Nagisa Oshima is very much a director of ideas, passionately delving into pressing political and social issues in his films. If other major Japanese directors largely avoid topicality, Oshima embraces them. In this film, which deals with the student revolts in Japan in 1960 (Oshima himself was deeply involved in student protests), he engages in an issues-focused exploration of the attempt to balance nonpolitical issues in a deeply political time (Oshima was one of the major Japanese cultural issues who confronted directly Japan's avoidance of responsibility for WW II and its culpability both in creating a national culture that made that war possible and in the specific crimes it pepetuated in China and elsewhere). Still, for all the ideas in the film, they are the source of almost none of its interest.
What makes NIGHT AND FOG IN JAPAN so interesting to watch is its tremendously inventive cinematography. If you watch a number of Oshima's films, it becomes obvious that he is not a slave to any one style. Some films feature a host of cuts and camera angles. This film is distinguished by its remarkably small number of scenes. In fact, the illusion the camera would like to create is of that of one long continuous shot, much like Alfred Hitchcock's ROPE. The film begins with the camera focused on the bride and groom at the reception of a wedding. Nearly the entire film is told through a series of pans that open up to flashbacks. In the sequence that gives the film its title, one speaker in the middle of the wedding party begins to speak of an incident in the past on a foggy night. As he talks the camera pans right but instead of a wall, we see a foggy area at night. When the scene is finished, the camera pans back to reveal the wedding party. Now, apart from one obvious cut (with a very different angle), the camera would like us to imagine one long shot. In reality there are some wipes and completely new shots, but that is the illusion it would like to create.
Oshima engages in other interesting camera tricks. When one student is revealed as a "snitch" (though he falsely accused), the camera freezes for several seconds. We then immediately get one of the film's rare explicit cuts.
The story is frankly not very interesting, but throughout the sixties Oshima remained one of the more interesting filmmakers in Japan. He is frequently compared to Godard, but in reality I believe that Oshima was even more of an experimenter than the French director. This is certainly one of the more interesting of his very early films.
Sadly, this film is not available in the United States in a Region 1 edition. The only version is a PAL Region 5 edition. I have an All Regions DVD player and was able to obtain a copy of the European version. Hopefully Criterion will consider bringing out a second box set of Oshima's films. They recently brought out the box set entitled Oshima's Outlaw sixties in their Eclipse series. The set is invaluable for brining out a number of otherwise unavailable films, but in truth they failed to bring out many of his most important early films, including NIGHT AND FOG IN JAPAN and DEATH BY HANGING. They could easily do two more Eclipse sets to make more of his films available. Frankly, this early work is the most fascinating part of his career. I found MERRY CHRISTMAS, MR. LAWRENCE to be dull and mannered, while MAX, MON AMOUR just a bit too strange. But the sixties films show a highly inventive filmmaker striving to do new things with the camera and constitute his best work until IN THE REALM OF THE SENSES.