Death By Hanging (1968, Nagisa Oshima)

Opens with the title “Are you for or against the abolition of the death penalty?”


Movie gets straight to the point. After reading Tony Rayns say about In the Realm of the Senses that “there is no thing as the Oshima style,” I thought I’d check out one of his earlier films and see for myself. Sure enough, this has nothing in common with it or with Empire of Passion – it’s bonkers in its own particular way.

Oshima in 1964: “An artist does not build his work on one single theme, any more than a man lives his life according to only one idea. Foolish critics, however, want to think that works have just one theme running through them. Then when they find something that contradicts that one theme, they immediately say that they don’t understand the work. Our work has nothing to do with these foolish critics. We want to put into it everything we are thinking and experiencing now; if we didn’t, creative work would have no meaning for us.”


R., a rapist and murderer, is hung but seems unhurt. Since his body won’t die, they rule him demented – but now he can’t be killed because a demented man can’t realize his guilt and understand punishment. The surly chaplain says they can’t even pray for him because last rites have already been administered. R. seems to have amnesia, so the men in the room (prison officials, doctor and so on) act out his crimes to jog his memory. They tell him his history, convince him he is Korean, awaken his mind and memory in order to kill him again.


They get really into their re-enactments – the education minister (above) imagines that he has actually killed a girl on the roof of a building and the others think him hysterical – then one by one they begin to see the dead girl – then she’s not dead at all, rises up and starts to talk with R, says she’s his sister. The men are upset because R never had a sister, but that falls by the wayside, and eventually she and R are lying on the floor apparently naked under a sheet while the men all argue and cry and hallucinate around them. It’s that kind of movie. With its loooong shots and loose, imprecise framing, single location and shouty characters, it could’ve easily been done as a play.

Akiko Koyama, an Oshima regular, as the mysterious Korean woman:

Oshima 1964: “Unless you see people living in their own country, their true identity escapes you. The tragedy thus grows clear; the Japanese and Koreans have superficial and uncertain views of each other, and cannot see things in their true light.”

1968: “Death By Hanging had as its starting point the events set in motion by the criminal Ri Chin’u, perpetrator of the Komatsugawa High School incident. In my opinion, Ri Chin’u was the most intelligent and sensitive youth produced by postwar Japan, as demonstrated by the collection of Ri’s letter edited by Boku Junan, “Punishment, Death and Love.” Ri’s prose ought to be included in high school textbooks. Ri, however, committed a crime and was sentenced to death. I had been thinking of devoting a work to Ri ever since he committed his crime in 1958. … We created R, a character who did not die after execution.”

1974: “In ancient times, revolutions began with the destruction of prisons. No, history called the uprisings that were strong enough to destroy the prisons “revolutions.”

R (left) with the priest played by Toshiro Ishido, the writer of Oshima’s Night and Fog in Japan:

“Death only has meaning if we know it is coming.”

“I don’t want to be killed by an abstraction.”


Recommended listening: That Man Will Not Hang by McLusky