Nagisa Oshima's 1968 film Death by Hanging opens by noting that 71% of the Japanese population supports capital punishment. “But how many of you have seen an execution?” the film asks. We then watch as the film offers a grim documentary-style look at the execution process. Brief meetings are conducted, prayers are offered, last rites are performed and the prisoner – a man known only as R (Do-yun Yu) – is blindfolded. The prisoner is led into a room, where he is placed directly above a trap door and a noose is place around his neck. The order is given, the trap door opens, the prisoner falls. It's bleak stuff, and we brace ourselves for an intense, unforgiving message movie (which certainly seems like a decent possibility given Oshima's filmography).
Ah, but the film has a curveball in store for us: R isn't dead yet. After twenty minutes of swinging from a rope, he's unconscious but still breathing. The men responsible for conducting the execution begin to panic. Did they do something wrong? What's the protocol here? Do they keep waiting? Do they start the whole process over again? Eventually, they decide that the best course of action is to take R down and revive him. Once they do so, they're dismayed to discover that R has no memories of the crimes he's committed. A priest (Toshiro Ishido) offers a theory: “His soul has left his body.” It's against the law to execute a man who isn't in mentally sound condition, so the assorted officials overseeing things must find a way to help R remember what he's done. After some debate, they conclude that the best way to do this is to stage elaborate re-enactments of the crimes R committed.
In the blink of an eye, Death by Hanging transforms into a surprisingly hysterical black comedy, as a host of stuffy government officials and prison employees join forces in an attempt to help R recover so they can take another shot at killing him. It's almost hard to believe that the film's ominous opening scenes exist in the same movie as the scenes in which dignified men recreate scenes from R's life as outlandish bits of improv comedy. Lacking any real understanding of the thinking that led to R raping and murdering people, the men offer crude guesses about his motivation in the form of farcical performances. The film descends quickly into gleeful madness, as well-respected public officials enthusiastically hump each other while frantically looking at R and bellowing, “Remember doing this?”
This is undeniably ridiculous (and undeniably funny) stuff, but it's more purposeful than it seems. Oshima begins the film by demonstrating what serious, weighty business an execution is, but then moves on to reminding us that the people in charge of conducting it are ultimately just flawed, ordinary human beings who probably aren't truly capable of consistently demonstrating the wisdom and discernment such an extreme action requires. The film doesn't attempt to make the case that R may actually be innocent – there's plenty of evidence to the contrary – but instead finds an off-center way to make the case that we aren't capable of handling this much responsibility. Additionally, the film blurs the lines between the condemned and those condemning him: in the chaos of the desperate theatrical performance, the “innocent” men have a tendency to reveal their own dark fantasies.
While the death penalty is the film's most prominent (and most relevant) theme, the movie also digs into the racial tensions of '60s Japan. R is a Korean man, and as such is regarded as a secondary citizen by many of the Japanese-born people charged with assisting in his execution process. During some of the “re-enactment” scenes, some of the Japanese men encourage each other to dumb their performances down: “Act more like a Korean!” Meanwhile, R begins to look increasingly respectable – even noble – in contrast to the crass, cartoonish ugliness of the “racially superior” men who look down on him.
There's a demented brilliance to a fairly large chunk of Death by Hanging, but as the film gets closer to the finish line, it begins to sacrifice its deft satirical touch in favor of more heavy-handed (and considerably less effective) sermonizing. Perhaps fearing that the audience won't fully grasp the ideas it pushes through comedy, the film chooses to push them again in the form of earnest speeches. The film's moral opposition to the death penalty is a position I happen to agree with, but the film doesn't offer a particularly nuanced version of the argument: “Isn't killing wrong even when you're killing a killer?” The film concludes the way it began, receding into grim sincerity and pointing a finger at the less enlightened members of the audience. This is a bold, unique, challenging movie with a conventional aftertaste.
Death by Hanging
Rating: ★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 119 minutes
Release Year: 1968