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Japanese director Nagisa Oshima earned worldwide notoriety with his extravagant, sexually explicit love-death drama In the Realm of the Senses (1976). Yet by the time he made that film, Oshima had been directing features since 1959 and had been one of several young Japanese filmmakers influenced by the style and subject matter of the iconoclastic French Nouvelle Vague of the 1960s.
Like his French counterparts, Oshima worked as a film critic after graduating from Kyoto University in 1954, and later as editor in chief of a film magazine. He began his filmmaking career at Shochiku, the home studio of one of Japan's great humanist directors, Yasujiro Ozu. But Oshima, like fellow Japanese new wave directors such as Shohei Imamura (a former Ozu assistant at Shochiku), rejected the traditional themes and style of "classical" directors like Ozu and Akira Kurosawa. Instead, Oshima's early films showed the French influence, with their quick editing, experimental style, and focus on social issues, outlaw characters, and leftist political attitudes.
Boy (Shonen) is one of Oshima's most accessible films. Its straightforward simplicity is reminiscent of his earliest work. Years later, the director admitted that with Boy he purposely chose to mark his decade as director by working again with "the heart of a novice." Although the film is traditional in style, its subject matter is modern and timely, focusing on society's outcasts. Based on a real-life case, it's about a 10-year old boy whose World War II veteran father and stepmother make a living by pretending to be hit by cars and extorting money from the drivers. The family moves aimlessly from town to town, living a feast-or-famine existence and evading the law. Eventually, the boy (whose parents never refer to him by name, but simply as "Boy") learns to take the fall, and joins the family business. His only escape is his imagination, and he narrates fanciful tales of aliens and monsters to his toddler brother, who is too young to understand, but always willing to listen. Only Boy's concern for the younger child finally lets him break the bleak cycle and emotional violence of the family's existence. Oshima said in an interview that what interested him most in the newspaper account of the real-life crime the film was based on was that the boy refused to say anything to police, even though his parents had confessed. "What that suggested to me was that the boy realized that...the society he lived in had not permitted him any alternatives." The credibility of the film rests on nine-year old Tetsuo Abe, whose performance is the linchpin of the story. Unable to find a young actor for the role, Oshima and his crew searched streets and orphanages in Tokyo, where they found Abe, an orphan who had been abandoned by his stepmother. His performance carries the conviction of his own experiences. According to Oshima, members of the crew offered to adopt Abe after the film was finished, but the boy refused. He preferred to return to the orphanage, saying that his own experience with families had been too negative and he did not want to belong to one.
During production, the company moved from town to town, working in all kinds of weather, replicating the family's transient lifestyle and adding another level of truth to the film. Shot in widescreen and color, Boy's ravishing compositions demonstrate Oshima's mastery of the medium. The film won best screenplay awards from both the Kinema Jumpo film magazine and the Mainichi newspaper. It also received international acclaim. Tom Milne of London's Observer called it "Weird, beautiful, and terrifying." Harold Clurman wrote in The Nation, "It is not a pleasant picture but contact with it is somehow warming because it is made from the stuff of life, and is not an intellectual generalization about it."
In 2000, critic Derek Malcom of the British newspaper The Guardian chose Boy as one of the top 100 films of all time. "Some of Oshima's films, which all come from the left...seem to be influenced by either Godard or Buñuel, as well as by a deep suspicion of Japanese traditions," he wrote. "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."
The program note for a 2008 Harvard retrospective of Oshima's work called him "one of Japan's original outlaw masters -- a rebellious and instinctively anti-establishment artist," as well as "maverick and fiercely independent," and "one of the most politically committed and driven filmmakers of his generation." Those descriptions could serve as a epitaph for Oshima, who died in January of 2013 at the age of 80. He had not made a film in more than a dozen years, after suffering a debilitating stroke in the mid-1990s.
By Margarita Landazuri
Director: Nagisa Oshima
Producer: Masayuki Nakajima, Takuji Yamaguchi
Writer: Tsutomu Tamura
Cinematographer: Seizo Sengen, Yasuhiro Yoshioka
Editor: Sueko Siraishi, Keiichi Uraoka
Art Director: Shigemasa Toda
Music: Hikaru Hayashi
Cast: Fumio Watanabe (the father), Akiko Koyama (the stepmother), Tetsuo Abe (the boy), Tsuyoshi Kinoshita (the little brother)