Hitching a lift from a random male, schoolgirl Makoto is molested. Student Kiyoshi turns up out of nowhere and saves her, extorting money from the sheepish gent in the process. The next day, our youthful pair meet up, are bored by a political demonstration, then turn up, inexplicably, in a speedboat in a desolate dockland of lashed-together log pontoons. When Makoto refuses Kiyoshi’s advances, he pushes her into the water and, despite the fact that she cannot swim, will not let her out again until she agrees to have sex with him. No good is going to come of this, is it? Inspired by the manner of their first meeting, they embark on a career of petty criminality, shaking down reliably predatory motorists. But, as periodic brushes with yakuza pimps hint, they are amateurs paddling in the shallows of a torrent that will carry them away.
As an essay in futility fuelled by amorphous desire and energy, Nagasi Ôshima’s ‘cruel story’ is up there with A bout de souffle (1960). This is how Naked Youth is usually read; as a contribution to the transnational sulk that envelops cinematic youth in the 1950s from The Wild One (1953) to Rebel Without a Cause (1955) to, God help us, Beat Girl (1960). Closer to home, it has also been linked with the taiyozoku (tribe of the sun) genre, originating in a 1953 story by Shintaro Ishihara – now Tokyo’s colourful governor. Makoto and Kiyoshi certainly fit the bill insofar as they are young and rudderless, but they are equally, and unusually, incompetent at being glamorous. They have neither the pathos that makes James Dean a social worker’s wet dream, nor the cool insolence of Brando or Belmondo. Actually they are quite plain and frumpily clothed.
And are they even rebels, with or without a cause? Presumably teen sex is, in itself, a rebellion. But the main criticism of parental authority comes from Makoto’s older sister Yuki who wants to know why her sibling is allowed to run wild. Indeed, the older generation are every bit as clueless and compromised as the younger and, one way or another, fund their misdemeanours. The endemic motor-rapists are easy pickings, and Kiyoshi’s older mistress puts up the money for Makoto’s abortion, which is itself carried out by Yuki’s disillusioned ex-idealist ex-lover. The supreme moment of bathos for the whole idea of stylish revolt comes in a brilliant scene where our Primark Bonnie and Clyde flee Kiyoshi’s mistress in a taxi, diving down a side street too narrow for her gas-guzzler, only to discover they have no money. At this point, the mistress rolls up and settles the fare for them. Only death, the great elevator as well as leveller, makes some concession to the glamour of the genre.
The film is, however, interested in rebellion after a fashion. Dr Akimoto and Yuki have some pained words about the loss of their political ideals. Makoto and Kiyoshi’s romance itself starts from this point. Their first date is preceded by newsreel footage of the Korean student revolution of 19 April 1960, and the date itself starts at a Zenkaguren rally against the AMPO treaty with the USA. These snippets play like the files of marching troops that frame the bedroom action in Ai no corrida (1976). Ôshima’s focus is on the intense, solipsistic folie à deux, but history is there in Naked Youth as a cry from the street. So is Oshima wagging his finger, counselling political commitment as a remedy for silly star-crossed lovers? I am unsure as to what the precise historical practices of student movements in 1950s Japan may have been, but it is interesting to note that the Zenkaguren in Naked Youth protest by linking arms and running round in circles, holding brightly-coloured balloons.
Watch the original theatrical trailer: