Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Oshima’s Boy

2013 sadly marked the passing of two pivotal luminaries of Japanese cinema. Nagisa Oshima was a true maverick auteur, whose films’ frank sexual and political content influenced generations of subsequent filmmakers. Donald Richie was a film historian and critic, as well as an experimental filmmaker in his own right, whose scholarship largely introduced the western world to Japanese cinema.  They are exactly the sort of accomplished figures likely to be overlooked by the Oscar broadcast’s perennially controversial in memorandum tribute, in favor of actors from teeny-bopper TV shows with a handful of low budget horror flicks in their filmography.  At least Film Forum shows better judgment and memory with their week long engagement of Boy (trailer here), which was championed by Richie as “Oshima’s finest film,” starting this Friday.

Ten year old Toshio Omura has a school uniform, but he never attends classes.  Instead, he travels throughout Japan with his grifter father Takeo and his short-sighted (in both senses) step-mother, Takeko Taniguchi, scamming motorists with fake accidents.  It is always him or Taniguchi taking the flops and never the elder Omura.  He just shows up later to shakedown a financial settlement.  Of course, throwing one’s body in the vicinity of moving vehicles is bound to cause some bruising over time.  However, the damage done to Omura’s innocence is irreparable.  At times, he rebels, but he ultimately stays for the sake of his little brother, Peewee.

Oshima vividly captures just how sad and profoundly unfair it is when kids are not allowed to be kids.  Without question, Master Omura is far more mature than his step-mother, with whom he has an enormously complex relationship.  Shot on the streets, run-and-gun style, Oshima shows the audience Japanese society from his young protagonist’s perspective and it is hardly pretty. Nobody wants to get involved, which is why a parasite like his father stays in business so long.

In the annals of child performances, Tetsuo Abe’s work as Omura should rank in the upper most echelon.  It is an exceptional disciplined turn, packing a visceral emotional punch.  As an added bonus, he displays uncommon screen chemistry with pitch perfect one year old Tsuyoshi Kinoshita as Peewee. They have scenes together that will rip your guts out.  Likewise, as Taniguchi, Akiko Koyama (Oshima’s off-screen wife and his frequent co-star in films like the classic Empire of Passion and the under-revived Ceremony) is agonizingly vulnerable and absolutely maddening in equal measure. 

In contrast, Fumio Watanabe is largely lost in the shuffle as the pedestrian lout of a father, but this is unquestionably the boy’s film, not his father’s.  Frankly, it is rather remarkable Koyama and little Kinoshita register so strongly.

Despite Oshima’s auteurish flourishes, periodically shifting from vivid color to black-and-white or gold tinted stock, the inspired-by-a-true-story Boy always feels uncomfortably real.  It is a bracing film, yet it is also deeply humanistic.  Cinematographers Seizô Sengen and Yasuhiro Yoshioka frame some striking images and their use of color is often dramatic, but they never overwhelm the film’s vibe of lonely melancholy.  Justifiably hailed by the late Richie, Boy is a powerful masterwork, recommended for all serious film lovers when it opens this Friday (1/17) in New York at Film Forum.