Blu-ray review: Cruel Story of Youth

Starring: Miyuki Kuwano, Yusuke Kawazu
Director: Nagisa Oshima

cruel-story-of-youth 1With it jukebox soundtrack and mood of torrid melodrama, this early film from Nagisa Oshima (best remembered for his explicit BDSM art movie In the Realm of the Senses) has something in common with the sort of American drive-in flick of the 50s which would set out to explain what happened to good girls when they kept bad company. Bored thrill seeker Makoto is saved from the clutches of a rapey middle-aged man by arrogant, fast-with-his-fists Kiyoshi, but it’s out of the frying pan into the fire. Eager for money and an excuse to beat people up, he starts using her as a honeytrap for drunken businessmen, and it’s not long before she’s been eyed up as fodder for violent pimps.

What Cruel Story of Youth (1960) has which its American B-movie forebears don’t is an unflinching honesty beneath its lurid surface. It’s focus is firmly on Makoto and the jeopardy she’s in. Kiyoshi is a nasty piece of work who exercises a lordly, arbitrary power over her, but she puts up with it because for all his flaws she finds the experience of being with him liberating. Even with a Kiyoshi figure to drag her to her doom, the film makes it clear what a razor’s edge an independent-minded Japanese woman had to walk in the early ’60s.

The movie is shot in colour ‘Scope in a style that seems determined to outdo the sultry, cruel-story-of-youth 2heightened ambience of Nicolas Ray films, and the sharp Italian fashions and scenes of shadowy, cross-lit jazz bars ensure that the couple’s downfall has a sulphurous, nourish glamour. In its own way, Cruel Story of Youth is just as searingly intense as In the Realm of the Senses, and the fact that it delivers such hard-hitting subject matter within the stringent censorship rules of the time only adds to its explosive feeling of bottled-up turmoil. 8/10

No grain or dirt, figures seem solid and sharp-edged, and the hot, intense palette of the cruel-story-of-youth 3Shockiku Grandscope cinematography comes up vibrantly on this transfer. During an early scene that takes place on some floating logs, you can see minute details of bark and grain. Later, in a scene where Makato is talking on a red telephone, there’s a clear contrast between the greenish tints of her face and the intense scarlet of the handpiece. All all all, the best HD transfer of a vintage Japanese colour movie we’ve seen. 10/10

Thorough and articulate 55-min talking head piece by Tony Rayns, the go-to guy for info on Asian cinema. He talks about the background to the Shochiku studio and how it was keen to cash in on the then hot topic of juvenile delinquency, before going on to sketch in Oshima’s career (he soon left the studio to strike out as an indie filmmaker), his political beliefs and perennial themes of social unrest expressing itself in sexuality and violence. 8/10


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