Death by Hanging
Genius provocateur Nagisa Oshima, an influential figure in the Japanese New Wave of the 1960s, made one of his most startling political statements with the compelling pitch-black satire Death by Hanging. In this macabre farce, a Korean man is sentenced to death in Japan but survives his execution, sending the authorities into a panic about what to do next. At once disturbing and oddly amusing, Oshima’s constantly surprising film is a subversive and surreal indictment of both capital punishment and the treatment of Korean immigrants in his country.
Nagisa Oshima’s Death by Hanging receives a Blu-ray edition from The Criterion Collection, who presents the film in the aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The 1080p/24hz high-definition presentation comes from a new 4K scan of the original camera negative. Criterion does make this note on the transfer:
Although a variety of sources assert that Death by Hanging was filmed in Paramount Pictures' proprietary 8-perforation VistaVision widescreen format, Criterion has determined, after much research, that an alternate 4-perforation Japanese "Vista" format was employed instead; thus it was the 4-perf Japanese Vista negative that was used as the source for our transfer.
It’s a stunning presentation for sure, jaw dropping at times. The presentation delivers a highly detailed, crisp image at just about all times, managing to nicely render some of the finer textures in both close-ups and longer shots. Contrast looks fairly well balanced, with perfectly rendered tonal shifts in the gray levels, while black levels manage to come off fairly inky, and I don’t recall any issues with crushing. Film grain is very fine but registers and looks natural, and I didn’t detect any compression issues, noise, or blocking patterns while viewing. It’s a staggeringly clean transfer and encode.
The source has also been cleaned up nicely and I honestly don’t recall a blemish popping up (at least I didn’t note any), so the restoration job has been quite thorough. Together with the sharp encode it’s a beautiful looking image.
The lossless Japanese PCM 1.0 mono track isn’t anything overly special but it’s been cleaned up nicely. There’s a general flatness to the whole affair but there weren’t any glaring issues and it was stable overall. It gets the job done.
Criterion tosses in a few supplements, starting with Oshima’s 25-minute short film Diary of Yunbogi. It’s a perfect accompaniment to the main feature and its criticisms of Japan’s treatment of Koreans (Death by Hanging also features a few of the photographs that appear in this film), presenting the story of an impoverished, young South Korean boy named Yunbogi who is just trying to make it (after his father, mother, and sister leave) by finding whatever work he can and getting by whatever obstacles come up. The film is told through still photographs in the included interview Tony Rayns states they were all taken by Oshima during a trip to South Korea years before) while the young boy tells his story through narration. Every once in a while a third-person narrator chimes in, calling on Yunbogi to rebel against the oppression of the ruling Japanese. It’s a pretty damning film, very effective in its execution and message. The restoration work has unfortunately been very minimal (damage is heavy) but Criterion did give it a full high-def presentation, and it’s a solid one that delivers the film as best it can.
Criterion has then recorded a new interview with film scholar Tony Rayns. He gives a brief overview of Oshima’s work and his early career leading up to Death by Hanging before talking a bit about the film and its indictment of Japan’s treatment of Koreans. He also talks quite a bit about the real life case the film is based on, and what attracted Oshima to it. He examines the film’s characters and what they represented in Japan at the time, offering a bit of context that may be lost on some western viewers. It’s a good interview that I think will benefit first time viewers of the film, especially if they’re not sure what it is they just watched (and most especially if this is their first Oshima film).
Criterion then closes off the disc with the film’s theatrical trailer, and the included insert features an essay by Howard Hampton, touching and expanding upon what Rayns covers in his interview.
In the end it’s a bit disappointing how slim the release feels with extras but then at the same time we do get two very worthwhile features.
It’s disappointingly slim on features but what little we do get (a short film by the director and an informative interview by Tony Rayns) is good. But the presentation is the real selling point and all on its own makes this release worth picking up.