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Japanese sake and cuisine, travel and history, literature and art, film and music by Ad Blankestijn
5 Aug
Here are some characteristic trends of the years 2005-2009: 

- An overproduction of films, a sort of cinematic bubble (of course also thanks to digital video, which has lowered the barrier to film making by significantly lowering the costs of equipment, also for editing). When more than 400 Japanese films are made in one year (on a total of more than 800 released in that same year), it is impossible they all find a public or even are brought out on DVD. Many are probably scrapped without finding viewers. After all, the cinema is no longer the sole way to spend one's free time as in the 1950s, on the contrary.

- An absolute dominance of anime, which now takes up at least 60% of film production (like pink films did in the 1970s and 1980s). Most of these are for under-twelves. 

- Dominance of manga as the source for films, not only anime, but also live action films. This is not necessarily beneficial, as manga are two-dimensional and lack the depth possible in novels.

- Just like elsewhere in the world, CGI (computer graphics) are often added to live feature films. It seems to be very addictive for directors and producers, so much so that many films suffer from an overuse of CGI. Basically, CGI can always be detected and looks unrealistic. I definitely prefer films without these cheap effects. 

Conservatism and risk aversity in choice of subject. Not only are these the years of the remake, even of such classical films as Kurosawa's Tsubaki Sanjuro (2007) or his Hidden Fortress (2008) - something which to me makes no sense at all as the easily available originals are a million times superior to their cheap rip-offs - a playing on safe attitude also speaks from the numerous films that are based on already popular manga, TV series and mass fiction bestsellers. 

- In the mainstream, a large number of nostalgic films is made, looking back to the "glorious" fifties or even the war, emphasizing the sense of community among the Japanese in those periods. 

- Also in the mainstream, there is a dominance of major TV stations in the sense that popular series are made into films for the cinema by the TV stations. These are often conventional mysteries or police procedurals; others are pure idol vehicles. 

- Previous indies directors (including all famous names as Miike, Tsukamoto, Sono, Hiroki, Koreeda and Kurosawa) who have made it also internationally, are accepted by a more mainstream public and start making films aimed at such a public. This often - although not always - leads to a decrease in artistic quality.

- The positive trend noted in my previous post of more women being active as directors continues. 

- Visitors at film festivals abroad seem to expect that Japanese films are violent and filled with gore and some directors unfortunately consciously cater to that preference. 

- Due to the collapse of the DVD market, it is difficult for new indies film makers to grow, as there is almost no market between their no budget first films and expensive mainstream films (as the straight-to-video market was in the 1990s). Foreign film festivals and, increasingly, foreign financing therefore are important. Happily, Japanese films remain popular at such festivals. 

2005
- This year, there are 2,926 screens in Japan, of which 1,954 in cinema complexes. 356 Japanese films are produced (41.3 % of total). Admissions stand at 160,453,000.

The best film of the year is Yawarakai Seikatsu ("It's Only Talk") by Hiroki Ryuichi, starring Terajima Shinobu who already played the lead in the same director's Vibrator. It is the story of Yuko, a thirty-five year old, unemployed and mentally unstable urbanite. She suffers from regular bouts of deep depression. Her parents have died in an accident and she lives off the insurance money, spending her days writing a blog. When she discovers the decidedly unglamorous attraction of the Kamata area in Tokyo, she moves there, as it seems to fit her. She sometimes meets men (usually via her blog), but without forming any fixed ties. That is not very surprising, for one of them is a young yakuza who is also manic depressive (she shows him the park in Kamata where a Godzilla statue has been built of old tires), another is a former school pal who is now a politician but who suffers from erectile dysfunction, and a third a married pervert who wants to bring her to orgasm in public places. Then one day her cousin Shoichi (Toyokawa Etsushi) appears on her doorstep - he has left his family to be with his mistress, but has been dumped in his turn - looking for a place to stay the night, but when he sees the demons Yuko is fighting with (she just has an attack of depression when he is with her), he decides to stay and help her. Terashima Shinobu (the daughter of Hibotan Bakuto actress Fuji Junko) plays the greatest part of her career, with a fearless honesty, willing to appear damaged and flawed, completely open to the camera. Toyokawa Estushi is also excellent as the slightly behind-the-times country cousin in his leather jacket and driving an antique American convertible. Arguably the best film by Hiroki Ryuichi (who later in the decade would start making more commercial work), an intriguing insight into the mixed-up mind of present-day Japan and its drifting young generation, shot in a near documentary style. Also captures the old-fashioned charms of Kamata with a loving gaze.


Noriko no shokutaku ("Noriko's Dinner Table") by Sono Shion starts out as a family comedy about a busy father (Mitsuichi Ken), mother and two daughters, Noriko (Fukiishi Kazue) and Yuka (Yoshitaka Yuriko), with a communication problem based on intergenerational tension. The sisters are also bored with life in the dull town of Toyokawa. Noriko then runs away to Tokyo where via a chatroom on the web she has come into contact with the mysterious Kumiko (Tsugumi), who is later revealed as the figurehead of a shady cult that dismantles its members' "false" personalities. The sinister group is also responsible for the mass suicide from Sono's previous film Suicide Club. The cult hides behind the facade of a rent-a-family business, The Family Circle, where anyone can rent grandchildren for an afternoon visit or a wife for a walk in the park (we even see an instance of a man who wants to kill a cheating lover, and is allowed to really murder the role playing woman). The elaborate role playing of the cult members is made possible by the fact that their real personalities have been deconstructed. Later, the sister Yuka also runs away to join the same Family Circle, but as both have new identities, they are not "sisters" anymore. Finally, mayhem breaks out when the father - after the suicide of the mother - comes to Tokyo to find his daughters and claim them back, turning the film into a bloody psychological thriller. He has discovered what happened and uses the trick of renting a family to come into contact with them, but can role-playing really replace family ties? And are Noriko and Yuka still the same persons? Interesting film about identity and alienation, without the extreme splatter of Suicide Club.


Kimyo na circus ("Strange Circus"), also by Sono Shion, is a bizarre and hallucinatory film about incest, murder, suicide and switched identities, framed by Felliniesque theatrical scenes at a transvestite night club (which give the film its title). There is also a wheelchair bound woman, a writer, who may or may not have made up the first half of the film, and her unstable, androgynous assistant, who may be a transsexual. The line between reality and fantasy is crossed and recrossed and in the end the question remains: what is real and what not? With Miyazaki Masumi in a triple role as Sayuri / Mitsuko and the writer Taeko. An outrageous revival of the ero-guro tradition.

Tsuki to cherri ("Moon and Cherry") by Tanada Yuki is a bright comedy about a student called Tadokoro (Nagaoka Tasuku) who, to get extra credits, joins his university's most obscure extracurricular circle, the erotic writing club, led by a grumpy Emoto Akira. Here he is quickly picked up by the club's only female member, the spunky Mayama (Eguchi Noriko), who in a funny gender reversal uses the men around her for her own ends. She is already a successful writer of erotic stories and soon deflowers the shy virgin Tadakoro to get material for a new story. Next she also sends him to an SM dominatrix to write up his shocking experiences. Eguchi is a captivating presence, a strong, independent-minded woman. Tanada Yuki is one of the several women directors who came up at the start of the new millennium. (In fact, this film was brought out 25 Dec., 2004.)

Kanaria ("Canary") by Shiota Akihiko - the director of the 1999 Moonlight Whispers -  shows how deep the Aum Shinrikyo trauma has cut into Japanese society. Shiota highlights the most vulnerable group, the children of the cult members, and his film is set after the murderous attack and consequent disbanding of the cult (here called "Nirvana"). A mother had joined the cult with her son and daughter. After the disbanding of the cult, the mother who is a cadre member, flees, the twelve-year old Koichi (Ichida Hoshi) is taken into child welfare and his younger sister goes to live with their grandfather. But Koichi wants to be with his sister and breaks out of the welfare unit in the Kansai to travel to Tokyo. He soon meets Yuki (Tanimura Mitsuki), a girl desperate to flee from her abusive father, and the scarred youths decide to make the journey together. The film sometimes reminded me of Koreeda's Nobody Knows, another study about child abuse. The first half of the film is best, as a sort of road movie. In the second half we get flash backs to the misbehavior and cruelty of the cult, but also the harshness of the reaction of Japanese society: the grandfather is deemed guilty just because he is a family member and has been driven out of his house in Tokyo. The films ends on a note of hope as Koichi and Yuki develop a sort of familial bond and symbolically form a new family with Koichi's little sister.


