Oshima Nagisa’s Cruel Story of Youth is about two students , Makoto Shinjo and Kiyoshi Fuuji, who scam lecherous old men for their money. On the surface, Cruel Story of Youth utilizes two characters that rebel against society to paint a picture of Japan’s youth at the time as irresponsible and nonchalant towards the customs and rules created by the older generation. Oshima illustrates Makoto and Kiyoshi as youth removed from these customs by making non-diegetic jazz numbers their theme music, further imbuing within them the sense of spontaneity and free will that is laden in the less structured musical genre. However, even though Oshima wants us to observe their rebellion, he urges us to realize that both Makoto and Kiyoshi are rebelling for little reason. He uses a combination of brilliant cinematic techniques to separate us from the movie and the story, allowing us to objectively observe just how internally lost and brashly misguided the teenagers are. He creates characters so vile and self consumed that even when they die as teenagers, we feel little remorse even though they are our protagonists.
The film opens with Makoto and her friend Akimoto both trying to hitchhike a ride home. The girls find a man who is willing to take them back, but after the stranger drops Akimoto off at her house, he offers to buy Makoto dinner. Only after she accepts his proposal for dinner does she realize that they’ve stopped in front of a hotel. When she leaves the car and denies the strangers advances, things get physical and she scratches the man’s face in self defense. After a closeup of his rage, he slaps her three consecutive times and forces her into kissing him. However, after the kiss, the man steps back out of the frame so that we can fully observe Makoto’s expression. Oshima previously led us to believe that Makoto’s naiveté allows her to be assaulted and causes us to criticize the old generation that attacks her. However, in this moment, Oshima allows the alert viewer a close up of Makoto’s expression which clearly indicates arousal. Instead of running from her assailant, she stares at his penis, which transforms her naive depiction into that of a sexual deviant. Furthermore, she invites him to kiss her again by slowly closing her eyes as he comes back into the screen.
Oshima initially wanted us to think that the old generation is failing the new in this scene. He pairs a sleazy looking businessman with a shiny car and slicked back hair, with a beautiful young woman whose vibrantly colored outfit and contemporary hairstyle indicate her modernity. However, when Kiyoshi comes to her “rescue” by savagely beating the man and taking his money as compensation, Oshima pushes the point that it is the new generation oppressing the old.
After they take the man’s money they decide to spend it on a boat and ride into something reminiscent of a dock. While they are playing around and hopping from log to log Kiyoshi spontaneously kisses her, but is slapped in the face. He slaps her back twice and throws her into the water, only allowing her to get out if she agrees to having sex with him. Once she physically can’t swim anymore she offers her hand to him and he hoists her up out of the water, but only in order to lay her down on the logs and have his way with her.
During the scene it is important to take note that there is no ambient sound at all. When we get the first shot of them on the docks, we can’t help but hear that there are no sounds of birds or waves, but solely the sounds of their voices. As a viewer we want to immerse ourselves into the film’s story and align ourselves with the characters, but the lack of ambient noise keeps us from doing so. Oshima during the scene constantly reminds us that we are watching a movie, and not reality by stripping an aspect of reality that everyone is used to experiencing. By forcing the viewer to realize that he is watching a movie, Oshima enables us to take what is happening on screen at face value by taking our own sentiments out of the equation. He creates a parallel between Kiyoshi and the previous businessman by not only having them both attempt rape on Makoto, but also by duplicating the way he slaps her across the face. He effectively saves Makoto from sexual assault, only to bring her to a remote location so he can rape her. However, shortly after the rape, the ambient noise returns and we hear the loud engines of an overhead airplane followed by Kiyoshi swimming in the water next to Makoto. By bringing the viewer back to “reality,” or a world with ambient sound, he detaches the rape scene from the movie, and our conscious thoughts. Seeing Kiyoshi swimming afterwards and tenderly kissing Makoto on the cheek causes the viewer to treat the rape as if it was something that occurred in a dream. However when Makoto asks Kiyoshi if he “was mad at her” after she wakes up, we are obliged to think of Makoto as not a victim, but a character in a movie whose masochism and lack of self-esteem represent the problems within her generation.
