Nagisa Oshima’s Boy has the “ripped from the headlines” appeal of a timely social-problem film, recounting three months in the life of a struggling family (disabled veteran father, young stepmother, two children) that looks to get ahead by faking car accidents and blackmailing motorists into a hasty payoff, as seen through the eyes of the titular 10-year-old, complete with occasional voiceover narration. After the machine-gun montage of Violence at Noon and the Brechtian alienation effects that structured Death by Hanging, Boy may initially seem like a stylistic step backward for the filmmaker, a straightforward, if decidedly dispassionate, docudrama. But Oshima steadily introduces little quirks into the ostensibly simple narrative: abrupt shifts in film stock, the use of distorting fisheye lenses, sudden disjunctions between sound and image. These cinematic tics serve to remind viewers that the screen is a canvas and not a window.
Boy introduces the solitary figure of young Toshio (Tetsuo Abe), whose name we won’t even learn until near the film’s end, clambering over a war memorial as night falls (which won’t be the film’s last indication of the shadow cast on Japanese society by WWII). In the gathering darkness, Toshio falls and injures himself, matter-of-factly informing his absent parents that the wound’s bleeding. (Later, when a doctor threatens to amputate limbs injured by the staged auto accidents, he bluffs, “Go ahead, cut ’em off!”) The boy is on his own in the world and knows it. Oshima often composes his shots so that the boy is relegated to the edges of the frames, an objective correlative to his social alienation and marginalization. The knowledge of his isolation taints the boy’s daydreams, the little fables he recounts to his toddler brother, Peewee, about being an extraterrestrial avenger of cosmic injustice.
A chance encounter neatly illustrates the film’s icy view of the social order, while at the same time slyly satirizing the actions of the boy’s family. Two students drag a compatriot into an alleyway, demanding reparations for having been jostled on the sidewalk. They fleece the fellow of his pocket money, then throw him down into the mud. When the boy rushes in to help him, victim soon turns victimizer, knocking off the boy’s prized cap and stomping it into the muck. Oshima’s camera impassively gazes on from a distance, as if to say, “Such is the way of the world.”
Oshima and screenwriter Tsutomu Tamura encourage empathy without requiring emotionalism. Toshio may shed a single tear in the final close-up, but the film as a whole keeps its distance from such histrionics. Even when it plays up the almost casual brutality that can erupt within Toshio’s family, the film takes pains to allow for the complexity of human motivation. It’s as though Oshima were invoking Jean Renoir’s often misunderstood axiom (voiced by his character in The Rules of the Game), “Everyone has their reasons.” Far from a blanket alibi for human folly, Renoir’s statement is in fact an acerbic recognition that people act out of reasons they hold to be fully valid, even well-intentioned. Recognizing this, the film waits to unload the character’s backstories until after their apprehension, as though they were facts being entered into evidence in the ensuing trial. Questions of guilt or innocence are no longer germane, however. The matter here is the inevitable introduction of guilt into the midst of innocence. Coming of age, in Oshima’s view, means coming to grief.