Director: Nagisa Oshima
Production: Sozo-sha and A.T.G.; Eastmancolor with black and white sequences, 35mm, Cinemascope; running time: 97 minutes; length: 2,676 meters. Released 1969, Japan.
Producers: Masayuki Nakajima and Takuji Yamaguchi; screenplay: Tsutomu Tamura; photography: Yasuhiro Yoshioka and Seizo Sengen; editor: Sueko Shiraishi; sound: Hideo Nishizaki; sound effects: Akira Suzuki; art director: Jusho Toda; music: Hikaru Hayashi.
Cast: Tetsuo Abe (Toshio); Fumio Watanabe (Father); Akiko Koyama (Stepmother); Tsuyoshi Kinoshita (Little brother).
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* * *
Based on a real event which shocked Japan in the mid 1960s, Shonen depicts a family that travels the country, collecting out-of-court settlement money in automobile accident scams. The film is clearly Nagisa Oshima's: thematically, it deals with crimes; it is based on a real event; and it develops many of his stylistic devices.
The character of the lazy and self-indulgent father, for example, represents the victim complex that Oshima sees as typical of the postwar Japanese mentality. The character serves as a microcosm of the problems of the patriarchal Japanese emperor state. Oshima's criticism is ultimately of a society where uneducated and unskilled parents can use and exploit their own children in illegal schemes. The cruelty of the authorities is shown by the arrest of the family after they have given up their life of crime and settled in the city. The omnipresence of state authority is conveyed by the Japanese national flags: in the street, in the hand of the baby, on the boat, and in the background.
Basically, the film follows a linear narrative, though it includes many experimental stylistic devices, such as the occasional insertion of black-and-white footage. The first insert, showing the family's flight to a new town, works like a fantasy scene. The second insert, a car accident, masks the colors of the blood and the victim's red boot. Later, when the film returns to color, the viewers are shocked by the red of the blood and the boot in the white snow (corresponding to the colors of the Japanese flag).
There are occasional suspensions of sound as well as the use of still photographs accompanied by the boy's narration reminiscent of a school composition, and newspaper clips accompanied by a newsreel-like narration. Other such techniques used to emphasize important points include: the slow-motion scene of the boy (never called by name throughout the film) destroying the snowman, one of the few scenes in which he displays strong emotion, and the theatrical setting where the father fights with the mother and the son beside what appears to be a funeral altar in front of a large national flag. In addition, Oshima often deliberately confuses the sense of time between shots.
Abstract music, often resembling actual sounds, is used disjointedly with the image, and the intentional decentralization of the Cinemascope composition is visually jarring as many actions take place on the far left or right side of the screen. Such stylistic techniques are intended to destroy our suspension of disbelief and therefore destroy our subconscious identification with (and sympathy for) the main characters. Oshima is careful not to trivialize his subject by sentimentalizing it. He avoids this all-too-easy trap by, for example, never using music to enhance the character's emotion.
Shonen does not make simplistic judgments on the characters or the situations. We simply see the boy's solitude, playing by himself and pretending to visit his grandmother. Only twice in the film do we see his tears, despite all the mental and physical exploitation he suffers. We are never told why the boy keeps silent after his family is arrested. Instead, on many levels and in many subtle ways, this film urges us to think. Perhaps for this reason, this film was more successful critically than commercially.