Nagisa Oshima’s early Japanese New Wave gauntlet-tosser Cruel Story of Youth plays tomorrow at BAM, as part of their Oshima retrospective. (Tonight, it’s Diary of a Shinjuku Thief, “a toss-up… for [Oshima's] tingliest chronicle of sexual desires”, per Tony Rayns.) Here, L film critic Benjamin Mercer explains why you should rearrange your schedule to catch the movie tomorrow night.
Many of Nagisa Oshima’s films come on like a slap to the face, but Cruel Story of Youth (1960) is a particularly sobering one. Its stylistic provocations are a lot less striking than those of the later Violence at Noon (1966) — Cruel Story is in vibrant color and not as deliberately fractured by edits — but it is a no less ferocious piece of work. The film, often cited as Oshima’s first international success, follows two youths who profess to love each other but who shamelessly use each other to affect a pose of rebellion (against what exactly, they aren’t so sure, but they also don’t seem able to envision any alternatives). Pushing, shoving, and transactional sex play out against the uneasy background churning of large machinery.
Kiyoshi (Yusuke Kawazu) and Makoto (Miyuki Kuwano) meet when the former comes swinging out of the darkness to beat up the aggressive middle-aged man who evidently has the wrong idea about why Makoto solicited a ride from him. Kiyoshi extracts a wad of cash from the man by threatening to go to the police. Later spending time (but more importantly, the money) together, Kiyoshi and Makoto find themselves on a logjam. Kiyoshi pushes her in the water, keeps her from getting out though she claims not to know how to swim, and then once she climbs out forces himself on her. These youths are so wayward, it’s enough to make her want to move in with him.
When they are low on funds, which is constantly, Kiyoshi and Makoto reenact the money-making scheme they happened upon the night they met, entrapping lecherous businessman after lecherous businessman. Kiyoshi in particular finds this mix of sex, violence, and money quite heady, preferring to spin it as a simple act of revenge against his complacent and depraved elders. Oshima makes it clear just how disconnected such petty crime is from any productive social action. A shot of the beat-up man crumpled on the ground in the first scene is directly followed by a newsreel intertitle that reads "Big Riot in S. Korea Blood Flows." Not long after that we also get a brief glimpse of a Tokyo student protest, something in which Kiyoshi cannot sustain his interest for very long.
The occasional quieter moments of Cruel Story of Youth are shot through with an incredible intensity as well. Even a bedside vigil ratchets up as Kiyoshi savagely devours an apple — and we see him eat the whole thing, in close-up — while Makoto lies unconscious beside him, just having undergone an abortion at his behest. The next morning she wakes up. "Let’s go on a trip?" Kiyoshi proposes. "Got any money?" she asks. He nods, and Oshima cuts abruptly to the two lying next to each other on an anonymous beach. This is the only ambition they can muster all along: to buy a little respite, and then cobble together enough money to buy a little more.