Displaced Victimization

Re/examining Death by Hanging in the Context of Nationalism and Globalism

0. Introduction

Fifty years have passed since Nagisa Oshima’s masterpiece Death By Hanging made its debut in Japan in 1968. Within the fifty years, globalism marched on throughout the world and inevitably caused the frictions and conflicts with the notion of nationalism given the consequent incompatibility with the inherency of history and culture as an integrated legacy of the nation. As a result, the democratic movements and radical reformations repeatedly took place in the nations in between. At the same while, national cinema as one of the most sensitive buffers reflecting the social changes from the perspective of individuals emerged ever since. If we take a look back on those films in reference to “nation” as an “Imagined community,” the genres are quite varied with differentiated locus. Some of the filmmakers draw most attention to the individual's or communities' lost identities in their transition from motherland to a migrated country in the name of "transnational films"; some others embodied the self-identification in bigger pictures, portraying the dynamic relations between an individual and the global, and put forward a genre named "international films"; there are also more film participants applying their confusions and conflicts with the overall backgrounds of their nations as victims or protesters to global invasions and focusing on the originality as well as the uniqueness of the country, and many scholars would categorize them as “national films”. To sum up, when filmmakers come to consider the nationalism, it is not uncommon for them to establish the narrations from an individual's identical lens to peel away the ideological surface of such a metaphysical notion as "nation." What is at stake of all the cinematic initiations can be abstracted from above genres – the imbalanced identity between nationalism and globalism. This identity is embedded in both images of individual's and the nation.

The truth being the debate of such vacillated identification has already been heatedly put forward half a century ago in Japanese New Wave films. Why Japan? It’s not only one of the first eastern countries who came up to meet the West and survived the invasion of Western ideologies as well as the surveillance, but also, Japan stands for the battlefield of its steadily established Nationalism taking front with the Imperialism of U.S. as a form of globalism after their crushing defeat in WWII. Considered as the leading role of Japanese New Wave cinema, Nagisa Oshima devoted all his life bringing up the question of how Japanese should survive in such an oscillatory ecosystem. In Noël Burch’s 1979 book To the Distant Observer, he noted that the locus of Oshima's filmic practices lies in his critique of "the sense of victimization."(Burch, 326) Oshima took concerns of his nation beyond the empathy and sympathy of its people’s oppressed desires and their lost national identities, his acute insight rooted in observing the “victimization” as a shared subconsciousness buried in Japanese’s livings and he tended to unfold the originality of the power relation as a whole. Of his oeuvre, one film stands out to reach for the true color of this dilemma. Death by Hanging located in a restricted room in the prison where the hanging is conducted. The story moves along with an unfinished execution which was sentenced to R, a Korean Japanese youth who raped and murdered a Japanese girl. With each role designated to a certain power hierarchy, Oshima gathered up a political debate in which the entire process of victimization is subtly portraited. The story is surreal, absurd and ironic, resonating with Oshima’s self-identification as a "belligerence." The film also applies the Brechtian theatrical style, namely offered a political perspective from which we audiences were forced to detach one's identification with the characters, to do nothing but observe the passive aggression that filled the phenomenon. The detachment Oshima favored opposed to the welcoming immersive identification process that occurred in many national films of present days, that he played the tricks of "ideological" in a hyper-ideological way by which the essence of this dilemma could gradually emerge. The other inspiration that might benefit the contemporary national filmmaking is his detoured critique of the devasted nationalism; instead, he traced back to discuss the psychological tendency of victimization, in this context, displaced victimization that transferred from "the Japanese being intruded by imperialism" to "a Korean being sentenced by Japanese." It interrogated the race, gender, and class issues that also exerted the un-seeing violence under the mask of nationalism. Oshima gathered a long list of questions that hard to answer, yet the hardest one should be where does the victimization root in the nation as a power machine. After he peeled away the mask of violence, the only thing he found matters is the ongoing covert imperialism that penetrating the whole Japan society and it is this migrated ideology he protested to. Oshima structured the critique carefully to require the Japanese to rethink the source of their oppression, and I found this underlying pursue significantly valuable for the present national films.

In the following parts, I would like to focus on the detail of Oshima’s cinematic application in the film Death by Hanging with relatable examinations on issues which are still hanging in the contemporary circumstances.

1. Narratives in Death by Hanging

Death by hanging starts with a pseudo-documentary alike sequence of displaying the chamber room, in which the execution and the absurd theatrical plays are about to happen. The story is comprised of several chapters, with descriptions in the process of R's avowal to crime. The identification of R separated when the execution is done, and he converged his real identity at the very end of the film. One thing that stands out, distinguishing the not-R from R is his body language suggesting his mental state of fear and peacefulness: before the execution, the criminal R was shaking all the way to his death, while after the execution, the non-R was literally peaceful, almost numb to the entire circumstances. Interestingly, this transforming point also signaled the psychological transition of the in-power forces, including a warden, a security officer, an educational officer, a doctor, and a chaplain, before the execution they were all solemnly peaceful, while after the incident, they gradually fell in the endless desperations and confusions.

