The youth movie had been the populist rebellion against the stately Japanese cinema of the golden age, but many of its representative directors had quickly tired of the restrictive studio system. Some had decamped into the “independent” arena which offered relative artistic freedom if without the resources and financial rewards of the commercial sector. The Art Theatre Guild had provided a valuable outlet for experimental film since it began to shift from distribution of foreign films into production of Japanese language art movies, but paradoxically the early 1970s saw it shift again as the studio’s “arthouse” aims fell by the wayside and more conventional youth films made a gradual return. Puppets Under Starry Skies (星空のマリオネット, Hoshizora no Marionette), the first of three films directed by Hojin Hashiura for ATG (aside from an earlier 16mm independent effort, the only films Hashiura would ever make), is very much a youth movie in the new ATG mould which is to say its tone is one of sadness rather than anger as its protagonists find themselves adrift in the changing 1970s society, unable to find their place in the world their parents have been building for them.
Hideo (Yoichi Miura), leader of small biker gang, is best friends with Hiroshi (Kazuhito Takei) – an effeminate young man from a wealthy family who likes to wear makeup and dress in (slightly) flamboyant outfits. The trouble starts when Hideo picks a fight with a rival gang boss and then charges in for a rematch to avenge his honour only to be set on by thugs, stabbed, and beaten so badly he winds up in hospital for over a week. Humiliated, Hideo loses all his gang member friends with only Hiroshi sticking by him. Later he takes up with a local bar girl, Akemi (Ako), who has a promiscuous past and is already pregnant with another man’s child. Together the three attempt to find a way forward into a more conventional adulthood but struggle to find a place for themselves within a rigidly conformist society which has already rejected them.
Parental disconnection seems to be a recurrent theme in the lives of each of the troubled youngsters. Hideo lost his mother young, not long after they’d moved into the town from the mountains. Never having been able to come to terms with his mother’s death he has a difficult relationship with his father and takes out his frustrations through meaningless violence and male posturing. Akemi too has a difficult family background but this time with a single mother who is a former sex worker turned publican. Working in a local bar (not her mother’s) Akemi is harassed by the customers but is well known for being open to casual sex, suffering a degree of social stigma both because of her liberated attitude and because of her mother’s former profession.
Hiroshi’s problems are perhaps of a different order. From an “elite” family, he feels himself entirely disconnected from normal family life and has been raised in an atmosphere of cold austerity rather than parental love. Hiroshi believes this is partly because he has “bad blood” and is cursed beyond redemption. He is not his father’s biological son but the child of a sperm donor enlisted to ensure an heir for his father’s bloodline. Hiroshi, however, is gay and will not be able fulfil the purpose he was born for, at least not in the way that was expected of him. He is also effeminate, something of which his family do not approve, and feels himself excluded from mainstream society because of his sexual orientation. To combat his feelings of intense alienation, Hiroshi has become a drug user, sniffing glue in order to send himself on psychedelic trips to outer space in which he merges with the deep blue vacuum free of all worldly concerns.
Hideo too gets in on the glue sniffing act but feels himself becoming one with the river of life and death, feeling it flow through him as he flows with it. The river itself, and the idea of passive resignation that comes of simply allowing oneself to float, becomes a grim symbol of the futility that faces Hideo as he struggles to reassemble an identity in a world which consistently denies him one. The future looks bleak for each of our protagonists, the only one with any sense of hope once again investing it in the system which has already betrayed her – the family. Youth looks for new models, new standards by which to live, but does not find them. Puppets of fate, the trio dance under starry skies until the sun comes up and they realise that the day holds nothing for them except the nihilistic desire for its end.