Thursday, April 19, 2007

Cruel Story of Youth

Shochiku Studios released Nagisa Oshima's Cruel Story of Youth on June 3, 1960. The film was one arm of a larger strategy to revamp the studio's image. Throughout the 1950s, Shochiku had become increasingly associated with the heartwarming home dramas of Yasujiro Ozu. Indeed, for all intents and purposes, Ozu was the face of the studio.

Although happy with the prestige that the studio garnered from Ozu's films, Shochiku executives looked with increasing envy at the massive profits that their rivals at Nikkatsu Studios made from movies featuring popular teen actors Yujiro Ishihara and Keiichiro Akagi. These films with their racy plots and bad-boy stars appealed to huge audiences of young men and women.

In an effort to steal some of its rival's thunder, Shochiku decided to promote a cadre of talented young assistant directors to its hallowed directors list. The studio hoped that these young men would create films that spoke more directly to Japan's younger audiences.

At the age of just 27, Oshima was one of the youngest of these directors. The studio took careful note of his first two features. Based on signs of talent exhibited in these initial forays, they decided to give him free rein in his third feature, Cruel Story of Youth. The gamble was richly rewarded. The film caused a sensation, emerging as the studio's biggest money-maker of the year. The film also effected a profound change in Shochiku's image. Taking note of the innovative cinematic style achieved by Oshima, the popular press heralded him, along with his fellow Shochiku directors Masahiro Shinoda and Yoshishige Yoshida, as exemplars of the New Wave. Shochiku thus came to be perceived as the epicenter of an exciting new trend in Japanese film. Studio executives had thus achieved their goal; Shochiku was no longer thought of solely as the home of Yasujiro Ozu.

It's difficult to know if Oshima consciously tried to differentiate himself from Ozu with Cruel Story of Youth, but the end product can justifiably be described as the antithesis of an Ozu film. With its attention to social upheaval, its overheated depiction of youthful resentment and passion, and its hyperbolic visual style, the film embodies a view of Japanese society and film that deviates radically from anything found in the work of Ozu. Three of the film's stars, Miyuki Kuwano, Yoshiko Kuga, and Fumio Watanabe, had also worked with Ozu. A comparison of how the two directors styled and shot these actors suggests the fundamental difference in their respective cinematic visions.

Kuwano in Cruel Story of Youth

Kuwano in Ozu's Late Autumn

Kuga in Cruel Story of Youth

Kuga in Ozu's Good Morning

Watanabe in Cruel Story of Youth

Watanabe in Ozu's Late Autumn

Despite the success of Cruel Story of Youth in contemporizing Shochiku's image, the relationship between Oshima and the studio quickly soured. Studio executives were aghast at Oshima's next film, Night and Fog in Japan (1960), an avant-garde depiction of political radicals. Although the film was praised by critics, named as one of the ten best films of the year by Kinema Junpo, it was a commercial failure and target for cultural commentators who railed against the anarchic tendencies of popular culture. Shortly after the release of this film, Oshima severed his connection with Shochiku.

Once on his own, the young director developed into one of the most creative and controversial film-makers of the 1960s. His post-Shochiku output includes The Catch (1961), based on short story by Kenzaburo Oe, Violence at Noon (1966), Death by Hanging (1968), Diary of a Shinjuku Thief (1968), and Boy (1969). Taken together these films constitute a remarkable and challenging body of work.

In the 1970s, Oshima shifted gears and began exploring other, equally controversial, issues in his films. In particular, sex, always a topic of interest to Oshima, emerged as a central preoccupation of his work. He gained worldwide attention in 1976 with the release of Realm of the Senses, a study of sexual obsession and experimentation reminiscent of Last Tango in Paris. Due to the relentlessly explicit sex scenes, the film was initially banned in Japan.

In the years since Realm of the Senses, Oshima has slowed down considerably. Among his late films, only two have attracted significant attention: Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983), a WWII drama starring David Bowie, and Taboo (1999), a historical tale that recounts a gay love triangle involving 19th-century samurai.

For a more detailed discussion of Oshima's impact as a filmmaker, click here to go to an informative article by Nelson Kim.

Oshima in 1960

Do-yun Yu in Death by Hanging

Eiko Matsuda and Tatsuya Fuji in Realm of the Senses

Takeshi Kitano and Ryuhei Matsuda in Taboo


Blogger rupan777 said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

April 28, 2007 at 2:19 PM  
Blogger rupan777 said...

I enjoyed this showing even though it's probably going to end up being the most exploitative of the series. The theme of the film reminded my friend and I (whom also attended)of Ko Nakahira's earlier Crazed Fruit (1956), and later films like Seijun Suzuki's Fighting Elegy (1966) and Mitsuo Yanagimachi's God Speed You! Black Emperor (1976). Oshima, however, really laid in a preachy, judgmental stance though and that sort of left a bad taste in my mouth. Fascinating nonetheless.

April 28, 2007 at 2:22 PM  
Blogger Jim Reichert said...

To me, the most striking feature of Cruel Story of Youth is its style. There is the scene, for instance, when Mako comes home after spending the night with Kiyoshi and the camera cuts from her to extreme close-ups of her sister's and father's disapproving eyes; or the scene when Mako and Kiyoshi break up and the hand-held camera navigates the hazardous traffic along with the young couple.

I find Oshima's direction to be really creative. I can only imagine how these techniques must have stunned audiences in 1960.

April 28, 2007 at 6:28 PM  
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