The characters in the film are utterly metaphorical; if understand their images by the concept from semiotics methodologies, we could find their position in reliance to the social constitutes. The educational officer, who started the replay game passionately, always tried to persuade non-R to admit his crime by imitating R’s behaviors and initiations. He represented an image of the teacher. Ironically, he acted like a clown, who situated in the lowest power trying to please the upper ones, and eventually became the murderer of a young girl in his own play. Blood was shed onto his figure. The chaplain signified the religious influencer. He was the first to acknowledge the innocence of non-R, but after he was “raped” and “chocked” by the other forces in the plays, he was paralyzed to the ground, and in the second last sequence, he started to unashamedly kiss around, which I consider as a notion of "sending love for everyone." The steadily solid ideology of imperialism crushed his will. The doctor, presumably a most sympathetic figure of all, unmasked his weakness when he tried to rape the educational officer and he unleashed a violent attack to the chaplain later on, which I reckon as Oshima’s honest unveiling of how sex intruded the sacred in a misfunctioned society. One last figure that remains silenced and detached is the prosecutor, who dressed in a suit, acted as a puppet as if his existence was only aiming to “be there” until the last two sequences, in which he fronted non-R with the most ideological questions. He co-existed with a Japanese national flag and a soldier with a fierce look. The general impression of this co-existence is the Japanese imperialism. In this sense, the prosecutor could embody himself as the nation of Japan in along with the law and the authority, and his detachment implicated the division of a nation with its individuals. However, is the prosecutor the true avatar of Japan? I doubted so. Japan composites them all, and each one of them displays a facet or a history of Japan. In an overall view, with comparison to R/non-R' s image, all the power forces are philosophically known as "constructors," who worked as a whole to cover each other's crimes and created the canonical ideologies for the individuals, even worse, they legitimated the crime of themselves forging and conjecturing the criminals, seeing the capital punishment as a patriotic counterpart with soldiers killing in the battlefield in the name of their country. In Oshima's perspective, it is the abused power of a nation lead to the nationalism.

Speaking aside by "constructors," R is revived as a "de-constructor." His endless questions started with "what is …" pushed the constructors to the verge of the breakdown. Their desperate reactions to some extent revealed the way how the authorities creating and stabilizing the control over the people – people are likely to receive the fruit of an already constructed society without asking what is what, instinctually reacting and even contributing to the “common sense”(Keeling, 20) which is very much alike to Deleuze’s concept “the cinematic”(15). In other words, the abuse of ruling was never demonstrated in a visible means, but was embedded and repeatedly functioning in the directional thoughts and habits we have always grown with. The reason why all of the power forces in the film began to lose control over themselves step by step is due to the break of their self-coherence process in which they found no answer to the "what is …" questions raised by R. When the educational officer conducted the murder to a girl student, the girl's body started to visualize to haunt everyone in the house except the prosecutor. The girl's realization plays the trick of dissenting who is real and who is not, apparently, the prosecutor as an image of “the nation” is too metaphysical to be true.

The discussion of issues regarding class, race, and gender started to roll when the girl revived as R's sister and as Korea as a nation. Following the logic of power forces, the sin of R has long been rooted in his race as a Korean and his social class belonging as a poor one, in another word, he is criminal because of his incapability of choosing his identification. As a result, when Korea realized as a human, as R's sister, the non-R could find out the crime of his own. The non-R was almost persuaded when Korea accepted him. However, Oshima pushes the debate into a broader realm when Korea as a nation rejected R's identification because R did not conduct the crime to Japan as the revenge of Japan's imperialism to Korea. Realizing being played by both nations of Japan and Korea, Non-R once again determined his innocence, in that he found out R was only an imagined identification forged by both nations, and neither of them acknowledged himself as a living human. R is made by notions, while this non-R is a human. The origination of his sin has nothing to do with his own identity, but with the identity in the ideological dimension. This clarification grounded the final words non-R iterated in the dialogue with “nation”:

Non-R: “As long as an entity exists that tries to make me guilty, as long as the nation exists – I am innocent.”
Prosecutor: "That is right. You understand now. We cannot allow you to keep such ideas alive."
Non-R: "I know. That is why I accept my fate. For the sake of every R. I will consent to be R and die.”

Now let's look back on the debate of "victimization" in the context of nationalism and globalism, a few hanging questions have been solved. Both of the nationalism and globalism are established with the subjectivity of a "nation" but not the people in the nation. As a result, the "sense of victimization" that aroused and spread within the Japanese people a displaced perception, this victimization is a displaced one. If we have to find a criminal for the violation and discomfort of Japanese living, it is the birth of a "nation" that originated the problem, and it is the abused power hierarchy who conveyed the crime and punishment to the crowd.

