Cruel Story of Youth is a Japanese film from 1960. The director, Nagisa Oshima, was later famous for films such as In The Realm of The Senses, and also Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence. Cruel Story of Youth is a melodrama of sorts, telling a story of juvenile delinquency. The central characters are Makoto, an attractive young student (played by Miyuki Kuwano) and Kiyoshi, a handsome and somewhat exploitative ‘bad boy’ (played by Yûsuke Kawazu). The basic plot is these two characters form a doomed romance. They chance upon a scam where the attractive Makoto lures lecherous old men into giving her lifts in their car, and when they make the inevitable sexual advance Kiyoshi is waiting in the wings to defend Makoto’s honour, and also fleece the men of their money.
The central concern of the film regards transition in the cultural values of the then Japanese youth. The youth of this story have no real purpose or sense of hope. One of the most poignant lines in the films is spoken by Makoto to Kiyoshi as they observe a protest that is taking place against the then US security treaty (this treaty equated to a continued US military presence following the second world war). Makoto says to her lover Kiyoshi ‘we have money to spend’. Makoto has no sense of her country’s plight (i.e. the protesters concern with regard to the US presence and economic control). Makoto’s sole concern is the money she can spend; this is what defines Japanese youth, and in turn the extent of their desire and ambition. For this reason the youth are now misfits, with no real sense of purpose, other than to consume, and to consume a culture that leaves them feeling ultimately dissatisfied.
The film has some powerful scenes and images. The colours are bold and primary, like those of a floating world painting. There are fight scenes, and a general sense of rebel chic. One scene that sticks in my mind is of the lovers driving a stolen motorbike in to the sea.
The film works on a basic youth entertainment level, but towards the end resonates on a deeper level with regard to the consideration of the relationship between having freedom and the associated need to be responsible. There are several non-youth characters in the film; Mako’s older sister who reflects on a relationship she ended with an impoverished doctor in order to pursue a wealthy man; Horio, an old man who is a victim of the lover’s crime, but also has some redeeming features of worldly wisdom and a sense of compassion; and also Kiyoshi’s sugar mummy who bails the couple out when they eventually come a cropper before the law.
This film would have been highly controversial in its time, and no doubt amongst similar films of this period of Japanese cinema paved the way for greater experimentation and an inclusion of more challenging themes in Japanese cinema as a whole. It would seem Oshima, the director, had some quite advanced ideas about Japanese culture and what needed to change. This may have not won him favours at the time, but no doubt fuelled him in achieving the groundbreaking cinematic successes later on in his career as an independent film maker. This story is looked at as part of one of the dvd extras which is an interview with the film critic Tony Rayns, and is well worth watching.
This film is more of a curiosity than a classic, but it was enjoyable to watch, and I learnt something about Japanese culture and history. It stands up well over time, and the re-mastered print looks vibrant and colourful. This is a worthy re-issue by Eureka of a perhaps forgotten film.
Cruel Story of Youth is out on 17th August in the UK on dual format Blu-Ray & DVD, released by Eureka as part of their Masters of Cinema collection.