There was a collective and audible “waaa” as the words “the end” abruptly closed the book on Nagisa Ôshima story of youthful rebellion. It was clear that, like most of the film, the audience was not prepared for such a finale. Truth be told, it is hard to be prepared for the depth of cruelty that is displayed in the film. Ôshima paints a picture of a 1960’s Tokyo where the sight of women being slapped around is as common as breathing air.
Though a woman may be the focal point of the story, Ôshima’s film, Cruel Story of Youth is laced with biting commentary about the misguided nature of man. The men in the film, or at least the majority depicted in the sleazy backstreets, are portrayed as predators. They not only toy with female emotions, but treat women as property which can easily be sold to pay off debts. Even married business men, of supposed good standing, can be found prowling the streets offering teenage girls rides home, fully intending to take them to the nearest hotel. The few decent men, in this version of Tokyo, are viewed as weak individuals who cannot even muster up the energy to properly discipline their own children.
With these types of role models, it is easy to see why the youth are lost in a cycle of rage and excess. At the core of this reckless world are young lovers Makoto (Miyuki Kuwano) and Kiyoshi (Yûsuke Kawazu). When not in school, Makoto and her friends spend their time accepting car rides from middle aged men. Though they have no intention of sleeping with the men, they flirt just enough that the men do not realize that it is them who is being taken for a ride. When one of the men becomes violent with Makoto, Kiyoshi swoops in and saves her. Soon the pair enter into a volatile and abusive relationship which neither is emotionally prepared for.
Ôshima is not shy about pointing the bulk of the blame for this unruly state of Tokyo on the shoulders of its men. Kiyoshi embodies everything that is wrong with men of that era. Ôshima uses him as a road map for why change is needed sooner and not later.
Despite his need to be the dominate one in the relationship, Kiyoshi has a lot of growing up to do. He treats women like mere objects that can be discarded at any moment. When not stringing multiple women along, including a wealthy older woman who refuses to let him go, Kiyoshi channels his anger at the world through acts of violence. His recklessness incites both fear and excitement in Makoto. She knows he is bad news but, like a drug, she cannot stand to be away from him.
Through this bleak and destructive cycle, Ôshima provides a cautionary tale of the fragility of youth. This is a generation without dreams and, as a result, no hope. They are waging a war against the world without knowing which direction to aim their guns or who the real enemy is. As Makoto’s elder sister, Yuki (Yoshiko Kuga), points out in one fantastic scene, her generation turned their anger into protest. This is a stark contrast to her sister’s generation that expresses rage by indulging in every vice that comes to mind. They have no true concept of love; they only know how to inflict pain on each other.
There is a raw and uneasy energy that permeates Cruel Story of Youth. The meticulous 4K restoration only further enhances this. Ôshima does not shy away from the harsh realities of a generation that has lost its way. Similar to the tense scene where Kiyoshi bites into the apple with only a hint of light around his eyes, Ôshima’s film is at its most comfortable when sitting in the dark void that surrounds the rebellious youth. Cruel Story of Youth is not an easy film to watch, but that does not make it any less fascinating.