2. Aesthetics and conventions in Death by Hanging

Oshima reckoned himself as a belligerent, not only owing to his sharp critique pointing at the social issues but also with regards to his advanced aesthetics conventions accompanying his political pursuits. He is one of the cinematic masters who is celebrated in stating the coherence between the content and the form to expect for the best reception from the audience. This film is of no exception. In the year of 1968, Godard became renowned for his successful adaptation of Brechtian theatre in La chinoise (1967). As Bordwell noted in Film History, “Brechtian theatre has the nature of political activism” (Bordwell, 337) The Brechtian feature indeed boosted and strengthened Oshima’s arguments on the displaced victimization, because the detachment offered a rational perspective in observing the variations of the relationship between significant roles, and as the discussion went further in-depth associating with more ideological concerns, the distance in between the audience and the cinematic world left enough room for us to signify the symbolistic references, for instance, the migration of “victimization,” instead of being seated in one character’s position. In a nutshell, the complex structures compositing the film managed to give an overall impression owing to the help of Brechtian conventions.

Here I collect the four major aesthetic appliances that stand out in the film:

1) Plays in the play.

Structuralism decorated the whole film. With social hierarchy suited in priority to the discussion, a sense of order is in high demand to make the story readable and relatable. The film divided into several parts, each binding with a handwriting title suggesting the relationship between the "R" and R. Throughout to the very end of R's execution, each part also contains a short piece of the play performed by whether the forces or R himself. The continuity of the plays helps to stabilize the utility of an ideological story. Besides, the Brechtian absurd portraits well in the exaggerated way of the officer's display, and in addition to the gestures and languages, the short plays, demonstrated the whole process of how the power maliciously imagine one’s crime. The perverted mimic of the crime in a sense implicates the crime of itself.

2) In and Out/ Reality and Fantasy

The juxtaposition of both inner space and outside world blurred the line of realistic storytelling and the dreamy realm, from which on the narration dwells in the ambiguity of dissecting the imaginations. If we noticed and categorized the former chapters belonged to a realistic world in which the surreal revival only stood for a tricky plot that triggers the narration, the later parts of all the characters flooded into the real world in reverse demonstrated a shared imaging memory in which the scattered surrealistic elements seemed dreamy, almost romantic, yet cruel enough to bear the violence of the in power groups. As the narration went further to interrogate the actual states of R being a lost youth, the irrationality of the others grew obvious, ending in an intertwined collective memory in which the sin is equally embedded in everyone's identification. Ironic as it is, when the officers strived to display the criminal R's behavior, their identification turned shaken and sinned. This appliance also echoed with R's final words referring every individual to a shared image of "R."

3) Shots and frames

A robust aesthetic trait of the film involved with the minimalism and symmetry. The examples of following pictures could offer some impressions. In the well-designed frames, the metaphor is clear to see. For example, figure 1 suggests that R was on the one hand doomed to be sentenced by the rope, on the other hand, his long-term restriction was also well delivered. In figure 2, the utterly stylish poses of the two were in the same vertical line of the Sun. Sun represents Japan. The Sun in the frame seems not a pleasant, warm natural being; instead, it looks like a surveilling pale apparatus which is looking down at R's death. In the compatibility of color, the high contract in Figure 3 also linked the shared "whiteness" of the national flag to the real outdoor nation of Japan. While in figure 4, the emptiness of this centralized rope's end resonated and underlined the surreal feature in the film, and with R disappearing, the victimization of Rs' was left in the void. Perhaps, the reality of an ideological kill is the void itself.


4) Sound and music

Though the film relies much on the dialogues which help to form the relationship between the plots and characters, the score and music exerted a great advantage to keep the tempo in control. One example is when the power forces follow non-R to the memorial reality, and the educational officer conducted a crime, suddenly the ongoing environmental sounds were cut off, leaving the frame with people who hurried to cover the crime. The blankness of sound again pushed the audience away from an immersive viewpoint, in a Brechtian way. The detachment of sound left enough space for spectators to witness the crime and consequently jump into a question: Is the law fairly equal to everyone in the society? The circle of power forces imaging the crime of R has ended when they eventually turn into the murderer themselves. In addition to the sudden cut-off, Oshima also arranges some heart-touching music for the scenes involving R's memory. It seems to imply that while the figure of "R" is forged and criminalized, non-R as a living being is flesh-and-blood, emotionally relatable.

3. Conclusion

Scanning through the narrative appliances and cinematic conventions of the film Death by Hanging, we are capable of understanding the potential contemporary utilities that it brought forward through times. As to the notion of nationalism and globalism, Oshima set up a surreal story based on the ideological conflicts, and by elaborating the intertextuality of victimization, he concluded that it’s the societal identified “self” who should be victimized by the frictions regarding nation’s dilemma of nationalism and globalism; and nation, as an ideological concept, is also victimized when power forces abused their powers to the individuals. Of all the marvelous traits, two significant points can inspire the contemporary national filmmaking. One is to portrait the power system with delicate semiotics methods, in another word, to reconsider the potentials embedded in a structuralist formation. Besides, the Brechtian theatre has its benefits in proclaiming the absurd and irony in the current social system, and it differs from the identically immersive methods that often seen in the present. I believe there are still much to explore and experiment if we manage to relate them to contemporary national film.

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