Framing the Feeling
Shonen (boy, in English) is a film where the notion of framing is applicable in more ways than one. It is of course the very subject of the film, as the family at its centre gets the older son to jump out in front of cars and make the drivers believe an accident has taken place. The family then tries to extort money from the hapless victims. But the film is also interested in the framing of the image, as Oshima gives us wide-screen shots that speak of the family's alienation from each other, and the characters' broader alienation from Japanese society. Now we don't want to simplify the film's purpose and meaning by saying such framing is necessarily symbolic; it is much more that Oshima seems interested in the suggestiveness of framing and alienation. Any use of terms ought to be exploratory rather than explanatory, for Oshima was nothing if not a director exploring post-war Japan, evident when he says, "though [in Shonen] I have taken an objective view, I have also made the film as a prayer, as are the boy's tears in the final scene, for all human beings who find it necessary to live in a like manner." We should also not forget that Shonen was based on a key newspaper story of the time.
In the sense of the film as a prayer it shares affinities with anything from Germany, Year Zero to Rosetta, to Ratcatcher. There is a sense in each instance of a spiritual aspect running through the work that could best be summed up by the idea of: forgive me Lord for I know not what I have done. There are varying degrees of culpability here, and also elements of misplaced responsibility partly because of the characters' different degrees of perceptual maturity. In Germany Year Zero a boy kills his father after hearing the convincing arguments of a Nazi that indicates his ill father's life is no longer of value. Rosetta desperately wants to hold on to her job and so will betray a friend so that he will lose his and she will keep hers. In Ratcatcher, the young boy seems at least partly responsible for his friend's death in the canal, but it is as though Jamie doesn't yet have the emotional and cognitive wherewithal to make sense of what has happened. In each instance, the filmmakers find a way of situating themselves between immaturity of character and maturity of perspective, without arriving at the assertiveness of point of view. It reminds one of a comment by that great French filmmaker of youthful states, Jacques Doillon, when he reckoned "we always insert a point of view between the actor and the spectator." Oshima's comment above seems an attempt to resolve this problem: to be both objective and subjective, sociological and spiritual at the same time.
This is especially where framing can prove significant, and we can give several examples of Oshima framing to hint at the boy's feelings and suggest the socio-political and the spiritual simultaneously. Early in the film the father and mother are trying get money out of someone who they claim has run the wife over, and we watch the action taking place on the left hand side of the frame, while on the other side of the image, the boy sits with his back to us and looking on at his father, step-mother and the victim before eventually closing that gap by going across to the others. In another shot halfway through the film we notice that the boy and the stepmother are on the edges of the frame as they stand on opposite sides of the street. Oshima is giving us in conventional film language an establishing shot before he moves into closer shot/counter-shots of the stepmother and our central character. But there are establishing shots that establish screen space, and others that also create a suggestive thematic purpose. When after showing the yawning gap between the characters, Oshima's shot/counter-shots play on distance again by having the characters occupying the edge of the frame rather than the centre of it, and we can see the director is working with the problem of what we might call 'emotional space'. If this seems to us a more useful term than symbolism, it is because while the latter seems a reductive and general approach that simply abstracts the film's diegetic meaning, the former can help us to get closer to the character taking into account our comments about youthful characters that are perceptually immature. How can the filmmaker make not grand claims of alienation in symbolic form, but, accepting the limitations of a character's cognitive capacity, find a means by which to reflect this limitation?
In the two scenes we've invoked, Oshima suggests a gap between the parents and the child that the child would seem to want to close, and the film explores the problem of how the boy tries to do this on the basis not of loving actions, but corrupting ones. When Oshima frames the boy and the stepmother wide apart, and then uses shot/counter-shots that still give the impression of distance, he then shows the boy jumping out in front the car, but it is at the same time as though the boy is jumping towards his stepmother. Oshima shoots it so that he films the boy's action with a suspenseful edit from the boy jumping forward and exiting the frame, to a shot of the car, to the step-mother herself leaning forward. Oshima, the well-known Marxist, astutely offers an Oedipally complex, decidedly cinematic form of false consciousness as the boy wants to get closer to his step-mum and please her by his actions. Yet here he is on the other side of the road waiting to risk life and limb by narrowly avoiding getting run over. The symbolic notion of alienated framing doesn't get close to the specific emotional problematic in such a scene. Just as in the earlier scene mentioned, where at the end of it the boy runs from the corner of the right side of the screen to the left, to be by his stepmother's side as she collapses in apparent but at least partly feigned pain, so here he seems to want to get close to her but danger and deceit quite literally lie in between.
