Released by: Eureka/Masters of Cinema
Released on: August 17, 2015
Directed by: Nagisa Oshima
Cast: Yusuke Kawazu, Miyuki Kuwano, Yoshiko Kuga, Fumio Watanabe, Shinji Tanaka, Shinjiro Matsuzaki, Toshiko Kobayashi
Innocent and naive young Makoto Shinjo (Miyuki Kuwano) accepts a ride from a stranger, but he pulls to a secluded area and tries to rape her. She is defended by anything-but-naive-and-innocent young Kiyoshi Fuji (Yusuke Kawazu), who tries to show her the world, first taking her to an anti-U.S. demonstration and then to a river logger, where he rapes her. Developing an obsession with him, Makoto attends a bar she knows he frequents, but when a group of men attempt to rape her there, Kiyoshi appears and fights them off. He tries to deny his feelings for her but can't, and while he continues to sleep with other women for money, he enters into an unusual relationship with Makoto. Desperate for money, the two develop a scheme wherein she hitches rides with men, lures them to an obscure location where Kiyoshi lies in wait, and extorts money from them.
Eventually, Makoto learns she's pregnant, but Kiyoshi demands that she have an abortion. At first she refuses. Finally, to make money to pay for the abortion, Kiyoshi convinces her to seduce another driver. She inadvertently picks a politician (Hiroshi Nihon Nanagi), who proves to be nice enough that she can't go through with the plan. Kiyoshi extorts money from him anyway and is arrested, though he's bailed out of the situation by one of the cougars who pays him for sexual favors. The lovers' situation spirals out of control, leading to a bloody and gruesome climax.
Cruel Story of Youth (original title: Seishun zankoku monogatari; also known as Naked Youth) was only the second feature film of Nagisa Oshima, but it was far from his last. It proved to be so controversial that it wasn't released uncut in Great Britain until the 2000s. In its native Japan, it met with resistance from older filmgoers who were offended by its socially liberal views on youth, sexuality, and abortion, but among the young it proved a resounding success, leading to more films from Oshima. These varied in quality and success, but they did reveal a director with a keen eye for framing and a sense of story and pacing, one adapted to a unique perspective and fresh mindset. His most famous films came later in his career with the sexually explicit In the Realm of the Senses (1976) and the brutally frank Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983). While Cruel Story of Youth is far from Oshima's masterpiece, it certainly points the way toward his later, more renowned and scandalous work, providing the opening salvo in a provocative and sometimes contentious career. In many ways, it's a literary masterwork, with believable performances that paved the way for a more naturalistic Japanese cinema, though one painted in vivid colors and with broad strokes.
Cruel Story of Youth comes to Blu-ray courtesy of Eureka's Masters of Cinema line, which has seen fit to release the film with an MPEG-4 AVC encode in 1080p high definition at its original 2.35:1 theatrical aspect ratio. According to Eureka's website, original elements were given a new 4K scan by Shochiku in 2014, and boy does it show. It's doubtful the film has ever looked better, even in theaters, thanks to a lush color palette that betrays the rich excesses of Takashi Kawamata's superlative cinematography. Daylit exteriors appear mostly natural with a slight exaggeration of color, as was typical of the late 1950s and early 1960s; interiors, however, feature stunning reds, greens, and blues, while skin tones appear entirely natural, making it clear that the color palette is by set design and clothing choice, not any kind of color filters or gels (though an occasional gel was likely used). Particularly effective are low-lit nighttime shots in which Oshima's shadows are deep and dark, where detail is purposely obscured so that colorful objects in the frame stand out. Speaking of detail, this isn't a film that brims with it, and it doesn't need to be. There's plenty of detail to be had if one looks for it (observe the various dresses worn by the actresses and you'll see it). Rather, the color is the end all/be all of Oshima's every frame, and a very slight layer of grain provides the perfect foundation to support it. In the end, Cruel Story features a transfer similar to that found on Criterion's Blu-ray of In the Realm of the Senses (1976). The image is also remarkably clean, with no print damage and virtually no dirt and debris.
Eureka has opted for Japanese LPCM 1.0 audio for the primary track, and it sounds quite good. The score is minimalistic, while dialogue is clear and discernable, though most English-language viewers will want to watch with the English subtitles turned on. As with the image, there are no problems to report - no hiss, crackle, or pop; the track is thankfully defect free.
The Blu-ray contains two extra features: a 55-minute interview with film historian Tony Rayns, and a two-minute trailer. The interview with Rayns focuses on Cruel Story of Youth but does touch on some of the director's other movies. The interview is broken into segments, each given an appropriate name reflecting its subject matter. These include 'Shochiku and Nikkatsu,' 'Oshima's Themes,' 'Oshima's Strategies,' 'Social Context,' and so on. Rayns certainly knows Oshima's career, and he covers it in-depth. The interview is mostly a talking-head shot of Rayns, who would have been better served by an audio commentary; the image is occasionally broken by images from the film or still-photographs of the participants, including director Oshima. It is recorded in English Dolby Digital 2.0 and sounds fine, with Rayns's voice coming through clearly.
As for the trailer, it's of considerably lesser quality than the film itself: soft and clearly not remastered in any way.
The Final Word:
Cruel Story of Youth is a work of art from a major director, not only of Japanese cinema, but of world cinema as well. Eureka's Blu-ray release features stunning color and a transfer free of visual or aural defects. There are few extras (a trailer and a long interview with a film historian), but it's a worthwhile package nonetheless, one that shouldn't disappoint fans of Asian or challenging cinema.
Note: Cruel Story of Youth comes as part of a package that also contains a DVD and an informational 36-page booklet. These were not provided to Rock! Shock! Pop! and have not been reviewed here.
Christopher Workman is a freelance writer, film critic, and co-author (with Troy Howarth) of the Tome of Terror horror film review series. Horror Films of the Silent Era and Horror Films of the 1930s are currently available, with Horror Films of the 1940s due out later this year.
Click on the images below for full sized Blu-ray screen caps!