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Cruel Story of Youth (Nagisa Oshima 1960)


Seishun zankoku monogatari

Cruel Story of Youth

Genre: Extreme Youth Coming of Age

review in one breath

Holy Cow!
Let's just start by saying that the word "Cruel" in the title should be in all caps! As in: CRUEL(!) Story of Youth ...

This movie is directed by Nagisa Oshima, who is perhaps better known for his much later In the Realm of the Senses (1976). Both movies revolve around a love relation in which the main characters find themselves; a relationship of such intensity that it breeches the confines of social expectation, thereby requiring the characters to redefine themselves solely in terms of their love. Both movies also view social expectation as ultimately unyielding, resulting in inevitable tragedy for the characters who have forsaken the protection of convention in the pursuit and realization of passion. The world, we find, is brimming with harsh, harsh reality. (Some might even call it Cruel!)

The main characters in our story are the high school-aged couple, Makoto (the girl) and Kiyoshi. They meet after Makoto is attacked by a randy middle-aged businessman who offered a ride home but made a bee-line for the Motel of Love. After slapping and force-kissing Makoto a couple times, Randy Gent #1 (as we will call him here to distinguish him from the several other Randy Gents appearing later) gets a thorough pounding by Kiyoshi who happens by. In reply to Kiyoshi's threat to bring him to the police, Randy Gent #1 throws money at his feet and quickly exits stage left. Not only does this brave rescue set the stage for a flood of romance between Makoto and Kiyoshi, it also establishes a prototype of the predominant method by which they later support themselves financially. The method consists of the following sequential steps (which must be executed in precisely this order): (1) Have random Randy Gent offer Makoto a ride home; (2) Have Randy Gent get into compromising situation with Makoto; (3) Beat the living daylights out of Randy Gent; (4) Collect Money from sobbing, humiliated Randy Gent.

The young couple eventually find themselves existentially suspended in the vacuum created among three worldviews in which neither Makoto nor Kiyoshi feel they belong. There is the world of traditional values from which Makoto's sister and father have emerged. Though perhaps wild according to the standards of her time, Makoto's older sister Yuki recalls only youthful passions repressed by parents and society, while the father seems totally aloof and at an utter loss within the new democratic notions sweeping Japan. When faced by this worldview, Makoto and Kiyoshi receive only warnings regarding moral laxity and condescending looks amid rumors that Makoto is living with the young man Kiyoshi. A second world is that of the Zengakuren, those students and citizens passionately demonstrating against Western influence in national affairs. Although Makoto and Kiyoshi have friends thoroughly devoted to the movement, to each other they admit feeling neither desire nor stake in the goals of the demonstrations. The message of this world is one of undying allegiance and conformity to a greater cause to which all other goals and passions are subordinate. Unwilling to subordinate themselves or their passion for such ideals, our main characters find no purpose or rest here. The third world consists of the dark underbelly of society which sits in wait for lost or naive youth. This world is populated by yakuza and knife-wielding delinquents who literally prey on anyone wandering too near their web. Though this world is the least condescending and most tempting among the three, both Kiyoshi and Makoto learn dangerous lessons regarding the real depths of tragedy bubbling just below its surface.

The overwhelming helplessness of occupying this void is manifested in the increasingly bad fortune of the couple. Makoto discovers she is pregnant with Kiyoshi's child, to which news Kiyoshi can only recommend abortion. The perpetual need of money and the frequent use of the method of rememdy outlined above has caused in Makoto deep feelings of ill conscience which makes her want to refuse participation in any further deception. Yet without recourse, they engage in a last, fated attempt which ultimately results in Makoto seeking the illusory stability of an older man (Randy Gent #3) and the eventual arrest of Kiyoshi and Makoto for "Intimidation". Without resources of their own, both Makoto and Kiyoshi find themselves dependent on the mercy and graces of others. Once released on bail, however, both flee together as if in the hope to start afresh. Yet after only a few steps it becomes pitifully clear that neither has any idea as to where they should go or what they should do. In resigned desperation Kiyoshi flees from Makoto, leaving her alone in an utterly empty world gilded with neon against darkness. Following the path which is simply the first to appear, each very quickly meets a tragic and meaningless end in scenes which scream the cruelty of the world. The movie ends with split screen showing two crumpled bodies, two crumpled lives.

Did I mention the world is a CRUEL, CRUEL place?

cultural interest violence sex strangeness
Although there is a little footage of Korean student demonstrations and quick reference to the Zengakuren, this movie specializes in the culture of despair. This story revolves around universal rather than culture-specific themes. Plenty of slapping and rough treatment of women in this movie. These seem to function as accepted "ice breakers". Elsewhere, several flailing fist fights. One stabbing. One excruciating foot-grinding on face. And one fatal case of "dragged behind speeding automobile". Though sex is insinuated as taking place off camera, there is less skin here than Wisconsin in February! However, one must admire the amazingly sturdy-looking bras these girls wear! (Most seem to have four to six straps each!) Cruel! Cruel, I tell you! It's utterly CRUEL! (I should also mention here the bizarre scene where Kiyoshi is so enrapt with love that he drives a motorcyle, with Makoto clinging on for dear life, straight into the sea! They then laugh, twirl and embrace! What the ???)

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