Nagisa Ôshima’s audacity as a filmmaker was unmistakable by the time his third feature hit screens in 1960. The full scope of the filmmaker’s rabid appetite for formal and social rebellion would develop over more than two decades, but the seeds of subversion were firmly planted in this highly charged social critique masquerading as an action film. Set in the shantytowns of industrial Osaka, The Sun’s Burial finds a dramatic antithesis to the concurrent Tokyo student protests in a group of nihilists-by-necessity who explore their personal agency by embracing the corruption of Japan’s new post-WWII order. The film’s existential essence is represented in Hanako (Kayoko Honoo), a woman who sustains in the slums by illegally buying and selling blood, soliciting for sex, and making deals with nearly anyone willing to break the law for a profit. Sporting provocative 50s American fashions, Hanako wields her femininity as a tool for survival, reigning in connections that would otherwise be hard won by a man. As a result, she acts as an unlikely conduit between the destitute scrappers of her neighborhood, selling their ID papers to Korean immigrants, and the street gang of lowly pimps and thugs led by Shin (Masahiko Tsugawa). She also fortuitously brings about the self-destructive demise of both groups.
Made up almost entirely of medium and long shots (as if wary of getting too close to these callous characters), The Sun’s Burial bridals its chaos within carefully composed widescreen dioramas, nurturing a commentary with juxtaposed images: the Osaka Castle with smoke-choked factories, the virtue of Takeshi with the iniquity of a so-called agitator, buying identification papers and selling them to undocumented immigrants.
Prostitutes, yakuza, and petty thieves — islands of apathy and freedom living under a mantra of “kill or be killed” — would become Oshima’s most potent antiheroes, not only here, but also in the likes of Violence at Noon and In the Realm of the Senses. But the crux of this narrative stems from the coercive induction of Takeshi (Isao Sasaki) into Shin’s gang. Takeshi is the film’s only attempt at a sympathetic moral compass. He’s far too sensitive for the life of a gangster; he suffers from the guilt of having witnessed the rape of a young woman and subsequent suicide of her emasculated boyfriend. Both Hanako and Shin take a liking to Takeshi and his youthful innocence — something perversely alien in this jaded world. In the venal streets of Oshima’s Osaka, guilelessness and humanitarianism have no place; we can feel Takeshi’s tragic fate in the erratic pulse of The Sun’s Burial, tailored by Oshima’s editor Keiichi Uraoka. But despite its outward genre appearances — yakuza eiga, taiyozoku, and even pinku eiga — The Sun’s Burial is nothing short of a grand Japanese masterpiece that helped to define a whole new brand of New Wave. Made up almost entirely of medium and long shots (as if wary of getting too close to these callous characters), The Sun’s Burial bridals its chaos within carefully composed widescreen dioramas, nurturing a commentary with juxtaposed images: the Osaka Castle with smoke-choked factories, the virtue of Takeshi with the iniquity of a so-called agitator, buying identification papers and selling them to undocumented immigrants. One person conned into selling their passport proceeds to spend all of his money in the bar and rhetorically, but quite metaphorically, asks: “Did I drink away my identity? Who am I now?” This scenario strikes at the heart of an uncompromising query on national identity, which spanned Oshima’s career. But it’s asked with such enthusiastic verve in The Sun’s Burial that you can still hear its echo today.
Part of Kicking the Canon – The Film Canon.