After graduating from Kyoto University, where he studied political history, Oshima was hired by film production company Shochiku Ltd. and quickly progressed to directing his own movies, making his debut feature A Town of Love and Hope in 1959.
Oshima's cinematic career and influence developed very swiftly, and such films as Cruel Story of Youth and Night and Fog in Japan followed in 1960. The last of these 1960 films explored Oshima's disillusionment with the traditional political left, and his frustrations with the right, and Shochiku withdrew the film from circulation after less than a week, claiming that, following the recent assassination of the Socialist Party leader Inejiro Asanuma by the ultranationalist Otoya Yamaguchi, there was a risk of "unrest". Oshima left the studio in response, and launched his own independent production company. Despite the controversy, Night And Fog In Japan was placed tenth in that year's Kinema Jumpo's best-films poll of Japanese critics, and it has subsequently amassed considerable acclaim abroad.
In 1961 Oshima directed The Catch, based on a novella by Kenzaburō Ōe about the relationship between a wartime Japanese village and a captured African American serviceman. The Catch has not traditionally been viewed as one of Oshima's major works, though it did notably introduce a thematic exploration of bigotry and xenophobia, themes which would be explored in greater depth in the later documentary Diary of Yunbogi, and feature films Death by Hanging and Three Resurrected Drunkards. He embarked upon a period of work in television, producing a series of documentaries; notably among them 1965's Diary Of Yunbogi. Based upon an examination of the lives of street children in Seoul, it was made by Oshima after a trip to South Korea.
Oshima directed three features in 1968. The first of these - Death by Hanging (1968) presented the story of the failed execution of a young Korean for rape and murder, and was loosely based upon an actual crime and execution which had taken place in 1958. The film utilizes non-realistic "distancing" techniques after the fashion of Bertold Brecht or Jean-Luc Godard to examine Japan's record of racial discrimination against its Korean minority, incorporating elements of farce and political satire, and a number of visual techniques associated with the cinematic new wave in a densely layered narrative. It was placed third in Kinema Jumpo's 1968 poll, and has also garnered significant attention globally. Death By Hanging inaugurated a string of films (continuing through 1976's In the Realm of the Senses) that clarified a number of Oshima's key themes, most notably a need to question social constraints, and to similarly deconstruct received political doctrines.
Months later, Diary of a Shinjuku Thief unites a number of Oshima's thematic concerns within a dense, collage-style presentation. Featuring a title which alludes to Jean Genet's The Thief's Journal, the film explores the links between sexual and political radicalism, specifically examining the day-to-day life of a would-be radical whose sexual desires take the form of kleptomania. The fragmented narrative is interrupted by commentators, including an underground noh performance troupe, a psychoanalyst, and an impromptu symposium featuring actors from previous Oshima films (along with Oshima himself), all dissecting varied aspects of shifting sexual politics, as embodied by various characters within the film.
Boy (1969), based on another real-life case, was the story of a family who use their child to make money by deliberately getting involved in road accidents and making the drivers pay compensation.
The Ceremony (1971) is a satirical look at Japanese attitudes, famously expressed in a scene where a marriage ceremony has to go ahead even though the bride is not present.
In 1976, Oshima made In the Realm of the Senses, a film based on a true story of fatal sexual obsession in 1930s Japan. Oshima, a critic of censorship and his contemporary Akira Kurosawa's humanism, was determined that the film should feature unsimulated sex and thus the undeveloped film had to be transported to France to be processed. An uncensored version of the movie is still unavailable in Japan. Oshima testified in a Japanese court about whether the film was obscene. "Nothing that is expressed is obscene," the director said. "What is obscene is what is hidden."
In his 1978 companion film to In the Realm of the Senses, Empire of Passion, Oshima took a more restrained approach to depicting the sexual passions of the two lovers driven to murder, and the film won the 1978 Cannes Film Festival award for best director.
In 1983 Oshima had a critical success with a film made partly in English, Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, set in a wartime prison camp, and featuring rock star David Bowie and musician Ryuichi Sakamoto, alongside Takeshi Kitano. The movie has become a cult classic. Max, Mon Amour (1986), written with Luis Buñuel's frequent collaborator Jean-Claude Carrière, was a comedy about a diplomat's wife (Charlotte Rampling) whose love affair with a chimpanzee is quietly incorporated into an eminently civilised ménage à trois.
For much of the 1980s and 1990s, he served as president of the Directors Guild of Japan. He won the inaugural Directors Guild of Japan New Directors Award in 1960.
A collection of Oshima's essays and articles was published in English in 1993 as Cinema, Censorship and the State. A critical study by Maureen Turim appeared in 1998.
In 1996 Oshima suffered a stroke, but he recovered enough to return to directing in 1999 with the samurai film Taboo (Gohatto), set during the bakumatsu era and starring Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence actor Takeshi Kitano. Ryuichi Sakamoto, who had both acted in and composed for Lawrence, provided the score.
He subsequently suffered more strokes, and Gohatto proved to be his final film. Oshima had initially planned to create a biopic entitled Hollywood Zen based off the life of Issei actor Sessue Hayakawa. The script had been allegedly completed and set to film in Los Angeles, but due to constant delays, declining health, and Oshima's eventual death in 2013 (see below), the project went unrealized.
Oshima had a degree of fluency in English. In the 2000s, he worked as a translator, translating four volumes by John Gray into Japanese, including "Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus". Oshima died on January 15, 2013 of pneumonia. He was 80.
The 2013 edition of the San Sebastian Film Festival scheduled a retrospective of Oshima's films in September.
Blue Ribbon Awards
1961 Night and Fog in Japan & Cruel Story of Youth – Best New Director
2000 Taboo – Best Director & Best Film
Cannes Film Festival
1978 Empire of Passion – Best Director (Prix de la mise en scène)
Kinema Junpo AwardsPasolini Renaissance, ISBN 978-4925095044
"Ai ga Fukamaru Hon - "Honto no Yorokobi" o shiru tame ni" (translation of "Making Heart-to-Heart Love in Bed" by John Gray) ISBN 978-4837970170
ベスト・パートナーになるために―男と女が知っておくべき「分かち愛」のルール 男は火星から、女は金星からやってきた (translation of "Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus" by John Gray) ISBN 978-4837971764
1969 Death by Hanging – Best Screenplay
1972 The Ceremony – Best Director, Best Film & Best Screenplay
1984 Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence – Readers' Choice Award for Best Film