Linda Linda Linda by Yamashita Nobuhiro is a film about high school girls who start their own band to take part in a school contest. The teenage girls have to learn to play their instruments from the bottom up and then practice a single song, "Linda Linda Linda" (from the real life 1980s band The Blue Hearts). Their lead singer is a Korean girl with only little Japanese, played by Bae Du-na (who would later become famous for her title role in Koreeda's Air Doll). Happily, there are no idols in the cast, and also for the rest this is a laid-back story, with no unwanted dramatizing of the proceedings. A laconic and pleasantly minimalist film.

Itsuka dokusho suru hi ("The Milkwoman," lit. "One day when reading books") by Ogata Akira is a poetical film about the unconsumed love between a 50-year old woman, who works as a milk woman and also as cashier in a supermarket, and her former school mate who has a position in Children's Affairs at the City Hall. He is married, but his wife is mortally ill, which is also the weakest point of the film, for it drags it down into sentimentality. The wife finally sends a letter to the "milk woman," asking her to marry her husband after her own death. Another less strong point is that several problems of contemporary Japan have been pulled in: problems of children abandoned by their parents and the problem of an aging population having to cope with senility. But the beautiful setting in Nagasaki with its hills and endless staircases makes much good. With Tanaka Yuko (who won Best Actress at the Yokohama Film Festival for this role) and Kishibe Ittoku.

Kuchu teien ("Hanging Garden") by Toyoda Toshiaki is a drama about a family (father, mother, daughter and son) living in Japan's soulless new apartment suburbia, whose members have decided they will hide nothing from each other and be strictly honest. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. The mother (Koizumi Kyoko) is hiding her own violent youth - she even tried to kill her own mother (Imajuku Asami) - and the fact that she meticulously planned her present-day life by seducing her husband on a "fertile day." As his wife has to work to pay back the apartment loan, and is too tired at night for lovemaking, the husband (Itao Itsuji) seeks his pleasure with several mistresses. In fact, the family is like a hanging garden, without any stability. Things come to head at a birthday party for the tutor of the son, who is also the father's mistress, a catharsis which is also helped by the presence of the chain smoking grandmother. The love hotel where the daughter was conceived on the above mentioned "fertile day" also plays a role in the film, as it is visited by the father with a mistress, by the daughter who wants to see where she was conceived, by the son with his tutor, and by the grandmother who enjoys the big revolving bed. A satire that is both funny and chilling and deserves to be better known.

Ranpo jigoku ("Rampo Noir") is an omnibus movie based on four stories by the ever-popular Edogawa Ranpo. Asano Tadanobu plays in all four episodes, by four different directors, as Jissoji Akio and Sato Hisayasu. The film is rather arty and ponderous, with beautiful shots (especially in the second section "Mirror Hell" with all its mirrors) but lacks impact. The third story, "Caterpillar," was in 2010 remade as a full feature film by Wakamatsu Koji.

Pacchigi! ("Break Through!") by Izutsu Kazuyuki, although brought out in 2004, won the Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film of the Year in 2006. That award is something I don't agree with: although the issue of ethnic Koreans living in Japan is an important one, Izutsu treats it even less serious than Yukisada Isao did in Go (2001): by dressing it up in cartoonish high school violence plus some Romeo and Julia romance. That may have been the only way to make the problem palatable to young film goers, but with all the over the top violence and manga-type faces the result is too artificial.

In his black comedy Takeshis', Kitano Takeshi examines the relationship between himself and his media generated public persona. He tells the story of Beat Takeshi, a prominent actor, driven around in a limousine, who meets his double named Kitano, a convenience store clerk with bleached hair who dreams of becoming an actor and is always humiliated when he goes to auditions. When their paths cross, however, the clerk starts hallucinating about becoming Beat. All the actors have double roles, with Kitano in several disguises. The film is rather a collection of loose gags, full of references to Kitano's other movies, which becomes tiresome after a while. Kitano unfortunately would continue doing the same thing in Glory to the Filmmaker (2007) and Achilles and the Tortoise (2008), two odd films which seem insider jokes for his own amusement. Fortunately, Kitano made several excellent films in the 1990s, for which he will be remembered in cinematic history.


Yokai Daisenso ("The Great Yokai War") by Miike Takashi is, like the same director's Zebraman (2004) and Yatterman (2009), basically a mainstream film for children (although some of the yokai-monsters are so frightening that the film is not suitable for those of a tender age). I don't like the CGI - the old-fashioned 1968 Yokai Hyaku Monogatari, a Daiei tokusatsu film, was more fun in that respect. But I appreciate that Miike pays homage to yokai manga artist Mizuki Shigeru by having him appear as demon king and by setting one scene in Sakaiminato, the Tottori town that has a Mizuki Shigeru Museum and a road decorated with sculptures made after his manga creations.

2006
- This year, there are 3,062 screens in Japan, a number for the first time since 1970 higher than 3,000. With a production figure of 417 films, Japanese films have a higher proportion (53.2) than foreign films, something which would only grow stronger over the next years (in total, 821 films were released this year). But this number also points at a cinematic bubble, as many of these films never reach a wider public (or a public at all) or are never released on DVD. 

My favorite film of this year is Kamome shokudo ("Seagull Diner") by Ogigami Naoko, a quietly humorous drama filmed in Helsinki, where a Japanese woman (Kobayashi Satomi) tries to run a diner. She is joined by two other Japanese women stranded in Helsinki (Katagiri Hairi and Motai Masako). At first there are no customers at all, then a Fin comes who studies Japanese and has questions about Japanese culture, and finally more and more follow. The diner serves coffee and cinnamon rolls, but also onigiri, although these take some time to become popular among Fins (the diner doesn't want to cater to Japanese travelers, but aims at the locals). A subtle portrait of three independent women, succeeding in a foreign culture by patience and small daily efforts. The interaction with the Finnish people (played by Tarja Markus and Markku Peltola - known from the films of Aki Kaurismäki) is also very nicely done. Based on a novel by Mure Yoko.

Another excellent film by a woman director is Yureru ("Sway") by Nishikawa Miwa, a family drama formatted around a courtroom drama. When trendy Tokyo photographer Takeru (Odagiri Joe) visits the countrytown where his family lives, we notice various tensions between him and his father, his elder brother Minoru (who has remained at home; played by Kagawa Teruyuki) and his ex-girlfriend Chieko (Maki Yoko). The still unmarried Minoru harbors romantic feelings for Chieko - she works as an assistant in his gas station. Unfortunately, the family's black sheep Takeru is an irresponsible boy who not only consciously enrages his father, but also spends the night with the ex-girlfriend, thereby reviving Chieko's unrealistic hope of joining him in Tokyo, and damaging his brother's prospects. That brother, by the way, has his own problems, for he is fed-up with being treated as a "doormat" by everybody else. The next day, the two brothers and Chieko make an outing to the Hasumi Gorge, a place they often visited in their youth. When Minoru and Chieko are crossing the dangerously swaying suspension bridge over the gorge, Chieko falls to her death in the raging river below. Was there a quarrel and did Minoru push her off? Was Takeru a witness to the incident, and if so, will he be a reliable witness? Sway is a film about the chasm between social pressure and individualism, the countryside and Tokyo, family life and freelancing. But it also shows that the foundation of glitter, fashion and acting cool on which Takeru has built his life is innately unstable. Therefore, as many young people in Japan today, he is "swaying." Official selection for Cannes (the only Japanese film this year).

