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Japanese sake and cuisine, travel and history, literature and art, film and music by Ad Blankestijn
21 May
Although the violent youth films of the late fifties had been smothered by public outrage, between 1960 and 1965 the film industry would be radically transformed. The main reason was the appearance of a new, younger generation of directors as Imamura Shohei, Oshima Nagisa, Shinoda Masahiro, Yoshida Yoshishige, Teshigahara Hiroshi and Hani Susumu, who after their French colleagues as Truffaut and Godard, together are called the 'Japanese New Wave.' (Other directors as Masumura Yasuzo, Suzuki Seijun and Wakamatsu Koji are also closely allied to the New Wave). Although some of them started within the studio system (thanks to the opportunity afforded by Shochiku's president Kido Shiro), this was only for a few years and by the mid-sixties most were able to obtain funds for independent productions. Others such as Teshigahara and Hani were from the start independent film makers, although that was a rare situation in Japan where the distribution system was monopolized by the big studios. 

In contrast to the Taiyozoku films which were meant as commercial entertainment, these New Wave directors were not aiming at box office success, and therefore could not be silenced by the moral majority of consumers, although often their films were much more violent and amoral. The Japanese New Wave was characterized by the same stylistic modernism as the French Nouvelle Vague. The themes of these young directors were the uncomfortable realities of Japanese society and the fact that in their view Japan failed to deal with the modern world in a democratic manner. They had none of the restraint of the previous generation of film makers, whom they actively rejected. Politically, they were often engaged with the left.

For independent film makers, ATG, the
Art Theater Guild, played an important role. ATG had been founded in 1961 by husband and wife team Kawakita Nagamasa and Kashiko, with additional funding from Toho. It functioned as a distributor of foreign films and Japanese films produced outside the studio system; in the late 1960s ATG also began to fund the production of independent films. ATG encouraged innovation in form and content. 

In the 1960s, the audience for the cinema steadily declined due to television, with a sort of watershed in the year of the Tokyo Olympic, 1964, when television density reached a critical mass. The period film, a stable money maker, was taken over by television; chambara specialist Toei turned to more violent yakuza movies instead. The content of the films made by the studios became more and more dictated by commercial priorities (increasingly violent genre films) and from around the middle of the sixties they had no room anymore for auteurist directors. There also was a natural generational change as the classical auteurist directors such as Naruse and Kinoshita gradually retired, and Ozu died in 1963. Talented directors who stayed with the studios were forced to turn out mostly genre films. 


The studios in the 1960s:
Shochiku: Responsible for the birth of the Japanese New Wave, giving the young directors Oshima Nagisa, Shinoda Masahiro and Yoshida Yoshishige the chance for experimentation. Although the commercial failure of these films made it impossible for Shochiku to continue sponsoring them, it had at least given these new directors a good start. During the early 1960s, Shochiku also made some interesting period films, for example by Kobayashi Masaki and Gosha Hideo. 
Toho: Okamoto Kihachi directed stylish action pictures. For the rest, Toho leaned on its twin pillars of monster movies and salaryman comedies, plus in the first half of the decade prestige films by directors as Kurosawa and Naruse. 
Daiei: Daiei concentrated on well-crafted chanbara, with directors as Misumi Kenji, stars as Ichikawa Raizo and Katsu Shintaro, and hot series as Nemuri Kyoshiro and Zatoichi. Prestige directors Ichikawa Kon and Masumura Yasuzo continued the satirical and bungei traditions.
Nikkatsu: In this period mainly known for "Nikkatsu action" films. Best director was Suzuki Seijun (until 1967); star actors were Ishihara Yujiro and Shishido Jo; there was also a series of romantic youth films with Yoshinaga Sayuri. Nikkatsu also produced Imamura Shohei's artistic films.
Toei: Continued its production of chanbara films in the early sixties, but from 1964-1965 it shifted to ninkyo eiga (films about noble yakuza) set in the late Edo to early Showa periods. Directors were Makino Masahiro and Kato Tai.
Shintoho: bankrupted in 1961.

In The Japanese Film: Art and Industry, Anderson and Richie bewail the demise at the end of the 1950s of the classical Japanese film with its sentimental humanism, with "ordinary people doing ordinary things." But the 1960s were in fact a very exciting period in which many great films were made (if not a "golden age," than at least a well-polished silver one!), with numerous experiments to broaden the language of film. It was a decade full of creative ferment during which many magnificent films were made.

1960
This year, Japan's studios are still going strong: 537 films are released. Attendance is also massive at 1,014,000,000 and there are 7,457 cinemas.

It was an important year for the launch of Shochiku's brand of 'Nuberu Bagu' (Nouvelle Vague, New Wave). Oshima made three films in a row, Yoshida Yoshishige two, and Shinoda Masahiro also two. The three directors were still under the age of 30. The Japanese New Wave was not a movement, by the way, in the sense that these directors often met and exchanged ideas. In fact, they hardly knew each other and had very different ideas and personalities. 'Japanese New Wave' is not more than a convenient label that was affixed by others.

Oshima Nagisa creates a stir with Seishun Zankoku Monogatari ("Cruel Story of Youth" aka "Naked Youth"), a nihilistic account of adolescent criminals, the Japanese Rebel Without a Cause. Makoto excepts rides from middle-aged men, after which her boyfriend Kiyoshi suddenly appears to extort money from them. Makes extensive use of handheld cameras in true Nouvelle Vague fashion. Although an extension of the revolt of the Taiyozoku, Oshima's much harsher films are interesting for their narrative innovations and social concerns (this film is set against the backdrop of the Ampo demonstrations). Oshima uses crime to suggest the underlying rottenness of society. At a time that Ozu and Kinoshita's humanistic films were still the norm, Oshima shocks by the amount of venom he directs at Japanese society and the social taboos he tramples on. The film became a sensation. (Shochiku)

This same year also saw Oshima's Taiyo no hakaba ("The Sun's Burial"), a sordid story of sex and violence among a gang of juvenile delinquents, set in a poor slum, Kamagasaki, in Osaka. The title is also highly symbolical, as Japan is after all the Land of the Rising Sun; at the same time it could refer to the burial of the Sun Tribe, the Taiyozoku - youth is destroyed by the commercial-materialistic society that Japan has become. The narrative is about the lucrative sale of blood (of people who are forced to sell it to survive economically) to cosmetics companies, and switches from pimps and hookers to thieves and extortionists - all of them in some way lunatic. In this cutthroat universe, everyone is devoted to vice.  Typically, the petty thieves are under the control of a militarist fanatic who dreams of resurrecting the Imperial Army. Visually spectacular with widescreen compositions of Osaka's garish neon signs. Also this film did very well at the box office. (Shochiku)

A third film by Oshima in this prolific year was Nihon no Yoru to Kiri ("Night and Fog in Japan"), about the disunity of the radical left and its failure to end the United States-Japan Security Treaty during the 1960 demonstrations (Oshima himself was once a student protester). The film is set in October 1960 at a wedding party of two student protesters who met during the big demonstration of June that year, where a heated political discussion ensues. Oshima castigates the students who were under the sway of the Communist party, which he blamed for the failure of the movement by reigning in the students, and calls instead for a more radical student movement. As it was taboo in japan to make such strongly anti-government and provocative films (and that at a major studio!), Kido of Shochiku after a only few days pulled the film from distribution, upon which Oshima left the company. This highly political film formed a true watershed and audiences now realized that an alternate cinema had been born. (Shochiku)

Oshima Nagisa (1932-2013) studied political history at Kyoto University and made his first film for Shochiku in 1959. After the above-mentioned conflict with the studio, he started his own production company. In the sixties his films were highly political, from a leftist, revolutionary stance. He always questioned social constraints and received political doctrines. In the 1970s he challenged Japanese censorship with his films about sexual obsession. In the 1980s, in a milder style, he also enjoyed much critical success outside of Japan. Oshima was also a prolific writer on film.


Yoshida Yoshishige makes Rokudenashi ("Good-for-Nothing"), in which a bored and alienated student, one of four idle, wealthy youths, starts a sadomasochistic sexual relationship with the secretary of his rich friend's father, after first robbing her with his friends just for kicks. He is killed when he tries to stop a second robbery of his girlfriend by the other three, claiming that it was all merely for recreation. A bitter follow-up of the Taiyozoku wave. He also made Chi wa kawaiteru ("Blood is Dry"), in which an assurance company employee threatens suicide after a massive layoff is announced by the management. This film contains a surprisingly high number of images of a man holding a gun to his head, but is in fact more a backward looking social melodrama. Yoshida would come back in 1962 with Akitsu Onsen, his most important early film. (Shochiku)

Yoshida Yoshishige (born 1933) was active both as director and screenwriter. In 1964 he left Shochiku to start his own production company. He also writes about film, including a thorough study about Ozu Yasujiro (whom he admired). He is more a philosophical type (he graduated in French literature from the prestigious Tokyo University) and not the iconoclast that the young Oshima was; he disliked the violence in the latter's films. Yoshida is married to the actress Okada Mariko, who often appeared in his films.

Shinoda Masahiro's contributions were Koi no katamichi kippu ("One-Way Ticket for Love") about a rock 'n' roll singer and an indictment of the false promotionalism of the music world, a film capitalizing on the youth film boom, which was however a commercial failure, and more importantly Kawaita Mizuumi ("Dry Lake"), which contrasts three young people: a frustrated student revolutionary who wants to take justice in his own hands; a disaffected young man with wealthy parents who (mis-)uses his money for power; and Yoko (Iwashita Shima), a young woman whose father has committed suicide because of pressure by a corrupt politician but who refuses to be victimized and breaks away from her corrupt friends to join the Ampo demonstrations, which give her new hope. This film, which showed the options open to Japanese youth, was the first partnership with Terayama Shuji as scenario writer. In the next two years, Shinoda would make several more youth films for Shochiku. (Shochiku)

Shinoda Masahiro (born 1931) studied theater at Waseda University and joined Shochiku already in 1953 as assistant-director. He directed his first films in 1960 and left Shochiku in 1965 to start his own production company, Hyogensha. He often worked together with avant-garde artists as Terayama Shuji and Takemitsu Toru. He is married to the actress Iwashita Shima, who often appeared in his films.

Warui Yatsu Hodo Yoku Nemuru ("The Bad Sleep Well") by Kurosawa Akira was an attack on the collusion between Big Business and government, a great social problem film (shakai-mono) with noir overtones and a very dark conclusion. This was after all 1960 (the year of big demonstrations against the renewal of the Security Treaty with the U.S.) and rebellion against the authorities was in the air. A man (Mifune Toshiro) hides his identity in order to expose the corruption in a construction company with government ties and avenge the forced suicide of his father. Some elements from Hamlet have been worked into the story - there is even a sort of ghost. Mori Masayuki plays the boss and Kagawa Kyoko his crippled daughter. Very tense drama. Marks the debut of Kurosawa's own production company - Kurosawa's films were more expensive than those of other directors at Toho and the studio asked him to step in as co-producer. Entered into the 11th Berlin International Film Festival. This film may be less known, but it certainly is not lesser Kurosawa. (Toho)

Karakkaze Yaro ("A Man Blown by the Wind" aka "Afraid to Die") by Masumura Yasuzo is not only interesting because it has writer Mishima Yukio in the title role of gangster, but also for its stylish noir character (very different from the later ninkyo/yakuza films). It was the acting debut of the dandy-like author who liked to play violent death scenes until finally starring in a real one. (Daiei)

Hadaka no Shima ("The Naked Island") by Shindo Kaneto shows the harsh conditions under which people on a tiny island in the Inland Sea have to labor. The family of five suffers several devastating blows, for example when the eldest son dies. It was entirely made without dialogue, like a documentary, but is also full of visual poetry - it was wholly shot on location. Won the Grand Prix at the 2nd Moscow International Film Festival. This production becomes the model for small, autonomous film production companies. (Kindai Eiga Kyokai)

Onna ga Kaidan wo Agaru Toki ("When a Woman Ascends the Stairs") by Naruse Mikio is set in the Ginza bar world. Takamine Hideko plays a strong and dignified widow who runs a bar and encounters nothing but exploitation by men and her greedy family. She struggles to maintain her independence in a male-dominated society and every evening again ascends the stairs to her second floor bar, trying hard to put on a happy face for the customers. Shows the impossibility of escape. A most beautiful film, in which Takamine Hideko gives an magnificent performance - with great depth, nuance and delicacy - as a woman much superior to her surroundings. Has Nakadai Tatsuya as a comical bar tender. (Toho)

Also other established directors are very active this year. Kinoshita Keisuke directed Fuefukigawa ("The River Fuefuki"), about medieval wars seen through five generations of farmer's eyes. A very theatrical film, monochrome but with some fierce colors added like a woodblock print. The action is now and then halted by the insertion of still photos. (Shochiku)


Ichikawa Kon makes Ototo ("Her Brother"), which was entered into the 1961 Cannes Film Festival. Based on a novel by Koda Aya. In a very un-Ozu-like fashion, it shows the fierce discord in a family consisting of a husband and wife (he, always shut up in his study, she ailing and passive) and son and daughter (he, the black sheep causing trouble, she, the only one who keeps things going). Interesting is that Kishi Keiko as the outspoken daughter and Tanaka Kinuyo as the complaining mother seem to be acting against character. To achieve a desaturated look for the film, Ichikawa used a special technique (bleach bypass). Received Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film of the Year in 1961. The same story was filmed again in 2010 by Yamada Yoji as an homage to Ichikawa Kon. (Daiei)

Bonchi, also by Ichikawa Kon, is about matriarchy - mother and grandmother work together to control the life of Kikuji, the scion of an Osaka merchant family ("bonchi" is Osaka dialect for "pampered young master"). He stands helplessly by even when his wife is thrown out of the house for producing a son instead of a daughter. Foreshadows Ichikawa's later The Makioka Sisters in its nostalgia and visual sophistication. Based on a popular novel by Yamazaki Toyoko. (Daiei)

Akibiyori ("Late Autumn") by Ozu Yasujiro shows a mother-daughter instead of a father-daughter relationship as in Late Spring, but the story is similar. Three older men try to help the widow of a late friend to marry off her daughter. The daughter is less than happy at the proposals, mainly because of her reluctance to leave her mother alone. After a novel by Satomi Ton. Hara Setsuko now plays the mother, Tsukasa Yoko the daughter. "Akibiyori" literally means "a clear autumn day," in Japan more an "Indian summer" than the dark and stormy impression that the term "late autumn" makes on my Northwest European sensibility. (Shochiku)

Gosho Heinosuke makes Ryoju ("Hunting Rifle") based on a novel by Inoue Yasushi, an example of bungei eiga. Describes the complex relations of a man with his wife, mistress and the daughter of the mistress. Situated in the Kobe-Ashiya area. (Shochiku)

Jigoku ("Hell") by Nobuo Nakagawa becomes the last film made by ailing Shintoho. A student has a friend who is pure evil, and who - like Mephisto - pulls him along, so that his life disintegrates and ends literally at the gate of Buddhist Hell. Made with scarce means and in a hurry, it is amazing that Nakagawa manages to evoke such an expert surrealist atmosphere. (Shintoho) (See my post about Japanese cult films)


1961
Shintoho is declared bankrupt after making its last film, Jigoku.

ATG (Art Theater Guild) is founded by Kawakita Nagamasa and Kashiko, with some funding from Toho. It will function as a distributor of foreign art films (French New Wave) as well as Japanese films produced outside the studio system (the studios all had their cinema chains to which they only distributed their own films).

The five studios cease to offer films for television, and restrict television performances of films with company-exclusive actors. This leads to an increase in foreign films on TV and the promotion of new actors solely for TV.

Furyo Shonen ("Bad Boys") by Hani Susumu, a film about juvenile delinquents, one of the best films of the New Wave. Hani shot Bad Boys in a documentary style, using nonprofessional actors, with hand-held cameras and location shooting (all elements in true Nouvelle Vague style) - mostly in a reformatory that doesn't seem to do the boys any good. Received Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film of the Year in 1962. (Iwanami Productions)

Hani Susumu (born 1928) first worked as a journalist. His father was a famous leftist historian. Half of his 18 films are documentaries. He was mostly active in the 1960s and stopped in the early 1980s with making feature films - since then has mainly made wildlife documentaries in Africa for TV. He was for a time married to the actress Hidari Sachiko.


Buta to Gunkan ("Pigs and Battleships") by Imamura Shohei is set at the Yokosuka naval base, where the American military comes into contact with the dregs of Japanese society. Sardonic drama about a young hoodlum, whose greed draws him into drug dealing, pimping, and racketeering (and tending the pigs of his boss), criticizes both the American treatment of Japan as well as Japan's own moral corruption. (Nikkatsu)

Kohayagawa-ke no Aki ("The End of Summer") by Ozu Yasujiro. Nakamura Ganjiro delightfully plays the patriarch of the Kohayagawa family, who runs a sake brewery in Kyoto. His family shockingly discovers that at his advanced age he is visiting a mistress from his youth. They become concerned about his health and money spending. Hara Setsuko, Aratama Michiyo and Tsukasa Yoko play his daughter-in-law and daughters. Entered into the 12th Berlin International Film Festival. Title lit. "The Autumn of the Kohayagawa Family." (Shochiku)

Yojimbo by Kurosawa Akira is a hard-boiled Western in samurai guise, that would inspire countless Westerns in its turn, such as Sergio Leone's A Fistful of Dollars. A thoroughly amoral ronin (Mifune) arrives in a small town where competing crime lords vie for supremacy. The two bosses each try to hire the newcomer as a bodyguard and the ronin sardonically plays both sides, encouraging the bad guys to clean out each other. Full of brutal and subversive humor, for example in the grotesque opening shot of a dog holding a severed human hand in his mouth. The dynamic energy of the film explodes in the finale, a duel with a gun-toting thug (Nakadai Tatsuya). A very deserved Venice Film Festival Best Actor for Mifune Toshiro. Yojimbo did what Seven Samurai had not yet been able to do: it gave the deathblow to Toei's soft-hearted, warm, family-type period films. (Toho) (See my post about samurai movies)


Ichikawa Kon makes Kuroi Junin no Onna ("Ten Dark Women"), a black comedy and thriller that satirizes male chauvinism in Japan. A womanizing TV producer (Funakoshi Eiji) has nine mistresses in addition to his legal wife (Kishi Keiko, Kishida Kyoko, Yamamoto Fujiko, etc.). All are equally fed up with his arrogance and selfishness, and together devise a plan to kill him (although each would be happy to let him live if she could be the only woman in his life). (Daiei)

Kinoshita Keisuke makes Eien no Hito ("Immortal Love"). The son of a landowner (Nakadai Tatsuya) returns from the war a semi-cripple and falls in love with the daughter of a tenant-farmer (Takamine Hideko). He lies that her fiance has died in the war and forces himself on her. Pregnant, she has no choice but to marry him. But then her fiance returns. The marriage based on a lie becomes hell for both partners and their children. So this is not a love story! Nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. (Shochiku)

Toho starts its Wakadaisho ("Young Captain," the leader of a sports team) series with Kayama Yuzo. Wakadaisho ran from 1961 to 1971 and was one of the four comedy series and money cows of Toho. In every film a different sport is introduced, to make the Japanese ripe for the upcoming Tokyo Olympics of 1964. Tanaka Kunie plays a rich kid as Kayama's comical counterpart. (Toho)

Miyamoto Musashi (Part 1) by Uchida Tomu - series in five parts will run until 1965. Uchida's Musashi (Nakamura Kinnosuke) is a savage megalomaniac, who distorts Zen into self-worship. Same story (based on the Yoshikawa Eiji novel) as Inagaki's Samurai Trilogy. Although this five part series from Toei is little known in the West, I prefer it because of the fierce and realistic acting. Part 1, for example, is better than Inagaki's first film, if only because Nakamura Kinnosuke is more convincing as the young Musashi. Part 4 and 5 are really fabulous. The last shot is of Musashi looking at his bloody hands after killing Sasaki Kojiro (played by Takakura Ken). Like other films by Uchida, Miyamoto Musashi has none of the softness of the usual Toei products, on the contrary even. That Uchida is a great action director was already clear from the masterful Chiyari Fuji. Nakamura Kinnosuke would grow into a big star whose popularity was second only to that of Ishihara Yujiro. (Toei)

Nomura Yoshitaro films Zero no Shoten ("Focus Zero"), a popular thriller by Matsumoto Seicho, set in snowy Kanazawa and on the Noto Peninsula. Only one week after Teiko (Kuga Yoshiko) has married Kenichi, her husband disappears while on a business trip to Kanazawa. Teiko travels across Japan to find him and discovers that he has been leading a strange double life... An interesting noir film. (Shochiku) (See my post about Matsumoto Seicho)

Start of Daiei yakuza series Akumyo ("Tough Guy") with Katsu Shintaro (running till 1974). Katsu Shintaro plays a rough and ready young thug with a peasant background who easily gets into fist fights, but who is basically very chivalrous at heart. In Japan this was a popular series, still available on DVD, but it seems totally unknown abroad. (Daiei) (See my post about yakuza movies)

Daiei tries to attract viewers with a super spectacle film in 70 mm format based on the life of the Buddha, Shaka ("Buddha"), made by Misumi Kenji, with every star of the studio in it. The result is rather weak (like Toho's mythological spectacle Nippon no Tanjo of 1959). (Daiei)

Mosura ("Mothra") is an installment in the Godzilla franchise (director Honda Ishiro, with special effects man Tsuburaya Eiji). On a southern island, a larva jealously guarded by twin sisters who stand only a few inches high, is transformed into a giant female moth which then heads for Tokyo (and is destructive due to sheer size) in order to save the island culture. A cautionary tale about tampering with nature. Set the softer tone for the series in the sixties. With Frankie Sakai and Kagawa Kyoko. (Toho)

1962
Shochiku stops making Nouvelle Vague films and returns to its staple, romantic films for women.

Seppuku ("Harakiri") by Kobayashi Masaki is a fierce indictment of the emptiness and hypocrisy of the samurai code. A former samurai (Nakadai Tatsuya) avenges the cruel death (seppuku with a bamboo sword) of his son-in-law. He succeeds but the reigning lord has the swordsman killed with a gun and has his acts erased from the clan's history, to preserve the facade of Bushido. The finest and most powerful film of this director, shot in a rigid composition (by Miyajima Yoshio) that seems to symbolize the inhumanity of the samurai code. Won the Jury Prize at the 1963 Cannes Film Festival. (Shochiku) (See my post about samurai movies)

Otoshiana ("Pitfall") by Teshigahara Hiroshi. Dense, mysterious and above all surrealistic drama of murder and intrigue. An impoverished miner traveling with his young son, is shocked to notice that a mysterious stranger dressed in white is stalking  him. They run away from the haunting vision, only to wander into an almost deserted town where only one woman lives. But the man in white appears again and now murders the miner. The son witnesses the act, but the woman is paid off to identify the victim and his murderer as two rival union leaders. Original scenario by Abe Kobo. (Teshigahara Productions)

Teshigahara Hiroshi (1927-2001) was the son of the founder and grand master of the Sogetsu school of ikebana and would succeed to his father's position in 1980. A graduate of the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music, he was a man with many artistic interests: painting, sculpture, garden design, the Noh theater, etc. He also was an avant-garde film maker, who made 21 films, most of them documentaries, but also eight feature films, mainly in the 1960s, four of which he based on scripts and novels by Abe Kobo.


Akitsu Onsen
("Akitsu Springs" aka "The Affair at Akitsu") by Yoshida Yoshishige is about a passionate, self-destructive romance between a man with tuberculosis and the innkeeper of an onsen hotel who nurses him back to health, set against the background of war-torn Japan. The film then spans a total of 17 years in which they continue their relationship. The characters of the spirited, selfless woman (Okada Mariko, the director's wife) and the cynical intellectual drawn to her beauty (Nagato Hiroyuki), can be seen as symbols for, respectively, hope and resignation. The male protagonist has been called emblematic of the 1930s generation which saw its dreams first shattered by the war and then by japan's failure to repudiate these years, instead opting for empty materialism. (Shochiku)

Tsubaki Sanjuro ("Sanjuro") by Kurosawa Akira. The same hero as in Kurosawa's previous film here acts as mentor to a group of nine idealistic young samurai trying to root out corruption in the clan administration. Most of the film is a lighthearted black comedy, but the final confrontation ends with an impossible "fountain of blood," which would become the start of over-the-top violence in genre films. From now on, the sluices of blood would be open. Together with YojimboTsubaki Sanjuro started the genre of "cruel period films" (zankoku jidaigeki). (Toho)

Hakai ("The Outcast" aka "The Broken Commandment") by Ichikawa Kon, based on a novel by Shimazaki Toson. Dark psychological drama about the internal struggle of a young man (Ichikawa Raizo), who is a member of Japan's outcast class, a fact he keeps secret. The denial of his heritage ultimately leads to dramatic consequences. (Daiei)

Sanma no Aji ("An Autumn Afternoon") becomes the last film by great director Ozu Yasujiro. A widower (Ryu Chishu) arranges the marriage of his daughter (Iwashita Shima) and is left with the realization that he is growing old. The greatest performance of Ryu Chishu's career, bringing out the loneliness of old age. The summing up of a great career, full of gently irony. Luminous color photography by Atsuta Yuharu. Ozu died of cancer on his 60th birthday. His grave at Engakuji in Kamakura bears no name - just the character mu ("nothingness"). (Shochiku)


Horoki ("A Wanderer's Notebook") by Naruse Mikio is based on the autobiographical novel of the same title by Hayashi Fumiko. A woman tries to become a writer, but has to cope with the fact that she has to support herself by various odd jobs. She has several affairs with a variety of men, most of whom only try to exploit her. (Toho)

Kawashima Yuzo makes two films this year. One is a bungei eiga called Gan no Tera ("The Temple of the Wild Geese"), based on the novelistic masterwork of Mizukami Tsutomu about the destructive love triangle between a lecherous priest, an ex-geisha and a novice. Set in a Kyoto temple and full of atmosphere. The other one is a dark satire, Shitoyakana kedamono ("Elegant Beast"). A family of four (parents and grown-up children) makes a living as fraudsters, turning to crime out of fear that the former years of poverty will return. The deceitful family is a symbol for Japan. Completely filmed inside the family's apartment, with many interesting camera angles (like Rear Window). With Wakao Ayako. The script was written by Shindo Kaneto. (both Nikkatsu)

In Shinobi no Mono ("A Band of Assassins") Yamamoto Satsuo sees feudal times through the eyes of rebels and peasants. Ishikawa Goemon, a young ninja (Ichikawa Raizo) becomes ensnared in a plot to kill the warlord Oda Nobunaga, the most feared man in all of Japan. Death lurks around every corner as enemy ninjas close in. Film started the 'ninja craze,' the last living ninja in fact served as consultant. (Daiei)

Yamamoto Satsuo (1910-1983) dropped out of Waseda University to join Shochiku; in 1935, he followed Naruse to PCL (later Toho). He was a member of the Communist party and a driving force behind the union during the 1948 Toho labor dispute, after which he was fired. As an independent director he then made many socially conscious, rebellious films.

Zatoichi Monogatari ("The Tale of Zatoichi") by Mizumi Kenji and with Katsu Shintaro. Zatoichi is a gambler and blind masseur (and therefore not a samurai or ronin but a yakuza) but also a sensational swordsman, who has a blade hidden in his bamboo cane - he was not allowed to carry one openly as he was a commoner. The first installment (of twenty-six) is rather gloomy, but as the series developed, touches of earthy humor were added to his image, and this became an extremely popular series. The six Zatoichi films that were directed by Misumi are among the best. (Daiei) (See my post about samurai movies)


Nippon Musekinin Jidai ("The Age of Irresponsibility in Japan"), played by the comedian Hitoshi Ueki, who also sings and dances his way through the cheerful and optimistic story. The hero is a shrewd opportunist, the opposite of the ideal of company loyalty. He doesn't care for rules and procedures, sets his own time, jumps the hierarchy and uses very unusual methods to be successful. He brazenly says what he thinks. A good way to let off steam in Japan's workaholic years - anyone really behaving like Ueki would have been out on the street in seconds. But as these films give a good picture of Japanese business culture, it is a pity they are completely unknown outside Japan. (Toho)

Chushingura ("The Loyal 47 Ronin") by Inagaki Hiroshi. A lavish screen adaptation of the classical story of the revenge of the Forty-seven ronin famous from the theater. As the Japanese knew this often repeated story by heart, Inagaki takes a certain familiarity with the story-line for granted, although he cuts none of the famous scenes. Gorgeous sets and scenery. The film pays much attention to the detailed political dealings between the very large group of characters, sometimes dropping the pace to a crawl, but ends with a riveting, climactic battle scene. One of the best adaptations among the countless ones made of this subject. (Toho)

Kato Tai made beautifully crafted genre films, based on scripts by Hasegawa Shin, such as Mabuta no Haha ("Long-Sought Mother") with Nakamura Kinnosuke. The protagonist has been abandoned by his mother as a child, but he grows up determined to reunite with her. Worried that she might be living in misery, he saves his money to help, only to find that she has married into wealth and status and has no intention of recognizing her son, who is a yakuza, an outcast of society. (Toei)

Kyupora no aru machi ("Foundry Town") was the debut of Urayama Kiriro. Set in Kawaguchi, an industrial town next to Tokyo, this simple story chronicles the lives of poor foundry workers and their families, and one girl's (Sayuri Yoshinaga) dreams of self-improvement and escape from her social prison by going on to higher education. Co-scripted by Imamura Shohei. Entered into the 1962 Cannes Film Festival. (Nikkatsu)

Nikui an-chikusho ("I Hate But Love") by Kurahara Kureyoshi, is an unorthodox romance with Ishihara Yujiro and Asaoka Ruriko. A celebrity is dissatisfied with his life controlled into the smallest details by his secretary/manager, and escapes from Tokyo to deliver a jeep to a remote mountain village. When the secretary - with whom he is in fact in love - follows him, they get busy dodging snooping reporters. (Nikkatsu)

1963
The fad for modern yakuza movies starts around this time. Yakuza also figured prominently in period drama (the matatabi-mono about itinerant gamblers), but these yakuza movies have modern (post 1868) settings, a formalized Kabuki-like aesthetic intensified by use of color and very cruel killings. Their popularity lasts about ten years and traditional period drama (especially of the "soft" Toei type) vanished from cinemas; the only period drama that survived were the realistic, cruel films for which the tone had been set by Kurosawa in Yojimbo and Tsubaki Sanjuro.

Daiei's superstar, ninaime Hasegawa Kazuo, retires after making his final film, An Actor's Revenge by Ichikawa Kon. It was the 300th film of the celebrated actor and a remake of an old favorite story (filmed in 1935 with Hasegawa by Kinoshita), but this time done as a breathtaking avant-garde experiment. The story is about a Kabuki onnagata (female impersonator) who plots revenge for the death of his father. He has discovered three ruthless merchants were responsible for driving his father to suicide and follows them with a mysterious bandit who befriends him (also played by Hasegawa). He succeeds in his revenge, even though that means the death of the innocent daughter of one of the merchants (Wakao Ayako), a woman who has fallen in love with him. Color and composition surprise throughout the film, which is full of visual fancy. In fact, it is as theatrical as the theater that forms its subject: mise-en-scène becomes a conduit for pure expression rather than a means to represent reality. Ichikawa's trademark irony makes that we see everything at an ironic distance.  (Daiei)

Taiheiyo Hitoribotchi ("Alone on the Pacific"), also by Ichikawa Kon, is based on the true story of a young man who crosses the Pacific alone in a small sailboat, realizing his dream by sailing from Osaka Bay to the Golden Gate Bridge. With Ishihara Yujiro. (Ishihara / Nikkatsu)

Bushido Zankoku Monogatari ("Bushido") by Imai Tadashi. A salary-man's fiancée attempts suicide, he remembers his gruesome family history, which sees his ancestors sacrificing themselves for the sake of their cruel lords, and realizes that he is about to repeat the same mistake. One of the first "cruel period films." Won the Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film festival. (Toei)

Tengoku to Jigoku ("High and Low"; lit. "Heaven and Hell") by Kurosawa Akira is a thriller in which a shoe magnate, Gondo (Mifune), is told that his son has been kidnapped. An outrageous ransom that will surely bankrupt the businessman is demanded. Then the son is discovered to be unhurt at home - by mistake the kidnapper has taken the son of the chauffeur. But the ransom remains the same and Gondo faces a moral dilemma: shall he still pay the bank-breaking ransom, even now that it does not concern his own son anymore? This first part is set in "Heaven," Gondo's huge mansion on a hill in Yokohama. The second half of the film is set in "Hell" (Yokohama's poor and wild downtown) and shows the police investigation, as is usual in Japan undertaken by a large group of detectives who work together as a team (the head detective is played by Nakadai Tatsuya). In the finale Gondo confronts the kidnapper (Yamazaki Tsutomu), who has been sentenced to death for killing two of his associates, in jail in a shattering scene. The motivation for the crime was envy - the kidnapper, a poor intern at a hospital, had to look up from his poor hovel at the Gondo mansion standing proudly on the hill top above the city. Loosely based on a novel by Ed McBain. (Toho)

Nippon Konchuki ("The Insect Woman") by Imamura Shohei. A ribald satire of Japanese society shows 45 years in the life of a poor but indomitable country girl (Hidari Sachiko). Forced into prostitution she finally becomes a madam herself pimping other women as a ring of call grils. Shows Imamura's trademark, a thoroughly amoral woman who endures in spite of poverty, rape, and exploitation. A joyous and life affirming film. Can also be read as a metaphor of postwar Japan that has prostituted its spirit for economic gain. Noteworthy is that this film was wholly shot on location, including the indoor scenes, as would also be the case with Imamura's next films. Entered into the 14th Berlin International Film Festival; Hidari Sachiko received a Silver Bear for Best Actress. (Nikkatsu)

Jusannin no Shikyaku ("Thirteen Assassins") by Kudo Eiichi. A feudal lord guilty of rape and murder cannot be officially indicted due to his ties with the house of the shogun. The council of ministers therefore decides to have him assassinated: a group of thirteen avengers (led by Kataoka Chiezo) is brought together to waylay him and his retinue in a mountain village... nobody will survive the ensuing carnage. The 2010 remake by Miike Takashi is a weak pastiche, go for the original which is very impressive, both thanks to the stark monochrome photography and the violent half-hour long slaughter with which the film ends. (Toei) (See my post about samurai movies)

Kudo Eiichi (1929-2000) was a genre director at Toei (he had been enticed to film making by his colleague Fukasaku Kinji) who in the 1960s made some of the best period films ever (including the above film). In contrast to 1950s Toei fare, these films were very violent and realistic. Kudo also made yakuza movies for Toei.


In Yaju no Seishun ("Youth of the Beast") by Suzuki Seijun, Shishido Jo plays an ex-cop who takes on rival yakuza gangs to avenge the death of a friend. Lots of cartoonish violence, but also lots of laughs thanks to the absurdity and artifice. The film in which Suzuki Seijun found his own voice. (Nikkatsu)

Nakamura Noboru makes bungei eiga Koto ("Twin Sisters of Kyoto"), based on a novel by Kawabata Yasunari. Set in Kyoto, Chieko (Iwashita Shima) works in her parents' wholesale silk goods store. She was brought up to think her parents stole her as a baby and is shocked to learn - after a chance encounter with a girl who turns out to be her sister - that her real parents had abandoned her. The two sisters begin familiarizing with each other. Nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. (Shochiku)


Kanojo to kare ("She and He") by Hani Susumu. As her husband Eiichi becomes more entangled in his life as businessman, Naoko looks for ways to expand her own life even as her husband's life shrinks in scope. Beautifully understated film about the problems of "apartment life," with Hidari Sachiko and Okada Eiji as the couple. Entered into the 14th Berlin International Film Festival. (Eizo Sha / Iwanami Productions)

Hitoshi Ueki stars in another salaryman series, of which the first installment is Nippon Ichi no Iro Otoko ("The Most Sexy Man of Japan"). This is followed by such titles as "The Greatest Flatterer of Japan" (1965) and "The Greatest Pusher of Japan" (1966). Again, a spoof of the world of Japanese business in its days of high growth, that is not only fun, but in fact also quite educational. (Toho)

The Godzilla makers (diector Honda Ishiro and special effects or tokusatsu specialist Tsuburaya Eiji) make Matango ("Matango" aka "Curse of the Mushroom People") a bleak SF film about survivors from a shipwreck on an uninhabited island, where the only food are giant mushrooms. As is to be expected, those who partake of these weird fungi change themselves into monstrous mushrooms. Has become a cult film. (Toho)

1964
The number of cinemas falls below 5,000 and attendance has dropped to about one-fourth of the peak year 1958. This year is seen as a watershed, as TV grew exponentially through the Tokyo Olympic of this year. With a TV in most households, there was less incentive to visit the cinema. However, it was a year in which many fabulous films were made.

