Friday, February 8, 2008

Review: Cruel Story Of Youth (1960)

Reprinted from kuzu.

This showing of Cruel Story Of Youth (dir: Nagisa Oshima, best known for In the Realm of the Senses) was provided through Stanford University's Center For East Asian Studies' Japan 1960 film festival (check their blog here for information on the festival's theme and other showings) . Perhaps unconsciously, I wore one of my kelly green aloha shirts which would become a sort of rebel fashion statement to such rebels of the time onward to being a yakuza-adopted fashion into the '80s. I had even proposed to my old high school friend Adam (his Japanese film blog is here) , whom I attended with, that we stage a fight in front of the auditorum to get ourselves into the mood but he refused. Failed male bonding notwithstanding, we watched the film unscathed even though I felt like I was fighting with the auditorium's old seats for a little back comfort.

Cruel Story Of Youth (Japanese title: 青春残酷物語 and also known as Naked Youth) is a raucous "rebel without a pause" story with scenes of fighting, suggested sex, smoking, aloha shirts (ahem), blood, sweat, and tears, not to mention the requisite "jolt your senses" orchestral hits. The story follows the forever scowling Kiyoshi (actor Yusuke Kawazu) and Makoto (super-actress Miyuki Kuwano), both students, who both meet when Makoto gets mixed up with a salaryman whom she had bummed a ride with. Kiyoshi ends up saving her and shaking the man down for some yen. This shakedown plays itself out throughout the film as they pick up other suckers for the thrills and cash to the point in which the two almost develop a pimp-prostitute relationship. Meanwhile, there's Makoto's disapproving family, Kiyoshi's middle aged sugar mama, and a gang of thugs and a yakuza who popup to further make their lives miserable. Makoto's relationship with her sister is especially volatile. An important backdrop to the film is the year it was filmed in: 1960. While the introductory entry in the Japan 1960 blog best describes the atmosphere of that year, in a nutshell, that year was a time of great turmoil as many activists were protesting against the renewal of the US-Japan Security Alliance. For the purposes of the film, Makoto's sister and a former lover of hers who is a doctor are portrayed as former activists whose ideals have already been sold out.

On its surface, the film can be seen as a somewhat exploitative cautionary tale about wasted youth (this film was released by the Shochiku film studio under the auspice of being a "taiyozoku" youth-oriented film) but Oshima seems to want to say much more. Oshima, a former leftist protestor in his own youth but disillusioned with both the left and right by the time of this film, portrays his characters much as he saw the world: people who are neither find themselves part of the left or right and, in fact, caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place instead. This is a recurring theme that would be explored in Oshima's later films: The Sun's Burial, Night and Fog In Japan, and to a certain degree, Boy. Besides the theme, the cinematography is quite good: vivid colors, nice handheld camera work, and good use of light and dark - there's one noir-ish scene in which Kiyoshi is gnawing on an apple that is very striking in showing how he is actually gnawing away at his very soul. Another great shot is when, after the two protagonists have broken up, Makoto is seen walking down a busy street only lit by the headlights of cars, her profile half cutout of the shot. The audio in this scene is nothing but the reverberating sound of her heels on the pavement, the sound of despair and isolation that echoes Kiyoshi's earlier declaration to her (paraphrased): "Whether together or alone, it will all end up [bad] in the end".

Provocative stuff but then Oshima is no stranger to that.

Cultural note: The aforementioned apple scene has Kiyoshi bringing one to Makoto after an illegal abortion (performed by her sister's former lover). It's a Japanese custom to bring fruit to an ailing person as a "get well" gesture.

Film Availability: Currently only on VHS


Thanks to the Japan 1960 series folk, Donald Richie's "A Hundred Years of Japanese Film", and Nelson Kim's article on Oshima on Senses of Cinema site for providing some of the background used in this review.

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