The elder of the two sisters looks on with quiet envy as the younger one boldly defies her father and indeed all of society by enjoying a raunchy romance with a handsome ruffian. There’s still that bit of rebellious fire burning inside her too, in spite of her claims to the contrary and even her defiant retort to her kid sister about how her own “dreams are real, as opposed to your empty ones” cannot hide her true feelings. The young couple on the other hand, true to their age, zealously dig into their seemingly aimless, yet passionate romance, content to leech money off sleazy old men and sure only in their derision towards societal norms and an amoral attitude towards the life they choose to lead. The father of the two is constantly berated by the elder sister for his impassivity towards the younger sister’s behavior that borders on indifference, who explains away this attitude merely by throwing the ultimate “times have changed” refrain.
These and a few other characters encompass at least 3 different generations in Nagisa Oshima’s Cruel Story of Youth, a trenchant commentary on the changing winds of time in modern Japan. Nagisa Oshima has been often referred to as the “Godard of the East”, a comparison that is understandable, though in my view not entirely accurate. Like with Godard’s influential debut Breathless, Cruel Story of Youth not only has a youthful romance at it’s center but also makes use of real locations and intimate hand-held camerawork for immediacy and visceral impact. Like Godard, Oshima was not only at the forefront of the “New Wave” moment in his own country but also by far it’s most radical auteur, whose subsequent films expressed his confrontational political ideologies in increasingly explicit and daring terms. Nevertheless, a very crucial difference between Breathless and Cruel Story of Youth eventually marks them out as extremely dissimilar films. The main character in Breathless (Belmondo’s character) commits crimes with a lack of remorse that is similar to that displayed by the young protagonists of Cruel Story, yet Belmondo’s buffoonish Bogart-wannabe character and Godard’s post-modern send up of many a Hollywood cliché lends the whole enterprise a coolly detached style. Oshima’s film on the other hand is earnest and more keenly felt and somehow gives the impression that he sympathizes with and shows clearly discernible concern for his young characters even during their morally dubious endeavors. And while he stops short of condoning their actions, he slyly implicates the inhibitory society and their archaic moral values for the young couple’s recklessness. This is a film that is decidedly anarchic in it’s politics, and as it turned out, this was to be no flash in the pan as his later films would express this political philosophy with even greater intensity.
The film begins with a beautiful college student Makoto (Miyushi Kuwano) who narrowly escapes rape by an elderly sleazeball, thanks to a timely intervention by Kiyoshi (Yusuke Kawazu) and predictably enough, the two, after a few false starts, begin a torrid, yet often tumultuous relationship. Kiyoshi is callous, uncaring, but passionate and Makoto is attracted to his wild, erratic ways. The sexuality in this relationship is conspicuously brought to the fore, and this nuance already reveals Oshima’s keen interest in investigating how intense sexual impulses fuel personalities and motivations, both personal and political. (This facet of his cinema would of course reach an astonishing crescendo with the controversial In the Realm of the Senses). The young couple certainly enjoy the sex and the relationship for it’s own sake, but they seem to get an even bigger kick out of the fact that other people frown down upon this alliance. It is also implied that the male protagonist’s amoral and nihilistic attitude towards violence and the petty crimes they commit for money – the initial incident with the attempted rape helps the two hit upon a great idea to extort money from old, rich males – is also somehow fueled by disillusionment towards this society, as demonstrated in a key scene late in the film, where he gloats unrepentantly and without a hint of guilt in front of a cop. There are other films which have focused on disaffected youth, but very few which have identified with them so closely. Oshima seems to share Kiyoshi’s disillusionment, portraying as he does the victims of the duo’s crimes as pathetic, crass and venal, a product of a repressive and rotten society. It is interesting to note that whenever the two need money, they cannot think of anything other than this con, utilizing Makoto’s sex appeal and Kiyoshi’s violent streak. Even if Oshima empathizes with these impulses, their manifestation in the form of violence and sexual excess, right until their inevitably doomed fate catches up with their lives, worries him.
As mentioned earlier, there is a crucial thread in the film involving Makoto’s elder sister Yuki who, having her flames of passion stoked again after watching the free-spirited Makoto, tries to reunite with an old lover named Akimoto, a doctor who now makes ends meet by carrying out abortions. A profoundly poignant scene involving the four occurs at Akimoto’s abortion clinic. The elder couple reminisce about their own youth, filled with idealism, innocence and vitality, with words that are tinged with regret and rueful resignation, while young Kiyoshi lovingly, yet blankly stares at the beautiful unconscious face of his love in a different room. Great films often have sequences like these, where everything the director wanted to express converges in one irresistible confluence of image and words. Cruel Story of Youth almost certainly qualifies as one.