After stopping its New Wave films, Shochiku not only gradually looses the talents of Oshima, Shinoda and Yoshishige, also Kobayashi and Kinoshita leave the company (and Ozu has already died), so Shochiku is left with very little talent.

Suna no Onna ("Woman in the Dunes") by Teshigahara Hiroshi. Based on Abe Kobo's allegorical novel about a man (Okada Eiji) caught in a sand pit where he has to help a woman (Kishida Kyoko) shoveling sand for the rest of their lives, in order not to be buried under the shifting sands. Spectacular visuals, even though this is a black-and-white film. Teshigahara returns time and again to shots of the shifting sands, and the abstract compositions of sand and dunes become a fearful presence in themselves, the third protagonist of this claustrophobic film. The sand not only symbolizes the human condition (we are all Sisyphus), but the film also has a subtext about Japanese identity in the years of rapid economic growth. This landmark of art-house cinema won the Special Jury Prize at the 1964 Cannes Film Festival. Also Kinema Junpo Best Film of the year. Nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. (Teshigahara Productions)

Kaidan ("Kwaidan") by Kobayashi Masaki. Four ghost stories culled from the work of Lafcadio Hearn are brilliantly photographed: "Black Hair," "The Snow Princess," "Earless Hoichi" and "In a Cup of Tea." An aesthetic tour-de-force, very different from later J-Horror or any other pulpy entertainment due to its consciously slow pace and delving into the psyche of protagonists who venture into unknown territory. The obvious artificiality of the studio sets adds to the sense of dislocation. Impressive score by Takemitsu Toru, Japan's greatest 20th c. composer. Won the Jury Special Prize at the 1965 Cannes Film Festival. Nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. (Bungei / Toho / etc) (See my post about Japanese horror films)

Akai Satsui ("Intentions of Murder") by Imamura Shohei tells how a lazy but determined wife (Hidari Sachiko) gets her own way even after she is raped: she runs away with her attacker but he dies conveniently in the snow, after which she wins out over her husband and legitimizes her son (the fruit of the rape). Glorious black comedy about the tenacity and vitality of a women from the lower classes. (Nikkatsu)


Onibaba by Shindo Kaneto, set in a war-ridden medieval Japan, shows how a mother and (widowed) daughter-in-law survive by toppling samurai into a hole hidden by reeds and then selling their armor. When the daughter-in-law falls in love with a new man, the mother - afraid to loose her livelihood - tries to frighten her off by donning a hideous mask. What she doesn't know is that the previous owner has died of a terrible contagious disease... Very atmospheric and strangely erotic.  (Kindai Eiga Kyokai / Tokyo Eiga)


Kawaita Hana ("Pale Flower") by Shinoda Masahiro is a seminal nihilistic, hardboiled film about a misanthropic, world-weary yakuza gangster (Ikebe Ryo), just released from prison, who gets fatally involved with a young upper-class child-woman (Kaga Mariko) who seeks thrills by high stakes gambling and driving like mad in her sporty convertible. Powerful visuals. (Bungei Production etc) (See my post about yakuza movies)

The same year Shinoda also made Ansatsu ("Assassination"), a psychological study of an enigmatic sword master (Tanba Tetsuro) caught up in the complicated historical events leading to the Meiji restoration of 1868. The story is so complex, with a large cast, that it is very difficult to follow, but the swordplay is great. (Shochiku)

Nihon Dasshutsu ("Escape from Japan") by Yoshida Yoshishige is a violent and grim gangster story of a young man who with three friends plans a robbery. During the crime, a policeman is killed and the gang quickly disintegrates. The protagonist wants to escape to a foreign country, but is betrayed by a yakuza and ends up in prison. Nihilistic film close in spirit to Oshima, or to the work of French New Wave mentor Pierre Melville. The last film Yoshida made for Shochiku, as the final print was shortened against his wishes. (Shochiku) 
Nikutai no Mon ("Gate of Flesh") by Suzuki Seijun is a film about "pan-pan" girls living off their wits and their bodies among the rubble and black markets of postwar Tokyo. A band of hookers led by Maya (Nogawa Yumiko) occupy the basement of a bombed-out building, fighting for their turf. Rule No. 1: no sex without payment - those who transgress are in for sadistic torture. When ex-soldier (Shishido Jo) hides with the ladies after stabbing an American GI, Maya cannot contain her sexual desire for the hunkish fellow. The vitalistic, animalistic atmosphere is more of the sixties than the actual postwar years, and also makes for a rather chaotic story line. The documentary style also reminded me of the Jitsuroku yakuza films by Fukasaku Kinji of the 1970s.  (Nikkatsu)


Manji by Masumura Yasuzo is based on the eponymous novel by Tanizaki Junichiro. It is an erotic melodrama featuring Wakao Ayako and Kishida Kyoko as two women obsessively in love with each other. A story of uncontrolled passions and desires, but also of shrewd manipulation. Things finally get out of hand, especially when the two partners of the women (a fiance and a husband) also join in the foursome and the love affair culminates in a suicide pact. Excellent script by Shindo Kaneto. Remade several times (also as a "pink film") but this is by far the best version, truthful to the expert novel. (Daiei)

Hakujitsumu ("Daydream") by Takechi Tetsuji is a soft-porn film loosely based on a play by Tanizaki Junichiro. The film is set in a dentist's office and starts with unsubtle wet imagery of gurgling, drilling and fingers probing around in wide-open mouths. A young man (Ishihama Akira) and the beautiful patient (Michi Kanako) in the chair next to him are brought under sedation and loose themselves in wildly voluptuous fantasies that gradually turn more threatening when the dentist pursues the woman and ties her up, undresses her with the help of his scalpel, and then wraps her in electric wires for a game of shocks. And that is only the beginning. Hallucinatory, surreal romp that foreshadows the "pink films" of the 1970s, but then in a rather "arty" way. (Daisan Productions / Shochiku)

In fact, Hakujitsumu is often taken as the beginning of the phenomenon of "pink films" in Japan. During the sixties, the trend would remain largely underground, and there were few interesting films (unless one counts Wakamatsu Koji in), but it also could grow quickly, as many of the cinemas that were discarded by the shrinking big studios, started showing pink films, sometimes even on triple bills.

Midareru ("Yearning") by Naruse Mikio is a skillful psychological portrayal of a childless widow who manages the store left by her husband in a provincial town. Her brother-in-law is in love with her, but she keeps refusing him. Then she finally gives in, only to push him away again, in favor of her husband's memory. The jilted lover is so despondent that he commits suicide. Again with Takamine Hideko. (Toho)

Koge ("The Scent of Incense") by Kinoshita Keisuke, in two parts, based on a novel by Ariyoshi Sawako, tells the story of the bitter relations between a mother and daughter in the geisha world. With Okada Mariko, Otowa Nobuko, Tanaka Kinuyo, Sugimura Haruko and Kato Go. One of Kinoshita's last films. (Shochiku)

Kudo Eiichi directs Dai Satsujin ("The Great Melee" aka "The Great Killing"), a cruel period drama resembling a modern yakuza movie. A group of four men and one woman who have become the victim of the machinations of an abusive lord, plot the assassination of the petty tyrant. But the lord has a strong swordsman as his keeper and most of them bite the dust before reaching their target... An allegory for the increasingly violent struggles of the student protest of the day, which shows how also period drama was influenced by the air of dissent of the 1960s and became critical of hierarchy and power. (Toei)

Sanbiki no samurai ("Three Outlaw Samurai") by Gosha Hideo is a well-crafted genre film, a spin-off from a popular TV series. Tamba Tetsuro plays a wandering ronin (in the vein of Kurosawa's Tsubaki Sanjuro) who gets involved with a group of peasants, kidnappers of the daughter of the magistrate, who has imposed cruelly high taxes on the population. (Samurai Productions)

Gosha Hideo (1929-1992) started with a career as TV director and after switching to the cinema with the above production, he would continue making films with strong swordplay elements until the late 1970s. In the 80s he switched from machismo to romanticism, when he started making large-scale films about strong women, often geisha, often based on the novels of Miyao Tomiko. He also made the first film in the popular series about yakuza wives, Gokudo no Onnatachi.

Nemuri Kyoshiro: Sappocho ("Sleepy Eyes of Death: The Chinese Jade") is the first installment of a series of 12 eccentric chambara films (running till 1969). Daiei-star Ichikawa Raizo plays an utterly nihilistic sword hero, half-Japanese half-Portuguese, "the son of a Portuguese priest who assaulted his Japanese mother during Black Mass." Total pulp, sexy and very politically incorrect - in each installment Nemuri Kyoshiro demonstrates his skill in stripping women of their clothes with one swipe of his mighty weapon. Trashy, but also delightful - and Ichikawa Raizo possesses lots of charisma. (Daiei) (See my post about samurai movies)

Nihon Kyokyakuden ("An Account of the Chivalrous Commoners of Japan") by Makino Masahiro, with Takakura Ken as protagonist. The first installment of Toei's popular series about 'chivalrous yakuza,' unfortunately rather unknown in the West where the more violent jitsuroku yakuza films of the seventies have swept all that went before away. These older films are not so much about what we would call 'yakuza,' as about groups ("kumi") of organized workers in various industries, as transport, lumber, market stalls, etc. Competition has been harmoniously regulated by agreements among the different groups. Then one group embraces a harsh form of capitalism and breaks the agreements, acting violently towards the others. Typically, they wear Western dress against the traditional Japanese garb of the others; they also fight with guns against the swords of the conservatives. Takakura Ken plays the defender of the conservative group, trying to keep the peace as long as humanly possible, but after several murders (often of his elderly boss), he explodes in a violent rage and all alone exterminates the enemy group. These films defended conservative values against modern ones and advocated chivalry (keeping to the rules of giri and ninjo) in an age of unbridled capitalism. For that reason they were popular both among right-leaning young office workers and leftist students. Together with the Abashiri Bangaichi and Showa Zankyokuden series (starting the next year), these films made Takakura Ken (1931-2014) into a super star. (Toei) (See my post about yakuza movies)
A History of Japanese Film by Year:
1896-1909 - First Stirrings
1910-1919 - Development
1920-1929 - Art Films and Nihilistic Heroes
1930-1939 - Social Realism and Shoshimin-Eiga
1940-1949 - Censorship during War and Occupation
1950-1954 - Golden Age of the Classical Studio System
1955-1959 - Taiyozoku and other Youth Films
1960-1964 - The New Wave
1965-1969 - Independent Productions
1970-1979 - Sex and Violence
1980-1989 - Decline and Stagnation
1990-1999 - Indies and Anime
2000-2014 - Postmodern Games
[Reference works used: Currents In Japanese Cinema by Sato Tadao (Tokyo, 1987); The Japanese Film: Art and Industry by Joseph L. Anderson and Donald Richie (reprint Tokyo, 1983); A Hundred Years of Japanese Film by Donald Richie (Tokyo, 2001); Japanese Film Directors by Audrie Bock (Tokyo, 1985); A Critical Handbook of Japanese Film Directors by Alexander Jacoby (Berkeley, 2008); A New History of Japanese Cinema by Isolde Standish (New York, 2005); The Japanese Period Film by S.A. Thornton (Jefferson & London, 2008). All images are linked from Wikipedia.]
10 May
The late fifties see the first stirrings of a new cinema, very different from the classical, sentimental realistic films made previously. A new generation of directors (most of them born in the late 1920s and early 1930s) is more confrontational and outspoken. It starts in 1956 when the worldwide youth rebellion reaches Japan in the novels of Ishihara Shintaro. After the first one of these (Taiyo no Kisetsu or "Season of the Sun," about rich kids making mischief on the beaches south of Tokyo) the movement is called Taiyozoku, or "Sun Tribe." Aimed against Japan's gerontocracy, it was not a leftist movement, but rather a generational conflict. The Taiyozoku films were made by the reborn Nikkatsu and featured a new star in Ishihara's younger brother, Yujiro, "the Japanese James Dean." Prominent directors were Nakahira Ko and Kurahara Kureyoshi. The amorality of the first Taiyozoku films with a liberal dose of sex and violence, was however considered as shocking and a public outcry soon stifled the excesses of the movement. But also directors working at other studios independently followed this rebellious trend, such as Ichikawa Kon (Shokei no heya, 1956) and Masumura Yasuzo (Kuchizuke, 1957) at Daiei and Kobayashi Masaki (Black River, 1957) at Shochiku. 

At the end of the fifties and beginning of the sixties, the youth films then flow naturally into the New Wave, which also started with films about youth, such as the early films by Oshima Nagisa. Shochiku became the studio that gave him and other New Wave directors as Shinoda Masahiro and Yoshida Yoshishige a chance (the reason was that Kido Shiro, Shochiku's president, felt the need for something to appeal to the younger generation like other studios did - Shochiku only had women's films and sentimental realist films and was loosing the competition). Nikkatsu from its side produced Imamura Shohei's early New Wave films. The greatest difference between the New Wave and the Taiyozoku films is the strong leftist political engagement of several of the New Wave directors, especially Oshima. 

Yasumura Yasuzo, in the early fifties an assistant director at Daiei, receives an Italian scholarship to study for two years at the Centro Sperimentale in Rome, a precious chance at a time still little foreign travel was possible. After his return he calls for a new Japanese cinema that turns its back on the sentimental realism then prevalent in Japan and replaces it with non-sentimental films full of speed and energy. He also puts it into practice in the films he starts making as director from 1957 on (Kuchizuke, 1957; Kyojin to Gangu, 1958); others who film in a similar style independent from him are - besides Taiyozoku director Nakahara Ko (Kurutta Kajitsu, 1956) - Imamura Shohei (Endless Desire, 1958), Okamoto Kihachi (Deperado Ourpost, 1959) and even Sawashima Tadashi at Toei (Hibari Torimonocho: Kanzashi Koban, 1958). The "toughness" typical of these directors is also characteristic of young actors as Ishihara Yujiro (in his Nikkatsu action films) or Nakamura Kinnosuke and Okawa Hashizo (in their period films for Toei). This new, energetic cinema of the younger generation would eventually wipe away the sentimental realism of the older directors - and ironically, this would happen via Shochiku and its Japanese New Wave, the bastion of that humanistic style.

In this same period the classical directors continued making excellent films within the studio system, which was still going strong. That studio system reached its apex as regards box office income, and number of films and cinemas. In fact, the industry starts suffering from overproduction and excess competition. Western audiences only saw the prestigious art films by Mizoguchi and Kurosawa, but below that was in fact a high-volume, low-budget production system dominated by stars and genres. 

1955
Ukigumo ("Floating Clouds") by Naruse Mikio, his most popular but also rather melodramatic film. Set in a post-war devastated Tokyo and a society that is in dissolution and shows the tenacity of an ill-fated woman (Takamine Hideko) in love with a worthless married man (Mori Masayuki) she met in S.E. Asia during the war. She accepts every sort of humiliation at his hands - even when he takes up with another mistress, or leaves her simply behind without saying anything when he has a job transfer. To survive, she has to turn to prostitution - at all stages of her life she is manipulated be men. She keeps following her lover, all the way to the remote island of Yakushima (the edge of postwar Japan), where she finally dies. In the chilling last scene, he carefully puts lipstick on her dead lips. Based on a novel by Hayashi Fumiko. Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film of the Year. (Toho)


Another film about a similar subject, but treated with light humor, is Meoto Zenzai ("Marital Relations") by Toyoda Shiro, with Morishige Hisaya and Awashima Chikage. It is a wry comedy about the relation between a weak man, a charming no-good, and the geisha who loves him. Based on a novel set in downtown Osaka by Oda Sakunosuke. (Toho)

Ikimono no Kiroku ("Record of a Living Being") by Kurosawa Akira. Mifune plays a stubborn, elderly industrialist who is so obsessed by fear of atomic extinction that he wants to save himself and his family by moving to Brazil (which he for some mysterious reason thinks will be safe). After he burns down his foundry to force them to leave, the family has him declared insane - which he then indeed becomes. Film that shows the anxieties of the age about nuclear warfare, but in a rather didactic way. Entered in the 1956 Cannes Film festival. (Toho)


Nogiku no Gotoku Kimi Ariki ("She Was Like a Wild Chrysanthemum") by Kinoshita Keisuke is a beautiful and nostalgic love story. An old man (Ryu Chishu) come across a field of wild chrysanthemums, and thinks back to when he was fifteen. At that time he grew up with his girl cousin whom he would have married, but family and other pressures got in the way. Filmed in the style of Meiji daguerreotypes. Won the 1955 Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film. (Shochiku)

Mizoguchi Kenji makes two somewhat unusual spectacle films, which are not really his element. Yokihi ("The Princess Yang Kwei-fei") is his first color film, the famous story about the concubine of an 8th c. Chinese emperor. In Mizoguchi's version, Yang Kwei-fei sacrifices her own life to save the emperor. She loves him so much that she even lives on after her execution, speaking to him in her loving ghostly voice. Shot on location in Hong Kong as Nagata of Daiei was aiming at the S.E. Asian market. Beautiful photography by Sugiyama Kohei who also filmed Gate of HellShin Heike Monogatari ("New Tales of the Taira Clan") is a period film about the conflict between a decadent court and the rising warrior class at the end of the 12th c., after a popular novel by Yoshikawa Eiji. With Ichikawa Raizo. Colorful but static. (Daiei)


Chiyari Fuji ("A Bloody Spear at Mt. Fuji") by old hand Uchida Tomu is a masterful period film, part humorous road movie, part violent chanbara. The extremely bloody climax in which the servant (Kataoka Chiezo) avenges his master anticipated the violence in yakuza movies from the 1960s. One of the best films to come out of Toei in the fifties. Interestingly, Uchida worked in a much tougher style than the usual friendly, family-type jidaigeki made by his studio. (Toei) (See my post about samurai movies)

Takekurabe ("Growing Up") by Gosho Heinosuke is a melancholic film about the Meiji-period, based on a story by Higuchi Ichiyo. The protagonist is a trusting little girl who does not yet know that, upon growing up, she is destined to be a prostitute. (Shintoho)

1956
Toei surpasses Shochiku as the studio with the highest sales figures. Produces a big Chushingura spectacle film to celebrate its fifth anniversary.

Nikkatsu has problems with the competitive environment and tries to reinvent itself by creating the Taiyozoku ("Sun Tribe")-genre about Japan's dissatisfied youth in rebellion against the elder generation (taking its cue from the worldwide youth revolution). These films were filled with violence and sexual promiscuity.

Shintoho is also in difficulty and names former benshi Okura Mitsugi as its new director. Under his leadership the company turns away from art films and sinks deep into exploitation cinema and unsavory war films.

Inagaki's Miyamoto Musashi wins a Special/Honorary Award at the 1955 Academy Awards for outstanding foreign language film.

Ichikawa Kon's Shokei no Heya ("Punishment Room") is one of the first films about the youth revolt of the mid-fifties, based on a novel by Ishihara Shintaro, the spokesman of the discontented generation. A cruel and cheeky young rebel plans to steal the ticket money of a dance party he is organizing, while taking advantage of his family, abusing his girlfriend and cheating on his friends. But when he enlists the help of a gang, things get out of hand and he receives his deserved, but very violent comeuppance in "the punishment room." (Daiei)
A film along the same lines (and based on a book by the same novelist) is the sensual Kurutta Kajitsu ("Crazed Fruit") by Nakahira Ko. This the classical Taiyozoku (Sun Tribe) film. Two brothers with too much idle testosterone compete for the favors of the same young woman during a seaside summer of boating and drinking. The younger brother (Tsugawa Masahiko) steals the girl (Kitahara Mie), the elder brother (Ishihara Yujiro) takes revenge by steering his motor boat right over their small skiff. A lurid portrayal of the postwar sexual revolution and pampered, aimless, and casually self-destructive youth. The rebellious Taiyozoku films were made within the studio system and public outrage soon led to an informal agreement to cease production of the genre. Despite the freshness of this debut film, Nakahiro Ko (1926-1978) was later mainly assigned to direct action thrillers by Nikkatsu and had difficulty to fulfill his early promise; there are however also more personal films in his later oeuvre. (Nikkatsu)

Mahiru no Ankoku ("Darkness at Noon") by Imai Tadashi wins Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film of the Year. A film that criticizes an actual murder trial that was still in progress - and reaches the verdict of "not guilty" for a group of young men framed for a crime they didn't commit - quite a few years before the courts finally did. (Gendai Productions)

Kobayashi Masaki makes Kabe Atsuki Heya ("The Thick-Walled Room"), after a script by Abe Kobo, and based on diaries of "war criminals." The film asserts that most of the imprisoned were innocent and that the real war criminals went scot-free. This was the first film in which Kobayashi Masaki (1916-1996) who had started as director in 1952, found is own style. Kobayashi was a strong social critic, who made films of high moral integrity, often critiques of arbitrary use of power. (Shinei / Shochiku)

The same year Kobayashi also makes Anata Kaimasu ("I Will Buy You"), a pitiless take on Japan's bribery-fueled professional baseball industry. (Shochiku)

Kawashima Yuzo makes Suzaki paradaisu: Akashingo (Suzaki Paradise: Red Signal), a satire set in Tokyo's seamy milieu of bars and brothels. A young couple has fled to Tokyo to marry. Looking for income and a roof above their head, they end up in the Suzaki brothel area - the woman only works in a bar at the entrance to the district, but even that makes her man madly jealous. (Nikkatsu)

Kawashima Yuzo (1918-1963) deserves to better known outside Japan - he made quirky, satirical, and very original films. Kawashima graduated from Meiji University and joined Shochiku in 1938, where he became the assistant of Kinoshita Keisuke; after the war he made a number of comedies, But he only came into his own after his move to Nikkatsu in 1955. He made in total 51 films until his early death in 1953. Kawashima was the mentor of Imamura Shohei.

Biruma no Tategoto ("The Burmese Harp") by Ichikawa Kon is an antiwar film with a religious and humanistic theme: a Japanese soldier in Birma, called Mizushima, known for his harp playing in what is a sort of musical unit, steals away when the war ends and becomes a Buddhist monk to bury the war dead. Shows the contrast between the humanist captain of Mizushima's "singing company," who survive the war, and an inflexible captain who refuses surrender and is exterminated by the British with all his men. Does not shy away to show the horrors of war in the piles of corpses, and above all depicts war as a severe violation of the human spirit. Based on a novel by Takeyama Michio written to help his countrymen overcome the wounds of the war. San Giorgio Prize at the Venice Film Festival. Nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Ichikawa remade his own film in 1985, but this older version is better. (Nikkatsu)


Akasen Chitai ("The Red-light District" aka "Street of Shame") by Mizoguchi Kenji is a sober tale of a brothel called "Dreamland" in Tokyo's Yoshiwara red-light district, full of women whose dreams are constantly being shattered by the socioeconomic realities surrounding them in a male-oriented world. The film became Mizoguchi's swan song (he died this year at age 58 of leukemia); it contains excellent character portrayals, of the cynical hooker Mickey or the aging Yumeko who is shattered when her son rejects her. Made while the National Diet of Japan was debating an anti-prostitution law (which was finally passed shortly after the film’s release). Akasen Chitai takes an equivocal position: in the society of that time, there is no work for the women outside of prostitution; moreover, marriage is presented as a form of slavery. Fine performances by Kyo Machiko, Wakao Ayako, and Kogure Michiko. Awarded with a Special Mention at the 17th Venice Film Festival. (Daiei)

Nagareru ("Flowing") by Naruse Mikio. The decline of the geisha world observed by a maid. A proud middle-aged geisha (Yamada Isuzu) fights to uphold professional values against the pressure to decline into prostitution. Shows the increasing modern uncertainty threatening a centuries-old way of life. (Toho)


Soshun ("Early Spring") by Ozu Yasujiro. A young salaryman, dissatisfied with career and marriage, begins a flirtatious affair with a co-worker. His wife quarrels with him, but later follows him on a transfer to the countryside, where they can make a new start together. Like Ozu's next film, Tokyo Twilight, rather self-consciously youth-oriented and more melodramatic than usual for Ozu, showing that even Shochiku was forced to update the "Ofuna flavor" in a time of youth culture. (Shochiku)

Toho makes Hesokuri Shacho ("The Boss and the Slush Fund"), the first installment of their long-running (until 1970) "Company President" series with popular comedy actor Morishige Hisaya. Morishige plays a lovable president, afraid of his wife, and more interested in "after five entertainment" than business - he always gets entangled with geisha and bar girls. Besides Kurosawa's samurai films and Honda's monster films, these light and bright "salaryman" films, filled with warm human feelings, formed the third pillar under Toho.

Talking about monster films, this year Honda Ishiro adds another radiation-infused giant to his monster stable: Sora no daikaiju Radon ("Rodan" - for some reason, in English the Japanese name Radon becomes Rodan), a giant pterodactyl whose wings create destructive winds. (Toho)

1957
Toei makes the first widescreen film in color. Its period drama spectaculars remain invariably popular, and its box office successes put Toei on a par with the older, long established studios.

Ishikawa Yujiro's Arashi wo yobu otoko ("Man Who Causes a Storm") becomes a great hit. A violent young man just released from jail aspires to be a drummer and works his way up by playing in a hip Ginza club, hoping to receive the approval of his mother. Ishihara Yujiro (1934-1987) becomes wildly popular as a James Dean-type of rebellious youth, both a teen idol and an action star. He turned away from his Taiyozoku character and worked on a more lovable image. (Nikkatsu)

Ore wa matteru ze ("I Am Waiting") by Kurahara Koreyoshi also stars Ishihara Yujiro, this time as a restaurant manager and former boxer who saves a beautiful, suicidal club hostess trying to escape the clutches of her gangster employer. This was the first film of Kurahara Koreyoshi (1927-2002), who became Nikkatsu's best known director of action thrillers, often with a noir tone.   (Nikkatsu)

Kobayashi Masaki makes Kuroi Kawa ("Black River"), an exposé of the rampant corruption on and around U.S. military bases in Japan. The villain is not the U.S., but Japan which permits lawlessness to go unpunished. A clear precursor to New Wave masterpiece Pigs and Battleships of 1961 by Imamura Shohei. The film starts Watanabe Fumio, who would go on to become a central actor in Oshima's cinema. (Shochiku)

Masumura Yasuzo, who had studied at the Centro Sperimentale in Rome in the early fifties, makes his first film, Kuchizuke ("Kisses"), a youth film admired for the high pace and restless, mobile camera work. Kinichi and Akiko meet when they visit their respective fathers in prison and spend a day on the beach. But they both need money to get their fathers out of jail... Masumura Yasuzo (1924-1986) would become one of the most important directors of the sixties, standing close to the New Wave, making satirical and bleak accounts of Japanese society. After his return from Rome he called for the destruction of mainstream Japanese cinema, as it suppressed individual personality by submitting all characters to a collective self. (Daiei)

Bakumatsu Taiyoden ("Sun Legend of the Shogunate's Last Days aka The Shinagawa Path") by Kawashima Yuzo is an irreverent take on the last days of the shogunate ("bakumatsu"). Set in a brothel where reformers gather around the time of the Meiji restoration. With Frankie Sakai, Ishihara Yujiro and Minamida Yoko. (Nikkatsu)

Kome ("The Rice People") by Imai Tadashi. A group of struggling rice farmers attempt to fend off government bureaucrats and predatory corporate interests. The best film about peasant life since Tsuchi from 1939. Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film of the Year. Also an acclaimed entry at the Cannes Film Festival. (Toei)


In the same year, Imai also made Junai Monogatari ("A Story of Pure Love"). Won the Silver Bear for Best Director at the 8th Berlin International Film Festival. The love of this young couple may be pure, but society around them is not, as they are stigmatized as delinquents. While battling against society, the boy struggles to keep on the straight path, while the young woman - who also is a victim of the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima - is slowly dying of anemia. (Toei)

Kumonosujo ("Throne of Blood") by Kurosawa Akira. Shakespeare's Macbeth transported to medieval Japan and the slopes of Mt Fuji and brought to the screen with interesting elements from the Noh theater. Very stylized cinematic technique. Strong performances by Mifune as the hardened, animalistic warrior and Yamada Isuzu as his ruthless wife. Set in an unforgettable ghostly, fog-enshrouded landscape. Arguably, the best Shakespeare adaptation ever made. (Toho)


Donzoko ("The Lower Depths") by the same director transposes a play by Maxim Gorky to late feudal Japan, the whole staged in a single interior. Set among a collection of derelicts and their miserly landlords. Mifune plays a gambler in love with the landlady's daughter (Kagawa Kyoko); as she has an eye on him herself (played by Yamada Isuzu), she enacts revenge by killing her husband and shifting the blame on Mifune. In the end, she descends into madness, while the derelicts she used to treat cruelly stand by, openly laughing at her plight. A very dark film, faithful to Gorky's original. The same play had been filmed in 1937 by Jean Renoir. (Toho)

Tokyo Boshoku ("Twilight in Tokyo") by Ozu Yasujiro. Another family in dissolution, this time with for Ozu rare, piercing melodrama and psychological problems, including an unwanted pregnancy, an abortion and a suicide. Contrast between the youth-centered plot line and the emphasis placed on the role of the old. The melodramatic materials and sphere of crisis that hangs over the film clash with Ozu's penchant for suggestion and abstract structure. (Shochiku)

Yukiguni ("Snow Country") by Toyoda Shiro, after the famous novel by Kawabata Yasunari. The best of several screen versions of this book, in feeling and atmosphere close to the spirit of the novel, despite some changes and added incidents. With Ikebe Ryo and Kishi Keiko. (Toho)

Shintoho makes one of its most well-known nationalistic effusions, Meiji Tenno to Nichiro Daisenso ("The Meiji Emperor and the Japan-China War"), in which Arashi Kanjuro plays the Meiji Emperor as the ultimate, warm-hearted patriarch. Before the end of WWII it had been unthinkable to bring recent members of the imperial house to the screen.

Chikyu Boeigun ("The Mysterians") is the first colorful space opera made by Honda Ishiro and his team, including tokusatsu specialist Tsuburaya Eiji. Many would follow until the end of the sixties, often bringing on Godzilla-like monsters. The present film is a rip-off of Wells' The War of the Worlds and is filled with the hoariest cliches of pulp science-fiction. Special effects movies, often aimed at children, remained a strong seller for Toho.  (Toho)

1958
Kyojin to Gangu ("Giants and Toys") by Masumura Yasuzo is a satirical comedy on the advertising racket and the commercial excesses of corporate culture. A shrewd advertising director of a candy company turns a loudmouthed, young female taxi driver with bad teeth (!) into an unlikely star to advertise their new line of caramels. Already in the previous year, after his return from study in Italy, Masumura had called for a new Japanese cinema, that would turn away from the sentimental realism of the classical directors and instead consist of non-sentimental films full of speed and energy. (Daiei)

Hateshinaki Yokubo ("Endless Desire") by Imamura Shohei, his third film, introduces one of this director's ruthlessly determined women. A motley collection of people plan to dig up a cache of morphine buried during the war, but the site is now taken up by a butcher shop. (Nikkatsu)

Imamura Shohei (1926-2006) would be one of the major directors of the sixties, closely allied to the Japanese New Wave, but different in his search for the essence of Japaneseness, with a special interest in the lower strata of society and the "lower half of the body." He first was an assistant director of Ozu at Shochiku (whose style he detested), but soon went his own way.

Ichikawa Kon films Mishima Yukio's novel The Temple of the Golden Pavilion as Enjo ("Conflagration"), with Ichikawa Raizo as the inarticulate novice who deliberately burns down the national treasure building, the thing he most loved. The film starts with his arrest and then fills in his background and motivation (mostly related to the corruption and hypocrisy of Buddhism and society - it is harrowing how much damage one psyche can sustain in just a short lifetime) by a complex system of flashbacks. Shows the ambivalence felt by the young towards Japan's cultural heritage. This is possibly Ichikawa's finest picture. Beautiful black-and-white widescreen photography by Miyagawa Kazuo (Ishikawa's first CinemaScope film). (Daiei)

Higanbana ("Equinox Flower") by Ozu Yasujiro is this director's first color film. A daughter (Arima Taeko) wants to make her own choice of marriage partner; the despotic father (Saburi Shin) opposes, but the mother sympathizes and the father is finally won over. Shows how later in his career Ozu became increasingly sympathetic with the younger generation. Also, with its satire, pure comedy and deep irony a much lighter work than Ozu's previous films. With one of the best later roles by Tanaka Kinuyo, while also typical Japanese kimono beauty Yamamoto Fujiko makes an appearance. Based on a novel by Satomi Ton. (Shochiku)


Narayamabushi-ko ("The Ballad of Narayama") by Kinoshita Keisuke, based on a novel by Fukazawa Shichiro. Pseudo folktale, employing kabuki and bunraku stage techniques. In the remote mountains, certain poor villages have the custom to abandon the elderly on a mountaintop in order to ensure that the younger generation has enough to eat. Orin (Tanaka Kinuyo) arranges a marriage for her son and is then stoically resigned to her fate, although other old folks put up a struggle against their exile. Stylishly filmed on cunningly designed studio sets, this was Kinoshita's first widescreen effort. Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film of the Year. In 1983 Imamura Shohei filmed the same novel in a very different way. (Shochiku)

Yoru no Tsuzumi ("Night Drum") by Imai Tadashi. Set in 18th-century Japan (and based on a puppet play by Chikamatsu Monzaemon), the adultery of a samurai wife (Arima Ineko) with a drum teacher and its tragic consequences condemns the family as the source of an oppressive system that dictates the details of life so rigidly that there is no room for individual discretion. The law demands that both the adulterous wife and her lover are executed. The husband who blames himself for the wife's straying, then discovers that he has lost the only happiness he had. Arguably Imai's best film, a highlight of the 1958 Brussel's film festival. (Shochiku)

Kakushi Toride no San Akunin ("The Hidden Fortress") by Kurosawa Akira is a pure entertainment period film set during the sixteenth century civil wars. Two clownish peasants help a young princess and her loyal retainer travel incognito through a war-torn area. Great fun. Kurosawa's pioneering film in the widescreen format that he uses to great advantage and his greatest box office success of the fifties. A primary influence on George Lucas’ Star Wars. Berlin Film Festival Director's Prize. (Toho)


Inagaki makes Muhomatsu no Isho ("Rickshaw Man"), a remake in color of his 1943 film of the same title. Mifune Toshiro plays the rickshaw man who becomes a surrogate father to the child of a recently widowed woman played by Takamine Hideko. This film won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival of 1958. It is a sentimental favorite in Japan. (Toho)

At Toei Sawashima Tadashi makes an interesting period film with popular singer Misora Hibari: Hibari torimonochi: Kanzashi koban ("Detective Hibari: Case of the Golden Hairpins"), a comedy with dance and song which plays like a Hollywood musical, especially since the music is modern and western (the tap dance in Kitano's Zatoichi of 2003 was nothing new!).

