Discussing the avant-garde or the New Wave Cinema of the 1960s should be unthinkable without mentioning Oshima Nagisa. The work of this daring director blends important subject matter, beautiful visuals and innovative technique. Rarely does one get to enjoy such political work shot so exquisitely.
Sing a Song of Sex (also translated as “A Treatise on Japanese Bawdy Songs”) was released in 1967. It treats current events, both domestic and foreign: the institution of the National Foundation Day, and the Vietnam War. It addresses male and female identities, reflecting the second wave of feminism that permeated the culture and arts of the era. Another dimension is added through a patricide motif, a negligent killing of a father figure. Sexual conquest of the dead man’s partner by the young perpetrator adds a further element worthy of a Greek drama.
The many layers of the film reveal themselves gradually. Subdued realism unexpectedly takes a turn towards the surreal. Yet because the surreal stems solely from dialogue and action, the audience is sure to be shocked more by how thinly the line is drawn between reality, unreality, and fantasy. It is placed down as a drawing in water, wet finger dragged over the surface: sit and watch it evaporate.
Naturally, you may choose to be scandalized by the title and by a particular song that is repeated by high-school boys, soon-to be graduates. The folk gem lists advice on how to approach sex with different types of girls. Like putting a cloth over the head of the ugly one. (This should not be too alien to western men, as it approximates their ritual abasement of women and girls. In the English language there are jokes in current circulation that would read as a variation on the theme.) The de-humanizing tone of the song demonstrating objectification of women corresponds with the teenagers’ attitudes. However, I don’t believe the film vilifies the boys. It simply shows how they are adversely affected by hand-me down ideas of what it means to be a man. Really, they are barely able to say hello to a woman. Clumsy and immature, they are struggling to form their own identity. The effort to style themselves as adults, with their hairstyles and smoking, very much reminded me of the Diane Arbus’ photograph of a teenage couple from 1963. Similarly to the photo, their bodies are childlike, surprisingly fragile, when they strip to their underwear to go to sleep.
The opening credits are already ripe with symbolism: dark liquid that could be blood drips onto a red carpet. The stain creates a perfect circle reminiscent of the rising sun that is the Japanese flag. Red is used throughout the film to punctuate the restricted color scheme of white (snow), black (school uniforms) and tan (buildings, interiors, soil). A red lining on a coat flashed for a brief moment, a red scarf in the crowd, advertisements, red lips in a pale face – how finely this reads, pleasing the eye. This measured aesthetic is delicate like a piece of art, balanced like kanji. As the students walk through the snow-covered soccer field, more snow coming down all the while, dark specs in an extreme long shot, the viewer must realize she is treated to a full course meal. Stunning is the image of small children on a crosswalk, all in yellow raincoats like ducklings, waiving little red-and-white flags against the bleak February city landscape. This cheerful little parade is counterbalanced by the arrival of Foundation Day protesters sporting black flags, providing yet another striking sensory experience. (Allow me to point out, perhaps redundantly, that a rational viewer should be chilled by the pleasing image, and pleased by the somber image.)
The story begins with high-school students, Ueda (Iwabuchi Koji) and Nakamura (Araki Ichiro) lighting up upon exiting the exam room. Nakamura simultaneously stuffing three cigarettes into his mouth is social commentary, a strong visual, and a fleeting gesture towards the recklessness of youth, all at the same time. Revolutionary flag marks a stand where activists collect signatures against the Vietnam War. The boys’ conversation revolves around college and sex, as they are trying to determine the name of the beautiful test-taker No. 469, who is a welcome distraction. They could not care less about the war.
What they care about is trailing sensei Otake (Itami Juzo). The handsome teacher attracts the attention of their female schoolmates, which fuels the boys’ jealousy, admiration, and fantasies. They also stalk his lover (Tanigawa Takako, as portrayed by Koyama Akiko).
Otake takes out his pupils for a meal and a drink to celebrate the completion of their college entrance exams. He sings some raunchy folk songs to them, talking about them as an expression of rebellion of the impoverished. One outlines the fate of a woman who was sold into prostitution by her parents, to make up for their debts. Otake views the bawdy songs as a way of sharing the plight of oppression, and escaping it. In response to a fellow drinker, who criticizes him for singing such songs to the youngsters, he affirms that the singing is the only thing he really can do for them: since they don’t know how to feel anything, and are completely oblivious to their political circumstance. Lyrics throughout the film provide an additional level of context, examining the history of social inequity in Japan – and its current political reality.
Otake puts everyone up in a hotel, as they stay too late to catch a train. Nakamura, who visits Otake’s room to retrieve his pen, notices the gas heater is leaking. The room is full of carbon monoxide already, the teacher unresponsive. Nakamura does nothing. Otake’s body is found in the morning, the tragedy chalked up as an accident. When Nakamura finally confesses, people don’t believe him. They either think it’s an immature joke, or just his way of dealing with the trauma.
The structure of the film starts branching out halfway through. Suddenly, fantasies of rape disrupt the story line. We only perceive them as fantasies, because we are told they are fantasies. The same realism is used to depict them as is employed for the main plot. But the cuts keep returning us to the film’s main narrative reality of the boys walking away from a train station in an underpass. The teenagers keep commenting on the rape scenes as something they are constructing, altering it as they go along: taking turns in the fantasy, much like they would in a gang rape. Egging each other on, mocking one another for not going far enough. But, they fail to imagine a real sex act, revealing mostly their own sexual confusion, uncertainty of what it means to be a man, their own inexperience.
Once they find out the identity of No. 469 as Fujiwara Mayuko, they visit her house with the intention to disclose she has been the subject of their collective desire. They are unable to confront her, however. The house is swarming with Vietnam War protesters, who sing American songs, like Guthrie’s This Land Is Your Land. Kaneda (Yoshida Hideko), a girl who accompanied three of her schoolmates “in Nakamura’s place” decides to sing a native folk song. Ironically, the local youth does not understand that the song is a part of their national heritage.
Kaneda’s a capella singing is truly a tender moment, the song is quite beautiful and poignant. (However, it quickly steers the story towards unexpected terror.) Songs are the thread that weaves through the story. During Otake’s wake, his drunken colleagues sing nationalistic tunes, characterized thusly through their choice of music. Nakamura attempts to counter them with his own recital, but fails. Symbolism is very well inherent here, as well as in the death of Otake itself.
Nakamura styles himself as being different from his peers. He truly is, as he keeps acting on his darkest impulses, without scruple. Once he joins his schoolmates at Fujiwara’s house, he has no trouble telling her of the rape fantasies. She challenges him to act them out. Tanigawa (now Nakamura’s lover) goes along with the group, trying to stop them. She chooses to do so by extensively citing Kojiki, the mythological history of Japan, to construct an argument that Japanese really originated in Korea. Clearly the surreal gesture is not directed towards the boys, but rather towards the audience.
The same can be said of the final line of the movie, uttered by Fujiwara: “It’s real this time, right?” We are left to examine our own understanding of reality – within and outside of the context of this film. Persistent symbolic references strongly hint at the high school student’s fantasies being a metaphor for Japanese imperial ambitions. The folklore offers a glimpse of an alternate, unwritten history to draw from to reconstruct personal and national identity. Relevance of this intriguing movie clearly extends beyond Japan of the 1960s. It is engaged, visually beautiful, both preservationist and modern, saturated with meaning – certainly not one to be missed.