Strawberry Shortcakes by Yazaki Hitoshi is a a poignant look at loneliness in the socially fragmented big city, through the prism of the lives of four young women, filmed as a near documentary. The story is based on a popular manga by Nananan Kiriko, who writes for a public of adult females. The four self-sufficient women living in contemporary Tokyo are followed two by two and their lives run parallel through the whole film, with subtle interactions. We have cheerful Satoko (Ikewaki Chizuru) who works as a receptionist for a call girl service. Satoko has found a small black stone that fell from the sky and that she has christened "god." She mumbles prayers to the stone to let her find someone who will love her. The classy Akiyo (Nakamura Yuko) works at the above call girl service. She is so death-obsessed that she even sleeps in a coffin - it is fun to see the smoke of her morning cigarette rise up from the window in the lid. She diligently saves the money she earns with her often degrading work in order to buy a condo situated on the 5th floor or higher - so she can jump out and kill herself efficiently when she gets old and senile and can no longer manage on her own. The reclusive Toko (Iwase Toko aka manga author Nananan Kiriko herself) is a book illustrator who works obsessively to forget the recent separation from her husband. Toko represses past memories and suffers from severe bulimia - so realistically acted by Iwase that it is painful to watch. The cutesy Chihiro (Nakagoshi Noriko) is Toko's roommate. She is an office worker (OL) who loves shopping, fashion and makeup and dreams about the ideal boyfriend who will fulfill all her wishes - for her, such a boyfriend is "god." All these four women struggle with their loneliness and try to find a patch of warmth in the cold concrete of the vast city. The film is very authentic in its portrayal of these largely "normal" young women and presents their sometimes melancholy situation without getting sweet or melodramatic - on the contrary, all scenes are infused with a fine sense of humor.


Bushi no ichibun ("Love and Honor") by Yamada Yoji is the third film in the director's "samurai trilogy." While the second film had a bit of a wandering plot, this is again a tight story like the first one, and a great revisionist period film with social criticism. Rather than repeating the plot, I feel I have to say a few more general words in defense of Yamada Yoji who is often regarded in English criticism as a "journeyman contract director" who just did what the studio asked him to do. Well, on the contrary, Yamada Yoji is an auteur and not a contract director (as also pointed out by Alexander Jacoby) - the proof is in the fact that he writes all his own scenarios like Ozu and Kinoshita did, and that he does express his own ideas in his films. These are generally socially critical from a leftist point of view and carry on the tradition of the shoshimin eiga (also by being somewhat sentimental as other films in that tradition). I believe it was his own choice to make all the 48 Tora-san films, and not pressure from Shochiku, because these movies allowed him to express his own ideas. But in between he also made a number of excellent other films like Where Spring Comes Late and Home from the Sea. In fact, his ideology has not changed since he made Shitamachi no taiyo ("The Sun of Shitamachi (=downtown area)") in 1963, where the heroine decides to marry a steelworker rather than the office worker who is courting her. In that same tradition fit these three period films in which he deconstructs the heroic image of the samurai as presented in other movies, and shows them to be what they really were in the Edo period: (often underpaid) local government officials.

Akumu Tantei ("Nightmare Detective") by Tsukamoto Shinya is the director's contribution to J-Horror. The film starts from a good premise: a danger that manifests itself from dreams, but that seems to have no physical form, although later it takes on the shape of a killer played by Tsukamoto himself. The "Nightmare Detective" is a tormented, reclusive young man called Kagenuma (Matsuda Ryuhei, the "beautiful boy" from Gohatto), who dresses in a simple hooded cloak. He has the power to enter the dreams of other people, but this a painful process for him and he sees his gift as a curse. The heroine of the film is yuppie female cop Kirishima Keiko (pop star Hitomi in her first film role), who has just transferred to homicide. Her first two cases are the bizarre deaths of a punk girl and an obese salaryman, who have both slit their throats in apparent suicide while they were asleep. Kirishima realizes that the deaths may not be suicides at all, but her bored, elder partner Sekiya (Osugi Ren) disagrees. Kirishima notices that just before their deaths both victims received a call from somebody identified as "0" on their cellphone screens. "Zero" of course denotes emptiness and death. The parapsychological killer apparently does his grizzly work by entering the dreams of his victims. Kirishima enlists the support of the - first unwilling - Nightmare Detective. She decides to be bait herself and dials "0". And so a mad chase ensues through a terrible nightmare world...


Sakebi ("Retribution") by Kurosawa Kiyoshi is a perfect film-noir that treads a fine line between thriller and horror. As always by Kurosawa, there is also a wider, philosophical context. The Japanese title of this film is Sakebi or "Scream" - in the most haunting moments of this dark film we see a woman in red who utters an incredible, ear-splitting wail... But the title Retribution fits just as well, as it suggests the film's underlying idea: we are all collectively guilty, both for things we did and for things we neglected to do, and will get our "retribution" when time is ripe. Retribution starts out like just another thriller, with a cop, Yoshioka (Yakusho Koji, a favorite actor of Kurosawa), investigating the murder of a woman on a plot of reclaimed wasteland. A woman in a vivid red dress lies murdered with her face down in a pool of water. In the pool Yoshioka finds a coat button that matches his, and later his fingerprints are discovered on the body. He also starts seeing a ghost in just such a red dress (played by Hazuki Riona). Is he himself the murderer? Also his partner in the investigation starts having doubts. In the end, in a final twist, Yoshioka learns a terrible secret about himself - no one can escape the misdeeds done in the past...


Sakuran by Ninagawa Mika, based on a popular manga by Anno Moyoco, tells how a little girl is sold into the harsh world of the Yoshiwara pleasure district and grows up to be an oiran, a top prostitute. Played by Tsuchiya Anna, rebellious Kiyoha stands out for breaking all rules, brazenly talking back, challenging authority, and even running away. She next grows into a beautiful but straight-talking courtesan with a quick temper, who is popular among the men who frequent the brothel. Finally she becomes a Yoshiwara star, the top-prostitute who can show off her beauty slowly parading in super-high geta through Yoshiwara with her retinue. Ninagawa Mika's background is photography and not only the costumes and sets, but also all colors in this film are fabulous. Ninagawa turns her back on convention by the utterly modern, over-the-top beauty of the flamboyant kimonos, the contemporary ikebana flower arrangements, and a rock soundtrack. There are also other great ideas, such as making the top part of the gate leading into Yoshiwara into a goldfish bowl, a most fitting symbol for the women inside.


Hana yori mo nao ("Hana: The Tale of a Reluctant Samurai") by Koreeda Hirokazu is a revisionist period film in a humorous vein, that also contains a homage to Yamanaka Sadao's 1937 Humanity and Paper Balloons. Soza (Okada Junichi) has been mandated by his clan to track down and punish the murderer of his father (Asano Tadanobu). But Soza is a reluctant warrior, he is terrible with a sword and hates violence and revenge. He prefers being a teacher for the children of the slummy tenement building where he resides (in fact, close to where the man he seeks is staying) and develop a relation with a kind young widow there (Miyazawa Rie). Soza prefers friendship, peace and family to bushido, and Koreeda tells us that, instead of the message of revenge, a father should leave his son the gift of peace and happiness. Koreeda reinforces this theme by setting the film in the year after the seppuku of the Lord of Ako from the Chushingura tale, while the 47 ronin are in hiding (some in the same tenement as where Soza lives) and waiting their chance of revenge on Lord Kira, something the director clearly disapproves of.


M ("M: A Married Woman") by Hiroki Ryuichi is about a housewife, Satoko (Miwon), who, like a Japanese Belle de Jour, starts working as a prostitute by meeting strangers in motels. She seems an impeccable person, but in reality is oppressed by a strange Freudian guilt fantasy. She soon falls in the hands of a yakuza pimp (Taguchi Tomorowo) who starts blackmailing her. In the meantime, her husband (Omori Nao) gets suspicious when he sees what looks like her picture when browsing porn online. And, above all, a newspaper boy, Minoru (Kora Kengo), who has a mother fixation (he has obeyed Freud by killing his father) develops a crush on her and spies on her when she has her trysts. He finally wants to help her cut her ties with her yakuza. But the film is not a sensationalist, sleazy thriller, as Hiroki pays the necessary attention to character development and the ending is a pleasant surprise. M may stand for "Married," for "Minoru," but also considering all the violence that Satoko has to suffer from various men, for "Masochism" - and perhaps all three.

