Where Forgotten Films Dwell

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Thursday, May 20, 2010

少年 (Boy)

Directed by Nagisa Oshima

To the cinephile, there are certain Japanese directors that come to mind as celluloid titans: Kurosawa with his relentless innovation, Mizoguchi with his devout humanism, and Ozu with his patient wisdom. But there are other names that rocked the foundations of Japanese cinema that are not as familiar to Westerners, or even to their Japanese counterparts, such as Imamura, Teshigahara, Suzuki, and Nakahira. These are some of the members of the Japanese New Wave, or the Nuberu bagu from the French Nouvelle vague. Arising in the late 1950s and lasting throughout the early 1970s, the members of the Japanese New Wave represented an explosion of cinematic experimentation and innovation. Arising from Japanese movie studios, the directors of the Japanese New Wave were committed to questioning, critiquing, and deconstructing social conventions. Shohei Imamura shocked audiences by delving into the private and public lives of the dregs of Japanese society such as prostitutes, pornographers, and murderers. Seijun Suzuki, a master of low-budget genre films, was eventually fired from his movie studio for making “incomprehensible films” that confused audiences but would go on to inspire the likes of Quentin Tarantino and Jim Jarmusch. Hiroshi Teshigahara gained international acclaim for his avant-garde shorts and experimental feature films. But of all the Japanese New Wave directors, none were as notorious or influential as the legendary Nagisa Oshima.

Oshima was one of the most prolific directors of the Japanese New Wave and one of the few to have internationally successful films. Unlike his Japanese New Wave brethren, Oshima’s roots are more similar to those of the French New Wave. He began his career as an analytical film critic who later sat in the director’s chair. His first few movies reflected his opinions as a film critic. His second film, A Cruel Story of Youth (1960), is often compared to Godard’s Breathless (1960) and Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959). But as his career progressed, he started to move away from filmmaking that was intended to revolutionize the industry and began to make films that, like the work of other Japanese New Wave directors, were intended to challenge Japanese social norms. Night and Fog in Japan (1960) scrutinized Japanese political and social movements. Death by Hanging (1968) was a Brechtian examination of the Japanese legal system and racism towards ethnically Korean Japanese. His most famous film, In the Realm of the Senses (1976), was a controversial (many would even call it pornographic) look into the sexual lives of two outcasts from Japanese society.

But one film that frequently gets overlooked is the powerful and heartbreaking Boy (1969). Different from all of his other films, it was a devastating look into the life of a young boy who is forced into a life of crime by his family. Similar to In the Realm of the Senses, it was based off real events that Oshima read about in Japanese newspapers. In 1966 a family was arrested for traveling all over Japan and faking getting hit by cars only to swindle money from the unfortunate drivers. The family gained notoriety for frequently making their son pretend to be the victim of their staged pedestrian collisions. Within ten days of reading the article, Oshima had constructed a team to make a film adaptation of the story.

Oshima was always a stylistic chameleon. Unlike his compatriots, who could usually be defined by set of established stylistic tendencies, Oshima changed his techniques as he moved from film to film. Night and Fog in Japan was dominated by long takes and beautiful widescreen compositions, Violence at Noon (1966) used extensive jump cuts (like Godard did in Breathless), and Pleasures of the Flesh (1965) played like a soft-core “pink film.” So how would one describe Boy? My best approximation is that it feels like an Ozu on fast forward. It is a deliberately paced film that doesn’t rush itself, even during the car accident scenes. Each frame seems like a carefully constructed photograph. But instead of featuring his characters as the heart of his compositions, Oshima uses his constructions to isolate his characters. They are rarely in the center of the frame and instead dwell at the top, bottom, or sides of the frames. They are frequently shot in wide areas such as streets, country sides, and by the end the frozen wastelands of northern Hokkaido that make them seem small, or diminutive. This serves to remind the audience that this criminal family is isolated from regular society.

Much like a film by Ozu, Boy centers on the social dynamics of the family. The father is as abusive veteran of the Second World War. He dominates his family and has trained them to be able to skip town at a drop of a hat. The mother is a loving parent, but is frequently powerless against the whims of her husband. Against her judgment, she is forced into using her oldest son as the fall person in their scams after she gets pregnant. It is obvious that she wants more out of life, but is unable to escape from her family. Whether her decision to not abandon the family is derived from genuine love for her children or from her feelings of responsibility as a wife and mother is unclear. All that we are certain of it that she is not in control of her life.

But the true star of the film is Toshio, the young boy who must pretend getting hit by cars. Played by real life orphan Tetsuo Abe, he gives one of the greatest child performances ever committed to the screen. A product of a broken childhood, Abe brings an unusual life to his character. Toshio obviously hates his life and what his family makes him do. In fact, he runs away from his family several times. But each time he returns to them. Caught up between what he wants and his love for his family, particularly his infant brother, he is unable to exist by himself. He needs his family and works to protect them, even after they are captured by the police at the end of the film.

Easily the most endearing relationship in the film is between Toshio and his younger brother. In three key scenes, one on a boat, one on an airplane, and one in a snowy field, we see the true love and affection between the brothers. Toshio entertains his brother by teaching him words and telling him fantastical stories. One such story is of aliens from the Andromeda galaxy who will one day fly down to earth and destroy all of the evil people. Is Toshio talking about his mother and father? It’s impossible to know. But these scenes are among the most powerful in Oshima’s

Eventually, the family is captured by the police in Hokkaido. They are captured for two reasons. First, they are photographed by the police after one of their victims refuses to pay them to keep the incident quiet. This allows for the family to be recognized by the authorities from all over Japan. The second is because they literally have nowhere else to run, as they have pulled their scheme all over Japan and Hokkaido is the last place where they won’t be recognized by the police or the hospital staff. In one telling scene, the family stands at the northern most part of Japan where they read a sign that describes the intersection of the oceans surrounding Japan. They have literally reached the end. But even after they are captured, Toshio refuses to cooperate with the police. But why?

To understand the answer, one must first understand why Oshima made the film. He always enjoyed making films about Japanese society’s outcasts. So a family of criminals would obviously inspire Oshima. But what is Oshima trying to accomplish with Boy? Is it to demonstrate that even outcasts can band together and take care of one another? Is it a satire of Japanese social mores where even an abused boy cannot betray his family? Or is it like Toshio’s story about the aliens from Andromeda in that it is just a piece of fantasy? Perhaps it is all of these things. Then again, perhaps it is none of them. That is the genius of Oshima. Some films can be figured out, their symbols decoded, and their characters’ motivations identified and analyzed. But Boy seems to defy these answers. Maybe that was Oshima’s reason for making it. It depicts the contradictions and hypocrisies of a society where people cannot escape from the bonds that define them, even when it threatens their well-being. So in a way, Boy is one of Oshima’s most political films. It may not have Brechtian overtones or the other attributes that made his films so notorious, but Boy is just as rebellious and defiant as anything that Oshima ever made. It is up to the audience to figure out how and why.



  1. Your account of the boy's relationship with his criminal parents kind of reminds me of Faulkner's short story Barn Burning. I detect a lot of Marxist undertones in both.

  2. I'm not sure if Boy had any Marxist undertones. At least not intentionally. Yes, Oshima was a committed leftist throughout his entire career. But he actually had major problems with Communism.