Spoilers for Death By Hanging (dir. Nagisa Ōshima, 1968) [TRIGGER WARNING: death/sexual assault]

Death By Hanging (dir. Nagisa Ōshima, 1968) is organized with chapter-like intertitles, which appear on the screen in handwritten notes: 1) R’s Body Refuses To Be Executed; 2) R Does Not Accept That He Is R; 3) R Tries To Be R; 4) R Is Vindicated Because He’s Korean; 5) R Finally Becomes R; and finally, 6) For The Sake of Every R, R Accepts Being R. Each chapter occurs in choreographed precision––and we, the audience, take in each calculated move from a distance, as if watching theater. Blurring the line between the characters’ imagination and reality, Ōshima creates a unique space of absurdity. However paradoxically, it is precisely this absurdity that articulates the film’s social critique.

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.

Death By Hanging opens with a description of the execution facility, and the procedure taking place. Ōshima himself narrates, his words delivered in cold monotone, entirely fixated on fact: “Two guards blindfold and handcuff him. The curtain leading to the room on the right is opened for the first time. That 140-square-foot room is the execution chamber.” What overwhelms the soundscape however, are R’s shaking handcuffs; his undoubted dread made audible. His blindfolded and restrained body resists the two guards who lead him to a noose. His body is then framed from a distance by a barred window; on the other side, Japanese officials sit expressionless, observing. This is already a performance. This is theater. The incessant current of Ōshima’s narration ends: “At the security chief’s signal, a third guard pushes the button, the trapdoor opens from the front, and the prisoner hangs.”A loud thud from the trapdoor, and R’s body is hung. Again in complete silence, Ōshima repeats the hanging. From a distance, a barred-window frames R’s struggling body which drops, and reaches the basement––or stage, if you will––where his last movements are again framed by the room’s curtained opening. This is theater: spectatorship, performance, and artifice.

The documentary style and concurrent articulations of theatrics, as expressed in the soundscape and the cinematography, express a certain fixation with the body:

“Although Oshima’s spectator may be transnational, plural, and crucially divided in both cultural and psychic ways, the represented subject is very much a unity, anchored in the body…Characters existing on the margins of industrial capitalism have only one asset—their bodies—and it is a political, historical reality in which the bodies of [Ōshima’s] protagonists circulate (Russel, 108).”

As indicated by the intertitles, after being hanged, R’s body refuses to be executed. He wakes from a temporary unconsciousness with no memory. He has no understanding of who he is, or what he has done. What follows is pure theatrics: the Japanese officials re-enact R’s life and crimes, projecting on his body––as if a blank-state––their crude, imagined falsehoods. R’s name is itself, as film-critic Tony Rayns explains, a shortened form of his Korean name, “as understood by a Japanese person.” Without his memories, his subjectivity is marked only by his body––not even his name truly belongs to him.

R reenacts his life, as instructed by the Education Officer (Fumio Watanabe): “You’re home from the factory, and you’re hungry.” The officer grunts, and aggressively shoves an imaginary sliding door to his right. Following suite, R takes a hesitant step forward, eyes fixed on this invisible door. He lightly raises his arm, and in a swift but elegant movement, opens the door. Eyes suddenly captured by a discomfort, R slowly retracts his arm, as if recoiling from the violence of his earlier movement. With his other arm, he shuts the door once more, his composure timid. Softly, as if to bring the least attention to himself, he tilts his head, and slowly pushes the door back open, almost shrinking inward as he does. This exercise in choreography, executed wonderfully by actor Do-yun Yu, directly contradicts the Japanese officials, who throw themselves into their movements with a nonchalance that R can only awkwardly mimic.

The officials go to extremes to re-imagine R’s crimes, not just re-enacting them, but coloring them with R’s emotional subjectivity (as perceived by them).  Catherine Russel writes in Oshima Nagisa: The Limits of Nationhood: “The space of the imaginary is opened up by exploiting that very doubt in the believability of the image that causes so much anxiety… (Russel, 105).”  Whether the emotions––of the most grotesque, and invoked as “carnal desire”––expressed by the officials, belong to R or to the officials themselves, is never quite clear. Herein lies the satire of R’s villainy. To reinstate R’s self, so that he may experience the full depth of his guilt––as desired to be the case in execution––it is the Japanese officials who act out his villainy. It is them who think out his vile thoughts. We must ask ourselves: What does guilt mean in the framework of Japanese nationhood?

While Ōshima’s romanticization of R borders on essentialism, Death By Hanging “defines a radical Japanese subject position that [is] neither the universal humanism of the 1950s nor the imperialist/conformist passivity of traditionalist ideology (Russel, 106).” In the 21st century, as right-wing nationalism remains, and is on the rise, the film remains radical.

By the film’s finale, R transitions into a fully symbolic entity. He accepts his fate, and does so “for the sake of every R, including all of you.” Hanged once more, we look down at the basement beneath the trap door, which reveals nothing but an empty noose. Is R actually gone? Does this sight exist in reality, fantasy, or neither? We hear a voice offering praise: “Warden, good work today. You discharge your duties with aplomb. Education Chief, same goes for you. You too, Security Chief. And you… and you… and you… and you.” Nagisa Ōshima returns as the narrator, uttering the final line: “And you who’ve watched this film.” Death By Hanging denies passivity from its first moment. All are accountable, and we, the viewers must be too.

*Death By Hanging (dir. Nagisa Ōshima, 1968) is available to stream on the Criterion Channel. Tony Rayns on Death By Hanging (2015) is also available on Criterion.

Sources/Further Readings

“OSHIMA NAGISA: The Limits of Nationhood.” Narrative Mortality: Death, Closure, and New Wave Cinemas, by Catherine Russell, NED – New edition ed., University of Minnesota Press, 1995, pp. 105–136. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5749/j.cttttxrb.7. Accessed 13 Feb. 2021.