Nagisa Oshima exploring the ‘death drive’ in Japanese culture in "Japanese Summer: Double Suicide". I had preconceived notions about what the film would entail. Sure it’s typified by the outlaws and radicals of Japanese culture that Oshima so loves to detail and explore, but its not so much the subject matter of this film that’s astonishing, but the narrative and its execution.
Nejiko (Keiko Sakurai) is a sex-obsessed teen that wanders the desolate dystopian landscape in search of any male with the erectile fortitude to fulfill her only desire. Otoko (Kei Sato) is a military deserter with a penchant for death, his obsession bent on bringing about his own demise at the hands of another. Their seemingly opposing lives come together like yin and yang after they meet following a military march and a funeral procession. They lay together on the bridge in the chalk outlines of two suicidal lovers, their duality meeting in the most primal and nihilistic of places. The two then lead us on an alienating path towards pointless death and destruction, as they come into contact with a group of gangsters digging up a collection of guns in the dry and barren desert. Having seen the faces of these men who are eternally at war against a faceless enemy and a cause never spoken of, the two star crossed non-lovers are taken into a bunker with a gun obsessed teenager who’s only goal in life is to fire off some rounds with no target in mind, a knife wielding criminal, an aging gangster with a handgun and a handful of other gun toting males. But when the implosive duality of Otoko and Nejiko (epitomized by Nejiko’s eyebrows perhaps) enter this violence-obsessed world with only a small TV to give them any link to the outside world, what will be the outcome?
This film is a damning and completely nihilistic portrayal of the ‘death drive’, yes. But it’s far more than that. The phallic symbolism in this film is rampant and runs deep. Not only in Nejiko’s failure to ever find a man who is willing to give up his obsession with gun play for her naked body, not only in the phallic way in which the numerous guns are first depicted, but also in the way in which the guns are discovered. When the gangsters dig up the arms supply in the cracked desert, they find it in a large man shaped depression in the ground, and the guns are buried directly between his legs. Does it get any less subtle than that?!! But this phallic obsession isn’t just presented as the reasoning behind this death obsession; it runs much deeper than that. Through the use of a completely alienating soundscape, the ceremonial and almost religious presentation of the television set, and the lack of reasoning for any actions taken by almost all characters, its this nihilistic lack of connection with anything real that drives these people to these lengths. As they say, ‘its not war, its fighting’, and that’s the crux of the film. They kill each other for no reason. They fight for no cause. They just do it because that’s what they do. And of course, the youth see this and wish to emulate it for no other reason than having a connection to something. Only in the end, when a decision is made out of feeling and emotion does the double suicide become complete.
Oshima strips down the story to its bare essentials, creating a surreal and dystopian landscape. This is a film that plays like an arthouse sci-fi flick that views adults with nothing but contempt. A precursor to "Battle Royale"? Perhaps. Either way, the striking imagery, the symbolic and archetypal characters, the experimental use of sound, image and narrative, this film screams Oshima’s sensibility of cinematic outlaw. It’s utterly original and completely breathtaking from start to finish.