1967’s “Sing a Song of Sex,” also known as “A Treatise on Japanese Bawdy Songs,” is surely one of Nagisa Oshima’s most unjustly overlooked films. Though largely improvised, the film is quite impressive for its confident direction and insightful, at times disturbing examination of disillusioned Japanese youth. Its four main characters are students Nakamura (pop singer Ichiro Araki), Ueda (Koji Iwabuchi), Hiroi (Kazuyoshi Kushida) and Maruyama (Hiroshi Sato), who have traveled into Tokyo on a snowy day in February to take their university entrance exams. As they loiter and wander, they spy and speculate on a pretty girl (Kazuko Tajima) who they refer to as Number 469 after her exam seat number and a mysterious woman (Oshima’s wife, Akiko Koyama) they see with a teacher of theirs, Mr. Otake (“Tampopo” director Juzo Itami). The boys later meet with a drunken Otake and three female students, and go to bars where the teacher enthusiastically sings a raunchy song. He puts the youths up for the night at an inn. Nakamura visits his room to find him asleep with his gas heater knocked over and leaking poisonous fumes into the air. Nakamura does nothing and Otake dies in the night. Seemingly indifferent to the shocking incident, the boys move on, singing Otake’s tune and daydreaming about their personal desires, which manifest themselves in unexpected ways.
One of the most intriguing elements of the film is the sheer nihilism that the boys express. At many points, it is strongly reminiscent of “A Clockwork Orange,” particularly in its four strikingly amoral antiheroes and their yearnings for sex and violence. Shortly after Otake dies, the girls cry uncontrollably while the boys harshly dismiss them and make snide remarks. In one memorable passage, the students imagine raping their female peers before focusing on an almost ritualistic assault on Number 469 in the examination hall. Nakamura especially gives off the impression of someone who has absolutely nothing to lose, at times seeming to dare authority to punish him with his detatched smirk and persistent recitals of Otake’s song.
After learning it from their teacher, the boys adopt the song as their own, singing it repeatedly to assert their freedom and entitlement. In an impromptu lecture, Otake explains that such bawdy songs are a means for Japan ’s oppressed people to voice their true feelings. In any case, the key song and the hidden sexual desires it represents seem to be the only thing the boys wholly commit themselves to. Around them, Oshima provides no shortage of controversial issues and causes that they observe, but are completely unaffected by. Early in the film, they walk in front of a procession protesting the reinstatement of the Founder’s Day holiday (Kenkokubi), which had been banned throughout the Allied occupation. Later on, the main characters find themselves at a Vietnam War protest rally, where several youths sing popular folk songs like “This Land is Your Land” and “We Shall Overcome” as torches burn around a coffin draped with an American flag.
It is at this strange setting where Kaneda (Hideko Yoshida), one of the female students and a Korean, seizes the microphone and sings a song of her own, a mournful tune about prostitution. Afterwards, it is implied that she is raped by some of the singing protestors. It is primarily through her that Oshima expresses his discontentment at the terrible treatment of Koreans in Japan at the time. This important concern of his culminates in the film’s unsettling final sequence in which Otake’s companion gives an impassioned speech on the Korean origins of the Japanese people. Sing a Song of Sex would be only the first of three films in which Oshima would address Japan’s Korean inhabitants, the other two being “Death by Hanging” and “Three Resurrected Drunkards” (both from 1968).
“Sing a Song of Sex” has a very strong visual style, consisting of a red and black color scheme and repeated images of the Japanese flag. Those looking for Godardian touches will be pleased by the appearance of colorful, pop-inspired movie posters and Coca-Cola advertisements, though Oshima doesn’t use the same jarring cinematic techniques of “Pierrot le fou” or “La Chinoise.” Instead, his unique approach is very still and polished, following the boys over the course of two days in a smooth, mesmerizing fashion.
“Sing a Song of Sex” is a fascinating case study of the type of mentality that pushes personal fantasy into realized action. As it explores the internal cravings of the four students, it also addresses how ideas and beliefs are expressed in an oppressive society, particularly in the many instances in which separate parties try to out-sing each other, adamantly holding true to their chosen songs. An exceptionally strong film from Oshima, “Sing a Song of Sex” provides a gratifyingly thought-provoking vision of anger and rebellion.