A ten-year-old boy (Tetsuo Abe) sits by the railing of a boat, holding his toddler brother (Tsuyoshi Kinoshita) on his lap. He points out seagulls, explains that big fish eat little fish, that the ocean spreads out across the earth and that there are mountains, rivers, roads and monsters at the bottom of it. “Monsters! Light beams shoot from their eyes, and they breathe fire.” He growls. “They’re nasty. But the aliens annihilate them! I’m from the Andromeda nebula. I’m an alien who’s come to save the world. Didn’t know that, did you? I may look like a normal person, but I’m a genuine alien from the Andromeda nebula. Andromeda nebula.” His little brother makes a faltering attempt to echo him. “Good! You understand me,” the older boy says. “I’ve come to kill the evildoers who want to wipe out humanity! I’m a cosmic messenger of justice!” Coming from most children, this would simply sound like evidence of an active imagination, as well as a desire to entertain or impress a younger sibling; coming from Toshio Omura, the protagonist of Nagisa Ôshima’s fact-based 1969 film Boy, the implications are far more troubling.
Toshio and his brother, nicknamed Peewee, lead an unsettled life with their father, Takeo (Fumio Watanabe), and Peewee’s mother, Takeko Taniguchi (Akiko Koyama). (Toshio’s real mother is “rotting away from intestinal tuberculosis” in a hospital, as Takeko callously notes.) The family never stays in one place very long, and for good reason: They’re running an extortion scam. Takeko stands on the side of the road and waits for a suitable car to approach. “No taxis or fast drivers,” she tells Toshio. “Just station wagons or compacts with company logos. Women drivers are the best.” As it passes, she runs toward it and throws herself to the ground, pretending that she’s been hit. Wishing to avoid trouble and police involvement, the driver is generally willing to pay the family off after a bit of bullying from Takeo. People feel especially guilty about injuring a woman; the only thing worse would be injuring a child, so when a doctor tells Takeko to rest — she may not have been hit by a car, but faking accidents isn’t easy on the body — Takeo pushes Toshio into playing the victim.
Although Takeo has occasional moments of amiability, more often than not, he’s either violent or indifferent. After Takeko informs him that she’s pregnant again, she debates whether she should have the baby. “Go ahead,” he says, scratching his stomach as he lies on the floor. “It’s okay if I have it?” she asks. “Nah,” he says, still scratching, “go get an abortion.” He’s just as coldhearted toward Toshio, unless he’s faking concern in order to squeeze more money out of a driver. When Takeko wonders aloud how the boy feels, Takeo’s response sums up his attitude: “It doesn’t matter how he feels.” To him, his son is a tool to help him make money, saving him from having to get a regular job. Takeo was shot in the left arm and the collarbone during World War II — surely a traumatic experience (“I died once already, in the war,” he shouts at Toshio), yet his assertions that he’s “not well” and can’t work as a result tend to come across as excuses. Apart from his scars and his intermittent fits of rage, he appears to be unimpaired both physically and psychologically. Perhaps there’s more to him than meets the eye; perhaps not.
At any rate, Takeo’s livelihood of choice prevents the family from having a permanent home, something that Takeko finds especially galling. Her whole life has been turbulent: Separated from her parents at age four, she was subsequently adopted, only to have her adoptive mother remarry multiple times, and later on, she left her own husband and child for Takeo. (Significantly, Takeo’s father died when he was five, so he didn’t have an easy childhood either. It’s a cycle that’s difficult to break.) Because Takeo perpetually insists that they need to pull off a few more jobs, that they would run out of money within months if they settled down — legitimate work being out of the question — she decides to take matters into her own hands, staging accidents for extra income even when Takeo instructs her to lie low and avoid attracting attention. Toshio, who also wants a home more than anything, becomes her (quite literal) partner in crime; ironically, it helps to strengthen their often fraught relationship. It’s hard to tell how much Takeko actually cares about Toshio. She’s willing to buy him presents and pay him a hundred yen per job (and, conversely, try to push him into the street), but her main goal seems to be winning his affection and approval — hence the cruel manner in which she talks about his real mother. In one scene, when she thinks he’s acting as his father’s spy, she goes so far as to slap and shake him. Her words indicate just how little self-esteem she has:
Takeko: Kids hate their stepmoms. They take their real parents’ side. I knew you hated me. You hate me, so you spied on me. If you hate me so much, just say so!
Toshio: Do I have to say that?
Takeko: There’s nothing I can do anyway.
