(director: Nagisa Oshima; screenwriter: Tsutomu Tamura; cinematographers: Seizo Sengen/Yasuhiro Yoshioka; editors: Sueko Siraishi/Keiichi Uraoka; music: Hikaru Hayashi; cast: Fumio Watanabe (Takeo Omura, the father), Akiko Koyama (Takeko Taniguchi, the stepmother), Tetsuo Abe (Toshio, the boy), Tsuyoshi Kinoshita (Peewee, the little brother); Runtime: 97; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Masayuki Nakajima/Takuji Yamaguchi; Janus Films; 1969-Japan-in Japanese with English subtitles)

An acerbic coming-of-age tale about a family of con artists faking car accidents and blackmailing the drivers to pay them off.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

An acerbic coming-of-age tale about a family of con artists faking car accidents and blackmailing the drivers to pay them off. The accessible film from a filmmaker known for films that are not accessible, is delivered in a straight-forward docudrama manner. It’s based on a true story (taken from the court records) ripped from the newspaper headlines of the day. Japanese director Nagisa Oshima (“Death by Hanging”/”The Realm of the Senses”), a former film critic and a filmmaker favorably compared with the stylish French director Godard, lifts this film into the New Wave of Japanese cinema by making us not completely trust what we are seeing as real and also pointing out that the traditional Japan we once knew has almost completely disappeared. The screenplay is byTsutomu Tamura.An itinerant needy family of four from Osaka earns its money by having their 10-year-old boy Toshio (Tetsuo Abe) run in the way of a car and pretend to get hit or suffer a minor wound pretending it’s a big injury, and then his stepmom shakes down the driver to pay up front without reporting it. The mastermind of this moneymaking scheme is the boy’s shiftless, wounded ex-war father Osmura (Fumio Watanabe). The Boy’s enabling young stepmom is Takeko Taniguchi (Akiko Koyama) and his stepbrother is the toddler called Peewee (Tsuyoshi Kinoshita). To avoid detection the nomadic family keeps moving around Japan, and live out of hotels. Friction develops when mom becomes pregnant but the father wants her to have an abortion; though she promise to have one she nevertheless changes her mind and gets beaten when he finds out. The criminal lifestyle leaves the Boy confused and he retreats to the fantasy world where he imagine he sees aliens everywhere and tells his brother that he’s conversing with aliens when playing child games. When police take pictures of the family after several of their scams are reported, they feel threatened with an arrest and fly to Hokkaido for the winter. When cornered after causing a real fatal accident, they flee south and take a break from their scams–only to be arrested in the first real home they’ve lived in. Dad blames everything that’s wrong on his war wounds. Mom just couldn’t manage her life living with an abuser. While the harshest cruelties are reserved for the Boy, who must endure a false love from his self-absorbed parents and undergo both extreme physical and mental pain. The difficult life of the children depicted makes for one of Japan’s toughest takes on modern family life. This is no longer a gentle Ozu traditional family drama looking at a Japan rapidly changing in the post-war period as a reason for disharmony in family life, instead it’s a bleak look at contemporary Japan and the bitter-after-effects of the war for those who have been marginalized in the booming postwar industrial buildup. It leaves us with the non-judgmental message that everyone has their reasons for what they do, no matter how peculiar it seems. This doesn’t excuse dad’s bad behavior, but at least lets us see where he’s coming from.