On Saturday afternoon I went to the Siskel Center to catch Diary of a Shinjuku Thief (1969), screening as part of the eight-film series dedicated to director Nagisa Oshima. I’ve now seen Shinjuku Thief three or four times, even though I don’t like the film very much. Every time I see it, I forget within months that I find the film disorganized, arcane, and more arty than artful. And so, I feel compelled to see it yet again whenever I return to Oshima’s body of work (from which I learn new things every time), assuming that this time I’ll see it differently. I still haven’t.
That’s not to say I’m unsympathetic to what the film is trying to do. Responding to Japan’s radical student movements and the general climate of social upheaval, Oshima created a purposely chaotic film. Shinjuku Thief draws upon the transgressive writings of Jean Genet (the film is named after Genet’s Diary of a Thief), the Tokyo experimental-theater scene, and documentary footage of recent student riots. But where Oshima’s Sing a Song of Sex (1967) combined a comparably wide range of references and topical concerns into an indictment of chauvinism in all areas of Japanese society, the pieces of Shinjuku Thief never seem to cohere—at least not to viewers without considerable knowledge of Japan in the late 1960s.
If the film is a failure, it’s a eminently watchable one. Not only does Oshima mix Eastern and Western cultural allusions and fiction and documentary—he switches from color to black and white, and from the naturalistic acting of his leads to the expressive, symbolic playing of the avant-garde theater troupe that turns up in the later passages. It seems as though Oshima wanted to take in too much too quickly—as though he was so concerned with confronting the cultural moment that he didn’t care if the results made any sense. I find this position inspiring, regardless of what it yielded in the case of Shinjuku Thief. If art is supposed to reflect every aspect of our lives, then we should appreciate it when artists allow themselves to fail so spectacularly. Life is full of mistakes, and the more we dare ourselves to live the more mistakes we’re likely to make.
Like Jean-Luc Godard and Pier Paolo Pasolini, Oshima spent the 1960s turning out one movie after another, taking advantage of new, inexpensive technology to make films as quickly as the culture evolved—to narrow the gap between art and life, in other words. I wonder if spectators today would be more accepting of this sort of filmmaking if people went to the movies as often as they did 50 years ago. It must be easier to embrace failure onscreen if you’re accustomed to going to the movies a few times a week.