Nagisa Oshima is most widely known in the west for In the Realm of the Senses, a story of sexual obsession based on a true incident, which had censors everywhere reaching for their scissors. The fact that the film was also a metaphor for the militarist ills of Japan escaped them entirely. But Oshima shouldn’t be judged solely on the audacity and shock tactics of this admittedly astonishing film.
He was, in fact, only one of three outstanding film-makers who reacted against the classical, humanist cinema of Ozu, Mizoguchi and Kurosawa and delved into the structures of Japanese society as they were being broken down by the modern world. The other two were Imamura and Shinoda who, like Oshima, were deeply affected by the French new wave in their struggle against the studio system in Japan. It’s difficult to say who was the most successful, but each made unforgettable films totally different to the great Japanese movies of the 50s.
Oshima’s Death by Hanging (1968), Diary of a Shinjuku Thief (1969) and The Ceremony (1971) showed an even firmer grasp than In the Realm of the Senses of the way in which Japan was changing and the profound effect of that change. My favourite of his films, though, is Boy (1969), called Shonen in Japan.
Like Realm, its story was taken directly from newspaper clippings, and the film illustrates perfectly the view held by all three of these very different film-makers that the underbelly of Japan was often worth studying more deeply than conventional society, and that its denizens deserved as much understanding as anybody else. The lovers in Realm were outsiders, and so is the down-and-out itinerant family depicted in this far less notorious but equally impressive film.
The father is lazy and embittered, the step-mother more presentable in a tarty sort of way – ever hopeful that the father’s 10-year-old son will regard her with affection. The only way they can think of making a living is by using the boy as a breadwinner. He has to fake being injured in road accidents in order to blackmail “hospital money” out of drivers.
It’s a strategy that has some success until, perhaps inevitably, the boy is caught. But despite his confusion and obvious unhappiness, he refuses to admit anything to the police. His loyalty, even to this unsatisfactory family, is complete. To him, the world outside is an even worse prospect.
Oshima tells this odd tale, which could have sprung from Dickens, without sentimentality and secures from the boy the kind of natural performance that makes us weep. He seems a very normal child in abnormal circumstances, indulging in science-fiction fantasies and longing for a hero to believe in.
The portrait of Japan that Oshima paints is very different from the one westerners might expect. His main thrust is that, in such a society, rushing towards the economic miracle that was later to be so rudely interrupted, there are large numbers of people who will always be left behind. In these circumstances, it is perhaps not surprising that the family is unaware that they are doing wrong. They are just trying to survive.
Some of Oshima’s films, which all come from the left, even if he began to hate the leaders of the communist party he initially sympathised with, seem to be influenced by either Godard or Buñuel, as well as by a deep suspicion of Japanese traditions. But Boy, if it is to be compared with any European work, is more like a Truffaut film. Its comparatively straightforward narrative is linked to a warmth of expression that Oshima has seldom emulated since.