"I Don't Want to Be Killed

by an Abstraction":

Nagisa Oshima's Death by Hanging

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Most cinephiles are at least superficially familiar with Nagisa Oshima’s work, as his sexually explicit but intellectually inert In the Realm of the Senses is, for obvious reasons, easily one of the most watched and well-known Japanese language films outside of Japan. But I believe that ultimately Oshima's greatest cinematic legacy will be his avant-garde polemical film Death by Hanging.

Death by Hanging is one of the great masterpieces of Brechtian cinema and ranks as perhaps the best dark comedy I have ever seen. Kubrick’s Dr.Strangelove is about the only thing that I can think of which comes even close to it in terms of sheer biting satire. But the avant-garde Brechtian techniques that Oshima incorporates into the film just send it soaring into a unique and esteemed place in world cinema.

The film is actually based on a real-life ethnic Korean who in 1958 murdered two Japanese schoolgirls. It was a pretty sensational case, as this young man not only confessed to the crimes, but became a sort of an anti-hero among Japanese youths by writing a best-selling book about his crimes. I imagine a lot of young people identified this R (as he is simply referred to in the film) with the character of Raskolnikov from Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, the sort of narcissist who professes to have killed as an intellectual act of transcending norms and mores and who mistakenly believes that such act will propel him to the heights of Nietzschean ubermensch status.

Oshima neither romanticizes nor celebrates the character of R. And of course, he shouldn’t. After all, as brilliant or sensitive a youth as the real-life R apparently was by all accounts, he was a murderer. R’s culpability is never an issue in the film, as he had confessed to his crimes. What Oshima is concerned with here are the societal conditions that propagate such heinous behavior and the societal reactions to that behavior. He examines Japan’s horrific treatment of its Korean ethnic minority and the idea that the death penalty might just perpetuate the cycle of violence rather than ending it. This kind of examination is a tough pill to swallow for many people, especially in the States, who tend to be legalistic and conservative. But the fact is, there will always be profoundly damaged individuals who commit heinous crimes. The only things we can do as a society are to try to ameliorate the conditions which give rise to such psychosis and to react as sensibly as we can when that psychosis manifests itself in tangible misdeeds.

And one brilliant exchange towards the end of this film particularly caught my attention and led me to venture on one of my rather wild tangential intellectual brainstorms. One of R’s executioners tells him, “It’s the nation that does not permit you to live.” And R replies, as he is facing death by hanging, “I don’t accept that. What is a nation? Show me one! I don’t want to be killed by an abstraction.”

To be killed by an abstraction… It really does not seem like anyone should be killed by an abstraction. But that is where we are at this particular juncture in human civilization. We no longer have to bonk each other over the head with a club due to scarcity of food or resources. That kind of violence, while not pretty, was once upon a time an inevitable part of the inexorable drive for survival and propagation. But we have made enough scientific and cultural advances that no human being on this earth has to go hungry, yet millions die from hunger every year. We no longer have to kill each other over shelter, food, or reproductive partners, so we kill each other over abstractions like ideas of nationhood and religion.

Is there any moral difference between the Muslim Saudi 9-11 hijackers who drove those planes into the World Trade Center while yelling “Allahu Akbar”, killing thousands of innocent people and the Christian American soldiers who dropped bombs on Baghdad while humming “God Bless America”, killing thousands of innocent people? How is it that both sides in such a conflict see individual human lives only as “collateral damage” ? It is because we assign abstractions like nationhood to ourselves and others, creating what the filmmaker Jean Renoir referred to as a Grand Illusion of differences and boundaries. “You belong to the other. You are the other. Therefore I can deny you your reality and your humanity and your essence and your existence. I can kill you, rape you, degrade you. And people from my tribe will celebrate me as a hero and a patriot.”

No one should be killed by an abstraction. But abstraction kills.

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