I wanted to write this introduction for a long time, because very little has given me as much pleasure as getting to know Japanese film, and I want to share that pleasure. I thought that I could approach this vast topic in one of two ways: chronologically or thematically.
Of course, I decide to do both.
A few caveats before we start:
1- This is by no means an exhaustive survey of Japanese Cinema. For something on that scale, let me once again recommend Donald Richie’s magisterial study, A Hundred Years of Japanese Film. It’s a great book to read through and a wonderful reference book, as well.
2- Since I have abandoned any attempt to make this a ‘completist’ blog, instead making it about what it is of interest to me, you will note that many important genres will be missing. I am not very interested in anime nor in Japanese Noir (no yakuza for me, thank you). You’ll have to find better-informed people to introduce you to these genres.
3- What we’ll look at is Japanese film of the golden era, from approximately 1940 through 1965. I’m not well-informed about what comes before or after. Hopefully, this post will give you an incentive to explore on your own. If you do, please come back and post about what you’ve found.
Sound came to Japanese film much later than it did to Western film. Because of this, many of the great Japanese directors honed their craft making silents. They developed distinctive visual styles in ways that many of their Western counterparts did not. According to Donald Richie, Western silents, especially those of Ernst Lubitsch, had a great influence on Japan. Interestingly, Richie points out that while Hollywood was baffled by the Expressionism and experimental films coming out of Germany such as The Cabinet Of Doctor Caligari and Nosferatu, the stylization of these films was completely consonant with the Japanese aesthetic. Because of this, you see what seem to be extraordinarily experimental early silent films coming out of Japan such as the extremely nutty A Page Of Madness (1926, Teinosuke Kinugasa) and Japanese Girls At The Harbor (1933, Hiroshi Shimizu). Years later, Kinugasa directed one of the first Japanese films to win the Best Foreign Film Academy Award for Gates of Hell, a completely traditional historical drama. Shimizu would direct many traditional, lovely human dramas such as Mr. Thank You and Japanese Ornamental Hairpin.
The rise of militarism in the years before World War II manifests itself in many ways. For example, the first films of Akira Kurosawa reflect an almost hysterical sense of loyalty to the emperor and the army. In The Most Beautiful, the manager at a periscope lens grinding factory has impressed upon the workers that in order to support Emperor and country, the men must increase their output by 100% and the women by 50%. Our heroine, a distraught young team leader, prostrates herself in front of the manager begging him not to deny the women the chance to prove their loyalty by demanding less from them than from the men. This, of course, makes her the most beautiful.
After the war, the self-criticism is swift and merciless. The cruelty of the Japanese occupation of Manchuria is unflinchingly depicted in Masaki Kobayashi’s 9-hour The Human Condition. Kurosawa also explores the post-war self-recriminations in No Regrets For Our Youth. The Japanese self-analysis has absolutely no parallel in German film, especially so soon after the war.
I wonder if the immediate and intense examination of guilt and shame that Japanese film went through right after the war allowed the late 40s and the 50s to be decades that would witness art created at the highest level, art that was free of polemic and apology.
The quiet family masterpieces of Yasujiro Ozu, the historical epics as well as the contemporary dramas of Akira Kurosawa and Kenji Mizoguchi, the criminally unknown (at least in the West) films of Mikio Naruse, all appear in this period.
With the 60s, we see the rise of yakuza (gangster) films, disaffected youth films and giant-irradiated-monsters-destroying-Tokyo films. Approach with caution.
Japanese films are classified as either gendai-geki (contemporary drama) or jidai-geki (historical drama). The first Japanese film to become an international sensation was the jidai-geki Rashomon of Akira Kurosawa. The stylization and the strangeness of the historical trappings came to define Japanese cinema in the West for decades. Even though Kurosawa made stunning gendai-geki such as High and Low and Ikiru, it seems that if there weren’t samurai, the West wasn’t interested.
This has changed over the years. Today, no Japanese film is held in higher regard than Yasujiro Ozu’s quiet and devastating 1953 meditation on the decay of the family, Tokyo Story. This film is emblematic of a sub-genre of the gendai-geki called shomin-geki , or dramas of the ‘little people’, meaning the middle class.
Jidai-geki (historical drama)
The most famous films of this genre take place in the times of civil unrest dating from about 1450 until 1600. Society was in upheaval and would not be tranquil again until the rise of the Tokugawa Shogunate in about 1600. This period lasted until well into the 1860s with the rise of the Meiji emperor.
The films of this period present a world in chaos. The lives of poor simple people are tragically undone by the whirlwind of the times. Classic historical characters such as the ronin, the masterless samurai, are often the heroes of these story. But just as often, the hero is the poor farmer who is trying to hold his life together in the middle of the turbulence. The women of these films run the gamut from the chaste princess to the good-hearted farmers wife to great seductresses who often wind up being ghosts with vengeance on their minds. No one plays the latter better than Machiko Kyo in Ugetsu Monogatari
The most famous (in the West at least) of the Japanese actors is Toshiro Mifune. Though mostly known abroad for his roles in ‘samurai’ films like Yojimbo, Seven Samurai and Throne of Blood, he was brilliant in contemporary stories as well.
