Saturday, November 23, 2019

Death by Hanging Confronts Ludicrous Prejudice With Equally Ludicrous Dark Comedy

It was supposed to be a simple execution. R (Don-yun Yu), son of Korean immigrants raised and living in Japan, would be executed by way of hanging by a group of Japanese law enforcement officers. Seems like a foolproof way to kill somebody but once the lever got pulled and the hanging was executed, it turned out R wasn't dead, he was surely alive. In fact, he was not just revived but he had total amnesia about his life up to that point. Now all the powerful members of Japanese society tasked with killing R are stuck in a conundrum; can they re-kill a man, especially one who is now a shell of the former murderer? They all decide to give it their best go in restoring R's memory so that they can kill him and restore their sense of warped justice.

Watching Death by Hanging for the first time a few days after seeing Taika Waititi's Jojo Rabbit, I couldn't help but find some parallels between the two admittedly mostly disparate works. Chief among those parallels is the fact that both confront bigotry as something that can do terrible things but is also inherently ridiculous. Both features take pride in depicting powerful figures of authority fixated on prejudice as ridiculous human beings who shouldn't be placed in charge of a lemonade stand, let alone a country. In the case of Nagisa Oshima's Death by Hanging, the prejudice depicted on-screen concerns the dehumanizing treatment of Korean immigrants by Japanese citizens.

Such treatment is exemplified by the fact that our protagonist, R, is never even given a full name, he's just a letter to both the audience and those assigned with killing him. A similar manifestation of this hatred is the lengths to which those assigned to execute him will go to restore R's memory, particularly a figure known as Education Officer (Fumio Watanabe). Lying, physical abuse and even nearly killing other Japanese citizens, anything is fair game so long as the end result is R finally becoming a corpse. Throughout Death by Hanging, we see the darkly comical extremes to which people in power will go to enact acts of bigotry masquerading as justice.

Like subsequent dark comedy satires Showgirls and Sorry to Bother You, Death by Hanging is a film confronting a real-world problem (specifically, the idea that a person is inherently lesser-than based on their country of origin) so inherently ridiculous that the only way to properly confront it is with over-the-top dark comedy. In the case of Death by Hanging, this is especially apparent in the performance of Fumio Watanabe, an actor who tackles the character of Education Officer with a performance so vivid he practically pops right off the screen. For Watanabe, there is no such thing as a small gesture or a restrained dialogue delivery. If you give him an inch in this performance, he'll take a mile and it results in a bravura comedic performance that's truly a sight to behold, especially since it so viscerally captures the lunacy of prejudice.

Watanabe and the other actors portraying the Japanese citizens tasked with killing R tend to go for very stylized performances that contrast with the intentionally muted turn from Don-yun Yu playing a blank slate of a human being. There's a bunch of amusement to be found in the juxtaposition between the live-wire execution overseers and Yu's R just staring off into space. But as Death by Hanging goes on and some parts of R's memory are restored, Yu is able to translate this performance into a more tragic place. Now the character's emptiness communicates a sense of somberness over knowing the overwhelming prejudice residing against Korean citizens in Japanese society.

Don-yun Yu is extremely effective at communicating that woe while still maintaining the amnesiac characters intentionally vacant nature. Both his performance and the supporting performances that predominately utilize heightened dark comedy are impressively directed by Nagisa Oshima, who nails a tricky tonal balance in pulling off this story. Time and time again pieces of cinema have shown that dark comedy is a perfect avenue for holding up a mirror to the horrors of society, but it's not something that just anyone can do. Luckily, Oshima has got insight filmmaking and a deft sense for how to pull off tricky pieces of ludicrous comedy that ensure that Death by Hanging is a truly biting piece of social commentary.

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