Taiyo no kizu ("Sun Scarred") by Miike Takashi is a restrained film (as far as Miike goes), but also a little known one which in fact shows the director in top form. A salaryman, Katayama (Aikawa Sho, interestingly cast against type), on his way home stumbles on a gang of teenage punks beating up an innocent man. When Katamaya breaks up the fight, the sinister, hooded and lollipop sucking teenager (Morimoto Satoshi) who leads the punks decides to revenge himself. He kidnaps and murders the small daughter of Katayama. Despite all this, the justice system sees Katayama as responsible for what happened and after just one year and a half the young murderer is released from prison. While fighting the obstruction from the justice system, Katayama tries to find out the murder's location in order to take revenge (in the meantime, his wife has committed suicide). And indeed, instead of starting a new life, the young killer is up to no good at all...

Another film Miike Takashi makes this year is 46-okunen no koi ("Big bang Love, Juvenile A"), an experimental movie featuring Matsuda Ryuhei and Ando Masanobu, about the bonds of love and murder between two male prisoners, filmed in the bare-bones style of Lars von Triers' Dogville. A surprising film, somewhat in the tradition of Izo.

Mamiya kyodai ("The Mamiya Borthers") by Morita Yoshimitsu (of The Family Game) is one of the best among the many Japanese quirky comedies about arrested development. Two otaku brothers live a contented bachelor life together, watching baseball and DVDs, playing Monopoly, collecting model trains, and eating gyoza. Akinobu (Kuranosuke Sasaki), the long and slim older brother, works at a beer plant and the short and fat younger brother, Tetsunobu (Muga Tsukaji), is a school janitor. Still, although they are decidedly uncool, they feel a wish to be accepted by others. But how? What about having a curry party and inviting some women, such as Tetsunobu's colleague, the shy teacher Yoriko (Tokiwa Takako) and the cute girl from the DVD rental shop, Naomi (Sawajiri Erika)? Will that work? By the way, well-known singer Nakajima Miyuki appears as the mama of the Mamiya brothers.

The darling of Japanese critics this year is feel-good film Hula Girls by Lee Sang-il, as it wins both the Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film of the Year and the Japan Academy Prize for Picture of the Year. After the Joban coal mines in southern Fukushima close in 1965, the town (now Iwaki) decides to fight the economic crisis by building a Hawaiian-themed tourist attraction with hot springs and hula dancers. Central to the film is the story of the young women drafted as entertainers for the new attraction, who have to overcome many (even violent) patriarchal objections when they start practicing with a professional dancer hired from Tokyo. The dance sequences are well done, but in the end this is a rather superficial and predictable film (Lee Sang-Il would make a come-back with the superior Akunin in 2010).


Kiraware Matsuko no Issho ("Memories of Matsuko") by Nakashima Tetsuya, with Nakatani Miki in the title role, received many accolades and certainly looks sleek (even too much so, the CGI gets awfully tiring)... but this story of a woman going down the drain because she picks the wrong men in her life, was too conservative and old-fashioned for me - and I disliked it all the more as this was presented in a funny light with a huge dose of sentimentality. I'm afraid the memories presented here are false.

Ojisan Tengoku ("Uncle's Paradise") by Imaoka Shinji is a modern pink film set in an ordinary, quiet fishing port. A young guy is visited by his mysterious uncle (pink film veteran Shimomoto Shiro), who has bad dreams and therefore tries to keep awake by imbibing endless vitamin drinks. But that makes him incredibly horny and he seduces all the women of the small town, signing his name on the naked bodies with a red felt pen. And that is only the beginning of the weirdness...

I only mention Shisei ("Shisei: The Tattooer") by Sato Hisayasu because it is part of a wave of remakes in this period of films based on stories by Tanizaki Junichiro, besides The Tattooer (Shisei) also Manji and Shunkisho. The Tattooer of course is the story of a tattoo artist who tattoos a spider on the back of a demure young woman, thereby changing her into a sadistic dominatrix. As pink director, Sato plays up the sexual side of the story, but he also concentrates on the tattooer: what is necessary to inspire an artist to his greatest creation? The remake by Zeze Takahisa in 2007 would focus on the woman and what the huge spider tattoo on her back does to her personality. Unfortunately, neither film is very good, and the best adaptations of these Tanizaki works date from the sixties, by for example Masumura Yasuzo.


Paprika, an animation film by Kon Satoshi, is based on a science-fiction novel by Tsutsui Yasutaka, and comparable in its high quality and mysterious atmosphere to the same director's Perfect Blue and Millennium Actress. An instrument that allows therapists to enter their patients' dreams is stolen, and the fear is that it will be misused for criminal purposes. There is also the worry that it may have been an inside job. Only one person is able to retrieve the tool: Dr Chiba Atsuko, whose dream world avatar Paprika can jump from mind to mind... Unfortunately, this was Kon Satoshi's last feature film. He died in 2010 at the young age of 46.

2007
The best film of the year is Mogari no mori ("The Mourning Forest") by Kawase Naomi, which won the Jury Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival, although it was shamefully ignored by Japanese critics. Set in the fields and woods of Kawase's native Nara Prefecture, it is the story of a woman who becomes a caretaker at a home for the aged following the death of her child – and finds herself on a quest with a senile man still mourning the wife he lost 33 years ago. In the film, both try to come to terms with their bereavement. As usual, Kawase's style is close to documentary, avoiding melodramatic developments or complex plot, and opting for location shooting in the beautiful nature of Nara. The performances are partly by amateurs, and their improvisations give a raw edge to the film that is balanced by the director's ability to catch subtle nuances of behavior and capture the momentary.



Megane
("Glasses") by Ogigami Naoko is about Taeko (Kobayashi Satomi), a professor who comes to the tiny Okinawan island of Yoron to spend a vacation in a place where her mobile phone doesn't work. She is the only guest in a quirky hotel managed by the cheery Yuji (Mitsuishi Ken), located where there is literally nothing to do but sit still and think - called "twilighting" in the film. It takes some time before the busy professor can adjust to the slow life, and the same is probably true for the viewers of this film, which proceeds very slowly, with beautiful shots of seascapes and Ozu-like scenes of people just sitting still. Taeko meets Sakura (Motai Masako) and elderly woman who comes every spring to the hotel to make shaved ice flavored with syrup and azuki beans (kakigori) in a stand on the beach - but she asks no money. She has a Buddha-like smile and seems always content. That is not the case with Haruna (Ichikawa Mikako), a teacher at the local high school, who also hangs around at the hotel and the beach and is rather argumentative - but her questions help Taeko think about her life. Finally, Taeko is traced by a male student (Kase Ryo), but this doesn't lead to any of the expected dramatic scenes (although we must surmise that he is in love with her and that Taeko came all the way to Yoron so that he couldn't call her on her mobile phone ) - almost no information about the characters is provided, the viewer has to guess. Thanks to the offbeat humor this "slow life" film is never boring and like Taeko we slowly succumb to the local custom of "twilighting." By the way, as in Ogigami's previous Seagull Diner, there is again a lot of delicious food in this movie. P.S. As regards the title: all characters in the film wear glasses, and Taeko looses hers when she leaves after the first visit as a symbol of her adjustment to the slow life on the island.


Exte ("Exte: Hair Extensions) by Sono Shion and with Kuriyama Chiaki, Osugi Ren and Tsugumi. This film about "killer black hair" is a spoof on J-Horror and the tradition of ghostly females with long, black hair. A dead woman keeps sprouting hair and a goofy hair fetishist decides to make money out if it by selling "hair extensions" to a beauty shop (where Kuriyama Chiaki works as a walking shampoo ad). Being from a dead female with a deep grudge, the hair extensions start killing their wearers in interesting ways. Finally, the film enters cult territory when a sort of hairy womb appears to regenerate the protagonists. Some campy fun. After watching, you will feel as if your mouth is full of hair... (See my more detailed post about this film)


Sad Vacation by Aoyama Shinji is the story of Kenji (Asano Tadanobu) who earns his living by doing various odd, half-legal jobs. He has an emotional scar as his mother abandoned him as a child and his father committed suicide. But he is kind to a Chinese boy, an illegal immigrant, and also to the traumatized sister (Miyazaki Aoi from Eureka) of a friend who sits in jail. Then his life takes a big turn: he thinks he recognizes his mother (Ishida Eri)  in the wife of a transport company owner who is soliciting his help in running the company. Will this be his chance to take revenge and settle the score with his mother? Set in Kitakyushu.