Makoto continues to allow Kiyoshi to abuse her throughout the movie, as she is essentially pimped out in order to make money for the two of them to spend. However, the most important scene to highlight would have to be the one that seems the most disjunct from the rest of the movie. After Makoto tells Kiyoshi that she is pregnant, he gives her money to abort the baby, but is furious when Makoto tells him that she has slept with another man. In his rage he pushes Makoto to the ground and the camera moves from Makotos face, to her womb, and then rests on her face again. However, before Makoto is given time to express herself, we get a blaring shot of a mixer truck that was in the background for about 10 seconds (29 minutes left).
Oshima uses the mixer for two distinct purposes: to detach the viewer from the movie so that we can absorb what happens before it, and to keep the viewer thinking of what is going to happen next. Unlike the vase in Ozu’s “Late Spring”, the mixer is meant to incite more thought on what is happening and going to happen on screen. When we hear the booming noise of the churning, the audience is given time to realize that Kiyoshi forces a woman pregnant with his child to the ground. Such a villainous act is highlighted when Oshima pans the camera from Makoto’s face to her baby, and back to her face which exudes fear and desperation.
During the churning the audience assumes the worst for Makoto, and we infer that he is going to force himself upon her again as she lies helpless on the ground. However, after the static shot, we see her lying in the same exact position as before, awaiting her fate. Oshima doesn’t allow Makoto to move after such a long shot to highlight the time that she waits on the ground helplessly for Kiyoshi to assault her. Similar to the scene with the sleazy businessman, Makoto after being abused becomes despicably docile and her compliance should irritate viewers. When Kiyoshi finally hits her twice, she tells him that while she was having sex with Horio, (an older, kinder gentlemen) she couldn’t stop thinking about Kiyoshi. By inciting us to pay special attention to her character by removing us from the story, Oshima wants us to bridge her cravings for sex with her desire for abuse. Instead of choosing a kind, older, and stable man that her sister of the previous generation wanted, she rebels against that ideal and desires instability. She demands to date Kiyoshi when he doesn’t want to see her again, moves in with him after he rapes her, and allows him to use her for profit in a way that’s almost as bad as pimping. She is a character Oshima portrays as thoroughly misguided and masochistic, even though her character considers herself a tortured romantic.
Oshima also uses music to give us perspective on the characters by assigning jazz as their theme music. When the characters are enjoying their time together, jazz plays non-diegetically in the background in order to emphasize their freedom. The musical genre that lacks concrete structure exemplifies the new generation’s yearning for individuality and freedom from supposed customs. However, in one scene when Kiyoshi is in his room and he turns on the radio, classical music comes on. Classical, which is thought to have the most structure, is supposed to signify the the older generation and the pressure to align oneself with the rest of society. Despite it signifying things polar to Kiyoshi’s ideals, he doesn’t change the station, but actually makes it louder and identifies the work as Beethoven. While Beethoven is playing he moves to the bar and starts cleaning the glasses, only to reveal his insidious plan of breaking up his friend’s relationship. Despite his disdain for adults and their culture, Oshima uses the classical music to paint Kiyoshi as the very thing he despises. Adults throughout the movie have interfered with Makoto’s and his relationship, whether it is the gangsters who demand money from him, or the woman whom he pleasures for money. But now Oshima illuminates him by turning him into the villain that wants to break up a youthful relationship, similar to how the older generation continues to hamper his. When he is asked if he would stoop that low, the viewer is already supposed to know that he will because his body is crouched after breaking a glass, which makes him physically “low” to the ground. The music crescendos into fortissimo and he replies with “Maybe, you never know.”
Oshima displays his mastery of both the visual and auditory to underline just how selfish, and destructive the younger generation was. By becoming so obsessed with the idea of rebelling, the characters damage themselves in ways that cause us to lose our sympathy by the end of the movie, even though they perish in the most dramatic of fashions.