Nagisa Oshima's Boy Returns to the Big Screen at Film Forum

Nagisa Oshima's Boy Returns to the Big Screen at Film Forum

He might be any lonely kid you'd catch watching cars whiz by on a busy road or playing a solo game of hide-and-seek in an abandoned lot. But the "boy" of Nagisa Oshima's literally torn-from-the-headlines drama, a stoic lad named Toshio, is not your typical 10-year-old. Wandering from city to city with his WWII veteran dad, nervous bird of a stepmom, and little brother nicknamed Peewee, this kid takes part in his roving clan's scam: Mom 2.0 pretends she's been clipped by a speeding driver. The children cry. Pops bursts into the local emergency room in a faux-rage. The unlucky mark forks over cash to keep the cops out of the equation. Rinse, repeat. Except the matriarch's last go-round has left her limping—which unfortunately makes Toshio ripe for a promotion in the family business.

American audiences weaned on little rascals and underage bicycle thieves would be used to seeing prepubescents participating in less-than-legal activities, and late '60s arthouse crowds had already sampled delicacies from the Land of the Rising Sun. But 1969's Boy was something altogether different, a bracing slap that required viewers to fill in the social-issue blanks. The head enfant terrible of a Japanese New Wave that hadn't quite made it West yet, Oshima was the polar opposite of a user-friendly artist like Akira Kurosawa; he was more likely to ape Buñuel's pitiless shock-and-awe tactics than craft import-ready tales about the Bushido code. When it premiered on these shores at the '69 New York Film Festival — the same fest that would attempt to buck censors by showcasing Oshima's In the Realm of the Senses seven years later — this chronicle of a po-faced youngster bilking innocent citizens offered something completely different. This is what contemporary Japan looks like, it says: Not pillow shots and sword fights, just a country populated largely by predators and prey.

Seen now, Boy ironically distinguishes itself as one of Oshima's most accessible films, sticking to a simple storyline as streamlined as the movie's title. The political firebrand often preferred to fracture his tales of death-row inmates and cruel youth, having never met a narrative interruption technique he didn't like. But for this drama, he threads the era's modernist tendencies into a template of true-crime realism, letting a sense of journalistic rigor (appropriate, given that the plot is based on real incidents Oshima had read about in newspapers) and just-the-facts-ma'am narration rule the day. Splashes of primary color and an eerie, droning soundtrack that drowns out dialogue are exceptions, but the subversion is played straight, if still in a manner that seems distant and effectively affectless.


Directed by Nagisa Oshima
Janus Films
Opens January 17, Film Forum

Subscribe to the Voice Film Club podcast

Affectless, but not without heart, which is where child actor Tetsuo Abe comes in: An orphan whom Oshima cast as a last resort, Abe never made another screen appearance. This one's a doozy, however, precisely because he plays everything stone-faced, with zero sentimentality; his Toshio is simply trying to survive in a brave new world that has no place for those on the economic periphery. When the boy finally does break down, attacking a snowman or letting tears roll down his cheeks during a train ride to a beach, the impact feels seismic. "Is this the end of Japan?" someone asks; the movie has already answered the question, albeit in an entirely different way. Oshima is the one who sets up Boy as a social case study and an exercise in using emotional distance as a tool for commentary. Abe is the boy who makes this masterpiece devastating.

Use Current Location

Related Location

Film Forum

209 W. Houston St.
New York, NY 10014


Sponsor Content


All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >