“This is Ali Baba, town of mystery…”

As most of us know, the 1960s, especially the second half, were a time of upheaval, protests and general unrest in many areas of the world. Protests against the Vietnam War and the establishment resulted in a decade defined by violence on the one side, but also change on the other. Culturally, one could argue the late 1960s and early 1970s constitute one of the most interesting periods for the arts, a moment in time during which the possibility of change was a tangible shimmer on the horizon. And even though much of this hope was shattered by a re-affirmation of the ruling order – at least to some extent – the minds of people had been changed forever, as evident in the way culture has changed during that period.

Of course, times of change and upheaval often tend to give birth to fascinating and important voices and perspectives in culture. In the case of Japan, director Nagisa Oshima is certainly one of the most defining voices of the period. Even though many are inclined to think of his “In the Realm of the Senses” (1976) as his most influential work, this view neglects Oshima’s provocative works of the 1960s, such as “Cruel Story of Youth” (1960) or “Death by Hanging” (1968). Inspired by the works of the French New Wave, most notably the works of Jean-Luc Godard, films like “Diary of a Shinjuku Thief” reflect the same kind of radical criticism as well as a desperate search for alternatives within Japan at the time.

Diary of A Shinjuku Thief is screening at the Japanese Avant-Garde and Experimental Film Festival

In the case of “Diary of a Shinjuku Thief”, the parallels to Godard range from the content to the production itself. Whereas Godard surrounded himself with leftist thinkers and intellectuals, Oshima, also a student of political history, wrote the script together with Masao Adachi, a frequent collaborator of Koji Wakamatsu (“Ecstasy of the Angels”) and member of the Japanese Red Army. Obviously, “Diary of a Shinjuku Thief” is heavily influenced not only by the conflicts of the time within Japanese society, but also by the political views of its writers.

After he has been caught shoplifting at a book store, a young man, who calls himself Birdey Hilltop (Tadanori Yokoo), is brought to the office of the president of the company. Umetsu (Rie Yokoyama), the young shop clerk who caught him, starts a relationship with the thief, who continues to steal from the store in order to get her attention. When he tells her he steals merely for the thrill of it, she eventually understands his attraction to the act, even shoplifts herself.

However, as their relationship intensifies, the act of stealing slowly begins to lose its attraction resulting in the wish to express their sexual desires in another way.

For those who have watched “Empire of Passion” or “In the Realm of the Senses” as their introduction to Oshima’s body of work, “Diary of a Shinjuku Thief” will likely be a mixed bag. Even though the themes of sexuality and politics are very much present in this film – perhaps even more so considering the historical context of “Diary” – the structure and approach its creators have chosen is very different to Oshima’s later works. However, at the same time, as mentioned before, it is very much similar to the approach by those artists Oshima was inspired by and fits the general atmosphere in Japan (or in many parts of the world) at the time.

One way to approach the film is to take the literary reference given in the title for granted, since Birdey’s first “prey” is a copy of Jean Genet’s “The Thief’s Journal”, a semi-fictional novel in which Genet describes his journeys within Europe in the 1930s. As Patti Smith writes in her appreciation of the novel, “to steal is to eat, almost a job” for the character and committing offences not only a necessity, but eventually also major parts of his “youthful aspirations”. Birdey is a character of similar design, even though he does not strike one as poor or needy, in fact he is quite smart and bold. Nevertheless, he feels the same kind of sensation when it comes to criminal acts such as stealing.

Considering the overall context of upheaval and sexual freedom, acts such as stealing may constitute steps in becoming free of whatever social chains one feels around him or her. In the opening scene we see a thief, who is later revealed as a member of a performance group, caught by several men on the streets of Tokyo. Following their demands of returning the stolen goods, he is forced to strip, an act of degradation and humiliation since people around him are watching everything. Finally, wearing nothing more than his underwear he becomes superior over the other men as he has rid himself of inhibitions and sense of moral. Birdey’s and also Umetsu’s dilemma is then how to take the next step, how to unwind the remains of their social identity and to be free, to lead a more wholesome existence maybe.

Naturally, this kind of development is mirrored not only within the characters and their journey, but also in the film’s form. Using hand-held camera and quick cuts and sudden changes from black-and-white footage to color further the dissolution of the medium which seems to be what its creator is after. Eventually, what one is left with is pure film, pure cinema, a level of freedom switching effortlessly from fact to fiction, from color to black and white, and from theater performance to bawdy humor. However, similar to the movies of Jean-Luc Godard of the late 1960s, one should not mistake this feeling of disorder with chaos for the sake of it, since this approach would deny the intelligence of its director. In the end, disorder is needed to venture further, to make progress, sexually, socially and politically. Or at least seems to be the kind of wishful thinking this film tries to convey.


“Diary of a Shinjuku Thief” is a film about disorder, about the nature of inhibitions and the utopia of freedom, privately and publicly. To some, this may be a remnant of a time long gone, a naive statement, maybe, but its themes of politics and sexuality are quite interesting and often provocative. This is in many ways a challenging film to sit through, but one which, like Oshima’s body of work in general, most likely result in discussions and hopefully interesting ideas.

Sources:

1) Blevins, Matthew (2012) Review: Diary of a Shinjuku Thief
http://nextprojection.com/2012/01/23/review-diary-of-a-shinjuku-thief-1969/, last accessed on: 09/18/2018

2) MaGee, Chris (2008) Review: Diary of a Shinjuku Thief – Nagiasa Oshima (1969)
http://jfilmpowwow.blogspot.com/2008/04/review-diary-of-shinjuku-thief-nagisa.html, last accessed on: 09/18/2018

3) Bergan, Ronald (2013) Nagisa Oshima obituary
https://www.theguardian.com/film/2013/jan/15/nagisa-oshima, last accessed on: 09/18/2018

4) Smith, Patty (2018) Holy Disobedience: On Jean Genet’s The Thief’s Journal
https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2018/08/13/holy-disobedience-on-jean-genets-the-thiefs-journal/, last accessed on: 09/18/2018

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