cruel story of youth (1960)
Oshima's Cruel Story of Youth is an impassioned tragedy; a tale of the point in a life cycle where all emotion becomes heightened, tomorrow seems it'll never arrive and the moment is all that exists. A time to fight and fuck and lie, cheat, steal, drink, smoke, drive fast, talk tough and wear cool sunglasses. To the youth of the picture, without foresight, and regarding their elders as though they had a disease they're trying not to catch, the central young couple speeds forward like jet planes always about to run out of gas, always looking for a place to land. When they hide, they hide within one another. When they feel bold again, they lash out at one another. Their romance is barely a romance at all, they each ignite in the other that which allows them to be rebellious, they enable each other, and add legitimacy to, their respective bucking of authority figures in their lives. The pillars of family and responsibility in Japan are in a state of destruction here. Makoto's family unit is made up of a father who is an impotent shadow of his former self, and a bitter sister who refuses to get too involved. Kiyoshi seems to keep no family at all, save for the much older woman/mother figure that he sleeps with throughout. In the rough world of dimly lit liquor rooms outside of town, where a racket seems the only way of getting some dough, their story takes form. There is no end to the pain they can inflict on those closest to them, and this power to inflict pain and to steal and to be callous to the pain inflicted on others seems to be the most powerful and mature that one can be. To deny their own fragility, and to 'out' others around them as being, in fact, fragile, drives the interaction.
First, Oshima highlights cross-generational victimization, soon moving on to inter-generational victimization. The dark difference that seems to take shape between the two is the secretive and therefore relatively shameless nature of the inter-generational (Makoto, here, immediately returns for more, expecting a different outcome), shame only enters into the equation when elders are involved in some way. The youth strive to find a place without supervision where they can engage in any activity they choose (in fact they don't seem to care much internally what the activity is), somewhere hidden, after hours and in the dark where their actions linger in limbo, no hint of consequence as long as an authority figure doesn't find out. Consequences in the dark places are dolled out through physical punishment, the arbiter still being the authority figure of the boss who only emerges from his back room when playing judge and jury to the youths altercations. Makoto's eventual transgression from this comes in the dissolving of her adversarial cross-generational thinking, she begins to lose loyalty to Kiyoshi as his cold shoulder increases (the breaking point being his demands that she get an abortion), eventually her ability to victimize breaks down as well and she sleeps with an older man. Overall, Oshima's film tracks a chain of cause and effect that occurs in society when poison begins to seep in. The acerbic relations begin in small scale and grow outward. Oshima flips the 'children are our hope' mentality of older generations on its head when painting the picture of bleak disappointment that the youth, as well as their elders, truly believe awaits over the horizon. This is how a society devoid of hope functions and Oshima pulls no punches when detailing this dark portrait. This finally reaches its apex in a sequence just after Makoto's abortion where she and Kiyoshi hide in the dark of the recovery room. After hours, Makoto's sister and her former lover, who just performed the abortion, confess the hopelessness of life and aging to one another within earshot of the two youths. Kiyoshi goes dead behind the eyes and feeds himself with an apple, mindlessly chewing on and on, perhaps to drown out the truth he is afraid of hearing outside the door. With Cruel Story of Youth, Oshima finds a new tactile cinema, even his framing pushes his characters to the sides of his frames, he is not focusing on his characters, but rather focusing on the space between them, what sets them apart. In many framings, he is focusing on what separates them from the life all around them.
Oshima creates a cinema of disconnection, but also of frenetic energy, also of hidden places. The strange rate of his celluloid causes the characters to move with a bizarre, yet pleasing motion. His film seems to glow orange, indoor lighting and sunsets we never see, but only see the light of the setting sun reflected on the characters. The sun is setting all around them in the land of the rising sun and we never catch a glimpse, though we can see it written on their faces. This perfect union and visual and thematic cues provides much of the strength of Cruel Story of Youth, it is a wholly imagined and executed endeavor. As its characters keep the world around them at bay, so are we kept at bay as viewers, never allowed to enter past a certain point, never allowed to indulge. The film tempts us forward and then turns away, never connecting. Oshima crafts a memorable look at estranged people with estranged eroticism and, though not the best depiction of this that he would find in his career, it is one of his better efforts.