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CRUEL STORY OF YOUTH (Seishun zankoku monogatari)(director/writer: Nagisa Oshima; cinematographer: Takashi Kawamata; editor: Keiichi Uraoka; music: Riichiro Manabe; cast: Yusuke Kawazu (Kiyoshi), Miyuki Kuwano (Makoto), Yoshiko Kuga (Yuki, Makoto’s elder), Fumio Watanabe (Akimoto, the doctor, Mako’s former boyfriend), Shinji Tanaka (Yoshimi Ito, student), Jun Hamamura (Father), Kei Sato (The Gangster), Shinjiro Matsuzaki (Terada), Toshiko Kobayashi (Teruko, The Teacher), Kan Nihonyanagi (Horio); Runtime: 96; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Tomio Ikeda; New Yorker Films; 1960-Japan-in Japanese with English subtitles)
“An anti-Ozu film that offers an embittered take on the moral disillusionment of youth in a changing postwar Japan.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The film that established Japan’s “New Wave,” and brought more freedom to its filmmakers to make films they wanted to make. It’s the second feature of the 28-year-old Nagisa Oshima (“Violence at Noon”/”In the Realm of the Senses”/”Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence”) and his first box-office hit. It also must be said that the filmmaker rejected the New Wave label, but his film led the way for future Japanese films to be more sexually revealing. His film is an anti-Ozu film that offers an embittered take on the moral disillusionment of youth in a changing postwar Japan, and he does it through shock and with some active and stylish camera work. To fully come to grips with it requires a sound understanding of the politics of Japan, and the realization that Oshima’s reflections on society are coming from a Marxist point of view. Filled with unsympathetic characters, including the leads who lack any scruples, Oshima’s teen drama nevertheless hits a raw nerve and makes one wince as he uses stunningly effective visuals and an ill-fated Bonnie and Clyde romance story to hammer away at a contemporary Japanese society adrift.

The film’s heroine is Mako (Miyuki Kuwano), a naive middle-class girl from a protective family who falls for wannabe gangster boyfriend Kiyoshi (Yusuke Kawazu), who comes out of nowhere and saves her from being raped by an older man who gave her a car ride home but instead takes her to a dark back road. Kiyoshi becomes her savior and initiates the frightened girl in sex and schemes a racket whereby he uses her as bait in extorting cash from middle-aged salarymen with dough who give her rides–which gives him a charge that he can stick it to the older generation. Without her knowledge, the penniless student receives money from a wealthy older woman in support for his sexual services, and he rents out his room to others for their trysts. She quits college and moves in with him, and for the moment the doomed romantics push aside their poverty and vulnerabilities to frolic on motorcycles and find a pulpish sort of love.

These teens separate themselves from other Japanese teens at the time, who are seen as unrealistic but concerned idealists at a protest march against the U.S.-Japan Security Pact. The couple stands off on the sidelines as bystanders watching the demonstration without much interest in anything but themselves. They are out for thrills, sex and money, and Oshima depicts them as being victims of the exploitative system who will have to pay the price for their short-lived liberation because they have sold out for money and can be viewed in the same light as those who are hooked into the corrupting capitalistic way. Even those who make it through education, like Mako’s former boyfriend, Fumio, now a doctor, are disillusioned and tempted to want more money and settle for becoming abortionists.

Though Oshima is supportive of the idealistic protesters, he sees modern Japan as a failed place because of its cultural rootlessness, its repression over its shame for losing the war and that everyone seems to have lost their way to work together either through naivety or selfishness (there are no heroes in this pic). Japan is a country with a wounded psyche and a dangerous nihilism that is keeping it from uniting so everyone can feel safe, well-fed and happy. If that’s the case and I read Oshima correctly, he might be just as unrealistic as the idealistic protesters who failed to stop the government from making pacts with the militaristic United States–and, he might think that’s a good thing.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”