Cruel story of Youth (1960) review

Introduction

While Nagisa Oshima, one of the most well-known Japanese Nūberu bāgu directors, drew on many of the motifs associated with the taiyozoku (Sun Tribe) ‘genre’ of films (e.g. students, sun, abortions, motorboats, … etc.) to make Cruel story Of Youth (1960), he clearly aimed to deliver a narrative that deconstructed the ‘genre’.

Review

One night, the man who promised to give Makoto Shinjo (Miyuki Kuwano) a right home, tries to molest her. Luckily, before anything bad can happen, Kiyoshi Fuji (Yusuke Kawazu) attacks the assaulter. Before running away, the assaulter tries to silence them with money. The following day, Makoto and Kiyoshi decide to hang out together. Kiyoshi takes her to watch the Anpo Protests and ride a motorboat together on a river. Suddenly, Kiyoshi starts kissing her. While Makoto refuses him, Kiyoshi does not accept her ‘no’ and rapes her. Makoto accepts Kiyoshi’s act of rape by affirming that it was not an act of hate.

One week later, while waiting for Kiyoshi at a bar he frequents, Makoto is approached by three youths who, unbeknownst to her, want to force her into prostitution. Luckily, Kiyoshi shows up and fights them. Before the fight has reached its outcome, the boss of the trio interrupts the fight and says that he is willing to let them go if they pay some money as compensation. Not that much later, after being rebuked by her elder sister Yuki (Yoshiko Kuga) for hanging out with Kiyoshi, Yuki decides to live together with her beloved. To make money, they decide to reenact the way they met, with Makoto seducing the driver and Makoto extorting him when he attempts to satisfy his phallic craving.

Cruel Story of Youth (1960) by Nagisa Oshima.

To be able to understand Oshima’s Cruel Story of Youth,one needs to analyze the opening of the narrative, as this opening introduces, by touching upon sexuality and the function of money, the very dynamic that the narrative circles around: the phallic power dynamic. The attempted rape of Makoto underlines how this phallic dynamic, by being implicitly validated and propagated by the patriarchal societal structure and further strengthened by the blossoming of capitalism, gives certain men the phantasmatic right to (sexually) enjoy the youthful female subject in the real. The more men believe that this right is theirs to wield, the more ‘violent’ they attempt to prove this phallic phantasy in the real by exploiting, implicitly or explicitly, women for their phallic pleasure. The opening of the narrative also evokes how these men, who have seized the phantasmatic right to bear the phallus by accepting and believing in the Japanese hierarchical Other, easily attempt to silence the protest of the youthful other with what, in this case, is a symbol of their phallicism: money.

Another aspect that is important to know in order to understand Oshima’s Cruel Story Of Youth is that it is framed against the background of the Anpo demonstrations against the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty – Oshima’s narrative, in fact, integrates actual footage taken at the 1960 May Day demonstration in Tokyo – and, albeit to a lesser degree, the Korean student protests against the government of Rhee Syngman (1875-1965), President of the Republic of Korea from 1948 till 1960. Another important political element that is evoked, an element evoked by Makoto’s father, is the deceptive promise of freedom the re-establishment of Japan as democracy held.

Cruel Story of Youth (1960) by Nagisa Oshima

The quick evocation of these political elements subtly underline how the Other of the post-war era has succeeded to subject the youth who desired to truly change the inner-workings of society to its enduring rigid rule and how this Other, by subjecting them, has rid most of these youth of their youthful ideals, their dreams, as well as the hopes they had for the future. But can we consider Makoto and Kiyoshi as youth driven by ideals and as youths that challenge the constellation of the Other?

In short, no. While one could read the trajectory of Makoto and Kiyoshi as a personal protest against this Japanese Other, this Other marked by patriarchalism and capitalism, such reading would gloss over the fact that Kiyoshi ‘attacks’ the Japanese Other with the same phallic logic that the traditional dimension of the Other installs and the capitalistic dimension venerates.

Cruel Story of Youth (1960) by Nagisa Oshima

That Kiyoshi is marked by a similar phantasmatic phallic logic as the middle-aged man that tried to molest Makoto is revealed by the very fact that he, the day after the event, rapes Makoto. But Kiyoshi’s revelation that his act of rape was partially due to an anger he felt towards everyone highlights a fundamental difference between the position of the middle-aged man and his position. While the aim of his act rape it is to re-affirm, for himself, an imaginary phallic position, he is only driven to perform this act because the rigid Japanese Other castrates him or confronts him with his castration. In other words, the rigid Other renders Kiyoshi, as youthful other, powerless and unable to realize himself as a subject with dreams and desires.

