Who would’ve thought that the systematic execution of a condemned man would yield an unusual outcome and pave the way for a dramatic re-enactment of the events that led up to his imprisonment, all taking place inside a confined set (moving to exterior locations later), with the active participation of the convict?
In Death by Hanging, director Nagisa Oshima presents in front of us a wildly unconventional film, a pitch-black farce that makes philosophical, and at times outrageous statements on the issues of race, crime, sexuality, religion, morality and capital punishment. This is one of those rare films that got my attention right from the first 20 minutes itself. It’s Oshima’s masterpiece.
The film begins with the hanging of a Korean man who has been accused of rape and murder of a young girl. His face is not revealed; his body is trembling as he is being dragged to the noose. A guard pushes a button to open the trap door beneath his feet and his body drops violently through it. However, something strange happens: Upon inspection of his pulse, which is supposed to stop after 15 minutes, continues beating and this leaves everyone puzzled.
The authorities haven’t seen anything of this sort before. What’s to be done now? What’s ethical? What’s not? Should they hang him again? When the prisoner comes to, they see that he has lost his memory. We now see his face. It doesn’t look like the face of a criminal. He is unusually calm and poised. We learn that his name is R (Kafka-esque?). He doesn’t remember who he is. They ask each other: Can he be executed again if he doesn’t know why he is being punished for?
It looks as though the “previous” soul of the man has left his body and now there is a “new” one inside him. There is a chaplain present and he says something to the effect of: Is there any point in punishing the body when the soul has left the body? Is the soul being punished or the body? It becomes apparent that he is a vehement opposer of capital punishment and he doesn’t want to go through the whole thing again.
What ensues is an absurdly comical re-enactment of prior events in R’s life, beginning from his childhood, to refresh his memory and bring him back to his former self. What would’ve looked morbid in real life evokes plenty of laughs, as middle-aged men simultaneously play the parts of the victim, convict, and his family while pretending to be in a different time and place.
What we get is a film and play, with the audience being made an unwitting participant in this endlessly amusing experiment. At one point, reality and fiction seem to merge and we become as confused and frustrated as some of the characters. It’s as if someone is yanking at our collars and yelling at us, “Now imagine there is a woman present! Now imagine there isn’t!”
In struggling to make the convict accountable for his actions once again, and come up with a perfectly reasonable solution to this whole fiasco, the ugly character traits and the hidden demons of the authorities themselves come into full view. The convict becomes a mirror for them to look at their own ugliness.