Saturday's Child
Nagisa Oshima's Boy
by Megan Ratner

Film Comment
September-October 2008

“I don’t think anything about anything,” declares the boy (he is never called anything else) at the center of Nagisa Oshima’s stunning 1969 film Boy.  Though fiendishly hard to obtain in any format, and far less known than Cruel Story of Youth (60) or In the Realm of the Senses (76), Boy, like most of Oshima’s work, trawls through the marginal world of modern Japanese desperation.   Like the contemporaneous photographs of Shomei Tomatsu (a close friend of Oshima’s), Boy offers a glimpse of a society fast-forwarded from tradition to defeat to consumption (in one shot, the red and white of a background Coca-Cola sign echo the national colors). Yet for all its cultural specificity, Boy is also universal, a stark portrayal of insidious familial corruption that leaves a 10-year-old boy (Tatsuo Abe) emotionally maimed for life, with too little grounding and too much experience.   

Based on a 1966 newspaper report, Boy shadows an itinerant family as they grift their way across Japan.  Targeting unsuspecting drivers, they fake accidents in which the boy’s stepmother (Akiko Koyama) feigns being struck.  Initially, the boy plays her aggrieved son; later, he supplants her as the sham victim.  His loafing, bullying father (Fumio Watanabe) browbeats the drivers for payment in exchange for a handwritten waiver of responsibility.   They pull this routine from one end of Japan to the other (“I wish Japan were bigger,” the boy notes at the northernmost tip), quitting only after the boy’s little brother scampers in front of a car, resulting in a fatal crash.  The family attempts to disappear into middle-class life, until the police finally come to arrest them a few months later.  The final moments of the film, told with staccato shots of newspaper headlines, snippets of police interviews and the boy’s voice-over, have the clinical tone of a social worker’s dossier.

Oshima shot most of Boy in pale matte, restricted to the limited palette associated with cars of the period. Occasionally, he employs a color-filter, or even cuts to black-and-white stills.   He makes geometric use of the family itself, splitting it into factions, often shunting the boy to one side.   The configurations mimic the interior and exterior spaces of the Japanese flag, which appears throughout the film in many shots. These light experimental touches give the otherwise linear narrative the momentarily confusing, helter-skelter feel of memory.   Setting the action at the margins of his 'scope frame, Oshima conveys his protagonist's physical and emotional disorientation; like the boy, the camera isn’t quite sure where to look.   

In a key episode about halfway through, the boy’s father splurges on a fancy hotel and lavish private dinner, complete with a live musical performance.  The two serenading geishas express their envy of the boy's family, putting him in the position of feeling obliged to publicly complimenting the source of his misery.  Shot as a tableau, a large pillar separating the boy from the others, the scene epitomizes not only his isolation within the family but the sense that, try as he might, he cannot escape them.

Perfectly cast, Boy pivots on Abe’s performance.  A non-professional and an orphan, Abe exudes remarkable dignity despite his juvenile stature.  He has the resolute, restrained bearing of a soldier, less hardened than numbed.  On the few occasions he expresses his pain, he keens as if stomach wounded and bleeding slowly to death.

Though Godard was the French New Wave Figure who most influenced Oshima, Boy has direct parallels to Truffaut's 400 Blows. Unlike Oshima's character, Antoine Doinel retains enough of his youthful spirit to laugh at a puppet show. Oshima's boy attempts to be as unfeeling as the Andromeda spaceman with whom he is obsessed – when shown an image of himself at the scene of a scam, he says only, “That’s a man from outer space.”

Oshima shows not only the limitless depths of the parents’ exploitation (at one point, the father impairs the boy’s vision by forcing him to wear his stepmother’s spectacles lest she be recognized by the authorities), but a kind of spiritual murder of the son. Playing hurt looks a lot like playing dead; do it enough and something dies.  Without sentimentality or fanfare, Oshima conveys both the horror of such corruption and how the need for self-preserving detachment borders on self-annihilation.   Showing a man-child who is neither man nor child, Oshima leaves us to draw our own conclusions, while strongly suggesting the boy has only a hollowed-out existence to look forward to.