As an introduction to these historical films, I would suggest you start with the five following films:
A- Rashomon – One of Akira Kurosawa’s masterpieces and the film that brought Japanese film into the Western consciousness. The title has entered our language as the exemplar of shifting narrative reliability. It is one of the great works which tackle the topic ‘How can we know what is true?’ The answer seems to be that we can’t, but we must derive comfort where we can. An endlessly fascinating movie.
B- Ugetsu Monogatari (Tales of Rain and the Moon) – Many would argue that with this film Kenji Mizoguchi reached the pinnacle not only of Japanese film-making but film-making in general. Everything is here – the world in upheaval due to constant war, an erotic ghost-love story, the wrenching story of women destroyed by the folly of men. It contains some of the most breathtaking camera movements in all of cinema.
C- Kwaidan (Ghost Stories) – Masaki Kobayashi’s great collection of four wonderful ghost stories based on the collection made in the early 1900s by Lafcadio Hearne. Hearne was an Englishman who completely assimilated into and absorbed Japanese culture. A ravishing film with exquisite use of color.
D- Red Beard – Although Kurosawa sets this film in the late 19th Century, his fanatical obsession with historical accuracy makes this film one of the great examples of jidai-geki. The story of an arrogant young medical student coming under the spell of the fascinating title hero, a seasoned country doctor played by Mifune, and thereby growing into an integrated human being, stands unashamedly next to any 19th Century Bildungsroman. This huge film has one of the greatest hearts of any work of art I can think of.
E- Throne Of Blood – Like Verdi, Kurosawa loved Shakespeare. This is his Macbeth. It would be followed by his take on Hamlet (The Bad Sleep Well) and his final masterpiece based on King Lear (Ran). This film contains the single scariest embodiment of Lady Macbeth that I know of.
Gendai-geki (Contemporary drama)
The costume dramas of jidai-geki signal ‘Japan’ to us by the look and stylization of the films. It is interesting to observe that the contemporary works of gendai-geki also signal ‘Japan’ to us not from their surface but what is bubbling underneath. The greatest of these are films of the small but loaded gesture. Inference is prized over explicit expression. The powerful climaxes are quiet.
Here are five films to watch to give you an idea of the breadth and depth of Gendai-geki:
A- Osaka Elegy – Kenji Mizoguchi is perhaps best know in the west for his period dramas, but his contemporary dramas, especially those depicting the plight of contemporary women before and after World War II are astonishing. This film tells the wrenching story of a young woman slaving to support her rapacious family, only to have them reject her when they discover the compromises she has made for their sake. Very often, families are depicted as mercenary in gendai-geki, but the family in this film goes beyond what is usually depicted. The final shot of the woman walking straight into the camera, embracing her downward spiral, is devastating
B- Arigato-san (Mr. Thank You) – One of the loveliest films I have ever seen. In a way it is a precursor to John Ford’s Stage Coach in that it represents a cross-section of society on a journey and the relationships that grow and die along the journey. As I have written elsewhere on this blog, it is so rare to have a thoroughly good central character who does not become cloying. The bus driver, so nicknamed by his penchant to thank pedestrians who move out of his ways, is at once saintly and a thoroughly down-to-earth man. We all deserve a trip on Mr. Thank You’s bus
C- Tokyo Story – There is really nothing like the films of Yasujiro Ozu. The characters’ reticence, the static camera, the uneventful plots seem to float along like a lazy river until the climax hits you like a tidal wave. This film is hailed not only Ozu’s greatest, but one of the greatest of all time. The depiction of the unraveling of a family is magnificent in its restraint but overwhelming in its final impact. The last 20 minutes or so are sublime. As New York Times critic A. O. Scott says in his lovely tribute, ‘It’s merely perfect’
D- High and Low – Although Akira Kurosawa is best known for his samurai films, one of his most accomplished films is based on an Ed McBain detective story (of all things!). The title in Japanese is more literally translated as ‘Heaven and Hell’ and that title beautifully contrasts the world of privilege which is assaulted from below. This taut thriller is quite a ride. The use of widescreen is stunning and the end is harrowing.
E- When a Woman Ascends The Stairs – In a time when one has access to every episode of The Brady Bunch, it is criminal that hardly any of the films of Mikio Naruse are available in the Region 1 (US) format. Once again, we are indebted to Criterion for giving us at least this one sound film of his, along with three of his silents. His oeuvre rivals any of the other great directors. Kurosawa said of his films were “like a great river with a calm surface and a raging current in its depths.” How true that statement is. This film depicts a once successful mama-san, or manager of a hostess bar in the Ginza district of Tokyo, coming to terms with her diminished situation. The central character, played by Naruse’s muse, the stunning Hideko Takamine, is as richly drawn and as memorable as Emma Bovary or Anna Karenina.
The more I write this article, the more I feel I want to introduce and discuss, but since this was meant as an introduction and not as a doctoral thesis, I will stop here, but not without promising to focus more on individual Japanese films, directors and actors in the near future.
Please let me know about your adventures in the Cinema of the Rising Sun