Matsumoto Seicho was a popular thriller writer who in the late 1950s shot to fame with his "social mystery novels." This year, two of his novels are filmed. Nomura Yoshitaro makes Harikomi ("The Stake-out"), about two detectives who watch the house of a banker whose wife (Takemine Hideko) was the former lover of a murder-suspect, in the hope that the criminal will contact her. Strong portrayal of the endless hours spent staking out the house, the intense summer heat, and the beautiful woman under the detectives' gaze. (Shochiku).  Ten to Sen ("Points and Lines"), made by Kobayashi Tsuneo, is a "railway mystery" (another invention of Matsumoto Seicho, a subgenre making use of tricks with the train schedule, something only possible in Japan where trains run exactly on time) with a social dimension. That the suicide of a young couple on a secluded beach in Kyushu is not what it seems, comes to light thanks to the painstakingly gathering of evidence by two police officers. But their task is not easy, for the murderer has created an alibi by an ingenious use of the timetable. (Toei)

Toho starts another long "business" series called "Ekimae" or "In front of the station" with Morishige Hisaya and Frankie Sakai, about various businesses set up on the prime location "in front of the station." The first installment, Ekimae Ryokan ("The Inn in Front of the Station") was based on a novel by Ibuse Masuji, but after that new stories were freely developed around a consumer loan company, a bento shop, a spa, a Chinese restaurant, etc.

1959
Ningen no Joken ("The Human Condition") by Kobayashi Masaki. The longest film ever made in Japan, in three parts and six installments (a total of 579 minutes). Part I ("No Greater Love") and II ("Road to Eternity") were made this year; part III ("A Soldier's Prayer") followed in 1961. The best film about the war to come out of Japan. A pacifist (Nakadai Tatsuya) is sent to supervise a mine in Japanese controlled Manchuria, where he tries to alleviate the brutal treatment of the POW laborers, incurring the wrath of his superiors who horribly mistreat him. In Part II he is sent to a basic training camp where his pacifist views only bring him beatings and torture. But he has to learn to kill - reluctantly - on the battlefield in order to survive. In the final part after Japan's surrender the protagonist gives himself up to the Russian troops, hoping to be treated in a human way. He is imprisoned under miserable circumstances in a Siberian POW camp and eventually dies in the snow. The film shows a synthesis of the tateyaku and ninaime roles, as the love for his wife (Aratama Michiyo) is central to the life of the hero. This was implicitly a critique of the war ideology, where private love was looked down upon and women were seen as birthing machines for more soldiers. Characteristically, here the marriage is childless. Ningen no Joken set postwar attendance records when it was shown in Germany, although - due to its outspokenness about Japan's colonial exploitation of Manchuria - the Japanese government was initially none too happy at its going abroad. Also received several prizes at the 21st Venice International Film Festival. (Shochiku)

Ai to Kibo no Machi ("A Town of Love and Hope" aka "The Boy Who Sold His Pigeon") by Japanese New Wave director Oshima Nagisa. The second title was the one Oshima selected, the first and sentimental one the title the studio forced on him. A slum youth over and again sells a homing pigeon (he needs money for the family as his widowed mother is ill) and thereby happens to become friends with a rich girl. The boy's teacher befriends the rich girl's brother, who is the successor in an important electronics company. She tries to help the boy get a job there, but this is spoiled when his pigeon scam comes out. In the end the rich girl asks her brother to shoot the pigeon and that is the end of the film. Oshima makes clear that "love" is not sufficient to bridge the gulf between the rich and the poor. Sato Tadao calls the dove "symbol of the sentimental humanism of films of the past." Kido Shiro of Shochiku disliked the film (he had hoped for a youthful update of the sentimental realism Shochiku was known for, but got something very different) and gave it only restricted distribution, but it received favorable reviews.  Oshima Nagisa (1932-2013) was the most politically provocative director of the Japanese New Wave, who produced subversive analyses of Japanese society, while also employing a formally innovative style. He also received much international acclaim.  (Shochiku)

Kagi ("Odd Obsession aka The Key") by Ichikawa Kon, was based on the eponymous novel by Tanizaki Junichiro. An elderly man (Nakamura Ganjiro) decides to spice up the ailing marriage to his much younger wife (Kyo Machiko) with a series of voyeuristic intrigues - with fatal results. Ichikawa rather changes Tanizaki's story (including the finale), turning it into a delicious satire of bourgeois respectability and desire for status and wealth. Luminous photography by Miyagawa Kazuo and great performances by Nakamura and Kyo as the kinky couple. Interesting is also a young Nakadai Tatsuya as the fiance of the daughter (and simultaneously the wife's lover).  Won the Jury Prize at the 1960 Cannes Film Festival. (Daiei)

Nobi ("Fires on the Plain") by Ichikawa Kon is an antiwar film about a platoon of starving Japanese soldiers lost in the Philippines at the end of World War II. Funakoshi Eiji gives a wonderful performance as the single survivor who finally finds out what has sustained his fellow soldiers: the consumption of human flesh. When his deep, haunted eyes meet the camera, they show a terrible desperation. Vividly shows the dehumanization and degradation war inevitably leads to - this in sharp contrast to the "National Policy Films" of 1937-45 and the contemporary nostalgic war films of Shintoho c.s. which stressed the camaraderie and unity of purpose of the soldiers. Here, they cannibalize each other. A true vision of hell. Based on the well-known novel by Oka Shohei. (Daiei)

In a lighter vein, Dokuritsu Gurentai ("Desperado Outpost") by Okamoto Kihachi is a sardonic film, part war film (M.A.S.H., ten years early), part American Western-parody (in the Wild West of Manchuria), part thriller. This great energetic action comedy was very popular and became a series. (Toho)

Okamoto Kihachi (1924-2005) was a specialist in action cinema, who learned his craft under Makino Masahiro; especially the films he made in the 1960s transcend genre and demonstrate that he was closely allied to the New Wave.

Kiku to Isamu ("Kiku and Isamu") by Imai Tadashi was a film about mixed-blood children (their fathers are black American GIs), a little publicized legacy of the Occupation.  Imai is unsparing in his depiction of Japanese racism. Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film of the Year. (Daito Eiga)

Ohayo by Ozu Yasujiro. Remake in color and sound of I Was Born, But..., centering around the father's refusal to buy his two young sons a television. The boys boycott the adult world by refusing to greet the neighbors, and a neighborhood quarrel ensues; finally, Pa has to give in. Wonderful odd comedy with weird gags, such as a game among the boys of farting on command (with as result that one boy shits in his pants). (Shochiku)

Ukigusa ("Floating Weeds") by Ozu Yasujiro. Another remake, of the 1934 A Story of Floating Weeds. With Nakamura Ganjiro and Kyo Machiko as the theatrical couple, and Sugimura Haruko as the former mistress. Set in a port town instead the mountain location of the older version. Beautifully photographed by Daiei cameraman Miyagawa. Still, the 1934 film has a tightness that makes it slightly preferable. Some touches in the new film show the greater sexual freedom of the late fifties. (Daiei)

Nikkatsu creates another hit series for young cinema-goers with Guitar wo motta wataridori ("The Rambling Guitarist"), a vehicle for star Kobayashi Akira as a wandering street musician. The films are known as "no-nationality action" and are rooted in no specific place and time, so not necessarily linked to Japan. Inspired by B-movie Westerns, these flicks are just cheerful punch-ups and shoot-outs with flimsy stories of goodies against baddies and fights to set captured girls free. But like the Yujiro movies, they became a trend. (Nikkatsu)

Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan ("The Yotsuya Ghost Story on the Tokaido") by Nakagawa Nobuo. Disfigured by the poison her husband gave her, a samurai wife kills her infant and herself and becomes a vengeful spirit. One of many adaptations of the popular Kabuki play. Nakagawa Nobuo (1905-1984) was the Roger Corman of Japan - his fame rests on the horror films he made in the late fifties and sixties for Shintoho, with grand guignol sequences but no psychological depth. (Shintoho)

Nihon Tanjo ("The Three Treasures") was an Inagaki Hiroshi widescreen spectacular with stories taken from Japanese mythology in the Kojiki. Special effects (such as an eight-headed dragon) were by the Godzilla staff; Hara Setsuko played the Sun Goddess and Mifune her unruly brother Susanoo, who slayed the dragon. A grand spectacle intended to draw more viewers to the cinema - but not a great film. (Toho)
A History of Japanese Film by Year:
1896-1909 - First Stirrings
1910-1919 - Development
1920-1929 - Art Films and Nihilistic Heroes
1930-1939 - Social Realism and Shoshimin-Eiga
1940-1949 - Censorship during War and Occupation
1950-1954 - Golden Age of the Classical Studio System
1955-1959 - Taiyozoku and other Youth Films
1960-1964 - The New Wave
1965-1969 - Golden Age of Independent Film
1970-1979 - Sex and Violence
1980-1989 - Decline and Stagnation
1990-1999 - Indies and Anime
2000-2014 - Postmodern Games[Reference works used: Currents In Japanese Cinema by Sato Tadao (Tokyo, 1987); The Japanese Film: Art and Industry by Joseph L. Anderson and Donald Richie (reprint Tokyo, 1983); A Hundred Years of Japanese Film by Donald Richie (Tokyo, 2001); Japanese Film Directors by Audrie Bock (Tokyo, 1985); A Critical Handbook of Japanese Film Directors by Alexander Jacoby (Berkeley, 2008); A New History of Japanese Cinema by Isolde Standish (New York, 2005); The Japanese Period Film by S.A. Thornton (Jefferson & London, 2008). All images are linked from Wikipedia.]
4 May
When you visit Kyoto for the first time, you simply can't avoid visiting famous spots like Ryoanji's Stone Garden, the Silver Pavilion and Nijo Castle. And some unseen force (convention?) compels you to make a selfie with the Golden Pavilion as background. But once these and other touristy preliminaries are out of the way, you can take a deep breath, for now you are free to really start exploring and enjoying Kyoto as a city. Of course, you don't do that by tourist bus, but by using your own legs. Kyoto happens to be one of the world's cultural cities that is most suitable to explore on foot. Kyoto in fact begs you to start walking... walking is the only way to see Kyoto properly.


That was also the experience of the authors of Deep Kyoto: Walks, a wonderful new book containing the records of 18 residents of Kyoto who introduce their favorite walks in and around the city. The book has been carefully edited and contains clear maps to help you find your way. It is, as editor Michael Lambe writes, "an anthology of meditative walks that express each writer's deeper relationship to the area in which they live." Most of the writers are foreign residents and all have put down their roots in the Ancient Capital. They have lived here for something between 10 and 40 years and are all "old-Kyoto hands." This book is therefore an excellent guide for those who have had enough of touristy sights and finally want to see the real Kyoto. The authors are all well-versed in Japanese culture and history and prove to be thought-provoking and reliable guides.

The charm of this anthology is that the authors - whose profiles are given at the back of the book - all have quite varied interests. John Ashburne, for example, is a writer on Japanese food culture and a dashi specialist who takes the reader to his favorite shops in Nishiki, "Kyoto's Kitchen," in an article spiced up with delicious musings on food. In contrast, poet Stephen Henry Gill has embellished the walk he guides through Sagano and Arashiyama with interesting poems - no doubt stimulated by the fact that in the early 13th c. Fujiwara Teika compiled here the classical anthology Hyakunin Isshu and Basho's haiku disciple Mukai Kyorai owned a cottage, called Rakushisha ("The House of Fallen Persimmons"), where the master stayed when he visited Sagano.

Travel writer Perrin Lindelauf engages in his hobby of mountain walking by following the Kyoto Trail, that runs through the eastern, northern and western hills that encircle the city. He cuts up the 75km long trail in bite-sized bits, starting with Higashiyama and its temples and shrines; then a climb up Mt Hiei and descent into Kyoto's northern villages; a quiet stroll through Kitayama's forests; and finally a walk through the river valley of Takao and Arashiyama.

There are two more mountain walks in the collection. Shiatsu specialist Miki Matsumoto observes the "Ki," the vital essence, of Daimonji - famous for the huge bonfires lighted here in the evening of August 16 - on a climb of that mountain to enjoy the view over Kyoto. Sanborn Brown is not only a teacher at Osaka Kyoiku University, but also an avid cyclist, so he proceeds on two wheels to Kiyotaki - but from there he has to rely on just his legs for the arduous climb up Mt Atago. He makes this climb on the night of July 31, the annual Sennichi Tsuyusai Festival, when people come to the shrine to receive amulets preventing fires - a festival that was once so popular that there was even a funicular railway line up the mountain.

Travel writer and tour guide Chris Rowthorn delves into his own past by retracing the spots connected with his first visit to Kyoto in 1992, such as his lodgings, language schools and favorite bars. "Intending to stay a year, I stayed 18. I came with a suitcase and left with a wife, two children, and more stuff than you can cram into a shipping container." I guess others who have fallen in love with Kyoto have had a similar experience.

Michael Lambe, the chief editor of the present book, takes us on two walks: one is a tour along various music bars in Kiyamachi, the other a tour of monuments of Japan's modernization in the Meiji period. This last walk starts at the Incline in Keage, part of a hydroelectric power generation project undertaken in 1891 by the young engineer Tanabe Sakuro. Water was brought via a canal from Lake Biwa to supply the city's industries and an aqueduct of red brick was built in the grounds of Nanzenji (which blends so perfectly with the wooden temples that it now looks as if it has always been there).

Other writers take a stroll in the neighborhood of their Kyoto residence. Bridget Scott, who has studied Butoh and traditional Japanese dance and is a shiatsu therapist, lives near Shisendo and takes us to that magical temple (in fact the villa of a 17th century recluse), as well as to nearby Enkoji, and finally Manshuin and the Sagi no Mori shrine (all personal favorites of mine, as my first Kyoto home was also in this area). I also enjoyed reading how American artist Joel Stewart "wanders aimlessly" (uro uro as he calls it himself) from Daitokuji north to beautiful Shodenji. Shodenji is far off the beaten path and has a wonderful garden looking out towards Mt. Hiei. Travel writer Ted Taylor takes his little daughter on a promenade of his neighborhood, Murasakino (near Daitokuji). He visits no temples or gardens, but just saunters through a mundane section of Kyoto, showing us how interesting the real face of the city is.

Kyoto University lecturer Jennifer Louise Teeter, who lives near Gojodori, takes us on a long excursion that starts with the Gojozaka Pottery Festival (held on August 7) and the magical house and studio of mingei potter Kawai Kanjiro, and then north to Rokuharamitsuji Temple with its marvelous statues... and a shop selling "child raising ghost candy."

Japanese ceramics specialist Robert Yellin guides us along the Philosopher's Path, where he has his Yakimono Gallery (which alone is reason enough to come here). John Dougill, author of Kyoto: A Cultural History, one of the best books I know about Kyoto, takes us on a walk he frequently makes to Ryukoku University, where he is professor: from Demachi Yanagi along the Kamo River to Gojo, observing the different faces of the Kamo River which can be rightfully called the "heart of Kyoto."

Izumi Texidor Hirai guides us through one of her favorite Kyoto spots, the Botanical Gardens, again a very attractive destination that is blissfully free from tourists. The gardens afford a magnificent view of Mt Hiei and preserve part of the original vegetation of the area, besides being a great spot for hanami. On the other hand, Pico Iyer, the internationally famous writer of The Lady and the Monk, walks from Sannenzaka to Pontocho, showing us the contrast between the quiet path stretching along the temples at the foot of the Higashiyama hills and the noisy city bustle that engulfs you as soon as you step out of the Yasaka Shrine unto Shijodori.

Judith Clancy, known from various guidebooks such as Exploring Kyoto: On Foot in the Ancient Capital, which years ago already introduced us to the "Way of Walking" in Kyoto, wraps up with an epilogue in which she muses on the joys of experiencing the Ancient Capital on foot.

Two artists have contributed in kind, rather than recording walks: washi artist Sarah Brayer has made the beautiful cover and woodblock artist Richard Keith Steiner has contributed a wonderful mokuhanga of Daimonji.

It cannot be stressed enough: to really get a sense of Kyoto, to feel the pulsing heart of the city, you must walk. Kyoto is not only interesting for its temples, craft shops, restaurants, museums and gardens, but also as a city in its own right: it is great fun to observe the residents whose lives are partly lived on the streets, and to enjoy the city's ever changing expression. That is why Deep Kyoto: Walks is also a great read for those who are familiar with Kyoto and already have made many similar walks. I particularly enjoyed the different perspectives the various writers bring to Kyoto, the personal way in which they express their relation to the city. It in fact made me feel that I want to live in Kyoto again myself.

Deep Kyoto: Walks is a wonderful tribute to the city we all love.
Deep Kyoto: Walks is available from Amazon. Deep Kyoto, the website of Michael Lambe. I would like to thank Michael Lambe for providing a review copy.
26 Apr
The 1950s mark the peak of the Japanese film industry. Six companies - Shochiku, Toho, Shintoho, Daiei, Toei (from 1951) and Nikkatsu (from 1954) - release two films per week, 50 weeks a year. The annual production of Japanese films exceeded 500 works, and all studios enjoyed brisk business.

With TV yet to penetrate the market and undeveloped amusement facilities in the 1950s, film was the prime entertainment for the general public; thus, any film became a hit once it was released. In the second half of the 1950s, ticket sales and numbers of cinemas in Japan reached their peak. In 1958, more than a billion tickets were sold on a population of less than 100 million, indicating that on average each Japanese went to the movies more than ten times a year. Furthermore, between 1958 and 1961, the number of cinemas exceeded 7,000 facilities, and even small towns had two or three cinemas.

The great thing is that auteurist directors could ride this wave of cinematic popularity: Kurosawa, Ozu, Mizoguchi, Kinoshita, Naruse, etc., all were on the payroll of one of the big studios and were basically allowed to do their thing because of the prestige their presence gave to the studio. They could thus avail themselves of the superior technological and other means of the big studios, not to mention the access to great actors and actresses. And that is of course the real golden age: that so many memorable, artistic films were made by these auteurist directors in so brief a time span. 

We find the following division among the six studios:

Shochiku: Shochiku continued with its successful prewar formula: home dramas, comedies in the bittersweet "Ofuna flavor," women's pictures. The major director was Ozu Yasujiro; younger directors in the postwar period were Kinoshita Keishuke and Shibuya Minoru; lesser talents were Oba Hideo and Nakamura Noboru. 

Toho: After the crisis in the late 1940s, Toho made a comeback by balancing prestige projects with more populist films. Prestige directors were Kurosawa with his serious period films and Naruse with his woman's films; among the latter group were comedies about white collar workers ("salaryman movies"), and - very famous abroad - the monster movies (kaiju eiga) such as Godzilla, mostly made by Kuosawa's friend Honda Ishiro. The company was organized in the American way around a production system. 

Daiei: Founded during the war, Daiei excelled in adaptations of classic and contemporary literature, focusing on female protagonists; later it made also chambara movies. Daiei was responsible for some of the first Japanese films to achieve widespread foreign distribution. Directors as Mizoguchi Kenji and Yoshimura Kozaburo realized subtle human dramas; Ichikawa Kon made satires on social and sexual mores. As many stars had left, Hasegawa Kazuo had become the company's pillar. New faces in the fifties were Kyo Machiko, Yamamoto Fujiko, Wakao Ayako, and Ichikawa Raizo.

Toei: Formed in 1951 through the merger of several smaller companies. Toei specialized in low-budget jidaigeki, although it also made some better genre films. Toei was based round a star system (Kataoka Chiezo, Tsukigata Ryunosuke, Ichikawa Utaemon, plus new faces as Nakamura Kinnosuke and Okawa Hashizo) and not directors. The studio produced enough films to fill a double bill each week. Its films - almost entirely unknown abroad - were bright family entertainments, a mix of action, nostalgia and humor. In fact, they were also a form of anachronism, harking nostalgically back to the earliest period of jidaigeki and its stories of "rewarding good and punishing evil" (kanzen choaku). The swordplay was more like a ballet, without a drop of blood, and very different from the quick action scenes in the second half of the 1920s and 1930s.

Shintoho: Started life in 1947 as an ofshoot of Toho, as the name "New Toho" suggests. In its early period, the studio was able to do some prestige projects with Naruse and Gosho, but as it had no major talents under contract, it soon ran into difficulties. These were temporarily solved by switching to cheap thrillers, horror films and nationalistic war movies, but that move could not ultimately stem the decline. Its most distinctive director was Nakagawa Nobuo, who made surrealist ghost stories and is now considered as something of a "cult director."

Nikkatsu: The war had left Japan's oldest studio as only a theater owning company, but production was resumed in 1954. Nikkatsu soon opted for pictures aimed at a youthful audience, such as the violent and sexy Taiyozoku ("Sun Tribe") films, as well as romantic youth films with new young star Yoshinaga Sayuri,  and "mukokuseki" ("no nationality") action thrillers. Nikkatsu was also based around a star system - all new faces, as it lacked established stars (Ishihara Yujiro, Kobayashi Akira, Shishido Jo). 

For all studios the norm was that directors, actors, actresses and all technical staff were employed for a fixed salary, like "salarymen." Japan has never known the extravagant salaries of Hollywood.

1950
The Korean War begins and SCAP orders the studios to expel all "communists." Film makers who loose their job are Imai Tadashi, Gosho Heinosuke, Kamei Fumio and Yamamoto Satsuo. These directors set up independent production companies and make films about social issues. None of these companies lasts very long. But it shows that in all periods Japan had independent productions besides the large studios.

Rashomon by Kurosawa Akira, an innovative period drama, questions the nature of memory: four contradictory and incompatible eyewitness accounts of the same rape-murder incident show that the witnesses are only concerned with their own pride (or, in Japanese terms, "face"). The truth cannot be known as the film registers all four accounts in the same realistic way. This was contrary to what the public in Japan expected, as so far films had always told them what they should think and what reality they should believe in. Viewers were confused, but that was Kurosawa's intention, who, considering their passiveness during the war years, wanted the Japanese to become stronger individuals, persons who thought for themselves and formed their own opinion. The film ends with a humanistic message when the woodcutter, who was witness to the crime, decides to bring up a foundling baby as his own child. Despite being a "difficult" film, Rashomon was a financial success in Japan, being the fourth largest grosser of the fifty-two pictures released by Daiei in 1950. After winning the Golden Lion at the Venice Film festival the next year, Rashomon was brought out to great acclaim in the U.S. and other countries. (Daiei).

Skyandaru ("Scandal"), also by Kurosawa, a lesser film, is a sharp protest against the scandal-mongering of the sensation press, which confused liberty with license. Rather sentimental second half, in which the lawyer assigned to assist against the press is playing both sides. The film features Yamaguchi Yoshiko (of Ri Koran fame) besides Kurosawa-stalwarts Mifune and Shimura. (Shochiku)

Munekata Shimai ("The Munekata Sisters") by Ozu Yasujiro. Again the cultural conflict between tradition and modernity embodied in two sisters, the elder, married one is conservative and dressed in kimono (Tanaka Kinuyo), the younger, unmarried one is liberal and wears Western dress (Takamine Hideko). The younger sister encourages the elder one to reunite with a former suitor (Uehara Ken), although she herself is also in love with him. Finally, the elder one nobly gives up her love. Another contrast is between the modern scenes in Tokyo and Kobe and the traditional temples in Kyoto and Nara. Rare for Ozu, this is an adaptation of a novel (by Osaragi Jiro). It is unfortunately also a rather heavy-handed, schematic and overtly melodramatic story featuring an alcoholic husband who suddenly drops dead - causing the only woman's scream in all of Ozu. (Shintoho)

Mata au hi made ("Until the Day We Meet Again") by Imai Tadashi is the first antiwar movie that is popular with a major public. It shows the effects of the war on the fate of two lovers who happen to meet in a bomb shelter in 1945. They will never meet again: she dies in an air raid, he in combat. There is a famous scene where they blow kisses at each other through a window pane. Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film of the Year. (Toho)

Mizoguchi Kenji makes Yuki Fujin Ezu ("A Picture of Madame Yuki"). Set in the resort of Atami, this film is about an affluent heiress (Kogure Michiyo), married to a vulgar, womanizing and spendthrift husband. She is in love with an earnest young scholar (Uehara Ken), but remains helplessly physically drawn to her brutish husband - it all ends in tragedy. Beautiful portrait of a proud and delicate woman threatened by the insensitivity around her. (Shintoho)

1951
Shochiku reconstructs the war-damaged Kabukiza Theater.

Due to the forced merger of studios during the war, Japan's oldest film company, Nikkatsu, had lost its production arm to Daiei (including actors/actresses and technical staff) and was left with only its network of cinemas. It now has to start from scratch. Nikkatsu president Hori Kyusaku this year begins construction of a new production studio.

Another new company making preparations for starting production is Toei. Toei is established officially this year, on the basis of Toyoko Eiga (est. 1938) and others. Like Toho and its Hankyu link, this studio was also backed by railroad money, from the Tokyu Corporation. Okawa Hiroshi was appointed president. Toei planned to concentrate on period drama as soon as the U.S. Occupation would end and the company was fortunate enough to be able to attract a number of stars from the age of silent period drama: Kataoka Chiezo, Ichikawa Utaemon, and Tsukigata Ryunosuke. The Toei Studios Kyoto are set up in Uzumasa (converting the Toyoko Studio, which in its turn went back to studios owned by Daiei and Shinko Cinema, and finally to Ban-Tsuma's Production Uzumasa Studio of 1926).

Rashomon wins first prize at the Venice Film Festival, the first time that a Japanese film breaks through internationally. The film had been invited by the festival without the knowledge of Kurosawa, and no Japanese were present. Also Daiei president Nagata was surprised (he had had no confidence in this difficult movie), but he smelled money and would in the following years consciously make films aimed at foreign film festivals, trying to repeat the succes of Rashomon; also other studios would follow suit. The film also meant the breakthrough of the actor Mifune Toshiro.

Bakushu ("Early Summer") by Ozu Yasujiro. Chronicles three generations of the Kamakura-based Mamiya family, which is seeking a promising match for the eldest daughter, Noriko (Hara Setsuko). But Noriko has firm ideas about how and to whom she will give herself and surprises her family when she abruptly opts for a childhood friend, a poor doctor going to be posted in far-off northern Japan - she does this at the suggestion of his mother. Noriko fulfills her family's wishes, but also tears them apart. After she moves away the family lacks her contribution to the household income and has to split up. The grandparents, relieved that Noriko has been taken care of, move to the countryside of Nara, resigned to their own fate. Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film of the Year. (Shochiku)

Meshi ("Repast") by Naruse Mikio is a nuanced psychological masterpiece on the home life of a childless couple, a low-salaried clerk (Uehara Ken) and his wife (Hara Setsuko) living in Osaka. The wife begins to realize that all those years with the same man have given her no feeling of self-realization and she starts weighing her options - which are however rather meager. She returns to her family in Tokyo, seeking a job, but in the end resigns herself to going back to her husband. This is the first of six films that Naruse in the coming decade will base on the novels of Hayashi Fumiko. (Toho)

Ginza Gesho ("Ginza Cosmetics"), also by Naruse Mikio, depicts a few days in the life of a Ginza bar hostess, and is a sort of precursor to his later (and better) When A Woman Ascends the Stairs. About the hardships facing a bar hostess and the strength of character of the protagonist. It also shows one of Naruse's trapped characters, as the hostess is unable to escape from her hard life by catching a suitable husband. (Shintoho)

Karumen kokyo ni kaeru ("Carmen Comes Home") by Kinoshita Keisuke is Japan's first feature-length color movie, made with Japanese Fuji color film. Funny musical comedy in which a self-made woman, a striptease artist (Takamine Hideko), visits the village of her childhood. The baffled countryfolk shun her until she and her friend Akemi put on a benefit performance, after which they are able to leave the town as heroines. Kinoshita, by the way, was one of the few postwar directors like Ozu and Kurosawa who wrote almost all his own scripts - even without a co-writer. And like these two directors, he, too, had his own cinematic "family" to work with. (Shochiku)
Oyu-sama ("Miss Oyu") by Mizoguchi Kenji was loosely based on the novel Ashikari by Tanizaki Junichiro. Shinnosuke is planning to marry the young Shizu, but loses his heart to her elder sister, Oyu (Tanaka Kinuyo). Oyu, however, is a young widow, who for traditional reasons cannot remarry. Oyu then convinces Shinnosuke and Shizu to marry so that she can remain close to Shinnosuke. (Daiei)

Musashino Fujin ("Lady Musashino"), another movie Mizoguchi Kenji made this year, was based on a novel by Oka Shohei. Michiko (Tanaka Kinuyo) is a disillusioned young wife, trapped in a loveless marriage to her translator husband (Mori Masayuki), living in the western Tokyo suburbs; she eventually becomes entangled in a destructive affair with her cousin, who is too weak to support her love. (Toho)


Hakuchi ("The Idiot") by Kurosawa Akira. Kurosawa was a great Dostoevsky fan and based his film on the classical masterpiece. He transposed the story to Hokkaido and to postwar-Japan. War trauma plays an important role: 'the idiot' here is a former soldier suffering from epileptic seizures caused by wartime experiences; all the other characters are also victims of the war. This melodrama of jealousy and resentment, in which 'the idiot' tries to help a young man ruined by the war and a woman hounded by a wealthy but cruel suitor, has been considered a lesser Kurosawa film by Western critics; however, in Japan it has been consistently popular. Hara Setsuko is unexpectedly a stunning femme fatale and there are elegant patternings and great snowscapes. (Shochiku)

Imai Tadashi, one of the film makers who had lost their jobs in the red purge and set up independent production companies, makes Dokkoi Ikiteru ("And Yet We Live"), a work that chronicled the life of the urban poor, influenced by Italian Neo-Realism as De Sica's Bicycle Thieves. More than in his previous films, Imai here insists upon political action and social change.

Ichikawa Kon had made his first film in 1945; Koibito ("The Lovers") was his eleventh. The day before her wedding, a young woman goes out one last time with a former boyfriend. Ichikawa Kon (1915-2008) would become one of the most prolific and varied of Japanese masters, often basing his films on literary novels. The excellent scripts of his early films were written by his wife, Wada Natto. (Shintoho)

Ninaime Hasegawa Kazuo starts playing Zenigata Heiji, an okappi or sort of Edo-period policeman, in a popular series for Daiei that will run for ten years.

1952
Nikkatsu finishes building the Chofu Studio in Tokyo as the largest modern film studio in the Asia Pacific Region.

With the departure of the Occupation authorities, censorship of the film world ends. It is replaced by Eirin, a voluntary body, which gives film makers great freedom to depict social, political and personal matters. Although the studios eschewed explicit sex or violence in the early and mid-fifties, Japanese films could now be much franker than Hollywood products.

With the end of the Occupation, the theme of revenge is immediately restored to period drama and sword-fighting scenes proliferate. A typical example is Jirocho Sankokushi ("Jirocho: The Record of the Three Provinces") by Makino Masahiro, the first of eleven films about this famous "Robin Hood"-type yakuza boss, all made between 1952 and 1955. (Toho)

Toei starts its massive production of period dramas with films as Mito Komon Manyuki ("Mito Komon's Pleasure Trip", with Ichikawa Utaemon), Tange Sazen ("Sazen Tange", with Bando Tsumasaburo) and Akojo ("Ako Castle", with Kataoka Chiezo), the first version since the end of the war of the Chushingura legend.

Shindo Kaneto treats another taboo subject in Genbaku no Ko ("Children of the Atomic Bomb"). A schoolteacher (Otowa Nobuko) returns six years after the war to Hiroshima where she observes the after-effects of the A-bomb (which has killed her own parents) and the endurance of the survivors. Their suffering is augmented by the prejudice they have to face in society. Shindo Kaneto (1912-2012) had a distinguished career of six decades in cinema, not only as a director, but also as screenplay writer for directors as Mizoguchi, Kinoshita, Imai, Ichikawa and especially Yoshimura Kozaburo. Starting in the social-realist vein, he made his best films in the 1960s. (Kindai Eiga Kyokai).

The above film had been sponsored by the Japan Teacher's Union, but they were dissatisfied with Shindo's self-critical film, and commissioned another one. That was Sekigawa Hideo's Hiroshima, which delivered the goods in showing that only the Americans were to blame - some scenes of this film were used (without giving credit) in Resnais' Hiroshima, mon amour. (East West)

Ikiru by Kurosawa Akira wins the Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film of the Year. It is Kurosawa's clearest and most compassionate statement of his existential humanism, in a story about a dying bureaucrat, Watanabe, who bypasses red tape in order to help others and give his life meaning, even by doing a small good. Before that, he had been so immersed in his small, daily routine, that he never learned to live. Arguably Kurosawa's greatest achievement, quiet and contemplative. The first half of the film gives us Watanabe's inner state in a straightforward plot, the second half fragments the story into flashbacks as the various colleagues at the funeral of Watanabe review his struggle through their eyes - failing to give him any credit for his effort to build a playground in a small wasteland in a poor section of the town. Shimura Takeshi delivers a great performance as Watanabe - his large pleading eyes and hangdog face are unforgettable. Won the Special Prize at the Berlin International Film Festival of 1954. (Toho)

Saikaku Ichidai Onna ("The Life of Oharu") by Mizoguchi Kenji was loosely based on a classical novel by 17th c. author Iharu Saikaku. The atypical period film chronicles the inexorable decline of a court lady (Tanaka Kinuyo) who falls in love with a man below her station (the man is dutifully executed for his trespass) and finally ends up as a cheap harlot, via being the concubine of a lord (solely to produce a baby), a geisha, and the wife of a fan maker. Finally, Oharu becomes a Buddhist nun. Imbued with a sad beauty. Mizoguchi received international renown for his cinematic techniques. Venice Film Festival International prize. (Shintoho)

Ochazuke no Aji ("The Flavor of Green Tea over Rice") by Ozu Yasujiro. Crisis in the life of a middle-aged, childless couple. Takeo (Kogure Michiyo) is bored by her dull husband, a quiet company executive (Saburi Shin), and - inspired by a rebellious niece who refuses an arranged marriage - runs off to a spa with her friends. But after this unsettling experience - and when a foreign assignment threatens to take her husband away - , she comes to a new appreciation of him and his relaxed and simple mode of life - while they share a meal of simply green tea over rice. (Shochiku)

Okasan ("Mother") by Naruse Mikio was one of the most successful of postwar shoshimin-eiga. A daughter witnesses her widowed mother (with three children), a tenacious, aging woman, struggling to keep the dry-cleaning business left by her husband going and avoid poverty. Melodramas about maternal love and sacrifice, so-called "haha-mono," were popular since the early fifties (Daiei made scores of sodden sentimental ones with actress Mimasu Aiko, "the mother of Japan" - these films about mothers suffering for the sake of their offspring apparently took their cue from Henry King's Stella Dallas, but it is also an age-old Japanese theme). (Shintoho)

Inazuma ("Lightning"), also by Naruse Mikio. Based on a novel by Hayashi Fumiko and featuring the director's frequent muse, Takamine Hideko. In contrast to the previous film, this is a story about a weak-willed mother with four children by different fathers. The youngest, unmarried daughter tries to break away from the sordidness around her, but in the end cannot help being kind to her pathetic mother. In Naruse's films the inner conflicts of the characters are subtly indicated by the absence of prolonged eye contact or by glances filled with a hidden flash of disgust. (Daiei)

Karumen Junjosu ("Carmen's Pure Love") by Kinoshita Keisuke was a sequel to his first Carmen-film. Uneducated women working as strippers protest against Japan's postwar rearmament. If anything is to be done, one must do it oneself - but the idiocy of the modern world is not helpful. (Shochiku)

Genji Monogatari ("The Story of Genji") by Yoshimura Kozaburo was entered in the 1952 Cannes Film Festival. This first film version of Japan's great 11th c. classical novel was made to celebrate the tenth anniversary of Daiei. The shining prince was played by Hasegawa Kazuo. Praised for its careful recreation of period and careful delineation of character. Quite popular (Daiei's top grossing picture of the year) as many teachers took their class to see the film as a cultural experience. (Daiei)

1953
The Five-Company Agreement (Gosha Kyotei) is signed between Shochiku, Toho, Daiei, Shintoho, and Toei to prevent actors, directors and technical staff to be hired away by other studios. It made ordinary "company employees" of the actors and directors - only a few, who were famous enough, could get away from this by setting up their own production companies (Katsu Shintaro, Ishihara Yujiro, Mifune Toshiro, all in the sixties). Executed mainly under the leadership of Daiei's president Nagata Masaichi, the agreement was initially directed against Nikkatsu, which was trying to get back its former staff from Daiei. In 1956, however, Nikkatsu  also joined the agreement, which would be in force during the whole 1960s, until it naturally expired with Daiei's demise in 1971.

