Nagisa Ôshima’s second film, Cruel Story of Youth from 1960, is wilfully difficult in its production. From the distinctive directorial style changes to the frustratingly unsympathetic leads, it is a film as rebellious as its central theme.
Makoto (Miyuki Kuwano) is a seemingly innocent high school girl who enters into a relationship with an older student, Kiyoshi (Yusuke Kawazu), after he rescues her from some unwanted male attention. Ignoring advice from all around them, and flitting in and out of love, the pair settle on a brief and ultimately unsuccessful career of extortion-based crime before their whirlwind romance fractures and fails.
Set in a Japan still recovering financially and spiritually from the war, Ôshima’s film intentionally ignores the major events of the time to play out its own melodrama through the brief liaison between Makoto and Kiyoshi. All around them is a country rebuilding itself (rarely is there an outdoor scene where the sounds of workmen are not present), and the student riots that accompanied the signing of the 1960 U.S./Japan Security Treaty are gaining momentum. Ôshima, for the most part, ignores these close political influences, giving his leads an obsession with an influx of Western ideals that results in a greed that is ignorant of the consequences. These are characters where any sense of innocence has been taken from them, and the world they are trying to find a place in is brutal and confusing.
The relationship between Makoto and Kiyoshi is equally bleak, and equally thematic of the time. From the outset when he forces himself on her, with the clear impression he has stolen her virginity, it is difficult to understand Makoto’s obsession with the bullying, self-centred Kiyoshi. Over the short period of the relationship, the power does swing back and forth, with the headstrong Makoto gaining confidence from their crimes, but in the end, as their fate spirals towards a back street abortion and misery, it is clear a lack of happiness will seal their fate.
Aside from the unlikeable central pairing, it is the style with which Ôshima directs Cruel Story of Youth that may also prove divisive. At times it is wonderfully yet subtly expressive, focussing on the minutiae of a scene as sweaty tensions inevitably begin to rise. You feel as if you are there, in the moment as the camera switches from one character close up to another with each emotion plain to see. On other occasions it feels like Ôshima has lost control altogether and you struggle to see exactly what is going on. This does reflect the unpredictability of the narrative but also serves to draw you out of the drama somewhat.
There are times in Cruel Story of Youth when you’ll feel you are watching for some other reason other than enjoyment, as there is the background sensation that the film is in some way doing you good. This is a disservice to an important piece of work that showcases the unhindered rebellious nature of both filmmakers and an exuberant youth in 1960s Japan, but is sadly unavoidable. Time has not been kind to Ôshima’s film, and for most who approach it, it may prove to be a haphazard and impenetrable experience. Perseverance is required.
Special Features: New video interview with critic Tony Rayns / Trailer / 36-page booklet
CRUEL STORY OF YOUTH / CERT: 15 / DIRECTOR & SCREENPLAY: NAGISA ÔSHIMA / STARRING: MIYUKI KUWANO, YUSUKE KAWAZU, YOSHIKO KUGA, FUMIO WATANABE / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW