Nagisa Oshima and A Cruel Story of Youth

The French New Wave gets all the love. It seems every director who’s worked in the past 50 years has noted its influence, or had it noted for them by others. It’s beloved by film students, its jump cuts, handheld camerawork, location photography and often lack of narrative cohesion offering in their minds perhaps an easy way to stand out. And when people make fun of the idea of the “Art film” almost without fail what they’re teasing is the French Nouvelle Vague, whether conscious of it or not.

Perhaps, you could argue, it was because the French filmmakers like Godard, Truffaut and Demy really got the ball rolling with what would become a trend of “New Waves” all across the globe. I’m talking the New Hollywood, or American New Wave, the Australian New Wave and, of course, the Japanese New Wave. But that kind of talk seems like nothing more than rewriting history, if for no other reason than the filmmaker Nagisa Oshima.

Nagisa Oshima, who would become known as the “Avatar” of the Japanese New Wave, was 13 in 1945 when the war ended. He never attempted to hide the fact that the end of the war, or perhaps the society at large’s response to it, had an indelible effect on him. Perhaps if those around him were as willing to let it affect them as he was the wound might have been easier to bear.

“The problem was who in Japan was responsible for it. Our teachers who up until the day before had been militarists and emperor worshippers started to talk the next day all about democracy and freedom and equality and charity. I keenly felt their unwillingness to accept responsibility for their views,” he said, in 1985.

Oshima, with a career spanning four decades, was possibly the greatest critic of Japanese society to ever live. Whether he was criticising Japan’s far right militaristic past with Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, or his disillusionment with the Japanese left wing with Night and Fog in Japan, no one was safe from falling between his crosshairs.

In 1960, at the age of 28, Nagisa Oshima released his first, by modern standards, feature length film; A Cruel Story of Youth. A story of teenagers falling in and out of love, and in and out of trouble, as quickly as the film’s brisk pacing. A Cruel Story of Youth is noted today for having that same energy and spirit that would be defined as one of the French New Wave’s most distinct features. But it’s worth noting that in the same year as Oshima’s film’s release, France would see the release of what is widely regarded as the seminal work of the French New Wave; Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless.

We see in A Cruel Story of Youth Oshima’s unflinching uncompromising eye on full display. He takes a theme that, with the masterful works of those like Yasujiro Ozu (Tokyo Story, Floating Weeds, An Autumn Afternoon), had already become tradition in Japanese Cinema, the conflict between old and new generations, and gives it an almost volcanic energy. While Ozu’s films are beautiful, slow and meditative, Oshima’s A Cruel Story of Youth is fast and, like it’s title would suggest, cruel.

While characters depicted in the film show their fair share of cruelty within the first few minutes, the title could just as easily be referring to Oshima’s own depiction of them. He doesn’t attempt to forgive anyone in the film for their transgressions or flaws, he doesn’t let anyone get away with anything. The recklessness and voracious sexual appetite of youth are given just as much time as is given to their close relationship to violence.

Similar to the critical response to folk like Stanley Kubrick or film critic Pauline Kael or The Paris Review co-founder and participatory journalist George Plimpton, some critics couldn’t stop themselves from desperately trying to find ways to write off Oshima. But to me, Nagisa Oshima’s films are as if you mixed together the stunning visuals, impeccable eye for composition and themes of Yasujiro Ozu with the energy, raw power and merciless sharp eye of John Cassavetes.

“My films are both fiction and documentary. The camera is shooting the action, and this becomes a document. What I hate most in cinema is sentimentalism. I want to follow humans in an ultra-logical way. If you do this, the essence of the human comes out and you have something as real as non-fiction.”

Written by Tom May
Tom May is a Melbourne based writer, filmmaker and columnist with a vast knowledge of film, BBQ and Paul Thomas Anderson.