Daiei produces Teinosuke Kinugasa's Jigokumon ("Gate of Hell"), the first color film from Japan to be shown abroad, earning both an honorary Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film and best costume design, as well as the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival. Made with Eastmancolor as that was thought to have fresher colors than Japanese color film - the film indeed revels in color. Daiei's president Nagata hit the jackpot with this sumptuous production, in which he copied several elements from Rashomon: the period setting (12th c.); the "gate" in the title of the film; an original story by Akutagawa Ryunosuke; and Kyo Machiko as the female lead. But without being outright bad, the film strikes us now as a somehow empty display, as arty kitsch, with none of the depth of Rashomon (although that is of course a very high standard indeed). A samurai (Hasegawa Kazuo) has fallen in love with a palace lady (Kyo Machiko) and, although she is already married, keeps stalking her. Finally, she pretends to agree with a plan by her insistent lover: at night he will creep into her house to kill her husband - but she changes places with her husband and silently offers herself up for his life. (Daiei)


Tokyo Monogatari ("Tokyo Story") by Ozu Yasujiro. An elderly couple (Ryu Chishu, Higashiyama Chieko) from Onomichi visits their preoccupied children in Tokyo, but they are clearly a burden and packed off to Atami. Back home, the mother dies, and now it is the turn of the children to visit the town where they were born. The only child genuinely affectionate is the widowed daughter-in-law (Hara Setsuko); she is also the only one who understands the feelings of the widowed father. She offers to stay with him now that he is alone, but he refuses - he accepts life as it comes. Although Tokyo Story is now considered as one of the best films ever made, Ozu as a director was late in breaking through outside Japan. Only when it was shown in New York in 1972 (at the publication of Paul Schrader’s Transcendental Style in FilmTokyo Monogatari won the hearts of viewers. Instrumental in the breakthrough of Ozu was the unflagging advocacy by Donald Richie, whose detailed study on Ozu was published in 1974, finally convincing critics that this quiet filmmaker was one of cinema’s finest artists. (Shochiku)

Ugetsu Monogatari ("Ugetsu") by Mizoguchi Kenji, derived from stories by Ueda Akinari and Maupassant. One of the most perfect movies in the history of Japanese cinema, an exquisite blending of the otherworldly and the real. At a time of civil war, a potter (Mori Masayuki) leaves wife and child behind to go to the city to sell his wares. There he falls in love with a beautiful, mysterious woman (Kyo Machiko) who later turns out to be the ghost of a princess. She had never tasted love in her life and therefore must now seduce and destroy men. When at long last he manages to free himself from this beautiful, but malevolent spirit, the potter returns home where he finds his wife (Tanaka Kinuyo) waiting for him. The next morning he discovers she has been dead for some time - she is also a ghost. The difference is that she has become a benevolent spirit who watches over her husband and her son. Mizoguchi was often considered as "old-fashioned" by Japanese critics, but earned high praise in France, because his moving-camera, long-shot technique exemplified the aesthetic that the young Cahiers du cinéma critics were championing (and which they also found in films by, for example, Jean Renoir and Max Ophüls) - Godard called him “the greatest of Japanese filmmakers, or quite simply one of the greatest of filmmakers.” (Daiei)


Gion Bayashi ("Gion festival Music") by Mizoguchi Kenji. Post-war variation on Sisters of the Gion made seventeen years earlier, again with a traditional elderly geisha (Kogure Michiyo) and this time, not her real younger sister, but her maiko apprentice (Wakao Ayako). But as times are different, the resistance against traditional customs of the younger geisha is actually transformed into something humorous (she bites a client who wants to force her to have sex with him in his face, so that he ends up in hospital), although also the dark side of the trade is shown, as the elder geisha is forced to sell her body to a powerful client on penalty of being exorcised from the profession. (Daiei)

Nihon no Higeki ("A Japanese Tragedy") by Kinoshita Keisuke. Sentimental tragedy criticizing the egoism of the younger generation. A mother has made every possible sacrifice to bring up her ungrateful son and daughter, but they reject her, searching for their own material comforts. The mother is unable to provide for herself and finally commits suicide. But life continues and this, too, is just an incident in an eternal flow. The personal tragedy is linked to the larger flow of events by mixing in newsreels and newspaper headlines from the postwar years. (Shochiku)

Entotsu no Mieru Basho ("Where Chimneys Are Seen") by Gosho Heinosuke is entered into the 3rd Berlin International Film festival. The lives of four ordinary people living in an industrial-residential area of Tokyo, centering around the anecdote of an unwelcome baby. Shows the charms of everyday life. The chimneys of the tile look different depending on the viewpoint of the observer, and so it is also with life - it is as each person happens to see it. With Tanaka Kinuyo, Takamine Hideko, Uekara Ken, etc. (Shintoho)

Tsuma ("Wife") is another film about marriage by Naruse Mikio. A wife (Takamine Mieko) finds out that her husband (Uehara Ken), a white-collar office worker, is cheating on her. To avoid the stigma of a broken marriage, she desperately decides to do everything necessary to  retain him. Based on a story by Hayashi Fumiko. (Toho)

Ani Imoto ("Older Brother, Younger Sister") by Naruse Mikio. Siblings grow up and grow apart. A sister who has gone to work in Tokyo returns home pregnant. Her rowdy brother scolds her and beats up her boyfriend. The marriage prospects of another sister are ruined by this scandal. The Tokyo sister is discarded by her family and finally becomes a streetwalker. (Daiei)

Toyoda Shiro makes the bungei film Gan ("The Wild Geese"), an adaptation from a famous novel by Mori Ogai. Otama (Takamine Hideko) out of economic necessity becomes the mistress of a wealthy widower to help support her poor family. But then she meets Okada, a medical student she feels instantly attracted to, and she has to decide whether to follow her heart or do her duty to her family. (Daiei)

Nostalgic war films also start being made. An example is Taiheiyo no washi ("Eagle of the Pacific") by Honda Ishiro (of later Godzilla fame), insisting that war is somehow heroic. The insistence on warm comradeship ("male bonding"), like in the war films of the late 1930s and early 1940s, probably also helped make these films popular in the postwar age where everyone had to fend for himself. (Toho)

On a quite different note, Imai Tadashi makes an antiwar movie about a group of high-school girls who tragically perish in the battle for Okinawa: Himeyuri no To ("The Tower of Lilies") - the film was very popular in Japan. The major blame for the tragedy was put on traditional Japanese fatalism -  the girls had been trained to die in case of an American attack, so that is what they did. The film was named after the monument erected to commemorate this historical incident. (Toei)

Nigorie ("An Inlet of Muddy Water"), also by Imai Tadashi, wins Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film of the Year. Based on three stories by Higuchi Ichiyo about Meiji-period women and their dreary lot. One is cruelly abused in an arranged marriage; another, a prostitute, is thwarted in her efforts to gain respectable employment; and yet another is a young servant whose rich employers make her life hell. (Bungakuza)

The love drama ("surechigai") Kimi no Na wa ("What is Your Name?") by Oba Hideo established a famous box office record. It also demonstrated the enduring popularity of sentimental love stories centering on the ninaime lead (Sada Keiji) and the sorrowful heroine (Kishi Keiko). (Shochiku)

Koibumi ("Love Letters") by Tanaka Kinuyo. Tanaka Kinuyo was not only the most famous Japanese actress of her time, in the fifties and early sixties she was also active as one of the first woman directors of the country, making six films in all. This was the first one, based on a script by Kinoshita Keisuke, about a man (Mori Masayuki) who after the war gets by through writing love letters for other people. His personal principles are tested when he again meets his former girlfriend, a woman with a dark past (Kuga Yoshiko). (Shintoho)

1954
Nikkatsu starts production again. The studio attempts to find an audience with high-quality literary adaptations.

Shichinin no Samurai ("Seven Samurai") by Kurosawa Akira, the best samurai film ever made, a thrilling three hour epic. In this seamless fusion of philosophy and entertainment, seven ragged samurai set out to protect a poor farming village from bandit raids in exchange for nothing but room and board. They win after breathtaking battle scenes in rain and mud (though three of their number are killed), but realize that the real winners are only the peasants who don't need them anymore and want them to leave so that they can go on with their normal lives - leaving the samurai to wonder about the purpose in life. Daily life, in this case the round of the seasons with its agricultural activities, is more important than winning a war, than friendship, than even love. Won the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival of 1954. (Toho)


Mizoguchi Kenji makes Sansho Dayu ("Sansho the Bailiff"), an expression of human resilience in the face of evil. An eleven-century family is broken up by politics - the father, a governor who disobeyed the ruling feudal lord, dies in exile. The wife and her two children are left to fend for themselves and eventually fall prey to slave traders. The son is finally reunited with the mother through the self-sacrifice of his sister. Based on a short story by Mori Ogai, which itself goes back to a medieval legend. One of cinema's greatest masterpieces, with gorgeous photography and elegant camerawork. As is his wont, Mizoguchi keeps his camera distant and his takes long, resulting in a contemplative style. Venice Film Festival San Marco Silver Lion. (Daiei)

Mizoguchi also makes Chikamatsu Monogatari ("A Story from Chikamatsu aka Crucified Lovers"), based on Chikamatsu Monzaemon's 17th c. play "The Almanac Maker's Tale". Strongly anti-feudal film, about a merchant class woman who is unjustly accused of adultery with a servant. They flee, are caught and executed - at which time they realize that their shared experience has now made them fall in love. (Daiei)


Yama no Oto ("Sound of the Mountain") by Naruse Mikio, after the novel by Kawabata Yasunari. The heroine of this film (Hara Setsuko), a young bride, finds relief from marital distress when her husband slights her for another woman, in the friendship with her father-in-law (Yamamura So). The youthful enthusiasms of the wife are crushed by the unfeeling husband and only the aging father-in-law is moved by her sadness. (Toho)

Naruse also directs Bangiku ("Last Chrysanthemums"), about the loneliness and disillusion of three aging geisha, struggling to retain their dignity in a cold and unfeeling world, a subject Naruse had already touched on in Apart from You (1933). Naruse again demonstrates his deep understanding of female psychology in these sharp portraits of women who are experienced, proud and disillusioned. Permeated with a general feeling of regret and sadness. Based on three short stories by Hayashi Fumiko. (Toho)

Onna no Sono ("The Garden of Women") by Kinoshita Keisuke describes the struggle against the feudal structure at a women's college. A pupil is driven to suicide by the discriminatory treatment she receives from her teacher. (Shochiku)

Nijushi no Hitomi ("Twenty-four Eyes") by the same director is a pacifist film, a chronicle of a teacher's dedication to her students, her profession and her values, which she tries to maintain in the face of an increasingly aggressive militaristic government. Shot on location on the island of Shodoshima in the Inland Sea. Like the films of Ozu, Naruse and Gosho, this is a film free from tight plot and contrived story, reflecting life with great fidelity - something typical for the best Japanese films of this period. As life progresses, we see how ideals are inevitably shattered and compromised. Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film of the Year. (Shochiku)

Inagaki makes Miyamoto Musashi ("Samurai") the first (but self-contained) part of a trilogy based on the popular novel by Yoshikawa Eiji. Mifune Toshiro plays the iconic title character (although he was in fact too old to play a teenage boy in the first part). Followed by Part II in 1955 ("Duel at Ichijoji Temple") and Part III in 1956 ("Duel on Ganryu Island"). Takezo is a farmer's son, a good-for-nothing who dreams of becoming a samurai in early 17th century Japan. Under the guidance of a Buddhist priest, and through the love of a pure woman, we see him evolve from a wild animal, a teenager filled with rage and violence, into the adult Miyamoto Musashi, a man who through study of the Way of the Warrior has achieved a deeper understanding of himself. This trilogy is arguably the most popular samurai movie outside Japan, but it is a pure genre film, an entertainment, not comparable to Kurasawa's Seven Samurai with its philosophic depth. Academy Award for the best foreign-language film of 1955. (Toho) (See my post about samurai movies)


Toho makes the first of its many monster movies (kaiju eiga) with Gojira ("Godzilla"), helmed by Honda Ishiro. This first film is obviously by far the best of the series, not only because it has the advantage of a great actor, Shimura Takashi, but also because the story was inspired by realistic fear for the nuclear tests ongoing in the Pacific. A giant reptile, brought back to life by underwater nuclear testing, comes on land in Japan and goes on a rampage in Tokyo. An eccentric scientist does his best to destroy the beast with a new invention. The fact that it is in black-and-white makes it more convincing and even helps us accept the fact that the monster is a man in a rubber suit, stomping on mock-up buildings. The special effects were by Tsuburaya Eiji. The film became a huge international success, despite being heavily mutilated in its initial English release, and formed the beginning of a monster franchise that would run for many decades (and still has not died out). Godzilla would be joined by Rodan, the flying monster, by Mothra, and by King Ghidorah. He even became nationalistically Japanese when in the 1960s he fought against the "American monster" King Kong. The most popular entertainment ever to come out of Japan.
A History of Japanese Film by Year:
1896-1909 - First Stirrings
1910-1919 - Development
1920-1929 - Art Films and Nihilistic Heroes
1930-1939 - Social Realism and Shoshimin-Eiga
1940-1949 - Censorship during War and Occupation
1950-1954 - Golden Age of the Classical Studio System
1955-1959 - Taiyozoku and other Youth Films
1960-1964 - The New Wave
1965-1969 - Golden Age of Independent Film
1970-1979 - Sex and Violence
1980-1989 - Decline and Stagnation
1990-1999 - Indies and Anime
2000-2014 - Postmodern Games [Reference works used: Currents In Japanese Cinema by Sato Tadao (Tokyo, 1987); The Japanese Film: Art and Industry by Joseph L. Anderson and Donald Richie (reprint Tokyo, 1983); A Hundred Years of Japanese Film by Donald Richie (Tokyo, 2001); Japanese Film Directors by Audrie Bock (Tokyo, 1985); A Critical Handbook of Japanese Film Directors by Alexander Jacoby (Berkeley, 2008); A New History of Japanese Cinema by Isolde Standish (New York, 2005); The Japanese Period Film by S.A. Thornton (Jefferson & London, 2008). All images are linked from Wikipedia.]


4 Apr
In 1937, the war in China started, followed by the war with the U.S. and its allies in 1941. 1945 brought the Occupation to a devastated country, with shortages of food and other necessities, and severe chaos including gangsterism and a thriving black market. It was not until the end of the 1940s that the Japanese could feel that peace and normality had finally returned to society.

The films of this period were all made under more or less strict censorship, first by the Japanese government, later by the U.S. Occupation authorities (S.C.A.P.). The Japanese government encouraged "national polity" pictures that eulogized "essential Japaneseness," in these years found in the patriarchal family system and in the code of loyalty. Also sacrifice for the state and the greater well of society was an important theme. Decadent "Western" feelings such as love were frowned upon. The Americans, on the other hand, forbade these "feudal" ideas in 1945 and instead encouraged the production of films propagating democracy and individualism - and containing kissing scenes. By outlawing the theme of revenge and swordplay in film, the Occupation authorities also de facto forbade period drama, which only came back (with a vengeance) after the San Francisco Treaty had been concluded in 1951. 

Due the adverse circumstances and the lack of film stock and equipment, considerably fewer films were made in these years. This decade was also rather poor in great films, due to the war and various forms of censorship - a huge difference compared to the golden decades before and after the 1940s. Also the early postwar period produced no great films, we have to wait until 1948 and 1949 for new talent to ripen (Kurosawa), or older talent to find a new groove (Ozu). Many films reflect the harsh realities of postwar life, and although this was an independent phenomenon, it is the same type of transformation that occurred in Italy where neo-realism was born. 

1940
Despite the war, the cinema remains popular. There are more than 2,300 theaters which sell more than 400 million tickets this year.

Toyoda Shiro, the director of literary films, evades the war as subject and makes Kojima no Haru ("Spring on Leper's Island"), about a woman doctor's devotion to her leper patients on an isolated island. A cry for humanism in an age marching to the tune of militarism. Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film of the Year.

That was not true of Yoshimura Kozaburo, who made Nishizumi Senshacho-den ("The Story of Tank Commander Nishizumi"), although it must be said that also this film contains some dim humanistic elements. Heart-throb Uehara Ken played the tank commander.

Tatakau Heitai ("Fighting Soldiers") by Kamei Fumio, a documentary maker, was a film depicting the tragic side of the war. When the censors belatedly noticed its antiwar ideas, Kamei was arrested and forbidden to make any more films.

Naniwa Onna ("The Woman of Osaka") by Mizoguchi Kenji depicts rivalries in the Osaka Bunraku puppet theater world, a safe topic.

Gosho Heinosuke protested in another way to the war, by turning all military scripts submitted to him into simple love stories. An example from this year is Mokuseki ("Wooden Head"), a psychological study of an unmarried woman doctor who adopts an illegitimate child to keep the father's name clear.

Japanese cinema also expanded to the occupied territories in Asia. One example is the Manchurian Motion Picture Association, which had been set up in 1938 under sponsorship of the army. This year it made its most popular film, Shina no Yoru ("China Night"), about the love between a Chinese war orphan (played by Yamaguchi Yoshiko, also known at that time as Ri Koran, as she had adopted a Chinese name for propaganda reasons) and a Japanese naval officer (Hasegawa Kazuo).

1941
All American and European films (except German ones) are banned.

Ozu Yasujiro makes Todake no Kyodai ("Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family"), about a widow and her youngest daughter who have lost their home and move in with successive family members, causing many tensions. The spirit of the times can be seen obliquely in the idea that it is the death of the patriarch (and his authority), occurring at the beginning of the film, that is the origin of all these problems. For the rest the film is filled with small daily activities, like all Ozu films. It was also made with an almost silent-film technique. Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film of the Year.

Yamamoto Kajiro makes Uma ("Horse"), a portrayal of country life, part of it directed by his assistant, Kurosawa Akira. A colt raised by a poor farm girl in the end becomes an army horse, but the tacked on message (necessary to get permission to make the film) does not destroy this poetical work, which is almost a documentary about horse breeding.

Mizoguchi Kenji makes Genroku Chushingura ("The Loyal 47 Ronin"), a two-part version of the popular kabuki classic glorifying feudal loyalty and self-sacrifice. The film shows its wartime origin in its sober and grave dignity - the final vendetta in the snow is left out. The military had demanded this film from Shochiku because the studio had failed to make a sufficient number of national policy films. Mizoguchi volunteered to save Shochiku. This film was made in what Darcell William Davis in Picturing Japaneseness calls "the monumental style," "an aspiration to reclaim the cinema for Japan and transform Japanese tradition from a cultural legacy into a sacrament."

Kanzashi ("Ornamental Hairpin") by Shimizu Hiroshi depicts several holidaymakers in a hot spring hotel, including a wounded soldier and a geisha. The poetic film seems like a holiday from the war and is more about delineation of character than plot. It is a bittersweet tale with great performances by Tanaka Kinuyo and Ryu Chishu, sensitively suggesting unspoken emotions.

At Toho, Naruse Mikio makes Hideko no Shasho-san ("Hideko, The Bus Conductor"), based on a short story by Ibuse Masuji, and starring the young Takamine Hideko. Hideko works as conductor for a company in the countryside (Yamanashi), where the number of passengers is dwindling. She asks a visiting author to write commentaries on local sites so that she can recite these to the passengers during the trip through the countryside. Not only a wonderfully peaceful and pleasant film made in the war years, but also a remarkable story about a young woman coming out as a professional. And, as in some films from the 1930s, for example Arigato-san, great location shots through the windows of the bus.

1942
The ten film companies then operating are reorganized under government control. The original idea was to form two companies (by merging all the others into Shochiku and Toho), but Nagata Masaichi, then an executive of Shinko Kinema, pushed hard for three companies, the third one consisting of Shinko Kinema, Daito Eiga and the production arm of Nikkatsu (the Nikkatsu theaters prefer to remain independent and will in 1951 make a fresh start with film production under the Nikkatsu name). This third company - in fact a new one - is called Daiei and the first president is the novelist and playwright Kikuchi Kan; Nagata becomes one of its executives. The new company's studios were located in Chofu (Tokyo) and Uzumasa (Kyoto).

Hawai-Marei Oki Kaisen ("The War at Sea from Hawaii to Malaya") was a popular war film, which also netted the Kinema Junpo Award. In this Toho production, director Yamamoto Kajiro makes heroes of the pilots who attacked Pearl Harbor in a film released on the first anniversary of the attack. Responsible for the special effects with miniatures was Tsuburaya Eiji, of later Godzilla fame. They were so realistic that the Occupation authorities later thought the film contained parts of actual newsreels. By the way, the enemy in this and most other war films remains vague and is is never clearly shown (here he is only represented by planes and warships): while other countries at war used the cinema as a tool to arouse hostility and hatred by depicting the enemy as cruel and inhuman, in Japan the enemy was elided and the emphasis is wholly on the Japanese effort itself. That does not absolve The War at Sea from Hawaii to Malaya from being a false piece of propaganda. Film critic Sato Tadao relates how he was inspired by this film to join a training school for air cadets, but found daily life very different from the warm comradeship depicted in the film: the recruits were continually subjected to brutal beatings and other forms of cruelty, just for the personal gratification of the NCOs.

But not all was war, even in this year. Ozu Yasujiro makes Chichi Ariki ("There Was a Father"), one of the best films to come out of these dark years. It is about the deep relation between a school teacher and his son. When the boy grows up, he is drafted, but the teacher has the pleasure of seeing him married to the daughter of his best friend. A perfect film with a superb performance by Ryu Chishu as the father. Although the emphasis was on obligations to family and society, the tone was far removed from the usual wartime propaganda.

1943
Two more excellent films were made in the next year. Kurosawa Akira directs his debut film, Sugata Sanshiro, about a Meiji-period judo champion (Fujita Susumu) who learns from his sensei (Okochi Denjiro) that spiritual discipline is more important than simple prowess. Story based on a novel that in turn borrowed the idea from Yoshikawa Eiji's novel Miyamoto Musashi. The authorities liked it, because it showed Japan's valorous ways - but the film in fact strongly emphasized the individuality of its hero. Superbly made film, especially considering the wartime conditions and the fact that this was Kurosawa's first. Kurosawa worked at Toho, where he would remain until the mid-sixties.

[Poster for Sanshiro Sugata]
Another fine and moving film was Muhomatsu no Issho ("The Life of Matsu the Untamed") by Inagaki Hiroshi, a humanistic film about the relations of a rickshaw driver with a widow and her young son, also set in the Meiji-period. It will be remade by Inagaki in 1958, but this version is generally thought to be superior, especially as period drama star Bando Tsumasaburo gave the best performance of his career - as a tateyaku actor, he played the rickshaw man with a pride not inferior to that of a samurai.

Kinoshita Keisuke (1912-1998) directs his first film, Hana Saku Minato ("The Blossoming Port"), a film in a light satiric vein about the virtues of islanders who make honest men of swindlers. Kinoshita would become one of the most popular and prolific of post-war directors, known for his devotion to a sentimental ideal of purity and beauty, a director also who was not bound by genre.

1944
In this dark year, the subject matter of all films is the war effort. A good example is Ichiban Utsukushiku ("The Most Beautiful") by Kurosawa Akira, a semi-documentary on women working in a vital war industry, optical instruments. Shows the fanatical dedication of one young women who strives to make as many instruments as the male workers. Interestingly, the film strongly resembles Communist propaganda from the S.U. or the P.R.C., showing that propaganda is propaganda, wherever it comes from. Kurosawa had fond memories of the making of this film, perhaps he met his wife on the set in the person of the main actress, Yaguchi Yoko.

Kinoshita Keisuke makes Rikugun ("Army"), about a family with a strong military tradition; the son is initially weak but grows stronger when he is in adolescence and the film concludes with his joining the army: the last, long shot shows his tearful mother following the parade as he goes off to the front. Not surprisingly, the film was decried by the military censor as being insufficiently ideological.

1945
Lack of equipment results in the film industry becoming forced inactive - in this last war year only 26 feature films are made. Two of these were by Kurosawa Akira: Sugata Sanshiro II, a rather jingoistic and worthless sequel to his excellent 1943 movie, and the much better Tora no O wo Fumu Otokotachi ("The Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail"), a free film adaptation of the Kabuki play Kanjincho, which in turn was based on the Noh play Ataka (Kurosawa disliked the Kabuki but was fond of the Noh theater and incorporated several Noh elements in this and other films). The famous story is about a loyal retainer who does the unthinkable: at a checkpoint he beats his lord in order to hide their identities. Kurosawa added a character not in the original: a porter, played by the popular comedian Enoken. His total misunderstanding of the principles motivating the behavior of the samurai slyly undermines the feudal ideology of the play. In other words, this is a rather strongly anti-feudal film - something the Occupation authorities also didn't get, for they banned it. It was only shown in 1953.

After Japan's defeat, motion picture companies are placed under the Occupation forces, which prohibit films with themes of revenge (including all chanbara films) or antidemocratic principles - so censorship continues, albeit of a different kind. Film makers were pushed to create works in which democracy and individual freedom are promoted.

Many prewar and wartime films were deliberately destroyed by the Occupation authorities, further reducing an archive already meager due to natural disasters, inflammable nitrate stock and indifference.

Many theaters have been destroyed during the war and a rebuilding boom starts, bringing the number from 845 operating theaters in October of this year to more than 1,130 at the beginning of 1946. Still, that is less than half of the number of theaters of 1940. Due to the occupation, foreign (American) films become more dominant than they had ever been before, but they are still decades from being greater in numbers or receipts than Japanese films.

1946
Sword fighting scenes are banned, so the stars of period drama are forced to don modern garb and appear as gangsters with pistols instead of brandishing swords. The Occupation does, however, encourage kissing scenes. The first kiss ever in Japanese cinema was shown on June 23, 1946 simultaneously in two otherwise unremarkable films; Daiei and Shochiku shared the honors. One of these kisses took place behind an umbrella because the Japanese were still shy about it.

Another banned theme is the suffering inflicted by the atomic bomb explosions.

Half the theaters in the major cities have been destroyed, but the studios are intact so production can start again.

Due to the strong leftist atmosphere in the early postwar years, labor disputes occur in almost every motion picture company. The strongest (Communist-inspired) union exists at Toho - it even obtains the right to participate in film planning and almost gets the studio under its management.

Ten star actors and actresses at Toho (including Okochi Denjiro, Hasegawa Kazuo, Fujita Susumu, Irie Takako and Hara Setsuko) oppose this state of affairs and break away to form a new company, Shintoho ("New Toho"). Shintoho officially starts in 1948 and would remain in existence until 1961. In its initial period, it focused on artistic films (it produced for example Kurosawa's Stray Dog in 1949, The Life of Oharu by Mizoguchi in 1952, Mother by Naruse in 1952 and Growing Up by Gosho in 1955, before degrading into exploitation cinema). There existed no animosity between the old and the new Toho, as Toho theaters distributed Shintoho films, and later several of those who had left returned to the Toho fold.

This exit of stars from Toho did give a chance to young talent, of whom the major one was Mifune Toshiro (1920-1997), who would play the main character in Kurosawa's Drunken Angel and Stray Dog.

Waga Seishun ni Kui Nashi ("No Regrets for Our Youth") is a sharp examination of academic freedom by Kurosawa Akira. A university professor (Okochi Denjiro) is suspected of liberal views and one of his students (Fujita Susumu) - who is married to the professor's daughter (Hara Setsuko) - is arrested as a spy and executed. The daughter then makes a strongly individual choice by going to work on the farm of her husband's parents and enduring the worst of wartime suspicion (the villagers hate her as the wife of a traitor). After the war, she stays on in the village as she has learned to love the rural life and "has no regrets for her youth." This is one of Kurosawa's best films and the only one that features a woman as protagonist. It is a strong feminist statement, something pushed by the Occupation authorities as at this time Japanese women for the first time received the right to vote. In the following year, also Mizoguchi and Kinugasa made feminist films.

Utamaro wo Meguru Gonin no Onna ("Utamaro and his Five Women") was the first postwar film of Mizoguchi Kenji, based on the life of the famous woodcut artist. Mizoguchi himself pleaded the case of this film with the Occupation censorship, presenting Utamaro as a sort of "pre-Occupation democrat" and the film as a plea for female emancipation. In reality, the film is more a meditation on the role of the artist in society.

Osone-ke no ashita ("Morning for the Osone Family") by Kinoshita Keisuke shows a Japanese family examining itself on the morning after the great defeat in the war. Peace brings new hope to the family whose sons were involved both in war and anti-war efforts. Prominent is also a militarist uncle who is involved in shady deals. Sometimes a mouthpiece for political ideas, but deeply felt and beautifully acted. Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film of the Year.

1947
Toho continues under control of the labor union. Works of "democratic enlightenment" are made.

Nagata Masaichi (1906-1985) becomes president of Daiei, a position in which he remains until 1974.

This year, two films are based on the life of Japan's first modern stage actress (and one of Japan's first emancipated women) Matsui Sumako, who committed suicide in 1918 because of social pressure. She was the first major star in the Shingeki theater movement and played the role of Nora in Ibsen's A Doll's House. Mizoguchi Kenji makes Joyu Sumako no Koi ("The Love of Sumako, the Actress"), and Kinugasa Teinosuke Joyu ("Actress"). Kinugasa's version is generally considered better.

Ozu Yasujiro makes his first postwar film, Nagaya Shinshiroku ("Social Record of a Tenement House"), about a boy, Kohei, who has been separated from his father and is picked up by the poor inhabitants of a tenement house. He is taken care of by the widow Otane (Iida Choko), who first finds him bothersome, but gradually grows to love him. When the father finally appears and takes the boy with him, she decides to adopt a war orphan. The film shows the ninjo, the warm human feelings of the lower classes, like several of Ozu's "social realistic" prewar films did. The message is that in the difficult time after the war, when everyone only cares for himself, such feelings are all the more important.

Kurosawa Akira makes Subarashiki Nichiyobi ("One Wonderful Sunday"), a sunny, sentimental comedy about a young couple in Tokyo who have a great date together without any money to spend. In the finale the boy tries to conduct Schubert's Unfinished Symphony in an empty bandstand (in Hibiya Park) and she, at least, believes in him... One of Kurosawa's weaker films, perhaps because he was by exception not involved in the writing of the script (which was based on a 1926 film by D.W. Griffith, Isn't Life Wonderful?). Different from the headstrong characters in other Kurosawa films, here the two protagonists are rather passive and indecisive.

[Poster for The Ball at the Anjo House]
Yoshimura Kozaburo makes The Ball at the Anjo House, about the decline of the prewar aristocracy - an intelligent analysis of social change in Japan, where masters and servants are now equal. The story was indebted to Anton Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard. The father, who has to sell the family mansion, is on the verge of suicide, but his optimistic daughter (played by Hara Setsuko) shows him how to begin again. At the end of the film, they dance the tango together. Yoshimura, who worked at Shochiku, has been compared to Mizoguchi for his sympathetic portrayal of female characters. Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film of the Year.

1948
The conflict at Toho continues with a strike and occupation of the studios. The police and even the U.S. army are used to disperse the strikers. The union is defeated and its leaders are driven from Toho.

Several films made this year depict the harsh realities of postwar Japan.

Yoidore Tenshi ("Drunken Angel") by Kurosawa Akira is a drama about an alcoholic doctor (the angel of the title, played by Shimura Takashi) and a death-obsessed gangster with TB (Mifune Toshiro) he tries to save. The film is set in the ruins of Tokyo at a very symbolical swamp and is seen as a brilliant evocation of the immediate postwar years in Japan, which were chaotic, poor and full of corruption due to the black market and gangsterism. Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film of the Year. The film strikes us now as rather self-conscious (with a much too overt symbolism), static and one-dimensional.

[Poster for Drunken Angel]
Yoru no Onnatachi ("Women of the Night") by Mizoguchi Kenji. Story about an Osaka streetwalker (again with Tanaka Kinuyo), a realistic film, made on location, that shocked the nation. Reduced to poverty after the war, many women were forced into prostitution ("panpan girls"). Contains many superb scenes as well as a message of sympathy for the panpan girls. Helped to bring about a ban on street prostitution (although only in the late 1950s).

Hachi no Su no Kodomotachi ("Children of the Beehive") by Shimizu Hiroshi. About gangs of homeless and parentless children who wander the streets after the war, this film has been called a masterpiece of neo-realism. Shimizu here turns the poetic films about children he made in the late 1930s on their head.

Kaze no Naka no Mendori ("A Hen in the Wind") by Ozu Yasujiro. Melodrama about a woman, Tokiko (Tanaka Kinuyo), waiting for her husband to come home from the war. When her child falls ill, she is forced to prostitute herself to pay the medical bill. The husband initially reacts with anger and violence to her confession, but later learns to accept her act as necessary. In fact, Tokiko's act symbolizes Japan's loss of purity due to the war, her husband's violent reaction the ingrained brutality of militarism. The film's lesson is more soberly realistic than of other postwar films: the couple decides to forget past mistakes and face the future with "impure" but realistic hope. A human-scale compromise typical of Ozu.

Aoi Sanmyaku ("Blue Mountains") by Imai Tadashi stressed that young people should be allowed to make their own choices in this drama about young love and parental authority. The love between students in a co-educational school overcomes the conservative attitudes of the adults.

Imai Tadashi (1912-1991) was highly acclaimed by critics in Japan - in the 1950s, he won more Kinema Junpo awards for his films than Ozu and Kurosawa combined. He was a polemical film maker, who leaned strongly towards the left and who addressed social problems. His work shows some stylistic unevenness but he was always a sincere humanist. Despite his high status in Japan, he is almost unknown abroad.

1949
Due to the Toho strike, director Yamamoto Kajiro sets up the Film Art Association (Eiga Geijutsu Kyokai) with Kurosawa as one of the founding members, to make it possible for Toho staff to continue making films outside the troubled studio. The Association existed for 3 years and produced 15 films, always in cooperation with other studios, such as Shochiku, Daiei and Shintoho. It produced all of Kurosawa's films in this period.

Kurosawa Akira makes Nora Inu ("Stray Dog") about a young policeman (Mifune Toshiro) whose pistol is stolen and used to kill someone. He goes nearly crazy getting it back, running all around Tokyo. His supervisor (Shimura Takeshi) lends moral support. The film shows that in a more individualistic society, one must bear the consequences of one's actions. The last part is an almost documentary-like chase film, in which hunter and hunted (who are both ex-soldiers) more and more come to resemble each other. With its visual innovation and themes of obsession, doppelganger and postwar chaos this is one of the greatest films Kurosawa ever made.

[Poster for Stray Dog]
This year, Kurosawa also makes Shizukanaru Ketto ("The Quiet Duel"), about a doctor who gets syphilis from a scalpel cut and then decides to give up his fiancee and dedicate his life to medicine. This is lesser Kurosawa (partly also because of changes in the script enforced by the American censor, which made the moral conflict in the film too simplistic), but the first scene in the field hospital during the war is great.

Mizoguchi Kenji makes Waga Koi wa Moenu ("My Love Burns"), about a fighter for women's rights. More radical in its conclusion than any Hollywood film then and since has dared to be.

Shimizu Hiroshi makes Ohara Shosuke-san ("Mr. Shosuke Ohara"), one of his masterpieces. Okochi Denjiro plays a landowner who looses all his money through "sleeping in the morning, drinking sake in the morning and taking a bath in the morning" - plus being too good for this world as he can refuse no requests for financial help. Okochi gives a splendid tateyaku performance, in which his character never looses his composure and conceals his tragedy with rich humor.

