“Seishun Zankoku Monogatari (Cruel Story of Youth)” is the second film directed by 28-year-old Nagisa Oshima and, while hardly the year’s best Japanese film, it is nevertheless of more than usual interest. A young girl (Miyuki Kuwano), restless, wanting excitement and experience, takes to accepting rides from men she does not know. A student friend (Yusuke Kawazu) rescues her from the advances of one of the middle-aged drivers but, sensing her vulnerability, takes her on a speed-boat ride and rapes her.
At first he professes to feel little interest in her, partly because he is deeply involved in an affair with an older woman, but gradually his feelings for her deepen. He returns to her, in time to protect her from violence at the hands of young hoodlums.
From this time on the two become lovers; over the rather feeble protests of her family the girl leaves home and goes to live in the student’s small, poverty stricken room. They have no money; the young gangsters reappear and have to be given money as the price for the girl’s safety. The boy suggests that the girl take to riding with strangers once more, acting as a decoy for the boy who will follow on a motorcycle,?rescue the girl, and obtain money by intimidation.
The plan works. But there is much they have not reckoned with. The girl becomes pregnant and must have an abortion. One of the gentler driver victims, wanting to save the girl from further wrong-doings and unhappiness, reports the couple’s extortion plan to the police and they are arrested. When they are released, the boy decides to leave the girl because he cannot protect her as he has grown to feel he should. They separate, the boy is murdered by the hoodlums who have come to demand the girl; the girl, who senses the student is in danger, is killed trying to escape from a speeding car.
Ostensibly the movie is a sociological study. To the extent it is, it succeeds. When it moralizes it fails. We see the individual restlessness and violence in Korea and Tokyo. The lovers have no idea what they should live for, but neither does the girl’s ineffectual father or her embittered, unhappy older sister (ably played by Yoshiko Kuga).
Despising the opportunism and materialism of others, the boy prides himself on being able, through cunning and violence, to gain what he wants from those he scorns. When the boy and girl finally begin to find, through the love they have developed for each other, something to live for beyond excitement and violence, the mistakes of their past overtake and utterly dismay them.
Those who would help them, the gentle older man and the stern police official, only make it impossible for lovers, especially the boy, to believe in their own salvations. The violent and too graphically shown endings both suffer are not only offensive and out of tone with the film; they are also unnecessary.
Although there is compassion for the lovers, their relationship is from the beginning doomed and for the most part not very happy. Although there are many scenes of love-making, there is little sense of passion. We feel instead isolation and separation. The room they share is poor and sordid. The boy cannot bear that others should have the illusion of happiness; in one scene he taunts a young girl with her boyfriend’s repeated and hither-to unknown infidelities. And always over the lovers, over their petty violences and gradually emerging tenderness, hangs the threat of evil, of absolute violence.
The picture has faults. The story is not original; the ending is both violent and sentimental. The gangster scenes are somehow unconvincing; the girl’s character is not seen as fully as the boy’s. Yet the film is strong and the young director obviously has great feeling for his medium.
Background sounds, of music or machines, are used sparingly and with sharp effect. Scenes are carefully planned; the original violent encounter between the two young people takes place on a raft of logs in a bay full of drifting logs. The boy and girl, hilariously happy, ride a stolen motorcycle along a deserted road and straight into the sea.
Scenes overlap and illuminate each other. In a mood of trust and happiness, immediately to be broken by the boy, the girl breaks into a jitterbug, the same dance she was being forced into by the hoodlums the night the boy came to her rescue. Strongest of all is the scene in the shabby little ?clinic after the girl’s operation. The boy watches over the unconscious girl; on the other side of the wall the elder sister and the pseudo-doctor, her former lover, talk about their own lost dreams and abandoned hopes. On his side of the wall the boy cries out, “I have no dreams, no hopes.” We hear the violent and somehow innocent sound of an apple being crunched while the camera studies his sad, despairing eyes.
The film has many failings, but it is unmistakably the work of a young director who should be watched. It is filmed in color and playing since June 3 for two weeks at Shochiku theaters.
This review as originally published on Thursday, June 9, 1960.