Night and Fog in Japan was one of three films made by Nagisa Oshima in 1960, when the singing of the US-Japan Security Treaty prompted widespread violent protest from leftist organisations and students. Of these three (Cruel Story of Youth / Seishun Zankoku Monogatari and The Sun's Burial / Taiyo No Hakaba being the other two), it was the most overtly political and personal.
Night and Fog in Japan very openly displays the director's disappointment with the left wing political movement and its failure to make good on its ambitions of bringing about a change in Japanese society. Oshima was himself a former student activist and while the film looks back, it saves the anger for the present: the unity and self-sacrifice for a common cause that once characterised the movement have turned into bickering and accusation.
The story concerns a gathering of former student activists, all previously involved in riots against the treaty, at the wedding of two of their fellow members. When the one missing member of the group, now a fugitive, unexpectedly arrives, the atmosphere turns bitter. The others don't want him there and prefer to let the past rest and go on celebrating the marriage. But even though the police are on his trail, the interloper has no intention of leaving quietly into the night again: he denounces the party as a charade and accuses those present of betrayal against the ideals of the group. Soon enough tempers flare and accusations start flying back and forth.
The overt political nature of Night and Fog in Japan came as quite a shock to its studio Shochiku, who had given Oshima more freedom after the success of Cruel Story of Youth. They released the film with reluctance and were very quick to pull it from distribution when four days after its release Inejiro Asanuma, leader of the Japanese communist party, was assassinated. This prompted Oshima's resignation from the studio, after which he formed his own production company Sozosha.
This move is widely seen as the beginning of the Japanese New Wave, a period of experimentation in form, structure and meaning of cinema, inspired by the French Nouvelle Vague of Godard, Truffaut, et al (the title of Night and Fog in Japan is a reference, or homage, to Alain Resnais' pivotal documentary Night and Fog / Nuit et Brouillard, 1956). What's interesting in this light is the intentional artificiality of Night and Fog in Japan, which contrasts greatly with the naturalism that so many of Oshima's French contemporaries were aiming for and which the director himself employed in Cruel Story of Youth. Oshima shot the entire film on soundstages, in cinemascope, employing carefully calculated and choreographed camera movement, dramatic changes in lighting (when characters reminisce, the lighting changes to a single spot, with the rest of the set plunged into darkness), strong colours and overbearing music. As a result, the film plays more like an experimental assault on the Hollywood musical than anything produced by the Nouvelle Vague at that point.
This approach is initially fascinating, but dramatically it grows stale over the course of its 107 minutes. This is further enhanced by the repetitive story structure, which mainly consists of constantly alternating a scene of bickering with a flashback, plus the often sloppy camerawork which can never quite keep up with Oshima's careful planning. Viewed today, the film's political and social relevance obviously diminished, these elements are sadly too apparent to dismiss, making Night and Fog in Japan a historic document, but a dramatic misfire.