Imagine a Japanese version of The Godfather where Michael, Sonny and Don Corleone were all trying to sleep with Talia Shire's Connie, and you have an idea of how brilliantly perverse The Ceremony is. A radical subversion of two stalwart genres, the family saga and the historical epic, Nagisa Oshima's critique of post-war Japan centers around Masuo (Kei Sato), a Manchurian repatriate and sole remaining heir to the powerful Sakurada clan. His coming of age under his domineering grandfather leads him to bear witness to the family's decades-long disintegration behind the most impeccable of outward appearances. Masuo's Oedipal longings for both a quasi-aunt and her daughter are foiled by both his grandfather and cousin who molest the women while Masuo looks the other way, becoming an example of Oshima's contempt for the individual's subjugation to the will of authority.
Oshima uses a framing narrative to flash back to rituals and ceremonies throughout the family's history, all of which are presented as farcical displays of hypocrisy and prejudice. The most unforgettable instance involves Masuo's wedding, in which the bride is nowhere to be found but the ceremony is held anyway, with Masuo escorting his invisible bride in a haunting matrimonial kabuki. Other rituals and activities such as funerals, nostalgic brooding, and even baseball are lampooned as empty mechanical routines in which their participants are excused from having to confront their present problems. Blending both emotionally devastating melodrama with absurdist satire, The Ceremony feels as refined and disquieting as the art camp of Douglas Sirk's Imitation of Life, sharing that film's outsized ambition and intricate self-awareness.
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“Brilliant and haunting . . . a truly modern film, but with classical echoes, and it is not to be missed” -Andrew Sarris, The Village Voice.
A thinly disguised commentary on Japan's post-war history, using ceremonial family gatherings (mainly weddings and funerals) as a key to the changes in Japanese society: individual characters represent specific political factions, just as events in the narrative mirror the twists and turns in the country's domestic and foreign policies. However dense the allegory, though, Oshima keeps it very accessible to his audience by stressing individuals' feelings as much as ceremonies; their dreams, aspirations, frustrations and agonies are all too familiar. A significant political film for the time.
- Time Out
If you were bored by In the Realm of the Senses, this 1971 film by Nagisa Oshima offers much more convincing proof of his talent. A deadly parody of one of Japan's most beloved genres, the family saga, The Ceremony uses the story of the Sakurada clan as a mirror for the cultural decay of Japan in the wake of World War II. Influenced by Godard, Oshima employs a collapsing montage technique that transforms melodramatic cliche into metaphysical horror.
- Dave Kehr, The Chicago Reader
The Ceremony pulls together themes and devices from several of Oshima's previous films into a masterful summation. As in Night and Fog in Japan, the flashbacks qualify and condition our understanding of the present: the family, for all its outward prosperity, is rotting from the inside out, and from the top down. Kazuomi is a fearsome patriarch whose cruelty and love of power have stunted the succeeding generations. Also like the earlier film, the traditional rituals of Japanese society (the wedding in Night and Fog, and nearly every flashback scene here) are shown to be shams, empty ceremonies masking broken spirits and wasted lives. Though much of the story is presented in a relatively (for Oshima) conventional way, there are frequent detours into the Brechtian anti-realism of Death by Hanging: in one extraordinary scene, Masuo's arranged marriage to a woman he's never met is about to be cancelled once the bride-to-be sends word that she will not be arriving, but Kazuomi insists the ceremony continue as planned. Bride or no bride, the forms of tradition must be obeyed, so the gathered guests watch as the humiliated Masuo stands at the altar alone, “marrying” nothing but air. And, as in so many Oshima films, the path to personal freedom is blocked by crippling psychic compulsions: The Ceremony ends with Masuo reliving a childhood memory, taking part in an imaginary baseball game with his absent cousins. Masuo's escape into childish fantasy seems poor compensation for his ineffectiveness in the real world. The film suggests that modern Japan, like the Sakadura clan, is trapped between past and present. The older generation, authoritarian, patriarchal, supporters of the nation's imperialist and militarist traditions, continues to hold power over Masuo and his contemporaries, who have no new ideals or beliefs with which to resist the old order.
