Nether Regions 07.13.10: Cruel Story of Youth
Posted by Chad Webb on 07.13.2010
The controversial filmmaker Nagisa Oshima made a better name for himself with this 1960 film that is described as the Japanese equivalent to Rebel without a Cause!
Nether Regions started as a segment of the Big Screen Bulletin that meant to showcase films that have been discontinued on DVD, are out of print in the United States, are only available in certain regions outside the United States, or are generally hard to find. Now it is a column all its own! You might ask "Why should I care about a film I have no access to?" My goal is to keep these films relevant because some of them genuinely deserve to be recognized. Every time I review a new film I will have a list of those I covered below so you can see if they have been announced for DVD release, or are still out of print.
CRUEL STORY OF YOUTH
Starring: Yusuke Kawazu, Miyuki Kawanu, and Yoshiko Kuga Directed By: Nagisa Oshima Written By: Nagisa Oshima Running Time: 96 minutes Release Date: July of 1961, re-released on July 18, 1984 Missing Since: 1998 Existing Formats:VHS Netflix Status: Not Available Availability: Very Rare
If someone were to ask you who the top Japanese filmmakers were, the answer might consist of Akira Kurosawa, Hayao Miiyazaki, and perhaps Yasujiro Ozu. The name of Nagisa Oshima would probably not be mentioned. On the other hand, those who have seen just one of his films will never forget him. He reminds me of David Cronenberg, not in the similarity of their works, but in how distinctive their styles are. He did not craft accessible mainstream efforts for the world to enjoy. Much of what he delivered was edgy, controversial, and contained themes or subject matter that was considered taboo for the time period. I first discovered Oshima with the magnificent horror-drama-romance Empire of Passion. He is most well-known for In the Realm of the Senses, which can be found on the Criterion Collection website, along with many of his titles.
A photo of Nagisa Oshima presumably taken in 1960.
In all honesty, Oshima was outspokenly against the humanistic styles of Kurosawa and Ozu, so they were likely not poker buddies. He rose fairly steadily at the Shochiku studio from an apprentice to eventually a director by 1954. After the Tomorrow's Sun short and his debut A Town of Love and Hope, the watershed film Cruel Story of Youth hit Japanese audiences like a punch to the midsection. It was the first of three films he would complete in 1960. The Sun's Burial and Night and Fog in Japan would follow. Shochiku studio pulled the latter from circulation in fear of "unrest." Oshima angrily left the studio and went on to form his own independent production company called Sozosha in 1965. Despite the frustration from being with the major studio, Oshima's Cruel Story of Youth spread the word on his talents. It has been called the Japanese equivalent to Rebel without a Cause, and it spearheaded the New Wave (called Nuberu Bagu) movement in Japan during the 50's and 60's.
After the ominous red-painted opening credits, the frenzied first sequence displays young Makoto (Miyuki Kuwano) and her friend engaging in polite conversation with random male drivers caught in traffic. They hope to hitch a ride home (separately I might add) with one. It doesn't take long to achieve that, but this particular male soon veers off the main roads to some of the seedier areas around. Contentment swiftly turns to panic and before long Mako demands that the driver pull over. He does, but as she walks away he catches her and begins have his way with her. Out of nowhere, a young man dressed in a student uniform interrupts the encounter and starts beating on the driver. The savior's name is Kiyoshi (Yusuke Kawazu). Afterwards, Kiyoshi tries to persuade the man to accompany him to the police station. This does not go over well, and the man tries to buy their silence with a wallet of cash. Unfortunately, Kiyoshi uses the results of this situation to take advantage of Makoto. Confused by Kiyoshi's subsequent behavior and topped with her own increasing vulnerability, Makoto soon falls in love with her hero. Lectures from her sister (Yoshiko Kuga) and her understandably protective family fall on deaf ears as the two wild lovers use the incident that caused them to meet as a lucrative recurring scam on middle-aged men.
Yusuke Kawazu is intimidating and casually searing as the manipulative, detached, and dangerous Kiyoshi. Right under Makoto's nose, he receives financial support from a wealthy older woman in exchange for sexual favors. He also rents out his small apartment to his pals for their afternoon rendezvous. Kiyoshi and Makoto meet the day after her initial attack at a student protest. They pay little attention to the shouting and waving of signs, and proceed to rent a boat and travel to a desolate dockland filled with log pontoons. After refusing his advances, Kiyoshi pushes Makoto in the water and does not allow her to get out until she agrees to have sex with him. The fact that she can't swim makes this worse. It's a scary scene, but what marks it as a crucial moment is in how Kiyoshi takes his newfound power over Makoto to string her along at will. She becomes infatuated with him and cannot see his controlling manner. Watching Kiyoshi develop as a character is fascinating and believable through Kawazu's subtle, yet intense turn. Kawazu would appear in mostly minor roles from then on in The Human Condition and a handful of monster movies.
This poster displays the title as Naked Youth, which was used in some countries.
Though not as consistent as Kawazu, Miyuki Kawanu does indeed find a comfortable stride as the impulsive teen Makoto. Conveying her character as authentic in a chaotic storyline such as this is tough because she must convince the viewer that what happens to her is realistic. She captures the naïve and juvenile traits of a girl who is in way over her head with appropriate exaggerations and precision timing. In truth, she improves as the plot zigzags through more convolutions. She lands in a crossfire between a man that rescued her from being raped (and then basically did it himself) and a group of yakuza pimps looking to use her for a prostitution ring. She becomes an object, not a person, and Kawanu is fabulous at expressing the necessary emotions on her face. I accepted the circumstances she gets tangled in, but female characters like this have the tendency of being irritating. Miyuki Kawanu flirts with this from time to time, but many of Oshima's films have depictions that venture over the top to the point of almost going overboard. Kawanu's finest scenes occur in the vehicles when she is attempting to converse with the men giving her a ride. The varying personalities of these victims (sometimes criminals in their own right) are absorbing. Kawanu' strength is in establishing chemistry with the rest of the cast, acting as a sort of nucleus.
