Pleasures of the Flesh
Written and Directed by Nagisa Oshima
Nagisa Oshima became well known for the sexually provocative In the Realm of the Senses and how he tortured David Bowie as a British POW during World War II in Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, but Oshima also came to be known as The Father of the Japanese New Wave and the Japanese Godard. The Japanese during the late ‘50s and ‘60s will forever be compared to the French, despite the fact that Oshima and many other directors developed some of the same filmic techniques and tropes concurrently with the French New Wave.
And yet Oshima came to film not as a critic or out of distaste with Old Hollywood movies. Rather, Oshima left a major Japanese studio in order to pursue his greater interests in politics. He would be the first to break out and form his own studio, Sozo-sha, or Creation Company, and while there his first film was Pleasures of the Flesh in 1965.
The film’s plot is pure noir, but its themes are all sex, death, suicide, and excess. All of the above can be found in Oshima’s future films, as well as other Japanese New Wave titles. But Pleasures of the Flesh, along with several of the other films in what Criterion dubbed “Oshima’s Outlaw ‘60s”, can be read as postwar commentaries.
Pleasures of the Flesh begins at a wedding. The scene is ghostly, with the bride running in slow motion away from the altar and past her entire reception toward her true love. The image is painterly and plays on soft focus in the foreground to create a remarkable shot. But the image clicks back to real time and it’s revealed as a dream. Atsushi (Katsuo Nakamura) is a poor, blue-collar worker spurned by his love Shoko when she marries another man. Atsushi tried to show his love by confronting Shoko’s abusive ex-husband on a train, killing him in the process.
Now faced with a grim secret, Atsushi is blackmailed by a crooked diplomat to keep a watchful eye on a suitcase of 30 million in embezzled yen. The diplomat has been caught, but stashes this small fortune with Atsushi for when he’s released. If the money is gone when he returns, he’ll turn Atsushi in for murder. But after four years of waiting, Atsushi decides to live his last year as a rich man, with plans to spend the money and commit suicide when the year is up.
Oshima sets up his protagonist with a ticking clock, a death sentence, and a free pass to do as he pleases. This could quite easily be a film of pure excess as Atsushi lives up his remaining days as a party animal, but for a film called Pleasures of the Flesh, Oshima finds little that’s pleasurable about his hero’s condition.
Pleasures of the Flesh is a film about needs and how we seek to fill a void. It speaks to the poverty and the depression in the Japanese State at present, and how this man’s march to the grave, despite being filled with sex and freedom, is a hollow one.
Atsushi’s first purchase is a woman who reminds him of Shoko. He agrees to pay her 1 million yen a month to live with him and sleep with him, and quickly we see how Atsushi’s real desire is to settle. “Sometimes it feels as if you’ve bought me,” he says to his surrogate wife and lover.
She however, is owned not by him but by the Yakuza. Oshima continues to play with genre expectations, introducing dangerous new men and circumstances into each scene and bending the rules between them. Atsushi’s mindset during his period of freedom seems just as sporadic. Sex scenes are reduced to mere edits, with no nudity or eroticism to be found. And instead Oshima stages dream sequences of the diplomat returning and demanding his money, moments that feel more real than his relationships.
Atsushi offers his arrangement to three more women throughout the course of his final year. The first is married with a husband and child, and they put up with the abuse and distance because they are in desperate need of the money. The second is a nurse who quits her job and contemplates suicide of her own, living with him without exchanging any love in return. The final woman is a mute sex worker, desiring only sex but able to offer nothing more by way of affection.
“I’m doing it to spite her, to defy my own absurd fate,” Atsushi says, speaking of how he seeks vindication against his memory of Shoko. Pleasures of the Flesh goes against the grain of some of the wilder New Wave films of the era, or Oshima’s own edgy, teenager focused material prior to his ‘60s period. It trades in themes of excess and freedom without sacrificing the tropes of class oppression and suicidal grief.
Near the end of Pleasures of the Flesh, a gangster sticks up Atsushi and demands to know where he has hidden the 30 million yen, all of it now spent. “You looking to die?” This scene would play differently in an American noir. Here, the answer is yes, and it was one of the first to express such a desire, emblematic of an entire movement in film.