Directed by Nagisa Ôshima; Written by Nagisa Ôshima and Toshirô Ishidô
A country cannibalizes itself.
A film about the degradation of Japan in a ruinous post-war economy, the title of The Sun’s Burial does double duty as a reference to the sun that prides Japan’s flag, and laments the end of a country that once was, but it also describes the film’s characters, buried alive in hopeless circumstances.
Set in the working poor slums of Osaka, The Sun’s Burial features only victims and those who victimize them, as gangs run amok in the city and sell its daughters into prostitution and literally suck the blood out of its sons, as desperate workers sell pints of blood to make a few extra yen.
One older gang leader spews populistic one-liners and jingoisms as if to wrap himself in the flag and appear to his targets a friend, while younger gangs care for no such pretense, using and abusing their victims with brute cynicism. The cruel apathy is unsettling, but who can blame them – they came of age in this mire of misery.
To save the film from that same cynicism and becoming overbearing, Ôshima introduces those whose fates are still undecided: Hanako (Kayoko Honoo), an enterprising young woman who aggressively goes by the mantra “play or be played” in order to avoid the trafficked fate of many of her peers; alongside her there’s Takeshi (Isao Sasaki), a gang’s newest member, who goes from troubled and downtrodden to defeated and disillusioned as he finds escape increasingly impossible. Taken together, they’re the stakes in the Osaka slums’ zero-sum game.
The intensity of the film’s existential darkness almost puts it in the realm of dystopian science fiction, as does some of its cinematography. Establishing shots of Osaka landmarks show the Osaka castle and the Tsūtenkaku observation tower laid black by the setting sun, appearing abandoned and ruin-like as if the aspirational attitudes that built them have long since left, and they now stand only to mock those who remain.
The Sun’s Burial is redeemed from pitch-black pessimism by reminding us its happenings are tragic because the majority of its characters, those that are ground to dust by the unrelenting machine that is their world, are normal human beings, who despite it all, are just trying to exist. They’re the ones who gather every night to resemble a community as they lick their wounds at the local bar, drinking heavily so as to overpower the dread of tomorrow.
There isn’t much redemption to be found in The Sun’s Burial, and barely any respite. It’s an accusatory film, a bitter film, made even more so by its suggestion that this dog-eat-dog-eat-anything world is unsalvageable, so strong is the inertia of the spiral that’s been created, as even those at the supposed top of the heap cannot decide upon its direction. You’ll see this systemic entrapment in media as diverse as Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves and David Simon’s The Wire, and it’s a despairing acknowledgement that The Sun’s Burial and its story of woe has brothers and sisters that span both space and time.