Generating emotional resonance through interpretive camera work and operatic lighting, Night and Fog in Japan brings a heightened realism to the political drama, revealing clues to its mysteries by taking creative license with time and place. Utilizing a frame story to detail the experiences of members of Japan’s Communist Party, Nagisa Ôshima avoids the clinical nature of fact and allows the visuals to mirror the recollection of each story’s orator, drifting through events with the subjectivity of memory and the grace of a dream.
Directing his camera to move like the human eye, darting between sources of sound and action, Ôshima opens the film with a grandiose tracking shot, gliding stealthily through a wooded area and sneaking between the double-doors of a reception hall, resting in a symmetrical position before a bridal party and their ornate, tiered wedding cake. A speech from the couple’s mentor, a college professor, will be the focal point of this nearly 10-minute opening shot, drawing conflicting reactions from the politically-mixed guests of the bride and groom, elucidated through fluid camera motion and meticulous shot composition.
Roaming between past and present, the camera bases its location on the whims of the character captured in the frame, often marrying elements of the then and now through an overlapping musical theme or dramatic shift in lighting. The lack of editing allows for a seamless transition, moving freely between the manifold story threads, balancing action between the idealistic student revolutionaries of 1950 and the despondent, conflicted adults of 1960.
Chronologically, the narrative opens in an overcrowded college dormitory, one occupied by leftists revolting against the “AMPO” treaty, a military alliance that allowed the United States to intervene in any conflict on Japanese soil. Despite their easily definable goal and tight-knit support group, intraparty conflict quickly arose between the philosophically-minded members of the organization and the bourgeois mentality of the party’s leadership, precipitated in equal measure by youthful hubris and a lack of communication.
The greatest schism that the Zengakuren endured was in relation to a member’s suicide, which was arguably the result of party interrogation and libelous rumors. Two close friends of the fallen soldier tell his story in the present, crashing the nuptials to show opposition to the “with us or against us” mentality perpetuated by party leadership and to point fingers at the supposed culprit, dictatorial party leader, Nakayama. They see the reception as an opportunity to “tear off each other’s masks” and examine the compromises past members have made to attain the comfort of a “conservative life,” an existence that demands uniformity and opposes the true intent of the youth movement.
Ôshima’s film is an act of protest against this hardline political conservatism and the complacency it inspires, favoring the untapped potential of the individual to subvert collective memory. His ability to manipulate structure and time in Night and Fog in Japan was just as revolutionary as his politics, inventing a cinematic language that linked past and present together without the intrusive nature of excessive editing. The resulting work is a rich tapestry of visual beautiful and singular emotion, coasting on the kinetic energy of a constantly moving cinematic eye.
Night and Fog in Japan (New Yorker Films, 1960)
Directed by Nagisa Ôshima
Written by Toshirô Ishidô and Nagisa Ôshima
Photographed by Takashi Kawamata