Kinoshita Keisuke makes three interesting films: Ojosan Kanpai ("A Toast to the Young Miss") shows how love crosses class barriers. A refined, rich girl (Hara Setsuko) forgives a young entrepreneur who is making love to her his boorish manners by appreciating his frankness. Yotsuya Kaidan ("The Yotsuya Ghost Story," in two parts) is Kinoshita's take on a famous story of the revenge by the spirit of a scorned wife. Kinoshita concentrates on human relations and foregoes the grotesque horror effects common to other versions of this tale. In Yabure-daiko ("The Broken Drum") Bando Tsumasaburo plays a blustering father who tries to rule his family along authoritarian lines. He fails and has to give in to the young and modern individuals of his family.

[Poster for Late Spring]
Ozu makes Banshun ("Late Spring"), a masterpiece on the peaceful life of a middle-class family. The most ordinary things happen in a moving way in this unforgettable film, the greatest film of the whole decade. A daughter (Hara Setsuko) lives with her widowed father (Ryu Chishu). He wants her to get married and have a life of her own, she wants to stay at home and look after her father. In the end, the father pushes her into marriage by pretending he himself is getting married again. After she has married, he sits alone in the now empty house, feeling sad. Accepting life's changes as they come - to live in harmony with both the self and the world - is also a form of transcendence. Interesting is, that the wedding ceremony - which in a Hollywood film would have formed the grand finale - is entirely left out, we do not even see the face of the groom. Set in a quiet residential area of Kamakura, this film made audiences feel that peace indeed had come to Japan. The film's iconography of "Japaneseness" (Zen gardens, Noh Drama, the tea ceremony) is meant to underline that Japanese tradition can be reconciled with the liberalism of the Occupation era. The film also shows the liberal view of family relations and marriage that had been introduced - marriage is for love and happiness, not for the perpetuation of the family. The only outrageous thing for us is the old-fashioned view that Noriko must marry since she is getting in her "late spring," but that would also change in Ozu's last film. Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film of the Year.

As is well known, Ozu always worked with the same crew and often the same cast. From this film on until his last one in 1962, his staff basically stayed the same. It consisted for example of co-scriptwriter Noda Koga and cameraman Atsuta Yuharu. His actors were often Hara Setsuko, Ryu Chishu and Sugimura Haruko.

A History of Japanese Film by Year:
1896-1909 - First Stirrings
1910-1919 - Development
1920-1929 - Art Films and Nihilistic Heroes
1930-1939 - Social Realism and Shoshimin-Eiga
1940-1949 - Censorship during War and Occupation
1950-1954 - Golden Age of the Classical Studio System
1955-1959 - Taiyozoku and other Youth Films
1960-1964 - The New Wave
1965-1969 - Golden Age of Independent Film
1970-1979 - Sex and Violence
1980-1989 - Decline and Stagnation
1990-1999 - Indies and Anime
2000-2014 - Postmodern Games
[Reference works used: Currents In Japanese Cinema by Sato Tadao (Tokyo, 1987); The Japanese Film: Art and Industry by Joseph L. Anderson and Donald Richie (reprint Tokyo, 1983); A Hundred Years of Japanese Film by Donald Richie (Tokyo, 2001); Japanese Film Directors by Audrie Bock (Tokyo, 1985); A Critical Handbook of Japanese Film Directors by Alexander Jacoby (Berkeley, 2008); A New History of Japanese Cinema by Isolde Standish (New York, 2005); The Japanese Period Film by S.A. Thornton (Jefferson & London, 2008). All images are linked from Wikipedia.]
28 Mar
Japanese cinema is 35 years old and has attained full maturity. It can withstand comparison with any other national cinema of the day. It shows life as it is (rather than as how it should be) and puts emphasis on character and mood rather than plot. 

The commercial studio system with its sophisticated machinery for production and consumption of films (the studios owned their own theaters) is in full swing. There is a star system, but also maverick directors who later would be recognized as auteurs have their place. The great classical directors such as Ozu, Mizoguchi, Naruse, Gosho, Shimizu, Kinugasa, etc., have all made their first films in the 1920s or early 1930s and will continue production until well in the 1960s and 1970s, thus ensuring continuity, especially as they often worked with fixed actors/actresses and a fixed team of technical staff and scenario writers. 

Japan had such a large public for film - a public that moreover in these years preferred Japanese films - that the industry could rely on the internal Japanese market and exports were not necessary. Foreign films were shown in different theaters and were only watched by a small but sophisticated public of urban intelligentsia. The 1930s have been called the "First Golden Age of Japanese Cinema."

As the benshi was very popular, so-called "silent films" (which were not at all silent but accompanied by music, song and the benshi narration - the benshi could even enact dialogues!) remained dominant for the first half of this decade. When sound was finally generally introduced in 1935, it was technologically more advanced than it had been in the late twenties or early thirties. Happily, Japan also evaded the phenomenon that plagued Hollywood where films became a sort of "canned theater," without filmic qualities. For most Japanese directors, a good sound film was one with lots of silence.

Unfortunately, even from this period, many films have been lost, as is shown by the example of director Yamanaka who worked in the 1930s: of his more than twenty films, only three have been preserved. The quality of the preserved copies, also, can't stand comparison with films from for example the U.S., France or Germany, where already starting in the late twenties, often beautiful copies without blemishes have been preserved. 

1930
The leftist movement is at its peak and as these films make money, the studios encourage their production. Naniga Kanojo wo So Saseta ka? ("What made her do it?") by Suzuki Shigeyoshi (1900-1976), is Japan's most famous leftist film (keiko eiga), about a naive orphan girl, Sumiko (Takatsu Keiko), up against corrupt and materialistic society. After her father commits suicide, she is sent to live with relatives who steal her money and sell her to a circus. The faces in this film are great - the poor are not heroic proletarians, but look realistically mean and degraded. Via the poorhouse, she later lands a job as maid with a rich family and very pampered daughter, making for some nice contrast. The daughter spits out her food when she finds a small fish bone in it, but the maids have to do with leftovers. Sumiko is finally forced to commit arson. When the film was first shown, audiences rioted in support of its anti-capitalist sentiments. It scored Kinema Junpo Best Film for this year.

Hogaraka ni Ayume ("Walk Cheerfully") was Ozu's 14th film and the second one still extant (disregarding the fragment from I Graduated, But...). It is a sort of gangster comedy in which the delinquent reforms for love of a pure young woman, a typist. Two other extant Ozu films from this year are Rakudai wa Shita Keredo... ("I Flunked, but..."), a "nonsense" comedy with the message that being stuck in school after failing the exams, is not so bad as there are no jobs for graduates anyway - containing the first substantial role of Ryu Chishu; and Sono Yo no Tsuma ("That Night's Wife"), about an impoverished father who robs a bank. As an adaptation of a piece of American pulp fiction, it also shows the impact which American films and Western culture had in Japan. On the other hand, we also already find one of Ozu's characteristic film elements: the close-up of objects which serve as sheer transition, without carrying connotative weight.

1931
Already in this year, the year of the Manchurian Incident, political suppression put an end to Pro Kino and the popularity of leftist tendency films waned, although generally speaking, many films from the 1930s do contain strong socialist-realist elements. This is true of many of the films from the 1930s by Ozu, by Mizoguchi, and by Tasaka Tomotaka, Yamamoto Kajiro and Uchida Tomu.

[The Neighbor's Wife and Mine]
More importantly, 1931 is the year the first Japanese sound film was made, although the general introduction of sound would have to wait until the middle of the decade - it remained a rarity. That film was Madamu to Nyobo ("The Neighbor's Wife and Mine") by Gosho Heinosuke (1902-1981), a domestic comedy (shoshimin-eiga) made at Shochiku about a playwright suffering from writer's block and distracted by various noises, such as a baby crying, the ticking of a clock, but most of all a jazz band practicing in the home of the modern woman living next door (a good excuse to go there and join the party). Sound is used sparingly and inventively - this is a film that needs sound for the many off-screen noises and could never have worked with a benshi. On top of that, it introduced many new Hollywood codes, and was also inspired by French film such as René Clair's Under the Roofs of Paris (of which the signature melody is whistled in Madamu to Nyobo). Kinema Junpo Best Film for this year. Gosho, whose career spanned the years 1922-1977, was another outstanding practitioner of shomingeki. In contrast to Ozu and Naruse, he is still waiting to be properly assessed by Western film fans. His work is imbued with compassionate humanism, and is rich and complex, while also being visually intelligent (showing a debt to Lubitsch). By the way, how gradually sound was introduced in Japan is shown by the fact that Gosho after Madamu to Nyobo returned to silent production until 1935. And again to show how much has been lost: Madamu to Nyobo was Gosho's earliest film that has survived, but in fact the 39th movie he made (Gosho had started as a director in 1925).

I already mentioned Naruse Mikio (1905-1969) in the above paragraph. He was a shoshimin-eiga director with a rather dark view, who like Ozu made his greatest work in the 1950s and early 1960s (all women's films). His first preserved film is Koshiben Gambare ("Flunky, Work Hard!") from this year, about an impoverished insurance salesman. The salesman desperately tries to sell accident coverage to a wealthy woman with five children, while his own uninsured son is hit by a train.

Ozu made two films this year, Shukujo to Hige ("The Lady and the Beard") and Tokyo Gassho ("Tokyo Chorus"), the first a nonsense comedy about a bearded kendo swordfighting star, who is tamed by his girlfriend and made to shave. The second one is a shomingeki about an office worker who sticks up for a colleague and gets fired himself. After the student comedies and other nonsense films, this is Ozu's first (preserved) home drama, a big step towards next year's I Was Born, But..., with which it has the young salaryman family in common.

Of course, as every year many period films were made. There were two outstanding ones this year. Mabuta no Haha ("Long-sought Mother") by Inagaki Hiroshi (1905-1980), with Kataoka Chiezo, was based on a novel by Hasegawa Shin, a lyrical story about a ronin's search for and rejection by his long lost mother, - still extant and many times remade. Inagaki was a versatile film maker who mostly worked in jidaigeki - after WWII, he would become internationally famous with the Miyamoto Musashi Trilogy and The Rickshaw Man. Otsurae Jirokichi Goshi ("Jirokichi the Rat") by Ito Daisuke with Okochi Denjiro, is one of the rare surviving films by this period director. The climax consists of a dazzling lantern-filled pursuit.

1932
This year Ozu Yasujiro made one of his best films (still a "silent" film) and at the same time one of the best Japanese films ever made: Umarete wa mita keredo... ("I was born, but..."). Two small boys learn to live with the fact that their father is not a great man, but simply a company employee ("salaryman"), who has to be obsequious to his boss. The worst moment comes when the boss gives a show for the neighborhood of a home movie he shot in which the father is shown clowning to please his superior. The boys ask why their father has to behave so silly, and why they can't beat up the boss' kid when they are stronger? In the end, of course, they have to learn something of the ways and compromises of the adult world. A serious comedy, funny and devastating at the same time, that teaches us to accept life as it is. Kinema Junpo Best Film for this year. Technically, in this film also Ozu's systematic low-angle frontality begins to appear.

[I Was Born, But...]
Nasanu Naka ("No Blood Relations") by Naruse Mikio is a melodrama about a Japanese film star who has become rich in Hollywood and now returns to Japan to search for the little daughter she has left behind. With the help of her brother, a gangster, she succeeds in wrestling away the girl from the step-mother, but as the girl now really loves the step-mother, she in the end gives in and returns alone to America.

Itami Mansaku (1900-1946), a friend of Ito Daisuke, brought new ideas to period drama. In Kokushi Muso ("Peerless Patriot"), the story of poor ronin who impersonates a famous swordsman, he ridiculed feudal traditions. Also more generally speaking, with the demise of leftist tendency films, also the nihilistic hero was on his way out. He was supplanted by what Sato Tadao calls "the free spirit hero," replacing nihilism with an advocacy of freedom portrayed in resistance against feudal authority. As in this film, Kataoka Chiezo became the typical actor for such roles.

1933
A new film company, P.C.L. (later renamed to Toho) is set up to take advantage of sound technology. Founder was the owner of the Hankyu Railway group, Kobayashi Ichizo, and the company also managed the Tokyo Takarazuka Theater (Kobayashi had already set up the all-female Takarazuka revue in 1914) and the Imperial Theater. It specialized in the adaptation of modern novels and attracted inventive directors as Naruse Mikio. Naruse switched to the new studio from Shochiku, as there he had to work under the constant shadow of Ozu Yasujiro, both being shomingeki directors.

The best film of this year is another Ozu work, Dekigokoro ("Passing Fancy"). This silent film is about a father, Kihachi, and a son living together in impoverished circumstances. The father here is not a "salaryman" but works in a brewery. A widower, he becomes captivated by a new girl in the area, but she herself is infatuated with his younger friend, who is still single. The father recognizes his folly when the son becomes seriously ill and barely survives. Sakamoto Takeshi plays the father; Kihachi's type would recur several times in Ozu's cinema of the 1930s, and in fact formed the inspiration for the famous character of Torasan played by Atsumi Kiyoshi from 1969 to 1995. Kinema Junpo Best Film for this year.

A second Ozu film from this year is the short feature Tokyo no Onna ("Woman of Tokyo") about a young woman (Tanaka Kinuyo) who puts her younger brother through school with the money she earns. But when he notices that she not only works in an office but also is a prostitute at night, he commits suicide. More than for the melodramatic story, this film is interesting for the development of two of Ozu's style characteristics: besides the further development of his "cut-away still-lifes," we also find the systematic disregard for eye-line matching here.

1933 is also the year from which we have one of the first surviving films by Mizoguchi Kenji (1898-1956), with Ozu and Kurosawa one of the greatest Japanese directors of all time. Mizoguchi had already become a director in 1923, at Nikkatsu where he made films based on contemporary urban melodramas (shinpa); this was his 48th film (!), again vividly demonstrating how much has been lost. Taki no Shiraito ("The Water Magician") is a Shinpa-style melodrama about a girl water magician who falls in love with a poor student and puts him through college, after which they loose contact. Later she is driven to murder an usurer; at the trial she meets her former lover again, who is now a judge. He has to give her the death sentence. Based on a play by Izumi Kyoka. The melodrama is redeemed by Mizoguchi's cool, distant take. Mizoguchi's prewar films were often about the plight of women trapped in impossible situations. After WWII, this would change into the more general liberal-humanist topic about the liberation of women. In all cases, Mizoguchi expressed his deep sympathy for women victimized by an oppressive society.

Another interesting film of 1933 is Izu no Odoriko ("Dancing Girl of Izu") by Gosho Heinosuke, based on the eponymous novella by Kawabata Yasunari. Although in the original story the theme is in the first place the acceptance of the lonely student by a troupe of itinerant actors (the lowest of the lowest at that time, often forbidden entry into the villages) and his happiness at being connected with humanity, Gosho sets the tone for a whole string of Odoriko films in which the (platonic) love between the student and the underage dancing girl is highlighted, ending in a moving scene of separation. Tanaka Kinuyo played the dancing girl, and as she was a real actress (in contrast to the singers and teenage "talents" who would follow), she is by far the best. The film as a whole is not so good, as Gosho unfortunately tacked on a subplot about a gold mine which is not in Kawabata, but it was shot on location in the Izu Peninsula and there are beautiful landscapes. This film also was the start of what has been called the jun-bungaku or "Pure Literature" movement in film, the adaptation to the cinema of literary masterworks. More would follow later on in the 1930s.

[Tanaka Kinuyo]
There was more in this rich year: a friend and contemporary of Ozu at Schochiku, Shimizu Hiroshi (1903-1966), made Minato no Nihon Musume ("Japanese Girls at the Harbor"), a romantic melodrama in which he probed the dilemmas of a country posed between native and Western ideas, tradition and liberalism. It is an aesthetically exciting film, visualized in terms of art deco patternings. Shimizu made subtle, charming and humorous films, often about children, and is known for the humanity of his oeuvre.

Finally we have to mention two films by Naruse Mikio, Yogoto no Yume ("Every Night Dreams"), a melodrama about the poor, visually influenced by Von Sternberg's 1928 The Docks of New York, and Kimi to wakarete ("After Our Separation"), a love melodrama set in the geisha world.

1934
Nikkatsu finishes building its Tamagawa studio in Tokyo; from now on, it will make gendaigeki in Tokyo and jidaigeki in Kyoto.

Ozu made another great film in 1934, which again won the Kinema Junpo Best Film award: Ukigusa Monogatari ("A Story of Floating Weeds"), a film about the head of a traveling theater group (Sakamoto Takeshi) who in a mountain village meets again the - now grown-up - son who was the result of a casual affair. Based on a forgotten American 1928 circus film, The Barker. Ozu added the character of the former mistress (played by a strong Iida Choko) to the story and in his subtle characterization of the older actor and his jealous wife far surpasses the original. Ozu remade the film in 1959 in color (and, of course, sound).

Although little known today, Shimazu Yasujiro (1897-1945) was the pioneer of the shomingeki genre ("films about people like you and me") at Shochiku, who made his first comedy about the everyday life of the lower middle class already in 1921. One of his best films was made this year, the domestic drama (shoshimin-eiga) Tonari no Yae-chan ("My Little Neighbor, Yae"), the story of a young girl who falls in love with the boy next door. The carefully calculated lack of action in this film gives the effect of "eavesdropping on life itself," as Anderson & Richie put it. Shimazu had a great talent for realistic observation and his blending of humor and pathos as well as his understated melodrama have influenced many other directors, such as Gosho, Kinoshita and Kawashima.

1935
The third major film corporation, Toho (formerly PCL) starts operation. There are now 1,500 theaters in Japan; audiences also have steadily increased to a total of 185 million admissions annually. This is the year that sound finally becomes widely accepted.

The film companies have their own house styles: Shochiku specializes in shoshimin-eiga (home drama about the lower middle class); Nikkatsu in realistic period drama (jidaigeki) and films based on literary works; Toho also specializes in literary adaptations of modern novels. There are also other differences between the studios. For example, Toho based its mode of production around the central figure of the producer (Hollywood -style), but Shochiku favored a "director system" - thereby giving directors like Ozu the means to assemble a team of people for different, specialized fields of production and to cultivate them so that they could continue to work together.

The Kinema Junpo Best Film award went this year to Naruse's Tsuma yo, bara no yo ni ("Wife, Be Like a Rose"), his first true success. A bright office girl who lives with her mother, a poet, finds out that her father is living in the countryside with his disreputable mistress. She visits them intending to ask the father to come back home. But she finds a large, poor family with many children and also sees the love of the mistress for her father. In fact, the daughter discovers the mistress to be good and the (ex-)wife to be the worse of the two. Although the father comes to town when she has her wedding, he again returns permanently to the other family, for that is where he now belongs. We find again a mature acceptance of life as it is in this Japanese film, rather than a forced happy ending in Hollywood-style. Interestingly, this became one of the first Japanese feature films to be distributed in the United States (the first one may have been Gosho's A Daughter of Two Fathers, which played in 1928 in New York).

[The Hundred Ryo Pot)
My favorite film of the year is Hyakumanryo no Tsubo ("The Hundred Ryo Pot") by Yamanaka Sadao (1909-1938), a period film that is at the same time a breezy farce about the fruitless search for a lost pot thought to contain a map pointing to a treasure. The film features the famous one-eyed and one-armed swordsman Tange Zazen, played by Okochi Denjiro - since 1927 a staple of jidaigeki - but Yamanaka turns him into a soft-hearted slacker who sponges off the much stronger woman who operates a shooting gallery (the only film role played by Kiyozo, a real-life geisha from the Shinbashi district in Tokyo). This subversion of Bushido (and of the tateyaku type) is typical of the humanist Yamanaka - there is no swordplay in this home comedy. In the end, Tange and the shooting gallery mistress adopt a little boy who helped in the search for the pot and become a happy family. Yamanaka directed 26 films between 1932 and 1938 and was one of the greatest upcoming directors of Japanese cinema; tragically, he died in 1938 from an illness in Manchuria, after having been drafted into the army.

Shunkinsho: Okoto to Sasuke ("Okoto and Sasuke") by Shimazu Yasujiro is a rendering of Tanizaki Junichiro's famous novella Shunkinsho in the style of a shoshimin-eiga, set in down-town Osaka. At the same time it is one of the earliest and most successful bungei-eiga, also thanks to the solid acting of the two stars Tanaka Kinuyo and Takada Kokichi. Despite the addition of some funny elements, the film works very well, and is in fact a surprisingly good version of the difficult to adapt Tanizaki story.

Mizoguchi Kenji made Maria no Oyuki ("Oyuki the Madonna"), a period drama about a prostitute with a heart of gold, interestingly based on Maupassant's Boule de Suif.

Ozu Yasujiro made another social-realist film with the Kihachi character, Tokyo no Yado ("An Inn in Tokyo"), about a vagrant father and his two sons who find the companionship of a poor widow and her little daughter.

1936
A rich year. Mizoguchi Kenji makes his two best films of this decade. Naniwa Ereji ("Osaka Elegy") is his first work with script writer Yoda Yoshikata. A young telephone operator, a very modern woman (played by Yamada Isuzu), is ruined when she tries to help her father with a money problem by becoming the mistress of her boss. When her employer tires of her, she has no recourse but prostitution, especially when a scheme to cheat the boss' friend out of his family backfires and lands her in police custody. Her fiance (of course, a ninaime type) stands helplessly by. Filmed in a modern style, with an open ending: a close-up of the face of the protagonist as a big question mark. The film in which Mizoguchi found his true direction. Also an invaluable document of Japanese urban life in the mid-thirties. The reality of the location is emphasized by the use of Osaka dialect.

[Poster for Osaka Elegy]
That is also true of the other Mizoguchi film from this year, after modern Osaka situated in traditional Kyoto. Gion no Shimai ("Sisters of the Gion") takes a realistic look at the glamorous world of traditional geisha in Kyoto's Gion district. There is an interesting contrast between a strict and traditional elder sister (Umemura Yoko) who is faithful to her patron even after he has gone broke and a younger one (Isuzu Yamada) who is modern and opportunistic - she goes from man to man for money, being a geisha is after all "business." Although the director's sentiments seem to go to the elder sister, the end of the film leaves her in fact condemned. Kinema Junpo Best Film for this year.

Shochiku opens its Ofuna studio on the Miura Peninsula near Kamakura, which would remain in operation for 64 years.

Ozu finally changes to sound in Hitori Musuko ("The Only Son"), an example of Japanese "neo-realism" avant-la-date. A mother has slaved to send her son to college in Tokyo. After she has not heard anything from him for a long time, she visits him, using up all her savings. She finds him poor, a teacher at a night school, living in eye-sore suburbia, with wife and child (the existence of both also new to her!), and wholly disillusioned. But he borrows money to entertain his mother and she returns to the countryside where she still pretends to be proud of him. A moving work about the disappointments of family life, and the essential loneliness of human beings. The first film in Ozu's fully established mature style. Interesting is the use of off-screen sound: when we are in the living room of the son's house, we constantly hear the clicking of the machinery of a nearby factory.

Shimizu Hiroshi directs his lyrical masterpiece Arigato-san ("Mister Thank-you"), about a polite and kind bus driver (Uehara Ken). The film was shot entirely on location in the Izu Peninsula, almost like an impromptu, and in its exquisite landscape photography expresses Shimizu's love of the countryside. At the same time, he also shows the extreme poverty of country dwellers during the Depression. A wonderful film, with only a flimsy story, almost like a documentary. Uehara Ken really had to learn how to drive a bus for the film.

Gosho Heinosuke made what may well be his best film of the '30s with Oboroyo no Onna ("Woman of the Mist"), a fusion of shoshimin-eiga with romantic comedy. A widow is slaving to put her son through university (a common theme in the 1930s), but he has other interests beside his study, resulting in the pregnancy of a waitress (Iizuka Toshiko). To save the future of the boy, his (married but childless) uncle (as usual, a very warmhearted Sakamoto Takeshi) pretends that the child is his. The waitress agrees, although she had hoped to marry the student, sacrificing herself to save his future. But sadly, mother and child die in hospital due to complications with the pregnancy...

Itami Mansaku, like Yamanaka Sadao another great director of humanistic jidaigeki with little or no swordplay, directs Akanishi Kakita, an intelligent comedy based on a story by Shiga Naoya. Kataoka Chiezo plays two different roles: Akanishi Kakita, an ugly-looking spy trying to expose a plot against the Date clan, and Harada Kai, the leader of the discontented group framing the plot. In his first role, Itami has Kataoka play in a natural way, and speak normal Japanese, in the second he has him wear heavy white make-up and speak in difficult to understand Kabuki jargon, like in a conventional period film. In this way, Itami develops a meta-criticism of the obsolete conventions in jidaigeki. A very artistic film - one of the favorite period films of great director Kurosawa Akira. The film is full of jokes and funny situations - not only when Akanishi catches a cat to chase away noisy mice and the cat proves to be more noisy with his constant meowing, but also when he needs an excuse to leave the Date mansion in Edo to bring an important report to his clan lord and therefore proposes to the most beautiful servant girl in the house, fully expecting to be refused with his ugly face (and therefore having to flee) - but she gladly accepts him, so that this plan totally backfires. But after all the clan troubles have been resolved, the film closes on the sounds of the Wedding March... (Kataoka Chiezo Productions)

Another interesting period film is Kochiyama Soshun by Yamanaka Sadao. Based on a low-life Kabuki play by Kawatake Mokuami, this is a complex story set in a downtown neighborhood ruled by a gang boss. Onami (Hara Setsuko) sells sweet sake, her younger brother Hirotaro is a good-for-nothing who has to go in hiding after a botched love suicide (shinju) with a prostitute, as the gang boss demands 300 ryo in payment for her death. The two are helped by Kochiyama Soshun, a gambler who dresses like a priest, and Kaneko Ichinojo, the yojinbo of that gang leader, who is dissatisfied with his idle life. Through this plays another story, of an antique kozuka (the knife worn in the scabbard of a katana) that has been stolen and sold by Hirotaro; although it has been bought back at a high price by the owner, he wrongly believes it is a look-alike fake and that situation gives Kochiyama the idea for a clever trick that nets him the compensation money. But in the meantime, Hirotaro has killed the gang boss and the gang is after him. Kochiyama and Kaneko die fighting in the sewers to hold the gang back so that Hirotaro can escape with the money and take his sister away to a safe place. (Nikkatsu)

1937
With the start of the Sino-Japanese War, the government demands the cooperation of the film industry with the war effort and bans "decadent" films. Still, this year 562 films were produced in Japan, making it a peak year. Film had become a fundamental component of national culture.

Toho lures away ninaime star actor Hasegawa Kazuo from rival Shochiku. Hasegawa was probably attracted by the technical advantages of Toho as a new company. Such star-stealing often resulted in violence, as here: Hasegawa was attacked by a man who slashed his face with a razor, and who later appeared to be a professional gangster hired via-via by Shochiku.

The best film of 1937 (in my view, not of Kinema Junpo, which selected another film) and again one of the best Japanese films of all-time was Ninjo Kamifusen ("Humanity and Paper Balloons") by Yamanaka Sadao. It is a bleak and pessimistic masterpiece with claustrophobic qualities, set in a slum quarter in Edo, presenting its samurai "hero" as a pathetic, servile man who is out of work. His wife has to make paper balloons so that they have something to eat. The ronin spends his days going around town begging for work. Then they become involved in drama when their neighbor, Shinza the barber, kidnaps the daughter of a wealthy merchant and hides her in the apartment of the ronin. A wonderful humanistic film made in dark times, showing something of the true life under the Tokugawa regime. Adapted from a Kawatake Mokuami kabuki play. In this and his previous film Yamanaka worked with actors and actresses of the Zenshinza, a troupe of radical kabuki players, part of a socially critical subculture. (Sony PCL / Toho / Zenshinsha)

[Poster for Humanity and Paper Balloons]
Aienkyo ("The Straits of Love and Hate") is a well-crafted and sophisticated melodrama by Mizoguchi Kenji. A young woman, Ofumi (Yamaji Fumiko), working at a spa hotel in Nagano runs off to Tokyo with her lover, Kenkichi, the pampered son of the owner. Kenkichi is brought back by his father, she is left alone with a baby in Tokyo. As she needs money she becomes a hostess - and we get to see some raucous nightlife scenes rare for this militant period. In the meantime, she has also met a poor musician (he lost his job as player in a cinema due to advent of sound!) and they finally join a theater troupe led by her uncle as a manzai team. The troupe travels to Nagano where she again meets her former lover, who now manages the spa hotel. For the future of her small son she is willing to stay with him, but his father again opposes the union. Finally, she returns to the troupe and the poor stage partner she really loves. As is usual for Mizoguchi, this is a film with unlucky but strong women and weak men. (Shinko Kinema)

Kaze no naka no Kodomo ("Children in the Wind") by Shimizu Hiroshi contrasts the trusting world of the young with the corrupt world of adults. A father is accused of embezzlement at his firm and one of his sons - the younger, wilder one - is sent to live with an uncle. Making films about children was a good way to evade censorship and Shimizu proved to be a master in this genre.

Shukujo wa Nani wo Wasureteka? ("What Did the Lady Forget?") by Ozu Yasujiro is a bright comedy set among the upper classes. A bourgeois housewife (Kurishima Sumiko) has her husband completely cowed, but - goaded on by his modern niece from Osaka who is visiting - he for once fights back, which finally leads to a better mutual understanding. The answer to the questioning title is, that the lady forgot to be nice to her husband. Ozu on bubbles, a film that deserves to be better known.

After finishing this film, Ozu was drafted and sent to China, where he remained for two years, until summer 1939. One can easily imagine his reaction to the barbarity of war and the regimentation he hated so much. In China he also briefly met Yamanaka Sadao, before the untimely death of this director who could be called the "Ozu of period drama."

The worst film of the year was without a doubt Atarishiki Tsuchi ("The New Earth"), also known as Die Tochter des Samurai as it was a Japanese-German co-production intended to show the union between both allies. The union did not work out, as the Japanese director, Itami Mansaku, who had been selected simply because he was the top director of his studio, and German director Arnold Fanck, who had strong Nazi sympathies, did not at all hit it off - they ended up making two different versions of the film. Also as regards the content, it was a failed attempt to form for Japan alien Nazi propaganda out of Japanese raw materials. The film was a box office disaster, despite the fact that the samurai daughter was played by a young Hara Setsuko.

1938
The government calls for more patriotic films. Several directors take refuge in the safe territory of films about children or works set in the world of traditional music and theater.

Gonin no Sekkokei ("Five Scouts") by Tasaka Tomotaka was one of the first real war movies. It is about five scouts sent out to reconnoiter of whom only one returns - but he knows his time has come, too, when the signal for a general attack is given. A documentary-like war film in which no fighting is shown, but only the effects of the war. There are no heroes, but only ordinary people. Kinema Junpo Best Film for this year. It was also nominated Best Film at the Venice International Film Festival of 1939 - Japan at that time was aligned with Axis countries Italy and Germany. Also Tasaka's Tsuchi to Heitai ("Earth and Soldiers") from 1939, although celebrating duty and sacrifice, was similarly a continuation of the 1930s interest in human values. (Nikkatsu)

Abe Ichizoku ("The Abe Clan") by Kumagai Hisatora is a masterful period drama examining the samurai spirit. It is based on a story by Mori Ogai about a retainer who commits junshi (seppuku to follow a deceased lord in death) in defiance of the shogun's command, a deed which leads to the destruction of his entire clan. Very ritualistic in style. Kumagai started as a leftist film maker, but later shifted to the right and ended up making patriotic propaganda films.

Haha to Ko by Shibuya Minoru (1907-1980) is a family melodrama in the Shochiku style, about a clerk (Saburi Shin) who rejects his lover to get engaged to the daughter of the company president (by a mistress) with a view to advancement in his job. Satisfyingly, the daughter (Tanaka Kinuyo) in the end rejects the clerk and chooses an independent lifestyle. Shibuya was one of Shochiku's most significant directors, who had started out as an assistant to Ozu and Gosho. (Shochiku)

Hana Chirinu ("Fallen Blossoms") by Ishida Tamizo (1901-1972) is a portrait of life in a geisha house at the end of the Edo-period. Stylistically interesting for its technique of fragmentation and also for the sympathy it shows for its subject. Ishida's work is barely known, also in Japan, and most of his other films have been lost.

Nakimushi Kozo ("Crybaby Apprentice") by Toyoda Shiro (1905-1977) is about a boy whose family is too busy to care for him; he is shifted from relation to relation and when he finally returns home, his mother has eloped with a boyfriend. A typical handkerchief film, based on a story by Hayashi Fumiko. Toyoda was a craftsman working in the classical studio system known for his many adaptations of Japanese literature (bungei eiga). His films are intelligent and he treats his literary sources always with respect.

Robo no Ishi ("A Pebble by the Wayside") by Tasaka Tomotaka (1902-1974) is about a poor youth fighting adversity and making his way alone in the cold world of grown-ups. Based on a famous novel by Yamamoto Yuzo and full of melancholy naturalism. Although Tasaka specialized in romantic melodrama, he is now best known for his war films, such as the ones mentioned above.

Tsuzurikata Kyoshitsu ("Composition Class") by Yamamoto Kajiro (1902-1974), with Takamine Hideko, shows the everyday life of the lower classes, based on the compositions of a poor girl in primary school - another film about the "safe" topic of children. Yamamoto was the mentor of Kurosawa Akira. He worked for Toho and is now best known for the patriotic war films he made. Together with Robo ni Ishi, Nakimushi Kozo and Haha to Ko, this film was part of the above-mentioned "Pure Literature" movement in film, which was now in full swing. It would continue after the war especially in the hands of Toyoda Shiro.

1939
With the Motion Picture Law, the film industry is placed completely under government control. All scripts have to be passed by censors. And still, several beautiful, humanistic films were made... Japan never was a fascist country and there was no empty triumphalism about the war, which was rather depicted as hardship for the common soldiers and a great suffering for the Japanese people.

The best film of this year is Zangiku Monogatari ("Story of the Last Chrysanthemums") by Mizoguchi Kenji. It is the tragedy of a woman in the feudalistic and snobbish world of the Kabuki, but at the same time an almost "sacramental" depiction of the family system. A kabuki actor injures the dignity of his family by falling in love with a woman of the lower classes. She sacrifices herself for his career, even at the expense of her health, but he succeeds. Sodden melodrama filmed in a most refined way. Mizoguchi sought shelter from censorship by making this and other films about Japanese traditions.

Aizen Katsura ("The Love-Troth Tree") by Shochiku house director Nomura Hiromasa (1905-1979), about the thwarted love between a weak hero, a doctor (Uehara Ken, the most famous pre-war ninaime actor), and an unfortunate heroine, a nurse (Tanaka Kinuyo). The nurse is in fact a widow with a little daughter, something which means the doctor's parents will not permit their marriage. On top of that she is poor and he is rich, the son of the owner-administrator of the hospital. Although he leaves home to marry her, she does not show up at the station due to a sudden illness of her child. The film was an unabashed tearjerker that was immensely popular with the public, although not with the critics. It belongs to the type of "surechigai," where the lovers repeatedly come close to a meeting but most of the time narrowly miss each other (another and even more famous example is the postwar film What is Your Name? by Oba Hideo). However, in the end the power of love overcomes all obstacles. (Note that there are no kisses or embraces yet in pre-1945 Japanese films - they just look each other soulfully in the eyes).

Ani to Sono Imoto ("An Older Brother and His Younger Sister") by Shimazu Yasujiro shows feminist sympathies in its treatment of the heroine's rejection of a marriage proposal. A sister (Kuwano Michiko), who works in a modern office and speaks fluent English (she types a letter her boss dictates in Japanese directly in English!), lives with her brother (Saburi Shin) and his wife (Miyake Kuniko). When she rejects a marriage proposal, the suitor exerts pressure via his uncle, who happens to be the boss of the brother. The brother is anxious for advancement, the reason he plays go with his boss until late every night. But the sister remains adamant. A film with very modern dialogues and a contemporary feel, showing that white collar workers before the war were not so different from those in the postwar era. Also shows that already at that time commuting in packed trains was no pleasure. But it also reveals the time when it was made in the ending, when the brother and the sister have both quit their jobs in Tokyo and leave to set up a business in Manchuria - an expansion on behalf of an entrepreneur and a friend played by Ryu Chishu. (Shochiku)

Danryu ("Warm Current") by Yoshimura Kozaburo was a major commercial success, a low-keyed melodrama about the romantic and professional problems of a young hospital superintendent. Great acting by Takamine Mieko as the daughter of the wealthy hospital owner and Saburi Shin as the young go-getting superintendent. She thinks she doesn't love him and refuses his proposal, but when another young woman confesses her ardent love for him, she feels confused. Another case of a modern, Westernized version of romantic love slipping past the censor.

