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PopGap #27: Diary of a Shinjuku Thief (1969)

PopGap #27: Diary of a Shinjuku Thief (1969)

Written by dorrk
20 April 2017

...I do feel something like rage toward nothing in particular.

As part of the counterculture explosion during the 1960s, the "new waves" of cinema that had been percolating worldwide for a decade began flowing freely, and, by the end of the decade, the subjects of sexual freedom and youthful political engagement were as prominent on-screen as they were in the lives of those coming-of-age at that time. One of the less-commercial modes of cinema that began thriving during the 1960s like never before was the personal & avant-garde movement. Although largely consigned to smaller art houses, at best, these formally loose and narratively experimental projects still scored a couple of minor hits, with their raw and unshackled depictions of sexuality and revolution striking a chord with young audiences. Haskell Wexler's Medium Cool, parts of which were filmed inside the Chicago riots of 1968, captured the angry energy of the time, while the X-rated Swedish arthouse sensation I Am Curious (Yellow) expressed both the innocence of personal discovery as well as the vulnerabilities that come with new freedoms. Dusan Makavejev's Love Affair... tackled the same subjects in 1967 from behind the Iron Curtain with grim wit and pessimism. Nagisa Ōshima's 1969 Diary of A Shinjuku Thief is very much in the same tradition, taking a particularly Japanese view of the intersection of youth politics and sexuality.

Birdman Hilltop (Tadanori Yokoo) is a confused young man who only finds sexual excitement in shoplifting, especially getting caught in the act. Bookstore clerk Rie (Umeko Suzuki), expects similar fulfillment from capturing the thief, but finds little satisfaction when her boss is sympathetic to Birdman, sensing that the solution to their conflict is for the two youngsters to resolve their unexplored sexual dysfunctions. Ōshima uses this scenario as a pretext for examining the power play between the impulses of agitation and control, the same dynamics fueling the student protests of the era, but digs deeper into what he seems to see as a legacy of Japanese impotence, both politically and sexually.

While Diary of a Shinjuku Thief starts off well, with two charismatic young actors smoothing over its non-traditional storytelling, Ōshima's frequent divergences from the Birdman-Rie relationship pay diminishing returns as the movie wears on. A documentary-style round table about sexual fulfillment gives some thematic context, but is not particularly insightful or engaging its own. Occasional musical narration from a retro-revolutionary bard (Jūrō Kara) is stylistically amusing but perhaps relies too much on cultural signifiers exclusive to Japanese audiences. Some retroactive research connected the rather long climactic guerrilla theatrical sequence — about a historically significant failed rebellion — with the doomed 1968 Shinjuku Station anti-police riots that are used as a framing device by Ōshima, but it's all too opaquely presented as well as too didactic. Underneath it all seems to be lurking a moving story about youthful sexual confusion and frustrated energy during a transition from too much repression and systemic dysfunction to an equally distressing overcorrection toward extreme openness, demystification and de-sensualization, but it takes too much effort to mine that out of Ōshima's obscure vision in this instance.

Diary of A Shinjuku Thief was brought to my Potluck Film Fest by Flickcharter Grant Douglas Bromley, who can be found on Flickchart under the username grantvbromley. He ranks it on his chart at #101 / 1780 (94%), making it his 3rd favorite out of 26 movies from the Japanese New WaveDiary of A Shinjuku Thief ranked on my Flickchart at #2060 / 3788 (46%), putting it dead last out of seven movies from the Japanese New Wave (not far behind Ōshima's notorious In the Realm of the Senses).

PopGap #27: Diary of a Shinjuku Thief (1969)

Trailer for Diary of A Shinjuku Thief (1969)