Nagisa Oshima’s groundbreaking film opens with young, attractive Mako and her friend hitching a ride from an old man. After her friend leaves, the man tries to rape her, and she is saved only by the handsome Kiyoshi. Later, against the background of the tumultuous 1960 U.S./Japan Security Treaty demonstrations, Kiyoshi and Mako walk along a grungy seaside lumberyard while talking about sex. He attempts to kiss her, she slaps him, and he throws her in the water. She cries out that she can’t swim. When she continues to refuse his advances, he steps on her fingers as she clings to a log. Kiyoshi then saves Mako from a trio of seedy pimps looking to impress her into working for them, but after rescuing her, he forces himself on her again. With this unlikely beginning, Kiyoshi and Mako form a passionate though doomed romance. Soon she stops going to school and moves into his flea-ridden dive of an apartment. Utterly disillusioned with all trappings of societal convention, the two get cash by blackmailing businessmen and by shaking down Kiyoshi’s middle-aged sugarmama. Tension with this Bonnie and Clyde duo builds after Mako has an abortion in a run down clinic, performed by an alcoholic doctor. (Allmovie)
In the film’s chaotically fragmented and disorienting opening sequence, an over-animated, carefree adolescent student named Makoto (Kuwano Miyuki) recklessly runs up alongside a series of randomly selected vehicles caught in traffic and uses her disarming joviality to engage the unsuspecting driver into a polite, subtly flirtatious conversation before to attempting to ingratiate herself into obtaining a free ride home. However, as the anonymous driver soon diverts his automobile from the familiar main roads and onto the obscured, seedier alleys leading to the tawdrily ornamented love motels of the city’s pleasure quarters, complacency turns to anxiety as the instinctually sobered Makoto demands the driver to pull over the side of the road and hurriedly begins to walk away before being captured and overpowered by her unrelenting aggressor. A passerby dressed in a student uniform named Kiyoshi (Kawazu Yusuke) witnesses the violent encounter and immediately comes to the aid of the young woman. Having beaten and effectively subdued the middle-aged driver, Kiyoshi begins to coerce the humiliated offender into accompanying him to the police station in order to report the crime. In a desperate bid to stave off public embarrassment and avoid certain prosecution, the man attempts to buy Makoto and Kiyoshi’s silence with a handful of money, a momentary diversion that allows him to wrest free from Kiyoshi and escape. But Makoto’s circumstances would prove to be equally vulnerable as her rescuer now exploits the opportunity to violate the young woman (in a dysfunctional interrelationship that would be similarly revisited in Oshima’s subsequent film, Violence at Noon).
Traumatized by the incident and conflicted about Kiyoshi’s subsequent behavior, Makoto becomes convinced that she has fallen in love with her savior and, following a disapproving lecture by her sister Yuki (Yoshiko Kuga), impulsively decides to move in with the penniless student whose circumstances, unbeknownst to the naïve young woman, includes receiving continued financial support in exchange for sexual services from a wealthy, older woman and renting his room out to friends for their occasional afternoon trysts. Estranged from the watchful gaze of her concerned and protective – but enabling – family, Makoto soon discovers that liberation, too, has a cost as Kiyoshi, emboldened by the unexpected financial windfall resulting from the driver’s guilt-ridden attempt to buy off his transgression, decides to turn the fateful incident into a profitable scam by reenacting the scenario with other seemingly well-to-do businessmen (with Kiyoshi opportunely following behind on a borrowed motorcycle) as the lovers’ lead a life of desperate, thrill seeking abandon.
Deeply rooted in the dynamic sociopolitical climate of post-occupation Japanese society, Cruel Story of Youth is a stylistically bold, incisive, and provocative examination of hopelessness, victimization, apathy, exploitation, and cultural alienation. From the early image of an international newsreel footage illustrating the April 19, 1960 student uprising in Korea (a contemporary reference and specificity that is also suggested in the newsprint background of the jarring, red painted title sequence) that segues to a shot of the young lovers as literal bystanders at a protest march against the U.S.-Japan Security Pact, Nagisa Oshima draws, not only an implicit contrast between the idealism and impassioned activism of the student protestors and the nihilism and self-gratification of the aimless lovers, but also reflects on the ambivalent (and increasingly invasive) role of the U.S. in Japan’s road to post-occupation self-government. It is interesting to note that the committed (albeit perhaps naïve) ideology and sense of purpose embodied by the student activists is also hinted through the shared history of Makoto’s sensible and emotionally hardened sister Yuki and her former suitor Akimoto (Fumio Watanabe) – now a struggling (and equally disillusioned) physician who subsidizes his income by performing abortions – that serves as a representation of Oshima’s own generation.
Oshima further illustrates the film’s underlying theme of cultural rootlessness through recurring episodes of Makoto’s hitchhiking requests to be driven home (a seemingly elusive destination that invariably ends up in dark, dead-end alleys), the couple’s own absence of generational families (perhaps, from self-imposed exile), and the rotating series of couples who rent Kiyoshi’s room for their indiscreet liaisons that constantly flout the bounds of private home and public space. (Note the indelible image of an eerily tranquil and disconnected, almost surreal floating log “world” as a brash Kiyoshi violates Makoto, visually reflecting her profound isolation and emotional ambivalence towards Kiyoshi’s betrayal). In the end, it is through this collective sentiment of failed idealism, transience, and profound disconnection that Akimoto’s illicit, opportunistic, and reprehensible occupation can be seen, not only as a societal symptom of a lost generation’s aimlessness and moral bankruptcy (and lost innocence), but also as the metaphoric desire of a wounded national psyche to erase the unwanted legacy of a forced, and violative, union: to regain sovereign pride and self-determination after a protracted history of a seemingly benevolent – but ultimately embittering and culturally traumatic – imposed external will.
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