Cruel Story of Youth is part polemic and part cautionary tale. It starts as more of the former, with deliberate concentration on the Korean student revolution on April 19, 1960. The protest that Kiyoshi and Makoto leave concerns the US-Japan Security Pact. Oshima pulls no punches in showcasing post-war Japan as a repressed society where no one embraces collaboration or working as a unit to repair the damaged country after losing the war. As the picture unravels, the gloom and doom of Japan takes a back seat to the carelessness and rebellion of the two delinquents. Where Oshima's two primary objectives merge is from selfishness. Kiyoshi and Makoto only care about themselves, fulfilling desires, and making the next cash score. There are no heroes or heroines in this film. Everyone is portrayed as being self-centered or disillusioned in some form.
Oshima definitely leans near the side of the student activists, not just because he took part in a protest himself before he became a filmmaker, but because Cruel Story of Youth makes jarring tangents to highlight those groups. Nevertheless, I got the feeling that he was not painting them as the correct point of view. Later in the story, one of the best scenes paints them as being just as imprudent as anyone else when Dr. Akimoto and Makoto's sister Yuki (a wonderfully reserved performance by Yoshiko Kuga) have some heartfelt conversations about their past political ideals, how it affected their romance, and how their views are different from today's youth. They had not seen each other for a many years, so why did Yuki pass by the doctor's office and pop inside? Was she jealous of her sister and wanted to reignite her old extinguished flame? Is she upset that her father is lenient towards Makota than he was with her? It's a mesmerizing sub-plot.
Nagisa Oshima, who suffered a stroke in 1996, was constantly striving to be against the grain and shake up existing conditions right up until his final offering, Taboo (about homosexuality among samurai). Perhaps he tried to rile up the masses too much in his career, but more often than not he finds a way to be divisive, yet effective. The disillusionment that emerges in certain characters reflected his own feelings of the political turmoil at the time. Cruel Story of Youth, like other early efforts of his (A Town of Love and Hope, Violence at Noon) accentuates the cultural hopelessness, alienation, and ennui of Japan at the time. It helps if you are familiar with the history, but what makes this a success is that Oshima is not a restrained filmmaker. You will notice his blunt trajectory eventually. He always aspired to emphasize the ambivalence, friction, and materialism of Japan. It's what made him so marvelously different from other Japanese directors.
Kiyoshi tries to comfort a damaged Makoto.
In Cruel Story of Youth (originally titled "Seishun zankoku monogatari"), Oshima stresses the frantic atmosphere with gritty handheld shots and quick cuts that evoke a jazz music sensation that keeps the blood flowing. This is a spin on a Bonnie and Clyde tale, but one that unquestionably supports a certain degree of shock value for the climactic moments. The bright colors augment the stunning visuals, but do not overwhelm the social commentary. Oshima's direction and script have a stability that is exhibited through the final cut. Some of the shots are not totally thought out, such as an extended one of Kiyoshi eating an apple, but they are not exceedingly detrimental. Cruel Story of Youth is undoubtedly a little rough around the edges, but its boldness, aggressive acting, and raw nature make it a hauntingly stylish and competent sophomore piece for a 28 year-old to shove in his society's face.
There is a good chance this will end up on Criterion someday soon. Oshima's Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence starring David Bowie hits stores on September 28th. That will make 8 of his films that have been released through that company. One more couldn't hurt. On a side note, when I selected other Oshima works for my Netflix queue, it suggested films by Akira Kurosawa as well. I wonder if Oshima knows this. Even odder, Three of the film's stars, Miyuki Kuwano, Yoshiko Kuga, and Fumio Watanabe, had also worked with Yasujiro Ozu.
--I picked up Big Boi's new album called Sir Lucious Left Foot...The Son of Chico Dusty or something like that anyway. I do wish it could have been a new Outkast CD, but this works too. This was an above average rap album from start to finish. Big Boi knows how to make people dance with his inventive songs, and this was really fun to listen to from start to finish. It has too many skits, but that's another debate for another day.
--I have been trudging through the movies on my Tivo like a madman because I plan on moving in the near future, and I'm not sure what will happen to it then. I must have gone on a recording binge when we first got it, but then I didn't watch any of them. One of those days celebrated Kurosawa's 100th birthday. I recorded a bunch of his films that have yet to be released on DVD like Sanshiro Sugata, The Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail, and two others. I plan on reviewing the upcoming Criterion Eclipse box set so keep an eye out. I also checked out David Lean's Hobson's Choice, which has a terrific performance from Charles Laughton. Like Fiddler on the Roof it is about a father and his three daughters who want to get married. This does not have the music, so I find it superior.
--Other than that my week was spent dealing with more wedding stuff, which I'm sure you get tired of hearing about. How about this: I'm taking dancing lessons for the occasion. Specifically a dance is being set to our song. A young Fred Astaire I am not. I will never look at his movies the same again.
--Futurama's return continues to be awesome as they deliver great episode after great episode. On the other hand, Last Comic Standing continues to annoy the hell out of me. Why is it I watch then?
--It is a safe bet that you will see The Magnificent Ambersons next week. I need to watch that so I can listen to my cassette tapes of This is Orson Welles which features Director and Biographer Peter Bogdanovich interviewing Mr. Welles at length a bout individual films and his career overall.