Tenten ("Adrift in Tokyo") by Miki Satoshi is about impoverished student Fumiya (Odagiri Joe), who owes the loan sharks big money, and debt collector Fukuhara (Miura Tomokazu), who proposes to make a walking trip together from the western part of Tokyo to Kasumigaseki - in this way the student can earn the money he owes. In fact, Fukuhara tells he has killed his wife because she was unfaithful to him and is making a last trip through Tokyo before turning himself in. What follows is a road movie with quirky encounters along the way, basically just two men walking and talking. While talking, Fumiya gets the feeling that he was the man with whom Fukuhara's wife was in love...

Groping women on packed trains is such a social problem in Japan that most commuter trains now have "Women Only" cars and men accused of this crime are almost automatically deemed guilty. But what if such an accusation is false? That is the problem addressed in Soredemo boku wa yattenai ("I Just Didn't Do It") by Suo Masayuki, a realistic and relatively light-hearted courtroom drama with Kase Ryo as a salaryman unjustly accused of groping a teenage girl on a packed commuter train. Suo uses the case to criticize aspects of the Confucian Japanese justice system, but the result is a rather labored one-issue film without further depth, despite winning the Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film of the Year.

Maiko Haaaan!!! by Mizuta Nobuo is a manic comedy about a instant ramen factory worker (Abe Sadao) who is obsessed with Kyoto's maiko, apprentice geisha. He spends most of his time writing posts and taking pictures for his maiko website and is very happy when he is transferred to the company's Kyoto plant so that he can fully indulge in his passion. His obsession also means he is neglecting his girlfriend (Shibasaki Kou), but she has a good idea: she will try to become a maiko to win him back...

Funuke domo, kanashimi no ai wo misero ("Funuke: Show Some Love You Losers!") by Yoshida Daihachi. When the parents of the Funuke family die in an accident, the three siblings (suffering from arrested development) are in desperate straits, facing conflicts and bloody quarrels. The eldest sibling, Shinji (Nagase Masatoshi), lives in the parents’ home with his friendly mail order bride Machiko (Nagasaku Hiromi). The youngest, Kiyomi (Satsukawa Aimi), is a high-schooler who hopes to become a manga artist. They are joined by their sister from Tokyo, Sumika (Sato Eriko), who is trying to pursue an acting career. The result is mayhem.

Although not on the same level of his "Black Society" or "Dead or Alive" trilogies, Ryu ga gotoku ("Like a Dragon") is an action packed and entertaining yakuza flick where director Miike Takashi is on his home turf. We have the usual psychopathic gangster with an eye patch, carrying a golden baseball bat, and a fine Shinjuku atmosphere. The film is set during one, sweltering hot night, in which the city explodes into violence.

Sukiyaki Western Django, also by Miike Takashi, is a postmodern mix of a Western with a samurai film - not such a strange idea, as Japanese period drama was partly inspired by American Western, while Kurosawa in his turn inspired not only the serious Western (The Magnificent Seven) but also Sergio Leone's Spaghetti westerns. Miike has transplanted the medieval struggle between the Heike and the Taira to an American Western town, and both swords and guns serve as weapons. That the film does not really work is the fault of another idiosyncrasy: Miike has the Japanese actors speak phonetic (broken) English, which is so silly that it makes the film almost impossible to watch.

A third film this year by Miike Takashi, Crows Zero ("Crows: Episode Zero"), is based on a manga by Takahashi Hiroshi about high school gangs. The school is a stylish ruin, and the boys do nothing but fight for dominance - a bit like Toyoda Toshiaki's earlier Blue Spring. The ultra-violence is typically cartoonish and over the top, as are the various characters. This became one of Miike's most successful films in Japan, also because he cast hot young male stars with large female followings. Despite the black humor, in a two-dimensional film like this Miike has really sunk to becoming just another mainstream director.


Dainipponjin ("Big Man Japan") was written, played and directed by Matsumoto Hitoshi, in real life the "dim-witted" half of a highly popular "manzai" comic duo.  The film is a cross between a "mockumentary" and a riff on the giant monster genre - and the result is entertaining, although also somewhat tiresome. Matsumoto plays an elderly looser, living in a dirty wooden house, who however leads a double life as Great Defender of Japan against wacky, invading monsters - his fights are always shown on TV, but rather at midnight than prime time. Before these monster fights he connects to a power station to be blown up himself to gigantic size. The weirder the monster, the more serious Matsumoto Hitoshi, who never even smiles in the film and plays all the wackiness with a perfectly straight face.

2008The best film of the year is Aruitemo Aruitemo ("Still Walking") by Koreeda Hirokazu. A lyrical film about one day in the life of the Yokoyama family: the aged parents (the father a retired doctor, played by Harada Yoshio; the mother played by Kiri Kirin), who are visited for the death anniversary (meinichi) of the eldest son by their married daughter (played by You who also appeared in Nobody Knows) with husband and two children and their son (Abe Hiroshi), who has just married a widow (Natsukawa Yui) with her small son. Koreeda just shows us the family's domestic routines, the ordinary conversations, the visit to the graveyard, the family dinner, the kids playing around the house and garden, without any big dramatic moments, but through these small daily events the entire universe of the family life with its simmering tensions is gradually revealed. The elder brother died fifteen years ago when trying to save another boy from drowning. Not only is that boy now a fatty good-for-nothing (he is forced to make a brief visit on this special day), the father also secretly regrets that the elder brother died and not the second one. He had wanted one of his sons to take over his clinic, but the second son is an art restorer (and on top of that out of a job, something he hides from his parents). The parents also dislike the fact that he has married a widow who already has a child. The mother and sister are rather argumentative and are all the time talking in a smallish quarrelsome fashion (showing how much Japan has changed since Ozu, whose characters showed so much self-discipline!). The sister comes up and down on the same day by car, but the brother who can't afford a car yet, has to stay the night, very much against his wishes. As usual with Koreeda, the movie has been shot in a strong documentary style, as if we are eavesdropping on a real family and gradually learning their secrets. The performances are all very natural. A wonderful movie, of the kind that makes you exclaim "Good there is Japanese cinema!", and in my view Koreeda's best.


A close runner-up is Tokyo Sonata by Kurosawa Kiyoshi, a realistic film (and not one of the director's horror movies, as most critics hasten to add) about a salaryman (Kagawa Teruyuki) who looses his job at a prominent company due to restructuring and joins the endless ranks of job seekers at Japan's labor office optimistically called "Hello Work." He spends his days in full suit and tie in a park, for he doesn't want to tell his wife (Koizumi Kyoko, the mother from Kuchu teien) about his loss of job and status. As a sort of compensation, he clings desperately and angrily to his patriarchal authority, forbidding one son who sees no future in Japan for himself to join (a non-existent foreign legion of) the American army, and the other, younger one, to have piano lessons (with a beautiful private teacher played by Igawa Haruka). As a result, the family starts disintegrating - the sons of course ignore him. But this is not just a film about a family tragedy leading to resolution and catharsis, Kurosawa shows us instead how the financial emergency is just a catalyst to reveal how lives and ties were damaged all along. The facade is destroyed, but that is a good thing as it allows the family members to make a new, more honest start. An excellent film about the agony induced by the Japanese economic crisis; only the sequence with an overacting Yakusho Koji as a desperate thief is weaker.


