In the tradition of Richard Wright's Native Son, Nagisa Oshima's Death by Hanging follows the story of a young second class citizen condemned for a crime to seem at first against an individual, but as an audience we find out that is an attack against a nation.
The film begins with the traits of all New Wave film-making, by showing an actual prison ground. Oshima's camera is attached to a helicopter and makes a descent upon a rather quaint building that is truly an execution chamber. Our narrator is Oshima himself, commenting on frighteningly true realities of public opinion on capital punishment. 71% of the population want to uphold capital punishment, but Oshima poses an unorthodox, but simple question. You who are in favor of capital punishment, have you ever witnessed an execution? This inquiry in itself to me sums up Oshima's purpose in his early work. Identifying and challenging hypocrisy. Something that many people are unwilling to do.
The victim of the punishment is a young Korean man named R. His crime is the murder and rape of 2 Japanese high school girls. R is hanged, but he lives. When he comes to, he cannot remember anything. His name, his family, his nationality, or the men who killed him. He appears to be completely enlightened in the Buddhist tradition of Nirvana. He does not behave like a criminal at all, in fact he is much more adjusted than the self-imposed superior Japanese prison wards. The man are shocked and the chaplain believes his body is empty and his soul has left. The prison wards believe that is nonsense so they want to hang him again. But they can't hang a man who isn't self aware or competent of his surroundings. So in a deeply biting satire, they act out the known facts of his life trying to get him to remember so he can be hanged.
This is where the narrative becomes interesting. Oshima uses satire to comment of Japan's marginalization of their Korean neighbors. Very similar to the way African Americans were treated in early America or Jews in Venice. R is the product of extreme degradation and exploitation. At one point the men are trying to play the part of his family. One man is playing the part of R's mom and she has to cry. Pretending, the man starts crying, but his colleague says that it's not right, and he should do it more, "Korean". He says by Korean, he means more vulgar. It is this condescendence towards Koreans that can be compared to many other people around the world and to many points in history.
In the conclusion, R understands what his former self did. Being a second class citizen, he was not allowed to have the things that his Japanese peers did. He soon became enveloped in fantasy. He didn't have fresh food, so he imagined he did. He didn't have new clothes, so he fabricated that idea. He couldn't have a Japanese girl, so he fantasized that he could. But he knew he couldn't have this girl in a normal fashion due to his race, so he constantly projected in his mind the act of rape. His constant cerebral denial of everything he hoped for lead to his real life act.
I respect Nagisa Oshima for being unpopular among his countrymen in order to shout at the world. I wouldn't call him a moralist, but he strives to eliminate hypocrisy in the world. This film is just as much an anti-capital punishment essay as it is a race relations thesis. I have always been against capital punishment ever since I was aware of the idea of politics. I was as shocked just as Oshima was when learning about the public opinion of capital punishment in my own English class. Most of my 16/17 year old peers supported death. R's response to his nation's stand on his fate is this. "The nation says that I should die for my crimes. But I don't understand the idea of a nation. How can an abstraction kill me?"