Among Japan’s pantheon of great directors, and there are many, none is more notorious than Nagisa Oshima, not even pretender to the throne Takashi Miike. (That is because Oshima’s shocks almost always feel devout while Miike’s often seem gratuitous.) Oshima is known in the West primarily for the sexually transgressive In the Realm of the Senses, but many of his films are extremely difficult to see and remain known only to a handful of cinephiles. Attendees to the 2008 New York Film Festival however are in luck as the Film Society of Lincoln Center presents a 25-film “sidebar” retrospective during the course of the festival. One of the must-sees of the retro is the simply titled Boy (Shonen in Japanese).
Boy is one of Nagisa Oshima’s best films and one of his boldest stylistic statements. His formal mastery of color and composition is breathtaking here. He uses color, black and white, and different tints on a wide-screen canvass to tremendous effect. One needs to pay attention to Oshima’s interplay of background and foreground to truly appreciate his direction here. One of the most memorable shots in the film is a lone man standing atop an old stadium in the distance while his family unites without him in the foreground. Even had the story not been the least bit engrossing, the filmmaking itself would remain transcendent. However, the narrative turns out to be riveting.
Based on a true story, a ten-year old boy (Tetsuo Abe) throws himself in front of passing cars and then pretends to be injured while his overbearing father (Fumio Watanabe) and bitter stepmother (Akiko Koyama) con money from the unsuspecting drivers. The family, which also includes a three-year old son (Tsuyoshi Kinoshita), moves from city to city all over Japan while collecting money this way. What draws the viewer into the story is not the mechanics of the con or whether the law will catch the family, although Oshima dwells on these fleetingly, but the psychological effect of all of this on the boy.
Oshima’s camera lingers on the perfectly cast Tetsuo Abe as we try to surmise what he thinks and feels about the events around him usually in near silence. For much of the film, Abe plays his character as a tough stoic, but every once in a while his pain and turmoil break through the outer shell. Some of the most poignant moments in the film include the boy stealing alternating glances between his father getting drunk and his stepmother losing herself in songs with geishas, the boy’s intense concentration on the face of an injured girl after a car accident, his trying to get his younger brother to stop following him, and his slow-motion attack upon a snow “alien.”
Oshima’s willingness to forego familiar narrative exposition scenes is refreshing. When the boy runs away from home to visit his grandparents, we never see how he returns to his immediate family and thankfully Oshima omits his parents’ reaction to his return. Oshima is confident enough that his audience already knows his characters by this point in time, and we can forego the rote conflict that must have ensued.