The Ceremony ★★★★★

The Ceremony, Nagisa Oshima’s multi-generational, epic microcosm of modern Japan as experienced through the Sakurada clan, is the work of an artist in complete control of his craft. Perhaps his most restrained yet sprawling work, The Ceremony is subdued, subtle and multifaceted in its vicious portrayal of a morally bankrupt country decaying beneath archaic traditions and rituals. Structured around various family ceremonies, particularly weddings and funerals, Oshima presents a systematically corrupt clan dominated by a cruel, hypocritical patriarch whose past war crimes and repeated sexual deviance have spread like a plague poisoning every member as the incestuous nature of their relationships mirrors the equally perverted ideals, such as the “pure and perfect Japanese woman,” born from the country’s extreme nationalistic tendencies. The perfect summation of all Oshima’s prior concerns, and a remarkably potent allegory that functions even more effectively on a small-scale, interpersonal level, the drama is vexing and textured, the images symbolic yet emotionally immediate, and its various themes explored with remarkable depth and maturity.

Centered on the experiences of Masuo, Terumichi and Ritsuko over the course of three decades, The Ceremony’s twisted logic plays out in the guilt-ridden love triangle of the three siblings, as well as Masuo’s Aunt Setsuko to add another warped element to these despairing, self-destructive familial relations, who struggle to force their family to confront their past war crimes and deviant behavior. It is a hopeless attempt to escape the ironclad patriarchal rule that has dominated the clan mentality and slowly crushed the souls and humanity of everyone in its path. Lest I make this sound like little more than a disturbing, sex-laden exposé, there is actually relatively little sexual content as Oshima more thoroughly examines the troubled emotional terrain of the family members, playing the tragedy out in a series of harrowing, surreal, sometimes absurd, even comical, flashbacks to the clan’s supposed touchstones.

The underlying depravity of the Sakurada clan rarely surfaces to show its teeth, instead being revealed through the slow dissolution of its core members, their tragic links to one another invariably intertwined, ensuring that they cannot escape to healthy relationships as their desires and the indoctrination of their youth leave their fates in the hands of the clan’s traditions. Oshima’s portrayal of the depraved family and their bizarre dynamic reaches its peak in the brilliant sequence of Masuo’s arranged wedding. When the bride doesn’t show up, Masuo’s grandfather insists the ceremony must continue without her. Masuo pathetically enters the room, forced to pretend his fiancé is by his side and act out the formalities by himself. Oshima’s compositions capture this void, not merely as a physical emptiness, but a spatial embodiment of the clan’s (and country’s) moral emptiness, the shallowness and absurdity of its strict adherence to tradition and the horror of the collective willingness of the clan to ignore and overlook its own shortcomings. Following the ceremony, Masuo gets his revenge by continuing the charade in the presence of his close family members, grabbing a pillow and pretending to consummate his marriage to the dismay of his grandfather.

Tragic, hilarious and profoundly compassionate, this extended scene illustrates Oshima’s adeptness at seamlessly folding social commentary into family melodrama, using a variety of formal tactics (long pans, zooms, a complex non-linear structure) to communicate emotions deeply ingrained in the characters and his uncanny ability to expose the consequences and cyclical nature of repression, guilt, nationalism and xenophobia. The collision between the personal and the political, the traditional and the modern, the tragic and the absurd is nothing short of remarkable. This is not only Oshima’s masterpiece, but one of the greatest of all Japanese films.