Genre: Social Commentary on the Tragic Failings of Traditional Authority
review in one breath
A self-centered and uncaring father forces his wife and young son to fake being hit by passing cars in order to extort large sums of money from drivers. The increasingly violent authority of the father over the family, and their growing unwillingness to participate in his fraud leads them all on a downward spiral both physically and psychologically. This film is directed by renowned "new wave" director Oshima Nagisa and provides a stark vision of the tragic impact of child neglect and the failure of traditional authority structures.
Director Oshima Nagisa (???) is generally credited with being the first of Japan's cinematic "New Wave", a genre emerging in the 1960's which most often focuses on the complexities and perplexities of the individual in ways which undermine both the idealism of pre-War films and the leftist politics portrayed by more independent post-war directors. The topics and styles of Oshima's films vary widely, but most explore a form of extremism, elevating the existential situation of the characters above the confines of social morality, political idealism, and even what is taken to be (societal) common sense.
In the current film, entitled Boy (Shonen / ??), the narrative is depicted and narrated through the eyes of an unnamed 10-year old whose father and step-mother have embroiled him in risking his life in order to fraudulently demand money from unwary victims. The tale is based on a true and widely circulated story which hit the Japanese media and created an immediate furor. Within the dynamic of the episode, Oshima finds the means to critique both the male dominance of traditional Japanese society and the undermining impact of society upon the individual. But unique to Oshima's telling is his emphasis upon the profound and perverse impact upon the boy by his clearly dysfunctional family. Through Oshima's skillful direction, these multiple layers of undercurrent blend to create a sad and impressive tale which speaks to the needs of the human psyche and the subsequent ease with which that psyche is set on a downward spiral.
The cinematic style of the film is varied, and Oshima often reverts to black and white or tonal colors at key moments in the boys life and understanding. The scope of the camera swings from expansive, barren landscapes to cramp urban streets to rather theatrically staged sets. But such variety does not overwhelm the viewer's focal point of the increasingly estranged protagonist, the unnamed boy.
Within the genealogy of Oshima's films, Boy (1969) appears almost a decade after Cruel Story of Youth (1960) and Night and Fog in Japan (1960), two films highly critical of both Leftist and Conservative politics, and eight years prior to his notorious In the Realm of the Senses (1976) in which the inner world of individual passion radically transcends all social norms. In the years immediately preceding and following Boy, Oshima produced Death By Hanging (1968) and Ceremony (1971), both of which now stand as classic exemplars of the "New Wave" genre.
The cast here includes Watanabe Fumio (????) as the Father and Koyama Akiko (????) as the Stepmother. In addition to appearing in several of Oshima's key films, both Watanabe and Koyama had extensive careers in Japan's independent film industry working under directors such as Ishii Teruo, Shinoda Masahiro, Ito Shunya and Suzuki Norifumi. The unnamed boy is played by Abe Tetsuo (????).
Claiming an inability to hold down a normal job due to injuries incurred in the Sino-Japanese War, a shiftless father forces his young son and second wife to fake being hit by passing cars in order to extort large sums of money from hapless drivers. Though both the boy and the step-mother increasingly have reservations about their participation in the crimes, the violent demand and dominance of the father keeps them in line. With neither love nor sympathy for anyone but himself, he ruthlessly drags his family into a perpetual state of fleeing from the authorities, moving to a different town or region following each extortion.
This, of course, has prohibited the boy from attending school and thereby making friends. Instead of fun and games with children his age, he often finds himself alone, constructing ever greater imaginary worlds through which his young mind slowly processes the dysfunction and abuse his budding conscience perceives. While his role in the fraud increases as he more fearlessly steps in front of moving cars, his soul grows increasingly agitated and estranged. And while he longs to return home to see his true mother and grandmother, he believes, as his father has told him countless times, that they no longer remember him and would be greatly saddened to see his face again. In this tightening vice, between being forced to do the wrong and a profound sense of isolation, the young boy struggles to make sense of the world and his place within it, passing from naivete to escapism to looking death squarely in the face.
Oshima is not a director known for his happy endings or traditionally ideal plot resolutions. Rather, he is interested only in showing through extremes the breaking point of societal and personal norms. And here he truly succeeds through near gut-wrenching realism depicting the inner struggles of the young boy and his growing awareness of his plight. Though Oshima himself often used the word "extreme" to define his interests, this film also explicitly portrays the subtle fragility of the child's psyche as it tosses about amongst loyalty to father, longing for family and normalcy, and a bottomless sense of isolation.
This emphasis upon a child's fragility in the hands of those with authority over him is underscored by the personal histories of both the father and step-mother. Both, the audience is told, were left at a very early age by their parents, whether through death or sheer neglect. This implicit thread within Oshima's film seems to be a warning of cyclical generational abuse carried on by those who themselves were victims toward their own children. The ending of the film itself, which I shall not divulge here, makes this aspect of the film's morale poignantly clear, as audiences are left wondering what the future fate of the young boy might be, given the life he has had during the brief period we are privy to.
Though Oshima's films range widely in both style and content, this particular film nevertheless is a powerful example of his central aim of demonstrating the illusory and powerless nature of traditional structures in the face of the individual's dire existential need. Through stark realism and dark subject matter, Oshima again successfully brings audiences to the fringe of societal normalcy and forces them to look down into the abyss of human nature. Oshima, like so many of the later New Wave directors, was not interested in placating the production studio or box office, but wanted audiences to think and feel in new, dissonanced ways. And think and feel you shall.
Version reviewed: Region 0 DVD-R with English (optional) subtitles.
|Exemplar of New Wave film by pioneer director Oshima Nagisa.||Careful yet stark depictions of inter-familial physical and psychological abuse.||One libidinous hand down the kimono, but that doesn't count, does it?.||Thought and emotion provoking exploration of the formation of a young child's psyche amidst moral, physical and psychological chaos.|