Hataraki Ikka ("The Whole Family Works") by Naruse Mikio was a realistic treatment of the hardships of the working class. All eleven members of a printer's family have to work so that there is enough to eat, also the young children and the grandparents; a crisis ensues when the oldest son wants to quit work to go to technical college.

Kodomo no Shiki ("Four Seasons of Children") by Shimizu Hiroshi. Another lyrical film about country children.

Tsuchi ("Earth") by Uchida Tomu. Realistic depiction of the lives of poor peasants, showing the cycle of the seasons. Made on location behind the back of the studio (it was made by director and staff in their spare time, with resources left over from other projects) by Uchida and his staff. Contains almost no plot and little dialogue. Called one of the finest films of the decade. Kinema Junpo Best Film for this year. Uchida Tomu was a film maker who managed to put his personal ideas in genre plots. After the war, he became famous for his versions of Daibosatsu Toge and Miyamoto Musashi.

When one sees how many wonderful films were still being made in the late 1930s, the hiatus caused by the war is all the more regrettable. Also when one notices through these films how modern Japan was becoming in the thirties, it is a pity that the war in a social and economic sense pushed the country back for at least ten years - warping a whole society.

A History of Japanese Film by Year:
1896-1909 - First Stirrings
1910-1919 - Development
1920-1929 - Art Films and Nihilistic Heroes
1930-1939 - Social Realism and Shoshimin-Eiga
1940-1949 - Censorship during War and Occupation
1950-1954 - Golden Age of the Classical Studio System
1955-1959 - Taiyozoku and other Youth Films
1960-1964 - The New Wave
1965-1969 - Golden Age of Independent Film
1970-1979 - Sex and Violence
1980-1989 - Decline and Stagnation
1990-1999 - Indies and Anime
2000-2014 - Postmodern Games
[Reference works used: Currents In Japanese Cinema by Sato Tadao (Tokyo, 1987); The Japanese Film: Art and Industry by Joseph L. Anderson and Donald Richie (reprint Tokyo, 1983); A Hundred Years of Japanese Film by Donald Richie (Tokyo, 2001); Japanese Film Directors by Audrie Bock (Tokyo, 1985); A Critical Handbook of Japanese Film Directors by Alexander Jacoby (Berkeley, 2008); A New History of Japanese Cinema by Isolde Standish (New York, 2005); The Japanese Period Film by S.A. Thornton (Jefferson & London, 2008). All images are linked from Wikipedia.]



21 Mar
The last decade of the 35 formative years of Japanese film sees several developments - the first generation of intellectuals, who had grown up with film, now started making films themselves. We find: a new and more realistic type of period film, with gradually more storytelling and not only filled with sword fights (chambara); a number of fresh new actors playing nihilistic heroes; conscious art films, made by directors Murata Minoru and Kinugasa Teinosuke; and, at the end of the twenties, the birth of "everyday realism" (shomingeki) in the hands of new directors as Ozu, Mizoguchi, Naruse and Shimizu, working at Shochiku. Unfortunately, also from this period, the number of films that has been preserved intact, is still tiny. 

1920
Japan's second major film company, Shochiku, begins production. Originally, Shochiku had started out as the national Kabuki production company. Like Nikkatsu, it owned theaters. It was set-up by Shirai Matsujiro and Otani Takejiro - the company name was a combination of the elements for "take," ("bamboo") and "matsu" ("pine tree") in their names, which are also symbols of happiness (the kunyomi "matsutake" was changed to the onyomi "shochiku" in 1937). The company started with substantial capital to produce and distribute films. Its studio was built in Kamata, in the southern suburbs of Tokyo. From the start, it used actresses instead of onnagata. Those actresses were such a novelty that they became stars almost overnight. The most famous actress was Kurishima Sumiko. The head of the Tokyo studio was Kido Shiro, a university graduate who had studied English, was interested in American film and literature, and who did his best to set the highest standards, modeled on Hollywood. He also introduced new techniques (such as for lighting) under the guidance of former Hollywood cameraman Henry Kotani. Like the other production companies, Shochiku owned its own theaters, such as the Shochikuza in Osaka and Marunouchi Piccadilly (first called Hogakuza) in Tokyo.

Nikkatsu also gradually begins using actresses, and the onnagata vanish completely from the film world in a few years' time.

Mizoguchi Kenji (1898-1956) joins Nikkatsu as an actor; three years later he would become a full-fledged director.

Tanizaki Junichiro, a strong advocate of film reform, writes the script for a film by former Hollywood actor Thomas Kurihara (1885-1926), "Amateur Club." It is an American-style comedy about a group of amateur Kabuki actors at the seaside.

1921
Murata Minoru (1894-1937) helms Japan's first artistic experimental work for Shochiku, the still extant Rojo no Reikon ("Souls on the Road"), partly based on Gorki's The Lower Depths. It consists of two crosscut stories: a prodigal son who returns penniless, but with wife and son; and two convicts who wander about the country seeking a place to live. The stories are united in mood and atmosphere and the film was shot on location, with endless dark roads - it shows how landscape defines character. Souls on the Road is also one of the few surviving films from the early period. The fevered crosscutting was inspired by Griffith's Intolerance, but went much further than anything in the West.

[Murata Minoru]
Makino Shozo directs Jiraiya with Onoe Matsunosuke, one of the stars' most popular films, and one of the very few that has survived. Onoe plays a ninja and the film contains various examples of nifty trick photography. Jiraya gives a good impression of Onoe's acting: a small man with an enormous Kabuki wig, always keeping a straight back even while jumping around, and every few seconds striking a pose, thereby halting the stylized fighting scenes. The film also highlights Makino's archaic style with his long shots and long takes with a fixed camera.

Later that year, Makino Shozo breaks with Onoe and Nikkatsu and sets up his own production company. He continues making costume dramas, but of a somewhat more modern type, both as regards contents (more geared towards adults) and style (a less fixed camera).

Nikkatsu now controls half of all 600 cinemas in Japan.
1923
The Great Kanto Earthquake destroys many old film resources.

The Nikkatsu production studio in Mukojima in Tokyo is destroyed by the Great Kanto Earthquake. The company concentrates its production facilities in Kyoto (Daishogun, from 1928 Uzumasa).

Instead of the term "kyuha," the word "jidaigeki" starts being used for period film. A new type of period film, realistic and meant for adults, starts being made. In fact, we could say that period film really starts in 1923.

From about this time, a new type of hero also appears in period film. While Onoe Matsunosuke always played a good guy winning from the bad ones (a moralistic stance called kanzen choaku, "promoting good and punishing evil," based on kabuki and kodan stories), now we get the "nihilistic hero" or "anti-hero," whose (first wave of) popularity would last until the early 1930s. The first nihilistic hero appears in Makino Shozo's Ukiyoe Murasaki Zukin ("The Woodcut Artist") of 1923. This type of hero (although also based on the tateyaku type) is an outsider and lowly samurai or even a ronin, a masterless samurai; he is not accepted by the world and therefore lives by the sword; he is rebellious; and at the end he usually is killed in a great sword-fight. One therefore also speaks of the "rebel sub-genre." This type of film remained popular from 1923 to 1931.

This rebellious trend was borrowed from Nakazato Kaizan's voluminous historical novel Daibosatsu Toge ("The Great Bodhisattva Pass"), with its nihilistic and anarchistic hero Tsukue Ryunosuke, who in turn was partly based on Raskolnikov from Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment. The book was made into a play and also many times filmed. Nakazato Kazan (1885-1944) was a pacifist and follower of Tolstoy, who became the father of popular literature in modern Japan.

A new generation of period drama actors appears to play this type of hero: Bando Tsumasaburo (1901-1953), Okochi Denjiro (1898-1962), Arashi Kanjuro (1903-1980), Tsukigata Ryunosuke (1902-1970), and Kataoka Chiezo (1903-1980).  In other words, the star system took form in Japan. All these actors played tateyaku roles. Some of these stars were inspired by the example of Makino Productions and set up their own production companies.

Directors of this new type of realistic period film are Makino Masaharu (1908-1993, the son of Makino Shozo), Ito Daisuke (1898-1981), Inagaki Hiroshi (1905-1980) and Itami Mansaku (1900-1946).

In this period, sword-fights also become somewhat more realistic. Taking their cue from the realistic Shingeki drama (plays as Daibosatsu Toge), they become faster, fiercer and the (fake) weapons really touch the opponent (in Kabuki styled fights, that is not the case). There was also a certain influence from the fast acrobatics in American films, as those with Fairbanks.

A more realistic film, Kyoya erimise ("The Kyoya Collar Shop") by Tanaka Eizo wins critical acclaim (Nikkatsu).

1924
Seisaku no Tsuma ("Seisaku's Wife") by Murata Minoru (1894-1937) is a masterpiece of early contemporary drama. It tells about the love of Okane, a woman with an unfortunate past, for the earnest youth Seisaku. They marry, to the consternation of the villagers who think she is taking advantage of him. When the war with Russia breaks out, Seisaku is sent to the front, but returns wounded to recuperate at home. When his wounds are healed and he is ready for the war again, Okane blinds him with a hairpin as she is unable to stand the thought that he will leave her again. Technically, the film was influenced by German Expressionism. The strong-willed heroine was played by one of Japan's first screen actresses, Urabe Kumeko; Seisaku was played by a ninaime type actor.

1925
There are now 800 theaters in Japan.

Orochi, with popular new star Bando Tsumasaburo, and director Futagawa Buntaro (1899-1966), is known for its masterful sword-fighting scenes and melancholy mood. The film which fits squarely in the "rebel sub-genre" was made at Makino Productions. The hero, Heizaburo, has been unjustly expelled from his clan, and as a ronin, he experiences further misunderstandings which bring him in involuntary opposition to the authorities. When the reputedly noble oyabun he serves in the last part of the film turns out to be a lecherous kidnapper, Heizaburo frees the victims, but also goes berserk in a ferocious fight against both yakuza and authorities. The violence is not gratuitous, but its function is to show what a terrible place the world without Buddha is. The film is ferociously rebellious descrying differences in status and wealth. The only negative point is that the faces of both male and female characters have the white faces of Kabuki make-up.

The maker of such rebellious films, Futagawa Buntaro, Ito Daisuke and Makino Masahiro, were all part of a broader leftist movement, from which also the Tendency Film (keiko eiga) rose. In the 1920s, especially after the Tokyo Earthquake of 1923, Japan found itself in an increasingly difficult economic and political situation and there was much poverty. Nihilism and rebelliousness were ways of protesting the existing social order.

[Orochi}
1926
The film magazine Kinema Junpo starts its annual rankings. The best film for 1926 is The Woman Who Touched The Legs, followed in fourth place by Kurutta Ichipeiji.

Ashi ni Sawatta Onna ("The Woman Who Touched the Legs") by Abe Yutaka (1895-1977), is a - now lost - ironic comedy about  a writer's encounter with a female thief, modeled on American film - Abe had trained in Hollywood. Abe was known for his witty social satires, but these have all been lost. This film was twice remade.

[Kinugasa Teinosuke]
Kurutta Ichipeiji ("A Page of Madness") by Kinugasa Teinosuke (1896-1982) is an avant-garde film about a janitor trying to free his wife from the mental hospital where she is kept. The first consciously art film made in Japan, it shows great visual brilliance and an ambiguous melding of fantasy and reality. It was lost for 50 years, but rediscovered by the director in his storehouse. The film is highly original, one of the great avant-garde silent films. Kinugasa had spent several years as an actor of female roles (oyama), and when real actresses took over, he had become director. He made his first film in 1922, the start of a long career that would last until 1966. After WWII, he won praise abroad with The Gate of Hell (Jigokumon, 1953). But with the exception of A Page of Madness and Crossroads from 1928, which were inspired by German avant-garde films as Caligari, Kinugasa mainly made mildly traditional chambara films, proving how alien his experiments were in the Japanese context.

[A Page of Madness]
Onoe Matsunosuke, the first Japanese film star, dies at age 52 and is given a corporate funeral.

1927
Chuji Tabi Nikki ("A Diary of Chuji's Travels") by Ito Daisuke (1898-1981), the master of silent jidaigeki who was noted for his violent realismfeatures Okochi Denjiro as outlaw hero, a gambler, who faced with the conflicting demands of his own moral code and that of society, fights the authorities. It was a big hit with the public. Film made in 3 parts - only fragments survive. Ito's career spanned the years 1924-1970.

[Ito Daisuke]
Makino Prodctions makes Kurama Tengu Ibun ("Strange Tale of Kurama Tengu"), the first of many films about the popular fictional Restoration hero Kurama Tengu, who, with his black mask, white horse and pistols, was clearly based on Zorro; he rather rescued little boys than damsels in distress. The character was played and made famous by Arashi Kanjuro.

1928
Pro Kino ("Japan Proletarian Motion Picture League") gains support from progressive intellectuals, students and film makers.

Jujiro ("Crossroads") is another modernistic film by Kinugasa Teinosuke, about a young ronin's psychological sufferings after he has been temporarily blinded in a quarrel at the Yoshiwara over the geisha he loves. He has feverish visions of her and of the gaudy revelry at the entertainment quarter. Like A Page Out of Order, this film is also filled with hallucinations and past and present have been deliberately mixed up. It was one of the first Japanese films to be be exported and win praise abroad.

[Poster for Jujiro]
Shinban Ooka Seidan ("Oka's Trial") was made by Ito Daisuke, with Okochi Denjiro as Tange Sazen. Tange Sazen is a staple in jidaigeki, a one-eyed, one-armed nihilistic super-samurai, who is bent on revenge for the injuries inflicted on him by his clan. Both mentally and physically deformed, he becomes a grotesque parody of a loyalty-centered Bushido. Like in Chuji Tabi Nikki of the previous year, Ito exalted the nihilist hero who was in full revolt against the social system.

1929
At the Shochiku Studio in Kamata, on the outskirts of Tokyo, under studio head Kido Shiro, directors as Ozu Yasujiro (1903-1963), Mizoguchi Kenji (1898-1956), Shimizu Hiroshi (1903-1966) and Gosho Heinosuke (1902-1981) create the new film genre of "everyday realism" (shoshimin-eiga). They portray the lives of ordinary people with humor and pathos. Shoshimin-eiga would become the trademark of Shochiku and form a lasting contribution to Japanese culture. Shochiku is also called the "actress kingdom," because of the large number of actresses working there, such as Tanaka Kinuyo.

Shochiku, by the way, had been involved since 1895 in kabuki as a theatrical promoter and owner of theaters before it became a film company, something which had continued and grown along its cinematic activities. This year, all kabuki actors became affiliated with Shochiku, which also managed the two most important permanent kabuki theaters in Japan, the Kabukiza in Tokyo and the Minamiza in Kyoto.

[Makino Masahiro]
Roningai ("Street of Masterless Samurai") by Makino Masahiro (1908-1993) was an account of a group of unemployed samurai in Edo, focusing on the tedium of daily life. About one hour of the long film survives. Makino Masahiro was the son of Makino Shozo and started directing at age 18 for his father's company. His career spanned the years 1926-1972. Makino mostly worked as a period film director, although he also made same socially conscious films after the war when jidaigeki were forbidden. In the 1960s, he also became associated with the ninkyo-eiga genre, films about chivalrous yakuza. Makino was clearly attached to the narrative of Roningai, as he remade the film twice, in 1939 and 1957; he was also "supervising director" of the version made in 1990 by Kuroki Kazuo.

[Roningai]
Another important period film was Kutsukake Tokijiro (dir. Tsuji Kichiro), based on a play by the popular writer Hasegawa Shin (1884-1963). It established the genre of matatabi-mono, about poor wandering gamblers (yakuza), who have to pay for their stay with a local gang by doing the dirty work. But Tokijiro escapes gang life by refusing to kill the wife and child of a man he has already murdered; instead, he redeems himself by fleeing and taking care of them..

Ozu Yasujiro (1903-1963) made Wakaki Hi ("Days of Youth"), his 8th film, a comedy about student life and skiing, which is the earliest Ozu film to have survived intact. It expresses his admiration for Borzage, Lubitsch and Lloyd. Ozu was born in downtown Tokyo, but educated in Matsuzaka in Mie Prefecture and in Nagoya. He was a fiercely independent character, who never submitted to authority (unless they wanted him to do what he already wanted to do) and who found various ingenious ways to skip school and the military. When his family returned to Tokyo in 1923, he joined the recently founded Shochiku studios against the opposition of his father. He became assistant director and was, among others, trained in "nonsense" comedies, often not more than strung together gags. (By the way, these nonsense comedies fit in the general spirit of the age, with its "ero-guro-nansensu.") His debut was in 1927 with a period drama, but from 1928 on he became a comedy director.

A History of Japanese Film by Year:
1896-1909 - First Stirrings
1910-1919 - Development
1920-1929 - Art Films and Nihilistic Heroes
1930-1939 - Social Realism and Shoshimin-Eiga
1940-1949 - Censorship during War and Occupation
1950-1954 - Golden Age of the Classical Studio System
1955-1959 - Taiyozoku and other Youth Films
1960-1964 - The New Wave
1965-1969 - Golden Age of Independent Film
1970-1979 - Sex and Violence
1980-1989 - Decline and Stagnation
1990-1999 - Indies and Anime
2000-2014 - Postmodern Games
[Reference works used: Currents In Japanese Cinema by Sato Tadao (Tokyo, 1987); The Japanese Film: Art and Industry by Joseph L. Anderson and Donald Richie (reprint Tokyo, 1983); A Hundred Years of Japanese Film by Donald Richie (Tokyo, 2001); Japanese Film Directors by Audrie Bock (Tokyo, 1985); A Critical Handbook of Japanese Film Directors by Alexander Jacoby (Berkeley, 2008); A New History of Japanese Cinema by Isolde Standish (New York, 2005); The Japanese Period Film by S.A. Thornton (Jefferson & London, 2008). All images are linked from Wikipedia.]
15 Mar
During this decade, trends from the previous period are continued and intensified. More film companies are established,& most of all Nikkatsu that will dominate the industry this decade. "Shinpa" films on modern subjects come into their own besides the "Kyuha" period pieces - programs typically consist of a double bill containing one of each. But despite attempts at reform, the level of Japanese films remains low, an amusement for children and the lower classes. Intellectuals invariably prefer imported Western films. Almost all Japanese feature films from this period have been lost.

1910
Makino Shozo directs his first version of Chushingura ("The Loyal Forty-seven Ronin") with Onoe Matsunosuke. The total (including the sub-stories) consists of 130 film rolls. Makino liked to compare himself to that other pioneer of large-scale films, D.W. Griffiths.

1912
The first major film company, Nikkatsu (Nippon Katsudo Shashin), is established by consolidating the four independent film companies then existing in Japan: Yoshizawa Shoten, Yokota Shokai, M. Pathe (not related to the French company of the same name!) and Fukudo. Prior to the merger, acrimonious negotiations take place, even accompanied by arson attacks on cinemas. The first Nikkatsu studio is in Mukojima, in eastern Tokyo. Period dramas were made in another Nikkatsu studio in Kyoto (the start of the division between both locations, where all period dramas would be made in traditional Kyoto and all contemporary stories in Tokyo). Both Makino Shozo and Onoe Matsunosuke transferred to Nikkatsu, bringing the new company commercial success. The Japanese film industry begins mass production. Note that around this same time in the U.S. the Hollywood studios of Fox and Warner Brothers were established.

In these early years, no copies were made of films. The original was the only copy and it was used up until it was gone. Therefore, there are extremely few early films left. Those that are left, are invariably in a bad condition.

Although intellectuals would see Western films, at this time Japanese films were mostly made with the lower classes and "snotty-nosed kids" as an audience. Gangsters were heavily involved in both the studios and the running of the theaters (until the 1920s).

1913
Makino's The Loyal Forty-seven Ronin is typical of the films made in this period: the cuts are very long, the camera position never shifts, and the star, Onoe Matsunosuke, plays directly into the lens during emotional scenes.

1914
The Japanese film Katusha, based on Tolstoy's Resurrection, draws large audiences. Despite the fact that this film is based on Shingeki, the Japanese version of Western theater (which replaced the Shinpa theater), the heroine was played by the onnagata Tachibana Teijiro. Costumes and settings, however, were made to appear Russian.

Nikkatsu starts making 14 films a month. Individual films now have an average length of 40 minutes. Another studio, Tenkatsu, is formed as a rival to Nikkatsu (but it only survives until 1919). Tenkatsu was more modern, but Nikkatsu continued to control most theaters, as owners were satisfied with its "double bills:" one Kyuha film, and one Shinpa film.

In October, the film magazine Kinema Record is started to support the Pure Film Movement, pleading for reform in Japanese film, such as a broader use of cinematic techniques to tell stories instead of relying on the benshi (the magazine folds in 1917, but its function is taken over by other magazines as Kinema Junpo).

Hayakawa Sesshu (1889-1973) becomes the first Japanese actor to find stardom in the United States (and later also in Europe), under the name of "Sessue Hayakawa." In his American movies, starting with The Typhoon of 1914, he gave a faithful imitation of the tateyaku performance. Hayakawa would play in more than 80 movies and was very popular in the 1910s - his last major role was that of Colonel Saito in The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), which earned him an Oscar nomination.

1915
Foreign films start to be imported in large numbers. There are now 300 movie theaters in Japan.

1916
Intellectuals prefer foreign to Japanese films. The latter mainly attract the common people. The Italian historical drama Cabiria is a big hit.

1917
Makino Shozo makes another version of The Loyal Forty-Seven Ronin. This time he uses a script, reframing pans and matching cuts. In other words, advanced planning is born and films grow more sophisticated.

The call among critics for a broader use of cinematic techniques (moving camera, rapid editing, realistic set design, narrative autonomy, phasing our of onnagata) continues. The Living Corpse by Tanaka Eizo (1886-1968), another Tolstoy adaptation, for the first time uses close-ups and flash-backs. The same is true of another film made this year, The Captain's Daughter by Inoue Masao. Both films put emphasis on having good scripts. But such films could only be made by pretending they were meant for export, and they were shown in theaters used for foreign films. In other words, they were exceptions.

For the first time, Nikkatsu and Tenkatsu overtake foreign companies as the main source of income for Japanese screens.

1918
Kaeriyama Norimasa (1893-1964) makes two experimental - and now lost - films ("The Glow of Life" and "Maid of the Deep Mountains") in order to try to bring some reform to the custom of using benshi and onnagata. The onnagata would disappear in a few year's time, but the benshi would hold out until the mid 1930s - but they agreed to limit their number to one benshi per film, in order to increase the tempo.

Charlie Chaplin's films become very popular.

1919
Griffith's Intolerance and Chaplin's A Dog's Life are hits. Due to WWI, European films have stopped being produced and their place is taken by American films.

Film magazine Kinema Junpo starts publication in July. Founded by a group of students who support the Pure Film Movement, it pleads for the use of modern cinematic methods in Japanese film making.

A History of Japanese Film by Year:
1896-1909 - First Stirrings
1910-1919 - Development
1920-1929 - Art Films and Nihilistic Heroes
1930-1939 - Social Realism and Shoshimin-Eiga
1940-1949 - Censorship during War and Occupation
1950-1954 - Golden Age of the Classical Studio System
1955-1959 - Taiyozoku and other Youth Films
1960-1964 - The New Wave
1965-1969 - Golden Age of Independent Film
1970-1979 - Sex and Violence
1980-1989 - Decline and Stagnation
1990-1999 - Indies and Anime
2000-2014 - Postmodern Genre Film
[Reference works used: Currents In Japanese Cinema by Sato Tadao (Tokyo, 1987); The Japanese Film: Art and Industry by Joseph L. Anderson and Donald Richie (reprint Tokyo, 1983); A Hundred Years of Japanese Film by Donald Richie (Tokyo, 2001); Japanese Film Directors by Audrie Bock (Tokyo, 1985); A Critical Handbook of Japanese Film Directors by Alexander Jacoby (Berkeley, 2008); A New History of Japanese Cinema by Isolde Standish (New York, 2005); The Japanese Period Film by S.A. Thornton (Jefferson & London, 2008). All images are linked from Wikipedia.]
8 Mar
Rashomon was the great international breakthrough film for Japanese cinema, winning the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 1951, and an Academy Honorary Award at the 24th Academy Awards in 1952. The film caused great excitement among Western film scholars, critics and directors; it received heaps of praise and also became a source of inspiration. It also helped establish Kurosawa's name as an important authorial director, both in and outside Japan, and established Mifune Toshiro as a commanding new star.

The film starts with a frame story. While they are sheltering from the rain under the eaves of the dilapidated Rashomon Gate forming the southern entrance to Kyoto, about one thousand years ago, a woodcutter (Takashi Shimura) and priest tell the story of a rape and murder to a peasant they meet there (the woodcutter and the priest have been present at the trial as witnesses).

When traveling through a forest near Kyoto, a noblewomen (Machiko Kyo) was raped, her samurai husband (Masayuki Mori) killed, and a robber named Tajomaru (Toshiro Mifune) arrested for the crime. Rashomon relates through flashbacks four versions of the crime, as told by Tajomaru, the woman, the dead samurai (a medium is used to let his spirit speak) and the woodcutter, who discovered the crime and as now comes out, was also an unseen witness (although he kept that secret at the trial as he didn't want to get involved).

It is impossible to reconcile the four narratives and the film leaves the viewer with the ambiguity of the situation. There simply is no way of knowing who is telling the truth. At the basis of this problem is human pride, or in Japanese cultural terms, "Face," which also encompasses a person's identity. As Kurosawa remarked: "Human beings are unable to be honest with themselves about themselves. They cannot talk about themselves without embellishing."

The robber confesses the rape but maintains he killed the samurai in an honest and fair duel with swords, presenting the image of a "noble robber." The noblewoman stresses that after she had been raped, the look of loathing on her husband's face drove her almost to madness, and in a fit she planted her dagger in his breast, presenting an image of a rightful lady. The dead samurai - lying from beyond the grave - tells that his wife after she had been raped, wanted to join the robber and even asked for the death of her husband - out of mortification, the husband later committed suicide with a dagger (suicide is more honorable than being murdered). The woodcutter (who at the trial claimed he only found the body of the samurai but did not witness the crime) now tells he saw the crime after all: it was a duel between the robber and the samurai, but they were both fearful and it was a sorry fight, won by the robber through a stroke of luck. The samurai even begged for his life before being killed, the woodcutter maintains. The noblewoman had fled in terror. The woodcutter finally steals the samurai's sword. He shows the perspective of a common man, but also his story is doubtful, as he kept it from the court at the trial.


Rashomon is now generally considered one of the greatest films ever made. Here are the reasons this film is special:

Visual technique: This wonderful film tells large parts of its story with only the camera, harking back to the silent cinema of Murnau and Eisenstein, and inspiring, for example, Bergman in his Virgin Spring. Especially the long shots where the camera follows the woodcutter or robber, running trough the forest, are impressive. Interesting is also the trial, where the accused and the witnesses face the viewer, who thereby becomes the judge (in fact the magistrate, as there were no specialized judges in ancient Japan) we never see. The robber and the witnesses give their testimony from the courtyard of the magistrate's mansion, where they kneel on the white gravel. The magistrate would sit on the raised veranda, so higher than the accused, but in the film the camera has been placed on the same level for more effect. "Rashomon-effect:" The same set of events is recalled in strikingly different terms by a group of characters - this phenomenon, which points at the cultural notion of the relativity of truth, was made well-known through the present film, although it was in turn based on a short story from 1922 by Akutagawa ("In the Grove"). This idea fit the existential despair over the instability of truth and value going strong in the Europe of the 1950s (think of Sartre and Camus). In a wider sense, Rashomon reflects on more general philosophical questions, such as loss of faith in human beings, the human propensity to lie, pride and egoism, and the world as hell.  Acting: Over the top performances as in silent film and the traditional Kabuki theater work well in combination with the long silent passages. Especially the big laughs Mifune lets roll from his chest reminded me of the Kabuki. The miko (female medium) who summons the spirit of the dead samurai is also very effective, speaking very uncannily with a low male voice.Symbolism: Not only does the dilapidated and disused Rashomon Gate serve as a symbol for the chaotic times, in which authority has been crumbling, the heavy rains (obtained by hosing water mixed with black ink) also represent the turmoil of the age (and of our own time as well!), while perhaps also having a cleansing effect - at the end, the crime has been washed away and a humane gesture has become possible. And, even more than gate and weather, the shifting light and shadow with the sun shining through the dense leaves in the forest (obtained by using mirrors to reflect the light) expresses the continuous shifting of the truth. At the end of the film, a baby is found, discarded under the eaves of the gate. The peasant reveals his real character by stealing the clothes of the child and running off. But the woodcutter, who has already five kids, decides to bring up the baby as his own. This is the glimmer of hope in human nature with which the film ends.


6 Mar
In these initial years movies were more a rough fairground amusement than serious entertainment. Most films shown were shorts imported from the West. About 15 years lie between the first import of film machines to the establishment of the first Japanese film company. At the end of the first decade of the 20th century, also the first native director came up, who discovered and promoted the first native star. Japanese films at this time were mostly period films full of fighting scenes in Kabuki-style. Two tendencies typical for Japanese film also started in this early period: the use of the benshi-narrator (until the mid-1930s) and the use of oyama-female impersonators (there were no actresses until about 1920; the use of female impersonators was based on kabuki, which also knew no actresses). As far as I know, no complete feature films have been preserved from this period. In fact, for the whole period until 1945, during which tens of thousands of films were produced in Japan, only about 300 are extant; besides that we have a few hundreds of fragments.  

1896
At a time when Japan is transforming its society and economy into a major international power, so at a time of turbulent change in which the cinema would also become a force, Edison's Kinetoscope is imported. This was not a film projector, but rather a "peep-show machine." Films had to be viewed individually through the window of a cabinet. The machine was in fact developed by Edison's employee William Dickson, although the concept came from the famous inventor. The machine was first shown in Kobe in November of this year.


1897
The Lumière Brother's Cinématographe and Edison's Vitascope are imported. A cinematograph is a film camera, which also serves as a film projector and developer. The Lumière brothers shared the patent and made their first film, Sortie de l'usine Lumière de Lyon, in 1894. It was introduced in Osaka during what was Japan's first public film screening and showed twenty films with images from New York, France, England etc. The Vitascope was an early film projector which cast images via film and electric light onto a wall or screen. It showed images of a flood and a collision at sea. The Lumière brothers themselves came over to Japan to premiere their films and used the opportunity to film various shorts throughout the country. Shibata Tsunekichi (1850-1929), who assisted the Lumière brothers when they filmed in Tokyo, became one of the very first Japanese film makers, in 1899 filming Momijigari (see below).

It should be noted that the "moving pictures" shown with the aid of the Kinotoscope, Cinématographe and Vitascope were not a wholly new experience for the Japanese public, as from the Edo-period they already had enjoyed a rich tradition of various pre-cinematic devices, such as utsushi-e and other magic lantern type systems.

In Japan, films were shown with a narrator (benshi or katsuben), a system that continued until talkies replaced silent movies in the mid-1930s. The benshi was a descendant of kabuki joruri and kodan storytellers. Benshi not only read the inter-titles and voiced all on-screen characters (with the help of assistants, kowairo) they also added their own commentary, explaining what was happening in the film. They served as a sort of mediators, who initially also explained the principles of film technology, as well as unfamiliar aspects of foreign films. Like in the West, films were also accompanied by live music, usually a mixture of Japanese and Western styles. Through the institute of the benshi, film in Japan was smoothly incorporated in the existing entertainment culture. As this was very different from America or Europe, Japan could maintain its cultural independence. Note that the benshi was more important than the film and that the experience of one film could be very different with different benshi.

1898
The first Japanese shorts (which are now lost) are made by Asano Shiro of the Konishi Camera Shop. One, about a corpse that during transport falls out of the coffin and revives, even contains some trick photography.

1899
The first Japanese films that are still preserved are shot. Performances by the two famous Kabuki actors Ichikawa Danjuro IX and Onoe Kikugoro V in Maple Viewing ("Momijigari") are recorded on film, and this is the oldest extant Japanese film. It was made by Shibata Tsunekichi of the newly formed photographic department of the Mitsukoshi Department Store in Tokyo. The film was shot outdoors, at the back of the Kabuki Theater. Danjuro was originally opposed to appearing in something as lowly as films, but was eventually convinced that his doing so would be a "gift to posterity." The film was shown in private to Danjuro, giving rise to the remark: "It is terribly strange to be able to see my own dance." It was finally shown to the public in 1903, when illness prevented Danjuro from performing in Osaka and he sent the film instead. It proved very popular. Also in 1899, Asano Shiro shoots Japan's first documentary, a dance by three geisha in a restaurant in Tokyo's Shinbashi.

[Statue of Ichikawa Danjuro IX in Sensoji, Asakusa]
1903
The first permanent movie theater is built in Tokyo by the Yoshizawa Shoten company, the Denkikan in Asakusa (Asakusa is now a nostalgic neighborhood, but in the Meiji and Taisho periods it was at the forefront of modernization).

1904
Newsreels of the Russo-Japanese War prove popular - Japan's first media event. The Yoshizawa Shoten film company sends a team to follow the fortunes of the armed forces. Not only real documentaries were made, but also "fake" ones, shot as a sort of "docu-dramas" in Japan.

1907
Osaka's first permanent movie theater, the Sennichimae Denkikan, a former vaudeville theater, is built by the Yokota Shokai company.

The fist version ever of the eternally popular Kabuki classic Chushingura ("The Loyal Forty-Seven Ronin") is made.

1908
A Kyoto Kabuki manager, Makino Shozo (1878-1929), begins making period drama movies with Kabuki actors. This pioneering director of Japanese film, started his influential career with Honnoji gassen ("Battle at Honnoji Temple"), produced for the studio Yokota Shokai. Makino Shozo has rightly been called the "Father of Japanese Period Film (jidaigeki)." Yokota Shokai later (1910) built one of the first Japanese studios on a lot near Nijo Castle in Kyoto.

[Makino Shozo]
Early Japanese film was heavily influenced by Kabuki, both in its style, mannerism and subject matter, as in the fact that all roles were played by men: films copied the custom of working with onnagata (also called oyama), who were very skilled in acting femininity, until close-ups started showing their Adam's apples to disadvantage. Oyama disappeared from film in the early 1920s. 
Although Kabuki actors looked down on the then vulgar genre of the cinema, in the "feudal" family system valid also in modern Kabuki, only the eldest son of a leading actor of a major school could succeed his father and play roles at major theaters; consequently, ambitious actors who lacked suitable connections turned to the film world, where they could earn more than leading Kabuki actors.
Something else Kabuki gave the new genre of film (as pointed out by Sato Tadao), were the two types of leading men: the tateyaku (lit. "standing role"), who played noble, idealized samurai and other strong, manly characters, who however never fell passionately in love; and the ninaime (lit. "second," i.e. second billed after the tateyaku) who played handsome and pure men, who were kind and gentle toward the heroine, often fell passionately in love, but who were also helpless and frail. These two types would remain clearly recognizable in Japanese cinema until the early 1970s. 
Also, at this early period the camera position was fixed (the viewpoint of the ideal spectator at a play - this was also initially the case in the West) and there were no scripts, the director just shouted some instructions to the actors, who then did their thing as they saw fit. 
1909
Makino Shozo also was the discoverer of Onoe Matsunosuke (1875-1926), Japan's first movie superstar, who initially worked as an itinerant Kabuki actor. Onoe was of course a tateyaku type. Between 1909 and 1926, Onoe appeared in over 1,000 films, mostly shorts. His debut film in 1909 was Makino Shozo's Goban Tadanobu. Onoe specialized in playing heroic warrior roles. He used his eyes for their expressiveness, earning him the nickname "Medama no Matchan" ("Eyeballs" Matsu). Onoe was especially popular among children, who took to imitating his ninja performances in their games. One of his most popular films was Jiraiya (1921). The most important part of these period films was the sword fight, called tate or tachimawari. In Onoe's films, the fighting scenes are as in Kabuki: heavily stylized, but that was what spectators were used to and what they wanted.

