Hikô shôjo / Delinquent Girl (1963)

31 08 2017

In 1962, Kirio Urayama released the brilliant Foundry Town, a late shomin-geki that effortlessly weaves labor and Korean-Japanese relations into the rich tapestry of a studied family drama. Released by Nikkatsu, a production company associated with slick and energetic crime dramas, Urayama’s film is a rare breed. It lacks the fervor and chaos one may read into anything adjacent to the Japanese New Wave. At the same time, it would be unwise to pin him down as old-fashioned, even if that would bring him into contact with Naruse and Ozu, two of the greatest filmmakers ever. Delinquent Girl, made only a year later, brings him closer into contact with something that resembles the New Wave’s concerns. A film about unruly youth and their agitated politics, its surface is not far from something like Cruel Story of Youth. Yet it switches up a melodrama with exploitative potential into a sympathetic, albeit broadly drawn, study.

Saburo returns from city life in Tokyo to his rural hometown. There, he is reminded of the resistance he faced during a period of youthful organization. His parents and siblings are equally confused by his inability to find steady work. In particular, his conservative brother, sees this idleness as inseparable from a leftist politics and an urban life. Saburo befriends Wakae, a young girl whose academic struggles are greatly overshadowed by the way the townspeople use her.

Wakae’s potential is seen by Saburo alone, who undergoes an attempt to Pygmalion her into an intellect like himself. He tries to finance her scholarly life, but she uses the money to attend to her more immediate needs. His reservations about her are buoyed by the endless gossip around town. Her reputation is constantly under attack, and despite Saburo’s own history of facing the town’s ire, he cannot completely believe Wakae.

Urayama sets up a melodramatic love story, a would-be apprenticeship between the titular “bad girl” and the optimistic scholar returning from the big city. Everything is drawn broadly here. The ridicule that Wakae faces seems stretched out for a fifteen year old girl. Yet, the film establishes that she’s already spent most of her life with her youth undervalued or unseen by those surrounding her. The implication of past sex work sets up a bulletproof explanation for a population of lecherous drunks that Wakae ignores in favor of the “new life” that Saburo’s interest promises. If the film unfolded in such a way, I would roll my eyes and dismiss it. But it switches from a set-up where Saburo is a master then lover to one where he is woefully unprepared to provide for Wakae. He might love her, but love is not enough for the forces bearing down on the couple. Their repeated misses with each other might read to some as graceless narrative developments, but they flesh out a romance that is initially lacking in explanation.

The film’s crucial shift, that from Saburo’s perspective to Wakae, suggests that the opening thirty minutes are a red herring. This is not a triumph of romance, but a continuation of Wakae’s hardships. Life of Oharu might be a helpful reference point here, but Uriyama does not linger in the tragedy of his heroine’s continuing disappointments. Unlike Oharu, Wakae moves on, steadily and with the hope provided by her youth. Saburo, who we once thought was our hero, becomes another detail in her life of hardship. To be skeptical of their romance is not to be skeptical of Uriyama himself, who wants us to question the impulse to buy into a relationship that seems to be tainted from the start. In cinema, it is not always right to fall in love.

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