Tuesday, July 29, 2014

CRUEL STORY OF YOUTH (Nagisa Oshima, 1960, Japan)

A young couple collides and splits like a nuclear reaction; their brief lives a violent tale of a youth culture which has become irradiated by a poisonous post-war dream.

The film begins with blood red credits superimposed upon a montage of newspapers thus placing the narrative contemporaneously and projecting the film’s title as a lurid headline. We are then thrown into the story without introduction as we see two young girls getting into a car with, we soon realize, an older man who is a complete stranger. The first girl is dropped off and instead of taking the second girl home he drives to a hotel. She jumps out of the car and the man chases her down and physically dominates her, grabbing and slapping her until a young man comes to her rescue. The older man apologizes after being beaten and when they threaten to call the police he throws money at them and quickly departs. Oshima films the assault between the two men in medium shot and with one camera: there are no cuts. This long take without edit brings an immediacy and realism to the fight. There are no close-ups or inserts during this assault; just a minute of brutal wrestling and punching. Oshima will use this technique throughout the film by minimizing his cuts with long takes as the camera slowly pans or tracks the action. As the older man drives away Oshima focuses the camera upon the money now lying upon the ground. As the boy picks it up we see it awash in the blood red neon glow of the hotel sign. We now have the basic elements and moral landscape for this teenage wasteland.

We now understand that these two characters, the girl Makoto and the boy “savior” Kiyoshi are the protagonists. Though we are meant to sympathize with them Oshima subverts our expectations in the very next scene. We see a long shot of a motorboat speeding out into a lake packed with freshly cut timber. Oshima reveals their carefree attitude (this is the story of youth, after all) but soon focuses upon Kiyoshi’s cruel behavior and Makoto’s submission. The two teenagers are soon balancing precariously as they walk upon the floating logjam. Kiyoshi pushes Makoto into the water when she won’t have sex with him and she begins to drown, pleading that she cannot swim. In one long tracking shot with a hand-held camera (it is bravura cinematography!!) he kicks Makoto’s hand away from the logs as she floats downstream and attempts to pull herself to safety.  Kiyoshi remains indifferent until she agrees to sex. He then pulls her to safety and rapes her. This sexual assault occurs after she is dehumanized and powerless; her consent is stolen from her like her virginity. Oshima’s paradox is in allowing sympathetic contact with both characters who continue to make bad decisions and do bad things (especially to each other).

Soon Kiyoshi is in debt to a gang who wanted to take Makoto into their prostitution racket (her wishes be damned) and he needs to pay them off. He and Makoto create a scam to steal money from rich old perverts: she picks them up and just before they sexually assault her Kiyoshi steps in and demands money to “keep quiet”. This racket echoes the first scene of the film and closes the circle as it also leads to their demise.  Oshima’s use of Form and Structure is masterful in creating a volatile personal and larger social tension. Not only does the film scorn its very protagonists but the larger Paternal Hierarchy that leaves women powerless: this racket is seen as taking back power, of subverting the “victims” by using their guilt and public image as weapons. Otherwise the scheme falls apart: you can’t blackmail someone who does not suffer guilt or fear judgment.

Oshima then introduces Makoto’s older sister Yuki who is also a maternal figure in her life since their mother has passed away (information we glean obliquely). Yuki both reprimands her little sister for her behavior and admires her for carrying through with her adolescent rebellion. It seems that Yuki experienced much the same thing after the War but finally accepted her place in Japanese society. In one emotionally charged scene Makoto has an illegal abortion performed by the Doctor whom Yuki was once involved with. As Kiyoshi and Makoto lie in a bed together (her on bottom) he begins eating an apple, partaking of the “original Sin” attributed to the woman. As he devours the apple, Yuki and the Doctor speak in voice-over about their failed rebellion as youths and what has led them to their dreary adult existence.

Oshima is not going to let our young protagonists get out of here alive. Of course, this is a strict departure from the youth films of the 60s in Japan and US. Could you imagine Ray’s REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE with a prostituting Natalie Wood being raped by James Dean, both of whom die at the end? Oshima’s powerful editing in the final scenes depicts some type of extra diegetic link between the two: as Kiyoshi is beaten to death, Makoto rides in a car with a man whom she has already slept with. She’s expecting Kiyoshi to save her at any moment but instead she looks suddenly towards the back seat. Cut to: Kiyoshi being beaten. Then, as if she hears him scream Oshima cuts again and she looks frightened, somehow sensing the murderous drama that is being played out elsewhere.  As Kiyoshi lays dying, cut back to Makoto opening the door to the moving car as she leaps to her death: an anti-Romeo & Juliet love affair if ever there was one. It’s a grim finale to a genre film which must have surprised the audience of the time. However it loses little of its power even today if understood contextually. This is an Auteur in total control of his Art.

CRUEL STORY OF OUR YOUTH is exactly what it claims to be. Without romanticism or sentimentality Oshima reveals the demons lurking in a rebellious subculture. And this brutal adolescent energy cannot be contained to Japan alone.

Final Grade: (A)