Genius provocateur Nagisa Oshima (In the Realm of the Senses), an influential figure in the Japanese New Wave of the 1960s, made one of his most startling political statements with the compelling pitch-black satire Death by Hanging. In this macabre farce, a Korean man is sentenced to death in Japan but survives his execution, sending the authorities into a panic about what to do next. At once disturbing and oddly amusing, Oshima’s constantly surprising film is a subversive and surreal indictment of both capital punishment and the treatment of Korean immigrants in his country.
Nagisa Oshima's 1968 film 'Death By Hanging' was certainly a controversial movie some fifty plus years ago. Revisiting it today, the film still conjures up some strong reactions and is as relevant today as it was back in 1968 with the social and political situations this film satirizes and carries. 'Death by Hanging' is part Brecht and part early Godard in that Oshima showed these contentious situations such as capital punishment and racism in an over-the-top satire storyline that plays out like a documentary in certain scenes and an overly stylized movie-within-a-movie aspect in others.
It's somewhat difficult to follow the different style, but the effect is quite unnerving and still rings true today. The film centers on a Korean man only known to us as 'R', as he is about to be hanged for raping and killing two women in Japan. The Japanese officers, believing this to be a normal run-of-the-mill hanging get more than what they bargained for when 'R' doesn't die after his hanging. The Japanese officers don't really know what to do and with 'R' not remembering his crimes or why he's even in this situation, things get a bit weird.
The Japanese officers try and convince 'R' of what he did, even going so far as to re-enact his brutal crimes with real people. Even when 'R's sister comes to help out, things don't work out for her either and the Japanese officers end up killing her and someone else, bringing up the second part of the film. This latter half focuses on the Japanese officers, coming to terms with their guilt in that they are no better than the Korean man they tried hanging. You can easily tell that this film hit close to home for director Nagisa Oshima.
How he vents his anger about the 1960's Japanese socio-political climate is startling, even if it can be somewhat self-righteous. The points that Oshima is trying to make is that people are the same no matter what background they come from, and that the Japanese government was quite hypocritical in their form of justice and punishment.
It's a magnificent story that is told in widely opposing aspects and styles that forces the audience to figure out what just is going on. 'Death by Hanging' can be considered experimental, art-house, documentary, and thriller, but the one thing everyone can agree on is that it's unforgettable.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Death by Hanging' comes with a 50GB Blu-ray Disc that is Region A locked. The disc and its fully illustrated booklet is housed in a clear hard plastic case with cast and crew information and an essay on the film by Howard Hampton.
'Death by Hanging' comes with a great 1080p HD transfer presented in 1.85:1 aspect ratio. According to the Criterion booklet, this is a new digital transfer that was created in 4K resolution from the 35mm original camera negative. Sources say that the movie was filmed in Paramount Pictures' 8-perforation VistaVision widescreen format, but after Criterion did some digging, they found an alternate 4-perforation Japanese Vista print and used that one for the transfer. Thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices, dirt, jitter, flicker, and warps were manually removed.
The picture is strong from start to finish. The detail is strong and vivid, specifically in the closeups which reveal fine textures in the costumes and nice facial features. Wider shots never go soft and give a good amount of depth. The black and white color scheme are well-balanced and full of life with a wide variety of grays. There is a nice layer of grain that never fluctuates either. Again, all of the age related problems are kept at a bare minimum, leaving this Criterion video presentation with top marks.
This release comes with a Japanese LPCM 1.0 mix with great English subtitles. There really isn't much to this track. According to the Criterion booklet, the original monaural soundtrack was remastered at 24-bit from the 35mm soundtrack positive. Hiss, pops, cracks, and hum were manually removed as well. There aren't really any loud or bursting noises or sound here.
Instead, each noise and sound is more on the humble side of things rather than the robust side. The dialogue is always crystal clear and easy to follow along with the English subtitles. The score sounds good, but doesn't come through too often, and even then, it's light. Still, this audio presentation is gracious and elegant, I just wish it has a bit more gall.
Interview with Tony Rayns (HD, 31 Mins.) - This interview was conducted in 2015, specifically for this release and has film historian and critic Tony Rayns talking about Nagisa Oshima's life and career. Rayns doesn't only discuss his film career, but also his political and social beliefs.
'Diary of Yunbogi' (HD, 25 Mins.) - This is a short film from 1965 from Nagisa Oshima. He wrote, produced, and directed this short, which is a documentary about a young boy who was abandoned by his mother.
Trailer (HD, 5 Mins.) - Here is the original Japanese trailer for the film.
Criterion Booklet - Here is an illustrated booklet, featuring information about the film, the technical details of the transfer, the cast and crew, and an essay by Howard Hampton.
'Death by Hanging' is one film you won't soon forget. The polarizing styles at the opposite ends of the spectrum make this film somewhat hard to follow, but none-the-less a magnificent piece that vents director's Nagia Oshima's anger over Japan's hypocrisy and views on capital punishment and racism. There has not been another film like this since 1968. The video and audio presentations are both top notch, although the audio isn't fully immersive and the extras here are both worthy of your time. Criterion has knocked it out of the park again with 'Death by Hanging'. Highly recommended.