Youth Cinema Essays

Coming of age in American cinema: Modern youth films as genre

Matthew P Schmidt, University of Massachusetts Amherst

Abstract

An examination of fictional feature films produced in the United States between the mid-1950s to the end of the 1990s. The author argues that youth films comprise a genre of late twentieth-century American cinema, and that they reconstitute significant narrative and thematic characteristics of the novelistic Bildungsroman and its modern literary variants, the childhood initiation tale and the coming-of-age or the rites-of-passage story. The genre of modern youth films includes not only teen entertainments but also social problem films and more personal, quasi-autobiographical works by modern directors. Overall, youth films commonly dramatize situations and events that bear upon the child's initiation into new domains of psychosocial experience and the adolescent's and postadolescent's encounters with the pleasures and perils of modern life, thereby taking up the leitmotif of identity formation that is typically associated with twentieth-century literary fiction, autobiography and stage drama. ^ A further argument is that the genre of youth films reflects the culturally and aesthetically eclectic character of contemporary American cinema. As a mass medium the American cinema promotes the cultural fantasies of a commercialistic society; but as an art form it shares with modern fiction and drama a capacity for social criticism, irony, and self-reflexivity. The study explores these dual faces of contemporary cinema by analyzing it's representations of American youth as symbols of generational and social change. Three significant phases in the history of youth films are discussed: Its cultural origins in youth melodramas of the 1950s; the ideologically revisionist films of the American Film Renaissance made between 1967 and 1977; the expanding range of subjects and themes in the genre during the period of the American Independent Film Movement from 1987 through 2000. Special emphasis is given to the theme of memory in youth films; the genre's multi-ethnic subjects and perspectives; and the impact of modern film aesthetics on film genre theory. ^

Subject Area

American studies|American literature|Film studies

Recommended Citation

Schmidt, Matthew P, "Coming of age in American cinema: Modern youth films as genre" (2002). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI3056276.
https://scholarworks.umass.edu/dissertations/AAI3056276

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Since July 19, 2006

COinS

Naked Youth/Cruel Story of Youth/Seishun Zankoku Monogatari (1960 Japan 96 mins)

Prod Co: Shochiku Prod: Tomio Ikeda Dir, Scr: Nagisa Oshima Phot: Takashi Kawamata Ed: Keichi Uraoka Prod Des: Koji Uno Mus: Riichiro Manabe

Cast: Yusuke Kawazu, Miyuki Kuwano, Yoshiko Kuga, Fumioi Watanabe, Shinji Tanaka

A sexual relationship with another brings about a connection with all humanity: by embracing one person, you are able to embrace all humanity.

– Nagisa Oshima (1)

The shock of the new still radiates from this unsettling and pitilessly unsentimental study of contemporary youth, adrift and rebellious, and their rejection of the preceding generation’s values of humanism and social progress. An unexpected hit both at home and abroad (and credited with saving Shochiku studios from bankruptcy during the rise of television and the fall of cinema attendance in Japan), this second feature by the then 28-year-old Kyoto-born director was widely seen as the first thrust of a homegrown New Wave, Japan’s idiosyncratic answer to the worldwide movement of filmmakers challenging all that had preceded them. This meant the rejection of Classical Japanese cinema’s embrace of aestheticism, and the work and values of Kenji Mizoguchi and Yasujiro Ozu – especially the latter’s esteem for “quiet virtues” – in particular. It also entailed unbolting the camera from its customary tripod to encourage hand-held freedom in the wide CinemaScope format.

Like Godard and Rivette in France, Oshima rose from the ranks of film criticism (though he also led militant charges within the studio system’s program for training directorial assistants), yet he consistently rejected the New Wave label, viewing it as a corporate marketing strategy used to signal that a film contained unusual doses of sex and violence. His goal was to bring to the surface the hidden currents of repression and shame, concealed under tradition, in all their contradictory and “cruel” power, providing neither comic escape valves nor strategies for easy identification or facile Freudian psychological resolutions. The year before shooting Naked Youth, Oshima wrote that

We must destroy the illusion that films are characterized by the flat storytelling of the naturalist novel and affirm that what is cinematic is bold fiction and free structure. Next, we must do away with the naturalism present in each shot and in the way the shots are linked….(2)

Rejecting the concept of cinema as an entertainment delivery system, Oshima sought to subvert bourgeois thinking itself, not least a passive negativity fuelled by Japan’s sense of victimisation. Representing a new generation of urbanised, westernised and materialist youth, Oshima’s protagonists were born in the wake of Japanese militarism’s wartime failure and the discontent nurtured by years of American occupation. Demoralised by the massive (and ultimately unsuccessful) demonstrations that raged throughout the country against the renewal of the Japanese-American Security Act in 1959 – which was seen as an abject surrender to American imperialism – this generation was unable even to connect to regional protests (a fact which is referenced by the film’s insertion of newsreels – “Big Riot in South Korea, Blood Flows”). As the heroine’s perplexed father observes,

times were tough after the war, but we had a way of life. I could’ve said that we were reborn a democratic nation; that responsibility went hand in hand with freedom. But today what can we say to this child? Nothing.

