The Ceremony Nagisa Oshima

In the films of Nagisa Oshima, sexuality and mortality are always knotted up in a double-bind, and nowhere is this more apparent than in one of his most challenging works, The Ceremony. Oshima’s schizoid style precludes the film from engaging with his signature interests in the same manner as some of his better-known (but also radical) films such as Cruel Story of Youth (60) and In the Realm of the Senses (76), yet its strategies for staging oppressive and fascinating psychodrama are among the most effective in his oeuvre. This sordid, hypnotic death-trip is an incomparably entrancing slog, a workout that finds its punk auteur at his polemical and artistic best.

The Ceremony steadfastly recounts the saga of the Sakurada clan, a family whose decline plays out in stomach-churning fashion over the course of 25 years and multiple funerals and weddings. The bulk of the film is presented by way of protracted flashbacks to these mortifying get-togethers from the perspective of cousins Masuo (Kenzo Kawarasaki) and Ritsuko (Atsuko Kaku), as they journey to the island cabin of another cousin, Terumichi (Atsuo Nakamura), after receiving a telegram about his death. The basis for the tension and emotional baggage shared by Masuo and Ritsuko is slowly but surely revealed as Masuo relates a tragic narrative that Oshima seizes upon as an allegory for Japanese society. The plot jumps back and forth through time, but the sense of existential dread and impotence is constant.

Nagisa Oshima The Ceremony

For Oshima, it wasn’t enough to assert merely that the political is always personal: The Ceremony’s archly Freudian drama finds Eros and Thanatos dueling amid intergenerational struggle—a dominant theme across Oshima’s films, doubtlessly informed by the social tensions that led to the contemporaneous emergence of the Japanese radical left. (The Ceremony was released in Japan in May 1971; the following month, the remaining members of the Red Army Faction, led by Fusako Shigenobu, joined with Maoist militants to form the United Red Army and embarked on a year-long run of bloody internal purges, as depicted in Japanese New Wave peer Koji Wakamatsu’s United Red Army.) The perpetually anguished and humiliated ex-baseball star Masuo grapples with the patriarchal authority of his old-school grandfather, Kuzuomi (Oshima stalwart Kei Sato, at once terrifying and pathetic), the family’s master of ceremonies and sovereign lecher. A Sadean protagonist with a formidable fastball, Masuo finds himself surrounded by death, disappointment, and libidinal paralysis every step of the way as he strives futilely to establish a personal identity apart from his clan’s self-destructive complexes. His struggle dramatizes the plight of a generation trying to wake up from the nightmare of the previous generation.

But Oshima goes out of his way to complicate our perceptions of the film’s political agenda as well as our assumptions about his own politics through the figure of the fascistic cop Tadashi (Kiyoshi Tsuchiya). Tadashi’s attempt to crash one of the funerals in order to read a right-wing extremist tract (“Project for the Reconstruction of a New Japan,” which had been widely circulated during the 1930s) is portrayed as a commendable effort to disrupt the status quo. The film’s political position is otherwise more subtextual than one might expect, a far cry from the head-on confrontation with Japanese xenophobia in Death by Hanging (68) or much of anything in Oshima’s indignantly polemical oeuvre. But its adherence to and acknowledgement of contradiction comes off as surprisingly sensitive and nuanced in relation to the narrative’s smothering, unrelenting Sturm und Drang.

Nagisa Oshima

This omnipresent air of unease, of some horrible secret lurking in the shadows, is largely due to the limited yet potent arsenal of stylistic techniques Oshima deploys throughout. High-contrast lighting, deep-space blocking, widescreen compositions, and creeping tracking shots cohere to yield a concrete feeling of the struggle raging beneath the staid, self-denying surfaces of the depicted rituals—or as Leonard Cohen puts it, “a war between the ones who say there is a war and the ones who say there isn’t.” Tôru Takemitsu’s quintessentially modernist score imbues the plot’s events with an indeterminacy that hints at terrible revelations still to come. The contents of Oshima’s narrative might be tonally gothic in and of themselves, but their mode of presentation ensures The Ceremony’s status as a bummer for the ages.

The two most memorable scenes are Masuo’s bride-less nuptials—surely one of the greatest and most mortifying wedding scenes in film history—and Masuo’s symbolically placing his ear to the ground to listen for his late brother (the circumstances of whose death remain in question throughout). In both of these instances, Oshima works overtime to evoke the existence of repressed memories that will return explosively sooner or later. What emerges is a disarmingly atmospheric portrait of a family’s collective psychopathology, thinly veiled by the ways in which they go through motions again and again, year after year.