- Nelson Kim, Senses of Cinema
In its idiosyncratically alchemic fusion of bituminous humor, fractured narrative logic, bracing social interrogation, and sublimated depictions of perverted sexuality, The Ceremony is a provocative and excoriating satire on the amorphous nature of modern Japanese identity that could only have been forged in the wake of Nagisa Oshima's increasing disillusionment with the impotence of the left movement: a cultural inertia enabled by the fateful personal and historical intersection of the once radicalized postwar generation's inevitable maturation, indirection, and complacency - if not collective amnesia - over the nation's dramatic transformation, public rehabilitation, and international re-emergence as an economic (and consequently, political) world power... The film is also a sobering allegory for the intrinsic corruption, social conformity, and incestuous politics that continue to exist beneath the country's seemingly profound transformation and inexhaustible economic miracle.
Oshima establishes an intrinsic parallel between Kazuomi's obsession for the integrity of ritual with the narcissism inherent in maintaining the integrity of the family bloodline. Framed within the context of the Sakurada family as a surrogate reflection of Japanese society, the correlation may also be seen as an indictment of the country's repressive cultural conformity, monoethnic sameness, and xenophobia... Moreover, from the early juxtaposition of Masuo and his mother's repatriation from Manchuria (and subsequent aborted flight from the Sakurada household) with the first ceremony commemorating the death anniversary of Kazuomi and his wife's (Nobuko Otowa) only child, Masuo's father (who is later revealed to have committed suicide), Oshima establishes an integral connection between culture and death that not only reflects Japanese postwar sentiment, but more intriguingly, reinforces the idea of the societal role of the ceremony - the formality of gesture - as a self-perpetuating (and implicitly, self-inflicted) death ritual: a regressive (and terminal) cycle of deceptive, veiled appearances that is further reinforced in the film's oscillating narrative structure between haunted past and unreconciled present. Concluding with the recurrent image of Masuo ritualistically straining to hear his brother's subterranean cries, Masuo's desperate and impassioned, yet impotent gesture becomes a poignant metaphor for the moral inversion and suffocated humanity of delusive enlightenment and hollow restitution.
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Biography at Lenin Imports
One of the twelve greatest living narrative filmmakers - Jonathan Rosenbaum ("Placing Movies: The Practice of Film Criticism" - 1993)
During the years leading up to the great disruptions of 1959-60, Oshima was learning his craft at Shochiku, waiting for the opportunity to make a feature. He had also started writing film criticism. In a 1958 essay called “Is It A Breakthrough? (The Modernists of Japanese Film),” he assessed the new crop of Japanese directors (“modernists”) – most of them, except for Yasuzo Masumura, unknown to Western audiences today: The modernists are at a crossroads. One road would lead to gradual degeneration of their innovations in form into mere entertainment, bringing about their surrender to the premodern elements that are subconsciously included in the content of their films. In that case, they would simply live out their lives as mediocre technical artists. Another road requires them to exert all of their critical spirit and powers of expression in a persistent struggle that strongly and effectively pits the content of their works against the premodern elements of Japanese society.
There are several things to note here. First, the condemnation of the “premodern” Japanese mentality: feudalistic, xenophobic, undemocratic, hostile to personal liberty, mired in dead traditions. Second, the importance granted to cinema: the belief that Japanese cinema can profoundly influence the direction of the Japanese nation. (For the better, and for the worse: Oshima has always disdained the great humanist tradition of Japanese film, seeing it as the artistic embodiment of those “premodern elements of Japanese society” he opposes). Third, the warning against “degeneration” and “surrender”: the fear that bold, innovative young filmmakers might lose their nerve and become “mediocre technical artists” (this from a man still in his twenties, whose first feature would not appear until the following year). Finally, the notion of persistent struggle: the awareness that in the war against a reactionary and repressive society, no true and lasting victory can be won. One must be forever vigilant, must will oneself constantly forward, or be dragged down into corruption and waste.
