Tuesday 7 October 2008

Cruel Story of Youth (1960)

One thing you find in classic Japanese cinema is that it's almost entirely about men. Women have very little place and when they do have a role to ply, it's generally one of a very small number of almost predefined roles: concubine, prostitute, wife. It took a new wave of Japanese filmmakers to find stories for them, like Nagisa Oshima who directed this film in 1960. He's mostly known, in the west at least, for Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence and his 1976 film Ai No Corrida or In the Realm of the Senses, which won notoriety for its use of hardcore sex in a decidedly non-pornographic film. This one comes very early in his career though, being only his third film and in its way it's just as revolutionary.

This is a period of Japanese cinema I know little about but there seem to have been a group of filmmakers who constituted something similar to the French New Wave and around the same time. It isn't just about how they treated women, it's in the way they used the camera and how they lit their scenes, even where they set their films. This is something very different from the Japanese cinema I'm used to from the black and white or even early colour eras: the city at night, hand held camerawork, a jazzy film score, student protests, petty juvenile crime, even abortion. It's easy to see how this sort of thing could lead to the hip films of the later sixties, to the yakuza films, even on to the pinky violence movies of the early seventies. There's a line that says, 'the world wasn't as open-minded back then' and it really applies to a lot more than what it intends.

We follow Makoto Shinjo, a schoolgirl who gets into trouble hitchhiking from the wrong man. She's rescued by Kiyoshi, who's a university student and, believing that she's really curious about men and sex, introduces them to her through himself. It's basically rape but it's a strange sort of rape as the two are becoming a couple. As with many young relationships though, it's one with its ups and its downs. Mako moves in with Kiyoshi and they seem to really care about each other, but the usual problems kick in, not least money. They end up reenacting how they met as a money making scam: Mako hitchhikes and makes sure the drivers try something even if they weren't going to anyway, then Kiyoshi beats them up and takes their money, 'to pay for a taxi home for the girl'.

Cruel Story of Youth is an exploration of a new generation whose motivations are very different from the old: to live for today, to take what you can get, to change the world. Mako's father offers a little commentary when he refuses to chastise her for doing things he doesn't like, but this comes across as a lack of understanding: the world has changed but he doesn't understand it any more and has given up trying. Mako and Kiyoshi hardly have the perfect relationship but they have a relationship; Mako's elder sister, Yuki, was once in her situation but her own passionate relationship, which was observed with such proper discipline that they didn't touch, shattered under the strain. Whatever else they have, at least Mako and Kiyoshi have hope, which seems to be the point. What they do with that hope is up to them and the ending can be read many ways.

Nagisa Oshima wrote and directed and he's the only name I know here. Mako is played by Miyuke Kuwano, who made quite a few films over a decade or so. Ironically, the only other film I've seen her in was Three Outlaw Samurai, an excellent samurai film that was made four years after this but was more traditional. In telling a story about the past, in its own way it looked towards the future, playing more like a spaghetti western than even those samurai films that were directly remade. Her biggest role seems to have been in Kurosawa's Red Beard.

Yusuke Kawazu plays Kiyoshi and he seems to have had a much longer career. I'm not sure I've actually seen him in anything, even though he ended up in a bunch of kaiju movies and the last couple were recent Tadanobu Asano films. I guess I'll catch up with him again soon enough. The third name on the title credits is Yoshiko Kuga, who was by far the most experienced name of the bunch. She'd been making films since 1947 and was still doing so as recently as 2000, and had worked for many of the greats: Mizoguchi, Ozu, Kurosawa and Inagaki leap out, just sampling through her filmography.

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