It’s guilty until proven innocent in Nagisa Oshima’s groundbreaking protest film.
“You know… before I started this job, I shared the popular belief that you can only execute a man once, and if you screw up, he’s saved.”
Hidden away in a corner of a prison, screened away from the rest of the facility, one enters what is commonly called “the Gate of Hell”. Therein lies a small, western-style house: the execution chamber which serves as the primary setting for Nagisa Oshima’s satirical comedy-drama. After the failed hanging of a Korean man known only as R (Yu Don-yun), a group of bureaucrats scramble to get him re-executed. However, he seems to have no recollection of his crimes, or even of who he is. This begins a series of re-enactments and debates between priests, doctors and ministers about the nature of guilt.
Death by Hanging is a truly strange production, and one that never seems to go where you think it will. While the movie as a whole pertains to be about the death penalty – through both its title and its documentary-style opening scenes – instead it focuses more on the persecution and the unfair treatment of Koreans in Japan. What starts out as a goofy farce about the legality of hanging a man whose soul has already left his body becomes a shambles about a group of panicked government officials desperately trying to justify their imprisonment and terrible treatment of a Korean guy. Oshima’s direction perfectly represents this, too, with plenty of strikingly strong visuals created to make us think like how the officials want R to, from the sweet nostalgia of a childhood home to the overbearing nationalism of Japan.
Those familiar with the works of Armando Iannucci will recognise some of the man’s style here in Death By Hanging, and I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the Thick of It creator had been influenced in some form or another. Some of the scenes of the officials, especially right at the start, reminded me of the exchanges between Khrushchev and the other committee members in The Death of Stalin in their bumbling attempts to navigate bureaucracy and the agendas of others. It starts to depart from this style after things take a twist into the absurd, using film-within-film and fantasy sequences to show the ministers getting increasingly antsy for R to regain his memories.
Speaking of R, Oshima and the other screenwriters create a likeable “lead” who knows he will never be truly integrated into Japanese society, a theme that is hammered in multiple times throughout the film. He initiates his own form of rebellion by refusing to die, but ultimately understands his “place” among the Japanese. Whether or not he committed the crime is almost unimportant as the story progresses, because the movie isn’t going for a happy ending, but it’s not going for a cynical one either. Rather, it gives us sharp commentary that only gets better right through to the very end.
Where this film fails a bit is in its somewhat repetitive nature. It clocks in at just under two hours, and it could have easily been 90 minutes. Death By Hanging definitely would have benefited from a tighter edit, removing extraneous pieces of long-winded dialogue which do little other than echo sentiments already delivered. At least, though, these sentiments aren’t pointless chit-chat or empty dialogue, but rather the central theme of the film as told through various characters throughout.
In the end, Death by Hanging is an interesting film with a lot on its mind. It has plenty to say and while it doesn’t always get this across in the clearest way it could, Oshima’s film manages to do a lot and even speak to those who might not necessarily understand the issue that is being talked about. And this is its biggest strength: it references what is a well-known issue in Japan, but manages to make its statements clear and accessible to those on the outside. Maybe it’s a big ham-fisted at times, and a bit long, but sitting through this strange, thought-provoking little picture is far from a death sentence.
Verdict: Loaded with sharp wit and even sharper satire, Death by Hanging is not an easy watch, but it’s bloody fascinating.
Overall entertainment: 7.5/10
Violence: Couple of scenes of hanging, strangulation
Sex: Implied sexual violence/10
Deaths by Hangings: Er …
Favourite character: That priest; now I’d like to a see a spin-off of him.
Death by Hanging (1968)
Also known as: 絞死刑 Koshikei
Director: Nagisa Oshima
Writers: Tsutomu Tamura, Mamoru Sasaki, Michinori Fukao, Nagisa Oshima
Do-yun Yu – R
Nagisa Oshima – Narrator