Unsubtle but effective black comedy about social issues
The film begins with a documentary style look at a Japanese execution chamber. An unseen narrator explains that the vast majority of people still support the death penalty before the image shifts across a prison to the death camber itself. This chamber looks old fashioned, quaint even, both from the interior and exterior. As the building seems so archaic it's almost hard to imagine that people are actually brought there to die. One doesn't have to imagine, however, since the execution ritual is quickly and efficiently carried out as soon as the viewer is acquainted with the setting. Everything goes smoothly in this case except for one thing: the guilty man is certainly hanged but he continues to live.
After a brief recuperation, R, the condemned man, awakens with a strong case of amnesia. The confused officials quickly reveal themselves as fools without the ability to react critically. They are determined to execute this man again but they won't feel right about it until he remembers who he is and why this is happening to him. The rest of the film consists of various people helping R regain the memories of who he is and how he got into this situation. The actions of the various people are often comically absurd as they attempt reenactments of various parts of R's life including his childhood in a slum reserved for "inferior" Koreans and the murders he has been convicted of. It's often a funny film but the subject matter is too serious for it to be seen as anything but the blackest of comedies.
This is very much a social issues film for ardent leftist director Nagisa Oshima and several issues are dealt with including capital punishment (of course), nationalism, racism, violence against women, and the postwar lives of war criminals. There is never any doubt which side Oshima is on for any of these issues: the film is unsubtle if not downright didactic. Still, Oshima's prodigious talent as a film-maker greatly increase the effectiveness of this film and many of these issues are still quite relevant all over the world today. This film is not quite as masterful as 1969's less obvious Boy but it's still a worthy of the attention of people interested in Japanese culture and/or Nagisa Oshima.
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