In a small building next to a Japanese prison, we witness an execution. Sanctioned by the Japanese government, the condemned, a man by the name of “R,” is scheduled to be hanged by the neck until dead. His crime was the rape and murder of two women. We see all the steps of the highly bureaucratic process that R must pass through: the last rites, the inquiry concerning if he has a will, the last meal of fruit and cakes, the last cup of tea, and one final cigarette. As is expected, everything is carried out with military proficiency. The only thing that breaks the calm of the proceedings is the shaking of R’s body. But even that falls silent after the trapdoor opens up beneath him and his body takes the fatal plunge. But as the narrator explains, something goes wrong. R’s body rejects his death. Somehow, R survives being hanged for seventeen minutes. Such is the opening of Death by Hanging, one of Japanese cinema’s most challenging and unique films. Directed by Nagisa Oshima, that great cinematic iconoclast of the same ilk as Jean-Luc Godard, it is a stunning examination of free will, guilt, justice, and ethnic prosecution.
The plight of R, an ethnic Korean living in Japan, leads to great mayhem and confusion within the ranks of the prison staff. Should he be hanged again until he is dead? Do they have the right to hang an unconscious man? These are just some of the questions thrown around in the opening minutes of the film. When R is successfully revived, he does not have any memory of his crimes or of himself. Labeled as amnesia by the resident doctor, R’s condition only further complicates things. One guard is quick to point out, “He must realize his guilt is being justly punished. That’s the true, moral, ethical purpose: It’s not just a matter of killing him.” Another guard disagrees, only for the chaplain who administered the last rites to cut in and say that his soul has already departed and it would be a sin to kill the empty body. But another guard suggests that they should try and restore his memory. If he remembers who he is and what he has done, then they can hang him again.
But perhaps recounting every single argument contained within each scene is the wrong approach for explaining this film. To do so would entail a summary of every single philosophical idea that is put forth by the characters. And, much like the characters in a Dostoyevsky novel, the people who inhabit Death by Hanging spend their screen time discoursing on philosophy, morality, politics, and religion. It is the methods that these officials use to restore R’s memory that must be examined. Their methods will range from the rational to the absurd, from the hilarious to the horrifying. But that is Oshima’s genius: by examining the method we get a clearer picture of the killer’s (and society’s) motivations. To comprehend the why, we must first explore the how.
And what is Oshima’s method? The opening scene where we witness R’s execution is filmed like a tightly knit documentary. But as soon as we learn that R has survived his execution, the entire tone of the film changes. From here, Oshima propels the film into the waters of pure fantasy. He begins using techniques originally employed by the great German playwright Bertolt Brecht, who pioneered the concept of “epic theater,” which believed that theater should not cause the audience to identify or emotionally connect with the characters or actions before them. Instead, Brecht believed that the theater should cause the audience to undergo “rational self-reflection” which would lead them to form a critical view of the action before them. Oshima, a committed leftist, immediately challenges the audience at the beginning of Death by Hanging by introducing the audience to a survey which says that a large majority of Japanese people support the death penalty. He then has his narrator ask the audience how many of them have actually witnessed an execution. It is obvious that in Death by Hanging, Oshima has a clear agenda.
Another attribute of Brecht’s “epic theater” was called Verfremdungseffekt, which roughly translates as a “defamiliarization effect.” Essentially, this entailed that the playwright must make sure that the audience remembers that they are watching a play which involved, as Brecht himself wrote, “stripping the event of its self-evident, familiar, obvious quality and creating a sense of astonishment and curiosity about them.” One such method to achieve this end is the use of explanatory placards on stage. Oshima transposes this technique onto the screen by using seven intertitles that inform the audience about what is about to happen. They alienate the audience and force them to take an active part in observing the actions.
