Concerned with what will probably be a little known piece of Japanese history to today’s viewer, Night and Fog in Japan is an interesting fictional analysis of the actions of the left-wing Japanese student protesters in response to the 1st AMPO treaty with the United States by former student activist Nagisa Oshima. While it might be considered less important or engaging than Oshima’s later work, Night and Fog in Japan is a fascinating reflection on the dynamics of political movements in 1950s Japan.
Opening in 1960 at a wedding party, Night and Fog in Japan begins as a fairly standard, albeit stylised, dramatical piece. As the wedding speeches take place it becomes clear that all of the guests know each other from their past as politicised students. The narrative begins to assume a fragmented form as the guests’ reminiscences are played out as flashbacks. Slowly, Oshima outlines the group’s ideology in general terms, and as the different members of the wedding party put forward their points of view during what becomes an increasingly heated discussion, so the drama unwinds as a series of tensions within the group itself.
Night and Fog in Japan is an incredibly theatrical piece of work. Oshima is clearly not interested in creating an atmosphere of realism, and the technical attention to detail on-screen appears to be aimed solely at enlivening what is otherwise a very dry and ‘talky’ two hours. Although initially visually captivating (an early scene is one long ten-minute take; pauses in dialogue and movement allow for some interesting ‘snapshot’ compositions), the theatricality soon threatens to undermine the dramatic impact and the cast too often seem to be concentrating on hitting their marks rather than delivering impassioned performances. The fluidity of some of the camera movement (occasionally let down by some shaky camera panning – it seems that the style may have been ahead of the techniques) fails to excite after a while and then only highlights the general sombreness of the proceedings.
For the first hour of its duration Night and Fog in Japan is a fascinating prospect. Even with its political allegiances totally at the fore – to the detriment of any real personal drama – the film offers a careful analysis of how political ideals affect a group by using flashbacks alongside the wedding party scenes. Sadly, the second hour of the film moves at such a slow pace – and with a cast of characters that are firstly so large in number and secondly so pessimistic in attitude – that it becomes no more than a backdrop for a lengthy lecture, denouncing in a rather simplistic manner the students’ ‘we’ve just let ourselves down’ attitude.
While it’s not an easy watch, Night and Fog in Japan is an interesting piece of work when viewed alongside other Oshima fare of the period such as The Sun’s Burial which, while still gloomy, manages to bury its political intentions deeper – and much more successfully – into the drama. Sure, part of the problem with Night and Fog in Japan is that it’s difficult to appreciate just how daring the film was on its original release (it was pulled by the studio after just three days in response to a political assassination) so viewed today the film is an intriguing – albeit limited – watch which sadly lacks the punch it had in its day.