Toshio: I don’t feel or think anything.
Takeko: What an odd boy.
But Toshio thinks and feels a great deal, and if he is an odd boy, it’s the natural result of his unusual upbringing. In the past, he lived with his grandparents in Kôchi and went to school, but at some point he left them to live with his father for reasons that aren’t entirely clear. Takeo insists that the grandparents prefer it that way. “Even if you go back to Kôchi, Grandma and Grandpa won’t be pleased,” he says. “They were very happy when you left. They said so in a letter they sent. And you can’t go back to school. You’re not enrolled. They don’t even have a desk for you.”
Despite these rather suspect claims, Toshio decides to run away one evening and return to his grandparents. Unfortunately, his money won’t take him all the way to Kôchi, so he buys a cheaper train ticket for Amanohashidate. Upon arriving there, he proceeds to act as if he’s in Kôchi anyway, telling his absent grandparents about his trip and lying down to sleep on a rock. “Good night. Tomorrow? You can wake me up anytime.” It crosses the line from typical children’s play into something much more disturbing, this little boy alone outdoors at night in a strange town, pretending that he’s in his old home and happy again. He starts to cry, and in the next scene, he’s back with Takeo, Takeko and Peewee; better to find a place with them, however shaky, than be entirely alone in the world. Indeed, at times he doesn’t seem to be entirely integrated into his own family. Before he runs away, the four of them are at an inn, being entertained by geisha. The way the shot is framed, a beam separates Toshio from the others, emphasizing his isolation. (“How I envy you, all together as a family,” one geisha says.)
An early scene has Toshio separated from other children at a carnival or street fair in a similar fashion — particularly poignant as he was just shown playing with imaginary friends.
Cut off from his grandparents, his peers and society in general, and too young to survive on his own, Toshio has no choice but to play along with his father’s scams — and Takeko’s as well — in hopes of one day leading a normal life. “I’ve been slowly getting better at it,” he explains in a voiceover. “Now I can take a fall without hurting myself. The worst part is the doctors’ exams. I always feel like they know I’m lying.” Later, he overcomes that problem, though the solution is hardly ideal: “Since my injuries really do hurt a lot, I don’t have to lie to the doctors anymore. Saying something hurts when it really does — any kid can do that.”
No doubt Toshio, “cosmic messenger of justice,” knows that what he and his family are doing is wrong — witness, for example, the scene in which he sympathetically approaches the victim of a similar extortion scam run by teenagers, only to have the boy throw his favorite hat in the mud — but because he’s a child, he fails to grasp the true seriousness of it. Eventually, it becomes a game to be won, with a permanent home as the prize. The fact that he suffers genuine injuries in the process, minor though they may seem, further blurs the line between the real and the pretend. It’s not until a family argument indirectly brings about a tragedy that Toshio has a kind of moral awakening. A much more violent conflict ensues, with Toshio and Takeko both physically attacking Takeo, and when he fights back, Takeko ends up unconscious on the floor of the inn where the family is staying. Toshio, unnoticed by his father, walks out into the snow. “I should just die. It’s better that way,” he says as he gazes down at a reminder of the recent tragedy.
Before he can act on this thought, Peewee emerges from the inn and insists on following him, so Toshio ends up building a snowman for his little brother. Once it’s finished, he sits down beside Peewee and tells him a story that both echoes his earlier tale and reveals his disillusionment:
Even you can understand now, right? That alien came from the Andromeda nebula. He’s a cosmic messenger of justice who’s come to kill the evildoers, the villains of the world. He isn’t afraid of monsters, or demons, or trains, or cars. If he strikes them, they shatter. He never gets hurt. He never cries. He has no tears to cry. He has no parents. He’s all alone. No mama, no papa. When he’s really afraid, other aliens come from outer space and save him. I wanted to become an alien like him. But I can’t. I’m just an ordinary kid. I can’t even die the right way.
He rises to his feet. “You worthless, piece-of-crap alien!” he shouts. Running over to the snowman, he attacks it, pummeling it with his fists, kicking it, throwing his whole body into this cathartic act. Then the movie cuts to a new scene, and the boys are with their parents once more. They are, after all, just ordinary kids, and they’re kids with nowhere else to turn — not even fantasy. Peace may be restored, but like all things in Toshio’s life, it’s only temporary. Whatever the future holds for him, his psychological wounds, like those of Takeko and possibly Takeo, are sure to endure long after the physical bumps and bruises have faded away.