But perhaps I have given a bad impression of this film as a cold, surgical assault on the audience. I’m not denying that it is, but it contains some of the darkest humor that has ever graced the cinema. Also a Brechtian concept, the film’s dark humor underscores the absurdity of the situation and places the audience into a state of contempt for the authority figures. The best examples of dark humor in Death by Hanging involve the various prison and government officials trying to reenact R’s crime so that his memory will be restored. They play rape and kill each other in front of R’s stoic face all while trying to maintain their dignity as government officials. The climax of these reenactments comes when one of the officials decides that the resident priest would make the best innocent victim and attempts to rape him. Another scene involves the officials taking R to the scene of his crime, a high school, where they try to reenact the crime with a local school girl. When the officer who is reenacting the crime gets too carried away, he accidentally kills the school girl, causing the officials to flee from the roof.
But perhaps the most memorable example of Brechtian dark humor comes at about the middle of the movie where the officials try to recreate R’s home environment, hoping that it will jog his memory. In a tiny room covered with newspapers, they try to act out the various characters in R’s family. They cavort around complaining how hard life is and how miserable they are. But then a voice is heard, “Make it more Korean.” The officials pause for a moment, and then they continue their recreation by indulging in the crudest Japanese stereotypes concerning Korean immigrants. They twist and shout on the floor, screaming like madmen, making obscene gestures towards their genitals, and act like imbeciles. Predictably, this does nothing to restore R’s memory. But it isn’t a total lost, not for the audience at least. This scene draws attention to the other major theme in Death by Hanging: the trials and tribulations of ethnic Koreans living in Japan.
What many don’t know is that the character R from Death by Hanging was based on a real person. His name was Ri Chin’u, an ethnic Korean who murdered two Japanese school girls in 1958. Despite his crimes, Chin’u was a very intelligent young man whose writings where he confessed and wrote about his crimes were later compiled into a collection entitled Crime, Death, and Love. Much of it was comprised of a correspondence with Bok Junan, a Korean journalist who held sympathies to North Korea. Oshima, a great fan of Chin’u (he believed that his writing was so good that it deserved to be included in high school textbooks), incorporated these discussions into Death by Hanging by including a character who claimed to be R’s sister. She attempts to convince R that his crimes were justified by Korean nationalism and that they were fair retribution against an enemy that had killed untold numbers of Koreans in past imperialistic expeditions. But when R rejects her, she says that she cannot accept him anymore out of her duty as a Korean. Of course, after her outbursts concerning the evils of Japan, she is quickly hanged by the prison guards.
R is depicted as a man in the midst of a struggle that he can never escape from. When he eventually regains his memory, he states that he should not be hanged on the grounds that it would make his executioners murderers. Of course, earlier in the film it is revealed that most of the guards took place in the invasion of Korea. They took great pleasures in remembering how they would kill up to fifty Korean civilians at a time. So R’s plea does not convince them to let him go. But his prosecutor curiously agrees with R’s reasoning and lets him try to leave the execution building. When he tries to leave, he is taken aback by an intense burst of light. It becomes obvious that as a Korean he will never be accepted by the Japanese. So R is stuck in the midst of two dilemmas: the morality of execution and his role as an ethnic Korean. Eventually, he is hanged again. But when his body falls through the hole in the floor, his body disappears, leaving an empty noose. What does this symbolize? Does it mean that as a man who can have no identity in Japanese society he doesn’t exist? Or does it mean that as a Korean he is impervious to the whims of the Japanese government. In a final Brechtian sweep, Oshima leaves the conflict unresolved and open for interpretation by the audience.
Death by Hanging is a devastating cinematic enigma. It can be interpreted in countless ways, and yet the audience always seems to be conscious of Oshima’s agenda. In Death by Hanging, Oshima creates a bizarre world of fantasy and reality, where people are killed only to appear alive in the adjacent scene and men are defined by the society that dominates them. Perhaps Death by Hanging is a riddle that never can, or ever should, be solved. After all, if there was a clear answer, then the audience would be free from having to draw their own conclusions. That is Oshima’s master stroke: a movie that forces people to think, not to feel. After all, is there anything more dangerous than a public that reacts emotionally instead of calmly and rationally? Only by thinking can we achieve the society that Oshima, and even Chin’u, wanted. Whether or not that is a good thing, well, that is also up to the audience.