In the mid-1950s, the “Sun Tribe” movies had evoked a series of conflicting reactions in their depictions of the new bright young things of the post-war era who, caught in a period of intense confusion, rejected the future their parents’ had been trying to build while revelling in nihilistic hedonism enabled by the new freedoms. Though the films proved popular with their target audience, they also produced a moral panic in the older generation which saw youth as dangerously out of control and desperately in need of correction. Meanwhile, reform school drama also became something of a recurring motif in the more progressive youth movies put out by Nikkatsu (including one starring Hani’s soon-to-be wife, Sachiko Hidari) which sought to humanise the figure of the “bad boy” by pointing out all the various circumstances which led to his fall from grace.
Susumu Hani’s Bad Boys (不良少年, Furyo Shonen) is often regarded as an important precursor to what might later be termed the “new wave” in its radical departure from the cinematic norm of the times. Loosely inspired by a book titled “Wings that Cannot Fly” which collected the stories of boys who’d been through the same reform school, Hani repurposes the tools of neorealism in his use of non-actors, improvised dialogue, natural light and location shooting, for a hybridised avant-garde “documentary style” which is, in a sense, realer than “real”.
We follow a disaffected young man, Asai (Yukio Yamada), who has been arrested for the aggravated robbery of an upscale Ginza jewellers. Asai, who sadly laments that he has only seen the famously posh neighbourhood from the back of a police van, did indeed commit the crime and could be thought of as the “ringleader” of the group of boys arrested which also includes young men from “good” families who’ve fallen in with a “bad” crowd. Some of the other boys are released when their parents plead for them, but Asai, as we discover, has no parents – his father died in the war when Asai was three and for reasons unexplained he is estranged from his mother. Undergoing a series of psychological tests which prove inconclusive, it’s decided that Asai might benefit from some time in reform school to reflect on his life and hopefully emerge with a better sense of civic responsibility.
Hani’s depiction of the reform school system paints it as an obvious remnant of the militarist or perhaps even feudal past in which discipline and physical strength are the primary virtues. The boys salute, march in file, and are taught to respect authority. Inside the school, natural factions arise with a strictly observed series of hierarchies enforced by violence and intimidation. Asai, a determinedly independent sort, refuses to obey and stands up to the bullies only to suffer defeat. Eventually he becomes the leader of his own faction of similarly oppressed youngsters, but when the time comes he discovers he is all alone once again and unable to break the chain which constrains them in a cycle of fear and violence.
Nevertheless, the failed battle against oppression has an unexpected positive outcome when Asai is moved to another cell. Up to this point, there’s been relatively little sign of positive “reform” on offer – no education, no counselling, no practical advice which might help these young men escape the circumstances which brought them here, but on being moved to the carpentry workshop Asai does at least begin to learn a useful skill as well as mixing with more “serious” boys who can have a laugh together while getting on with work. His attitude seems to relax, he “grows up”, and begins to see a different future only to be abruptly released back onto the same streets no better off than before with only the kind hearted platitudes of the softly spoken social worker to guide him into a “better” tomorrow.
The question remains what sort of men the reform school system was designed to engineer and to what end – a collection of deindividualised authoritarians who stand to attention and salute on demand may not be much of an asset to post-war humanism. Meanwhile, the emphasis on strength and discipline unwittingly reinforces the law of the street where violence rules all and morality is an unaffordable luxury, encouraging the perpetuation of a system of mutual oppressions while ignoring the many and various social issues which make it impossible to escape. Hani wanted to capture the lingering spirit of “totalitarianism” in which even those superficially rebelling against the system obey ancient social codes which restrict their own freedom and exist solely to keep them in their place. In doing so he lays bare the wider hypocrisies of the post-war democratic era which promises freedom but delivers only the same old compromises.
Bad Boys was screened as part of the Japanese Avant-garde and Experimental Film Festival 2018.
DVD release trailer (no subtitles)