The film follows R (Do-yun Yu), a character based off of Ri Chin’u, an ethnic Korean who murdered and raped two Japanese school girls in 1958, and later gained much attention in Japan’s intellectual literary crowd for Crime, Death, and Love, a collection of writings on his crimes. Ri Chin’u’s writing became known for his sophisticated prose and philosophical musings––which denied criminality for his sex murders, insisting that he had acted on them in a realm where he could not distinguish between reality and fantasy. Captured by the paradox of Ri Chin’u’s words, Ōshima creates a fictional R, who expresses similar sentiments:
“Earlier, when I tried being R, I was certain I remembered doing those things. But whether I did them in my imagination or in reality wasn’t really clear. The reason is I’d committed crimes like that in my imagination countless times…I just want reality and fantasy to be one, which is a kind of desire, I guess…”
Death By Hanging positions the viewer in this liminal space in which we must question the extent of R’s criminality, but also the larger constructions of Japanese nationhood and its specific understanding of guilt and punishment, and too, of its own righteousness.