Zenzen daijobu ("Fine, Totally Fine") by Fujita Yosuke is one of those quietly quirky, but highly enjoyable Japanese films. It is a comedy about two unmarried friends with some sort of arrested development, one working as administrator in a hospital (Okada Yoshinori), the other (Arakawa Yoshiyoshi) as tree pruner in a park or helping out in his father's second-hand bookstore - he also has a dream of setting up the ultimate "house of horror" attraction. Both fall in love with a nerdy young woman (Kimura Yoshino) who is a walking disaster - she breaks expensive equipment in the hospital and has problems wrapping up pornographic magazines when she works in the bookstore, leading to great customer embarrassment. This is not slapstick, however, but a quiet comedy with lots of goofy ideas, perfect timing and excellent casting.


Ai no mukidashi ("Love Exposure") by Sono Shion is an absurdist story of epic length (clocking in at four hours) that mixes voyeurism, sexual perversion, religious cults, martial arts, humor and above all, romance. In fact it is a spoof of the ever popular youth film with its struggle towards sexual maturity. And as a postmodern statement it also references several other films, such as Sasori from the 1970s. The naive Yu (Nishijima Takahiro) is the son of a devout Catholic woman whose widowed husband next enters the priesthood. The pious mother also has installed a wish to marry a girl like the Virgin Mary in her son. But the father falls prey to a libidinous vixen (Watanabe Makiko) who seeks religion as a cover for her sexual urges. When she leaves the priest in the lurch after having seduced him, his own feeling of guilt makes him take it out on Yu, who has to confess non-existent sins on a daily basis. To have something bad to confess, Yu starts upskirt photography with a couple of friends (in fact, a serious social problem in Japan). Then, one day, when he happens to be in drag, he falls in love with Yoko (Mitsushima Hikari), his Virgin Mary, but unfortunately also a man-hating martial arts artist who prefers lesbianism. And then there is Koike (Ando Sakura), the female leader of a mysterious cult who seems enamored of both Yu and Yoko... The result is a blasphemous romp that would even have made Bunuel jealous.


Okuribihito ("Departures") by ex-pink film director Takita Yojiro becomes the first Japanese film to win an Oscar since 1955 - it also won both the Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film of the Year and Japan Academy Prize for Picture of the Year. All these awards are unbelievable for what is just a sentimental, exploitative film made according to a typical feel-good and predictable Hollywood template. It is far inferior to above films as Still Walking, Tokyo Sonata, Fine, Totally Fine and Love Exposure. An unemployed cellist (Motoki Masahiro) takes a job preparing the dead for funerals (a job which today is rare even in the countryside, as this is nowadays usually done by the hospital). As working with dead bodies was seen as impure and therefore a job for Japan's lowest caste, his wife (Hirosue Ryoko) leaves him. However, she later comes back because she has discovered that she is pregnant for a Hollywood happy end.

Yamada Yoji's Kaabee ("Kabei - Our Mother") is a family drama based on the wartime memoir of Nogami Teruyo, Kurosawa Akira’s long time script supervisor. Yoshinaga Sayuri plays the title role of a mother who all alone has to take care of her two young daughters after her professor husband is arrested for "thought crime" one night in 1940. Filmed with restraint. Screened in competition at the Berlin Film Festival and also proved to be popular in Japan.

Yogisha X no kenshin ("Suspect X") by Nishitani Hiroshi is a solid suspense movie based on the eponymous popular novel by Higashino Keigo, which has also been translated into English (and also made into a TV series). Hanaoka Yasuko (Matsuyuki Yasuko) is in her home attacked by her ex-husband. When the brutal guy puts his hands on her daughter, both women strangle him. Neighbor Ishigami Tetsuya (Tsutsumi Shinichi), a reclusive math teacher, has heard the noise and helps the women get rid of the body. A day later the body of the dead man is found in a park, his clothes burned, his face bashed in. The young police woman Utsumi Kaoru (Shibasaki Koh) asks help from Tokyo University physicist professor Yukawa Manabu (Fukuyama Masaharu), alias detective Galileo, who sometimes assists the police in difficult cases. He is an old study mate of Ishigami and thinks Ishigami is a genius. Between both super brains a cat and mouse game starts...

2009
Kuki ningyo ("Air Doll") by Koreeda Hirokazu is a Pygmalion-type story, about a sex doll that turns into a real woman. The inflatable plastic doll belongs to a middle-aged waiter, who has dressed it up in maid costume and also has endless conversations with it after he returns home at night. He apparently prefers the plastic doll to a real woman because she doesn't talk back or have her own ideas. But one morning (when the waiter is at work) the doll magically comes to life and starts walking around the neighborhood, an old part of Tokyo. She even gets a job, makes various friends, but above all, develops a mind of her own. She starts hating her sex slavery with the waiter and falls in love with a young guy. The living air doll is played by the perfectly cast Korean actress Bae Du-Na who brings much depth to her difficult role. A wonderful film, sophisticated and sensitive.


Dear Doctor by Nishikawa Miwa (known for Yureru) is about a doctor working at a small clinic in the countryside. He is a much-loved man (played by popular rakugo star Shofukutei Tsurube), especially because of the human care he gives to his patients, almost more like a priest than a doctor. That is in fact the problem: he is not really a doctor, as slowly becomes clear. The secret gets gradually out when a young intern shows up on his doorstep, and especially when an elderly widow (who is in fact dying from a serious disease but wants the "doctor" to keep quiet about it) is visited by her daughter who has really studied medicine. A quiet and low-keyed film that questions the model of modern medicine that is more based on business and technology than human care. A very humane story with subtle humor. Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film of the Year.



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
1970-1974 - Sex and Violence
1975-1979 - Decline and Stagnation
1980-1989 - Disintegration of the Studio System
1990-1994 - The Rise of Indies
1995-1999 - Revival
2000-2004 - Postmodern Peak
2005-2009 - Cinematic Bubble[Reference works used: Currents In Japanese Cinema by Tadao Sato (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); Eros plus Massacre, An Introduction to the Japanese New Wave Cinema by David Desser (Bloomington and Indianopolis, 1988); Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema by David Bordwell (Princeton University Press: Princeton, 1988); Kurosawa: Film Studies and Japanese Cinema by Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto (Duke University Press: Durham, 2000); The Waves at Genji's Door by Joan Mellen (Pantheon Books: New York, 1976); Japanese Classical Theatre in Film by Keiko I. Macdonald (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1994); From Book to Screen by Keiko I. Macdonald (M.E. Sharpe: New York and London, 2000); Reading a Japanese Film by Keiko I. Macdonald (University of Hawai'i Press: Honolulu, 2006); Behind the Pink Curtain, A Complete History of Japanese Sex Cinema, by Jasper Sharp (Fab Press: Godalming, 2008); Contemporary Japanese Film by Mark Schilling (Weatherhill: New York and Tokyo, 1999); The Midnight Eye Guide to New Japanese Film by Tom Mes and Jasper Sharp (Stone Bridge Press: Berkeley, 2005); Kitano Takeshi by Aaron Gerow (British Film Institute: London, 2007); Iron Man: the Cinema of Shinya Tsukamoto by Tom Mes (Fab Press: Godalming, 2005); Agitator: The Cinema of Takashi Miike by Jasper Sharp (Fab Press: Godalming, 2003); Nihon Eigashi by Sato Tadao (Iwanami Shoten: Tokyo, 2008, 4 vols.); Nihon Eigashi 110-nen by Yomota Inuhiko (Shueisha; Tokyo, 2014). All images are linked from Wikipedia.]
4 Aug
The posts about sake from Hokkaido and Tohoku are now all online in updated versions. Here is an overview:

The northern island of Hokkaido is known for its super-light and smooth sake. The climate is very cold in winter and in summer remains relatively cool, so sake matures more slowly. Brewers take in interesting ways advantage of their environment, for example by maturing sake in "ice caves."

North-eastern Japan or the Tohoku area is one of Japan's most interesting sake regions. The area is cold in winter, which causes a slower fermentation process. This in turn leads to a delicate, refined sake with a clean taste. There are of course also quite some regional differences within this large area:
Aomori: rather dry and freshAkita: somewhat sweetish due to the soft water Iwate: light and mild. Iwate is home to the largest brewers guild in Japan, the Nanbu Toji.Yamagata: rather full-bodiedMiyagi: refined and quite dry sakeFukushima: the Aizu region is rich and sweet, the Nakadori area is medium-dry and sturdy and the Hamadori area along the coast is dry.Of course, modern breweries can freely select their own style and don't have to fit to the traditional style of their region, so this is just a very rough indication! 


