Cruel Story of Youth

Timelines: All, Japan Categories: 1960s, Decade, Film, Japan Cruel Story of Youth
Date: 1960


Following his debut film, A Town of Love and Hope (1959), Nagisa Ōshima released his first colour film Cruel Story of Youth (Seishun Zankoku Monogatori) in 1960. While writers vary in whether they characterise Cruel Story of Youth as a “taiyōzoku” film (see Yoshimoto and Standish, for instance), it is clear that Ōshima’s version of youth is informed by the earlier “sun-tribe” phenomenon. Like the taiyōzoku films, Cruel Story of Youth generated controversy for its representation of delinquent youth, but also for its commercial success. Cruel Story of Youth features many of the motifs and activities that are central to representing the taiyōzoku lifestyle (motor-boats, delinquency, youth gangs, casual sex, abortion), and is similarly focused on a youthful generation that has grown up following WWII. That is, while films such as Akira Kurosawa’s No Regrets For Our Youth (1946) used youth as a symbol of democracy in the context of the U.S. Occupation, the young people of Cruel Story of Youth are indolent and jaded by governmental conservatism including, for instance, the renewal of the “ANPO”, or US-Japan security treaty in 1960. Ōshima had himself been a left student leader at the University of Kyoto in the early 1950s.

Cruel Story of Youth is also differentiated from the taiyōzoku films in its characterisation as an example of the emergent Japanese New Wave, influenced by the contemporaneous French “nouvelle vague”. This is partly based on an aesthetic similarity (though it shares similarities with the more experimental Crazed Fruit), but also a similar concern with the factors attributed to causing youthful alienation. Isolde Standish (2005, 235) suggests that Cruel Story of Youth “frames the principal characters within a generational consciousness that clearly locates their tragedies within a political context of materialism allegorized through prostitution”, while the taiyōzoku youth’s frustration is typically located within familial and sexual relationships. In the film, Kiyoshi (Yusuke Kawazu) rescues Makoto (Miyuki Kuwano) from a driver attempting to molest her and he takes her to an ANPO protest, before proceeding to rape her on a motorboat. This begins a complicated affair between them focused in part on extorting middle-aged men entrapped by Makoto. This generational tension is also evident between Makoto and her older sister Yuki, and Yuki’s former partner Akimoto, who is required to perform an illegal abortion on Makoto. The older couple represent the humanism characteristic of postwar films, displaced by late 1950s nihilism; Akimoto states to Yuki: “Your sister and her generation, by contrast, vent their rage against society by fulfilling all their desires. I wonder if they will win. For example, things like having to go through with this abortion will pile up and distort them and their relationship will be destroyed.” This is a prescient observation, given that Cruel Story of Youth ends with the deaths of both protagonists. – Liam Grealy

Further reading:
– Standish, I. (2005). A new history of Japanese cinema: A century of narrative film. New York & London: Continuum.
– Turim, M. (1998). Oshima’s cruel tales of youth and politics. Journal of Film and Video. 39(1): 41-50.
– Yoshimoto, M. (2007). Questions of the new: Ōshima Nagisa’s Cruel Story of Youth (1960). In A. Phillips & J. Stringer (eds) Japanese cinema: Texts and contexts, (pp.168-179). London & New York: Routledge.

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