[Onoe Matsunosuke]
This year, too, the first feature film based on a modern subject is made: Onoga Tsumi ("My Sin"). This is the beginning of a new genre besides period drama: sentimental contemporary drama based on modern plays. Period drama was called Kyuha ("Old School"), this new genre Shinpa ("New School"). Although Shinpa films used colloquial language and contemporary settings, with an acted performance versus the stylized movements in Kabuki (and Kyuha films), it still retained some old elements, such as the use of onnagata (males in female roles).

The division in the two types of male protagonists followed this division in kyuha period drama and shinpa contemporary drama: the tateyaku would usually be the hero of period films and the ninaime would shine in shinpa's contemporary stories, which invariably had some love interest to captivate female spectators.

Yoshizawa Shoten builds Japan's first film production studio at Meguro in Tokyo. The building includes a glass stage for maximum light and protection from the elements.

A History of Japanese Film by Year:
1896-1909 - First Stirrings
1910-1919 - Development
1920-1929 - Art Films and Nihilistic Heroes
1930-1939 - Social Realism and Shoshimin-Eiga
1940-1949 - Censorship during War and Occupation
1950-1954 - Golden Age of the Classical Studio System
1955-1959 - Taiyozoku and other Youth Films
1960-1964 - The New Wave
1965-1969 - Independent Productions
1970-1979 - Sex and Violence
1980-1989 - Decline and Stagnation
1990-1999 - Indies and Anime
2000-2014 - Postmodern Games
[Reference works used: Currents In Japanese Cinema by Sato Tadao (Tokyo, 1987); The Japanese Film: Art and Industry by Joseph L. Anderson and Donald Richie (reprint Tokyo, 1983); A Hundred Years of Japanese Film by Donald Richie (Tokyo, 2001); Japanese Film Directors by Audrie Bock (Tokyo, 1985); A Critical Handbook of Japanese Film Directors by Alexander Jacoby (Berkeley, 2008); A New History of Japanese Cinema by Isolde Standish (New York, 2005); The Japanese Period Film by S.A. Thornton (Jefferson & London, 2008). All images are linked from Wikipedia.]
1 Jan
2015 is the Year of the Sheep. The sheep or goat is the eight symbolic animal of the East-Asian zodiac.

Years of the Sheep are 2015, 2003, 1991, 1979, 1967, 1955, 1943, 1931, 1919, 1907... etc.

The Year of the Sheep
In China the goat may have been the original zodiacal animal, but in Japan this sign of the zodiac is called hitsuji, sheep (goat is yagi). But it is still a cultural import from China, for neither sheep not goats used to be very numerous in Japan, and in art before the Meiji-period they are virtually absent, too. Japanese paintings of these animals are usually copied from Chinese originals. The extreme scarcity of sheep and goats may be due to the fact that there are no grasslands in Japan - except in Hokkaido where one does find sheep today, but that is again a modern phenomenon.

People born in the Year of the Sheep are said to be elegant and highly accomplished in the arts. They are also considered to be passionate in whatever they do.

I wish you a very cultural year!

12 Dec
The Temple of the Golden Pavilion (in Japanese Kinkakuji) is a novel about beauty so perfect that its becomes unbearable and has to be destroyed.

The novel, written in 1956 by Mishima Yukio, is based on a real event. On July 2, 1950, at 2:30 a.m. the Golden Pavilion of Kinkakuji Temple (official name: Rokuonji) in northwestern Kyoto was torched by a 22-year-old novice monk, Hayashi Yoken, who then attempted suicide on the hill behind the temple. He survived and was arrested. Later he was sentenced to seven years in prison, showing no contrition, but released because of mental illness (schizophrenia); he died of tuberculosis in 1956. The pavilion was a wonder of architecture, a marvelous wooden, three-storied structure, a national monument that many times through history had been spared destruction. It now burned to the ground, with the statues inside, and the loss of the precious, seven-centuries old architecture severely shocked Japan and the world.

Kinkakuji, Winter 2007[The new Golden Pavilion in light snow (2007) - photo Ad Blankestijn]
Of course, today the Golden Pavilion is again one of the top tourist attractions of Kyoto, but what all those tourist throngs don't know is that they are looking at a copy, a reconstruction vintage 1955. The present Golden pavilion looks even better than the real one, for while the old one was just a bare wooden structure without any gold on its outside walls, the new one has in the late 1980s - Japan's nouveau-riche period - been covered in an obscenely thick layer of gold. Yes, it looks good on photos, especially after it has been powdered by a thin layer of snow, but it is not the original national treasure anymore. And it is debatable whether the original pavilion really was ever covered in gold on the outside of the whole building, instead, as was usual, only on the inside.

Mishima regularly based his novels on real events - another example is After the Banquet, about machinations in the political world, based on the lives of the proprietress of a famous traditional restaurant and a well-known politician (who in fact successfully sued Mishima for violation of his privacy). Also for the present novel Mishima carefully studied the reports of the case, including the transcripts of the trial. But of course Mishima was a writer, not a journalist, so he changed events and characters to obtain an artistically satisfying story. The resulting novel is an imaginative reconstruction of the pathology of the perpetrator.

[The original Golden Pavilion in 1886 - isn't it without gold much more beautiful than the "new" one? - Photo Wikimedia]
In the novel, the arsonist-acolyte is called Mizoguchi, a person afflicted with an ugly face and a stutter, who from his youth has been so obsessed with the beauty of the Golden Pavilion (possibly as a symbol for the whole of Japanese traditional culture) that he gradually - especially after the war has been lost - starts feeling the urge to destroy it. His character defect has made him jealous of beauty, in his view true beauty is something that overpowers and finally destroys. He is prodded on by his friend and "bad angel" Kashiwagi, a cynic, who has a club-foot, and likes to hold long "philosophical" digressions.

Already during his childhood, on the coast of the Japan Sea in Maizuru, Mizoguchi was assured by his country-priest father that the Golden Pavilion was the most beautiful thing on earth. But he is a friendless, stammering boy, who seeks compensation for his weakness in vengeful fantasies. At the height of the war, in 1944, his fate is sealed when he becomes a novice at the Rinzai Zen temple Rokuonji that in 1397 was set up to control the Golden Pavilion. At that time, it is almost deserted, as most monks have been drafted into the army. When American planes are destroying one Japanese city after another with their terrible firebombings (which took many more lives than the atomic bombs), Mizoguchi has an ecstatic vision that also the Golden Pavilion will be burnt to ashes. Unfortunately for him, the Americans have the decency to spare the cultural capital, Kyoto, and the war ends in bitter disappointment for Mizoguchi. There is the suggestion that he later destroys the Golden Pavilion because it survived the war.

[The Golden Pavilion after arson - photo Wikimedia]
The Pavilion has such a huge hold over Mizoguchi that it even makes him impotent - Kashiwagi (who is as little popular with women as Mizoguchi) has taught him a trick how to seduce women by making them feel sorry for him, but when Mizoguchi successfully puts this advice into practice, and is about to embrace his girlfriend, his mind is so filled with the image of the Golden Pavilion that his desire is blocked. It is as though the temple is shutting off Mizoguchi's access to the normal world. The Golden Pavilion in all its arrogance becomes his mortal enemy. And after Mizoguchi has finally set fire to the Pavilion, he feels properly relieved - instead of trying to commit suicide as the real arsonist did, he sits down on the hill above the temple and lights a cigarette, enjoying the view of the blaze.

Japanese tradition fares badly in this novel. The tea ceremony, flower arrangement and garden viewing - and not to forget Zen Buddhism - provide occasions for acts of sadism, arson and treachery. Beautiful traditional symbols are deliberately contrasted with the ugliest of actions and placed in a world of lost ethics and perverted values. The abbot of Kinkakuji Temple is caught by Mizoguchi when he secretly visits a geisha. At a tea ceremony, a woman who is taking leave of her lover who has been called into battle, squirts milk from her breast into the man's traditional tea bowl. An American soldier walking in the garden of the Golden Pavilion with his pregnant Japanese girlfriend, tempts Mizoguchi into kicking her in the belly, so that she has a miscarriage. The novel, a study in evil, has therefore been called "an expression of postwar nihilism." But the novel can also be understood from Mishima's (anti-) aesthetics: the Golden Pavilion simply is too beautiful, it has to be robbed of its arrogance and power. Mizoguchi - and also Mishima - seems to feel that he will only become free through its destruction.

***

[Mishima Yukio in 1956 - Photo from Wikipedia]
Mishima Yukio (Hiraoka Kimitake, 1925-1970) was one the major twentieth century Japanese authors, and also one of the most problematical. Highly talented, Mishima started writing at the end of the war and at high speed produced many acclaimed novels, short stories and literary essays, as well as modern plays for the Kabuki and Noh theater. He was originally inspired by such Western authors as Wilde, Rilke and Mauriac. His breakthrough novel, written at age 24, was Confessions of a Mask, about a young homosexual who must hide behind a mask in order to fit into society. This novel also introduced Mishima's masochistic fantasies, as well as his preoccupation with the beauty and decline of the (male) body, themes which recur in his later work as well. Many of his later short stories and novels deal with the themes of suicide and violent death. That preoccupation also influenced his extra-literary activities, as he for example posed in photographs of "St Sebastian shot through with arrows" (showing off his bodybuilding) or acted a doomed yakuza in a 1960s film, or played the officer who commits (a rather distasteful) seppuku in the film version of his own story Patriotism.

Mishima, who spoke fluent English, in the 1950-1960s befriended several American and British Japanologists in Tokyo, who later became translators of his novels, so the ratio of his work that was translated was higher than was the case with contemporaries. Other famous works are, for example, After the Banquet (1960), The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea (1963), Death in Midsummer (1963), and the Sea of Fertility tetralogy (1965-70). In the late 1960s, Mishima was several times nominated for the Nobel Prize, but he was passed over due to the extreme right-wing ideas and activities he had developed by that time (including a private militia of 100 radical youths). The Nobel Prize, rightly, went to Kawabata Yasunari in 1968.

While interest in his work declined in Japan in the course of the 1960s, Mishima gradually conceived a chaotic, extreme right-wing ideology, becoming an adherent of his own brand of bushido. That ideology formed the background for the terrorist attack with his militia on the head-quarters of the Self-Defense forces in Tokyo, on November 25, 1970. They took the commandant hostage and Mishima held a speech for the soldiers at the base, from the HQ balcony (giving occasion to an all-too famous press photo), trying to incite them to a coup d'état, and revive the ghosts of the nationalistic past that had been happily laid to rest in 1945. But the soldiers kept their heads cool and only laughed and jeered at Mishima, after which he went inside and committed ritual suicide (the seppuku was botched, so Mishima died a most painful death). In the view of most Japanese at the time, Mishima's deed was just as schizophrenic as the torching of the Golden Pavilion.

The English translation is by Ivan Morris and dates from 1959 (Vintage International).
7 Dec
Although lying next to the much trodden Philosopher's Path (Tetsugaku no Michi) at the foot of the Higashiyama range in Shishigatani in Kyoto, Kounji is only open a few weeks each year and therefore happily free from tourist throngs. I had previously caught glimpses of its garden and also marveled at its huge tiled roof just below me when walking along the Philosopher's Path.

Kounji Temple, Kyoto[Kounji Temple, Kyoto]
The temple in fact belongs to Nanzenji (as a outside subtemple), but originally came from Osaka where it was presumably founded in 1280 by Daimin Kokushi, the founder of Nanzenji. After it fell into disrepair due to various wars, in 1664 it was rebuilt and revived on the present site by the 280th abbot of Nanzenji, Eichu. The present main hall and belfry still date from that period, but most other buildings and land were lost in the mists of modern history.

Kounji was in fact re-established in 1664 as the family temple of Tofukumonin (Tokugawa Masako, 1607-1678), the daughter of the second Tokugawa shogun Hidetada and consort of Emperor Gomizunoo. She was the mother of Empress Meisho (reigned from 1629-1643), the seventh out of only eight women to occupy the Chrysanthemum Throne. Empress Meisho dedicated the above mentioned belfry to the temple. Tofukumonin was an important patron of the arts and used her wealth to help restore many temples and other significant buildings that had been damaged or destroyed during the centuries of internal wars that had ended with the peace of the Tokugawas.

Kounji Temple, Kyoto[Garden of Kounji Temple]
The main image of the temple is a serene Shaka statue with two disciples. There is also a very fine Sho Kannon statue that used to be the object of personal devotions of Tofukumonin. The high and spacious main hall also houses a statue of Tofukumonin herself, clad in imperial robes and with a golden crown on her head.

Kounji Temple, Kyoto[Stepping stones - Garden of Kounji Temple]
The small but exquisite garden of Kounji already existed in the 18th century, as it is mentioned in travelogues of that period, but it only took its present shape under the hands of the famous modern garden master Ogawa Jihei VII (Ueji; 1860-1933). Ogawa Jihei was also responsible for the gardens of the Heian Shrine, the Murinan Garden and Maruyama Park, where he worked with water as he did in Kounji. He restored the Kounji garden in 1927. It is a pond stroll garden with the Higashiyama hills as borrowed scenery (visitors have to view the garden from the temple, it is not possible to enter it; but as it is quite small, that is in fact a wise arrangement).

Kounji serves as the Nanzenji Zen Center and also offers Zazen sessions (English website of the head priest, Tanaka Kanju). Kounji lies just west of the southern end of the Philosopher's Path, not far from the Eikando Temple. It is only open to general visitors for a few weeks in autumn, at the end of November.
2 Dec
The twelfth month is traditionally called Shiwasu. This name is often explained as "Buddhist priests (shi) busily running around (hasu, wasu) to hold year-end Buddhist services in people's houses" - something which etymologically doesn't sound very convincing, but there seems to be no better explanation for the poetical name of the twelfth month. It is the season that the trees shed their leaves (ochiba), although - depending on the weather - the momiji can still be beautiful in early December. But winter inexorably deepens and the sunlight becomes weaker - although never as weak as in my native north-western Europe where it can remain almost dark the whole day. There are more winter showers and a cold north wind starts blowing.

One of the seasonal points is called Daisetsu, Great Snow, around the 7th or 8th of December, when winter is deemed to be starting in earnest. Fifteen days later, on the 22nd or 23rd of December falls Toji, the winter solstice, with the shortest day time and longest night time of the year. There is an old belief that taking a bath with yuzu citrus floating in it (yuzu-yu) will help one stay healthy through the cold winter. Another winter solstice custom is to eat kabocha squash.

Yuzu[Yuzu]
After November with its enjoyment of nature by way of viewing the gorgeous autumn colors, December is a rather colorless and above all busy month. The 13th of December is called Kotohajime, the Start of Preparations for the New Year, a custom originating in Edo Castle in the Edo period. The first thing to do is housecleaning (soji), not only in order to start the new year with a spic-and-span dwelling, but also as a sort of ritual cleansing of the evil that may have accumulated in the house during the year. At Nishihonganji Temple in Kyoto, Buddhist priests clean the dust away in the huge temple on December 20 in a ritual called Susuharai.

People may also be busy buying and sending out Seibo or Year-End Gifts. Oseibo are given to persons who have supported one personally or professionally during the past year and are generally of a higher value than the summer gifts (Ochugen). Usually expensive food items are bought, of course nicely packaged - many companies devise special gift sets for Oseibo. The busiest time of Oseibo shopping is from early through mid-December when the winter bonus is paid to workers of companies and government agencies.

In December, people are also kept busy with Bonenkai or Year-End Parties. These are held with colleagues or friends to forget the hardships of the past year, to thank each other and ask for continued support in the new year. Depending on the size of one's social network, some people have to attend many of these parties and as the drinking is usually quite heavy, there are a lot of people suffering from head-aches during the daytime.

Kadomatsu[Kadomatsu]
At the end of December, but before the 28th, the New Year Decorations such as Kadomatsu have to be put up by the entrance to welcome the God of the New Year (Toshigami). This has to be done early so that the deity can be welcomed in a relaxed way. Kadomatsu are placed in pairs on both sides of entrances to homes, shops, offices, etc. These consist of three diagonally cut bamboo poles of varying length, symbolizing strength and growth, and pine branches which symbolize long life, bound with a newly woven straw rope and sitting on a straw mat at the bottom. As these are very expensive, ordinary homes instead may only put up Shimekazari: a small rope made from rice straw (shimenawa), with zigzag-shaped paper strips called shide, small pine branches and a citrus fruit as the daidai to add color - these are hung above doorways, both inside and outside the house, and serve to keep bad spirits away.

Also around the 28th of December (the exact date can become earlier when it happens to be in a weekend) falls Goyo Osame, "Concluding the Year's Work," by the employees of public organizations and government agencies. In companies, this is called shigoto osame. The work of the year is formally completed, so that one can make a fresh start in the new year.

Kera-mairi, Yasaka Shrine, Kyoto[Kera-mairi - lighting the rope with the sacred fire]
Then comes December 31 or New Year's Eve, in Japan called Omisoka. People stay up late and many visit a shrine or temple at midnight to make an auspicious start of the new year. One way to spend the long evening is to watch Kohaku Utagassen, the Red vs. White Song Competition, which is broadcast live by NHK since 1951.  In the four hour long show a red (female) and white (male) team each consisting of about 25 of the most popular artists of the year compete in acts that are often the highlights of a singer's career. New Year's Eve is also the time to eat Toshikoshi Soba, buckwheat noodles, something which originally started as a simple and quick dish for merchants who were still busy settling their books on this day, but which now continues because of the expression "to live long like a soba noodle." Finally, at midnight on New Year's Eve, temple bells are rung 108 times to eliminate the 108 delusions and false attachments to which human beings are subject. This is called Joya no kane. There are many temples where visitors can join in ringing the bell. A nice custom exists in the Yasaka Shrine in Kyoto, where on New Year's Eve watch fires and toro lanterns are lit using the roots of a medicinal herb called Okera, which is believed to help cast away evil influences from the past year. This festival is called Okera-Mairi. In the past, visitors, used to take back embers from this fire to prepare the ozoni for New Year. Nowadays, visitors can buy a bamboo rope and kindle this symbolically with the herbal root fire. You have to keep swinging the rope to keep the fuse burning, and it is a nice sight to see people walking in the darkness with those small red flames - although it is now impractical to take these ropes home.

There are several other festivals in December. One, also in Kyoto, is the Kyoto Minamiza Kichirei Kaomise, or the annual Appearance of the All-Star Cast of Kabuki at the Minamiza Theater. It is a stage for actors from east and west Japan to meet each other and also a greeting by the cast to the audience, asking for their continued patronage.

December is also the month of Chushingura or the story of the Forty-seven Ronin. This tale of feudal loyalty, based on a historical incident, has inspired countless media, from kabuki and bunraku to film, theater, novels and manga. The Forty-seven Ronin refers to the 47 loyal retainers of Lord Asano of the Ako clan, led by Oishi Kuranosuke. As their revenge on Asano's rival, Kira Yoshinao, took place on a snowy night on December 14, this has become the day of the Gishisai or Festival of the Loyal Retainers at Sengakuji Temple in Tokyo - Sengakuji is the temple where they and (some years earlier) Lord Asano himself were buried after committing seppuku. On December 14, many people visit their graves and also come to watch a parade of persons dressed up as these 47 loyal retainers. (in Ako in Hyogo Prefecture, the location of the castle of Lord Asano, a similar parade is held on the same date - see my post about Ako).

Sensoji, Tokyo (Hagoita Fair)[Hagoita Market, Sensoji, Tokyo]
A more bright event are the Hagoita Markets (Hagoita Ichi) held throughout Japan from mid-December. A hagoita is a paddle used in the game called hanetsuki, a sort of badminton which in the past was a popular pastime at New Year. However, the hagoita sold at these markets today are purely ornamental - they are beautifully decorated with pasted pictures of Kabuki heroes, geisha, film/TV stars and anime characters. By far the largest and most famous Hagoita Market is held in the Sensoji Temple in Tokyo from Dec. 17 through 19.

The flower of December is the tsubaki (sancha) or camellia, an evergreen shrub with flowers that range from white via pink to deep red. Depending on the sort, tsubaki can bloom either in winter or in spring. The winter type starts blooming in October, keeps blooming during winter, and looses it flowers in spring. The flower is indigenous in China and Japan and was brought to Europe by the German botanist Engelbert Kaempfer, who called them "Japan Roses." In the 19th century it was a popular luxury flower in Europe, as appears from Dumas' La Dame aux camélias.

Tsubaki[Tsubaki]
A popular fruit of December is the yuzu, which was already mentioned above. Winter is also the time that enormous amounts of mikan, Japanese mandarins, are consumed. Typical vegetables of December are shungiku (kikuna), edible chrysanthemum leaves, which add a bitter note to stews and one-pot dishes, and of course the versatile daikon or giant white radish that is eaten boiled in various dishes. Several temples and shrines in Kyoto have days that they serve daikon-daki, boiled slices of daikon, often with abura-age, for example Daihoonji (also called Senbon Shakado, Dec. 7 & 8) or Ryotokuji (Dec. 9 & 10).

A popular fish of December, finally, is buri or yellowtail, This is an auspicious fish that has its name changed as it grows from infant to adult as though it were given a "promotion." It is also a must for the New year dinner in West Japan, and often used as a year-end gift.

30 Nov
Shishigatani is the area between the small Shirakawa River and the thickly wooded slopes of Higashiyama, just south of Ginkakuji. For centuries this shallow valley was farmer's land, interrupted only occasionally by a small temple or a country villa. But then, after WWII, the city started expanding and a wave of stucco houses swept also over Shishigatani. But with the Philosopher's path and the little, almost hidden temples - and despite the unpleasant rise in numbers of tourists - Shishigatani is still one of my favorite Kyoto haunts.

Reikanji Temple, Shishigatani, Kyoto[Reikanji temple halls on the hill slope]
Reikanji and Anrakuji both form part of this string of secluded, little temples that cling to the hillside where the slope of Higashiyama begins to get steep. They are usually closed and only open to visitors for a few weeks in spring and autumn.

***
Reikanji or "Sacred Mirror Temple" is a nunnery of the Rinzai school of Zen. It was established in 1654 for the 10th daughter of the retired Emperor Gomuzinoo, Johosshinin no Miya Socho. The new temple took over as main image the Nyoirin Kannon statue (as well as sacred mirror) of a temple in the area that had been closed.

Until the Meiji Restoration, Reikanji served as a monzeki monastery that always had an imperial princess for its abbess. The Shoin, the first building one passes, possesses screens by Kano Motonobu. Opposite is a small moss-covered rock garden with old stone lanterns and a pond which used to contain water, but now stands dry. On a somewhat higher level and connected via a corridor, stands the main hall housing the small Kannon statue.

Reikanji Temple, Shishigatani, Kyoto[Maple leaves at Reikanji]
The garden spreads out over the hill and the one-way path leads first steeply up, and later again down, through flowering bushes and trees. The flowering trees in the northern part of the garden include red and white camellias, plums and cherries. It is a fine, though small, garden. One exits via a path that leads under the corridor between the two temple buildings and finally can enter the Shoin, where usually some treasures of the temple are exhibited. These include fine makie lacquer work, and infallibly one also finds some of the marvelous dolls the princesses owned (like the Imperial nuns of Hokyoji). The temple is only open to visitors for a few weeks in spring (early April), when the cherry trees are in full bloom, and autumn (late November) when the maple trees are on fire.

***
Anrakuji is a Jodo (Pure Land) temple that legend has firmly linked to Honen (1133-1212), the founder of that school, and two of his disciples, Anraku and Juren. It was probably founded around 1211-1212, to the memory of both these priests, although it was only named after one of them. It stands about one kilometer from the spot where Anraku and Juren had set up their cottage called "Shishigatani Soan." Both priests were experts in shomyo, Buddhist chanting, and their beautiful singsong had attracted many followers. Among them were also two court ladies of Emperor Gotoba, Matsumushi-hime (Pine Beetle) and Suzumushi-hime (Bell Cricket). They were so entranced by the teachings of the musical priests that they fled the palace and became nuns. Legend adds as spicy elements that the Emperor was especially fond of them and that the other palace ladies had become extremely jealous.

Anrakuji Temple, Shishigatani, Kyoto[Main Hall of Anrakuji]
So the rumor machine worked at full speed, suggesting that the intentions of Anraku and Juren were not honorable. The handsome priests were accused of having a love affair with the beautiful palace ladies. As a result, Emperor Gotoba - who had already for a long time been pronged by the traditional schools to put a stop to the teachings of Honen - became furious and exiled the aged Honen. Anraku and Juren were hit by a harder fate, for they were executed on the bank of the Kamo River on a charge of immorality. The grounds of Anrakuji contain the small graves of Anraku and Juren, and - chastely in a different spot - those of the palace ladies, who became nuns and died at a later time.

The grounds of Anrakuji are well-planted and have fine camellia trees. The graves are to the right (Anraku/Juren) and far right (at the back) of the entrance path; the path leading to the main hall, standing to the left, crosses this at a right angle. Both sets of graves are surrounded by low fences.

Anrakuji Temple, Shishigatani, Kyoto[Anrakuji - The graves of the two court ladies]
The present main hall dates from the late 16th century. The central trinity in this hall of Amida, Kannon and Seishi, has been ascribed to Eshin (942-1017). The altar also contains an ancient Jizo statue. To the left of the main altar stands a smaller altar with a statue of Honen and his most important follower, Shinran. Here one also finds a walking stick and hat said to have belonged to Shinran, but both look suspiciously newer. A right-hand altar contains the images of Anraku, Juren, Matsumushi-hime and Suzumushi-hime. The court ladies are depicted as nuns.

Connected to the main hall is a shoin type building, which has a nice garden with azalea bushes on its east side, against the green background of the Higashiyama hills. One can sit down here and relax. Anrakuji is filled with peace.

Anrakuji Temple, Shishigatani, Kyoto [Anrakuji - the Shoin garden with clipped azalea bushes]


26 Nov
Okichi Sanso is a mountain villa, laid out on the sides and top of a steep hill next to Kameyama Park in Arashiyama. It affords grand views over both the city of Kyoto (towards the Higashiyama range) and over the gorge of the Hozu River. There are evergreen pine trees, but also maple trees and cherry trees which dress the garden in the color of the season. There are also several buildings, such as a shrine, a tea house and a private residence in traditional style, but these are not open to the public.

Okochi Sanso, Arashiyama, Kyoto[Okochi Sanso - the lawn in front of the main house with a gorgeous Ginkgo tree]
Okochi Sanso is named after the man who constructed house and garden: Okochi Denjiro (real name Obe Masuo; 1898-1962), one of Japan's most famous film actors. Okochi's career started in 1926 with silent films, and he mostly - though not exclusively - acted in period films (jidaigeki). He worked with directors as Kurosawa Akira, Ito Daisuke, Yamanaka Sadao, Kinugasa Teinosuke, Inagaki Hiroshi and Makino Masahiro, and played next to famous stars as Bando Tsumasaburo, Kataoka Chiezo, Shimura Takashi and Hara Setsuko.

Okochi Sanso, Arashiyama, Kyoto[Okochi Sanso - the main house called Daijokaku]
Among Okochi's famous films are The Million Ryo Pot (Tange Sazen Yowa: Hyakuman Ryo no Tsubo), a jidaigeki comedy made in 1935 by Yamanaka Sadao; and Sugata Sanshiro (1943), The Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail (Tora no O wo Fumu Otokotachi, 1945) and No Regrets for Our Youth (Waga seishun ni kuinashi, 1946), all by Kurosawa Akira. His most famous genre roles in period film were that of the wandering gambler Kunisada Chuji and the nihilistic ronin Tange Sazen, who has lost his right eye and right arm due to betrayal. In non-period films (made during the Occupation after WWII, when jidaigeki were forbidden), he usually depicts a traditional, overbearing father.

Okochi Sanso, Arashiyama, Kyoto[Okochi Sanso - Mossy garden next to the Tekisuian tea house]
The 20 thousand square meter garden was constructed over a period of 30 years. The main structures, such as the Daijokaku main house and Tekisuian tea house were built in the 1930s and 1940s; only the Jibutsudo Buddhist shrine dates from the Meiji period and was brought here from elsewhere. This unique garden has only few flat spaces - the largest one is in front of the main house, where visitors can sit down on benches and enjoy the view over Kyoto. Another one is close to the entrance, where there is a restaurant serving the cup of green tea and a sweet included in the (somewhat higher than usual) entrance fee. There is also a mossy garden next to the exquisite Tekisuian tea house. But for the rest this garden consists of narrow paths running steeply up or down the hill, all with one-way traffic - to see the garden, one has to do quite a lot of climbing. At the top of the hill is a viewpoint affording a view of the Hozu River gorge and Daihikaku Temple on the opposite hillside - but the view over the same river gorge from nearby Kameyama Park is better, as that allows a broader and more open view of the valley.

Okochi Sanso, Arashiyama, Kyoto[Okochi Sanso - the view towards Kyoto]
As a bonus there is a small outdoor museum with pictures of Okochi Denjiro in various film roles; but unfortunately for foreign visitors, no effort at translation has been made here. The garden is open around the year and although one has to do some effort to see it, the reward for that is a rich seasonal feeling.
24 Nov
A few weeks ago, when the leafs on the trees were just starting to show some color, I visited two beautiful gardens in Kyoto's Arashiyama: the garden of Hogonin temple and the garden of the Okochi Sanso (Mountain Villa). Here follows first Hogonin.

Hogonin is one of the subtemples of Tenryuji, the Rinzai Zen temple that sits in a central position in Arashiyama, Kyoto. Hogonin was originally founded in the 15th century in central Kyoto, suffered several times destruction, then was restored in the grounds of Kogenji, another subtemple of Tenryuji, before being set up in the present independent location - a spot where originally another subtemple of Tenryuji had stood which was closed down. After that, during a spat of fighting with rebellious Satsuma forces in 1877, Hogonin's buildings were again destroyed, together with those of Tenryuji. In other words, the present buildings of the temple were all reconstructed in the 20th century, and you come here not for the architecture, but for the garden.

Hogonin, Kyoto[Hogonin garden with large rock shaped like a Shishi lion]
That garden, which predates Hogonin, is ascribed to a disciple of Muso Soseki, the famous priest credited with the creation of the great Tenryuji garden. But as far as I can see, there is no proof for that ascription. We only know for certain that the garden did exist in the Edo-period, as it is mentioned in travelogues of the 18th century (such as the Miyako Rinsen Meisho Zukan or Guidebook to the Gardens of Miyako dating from 1799). The name of the garden is "Shishiku," which means "Lion's Roar" - an image of the preaching of the historical Buddha, Sakyamuni (in modern Japanese it also means "making an impassioned speech").

The garden is usually described as a "shakkei kaiyushiki teien," a "circuit stroll garden (often centered on a pond, but not here) that incorporates the surrounding scenery into its design." This is also called "borrowed scenery" (shakkei), but gardens with borrowed scenery usually have a framing device through which the borrowed scenery is viewed - as Mt Hiei seen through a frame of strategically placed trees in the case of the Entsuji garden. That is not the case here and as the Arashiyama hill serves more as a diffuse background and continuation of the tall trees in the Hogonin garden itself, I doubt whether it formally could be called a "borrowed scenery garden."

Hogonin, Kyoto[Arashiyama seen through the trees of Hogonin]
That does not make the garden less interesting, on the contrary: this is an enclosed "forest garden" (my term, not a traditional one!) with tall Japanese maple trees (iroha momiji), various varieties of moss, and several colossal rocks. In one place, a pine tree grows from a rock, having split the stone in two. The garden almost seems to be natural, but of course is carefully tended. The moss is so beautiful that Hogonin is a good alternative to the so-called Moss Garden Temple (Kokedera) elsewhere in Arashiyama, which restricts visitors by a super-high entrance fee and compulsory sutra copying. The rocks in Hogonin must have been eroded in the past by the nearby Oi River - thanks to the human "Rorschach fallacy," one of them looks indeed like the Shishi lion that gives the garden its name.

What makes this garden interesting is the natural atmosphere - the murmuring of a small stream that flows through it, the bird calls, the rustling of the leaves, these are all like "wordless preaching." There are some benches where visitors can sit down to enjoy the peaceful atmosphere. Adding to the rustic character are several interesting bamboo fences, one made with bamboo branches (not poles) packed tightly together (takeho-gaki); there is also an unusual hanging bamboo gate as used in tea ceremony gardens, made from strips of bamboo woven into a diamond pattern (shiorido). Although these elements are newly made by the gardeners, they wonderfully fit the garden. The only element that I could do without is the small "themed garden" that has been laid out near the entrance and that shows the Buddhist River Styx (made with large, round stones), with a boat-stone to pass to the "other side (higan) where three large upright stones symbolizing the Amida trinity wait - this is just too artificial.

Hogonin, Kyoto[Maple leaf on the moss]
For an extra fee, one can have matcha in the tea house in the garden; and for another extra fee it is also possible to enter the main hall and see the screens by contemporary painter Tamura Noriko - but for me, the garden with its beginning autumn colors was more than sufficient. As an added bonus there is a cute set of arhats (rakan) called the "Arashiyama Rakan" sitting outside, opposite the gate of Hogonji. It is good this fine temple is nowadays open (something which only started recently), if only for a few weeks in spring and in autumn.



4 Nov
November is traditionally called Shimotsuki, or “Month of Frost.” It is the time that temperatures get lower and days shorter - one week into November the seasonal turning point of Ritto comes along and actual winter is deemed to start.

But November is in fact a most beautiful month as it is the time of momiji (maple leaves). Although less well-known outside Japan than cherry blossoms, in Japan the koyo or colored leaves of autumn are just as big an event. Like hanami or blossom viewing, momijigari ("hunting for colored maple leaves") draws huge crowds. Not only the famed "sakura zensen," but also the "koyo zensen" or "front map of autumn colors" is heavily reported, from TV to magazines and internet. Based on the information given by the media, people plan day trips or short holidays to enjoy the fall colors. In the past, the beauty of autumn leaves was eulogized in poems and paintings. In the Heian-period, aristocrats would enjoy lavish banquets under the autumn leaves, gathering the fallen leaves, and writing poetry.

Autumn in Kiyomizu Temple, 2008
November is also characterized by several interesting public holidays and other events. November 3 is Culture day, when the Emperor awards the Order of Culture to people of outstanding achievement in the fields of science, art or culture. There are also many art festivals and cultural activities nationwide. Museums have special exhibitions, such as the annual Shosoin Exhibition of priceless treasures and household goods once belonging to the 8th century Emperor Shomu held around this time at the Nara National Museum. There are also special temple openings in Kyoto, which are normally closed to the public, such as of subtemples of Daitokuji (these seasonal openings are nowadays held - depending on the temple - somewhere between late October and early December).

November 15 is a good day to visit a Shinto Shrine, as this is Shichi-Go-San (Children's Shrine Visiting Day), the "seven-five-three" festival when parents with boys of five, girls of seven and either boys and girls of three dress their children in gay clothes and take them to shrines where they pray for their children's future. These three numbers were chosen since odd numbers are considered lucky and also go back to old dress customs.

Tori-no-ichi or "Cock Market" is held in the Otori Shrine in the Taito Ward of Tokyo on the two or three days of the cock falling in November according to the old calendar. It is nowadays held for success in business and among the lucky items for sale are kumade or bamboo rakes, to rake in good fortune.

On November 22 and 23 (a public holiday as this is Labor Thanksgiving Day) at the Sukunahiko Shrine in Osaka the annual Shinnosai is held. This small shrine in the pharmaceutical district is dedicated to the Chinese and Japanese gods of Medicine and on the festival days it is customary to purchase a toy tiger (hariko) as a prayer for good health (see my post about the Sukunahiko Shrine and Doshomachi).

