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.
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.