sea Fish (screenplay, 1956) to Three Resurrected Drunkards (1968), Koreans figured not simply as characters, but as markers of the threshold of representability. This is most evident in Death by Hanging (1968), the first of the critically acclaimed ‘New Wave’ films to come out of ATG (Art Theatre Guild) and a popular reference in the political modernist discourse. That Death by Hanging was not merely about Koreans in Japan (zainichi) but an exploration of the limits of representability was observed by Stephen Heath in his seminal article ‘Narrative space’, as well as by the leading Japanese critic Yomota Inuhiko in his recent Oshima monograph. Uniting their otherwise contrasting readings is their attention to the utopian ‘other space’ that opens up in ‘impossible’ narrative space and defies the panoptic sovereign gaze. I turn to the more ambiguous spaces that are neither completely inside nor outside the sovereign gaze, but offer sites of resistance: the uncanny space haunted by the ‘presence’ of the real-life model, a Korean convict Yi Jin-u; and the theatrical space of the mock-up gallows which was incidentally built inside a disused cinema.
This study of the films of Oshima Nagisa is both an essential introduction to the work of a major postwar director of Japanese cinema and a theoretical exploration of strategies of filmic style. For almost forty years, Oshima has produced provocative films that have received wide distribution and international acclaim. Formally innovative as well as socially daring, they provide a running commentary, direct and indirect, on the cultural and political tensions of postwar Japan. Best known today for his controversial films In the Realm of the Senses and The Empire of Passion, Oshima engages issues of sexuality and power, domination and identity, which Maureen Turim explores in relation to psychoanalytic and postmodern theory. The films' complex representation of women in Japanese society receives detailed and careful scrutiny, as does their political engagement with the Japanese student movement, postwar anti-American sentiments, and critiques of Stalinist tendencies of the Left. Turim also considers Oshima's surprising comedies, his experimentation with Brechtian and avant-garde theatricality as well as reflexive textuality, and his essayist documentaries in this look at an artist's gifted and vital attempt to put his will on film.