The most defining trait of Nagisa Oshima’s filmography is perhaps his unflinching criticism of Japanese politics. In the Realm of the Senses (1976)—the film that rocketed Oshima onto the world stage—took a stance against film censorship by way of being a violent pornography. Equally as important, however, In the Realm of the Senses also took a stance against Japan’s increasing imperialism in the 1930s. Based on the real story Sada Abe, the two protagonists of the film reject the norm of embracing a militaristic Japan through their self-imposed, as well as sex-riddled, exile. While the politics of In the Realm of the Senses may lie in the past, the film proves useful in understanding an earlier Oshima film: Three Resurrected Drunkards (1968).
Like In the Realm of the Senses, Three Resurrected Drunkards also criticizes Japan except this time around the politics of the film are more contemporary. That’s to say, Three Resurrected Drunkards deals with Japan’s role in the Vietnam War, as well as Japan’s treatment of Korean citizens. For Oshima, and this is where the connection to In the Realm of the Senses comes in to play, the imperialism of Japan in the 1930s may be over in one regard but it still manifests itself in present Japanese society. A quick digression of the film’s story is needed in order to fully explain what Oshima is doing here.
The story follows three friends who are mistaken to be South Korean soldiers gone AWOL, when the latter steal and switch their clothes. Dressed as South Korean soldiers, the three boys continue their vacation only to find their relaxation impeded when the local village and authorities begin to hunt them down in order to send them back to Vietnam. Not only are the boys hunted down by the local village and authorities, but they’re also pursued ruthlessly by the AWOL South Korean soldiers who are trying to kill them. Their goal: fake their own deaths by way of assassinating the three friends and then go on to leave peaceful lives in Japan.
Halfway through the film, the story leaps out of itself by way of digression. Now on the urban streets of Japan, the three boys lumber down the sidewalk, equipped with a film camera and microphone; they stop other pedestrians and ask, “Are you Japanese,” to which the pedestrians all reply, “No, I’m Korean.”
First and foremost, the act of disrupting the narrative and displaying a character with a film camera does more than just make the film meta. With Three Resurrected Drunkards, Oshima may disparage narrative not because he is interested in creating anti-art but because the disruption of the narrative is key in bringing out the politics of the film; it’s a bait and switch at its finest. The film is advertised as a comedy and stars at then famous pop band, The Folk Crusaders. Oshima is then subverting the expectation of the audience and Three Resurrected Drunkards can then be seen as a more political Hard Day’s Night (1964).
While the film is indeed funny, the disruption of the narrative in the middle of the story serves as a psychological shock that has been brimming since the boys’ misadventures began. From the beginning of the film, Oshima places small hints that bring up Japan’s attitude towards South Koreans. The boys don’t know the price of local cigarettes, marking them as foreign; later on, a villager rips one of their shoes off in order to look at their feet, so he can tell whether he regularly wears Japanese style footwear. The quasi-documentary that emerges from the narrative disruption can then be seen as the culmination of these hints finally overtaking the regular narrative and here, thereby exposing the true nature of Three Resurrected Drunkards as a political film.
No longer are the South Koreans made to be fictional characters participating in a story. Instead, they are made into real people and become the complete focus of the film. Oshima films the pedestrians using close-ups that place their faces in the center of the screen’s composition. The style of filming here forces the audience—1960s Japan in this case—to contemplate issues and acts of racism that they themselves might be complicit in. This forceful examination on Oshima’s part could only come about by way of this narrative disruption and filmic style, because the film may not have otherwise have been watched if not advertised as a comedy.
As the interviews continue, the audio mixing becomes intentionally asynchronous. Questions and answers all begin to mix up and soon thereafter, the images follow suit. Images of Japan citizens are bombarded by the answers of “No, I’m Korean.” In effect, Oshima is showcasing the fruitlessness of constructing a pure “Japanese” society. Within the regular narrative of the film, the three boys are hunted down so they may not become Japanese citizens but as Oshima points out with the quasi-documentary scene, many South Koreans already exist as Japanese citizens. The racism then takes on a Sisyphus-like tone, and Oshima displays it with both a comedic as well as poignant gravitas.