Abstract Existentialist Impact on the Writings and Movies of Ōshima Nagisa

Existentialism had an enormous impact on post-war Japanese intellectual history. The works of existentialist philosophers such as Heidegger, Karl Jaspers or Albert Camus were analyzed in great detail in Japan. It was, however, Jean-Paul Sartre who was most closely associated with existentialism. Sartre had an extraordinarily strong effect on Japanese post-war literature and philosophy as well as Japanese art and politics. Sartre himself had a life-long fascination for Japan. He visited the country and lectured on these occa­sions. His impact on Japanese post-war literature was considerably high. The works of many important Japanese authors of that time, among others Noma Hiroshi, Shiina Rinzô, Abe Kôbo and Ôe Kenzaburô, are strongly influenced by Sartre’s philosophy of existence.


Sartre’s existentialism had a great impact on Japanese movie directors as well. Particularly Ôshima Nagisa, a leading figure of the Japanese New Wave Cinema, in the West known for his controversial film L’empire des sens (Ai no koriida, 1976), was strongly influenced by Sartre’s philosophy. In an interview on his film Death by Hanging (Kôshikei, 1968) he called Sartre the main reason why he became a movie director. Like many Japanese post-war intellectuals Ôshima sympathised with Sartre’s conception of the engaged intellectual. As Sartre he was politically engaged and regularly argued his opinions on political and cultural matters in front of a broad public. As Sartre he saw the function of art in its ability to express freedom of will as well as to appeal to the spectator and to change social and political conditions. In Ôshima’s postulation of the engaged movie director, in his emphasis of the subjectivity of the author and in the claim for a constant self-negation in the the process of art production, we find similarities to Sartre’s literary theories as he explored them in Qu’est ce que la littérature (1947). Moreover, much of the things Ôshima wrote, reminds one of the phenomeno­logical analyses of Sartrean existentialism, and his movies display many traits of Sartre's philosophy.


This paper investigates how Sartre’s literature and philosophy shows in Ôshima Nagisa’s theoretical writings and movies. Starting from Ôshima’s essay collection "The Idea of Freedom" I will examine parallels of Sarte’s and Ôshima’s conceptions of engagement and freedom. By discussing some of Ôshimas films I will then show how Ôshima incorporated his theoretical conceptions into his movies. As examples I chose the films A Town of Love an d Hope (Ai to kibô no machi, 1959), Death by Hanging (Kôshikei, 1968) and Violence at Noon (Hakuchû to tôrima, 1966).