By the mid-1960s Japan has miraculously recovered from the Second World War, defeat, military occupation. Or had it? Writer-director Nagisa Oshima’s Shonen detects a residue, a social warping, an appalling degeneration. His is a precise and burrowing film.
The focus here is on a criminal, renegade family. Father is a wound-riddled war veteran. Chillingly, Mother is absent; we never learn her fate. But Stepmother is on hand: the Boy’s Stepmother, that is, and the infant boy’s biological mother. Father has impressed his family into a routine of grifting in order to earn a living. Either Boy or Stepmother rushes into the course of a moving car, sustains a hopefully limited injury, and Father on that basis extorts money from the driver. But the authorities aren’t insensible, one of the patsies turns out to be a savvy garage mechanic, and the family is on the run, northwards. The color film passes into and out of black and white.
This film really ripped at my heart. Boy: “I don’t think anything about anything”—and Boy’s general demeanor suits the disposition of this remark. Father is a nasty, raging bully, partly to rail against the loss of his traditional authority as a consequence of the war; Stepmother, reflecting the same assault on the Japanese family, believes that Boy is out to get her. She casually tosses away the one thing that Boy holds onto as his own: his cap. Compare Oshima’s analytical treatment of this cap and the sentimental treatment Peter Bogdanovich affords another boy’s cap in The Last Picture Show (1971).
Is it possible Oshima knows his Little Caesar (Mervyn LeRoy, 1930)? “Is this the end of Japan?” Boy asks. He is referring, of course, to geography; but the line reverberates beyond this ten-year-old’s intent.
A beautiful film.
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