Coming-of-age stories don’t get much bleaker than Nagisa Ôshima’s tale of a preadolescent who assists his itinerant family in moneymaking scams. But it’s the kind of cynicism that invigorates and energizes—a bracing dose of misanthropy that is nonetheless suffused with robust empathy for its hardened juvenile protagonist. Based on an actual incident, the film follows ten-year-old Toshio (Tetsuo Abe), his father (Fumio Watanabe), his stepmother (Akiko Koyama) and his infant brother (Tsuyoshi Kinoshita) as they trek across Japan, stopping in each new location to fake traffic accidents and extort money from stunned drivers.
It’s a true nomad’s life, with high highs (a night spent in a luxury hotel with copious food and geisha attendants) and very low lows (Dad beating Mom for refusing to get an abortion). Though filmed in teeming real-world locales in what occasionally seem like clandestine circumstances, the movie has the feel of the science-fiction stories that Toshio tells to his sibling. Ôshima often situates his characters at the edges of a rigorously composed widescreen frame that emphasizes the oppressive architecture of a rapidly modernizing nation. He also employs visual distortions like monochrome tinting and image squeezing to suggest the skewed perspective of his corrupted young lead.
Happiness and contentment are not in the cards for Toshio, and Ôshima never sentimentalizes his existence nor lets him off the hook for his crimes. But still we feel, deeply and profoundly, for this lost soul.