Blu-Review: Cruel Story of Youth (Nagisa Oshima, 1960) – Masters of Cinema

by Jason Suzuki

To risk sounding nostalgic about an era in which I wasn’t around, I have always felt Oshima’s films to be exciting, especially his output in the 60s. His disillusionment with the left and frustration with the right, along with his not necessarily sympathetic portrayals of his characters, usually criminals (and usually crimes of a sexual nature), made his films feel refreshing and new when compared to the politically minded films of today. Shochiku, a studio associated with family dramas of the Ozu variety, wanted to start making youth oriented films and one of the directors they enlisted for this endeavor was Oshima, a critic/assistant director at the time. What followed were three films, wonderfully shot in color, focusing on younger characters and their exploits. Cruel Story of Youth is one of these films and Masters of Cinema have provided a worthy release of a film with this sort of importance to this iconic provocateur.

On a night when Makoto finds herself about to become a victim of a lecherous older man who she accepted a ride home from, she is saved by college student Kiyoshi. From there she begins a relationship with Kiyoshi, who doesn’t treat women any better. They are drawn together despite his callous behavior, setting up a money laundering scheme where she accepts rides from middle aged men in the hopes they will pull over and give Kiyoshi the chance to beat them up for their money shaming them on targeting a young women. Makoto, at first the innocent one in the cast of characters, proves to be a quick learner and is able to use sex against Kiyoshi just as he does against her. Needless to say, not one of the healthiest relationships, but juxtaposed with those around them, whether it’s friends of the same age or people of older generations, Oshima shows the likeness across everyone, yet with Makoto and Kiyoshi their powerlessness results in these minor victories through violence.

Oshima is able to be there with the characters, with protests and other social references happening on the fringes of their self-centered worlds. We get glimpses of student riots taking place in South Korea as well as protests happening in Japan, but Makoto and Kiyoshi aren’t interested in these events. In a way this seems to be a test run for In the Realm of the Senses in which the two of them also close themselves off from the politics surrounding them. The film is direct, and Oshima’s abilities cause uncomfortable situations to feel in-your-face, yet he never resorts to didacticism which is why the film still feels so fresh.

Included on the disc is a video of the ubiquitous Tony Rayns that runs almost an hour. After watching this I am now certain that a 6-hour plus film of Rayns looking right into the camera discussing Japanese film history would be immensely watchable and be the Japanese film equivalent of those journeys with Martin Scorsese through American and Italian film. Here Rayns talks about much more than just the film and its director, broadening his scope to give a clearer context to the film. On Masters of Cinema’s Mizoguchi releases and more recently Arrow Video’s two Hasebe titles, a video featuring Rayns is now essential for these types of releases. We also get a fantastic booklet with archival imagery as well as writings from Audie Bock, author of Japanese Film Directors, on Oshima.

Instead of waiting for Criterion to release this (they are still upgrading all the Kurosawas in the collection) pick this great release up. The film itself looks great, showcasing the early visual eye of Oshima still at Shochiku, and the extras, specifically the Rayns video, make this release something of a great reference to come back to whenever studying this era of Japanese film. I’m eagerly waiting for the next release of some restored Oshima.

Jason Suzuki is co-editor to Cinema Adrift