Following the recent release of Naked Youth, The Sun’s Burial is the second of five Nagisa Oshima films to be released on DVD as part of Yume Pictures’ Oshima Collection. The cult Japanese director earned his reputation making gritty, brutal films, and while The Sun’s Burial, originally released in 1960, is uncompromisingly bleak, it’s also a fantastically evocative snapshot of a post-war Japan traumatised by humiliation and defeat.
In a sweltering Osaka, hard-as-nails Hanako (Kayoko Honoo) runs an illegal blood bank by day, and moonlights as a prostitute by night, giving her a twisted chance to escape the squalor of her run-down home. In what is little more than a shanty town, she lives side by side with vagrants and drunks, an unruly band held together by her somewhat sleazy father Yotsematsu. Takeshi (Isao Sasaki) is a wannabe gangster, but without the heart for the brutality unleashed by his boss, the charismatic Shin (played by Masahiko Tsugawa, Shin exudes a certain glamour in his black shirts and white-rimmed hats, a Japanese Jean-Paul Belmondo in A bout de souffle). Takeshi is the only character with any kind of conscience, but he’s unable to escape from Shin’s grasp; once he also falls victim to Hanako’s manipulations, there’s little hope for him. This motley cast of petty criminals, thugs, rapists, pimps and prostitutes are all caught up in an ugly, vicious turf war, fighting over the scraps of the decimated city.
But the fast-paced and at times impossible-to-follow plot (the film really demands a second viewing) often seems irrelevant; Oshima seems more concerned with style and message than the actual narrative. While Naked Youth is a film about teenage rebellion, here there is no authority for the characters to rebel against. The Sun’s Burial, with its scenes of a setting sun disappearing into the darkness of a ruined Osaka, is full of unrelenting despair at what Japan has lost, at the indignity the country and its people have suffered. A slightly ludicrous character, ‘The Agitator’, who muscles in on Hanako’s territory in the name of patriotism, rages against the Russians and Americans, desperate for another war so Japan can restore her imperial dignity. In another scene, the camera lingers on a banner, printed with the words, ‘let’s give love and a future to our youth’. As their criminality spirals out of control, Oshima’s warring teenagers have little chance of seeing a future at all.
Thankfully, the film’s non-stop misery is relieved by its fresh, almost playful soundtrack and riveting cinematography. The Spanish guitar often lends the film a spaghetti Western feel, with the rival gangs facing off against each other like urban cowboys. Much of the action takes place off-screen, the camera instead focusing on claustrophobic close-ups of tormented and tormenting faces, covered in a thin sheen of sweat as they stare each other down. The incongruous mix of lounge pop and violence, notably when Takeshi and Shin have their final, disastrous confrontation, adds to the film’s nouvelle vague appeal.
The Sun’s Burial is an exciting example of modern cinema that also provides a documentary-like glimpse into a now forgotten past. Little more than two decades later, Japan would once again become a global power and pop culture phenomenon, with Osaka at its heart.