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A chance to visit and revisit a Japanese master

Posted at 5:36 PM on November 4, 2008 by Euan Kerr

"Pleasures of the Flesh" (1965) Image courtesy Walker Art Center

It's been 20 years since James Quandt, a senior programmer at Cinematheque Ontario, did the last major retrospective of the work of director Nagisa Oshima. He describes curating the new retrospective "In the Realm of Oshima" which opens at the Walker Art Center tomorrow night as being an aesthetic form of Stockholm syndrome where he has become so captured by the work you can's see it clearly because you are so passionate about it.

Quandt says Oshima is a cinematic master who made films which attacked the status quo and traditions of Japanese culture for 40 years.

Quandt says from his very first film "A Town of Love and Hope" Oshima challenged the system. The story is about a boy who sells people pigeons as pets knowing the birds will fly back to him so he can sell them again. The studio bosses banned him for six months after he made the film, saying it was too leftist. Quandt says this started a pattern, that every time a studio hired him to make a film he would take the story and twist it to suit his own political concerns.

He dealt with many difficult issues in his films, and often returned to the links he saw between sex and death. Perhaps his most famous film outside Japan is "In the Realm of the Senses" based on the true story of a woman who was found wandering the streets with the genitals of her lover in her hand. The film was shot in Japan, but had to be processed in France because it would have been seized and censored in Japan.

The film was considered scandalous because of its graphic depictions of sex. However Quandt says the film is really about the way social strictures in Japan turn sexuality into something else.

"It is a totally horrifying film," Quandt says. "It is a very intense film. And one of the things about Oshima is that there is a claustrophobic quality to his films." Quandt says "In the Realm of the Senses" is perhaps the most claustrophobic of all Oshima's films.

Oshima is still alive, but suffered a stroke a few years ago. His most recent, and possibly last film "Taboo" will open the retrospective tomorrow. James Quandt will introduce the film and open the series.

When asked if we will ever see the like of Oshima again, Quandt is dubious.

"I tend to be a pessimist and a nostalgist," Quandt says. "In contemporary cinema there are countless directors to admire, but I can't think of a single one who I think is as courageous as Oshima was, because I think in the end, maybe i am overstating things here, he kept putting I would says practically his life on the line, because his films were such fierce such ferocious eviscerations of Japan."

You can hear my conversation with James Quandt Listen here.

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