Through the 1960s and into the early '70s, Oshima put his youthful theories into practice with a series of films that retain their power to provoke and surprise. Politically and formally radical, they are remarkable documents of their era and constitute a major contribution to the various “new waves” that swept through world cinema during the '60s. As a director, Oshima never settled into an identifiable aesthetic, a particular mode of address; the films range from neorealist naturalism to pseudo-documentary to avant-garde modernism to surrealist farce. There is no such thing as a “typical” Oshima shot or scene. As a result, his detractors have accused him of lacking a style or voice of his own. But form, for Oshima, serves as a vessel for content. His subject matter was new: post-war alienation among Japanese youth, the failures of left-wing political movements, the rise of capitalism, the hangover from the imperial past. These new stories could not be told in the old ways; new content demanded new forms. Traditional forms – the classical style of conventional studio filmmaking – reflected the political and cultural status quo. To critique and reform a corrupt society, to change the way people think and act, would require a change in how they see and hear. The lack of a signature style, the search for new forms, is part and parcel of the never-ending struggle to see contemporary Japan with fresh eyes. Restlessness equals development and growth; repetition leads to self-satisfaction and the weakening of the will. From a 1961 essay:
This accumulation of new images [discovered during shooting] becomes a work and thereby gives the filmmaker a new consciousness of reality. When he is preparing for the next work, it shapes his total dynamic vision of the inner person and outer circumstances. The filmmaker goes on to discover new images as he works on each production, testing and negating his vision....
Reality, however, is always changing. Thus, the filmmaker who is unable to grasp it immediately ceases being a filmmaker and degenerates into a mere crafter of images.
Constant self-negation and transformation are necessary if one is to avoid that debilitation and continue to confront circumstances as a filmmaker. Naturally, that means preparing a new methodology. Moreover, those transformations and that methodology must not themselves be made into goals of the ego, but, as weapons used to change reality, must always follow through with their objective of revolutionizing consciousness. With this in place, the law of self-negating movement is not merely a law of production or of the filmmaker, but a law of human growth and of the development of the human race – a law of the movement of all things.
The filmmaker must uphold that law.
“Reality” in this passage stands for the thing to be resisted, struggled against, overcome. Reality is the way things are, the received wisdom of the social order. The artist pursues a personal vision that will lead to a new consciousness of reality, but once that vision has expressed itself in a particular work, an act of self-negation must occur, to clear the way for new visions. The creation of an oeuvre, the ego-gratifications of artistic success: these are mere by-products of the true quest, to change reality, and to revolutionize consciousness. However: the radical filmmaker seeks these goals, but knows that ultimately, they can never be achieved. It is not a question of reforming a certain law, or bringing a particular issue to light. There is no victory over the horizon, only the persistent struggle, the movement of all things.
This was how the young Oshima defined his mission. But, as we shall see, even in his earliest films, theory did not always walk hand in hand with practice. The films display tremendous anger at social and political corruption, but also great scepticism about the possibility of effecting positive change. The aspiring revolutionary becomes a brilliant anatomist of failed revolutions; the rebel youth who set out to reform society ends up making film after film exploring the twisted, murky psychology of the rebel.
- Nelson Kim, from the Senses of Cinema Great Directors biography of Oshima
Nagisa Oshima, the Godard of the East, spent much of the 1980s engaged in international co-productions. He directed Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence in 1983 for Jeremy Thomas, who was later to produce The Last Emperor for Bertolucci, and he combined with Luis Buñuel's old scriptwriter, Jean-Claude Carrière, on Max, Mon Amour—an Ionesco-like anatomy of bourgeois mores in which Charlotte Rampling has an affair with an ape.
These European excursions seem a world apart from the early work of the former student activist and leader of the Japanese New Wave of the late 1950s. Back in those days, Oshima was telling cruel stories of youth, using the ingredients of American teenage exploitation movies, namely sex and violence, to make a trenchant critique of postwar Japanese society. Railing against the U.S.-Japan Security Pact, and despairing of the old left communists' ability to make a meaningful intervention as the country experienced its "economic miracle," Oshima mobilized delinquency and nihilism. Unlike the French nouvelle vague, who tended merely to aestheticize the exploits of their young petty criminals and misfits—the Antoine Doinels and Jean Paul Belmondos—and who took until 1968 to become obstreperously political, Oshima was engaged from the outset.
—G. C. Macnab, updated by Guo-Juin Hong, Film Reference.com