A number of critics believed Shonen lacked the formal complexity of a number of other Oshima films of the period, The Diary of a Shinjuku Thief, or The Man Who Left his Will on Film, and indeed what Noel Burch in Cinema: A Critical Dictionary seems to like most about Shonen are the moments where it deviates from any technique that doesn't lend itself to diegetic or thematic meaning. Commenting on the use of moments where the colour drains out of the image and of protracted shots involving sound-track cut-offs, Burch says "what is most interesting about these devices is that they have absolutely no intellectual or dramaturgical 'justification'." Perhaps. But what makes Shonen so interesting is that Oshima constantly finds ways to use adventurous form to serve direct emotion. In one of the film's three or four potentially sentimental moments, the boy watches another older boy getting bullied by a couple of much older boys, and the titular character goes to see if he is okay. The bullied boy gets up umbraged and takes his humiliation out on our central character, throwing his much worn and much loved yellow cap into a puddle. Moments later we watch our hero giving it a clean and a steam, and then shortly afterwards his step-mum finds him and, seeing that the state the cap is in, throws it away and we watch it going under the wheels of a car. This is potentially a sentimental gesture, and especially so given that Oshima cuts to a close up of the car going over it, but there are also a couple of levels of irony at work here. In the first instance the mother doesn't throw it away with the maliciousness that the boy showed throwing it into the puddle, but the damage is greater, and if earlier we mentioned the biblical invocation forgive me lord for I know not what I've done, here there is a sense of there but for the Grace of God - how often have we seen the boy himself come close to going under a car's wheels? And doesn't it hint at prefiguring, of the possibility that the boy will go the way of the cap?
Hence a potentially sentimental moment contains within it the opposite of Burch's admiration for moments that seem neither to push dramaturgical or intellectual functions: here the scene does both and more. It manages to allude to the boy's emotions and at the same time goes beyond the boy's feelings to our own awareness that there is more than pathos in the shot of the car going over the cap. It is true when the stepmother throws it we see Boy looking in the hat's direction, but the shot works as a combination of Boy's point of view and the immediate loss of his beloved hat, and at the same time as an awareness beyond the point of view that muses over the cap tossed under a car's wheels, and Boy's need to avoid narrowly throwing himself under them to bring in a family income.
If Oshima were searching out sentimentality, then why we might wonder does he cut from the hat being run over to shots of blue monochrome? Oshima isn't afraid of the pathetic moment, but at the same time he wants to work in a style that undercuts character subjectivity for if you like viewer subjectivity, to suggest not only the boy's pain, which indicates ready sympathy, but at the same time the prayer aspect Oshima invokes. The director goes beyond Boy's feelings without at all undermining them - he makes the situation meditative by making the shot both Boy's point of view and a potential narrative prefiguring (will it be Boy under the wheels next), and then cuts to a series of images that undermine ready emotional engagement with the story. Oshima moves from fellow-feeling with the boy to a narrative foreshadowing, to a distancing device, all in the space of a minute. In such a method the film achieves the complexity of emotion without falling into the easiness of sentimentality; in such an approach the distanciation that may seem to have nothing to do with the dramaturgical or intellectual aspects, according to Burch, can work like emotional brakes. Not so much denying emotional investment, but undercutting the feeling so that we can emotionally feel for Boy, but not to the degree that the wider implications are lost.
