Death by Hanging (1968) opens like a documentary, informing us that a poll taken the previous year found 71 percent of Japanese are cool with capital punishment. “But have you ever been inside an execution chamber?” the title cards petition us. “Have you ever witnessed an execution?” Well, now’s your chance. Sort of.
Over images of an ordinary Japanese death chamber, its exteriors and interiors, the voice of director Nagisa Oshima provides numerous, even superfluous, objective details regarding architecture, décor and procedure: last meal, last cigarette, prayers, blindfold, noose, trapdoor. We see a convict put through the motions and a group of all-male spectators behold the whole morbid show. Oshima had a background in the theatre, and the obvious theatricality of this space and these rituals is hardly lost on him. It is only after the hanged man’s pulse is checked some 20 minutes after hanging, only after it’s confirmed that his heart is still beating normally, that we feel fairly certain we have moved far away from documentary and, for that matter, from straightforward polemic.
The hanged man’s not dead, or he’s undead, or, like Boris Karloff in that wonderful Michael Curtiz movie from 1936, he’s Walking Dead. He’s roused awake but doesn’t seem to know who he is. (He’s played by the beatific, implacable Yung-do Yun.) Japanese law says they can’t hang him again unless he’s cognizant of his identity and of his crimes, so all of the sundry authorities present work hard to convince him. Taking on various roles, the warden, the chaplain, prosecutor, et al reenact his crimes—which include rape and murder—and other aspects of his biography, often revelling in hysterical showmanship and vicarious thrills. And as they do so, Oshima gradually stacks a litany of condemnations against his country, not only regarding capital punishment, but also general moral hypocrisy, unchecked war crimes and institutionalized racism.
As estimable Japanese film scholar Tony Rayns points out in an interview included on Criterion’s excellent new DVD/Blu-ray/iTunes release of Death by Hanging, Oshima was never one to fuss over branding himself as an auteur. He seemed to deliberately make each new project as different from its predecessor as possible. But one essential attribute that runs through Oshima’s filmography—which includes In the Realm of the Senses (1976), Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence (1983) and Gohatto (1999)—is sheer radicalism. No movie brat, Oshima did not make films to fulfil some youthful dream of joining the ranks of his cinematic idols. He was fiercely politicized and esthetically promiscuous, always searching for the formal strategy that best suits the given subject. Inspired by the 1962 execution of Ri Chin-u, an ethnic Korean whose published writings Oshima admired tremendously, Death by Hanging seems to draw from the work of Bertolt Brecht, eschewing any attempts at identification, opting instead to use its high theatricality and pitch-black humour as a means of posing numerous provocative questions and stimulate debate. All of the key issues addressed in Death by Hanging remain pertinent, but in any case there is a universality to the use of role-play in this brilliantly madcap, feverish movie. In the end, the guilty parties hang themselves. V