August 22, 2016
Are you for or against the abolition of death penalty? Have you ever seen an execution chamber? Have you ever seen an execution? Those three questions are addressed to the viewer as Nagisa Oshima’s Death By Hanging opens in what starts like a documentary about death penalty. We get to see every part of the building described in a beautiful way from a helicopter shot. We then follow the camera inside and we walk through the rooms in an MTV-Cribs-like manner. Inside, in what (not for long, mister!) feels like a normal storyline we see a Korean boy (inspired in the true story of Chin-u Ri, a Japanese-bon Korean young man who was executed for the 1958 rape and murder of a Japanese girl) about to be executed by the rope. After finishing a barely-touched last meal, and his last cigarette, R (simply named like this in what feels like a nod to K, Kafka’s protagonist in The Trial) is put to death.
But there’s a twist: The boy survives. 20 minutes have passed and his pulse is still going on full-speed. The adding of the sound heart thumping rapidly makes the scene perfectly powerful. The young man opens his eyes. The officials try to settle this down in long contemplation and the movie strays off the road into a series of surreal, comic sequences that lead its characters to different arguments of race, religion, class and morality. R does not remember who he is or what he did. The officers need him to remember in order to hang him again. We then see a series of absurd reenactments of the boy’s life in order to help him remember to which he only reacts with quiet comments. This is all made in vain, R does not seem to remember how life functions at all.
Basically this is a movie about several people dealing with an awkward situation, one they never thought could happen, or at least mentally avoided its probabilities of doing so. One character clearly states it saying: “We prison officers should be trained to deal with loss of memory.” The reality is that with these procedures, its manufacturers tend to avoid thinking these matters can occur. The now very serious boy starts to remember little things. Halfway through the movie we leave the chamber of death for the first time in the film. Now in the streets, we are introduced to a lady who claims to be R’s sister, an education officer, who is the main deliverer of comedy in the film, desperately kills her. She reappears inside the chamber as maybe a ghost that some can see and some cannot. She is opposed to the execution system and mocks everyone with her Korean pride.
The movie jumps and escapes from place to place. At times you can compare it with Catch 22, at other times with Crime and Punishment. It is definitely not a chilling pizza/slurpee companion but more a serious analysis of people trying to make sense in this world. It does have its funny parts, hilariously mocking an otherwise serious situation of life and death into foolish portrayals of indignation. R is no innocent. He did kill someone and now is paying for it. His sister, or maybe a ghost of his sister, or a product of everyone’s imagination (it doesn’t really matter) tries to defend her brother blaming Japanese Imperialism. But whose fault is it? The question is deeper than any character in the movie is capable of answering. They all have their different opinions. The kid himself thinks he is innocent. But legally he is not. And at the end he gets hanged, and disappears in a symbolist shot that suggests he was gone for a while already. Before even being brought to this place. Did anybody in the room learn anything? You bet they did. Analysis changes people.
Nagisa Oshima is well known for his contributions to cinema in the 60s and 70s to the celebrated Japanese New Wave. Every film he did in this period was different from its previous entry. Death By Hanging tries to answer the question if death penalty is right or wrong but it ascends into deeper matters. A lot goes in the process. At times the film feels like a mess. I personally got lost in the middle part, with the girl, who is also hanged, entering the execution building and had to re-watch it. However, at a certain point, the viewer understands the film is not mean to tell its story in a coherent way. Film is a game of structures. Everything shown in this surreal, sometimes absurd, mixes very well into a series of images and thoughts that consist in a whole piece of storytelling told in a unique way by a director who demonstrated with more than a dozen films he could tell (and play with) any kind of story.