April 16, 2020
Three Resurrected Drunkards – Japan, 1968
My first experience with Nagisa Oshima – and I don’t recommend this as a starting point – was his 1976 film, In the Realm of the Senses. I knew nothing about it, but it came with a glowing recommendation from two classmates of mine, both of them teachers, one of them a self-professed witch. I left the film shell-shocked, and given its final scene, that’s hardly surprising. What I remember most vividly about it, though, is not one of its many sexually graphic moments. Instead, what has resonated over the years is a quiet scene in which Tatsuya Fuji’s lost character makes his way to his town’s main road and witnesses a parade of young soldiers. His shame is palpable, and it is clear that he is comparing their patriotic discipline to the lazy depraved lifestyle he has allowed himself to settle into. It is not long before he makes his fatal request of his paramour, Sada Abe That scene represents about a minute of screen time; the less said about the other hour and forty-eight minutes the better.
I would likely have stopped there were it not for the fact that my classmates had also praised Oshima’s follow-up, In the Realm of Passion, a film which had a more traditional narrative and much more accessible characters. I liked that film so much that I eventually decided it was time to give his other films a chance. So, I watched Taboo and eventually worked my way to his earlier works – The Pleasures of the Flesh, Violence at Noon, Sing a Song of Sex, and Japanese Summer: Double Suicide. You can’t say I haven’t made an effort.
In 1968, Oshima made Three Resurrected Drunkards, and the film is a continuation of some of the themes he explored previously. The protagonists are young men with limited world views and an inability to recognize the seriousness of the moment, similar to the thugs who embrace guns and violence in 1967’s Japanese Summer: Double Suicide. In Drunkards’s opening moments, we watch them trying to imitate perhaps the most infamous picture from the Vietnam War – one of them standing with his fingers in the shape of a gun, the other trying to reproduce the expression of the doomed, unarmed prisoner. To them, this constitutes great fun. The adventure that follows is an education of sorts. Politics enters into the film in the form of four illegal immigrants from Korea, and some of the messaging resembles that found in 1967’s Sing a Song of Sex, which Oshima intended to shed light on the discomforting treatment of South Koreans in Japan.
In the opening moments of Drunkards, two of the young men’s clothes are stolen while they are swimming. In their place appear two Korean uniforms and some money for the inconvenience. They don the new clothes, their only real concern being the cigarettes that were in the pocket of one of the pilfered outfits. At a local stand, they try to save a little money by offering the clerk a lower price for cigarettes, not realizing that the town has been warned to be on the look out for men doing that very same thing. Soon they’re on the run, suspected of being illegal Korean immigrants.
They meet a young Korean woman who advises them to steal someone else’s clothes, her maniacal, opportunistic husband, and, eventually, the thieves that made off with their clothes. The protagonists are sent to fight in Vietnam (or are they?), slip on ladies clothes in order to hide their identities (they’re not successful), and only escape because their intended killer fusses over the neatness of his uniform (which is being worn by a young man he intends to fill with lead). And just when you think the film is leading somewhere, there we are back on the beach with the young men once again joyfully assuming the positions of the figures in the famous picture. Jarring, sure, but remember, the title of the film is Three Resurrected Drunkards.
I suppose buried deep in Drunkards is a political message concerning the relationship between Japan and Korea or the treatment of Koreans in Japan. If it is there, it is located in a layer so distant that it might as well be invisible. The three men are aware of their second lives, yet they don’t seem that interested in avoiding the mess they found themselves in in their previous incarnations. They still leave their clothes unattended, stay to meet the girl, and in one scene confuse their antagonists by being one step ahead of them verbally. Some of this is mildly amusing, but if it is intended to convey the message that the men are beginning to sympathize with their pursuers, it fails dismally. The only sympathetic Korean character is the young woman, and while the protagonists pretend to be Korean, there is nothing in their behavior or experience that resembles the kind we normally associate with a change of heart or a newly-gained perspective. All of this makes the sentiments expressed in the film’s final scene ring rather hollow.
I suppose all critics have their kryptonites, esteemed films or directors that they just don’t understand the appeal of. Having now seen eight of Oshima’s film, it is time to proclaim him one of mine. His films, with the exception of the aforementioned In the Realm of Passion, leave me cold. Often unevenly acted and consistently underwritten, they are puzzles that do not stir me to pursue their opaque answers, filled with characters that leave me feeling incredulous instead of fascinated. In short, I don’t understand their appeal, but I sincerely wish you better luck with them. (on DVD as part of Eclipse’s Oshima’s Outlaw Sixties)
*Three Resurrected Drunkards is in Japanese with English subtitles.