Although the weather in November is generally good, in early November (or sometimes already in late October) a cold wintry wind coming from the northwest called Kogarashi blows - “Kogarashi” is literally the wind that sears the leaves of the trees. The first such withering blast is called “Kogarashi Ichigo.” Early and mid-winter are also the season of Shigure, rain showers. These showers occur after the sky suddenly clouds over, but they pass quickly. Shimoyo is the name for nights when the stars are bright in the sky and there is a blanket of frost on the ground. November actually knows also many beautiful, clear days and these are known as Koharu(-bi), or “Little Spring” as the weather can be quite balmy.

As foods go, November is the season that kaki or oysters come to market, which are cultivated on a large scale, for example in Hiroshima. They are eaten raw, fried, cooked in hotpot or mixed through rice (kakimeshi). Another wintry seafood that starts being sold in November are large crabs from the coast of the Sea of Japan called zuwaigani. They are served in various forms, as sashimi and tempura, or just with some vinegar. It is also the season of ginnan or gingko nuts, from the prehistoric Gingko tree, which have a subtle taste and are eaten skewered, grilled or in chawan mushi.

Bessho Onsen 2004
As fruit goes, in November the season of kaki or persimmons starts. This autumn fruit rich in Vitamin C is either eaten raw or dried (hoshigaki); persimmons in Japan are usually sweet but there are also astringent varieties. Dried persimmons also form part of the New Year decoration. The orange kaki fruits hanging on the trees or after plucking strung under the eaves of farm houses are a beautiful sight in the Japanese countryside.

In the tea ceremony, finally, from November starts the use of the sunken hearth (ro), instead of the portable stove which is used in summer.

3 Nov
Culture Day (Bunka no Hi) on November 3 is originally the holiday dedicated to the Emperor Meiji, whose birthday according to the Lunar Calendar fell around this date. Before the war, people would gather at shrines throughout the country and bow in the direction of the Imperial Palace. Under the postwar constitution the day was rechristened as "Culture Day", as after all autumn is a time for cultural pursuits. Moreover, on this day in 1946, the new constitution was officially announced.

Meiji Shrine[Meiji Shrine, Tokyo]
On November 3 the Emperor awards the Order of Culture to people of outstanding achievement in the fields of science, art or culture. The Emperor presents the awards (shaped as a mandarin orange blossom with purple cord; the mandarin orange was planted in the palace courtyard since Heian times and symbolizes eternity - in this way the timelessness of culture is expressed) during a ceremony held in the palace. There are also many art festivals and cultural activities nationwide, where lesser awards are given by all kinds of organisations.

The best news: it is always sunny weather on November 3, at least in Tokyo or Kyoto, so it is a great day to go out! Some suggestions:

- In Tokyo, visit the Meiji Shrine for the last day of the Shrine's Festival (held from Oct. 29 to Nov 3). Various activities are held, including yabusame (archery on horseback) and other demonstrations of martial arts.

- In Nara, visit the National Museum to see the Annual Exhibition of Shosoin Treasures. These are 650 items, all personal belongings of Emperor Shomu, given to the Great Buddha of Todaiji by his widow, the Empress Komyo in the 8th century. Among the priceless treasures are many Persian and Chinese items that reached Japan via the Silk Road. Carefully kept under lock by Todaiji for many centuries, the Shosoin is now under the care of the Imperial Household Agency. The annual exhibition shows a limited number of items, usually for about 3 weeks from the last week of October. See the webpage of the Museum for details.

- In Hakone, go and see the Daimyo Procession in Hakone Yumoto (and while you are there, have a look at Sounji Temple).

- Go out into nature to view the maple leaves (momiji-gari). In the city it is still to early (both Tokyo and Kyoto have the best leaves from the middle of November on), but if you travel to Nikko or Hakone you will be greeted already by a carpet of red and yellow. In the Kansai, Koyosan should be beautiful around this time.
2 Nov
This year even Japanese television, NHK, was excited. Perhaps they really thought that, after the triple Nobel Prize in Chemistry, Japan would also get the Nobel in Literature in the person of popular author Murakami Haruki. The result was, of course, disappointment among Murakami's worldwide fan base. What surprised me, however, was not that Murakami again missed this prestigious prize. I was instead amazed that so many readers seriously believed Murakami could ever win the Nobel. That has nothing to do with whether Murakami is a good writer or not (although in my view he doesn't measure up to true Japanese giants as Soseki, Ogai, Akutagawa, Kafu, Tanizaki, Kawabata, Abe and Oe), - there are after all many excellent authors who never received the Nobel - it is simply for the objective reason that he doesn't fit the profile for the coveted prize.

Before we look at that profile, we first have to realize that the Nobel Prizes for Literature, Economics and Peace are very different from the Nobels for Physics, Chemistry and Medicine. While those last three are "hard" sciences, where one can determine rather objectively how important a certain discovery has been (for example, because it has given rise to a whole new field of subsequent research), the prizes for literature, economics and peace are determined by ideology, by ideas. Should a market economy be controlled by a strict market master or should it be completely free? Should a country always invest in times of economic downturn, even if it already has a large debt, or should it be frugal and first clear-up that debt? These are all ideological choices, not science based facts. Even more so in the case of literature, where there are many different tastes and ideas about what constitutes great literature. So according to what general standard does the Nobel Committee make its literary choices? What is the profile of winning authors?

In accordance with the wishes of the founder of the prize, the Nobel Prize Committee makes its selection from a certain standard about what great literature should be. The standard has varied a bit since the prize was first awarded in 1901, but since WWII it is - just like the dominant culture in Europe - basically liberal and humanist, affirming the value of human life, emphasizing originality and autonomy, as well as addressing moral ambiguities and individual struggles with conscience. It is often engaged with the larger issues of society, without getting too overtly political; and it may be geared a little towards the left, again as is normal among European intellectuals. But the choice is always for individual human beings and their freedom, and not for ideology. As regards style, prizewinning authors are generally characterized by a complex and mature literary expression, without becoming too consciously artistic or turning into modernist fireworks.

By its selection, the prestigious Nobel institution sets up a standard of what according to them constitutes great, serious literature and then propagates that as the universal standard. In doing so, they often put the spotlight on authors who have unjustly remained somewhat in the shadows. This means of course that the Nobel Committee is not at all interested in how many fans a certain author has or who stands highest in the betting pools. The Nobel prize is not a popularity contest, but an informed and deliberate choice.

It will be clear this is not a profile into which Murakami Haruki easily fits. Take his contents, which are often said to have a rather narrow focus (with as possible exception his best novel, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle), being mostly centered on the boredom and loneliness of young persons or others who seem to have never matured out of adolescence. He mixes in a generous amount of magic-realist elements, which is not wrong in itself (see Nobel winner Garcia Marquez) as long as it stays playful and ironic - Murakami's problem seems to be that, at least since Kafka on the Shore, he has started taking these supernatural intrusions too seriously. On the other hand, we don't find any struggles with conscience or moral problems in his novels - this in sharp contrast to this year's Nobel winner, Patrick Modiano, who writes about "the tyranny of memory of the Holocaust and Nazi occupation"and received the prize for “the art of memory with which he has evoked the most ungraspable human destinies and uncovered the life-world of the occupation.”

It is also often said that Murakami is not improving with the years, on the contrary: a recent novel as 1Q84 is mostly judged as rather superficial and two-dimensional. So there seems to be a general down-ward trend in his work since The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.

And as regards the style of writing, Murakami's prose is rather bland and wooden - something which is not the fault of his translators, for it is the same in Japanese. Although that alone should not be an obstacle to getting the Nobel, it doesn't help, either.

But what does it all matter? Why would Murakami need a Nobel prize, except for reasons of (national) prestige or fan-base self-satisfaction? He is already a million seller. Countless readers are enjoying his books and - Nobel or no Nobel - will continue doing so... are prizes really relevant?

P.S.1 I like Murakami's early novels as A Wild Sheep Chase and especially his short stories best - I believe that is where his talent mainly lies. P.S.2 It is often stated that the Nobel Prize in the course of the 20th c., and especially at its beginning, missed a lot of great authors. That is true, but it is not the intention of the Nobel Committee to include all great authors from the world (that is over-estimating the value of the Nobel Prize!) - it would also be impossible with only one prize a year. What they want to do is much more modest: just ask attention for some of the authors who match their standard about what great literature should be. And of course everyone is free to disagree with that standard...P.S.3 And who knows, next year the Nobel Committee changes its standard and Murakami wins after all. In that case I will be glad I put the word "probably" in my title... 
17 Oct
Matsuo Basho made frequent visits to Kyoto, but today only two physical monuments remain: The “Hut of Fallen Persimmons” in western Kyoto, owned by his haiku disciple Kyorai, where Basho wrote his Saga Diary, and the “Basho Hut” on the flank of the eastern mountains set up by enthusiastic follower Buson to commemorate the haiku master.

West: The “Hut of Fallen Persimmons” 
To the west of Kyoto lie the scenic areas Arashiyama and Sagano. They were already popular with aristocrats of the Heian-period, who came here for outings or built their summer villas among the bamboo groves. Since the 17th century, the Hozugawa River at Arashiyama has been spanned by the Togetsukyo bridge, making traffic easier. Not far from the bridge stands the Tenryuji Temple with its famous landscape garden. In Sagano one also finds such temples as Daikakuji, a former imperial villa, Nisonin, where Fujiwara Teika compiled the tanka anthology A Hundred Poems by a Hundred Poets, and Seiryoji with its exotic Shaka statue.

Basho's student Kyorai owned a cottage here, which bore the poetic name of “Hut of Fallen Persimmons” (Rakushisha). Mukai Kyorai (1651 - 1704) was one of Basho’s major disciples. The son of a wealthy physician from Nagasaki, and well-to-do himself, he was able to play host to Basho and other haiku poets when they visited Kyoto. His poetry faithfully observes the principles of Basho and the Master even said he was “in charge of haiku in Western Japan” (Basho himself lived in Edo, in the East).

Rakushisha, Kyoto[Rakushisha, Kyoto]
Here is the story how the cottage received its remarkable name. Kyorai had about 40 persimmon trees in the garden of his Saga cottage. In autumn, their fruit had ripened to a shiny orange. Too much to eat on his own, Kyorai sold his persimmons. However, the night of the day before the fruit was going to be picked, a gale blew over the Arashiyama area - a name that itself means 'Stormy Mountain' and presumably was given for good reasons! All the fruit was destroyed and Kyorai had to pay back the advance money he had received from the merchant. The loss of the persimmons was seen by Kyorai as a humorous lesson not to strive after worldly gain. On top of that, it led to a Satori experience: through the branches of the trees, now bare, Kyorai had an excellent view of Arashiyama. He saw the mountain in a way he had never seen it before. The storm and Stormy Mountain proved not to be unconnected. Here is the haiku he wrote about it:
“master of persimmons” -
so close to the tree tops
Stormy Mountain 
Basho visited Rakushisha three times: in 1689, 1691 and again in 1694, a few months before his death. During his second visit, which took place during the months April and May, he wrote the Saga Nikki or “Saga Diary.” In contrast to Basho's usual travel accounts, this is a real diary, with exact dates, about his fifteen day sojourn in the Rakushisha. Apparently, it was a pleasant and relaxed stay, interspersed with boating on the nearby river, as well as temple visits. Almost every day, local disciples and others came to visit Basho. In between, the poet did a lot of reading - he mentions the books he brought with him, such as the works of the Tang-poet Bai Juyi and the Tale of Genji.

Rakushisha, Kyoto[Rakushisha, Kyoto]
The cottage is still there, not far from the foot of Mr. Ogura where the Niosonin Temple stands, and right next to the Hinoyashiro, the tomb site of an imperial princess, daughter of Emperor Saga (8th c.). Or, I should rather say that the cottage is there again, because the original dwelling fell into ruin after Kyorai’s death. In the late eighteenth century, Basho followers bought the present site and erected a structure that is thought to resemble Kyorai's original dwelling. It indeed serves eminently to recall the past atmosphere of haiku-gatherings in the beautiful surroundings of Sagano. The bamboo hat and straw raincoat hanging in the wall of the cottage used to indicate that the occupant was at home.

Today, Rakushisha is a tasteful monument to Kyorai and Basho. Besides tourists, Basho fans and haiku enthusiasts come here, with a reverent look on their faces, some silently mumbling haiku. The most famous haiku Basho himself wrote here is:
summer rain
on the wall traces
of torn poem cards
Basho wrote this poem when he was about to leave Rakushisha. Having enjoyed the serene life in the countryside of Sagano and feeling sorry to leave, the poet wanders around the rooms. The rains mentioned in the haiku are the rains of the rainy season, when the monsoon from the south brings weeks of damp and wet weather. The “poem cards” are shikishi, square pieces of cardboard on which one could write a haiku, but could also paint a picture. They were glued to the walls and are a reminder of haiku sessions Basho has held with his visitors in the “Hut of Fallen Persimmons.” The fact that they are peeling, in some cases only leaving traces (perhaps caused by the damp weather) is a fitting symbol for the fact that Basho's “session” in Rakushisha is over: he has to “peel” himself loose, too!


East: the Basho Hut in Konpukuji Temple 
The other Basho spot lies right at the other side of Kyoto, in the northern part of the Eastern Hills. Konpukuji (“Temple of Golden Bliss”) stands close to Shisendo, in a quiet area which until not too long ago was countryside. It was founded in the second half of the 9th century by the priest Enchin, who enshrined a Kannon statue here. Later the temple fell into ruins until it was rebuilt in the 17th century by a priest called Tesshu. At that time it also became a Rinzai Zen temple. It is just a small temple, consisting of only one modest hall, but it is famous among haiku lovers for the Basho Hut (Basho-an) that stands on the low hillside at its back.

Ironically, it is not certain Basho ever really came here. It is a mere tradition that, during one of his many visits to Kyoto, he spent some time in a small cottage in the grounds of Konpukuji, and the above-mentioned priest Tesshu therefore gave that humble dwelling the name "Basho-an." The cottage had fallen into ruins when Japan's second great haiku master, Buson (1716-1784), paid a visit here in 1760. In 1776 he started to rebuild it, with the aid of the then priest, Shoso, a work that was only finished in 1781.

Konpukuji, Kyoto[Konpukuji, Kyoto]
From 1776 on, Buson would regularly come here in spring and autumn with his disciples to hold haiku sessions. Buson also wrote a haibun about the hut, called “A Record on the Restoration of the Basho Hut in Eastern Kyoto.” He expresses his longing for this “deeply hidden place,” “where green moss has covered all traces of footsteps,” but that at the same time is not completely cut off from the world, as one can hear dogs barking across the fence, and even buy tofu nearby. There is an echo here from Basho's Genju-an, a haibun about a hut near Ishiyama at Lake Biwa where Basho lived for a few months after his trip along the “Narrow Road.” At that time, Buson was already famous as both a painter and a poet.

The cottage (even today still looking very new, so probably many times restored) stands on the hill at the back of Konpukuji. It sports a straw roof and is in fact quite spacious. It is a warm and sunny place, with dense vegetation even in winter. Beside the Basho Hut stands a stone monument dedicated to Basho, carrying an inscription that relates his life. This stele was also put up by Buson. Higher up the hill is a cluster of graves, with the main one that of Buson himself. Buson loved the place so much, that he asked to be buried here, at the side of the Basho monument, near the Basho-an in Konpukuji, a wish that was respected by his disciples.
when dead let me lie
next to my Basho stone
withered pampas grass

How to get to Rakushisha: 10 min. on foot from Arashiyama Station on the Keifuku Dentetsu Line.
How to get to Konpukuji: 10 min walk from Ichijo-Sagarimatsu-cho bus stop (bus 5 from Kyoto St). (Closed 1/16-31 and 8/5-20)
16 Oct
A Portrait of Shunkin (Shunkinsho) is the most celebrated novella by Japan's greatest 20th century author, Tanizaki Junichiro, and like The Bridge of Dreams it is a story of an ideal world that is artificially (even monstrously) kept intact. The story is set in Doshomachi, the pharmaceutical district of Osaka (see my post about this area) and tells about Shunkin, the daughter of a pharmaceutical dealer and her servant / pupil Sasuke. Despite its dramatic character, the story is told in a classical, distanced manner, and is written in an almost hypnotically beautiful prose style (with very little punctuation as in classical Japanese). By the way, this use of a classical style was not a "return to traditional Japan" by Tanizaki, as is often asserted, but rather a Modernistic stylistic device used to give an impression of authenticity to the story.

[Tanizaki in 1913]
The tale is told by an unnamed antiquarian (living around the time the story was written, so the early 1930s) who has obtained a copy of a biography of Shunkin who lived in the late Edo to early Meiji periods (her life is given as from 1829 to 1886). This biography, which is rather a hagiography so that the narrator also warns against trusting it too much, is the main source of the story; the narrator either retells it (adding his own thoughts) or quotes it directly ("sho" in the Japanese title Shunkinsho is not a portrait, but a commentary on a text, and that is exactly what the narrator provides); to this he appends the personal remembrances of an old servant of Shunkin and Sasuke, obtained via an interview, as well as a brief account of a visit to their graves, sitting next to each other in a temple in Osaka. Shunkin's grave is larger, as Sasuke even after he became a great master on the shamisen himself, always treated her as his teacher. All these narratives are in a different register: the biography is in the classical style used in the 19th century, the servant speaks in Osaka dialect, etc., - subtleties which are difficult to bring out in translation.

Besides using different registers, Tanizaki also uses the in Japan all-important titles deftly: Sasuke does not allow his own pupils to call him "Master" (oshisosan) because that is his designation for Shunkin; the narrator, however, refers to him as "Kengyo," the most exalted, official title for a shamisen master and one that Shunkin never attained.

Sasuke, who was four years older than Shunkin, became her special servant when she was eight (just after she had become blind due to an infection) and he was twelve. Musicians were often blind people in traditional Japan, and as Shunkin was already interested in music, she now became a dedicated player of the koto and the shamisen. It was Sasuke's task to take the blind girl everyday to her music lessons.

Sasuke is very devoted to the meek and gentle-looking Shunkin and also develops an interest in music. He practices the shamisen secretly at night, sitting in a cupboard, and when that is discovered and he proves to have talent, it is decided that Shunkin will become his official teacher. Shunkin is a very strict and even cruel teacher for Sasuke, but he is totally devoted to her, even masochistically, in both his subservient roles. He follows her like a shadow and even ministers to her in the toilet ("she never has to wash her hands afterward"), something glossed over in the prudish English translation. When, after finishing her own studies, she sets up shop as an independent teacher, Sasuke accompanies her and starts living with her. That their relation secretly must encompass something more, becomes clear when the unmarried Shunkin has a baby, although both refuse to confess who is the father (the baby is immediately sent away for adoption).

Shunkin is nor only very beautiful, she also has a vivid character, and therefore she is a popular guest at social gatherings. But then - in the year she is 36 and Sasuke 40 - a terrible accident happens: at night, someone - probably a thief who panicked, or a pupil with a grudge - throws scalding hot water in her face which as a result is disfigured by scars. Sasuke says he can't endure looking at her destroyed countenance and therefore blinds himself by pricking with a needle through the pupils of both his eyes. Now he shares the same world as his beloved Shunkin. He remains her dedicated servant and even continues calling himself her pupil, although he has by now become a master on the shamisen in his own right. The apogee of sadomasochistic devotion!


Osaka, Doshomachi[Detail of a monument in the grounds of the Sukunahikona Shrine
in Osaka's Doshomachi district, dedicated to Shunkinsho.
It shows the beginning of Tanizaki's manuscript.]
That is the story, as a casual reader will pick it up. But there are always many false bottoms in Tanizaki's literature, especially here. In the first place we have to note that the story has several layers of unreliability:

- As the narrator, a sort of local historian, notes, the Life of Mozuya Shunkin, the biography which is his main source for the story he tells us, is rather unreliable. It displays strong hagiographic tendencies, and on top of that the person who is praised most is not Shunkin, but rather Sasuke who is always presented as an example of the highest and most self-sacrificing devotion (note that Sasuke was the one who had The Life compiled). In other words, it is more "A Portrait of Sasuke" than of Shunkin...
- But also the narrator is not objective, and he, too, is on the side of Sasuke - note that after Shunkin's death, Sasuke became a much more famous musician than Shunkin had ever been, and the narrator may have been influenced by Sasuke's greater renown,
- The only other source is a maid who served Shunkin and Sasuke later in life - obviously, this maid was not present during the crucial events that took place earlier in the lives of the two artists.

Faced with so many uncertainties, we should ask ourselves if everything we read is true:

- Was Sasuke really unselfishly devoted to Shunkin?
- Was Shunkin really exceptionally cruel to Sasuke (note that teacher-pupil relations in the arts and crafts in traditional Japan - and even occasionally today - contain a certain amount of, if not outright cruelty, at least harshness)?
- Remember that when Sasuke became Shunkin's servant, he was twelve and she eight; although girls are earlier ripe than boys, with such an early age difference, initially Sasuke most have been more dominant.
- Considering their formal relation, how could Sasuke be the father of Shunkin's child, if he was not in a controlling position (he is the only one who can be considered, as Shunkin led a secluded life and had no other, private contacts)?
- Who threw the hot water in Shunkin's face? The story about a thief or pupil with a grudge looks very weak, intruders usually don't have the leisure to boil a kettle of water...

Here follows the most probably explanation, based on The Secret Window, Ideal Worlds in Tanizaki's Fiction (Harvard, 1994) by Anthony Hood Chambers:

Sasuke must have been the one who dominated Shunkin, instead of being controlled himself by a cruel and sadistic mistress. Outwardly, he played the servant and pupil who was masochistically dedicated to his mistress, but behind the scenes he, the older one, pulled the strings. When we follow these lines, Sasuke becomes rather repugnant, for wasn't Shunkin in that case little more than his sexual playmate whom he had completely in his power? More monstrous is that Sasuke himself may have been the one who threw the scalding hot water in Shunkin's face, to destroy her beauty out of jealousy, because he didn't want to share her with others at parties and gatherings, where she was admired for her beauty and where he was pestered and lost control over her. Destroying her beauty meant that she could not go out anymore and he would again have her completely in his power. By blinding himself and so for outsiders (and Shunkin) playing the perfectly devoted servant - and perhaps also on an unconscious level doing penance for his crime -, he finalized and stabilized his control over her. However warped it was, Sasuke had created a sort of private "ideal world."

The meaning we thus discover in the story is the opposite of what it seemed at first sight. As Anthony Hood Chambers puts it in The Secret Window: "Sasuke has molded a woman to dominate his fantasy life as his "ideal woman," and when he has maneuvered her right to where he wants her, he throws himself at her feet. When she has outlived her usefulness, he creates an idealized mental image to replace her." Instead of a masochistic slave, controlled by Shunkin, Sasuke was himself the sadistic keeper and even gaoler of Shunkin.

One passage of the story indeed gives a strong hint of Shunkin as Sasuke's prisoner. Shunkin liked to keep birds, nightingales and larks, and these captivated song birds are indeed an apt symbol for her own position as a musician who was the prisoner of Sasuke. Once, when one of her larks flew up to the clouds and didn't return, she seemed to follow his flight into the free azure longingly with her blind eyes...




4 Sep
Tanizaki Junichiro wrote several top class novellas, such as The Reed-cutter (Ashikari), Arrowroot (Yoshino-kuzu) and A Portrait of Shunkin (Shunkinsho), but my favorite is The Bridge of Dreams, although also for an extra-literary reason: it is set in Shimogamo, a beautiful area in Kyoto where I lived in the 1980s. Tanizaki himself had lived next to the Shimogamo Shrine from 1949 to 1956 - his residence was called Sekisontei and he used this as the basis for the house and garden in The Bridge of Dreams. In this story, published in 1959, two of Tanizaki's major obsessions are perfectly united: the search for a lost traditional Japan and the search for a lost mother, who combines the maternal with the seductive.

This is also what the title points at: the "(Floating) Bridge of Dreams" is the name of the final chapter of the Genji Monogatari, and here meant as a reference to the whole novel, which starts with the affair the protagonist has with his stepmother Fujitsubo. And the title is of course also a metaphor for the dreamlike quality of life and of the world of love.

Shimogamo New Year 2007[Bridge in the Shimogamo Shrine, Kyoto]
The story is set in the womb-like enclosed environment of a traditional house and garden where three people live: a father, his wife Chinu and their young son Tadasu (named after the forest of the Shimogamo Shrine). It is an isolated but perfect world, the ideal retreat, full of literary and historical allusions, on which the story is wholly focused - daily activities that fall outside this estate are usually not mentioned. The garden stands deep in a grove and is far removed from the dusty world. You reach it, of course, by crossing a narrow stone bridge.

Here Tadasu lives in the warmth and security of his mother's embrace, a dim, white world:
"The mingled scents of her hair and milk hovered there in her bosom, around my face. As dark as it was, I could still dimly see her white breasts. She would sing while I drifted off into a peaceful sleep, still clutching her breasts and running my tongue around her nipples. Gradually I would slip into the world of dreams."By the way, the most conspicuous image of the pond garden is the water mortar, a bamboo tube that fills with water from a small stream where the father (and after growing up also Tadasu) used to cool his beer. When the pipe is full, it tips of its own weight and hits a flat stone with a characteristic clacking sound. Empty, it sways up again and the process repeats itself. Such devices were originally employed by farmers to scare away wild boars, but from the 17th century they were as ornaments incorporated in gardens, like the famous Shisendo garden in Kyoto - an enclosed hermit garden with which Tadasu's estate has many elements in common. When Tadasu went to sleep, the distant, rhythmic clack of this water mortar would mingle with the voice of his mother singing a lullaby and would penetrate his dreams. It became therefore strongly associated with memories of his mother.

But humans are mortal and when Tadasu is only five years old, his mother dies. After a while, his father remarries and now something strange happens: he has his new wife impersonate the deceased one. She has to take the same name, Chinu, wear the same type of clothes and allow Tadasu to sleep with her in the same way he did with his own mother. She also plays the koto and practices calligraphy, like Tadasu's first mother. And so the idyllic life in the enclosed paradise garden continues even after the intrusion of death, the stepmother conflated with the real mother... When he nurses on his stepmother's breast, Tadasu again hears the clack of the water mortar - everything is again the way it used to be...

What happens further is not so clear, for Tadasu is an unreliable narrator - what he tells is true, but he doesn't tell everything. Time passes and when he is eighteen years old and at high school, Tadasu learns that his stepmother is pregnant. A boy, Takeshi, is born, but the baby is soon sent away by his father to be brought up by farmers. A weird scene happens in the seclusion of a small tea house in the garden, where the stepmother has Takeshi suck the milk from her breasts, heavy so soon after giving birth. As a grown-up man, he is allowed to enter the milky white world of childhood again, now mixed with a decidedly erotic element...

Later that year, Tadasu's father - who had been ill since more than a year before - dies and asks Tadasu to take good care of his (step-) mother. In other words, Tadasu is asked to take over the role of the father. By now, Tadasu has learnt his stepmother's real name, and also that she was a geisha before she married his father. In order to keep up appearances (there is after all an outside world) Tadasu marries the daughter of their gardener, Sawako - but it is clear he is more interested in his stepmother.

A few years pass. Then the stepmother dies - she had a weak heart and was frightened by a centipede, while undergoing massage by Sawako. Tadasu now separates from Sawako and seeks out his half-brother, Takeshi, whom he decides to bring up himself. But he has to sell the large estate and instead moves to a smaller house near Honenin temple - not accidentally a place just as secluded as the first one.

The ambiguous story leaves us with several questions - the reader has to act as detective:
Was the death of Tadasu's stepmother homicide? Did Sawako kill her out of jealousy - Sawako who after all was a disparate element in the household, and who was treated very coldly by Tadasu? Was that the reason Tadasu decided on a separation?Whose child was Takeshi? Was he really Tadasu's half-brother, or was he his son? There are some hints that Tadasu's custom of cuddling up to his stepmother and suckling her breasts when he was a young boy, continued also when he grew up and then developed into outright lovemaking... On top of that, the father was already ill when the child was conceived. In addition, this would explain not only why the baby was sent away but also why Tadasu later decided to bring the boy into his house and take care of his upbringing.And, finally, the most radical interpretation: was it perhaps Tadasu himself who killed his stepmother rather than Sawako (the killing was of course in either case indirect, by dropping a centipede on her to frighten her)? There are indeed some hints that Tadasu was getting tired of her as she was getting plump and therefore was losing the image of his original mother... (while in Takeshi, Tadasu found the face of his mother again). Another fact supporting this interpretation, is that the negotiations for the separation from Sawako took two years and also that Tadasu had to sell his estate - in other words, he probably had to pay a large amount of money to Sawako and her family to buy their silence about the real events.But the story does not give us any clear clue to the right interpretation, and in that vagueness lies its beauty. Life is a dream and dreams can be wild and convoluted, shimmering like a chimera...

P.S. Perhaps we can also see the secluded estate as a symbol for a traditional Japan that had been lost in the 20th century, a loss finalized by postwar Americanization.
The Bridge of Dreams has been translated by Howard Hibbett in the collection Seven Japanese Tales (together with six other works by Tanizaki, including "A Portrait of Shunkin"), published in various editions by both Tuttle and Vintage. The novella is discussed in The Secret Window, Ideal Worlds in Tanizaki's Fiction by Anthony Hood Chambers (Harvard University Press, 1994). The interpretations mentioned above are based on Chambers.
31 Aug
Obuse is a small, attractive town with enough places to visit to warrant a day excursion from Nagano. Thanks to rows of old warehouses, it preserves a classical atmosphere and is nice to wander around in - everything can be seen on foot from the station.

Nowadays, Obuse is perhaps most famous for the Hokusai Museum, which displays about 40 scrolls and screens painted by the master (rather than his ukiyo-e) as well as two large festival floats he decorated. Hokusai's connection with Obuse came about later in his long life, when the prosperous Obuse-merchant Takai Kozan invited him to come and stay. Nearby the Hokusai Museum is also the house of Kozan, with Hokusai's studio and also paintings of demons on display by Kozan himzelf. A third museum in the town is the modern Obuse Museum, which has a wing dedicated to modern Japanese-style painter Nakajima Chinami, who is famous for his meticulous renderings of cherry blossoms and cherry trees. And, finally, a fourth one is the Japanese Lamp Museum, which houses a fascinating collection of lighting devices from the past.

[Hokusai painting on the ceiling of Ganshoji Temple in Obuse - Photo Wikipedia]
The other thing Obuse is famous for is rather sweet: chestnut cakes and chestnut candies. You will find factories in old storehouses and shops throughout the town. Two famous names are Chikufudo and Obusedo. Chestnuts are intimately linked to Obuse's history, as it was the Muromachi-period warlord Ogino Jorin who brought chestnut tress from Tanba and planted them in the Mabukawa Delta, a place with acid soil and therefore perfectly suited for this purpose. These chestnuts were so good that they were sent as presents to the shogun.

Haiku poet Issa, whose hometown was Kashiwabara, not far from Obuse, wrote the following "chestnut haiku:"

nobody picks it up
a wonderful chestnut
so big hirowarenu | kuri no migoto yo | okisa yoIssa 

This haiku stone stands in front of Obuse Station. 
24 Aug
The Gate (Mon), published in 1910, is one of Natsume Soseki's most delightful novels, thanks to the warm-hearted portrait of the happy love for each other of a married couple. There are countless novels in world literature about adultery and broken marriages, but how many are there of couples who are simply happy together?

No that the life of this couple, Sosuke and Oyone, is easy. They live in a sort of gentile poverty, Sosuke earns just enough as a low-ranking civil servant to make both ends meet. They rent a rather dark and cheerless house in Tokyo, and have no contact with family, no friends or acquaintances. Their solitary existence is wholly uneventful. You could almost say that they live as recluses in the big city, their gate always closed.

Engakuji, Kamakura[Gate of Engakuji Temple in Kamakura - as Soseki had connections with Engakuji, this is probably the temple that plays a role in The Gate - see below]
This seclusion has been caused by a dark spot in their lives. When he was a promising student at Kyoto University, Sosuke had a good friend, Yasui. One year after the summer holidays, this Yasui suddenly set up house with a quiet young woman - the author does not make clear whether she was his wife or his girlfriend - and Sosuke also got to know her gradually. This young woman was Oyone. She and Sosuke fell in love and she broke with Yasui to marry Sosuke. This caused a scandal in the university town - these were strict times in which students were supposed to be models of society - and Sosuke was forced to leave university, ending his prospects for a flourishing career. He was also ostracized by his family and, to get away from scandalous rumors, moved with Oyone to Western Japan. Yasui voluntarily left the university to establish himself as a sort of adventurer-business man in Mongolia. Only after several hard years could Sosuke get his present government job and return to Tokyo, the city where he and Oyone were born.

The joint betrayal of Yasui has left both Sosuke and Oyone with a feeling of guilt. They have remained childless, although they would have liked children. Oyone has had three miscarriages, and they ascribe this fate to the "wrongdoing" which was involved in bringing them together. But their shared feeling of guilt also forms a strong bond and they are happy with each other. Their love is the one abiding element in their lives.

Natsume Soseki gives detailed descriptions of their daily life, the halting conversations they have together, and the Tokyo scenery of the late Meiji-period. The atmosphere of their almost featureless days is unfailingly conveyed, but never gets boring thanks to the superior writing. Of course, readers who are looking for dramatic plots are at the wrong address, Japanese literature is not about plot but about atmosphere. That being said, drama is smoldering quietly below the surface of this novel, all connected to the betrayal that has connected Sosuke and Oyone. For example, after the event Sosuke has become sluggish and a procrastinator - he has even allowed his uncle to strip him of part of his inheritance without speaking up. His younger brother, Koroku, who is still at university, used to be financially supported by that uncle, but the money now stops and Koroku comes to live with Sosuke and Oyone, disturbing their quiet routine. Again, it takes time until a solution is found. On a positive note, the solitary Sosuke has come to know their wealthy landlord, Sakai, an extroverted and generous person, who lives on the hill behind their house and has a large family. Sosuke is often invited for a talk by this landlord and that leads to a small drama: Sakai invites him to a dinner where also a man called Yasui, recently returned from Mongolia, will be present...

Sosuke is completely shaken by this news and to avoid the dinner runs off to a Zen monastery in Kamakura, hoping by meditation to find some way out of his anguish. But already in the early 20th century, Zen was so far from the daily lives of ordinary Japanese, that Sosuke had no idea what was waiting for him in the temple. After struggling for ten days in vain with a koan, on a meager diet, he again leaves in despair. He has been unable to open the symbolical three gates of enlightenment (Sangedatsumon), those of emptiness, formlessness and inaction.

But although enlightenment is not waiting for him, nor the worldly success of his neighbor Sakai, he is happy to be quietly home again. Miraculously, most problems, small as they were, have evaporated as non-occurrences: Yasui has returned to Mongolia without causing trouble, a solution has been found for Koroku (who becomes a shosei, a student lodger in the house of the landlord) and although a restructuring is undertaken in the ministry, Sosuke's job is spared and he even gets a small rise.

In the final pages of the novel Sosuke is back with Oyone and settles down again in a quiet vein behind their own gate. Spring is in the air, Sosuke who has just been to the hairdresser, tells Oyone that other customers were talking about hearing the first bush warbler of the year.
Gazing through the glass shoji at the sparkling light, Oyone's face brightened. "What a sight for sore eyes. Spring at last!"
Sosuke had stepped out on the veranda and was trimming his fingernails, which had grown quite long.
"True, but then it will be winter again before you know it," he said, head lowered, as he snipped away with the scissors.
This is a novel without illusions, but filled with a gentle compassion.

Read The Gate in the excellent new translation by William F. Sibley, published by New York Review Books (and replacing the older translation by Francis Mathy in Tuttle Books). Of the Japanese original many editions exist, and it is also available as a free etext at Aozora.  
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