For his 14th feature (in only a decade), leading Japanese New Wave luminary Nagisa Oshima made a fascinating film that has come to be regarded as one of his most acclaimed and interesting works: Shonen (Boy, 1969). Boy is a film about a family who repeatedly pretend to be hit by cars in order to extort money from their drivers; travelling across Japan to make a living from this criminal practice. Like his earlier Koshikei (Death by Hanging, 1968), which is in many ways a companion piece, this film was based on a series of notorious and well-documented events that occurred in 1966. However, unlike its formally and conceptually radical forebear, this is, on the surface, a relatively naturalistic and transparent drama. But it is one that, as Maureen Turim notes, is still rife with “devices that immediately call our attention to the artificial, the contrived” (1), and that thus highlights a marked tension and instability within the narrative. One may then state, as Allan Casebier has done, that Oshima extrapolates from this duality in order to open up “gaps and fissures” (2) in the fabric of the film, as well as key storytelling elisions within it that facilitate an active spectatorship whose engagement with the text can be critical and questioning, rather than conventionally sutured. This play of opposites – most apparent in the sporadic changes from colour to black-and-white, and from the main narrative to an official recounting of the details of the family’s crime in an apparent news broadcast (very typical of this director) – becomes reflective of Oshima’s exploration of the mediation and dissemination (in other words the representation) of the crimes, and thus directs our attention to and complicates, as well as interrogates, his realist aesthetic.
Oshima has stated that such crimes as the one depicted in Boy began occurring around 1960, at a time when “the country experienced a period of high growth during which the number of cars on the roads increased” (3). As such, the family at the heart of the scandal was a by-product of Japan’s then-embryonic economic miracle, a parasitic entity to be sure but one that may be inferred to exist in the increased class distinctions and divisions fostered by such a capitalistic society. The director offers a largely balanced portrait that, whilst focalised through the young male of the title, nonetheless considers his stepmother, father and younger brother and the complexity and unity of their family. One of the aforementioned narrative elisions occurs when the boy runs away from home. He is abruptly shown back with his parents, the decision to return being eschewed so as to complicate our feelings toward the boy, to make us question his motivations and, by extension, the extent of his culpability for the crimes in which he takes part as against his desire for a family life.
The narrative of Boy is similarly complex and ambiguous elsewhere. For example, events are temporally reordered when the family is captured and, in places, collections of still images are shown in accompaniment with the boy’s voiceover narration (another paradigmatic Oshima trope). Of course, the travails of youth – of both children (such as in his first feature Ai to kibo no machi [Town of Love and Hope, 1959] and the short companion piece to Boy entitled Yunbogi no nikki [Yunbogi’s Diary, 1965]) and adolescents (Zangiku monogatari [Cruel Story of Youth, 1960], among numerous others) – frequently occupied Oshima’s attention as it did for all of the key New Wave directors. What is significant in this case is the implicit contrast with other films and filmmakers who had similarly used children to drive home points about postwar Japan. Familial and generational discord resulting from living in a new consumer capitalist society had informed Yasujiro Ozu’s Ohayo (Good Morning, 1959) and its story of two young boys perturbed by their father’s refusal to buy a new television (although it was actually an update of Ozu’s much earlier Otona no miru ehon – Umarete wa mita keredo [I Was Born, But…, 1932]). Oshima subtly reflects this incipient capitalism through a preponderance of early scenes that take place during meal times (literal consumption) and in the scenes where the boy’s stepmother buys him a wristwatch in an attempt to win his favour. Here people are goods and objects, and their bodies are delimited for their material use value, their status in the discourses of capital. This echoes Oshima’s earlier film Taiyo no hakaba (The Sun’s Burial, 1960) and its narrative built around the illegal trade in human blood. The boy’s voiceover, and the point-of-view shots that he alone is granted, attest to a proto-subjectivity that, along with his inculcation into crime, positions him in a dialectical generational tension, caught between his own and his father’s generation in a struggle that was so important to Oshima and his contemporaries in the turbulent, politicised 1960s.
Elsewhere Oshima makes full use of the widescreen ’Scope frame in order to suggest something of the fractious relationship between generations. One early scene shows the boy’s stepmother and father at one side of the composition, negotiating a deal with a driver, whilst their son watches on from the extremity of the other side of the frame, spatially distinct from their transaction and thus seemingly distanced from their crimes. Such compositions feature less as the narrative develops; indeed the boy becomes more and more central, until at one key moment he is pictured as the static heart of a shot otherwise filled with movement around him. This also inscribes another tension – one between movement and stasis – into the narrative. The family must remain nomadic in order to evade arrest, and their cross-country travels are, like those of the criminal protagonist in another film by a New Wave director – Shohei Imamura’s Fukushu suru wa ware ni ari (Vengeance is Mine, 1979) – reflective of a subversive critique of the perceived materiality of nationhood. Train, boat and plane travel eventually take the family to Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island, where they proclaim themselves to be at the end of the nation. In so doing they foreground the finite status of the Japanese landscape, outrunning its cities and its culture to find themselves on the boundaries of its geographical territories, a place where it segues into Russia and is cemented by what the protagonist of Death By Hanging would call an “abstraction”. Identity here – be it national or personal – is an amorphous entity, and typically for Oshima he refuses any pat answers or glib summaries. The unnamed boy in Boy remains just that: a question mark; a provocation; an invocation and an invitation. Our responses to this will tell us as much about ourselves as it will about this director and his film.
1. Maureen Turim, The Films of Oshima Nagisa: Images of a Japanese Iconoclast, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1998, p. 93.
2. Allan Casebier, “Oshima in Contemporary Theoretical Perspective”, Wide Angle vol. 9, no. 2, 1987, p. 12.
3. Nagisa Oshima, Cinema, Censorship, and the State, trans. Dawn Lawson, MIT Press, Cambridge and London, 1992, p. 170.
Shonen/Boy (1969 Japan 97 mins)
Prod Co: Art Theatre Guild/Sozosha Prod: Masayuki Nakajima, Takuji Yamaguchi Dir: Nagisa Oshima Scr: Takeshi Tamura Phot: Seizo Sengen, Yasuhiro Yoshioka Ed: Sueko Shiraishi, Keiichi Uraoka Prod Des: Shigemasa Toda Mus: Hikaru Hayashi
Cast: Fumio Watanabe, Akiko Koyama, Tetsuo Abe, Tsuyoshi Kinoshita