Directed by Susumu Hani
In a bleak, white office, a young man frowns at the stern, emotionless authority figure in front of him. He tilts his head sideways, sucking his lip, wondering what the man’s going on about. He’d probably leave, if not for the armed guard seated right behind him. The man monotonously reads his record, “You are Hiroshi Asai, 18.” Hiroshi nods. “Needing money you planned a robbery with…” Hiroshi keeps nodding at the charges. He’s bored. Obviously this is not the first time that his life story has been read to him. Father killed in World War Two? Nod. Single mother working in a factory? Nod. Prone to a life of juvenile delinquency? Nod, nod. Get on with it already! The interrogation ends and Hiroshi is sent to a doctor who submits him to a series of bizarre tests and psychological examinations. It is determined that he is suffering from a case of juvenile delinquency. Obviously sending him to jail is the wrong choice. So the doctors and lawyers and men in tight, trite suits send him to a reform school where he can be “civilized” and made into a “proper citizen.”
What the men fail to realize is that instead of isolating him from Japanese society, they are throwing Hiroshi head-first into a new world, a highly structuralized and organized world, the world of bad boys.
The young men make up Hiroshi’s new environment represent the dregs of Japanese society: the poor, the disenfranchised, the forgotten. “I’ve seen the Ginza only through the window of a police van,” one inmate remarks. Bereft of a world on the outside, the young men create their own. There is a rigid class system: boys who have been there the longest are on the top of the ladder and the newer recruits are at the very bottom. The older kids get the respect and best food, the occasional cigarette, and other privileges. For the new kids, they have to prove their worth, be it standing up to a guard, smuggling in pornography, or joining a labor group. There are rules, and they demand observation.
Scenes of Hiroshi’s incarceration are interspersed with flashbacks to the time when he was on the outside. Before he was arrested, Hiroshi was an amateur thief who headed a small gang. They would rob the occasional store and cashier, but they mostly robbed people who had the misfortune of walking down the wrong alley at the wrong time. The gang, too, had rules. Chief among them was to never hit the same place twice…at least not without first waiting and letting it cool down first. It was the violation of this cardinal rule that resulted in Hiroshi’s capture. Indeed, unspoken rules are a constant theme in Bad Boys, as it is all throughout Japanese society. As one Japanese proverb goes, “The nail that sticks out gets hammered.” And so, while in reform school, Hiroshi carefully climbs the social ladder and becomes accepted by his peers. His acceptance comes at the embracing of their societal values and traditions. And there’s the rub: by joining the gangs in the reform school, Hiroshi himself becomes reformed, learning the value of responsible behavior and proper values. When he finally leaves the reform school, he goes so far as to thank the institution for helping him “see the light.” He isn’t a delinquent anymore, but a healthy, proper little nail…just like all of the others.
Many of my more astute readers may wonder why I am making such a big deal out of this film. After all, how is it different from other films about juvenile delinquency? The answer was simple: Bad Boys was a revolution in Japanese filmmaking. Its director, Susumu Hani, used a realistic approach, hiring actual street youth and former inmates to populate his film. He then made them rehearse and rehearse and rehearse until their characters were so naturalistic that Hani encouraged them to improvise their lines. In fact, much of the film is the result of improvisation, having entire scenes and passages thought up on the spot by the actors. Hani used handheld cameras and sparse, natural-like lighting to give his film a documentary-like quality. The result was so realistic that Hani introduces his film with the disclaimer: “This is a documentary film…But the story and characters depicted herein are fictitious.”
The film, while powerful and extraordinary on its own merits, was felt like a gunshot within Japanese cinema, for it was among the first films of the Japanese New Wave. Much like the French New Wave that arose at around the same time in France, the Japanese New Wave was a movement within the Japanese film industry that questioned convention and opened up new galaxies for filmmakers to explore. While the French New Wave was centered largely on the combined creative output of a group of French film critics, the members of the Japanese New Wave were largely studio-based. Where the French New Wave focused on deconstructing the elements of film theory and technique, the Japanese New Wave concerned itself with analyzing (and frequently rebelling against) social conventions and norms.
Coming on the heels of the end of the American Occupation following World War Two and the subsequent censorship of Japanese cinema, the New Wave directors explored themes that earlier filmmakers were not allowed (or possibly too scared) to touch, including youth delinquency, sexuality, and political activism. It was a symbolic changing of the guard, where the old masters gave way to rebellious upstarts who regarded them more often than not with contempt. Directors like Akira Kurosawa, Yasujiro Ozu, and Kenji Mizoguchi were not only seen as old fashioned, but as backwards. In their place came filmmakers like Nagisa Oshima, with his prolific and controversial films that assaulted Japanese sensibilities and social norms, Shohei Imamura, champion of the down and out, of the prostitute and pornographer, and Hiroshi Teshigahara, the bold experimentalist who captured the imagination of American and European audiences.
These directors have since become heroes of the cinema within films circles, rightfully praised as pioneers and explorers of movie technique and content…all except Susumu Hani. Of all of the major figures of the Japanese New Wave, Hani is the one that the world forgot. To understand what Susumu’s neglect within film circles in similar to, imagine if none other than French New Wave director Francois Truffaut was forgotten about and ignored by later film critics and viewers. The disregard for Hani and his work is staggering. I imagine that most of you reading this article are hearing about him for the very first time. Why is this? Well, perhaps it was because Hani’s films were so difficult to define and categorize, even within the anarchic context of the Japanese New Wave.
For starters, while the other prominent members of the Japanese New Wave worked within the studio system, Hani worked as an independent filmmaker. He started as a documentary filmmaker, producing such groundbreaking Japanese documentaries as Children in the Classroom (1954) and Children Who Draw (1956). Bad Boys was his first feature film. His next films were penetrating and explorations of individuals trapped by stringent social values and expectations. But where Hani truly departed was with his fascination with other cultures. He would travel to Africa and South America several times to make films such as Song of Bwana Toshi (1965) and Bride of the Andes (1966). These films were truly unique and significant within the confines of the Japanese New Wave, for while his colleges like Oshima and Imamura focused on how Japanese people reacted to each other inside their own society, Hani explored how Japanese people reacted to other races and cultures. He rejected the myth of the xenophobic Japanese individual to embrace interaction with other peoples.
If Susumu Hani was the forgotten Truffaut of the Japanese New Wave, then Bad Boys was his The 400 Blows. It focused on disaffected and disenfranchised youth sent to reform schools in order to “correct” their behavior. It announced the emergence of a powerful new figure within Japanese cinema, one who was ready and willing to shake things up and reshape the industry. But while Truffaut has been worshipped as one of the patron saints of the cinema, Susumu Hani has faded into obscurity. It is this travesty of justice that compels my pen and forces me to write about this truly revolutionary figure and this truly ground-breaking film. Maybe one day they will experience a revival of popularity and finally gain the respect that they deserve. One can only hope…
Message from the Editor: Due to the almost non-existent availability of this film in the West, I have decided to post the film on youtube. However, I don’t know how. I don’t have a DVD copy, but instead a single .avi file. Are there any free programs that can split it up into ten minute segments and convert it to a different file format? If you can help, please leave tips and instructions in the comments section. Thanks!
Also, does anybody know any good programs for taking screenshots of .avi files? There are almost no pictures of the film online and I want to include more images in this post.