However if Shonen is one of Oshima's most accessible films according to critics like Derek Malcolm in Movies of the Sixties when he says, it "was as if Oshima was trying to find some way of appealing to a wider audience", then the director does so by combining accessible and inaccessible means. In such an approach a filmmaker can make us feel without exactly creating a semiotic of ready feeling. In the scene of the yellow cap, Oshima comes close to creating this very semiotic - the sort of sign language of the emotions that the mainstream masters as basic vocabulary. We might think of Schindler's List and Schindler's speech at the end as we cut away to various grateful Jews as the music swells up, or we may think of the way Michael Haneke puts the semiotics of ready feeling into inverted commas in a scene from Code Inconnu, when he has a child's narrow escape from falling off a rooftop contextualized by making it a scene within a film. How is a filmmaker to achieve emotion without falling into ready sentiment - the sort of feelings that in film language are almost as readily to hand as idiomatic speech in allowing emotion to be expressed without at all individualizing it?
To help explain further we can look at the scene late in the film where Boy's younger brother walks in front of a jeep in the snow and the vehicle careers off the road and crashes, killing the passengers, including a young girl. It is a scene where nobody is actually to blame, but culpability surrounds the incident as there have of course been numerous occasions where Boy has done exactly the same thing deliberately. It is a fine example of true feeling and false inference, and resembles comments by Jean Piaget in The Child's Conception of the World. At one stage of the book Piaget gives examples of adult behaviour that resemble childish superstition; of, if you like, false inference. In one of them, someone about to give a lecture would take his usual walk when, about to turn back, he decided to walk to the exact spot to make sure that his lecture would be a success. In another, a professor of psychology refuses to have the garden prepared in advance of a garden party he was giving, saying "I always tend not to prepare for anything I want, for fear that what I hope to avoid should happen." In each instance an overly subjective response to the world indicates an immature response to that world. In Shonen it is closer to the opposite, as false inference leads to emotional realization. If Boy had deliberately walked out in front of the car and narrowly avoided injury while the car crashed, then though he wouldn't have wanted to kill the people in the car, his behaviour would have been responsible for the accident. But when it is his little brother merely walking out into the snow and in front of the jeep, then clearly he isn't. But it is as though both character and Oshima observe the need for feeling and consciousness, without the need for cause and effect to generate the necessary emotion.
This is where the film is consistent in some ways with the 'orphan cinema' we have mentioned above: Germany, Year Zero, Rosetta and Ratcatcher. In each instance, the characters can't find their value system out of the milieu, out of the everyday familial and social values that surround them, and have to move towards less the acceptance of given values than the precarious, existential creation of their own. In Germany, Year Zero, the boy commits suicide after killing his own father, believing initially that it was a useful deed in a functional world where the father was ill; in Rosetta all that matters for the titular character is that she wants a job; and in Ratcatcher the boy runs away initially from any responsibility concerning his friend's death. By the end of each film, though, they reach a certain ethical maturity even if it incorporates the possibility of their own demise. This doesn't mean however that they see the world clearly; more that they understand a certain ethical existence, without necessarily understanding all the social variables that would generate a moral system. It is why we talk of cause being curiously wrenched from effect, and yet at the same time producing a very strong ethical affect. There may be an unreliability of perception; but there is a reliability of feeling as the characters make deeply spiritual decisions or arrive at self-realizations. Oshima's film ends with Boy shedding a tear and to flashbacks of the boy placing the dead girl's red Wellington boot on the snowman he earlier built, and also shows the red blood trickling down her forehead when she died, where earlier, because of the colour shift, we saw only a blue toned trickle. The film creates here numerous suggestive images to capture the subtlety of a consciousness evolving without necessarily maturing in the conventional moral sense.
At the end of the film Boy feels, but at the same time this isn't quite culpable catharsis. The boy isn't really guilty for the feigned accidents - surely that blame lies with his parents - and the girl's death came about through the young brother wandering into the road. We may note at the very moment his brother does so, Boy falls into the frame after being slapped by his father: he is as blameless as anybody could be. But at the same time we would be unlikely to say Boy is misguided in his feelings towards the young girl. Oshima's film ends by moving us deeply but not at all conventionally, as the often, difficult, experimental filmmaker on this occasion arrives at the immediacy of deep feeling, of feelings well-framed.
© Tony McKibbin