It begins like a documentary; a voice over dryly informing us as to how capital punishment by hanging is carried out in Japan whilst graphs and statistics illustrate how the country’s society views the issue of the death penalty. As all this is described it is also shown on screen, the process of hanging the prisoner broken down into meticulous and exacting detail. There is a knot in the stomach as we realise that even though this is a film that we are about to witness a man meet his demise, the serious tone implying there will be no flinching away. Uh-oh! This is looking exceptionally depressing and shocking.
Nagisa Ōshima ‘Death By Hanging’ (1968) is a shocking film yet what’s most shocking about it is that it’s also incredibly funny. This is because once the execution is “carried out” the film drops any semblance of vérité and plunges straight into Kafkaesque farce where reality becomes slippery and fluid to say the least.
The reason? The young prisoner, a Korean man known simply as R, hasn’t died. He is still alive yet he has no memory of who he is or his crimes due to having been executed. This means he is now Not R (a Catholic priest pointing out that, having been executed, he is now no longer in possession of a soul in the eyes of God) and, therefore, cannot be executed again. So the prison guards, priest, police and education chief now have a body on their hands which cannot be disposed of. However, they decide that R can be legitimately executed if they can convince Not R that he is, indeed, R.
To restore R’s sense of self the police and guards act out R’s crimes of rape and murder in exacting (and surprisingly hilarious) detail as these middle aged men resort to increasingly psychotic measures to jog R’s memory. Fittingly, it is the Education Officer who leads them into this madness.
Yet, as the film informs us, “R’S BODY REFUSES TO DIE”, and this simple act of refusal of annihilation gradually reveals the illusionary nature of authority, nationalism, religion and, ultimately, even consciousness itself.
Sounds complicated? That’s because it is! And just wait until previously nonexistent people start manifesting in the execution chamber with even the blinding light of God Almighty making a brief appearance. There’s a lot to take in here.
Ōshima handles all this fluctuating reality by utilising Brechtian techniques; stripping everything down hence allowing the performers to create different, and often competing and superimposed, “realities”. It’s also this that permits the re-enactment of horrific crimes in a way that is not just bearable but genuinely humourous, and all powered by a seriously satirical punch.
Not that ‘Death By Hanging’ is entirely flawless as the film sometimes almost buckles under the weight of everything it is attempting to grapple with (and a little knowledge of Japanese/Korean history might be helpful, too) and even though Ōshima has an obvious respect for R (and the real life person R was based on who was successfully executed without inadvertently making multiple copies of himself) it’s also blindingly obvious that, rape and murder aside, R is an absolute psychopath, no matter how poetically he might justify his actions. His declaration of — “I refuse to be killed by something that’s invisible” — being both weirdly logical and completely insane.
The film’s black and white cinematography is arresting, bringing both a clinical coldness and an exacting style to the visuals. Ōshima also utilises plenty of cinematic devices too, often switching from theatrical to filmic techniques which further extend the flurry of overlapping and collapsing realities… and possibly because he feels this film isn’t ridiculously complicated enough.
‘Death By Hanging’ is a furiously complex (yet not unfollowably complicated) and cerebrally exhilarating experience. It tackles multiple heavyweight issues and extracts them for laughs with an almost miraculous audacity. It destroys concepts, illusions and, by the end, even the very fabric of space/time itself. Either way you look at it this film is utterly terrifying with its implications. It contains ideas that, if thought about too long, could blow the top of your fucking head off.