Naked Youth: A Story of Cruelty

A scrappy, nihilistic Japanese film from 1960 about teenage delinquents, made by Nagisa Oshima – he of In The Realm of the Senses fame. Naked Youth is only his second feature, and I liked its energy and honesty a lot more. Angela Carter felt betrayed by the willful inexplicability of Senses, but here Oshima is disarmingly direct. His Bonnie & Clyde Romeo & Juliet say precisely what they mean, and what Oshima means through them. And as a result you get a very clear portrait of the times – where a younger generation strains not only against the conformity of their parents, but the idealism of their older siblings. Instead the central lovers believe in nothing but their desires, and even that is crushed out of them by the necessity of selling yourself to live.

Because the only way Kiyoshi, a violent student, can survive is by selling his high-school girlfriend Makoto. They meet when he saves her from being raped by a man driving her home from a jazz bar. The man pays them for not going to the police. Later they make money by engineering the same scenario – Makoto leads men on and then Kiyoshi assaults and robs them when they go too far. The beautiful Makoto admits to feeling uncomfortable being objectified and operationalised in this way. But Kiyoshi sells his beauty as well – sleeping with an older woman who employs him at a hotel. Both youths are rescued from prison not by each other, but by their older lovers. That experience teaches Kiyoshi what objectification means, and he dies trying to save Makoto from that fate.

The tragedy is that Makoto cannot escape Kiyoshi. The most arresting and memorable shot of the film is when Kiyoshi breaks Makoto and rapes her. Makoto agrees to a date because she is grateful for her rescue, and attracted to her rescuer. But after a fun ride on a speedboat, Kiyoshi throws her into the water. A long tracking shot follows Makoto as she tries not to drown, with Kiyoshi (head out of frame) walking calmly beside her, kicking her hands away from the bank. She has no choice but to give in. Stockholm Syndrome sets in and she falls in love with her captor, despite his cruelty (ironically, some of their sweetest scenes together are by the water). At the end of the film she is willing to prostitute herself again for him. When he refuses, she has no meaning or value left and kills herself.

That level of masochism feels like a pointed rebuke at the valorisation of female suffering in Ozu and Mizoguchi. But the same elegaic tone is inherited from the two masters – an older generation lost for words at the out-of-control desires, broiling rage, and uninhibited individualism of the 1960s. It's an arresting vision, far more so than (what I've seen of) the contemporaneous French 'New Wave' it is often compared with.

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