The Many Modernisms of Nagisa Oshima

Modernism. It’s one of the Big Ideas in twentieth-century aesthetics. Yet the term’s very ubiquitousness all but guarantees its descriptive incoherence. In a somewhat paradoxical dynamic, the concept of modernism has become self-evidently “obvious” through over-exposure and yet impenetrably complex in its cumulative meanings. It’s no surprise that the “modernist” moniker is often deployed in a vague and intellectually lazy manner—why bother thinking in depth when you can cut-and-paste such nifty buzzwords from Wikipedia stubs?—but when the term ricochets back and forth between scholars of substance and clarity, its discursive richness becomes compellingly alive.

Photo: Godlis

Such was the case at NYFF’s recent panel discussion, In the Realm of Oshima. Film scholars Annette Michelson, Aaron Gerow and David Desser joined Film Society’s Richard Pena for an extended discussion of the life and work of postwar Japan’s ultimate outsider, Nagisa Oshima. The discussion was free ranging, segueing from political history to aesthetics and back again, but one thematic through-line connected the panelists’ distinct perspectives: the across-the-board consensus that Oshima can be productively described as a modernist. What each meant by the term, of course, was markedly unique.

David Desser defined Oshima’s aesthetic as one functionally similar (but historically parallel?) to fine-arts modernism in the West. Invoking Harold Bloom’s idea of the “Anxiety of Influence,” Desser argued that Oshima’s experimental techniques represented a programmatic attempt to escape the pervasive influence of Yasujiro Ozu—to become “the anti-Ozu.” Oshima is thus “modernist” to the extent that he self-consciously aimed to break with a traditional/classical paradigm. I’m not familiar with Desser’s published works, but his focus during the panel on intertextual relations within Japanese cinema (instead of throughout international art cinema) makes me wonder how he has responded to Noel Burch’s scholarship, specifically the idea that Japan’s classical era was unique in world cinema for remaining largely autonomous of the West’s (and classical Hollywood’s) stylistic hegemony. Whether Desser’s somewhat exclusive focus on intra-Japanese influences reflects his approach to a distinctively national cinema or resulted only from limited speaking time remained a hanging question for me. (Bleg alert!)

For Aaron Gerow, Oshima is engaged in an explicit dialogue with an international modernist movement, and his artistic approach has been specifically influenced by the aesthetic philosophies (the “anti-intellectual intellectualism”) of certain postwar French writers: Genet, Bataille, Sartre. This strand of modernism is not “anti-intellectual” in the sense of being populist—it’s not the kind of “vernacular modernism” that’s become a prevalent concept in film scholarship of late—but rather in the sense of being anti-cerebral. Gerow highlighted Oshima’s recurrent efforts to gild analytical and formalist structures with visceral somatic experiences. “How do you do theory with your body?” Gerrow rhetorically asked the crowd. Oshima’s output cannot be neatly classified in terms of “high” or “low” art, which for many critics remain the foundational concepts of modernist aesthetics. And yet Oshima was directly inspired by such movements, and his work represents as much of an affirmation and continuation as a negation.

In Western art history, Annette Michelson argued, modernism was a fairly homogenous movement within any given artistic field. Oshima’s modernism, by contrast, is markedly idiosyncratic and personal. The director never thought of himself as a participant in any collective artistic movement—he has repeatedly rejected, for example, the handle of “New Wave” filmmaker with which critics have consistently categorized his work. A formalist periodization of film history (whether it’s specific to Japan’s national output or attempts to describe international movements) sheds light on only part of Oshima’s project. Far more relevant is the broader cultural and political history of Japan. Oshima’s modernism can be defined negatively in terms of his very personal refutation of “pre-modern” Japanase culture: the imperialism, militarism, racial chauvinism, and feudal suppression of democratic institutions and personal liberty which he saw as the defining characteristics of prewar Japan. In this sense, Michelson is less focused on Oshima the art-house auteur than Oshima the cultural warrior and public intellectual. In a subtly insinuating and admirably non-polemical manner, Michelson’s history implicitly refutes a myopically blinkered cinephilia that treats films (and films alone) as the privileged objects of study. It was refreshing to see a film studies scholar subtly extract herself from the hermeneutic circles that threaten to reduce film scholarship to an echo chamber—and with so little self-congratulatory fanfare!

“Oshima hated generalities,” Michelson explained. I think he would’ve appreciated the panelists’ attempts to move beyond reductive glosses and engage with the fleshy substance of Oshima’s ouvre. As a point of both convergence and divergence, the “modernist” trope generated a heady amount of intellectual frisson—and, taken on its own, provides an expressive snapshot of the panelists in action.

-Paul Brunick

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