In truth, all Kiyoshi’s violent acts, be it sexual (i.e. rape) or non-sexual (i.e. his fighting), are in function of establishing a temporary phantasmatic feeling of having the phallus. In this sense, “The violence Makoto suffers at the hands of Kiyoshi” is not simply “an outward manifestation of his general disaffection with the world”, as Standish (2005, p. 235) suggests, but an outward manifestation of his perceived impossibility to realize, within these society marked by rigidity and enjoyment, a subjective position for himself that is not profoundly marked by castration or failure. In other words, he clings, via his violent lashing outs, to the phallic fantasy that drives the patriarchal dimension as well as capitalistic dimension of the Japanese Other.  

Cruel Story of Youth (1960) by Nagisa Oshima

The fact that the goal of the extortion is money further robs this ‘rebellious act of delinquency of its true rebellious intent. One should not fail to see that the act of extortion ultimately supports Kiyoshi’s phallic fantasy and, subsequently, his thirst for phallic pleasure. Kiyoshi does not only exploit Makoto for money – money to buy phallic pleasure and appease his phallic fantasy, but also because these extortions allow him to temporarily confirm his imaginary phallic position. Their extortion business goes not against the dynamic of the society – it is not a rebellion, but abides and, in a way, celebrates the blossoming capitalist dynamic of the Other. The cruel aspect of the narrative can thus be formulated as follow: while Makoto and Kiyoshi’s romance might look like a rebellion against the rigidity of the Japanese Other on the surface, the very dynamic of their ‘rebellion’ is an affirmation of the capitalist dynamic of the Japanese Other. In more direct words, their ‘rebellion’ fails because Kiyoshi has already been ‘defeated’ by the Other, because he has already inscribed himself in the discourse of modernity.  

Oshima composes Cruel Story Of Youth mainly with fluid cinematographical moving moments (tracking as well as spatially moving moments) and static moments (Cine-note 1, Cine-note 2). In some specific cases, Oshima also uses shaky camera movement. Shaky framing is nevertheless only used when some guerrilla filmmaking is needed, like to shoot the Anpo demonstrations for example, or to frame certain scenes of violence.

Cruel Story of Youth (1960) by Nagisa Oshima

While Oshima’s composition is somewhat rough around the edges, he does not fail to prove that he has artistic talent. Cruel Story Of Youth has some truly beautifully geometrically composed shots and some some truly visually pleasing tracking shots. The unusual cutting in the extreme close-up shots (e.g. close-up shots that cut off the protagonists’ foreheads or even, in some cases, half their faces) has beyond its subtle estranging effect also a visually pleasing artistic flair. Even so, Oshima’s artistic talent is most evident in the composition of the narrative’s finale – a finale that is both poetic and cruel at the same time.

Cruel Story of Youth is a wonderful narrative, because Oshima succeeds in dissecting in a very precise way how the Other, an Other marked by patriarchy and capitalism, is able to empty the youthful subject of his ideals and dreams as well as how the rebellious protest of certain youthful subjects is, in many cases, an affirmation of the very dynamic that underpins the functioning of the Other. With Cruel Story of Youth, Oshima (prophetically) confronts us that the fact that what destroys idealism is nothing but a forced societal call to enjoy and to consume (General-note 1).   

Notes

Narra-note 1: Yuki, the older sister of Makoto, must be considered as a ‘passive victim’ of the patriarchal dimension of the Japanese Other, a dimension that latched on the promise of post-war democracy. The interactions between Makoto and Yuki do not only reveal how Yuki, due to his rigid Other, has lost her ‘real’ dreams, but also that she, by assuming this defeat, has become a spokesperson for the futility of rebellion. When Yuki warns that Makoto’s rebellious romance will not last, she aims to convey that their romance has no future in the Japanese Other and that the rigidity of this Other will eventually force its demise.     

Narra-note 2: The contrast between the enduring patriarchal dimension of the Japanese Other and blossoming dimension of capitalism within this Other is a contrast that marks the entire narrative. While the coalescing of both dimensions forces society to rewrite itself at various levels e.g. at the level of romance, no fundamental change happens. In fact, what forms the backbone of a patriarchal society, i.e. the phantasmatic belief in the male phallus, gets linked, under the influence of the capitalist dimension, with the drive to enjoy and satisfy one’s phallic fantasy.   

Narra-note 3: It is important to underline that one extortion attempt fails. The extortion of Horio fails not because Makoto is not in the mood, but because Horio (Hiroshi Nihon’yanagi), as subject, is not attached to the phallic fantasy of power. It is, in fact, rather ironic that it is a politician that is not drunk on the phallic promise of power.  

Cine-note 1: Oshima’s narrative is marked by a subtle nihilistic atmosphere, an atmosphere that is, at various moments in the narrative, accentuated by the musical accompaniment.

Cine-note 2: We should also mention thebeautiful and natural wayin which Oshima uses silences to strengthen the dramatic dimension of certain narrative moments.   

General-note 1: It should not be surprising that the defeat of the youth politics was finalized when Prime Minister Ikeda in July, around one month after the film’s release,announced his ‘income doubling’ policy (shotoku baizo).

References:

Standish, Isolde (2005), A New History of Japanese Cinema: A Century of Narrative Film. New York: Continuum

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