Review: Cruel Story of Youth (1960)

Ahead of it's time and an honest take on destructive adolescent love and dependency

Cruel Story of Youth first came out in 1960 in Japan but was not released over in the UK due to the risqué subject matter. The BBFC rejected the film back then but it was finally passed uncut in 2008 with a certificate of 15 and now it will be available for the first time on Blu-Ray in a dual format edition from August 17th 2015. It is the second film from young director Nagisa Oshima, who at the time was only 28 years of age and used hand-held cameras whilst shooting on location in Japan. The new Blu-Ray edition is resurrected with the Shochiku 4K scan and presented by The Masters of Cinema, promising only the best movie features. I go into this one with high hopes and expectations.

Cruel Story of Youth (Seishun zankoku monogatari) is a hopeless love story set in 1960’s Japan. It follows the life of Makoto (Miyuki Kuwano) a young woman in high school who is just reaching her sexual awakening and beginning to take risks when it comes to members of the opposite sex. She and her friend accepts car rides from middle aged men, with apparently no ulterior motives and no intention of leading the men on. One night, after taking a ride from one of the middle aged men she approaches, things begin to go sour and the man tries to take advantage of the young Makoto, at this moment a young man intervenes and saves Makoto, his name; Kiyoshi (Yûsuke Kawazu). Makoto and Kiyoshi embark on a destructive relationship, which they call love but is more closely resembling of an emotional dependence on each other and a rebellion against the structure and norms of society. Together they rely on each other and progress in their relationship, living with their misery and happiness denying the impending doom of their relationship and holding on to the only love they know.

The film throws you right into the story at the beginning and wastes no time setting the pace or tone for the rest of the movie. As this movie was shot and screened in Japan in 1960, I tried to watch it with a retrospective eye, as if I were sitting at home watching it back in that era (with some difficulty as I was born in the eighties; but, challenge accepted). The first thing I notice is the adult, risqué themes which aren’t approached lightly and rather, you are thrown into. Now, for the era in which it is set I can completely comprehend the restriction of the material being used; it is violent and shocking to dissolve and with that, very advanced. The protagonists are sexually active at a young age, engaging in criminal acts, and combining the two; luring people with sexuality. I will keep saying it: for the time in which it was set, and made it is a brilliantly advanced film – far ahead of its time, and shockingly accurate in the thoughts and feelings held by such a young love-blind couple.

My other peak when watching this film is the cinematography; it was very cleverly shot and put together. The use of hand-held cameras gave the shaky, secretive feel to the movie as if you are watching it unfold before you, through your own eyes. Combined with the colours and the clever use of lighting to highlight the gritty undertones and themes, it was beautiful to watch. It was definitely more engaging and believable than other movies set within the same time period and was on par with other shock cult films like Kids (1995) which explored some similar shock-worthy themes, but was done at a later date.

The director did incredibly well with this title, and despite its advanced provocative themes and revolutionary material there are some negatives, too. Mine are mostly to do with the characters; each of the main protagonists are developed well and are comparably different to each other so you don’t get bored with cookie cut character types being over-used in the same movie. However, although it is easy to find the personalities of these characters and they are laid bare, easy to read, each of the characters are instantly unlikeable. Makoto is portrayed as a silly love-struck fool persona, interested in men and sex but willing to overlook bad character traits – you cannot feel sorry for her as you feel more frustrated with her with each frame for entering into this situation. Kiyoshi is a violent thug-type who likes sex and doesn’t like women very much; the typical abusive boyfriend, and of course, loves the thrill of trouble. He is more of a villain, and instantly dislikeable for that reason alone, but made more so by his lack of respect, laziness and indifference. The supporting characters are equally as unlikeable and irritating to watch, the older sister type who is envious and bitter of her sister, the indifferent father, the sappy best friend. They are for the most part forgettable and aid nothing to the story.

Overall, I feel that the film perfectly captures the themes of sin; lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy and pride. Compiled together with blind infatuation and ahead of its time material, it’s definitely a film that is incredible for its time – that is if you can deal with the unlikeable and irritating character types. It has a brilliant, honest and provocative telling of what it’s like to be young and head-over-heels in love with somebody, despite what others may think of your whirlwind romance. Compared to today, the film is fairly mild with its themes (hence the 15 certificate) but was shocking then. It’s one that’s worth a watch if only to take a deep look into a young Bonnie and Clyde-type affair and if only to appreciate the significance this film had on film and Japanese cinema, exploring untouched adult themes.

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