3 Aug
Fukushima Prefecture, the southernmost of the Tohoku prefectures, is the largest prefecture in Japan after Hokkaido and Iwate, and is in fact made up of three areas: Nakadori in the center, where the Shinkansen and expressways are and the capital Fukushima City as well as Koriyama - this is also the industrial and agricultural heart of the prefecture; Hamadori along the coast, with Iwaki in the south (a large city in a former coal producing area) and Soma in the north - the industry here is mostly fishing and power generation (this is where the nuclear accident of March 2011 happened); and the large Aizu basin in the west.

There one also finds the beautiful Bandai-Asahi National Park, around the volcano Mt Bandai which erupted lastly in 1888. Aizu Wakamatsu is an old samurai town, Kitakata is known for its many stone storehouses. Ouchijuku in the west is an old post town, almost untouched by time.

As the weather and food in Fukushima differ per region, the taste of sake also is different. Hamadori (which only has a handful of breweries) is known for its relatively dry sake, in Aizu with is snowy winters and fermented foods (miso), the sake is sweetish and deep in taste. The sake from Nakadori is neither sweet nor dry, but strikes a good balance between the two other areas.

Fukushima is home to 56 breweries (figure from 2015), putting it in the top ten nationwide, and at the head of the Tohoku region (although the total volume produced in Akita is much larger). There are both large and small companies. More than half of all breweries can be found in the Aizu area in the west, on the one hand because the Aizu basin is a good rice producing region, on the other hand because the feudal lords of Aizu Wakamatsu enthusiastically promoted sake brewing as an industry. In the town itself, one still finds 12 breweries.

In general, there is a lot of variation among breweries in Fukushima - there are breweries that work with the Kimoto or Yamahai methods, breweries that use organic rice, etc. Toji working in Fukushima are often from the Nanbu or Echigo (especially in Aizu) guilds. The prefecture was as a whole a bit late to jump on the ginjo bandwagon, but that has now changed, partly thanks to the development by the prefecture of the "Yume" (dream) yeast for ginjo sake. Popular locally produced types of sake rice are Gohyakumangoku and Hanafubuki.

Some of the main breweries are (in alphabetical order):
Daishichi (Daishichi Sake Brewery Co., Ltd., Nihonmatsu). Est. 1752. Finest proponent of the traditional Kimoto-method for making the yeast starter. Unique super-flat rice polishing technology leads to more efficient polishing and therefore a purer sake. A well-balanced combination of depth ("body") with sophistication and refinement. All sakes suitable for dinner, including main dishes. Kimoto provides "bridge" to creamy and buttery dishes, as well as being sturdy enough to fit to meat. Also makes a prize winning Umeshu with junmai sake as its base. Active exporter. Extensive English website. Brewery visits with tasting possible upon advance application, but in the brewing season the inside of the brewery cannot be shown. Located in Nihonmatsu, between Koriyama and Fukushima, in the Nakadori area.Eisen (Eisen Shuzo Co., Ltd., Aizu Wakamatsu). Est 1869. Located in the Aizu region, and uses pure water from Mt Bandai and Mt Nishi. Makes a dry sake where the usual sake from the Aizu region is rather sweet. Moved from the city to a new factory at the foot of Mt. Bandai (of which one among three Kura is fully automated; ginjo is handwork). Ginjo sake of high level. Oku no Matsu (Okunomatsu Sake Brewery Co., Ltd., Nihonmatsu). Est. 1716. Another brewery from the old castle town of Nihonmatsu. Known for its light-flavored but down-to-earth junmai, as well as its sparkling sake. Active in exports. Label features an interesting calligraphy that looks like a human face. Sake gallery with shop and tasting corner.Suehiro (Suehiro Shuzo, Aizu Wakamatsu). Est. 1850. One of the largest producers in Fukushima. Has contracted more than 100 local farmers for its rice. Products show great variety, from a very dry Honjozo ("Kira," or "killer" in English for its razor sharp finish) to a polished Daiginjo. First to experiment with Yamahai method in 1911. Also active in exporting. Moved to new factory in outskirts, but old factory "Kaeigura" in Aizu Wakamatsu still in operation for ginjo and kimoto sake. Visits to Kaeigura are possible without reservation. Also has a cafe, camera museum, hall and shop (take circulation bus Haikara-san and get off at the Yamato-machi bus stop).Yamatogawa (Yamatogawa Shuzoten, Kitakata). Est. 1790. Grows its own rice, including Yamada Nishiki for the Daiginjo sake. Its Kasumochi Genshu is a sweet sake made with double the amount of koji. Other brand names the company uses include Yauemon, Tsuki Akari and Rashiku. Old brewery in the city is now brewery museum, moved in 1990 to new facilities in outskirts. The Yamatogawa Sake Brewery Museum is a 15 min walk north of Kitakata Station and also has a tasting corner. Fukushima Sake Brewers AssociationWhen planning a brewery visit, check in advance whether the brewery accepts visitors and whether it is open on the day and time you plan to go, especially if a long trip is necessary to get there (see the brewery's website for tel. no or mail address). Note that brewery tours, if available, always have to be booked in advance. Many breweries, however, do not allow visitors in their production area, or only in certain seasons / for certain sizes of groups. In contrast, if a sake museum or brewery shop is present, this is usually open without reservation. Sake by Region:
Hokkaido/Tohoku: Hokkaido - Aomori - Akita - Iwate - Miyagi - Yamagata - Fukushima
Kanto area: Ibaraki - Tochigi - Gunma - Saitama - Chiba - Tokyo - Kanagawa - Yamanashi
Shinetsu/Hokuriku: Nagano - Niigata - Toyama - Ichikawa - Fukui
Tokai area: Shizuoka - Aichi - Gifu - Mie
Kansai area: Shiga - Kyoto - Osaka - Hyogo - Nara - Wakayama
Chugoku area: Tottori - Shimane - Okayama - Hiroshima - Yamaguchi
Shikoku: Tokushima - Kagawa - Ehime - Kochi
Kyushu/Okinawa: Fukuoka - Saga - Nagasaki - Kumamoto - Oita - Miyazaki / Kagoshima / OkinawaReference materials: Kikisakeshi Koshukai Tekisuto by Sake Service Institute (Tokyo, 2009); Nihonshu no kyokasho by Kimura Katsumi (Shinsei Shuppansha: Tokyo, 2010); Nihonshu no Tekisuto (2): Sanchi no Tokucho to Tsukuritetachi by Matsuzaki Haruo (Doyukan, 2005); The Book of Sake by Philip Harper (Kodansha International: Tokyo, New York, London, 2006); The Sake Companion by John Gauntner (Running Press: Philadelphia & London, 2000); The Sake Selection by Akiko Tomoda (Gap Japan: Tokyo, 2009).The blog author Ad Blankestijn works for the Daishichi Sake Brewery and is an accredited sake sommelier and sake instructor. He also hosts independent sake seminars to propagate knowledge about his favorite drink.
1 Aug
Another post in the Sake by Region series which is under revision, has been updated and expanded and is available at: Yamagata.
31 Jul
When you hear the cicadas (semi) strike up their loud song outside your window in Japan, you get the feeling that summer has truly come. The cicada is associated with the summer season in folklore, literature and film, and there is also the children's summer pastime of trying to catch cicadas and other insects.

[The Japanese minminzemi]
The cicada (the name is Latin and means "tree cricket") counts 3,000 different species (and more are being discovered). An adult cicada can become two to five centimeters in length. Cicadas have two prominent eyes set wide apart on the sides of the head and large, membranous wings.

Cicadas have a life cycle of two to five years. Almost their whole life they spend underground as nymphs feeding on the sap of roots. They have strong front legs for digging and use these in the final nymphal stage when they emerge to the surface. They then shed their shell on a plant or tree and become adults. You can sometimes see these abandoned shells - in fact exoskeletons - still clinging to the bark of a tree or to a twig.