Oshima’s film centres on the punishing affair between aggressive and hectoring male student Kiyoshi and his headstrong yet vulnerable girlfriend Makoto. There’s no mistaking the provocation of an early sequence enacted on floating logs, a courtship of slapping, near drowning and deflowering set to eerily yearning Theremin-like music. Teenage delinquent dramas in Japan date back to 1951, but even provocative examples like Kon Ichikawa’s Punishment Room (1956) resolve in an affirmation of conventional society – that film’s hero being condemned for drugging and raping a young woman. Oshima turns his duo into part-time criminal lovers in the renegade tradition of American B-movies, notably Joseph H. Lewis’ Gun Crazy (1949) – though his characters stop short of homicide. As the big city provides an endlessly renewable stream of middle-aged men who cruise the thoroughfares at night looking for pliant young women whom they can lure into their cars, Kiyoshi and Makoto proceed to entrap and then shakedown cruising salarymen as a way to stick it to the older generation (though a typically unforgiving policeman tells them, “You’re no different than the suckers. The fact is you like money and what it buys. Quit making excuses.”) This turn towards individualism and away from political commitment seems modern, even if Makoto’s cinch-waisted frocks and Kiyoshi’s stovepipe trousers do not.

Oshima paints a panoramic picture of a sexual community that crosses generational lines, and that is recounted with all the density and objective distance of a case history, as each character gropes for meaning and seeks clues about how to live. This tug of war across the generation gap gradually expands in complexity to “hear out” different perspectives, including: Makoto’s regretful older sister and her compromised lover, whose protesting days are over; a friendly and helpful salaryman who treats Makoto kindly (and disarmingly confesses, “I only drink when I’m happy. When I’m sad I don’t drink. It makes things worse. I go home to bed and cry myself to sleep”); and Kiyoshi’s generous older mistress who shocks him by revealing that “I once had your bastard and got rid of it”, although she never informed him because she “didn’t want to be disappointed in” him. In the long run, no-one acts heroically here, no one emerges uncompromised, and no future utopia looks visible on the horizon, certainly not to the toxically alienated Kiyoshi who nakedly exposes his lack of idealism as he sneers to his elders, “We’re different from you. We have no dreams so we’ll never end up miserable like you.”

Oshima’s anti-romantic stance, using a lover to facilitate stealing wallets (while also modeling sex as an economic transaction), finally gives way to a kind of tough beauty, a delicate negotiation between love and lust, emotional commitment and nihilistic views of human connections. This quality is crystallised in the enigmatic, yet poetic, force of the apple scene: as an anesthetised Makoto sleeps off an abortion, Kiyoshi rests a red apple on her body and then, held in a long close-up spread across the widescreen, consumes a green apple, bite by bite in real-time. For all the film’s transgressive energy, a Chekhovian delicacy finally hovers over shamed, damaged and disillusioned characters who are unable to comprehend the consolation of their physical connection to all humanity.

This film’s soft-core sexual tussles in grubby student lodgings and hourly-rate love hotels laid the groundwork for the emergence of the teasing pinku-eiga genre of erotic films in 1962, a form which would soon account for 70 percent of Japanese film production. Oshima also paved the way for a series of works by other directors who approached questions of national identity through increasingly surreal means and forms: notably Shohei Imamura (Pigs and Battleships, 1961), Hiroshi Teshigahara (Woman in the Dunes, 1964), Seijun Suzuki (Fighting Elegy, 1966) and Yoshishige Yoshida (Eros Plus Massacre, 1970). Throughout the 21 features that Oshima created in the ensuing decades – above all the full-frontal, non-simulated, physically sexual performances in his landmark Ai no Corrida (In the Realm of the Senses, 1976) and the exposure of gay undercurrents in the samurai ethos in Gohatto (Taboo, 1999) – the director never stopped exploring the impact of rape, the social use of gender roles, and the interconnectivity of sexual relations, themes and preoccupations he introduced in Naked Youth.

Endnotes

  1. Nagisa Oshima, Cinema, Censorship, and the State: The Writings of Nagisa Oshima, 1956-1978, trans. Dawn Lawson, The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, 1992, p. 247.
  2. Oshima, p. 39.

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