[Cicada shell]
Now the mating season starts and that is when that big sound is made by the male cicadas! Their songs are meant to attract the females. They produce their characteristic sound by using tymbals, membranes in the abdomen, which are rapidly vibrated, while the largely hollow abdomen serves as a sound box. Every type of cicada has its own, particular song, to attract the right female. To hear this song, male and female crickets have tympana, the equivalent of ears. As the sound produced is so large (even 120 dB), the male cricket disables his own tympana while singing. Besides the mating song, crickets also have a distress call (when they are caught, for example) and some sing a courtship song, after the female has been attracted by the mating call.

After mating, the female cicada deposits her eggs in the bark of a tree, after slitting this open. She may lay several hundreds of eggs in different places. When the eggs hatch, the small nymphs fall to the ground, where they burrow and then the life cycle as described above starts again. The underground phase of their life is by far the longest, as it can take several years.

Cicadas feed on the sap of twigs or trees; their enemies are mainly birds.

As the cicada sheds its shell to start a new life, in Japan it is seen as a symbol of Buddhist reincarnation; and the shortness of its life as cicada (as opposed to its life as nymph), during which it sings its life out, mates, reproduces and dies, is seen as a symbol of the evanescence of life.

In his book Shadowings, the Irish-Japanese author Lafcadio Hearn, who had a deep interest in weird and exotic things, has dedicated a whole chapter to cicadas. He starts by quoting a senryu that deftly expresses the feeling of the transience of life induced by the cicada:

their voices all consumed 
by their crying -
the shells of cicadas

[Koe ni mina / naki-shimote ya / semi no kara]

The "shells of cicadas" in the above poem does not refer to the shell of the nymph, but to the dead bodies of grown-up cicadas.

Nowadays, people in Japan close their windows and huddle by their air conditioners, shut off from nature. In this most seasonal country of the world, in that way the true feeling for summer is lost. Without hearing the cry of the cicadas, it is not really summer in Japan!

Hearn also describes how over the several weeks of summer, different cicadas appear with their different songs. In early summer the aburazemi ("oil cicada") appears, so named because its shrilling resembles the sound of oil or grease frying in a pan. The aburazemi begin to sing at sunrise, when, as Hearn describes it, a great hissing seems to ascend from all the trees - the sound with which I woke up this morning. Hearn also quotes the following senryu:

has the dew taken life
with that voice?
the aburazemi! 

[Ano koe de / tsuyu ga inochi ka / aburazemi]

In early summer next the mugikarizemi or "barley harvest cicada" appears, which makes two distinct sounds in different keys, resembling the syllables shi-in, shin -- chi-i, ch-i. 

While all cicadas make their music only in the full blaze of day, pausing even when clouds obscure the sun, at around this time also a cicada appears which sings only at dusk (and is therefore called Higurashi) and is one of the really musical cicadas. Hearn describes its sound as kana-kana-kana-kana-kana, slowly descending from a very clear, high key - somewhat like the sound of hand bell, very quickly rung. It has a great sonority.

Extremely loud is the minminzemi, which sings during the hottest period of the year. It derives its name from the fact that its note is thought to resemble the syllable "min" repeated over and over again, first slow and very loud, then more often and quicker, until it dies away in a sort of buzz: mi-in - mi-in - min-min - minminmin -dzzzzz.
The sound is plaintive and not unpleasant, although it means emphatically that it is very hot outside! Hearn mentions that the chant of this cicada is often compared to the sound of the voice of a priest chanting the sutras.

But it is rather loud, so it probably inspired the following senryu:

cicadas add to the heat -
I wish to cut down
the pine tree

[Semi atsushi / matsu kirabaya to / omou made]

Sometimes the noise is so great that you would think the whole tree was covered with cicadas - while it is only a single one:

shrilling
thicker than the tree
the cicada's voice

[Naite iru / ki yori mo futoshi / semi no koe]

One of the last cicadas to mature is the tsukutsukuboshi, the most musical of all, whose song resembles that of a bird. I am not sure I have ever heard this one, but perhaps I mistook it for a bird! This is probably the type of cicada that in the past was caught and sold in a small cage.

And then the final cicada to appear is the autumn cicada, tsuriganezemi or "Temple Bell Cicada." Its voice is light and does not resemble so much the big peal of a temple bell itself, but rather the soft, deep and sweet humming which follows the peal, wave upon wave. The song of this cicada is much "cooler" (it has a silvery substance) and signifies that summer is coming to an end and autumn is approaching.

Japan's major haiku poet Basho wrote a famous haiku about cicadas when visiting Yamadera Temple in Yamagata (how quiet / sinking into the rocks / the voices of cicadas) - emphasizing the quietness of the venerable temple, for even cicadas voices don't disturb it, but seem to sink into the very rocks. Here is another one by Basho, which, in Hearn's words, "preaches the Sutra of Impermanency:"

soon to die
without realizing it - 
the voice of a cicada

[yagate shinu / keshiki wa miezu / semi no koe]

The title for this haiku is mujo jinsoku, which means "the vicissitudes of life are swift, and our life is ephemeral," a phrase much loved by Basho.

The sound of cicadas is sad and nostalgic to human ears - it is certainly not just noise. Life is short and fragile, not only for a cicada, but also for humans. That makes it all the more important to appreciate each moment as precious.

[Based on information from Lafcadio Hearn's Semi chapter in Shadowings (freely available at Gutenberg), as well as cicada data from Wikipedia (incl. the photos). The quotation about "mujo jinsoku" is from Basho's Haiku by Oseki Toshiharu (Maruzen: Tokyo, 1990). The literal translations of the senryu and haiku are my own.]
31 Jul
The post on sake from Miyagi in my Sake by Region series which is under revision, has been updated and expanded and is available at: Miyagi.

Sake by Region:
Hokkaido/Tohoku: Hokkaido - Aomori - Akita - Iwate - Miyagi - Yamagata - Fukushima
Kanto area: Ibaraki - Tochigi - Gunma - Saitama - Chiba - Tokyo - Kanagawa - Yamanashi
Shinetsu/Hokuriku: Nagano - Niigata - Toyama - Ichikawa - Fukui
Tokai area: Shizuoka - Aichi - Gifu - Mie
Kansai area: Shiga - Kyoto - Osaka - Hyogo - Nara - Wakayama
Chugoku area: Tottori - Shimane - Okayama - Hiroshima - Yamaguchi
Shikoku: Tokushima - Kagawa - Ehime - Kochi
Kyushu/Okinawa: Fukuoka - Saga - Nagasaki - Kumamoto - Oita - Miyazaki / Kagoshima / Okinawa
30 Jul
The post on sake from Iwate in my Sake by Region series which is under revision, has been updated and expanded and is available at: Iwate.

Sake by Region:
Hokkaido/Tohoku: Hokkaido - Aomori - Akita - Iwate - Miyagi - Yamagata - Fukushima
Kanto area: Ibaraki - Tochigi - Gunma - Saitama - Chiba - Tokyo - Kanagawa - Yamanashi
Shinetsu/Hokuriku: Nagano - Niigata - Toyama - Ichikawa - Fukui
Tokai area: Shizuoka - Aichi - Gifu - Mie
Kansai area: Shiga - Kyoto - Osaka - Hyogo - Nara - Wakayama
Chugoku area: Tottori - Shimane - Okayama - Hiroshima - Yamaguchi
Shikoku: Tokushima - Kagawa - Ehime - Kochi
Kyushu/Okinawa: Fukuoka - Saga - Nagasaki - Kumamoto - Oita - Miyazaki / Kagoshima / Okinawa
20 Jul
The first years of the new century are the time that the wave of cinematic revival by indies and anime reaches its top and a large number of gripping, alternative films is produced. Of course, it was too good to last, but really great while it lasted - the curve would start heading down by the end of the decade (more about that in my next post). 

Many of the indie directors who started in the nineties, flourished in this period and made some of their best works. Important new directors are Sono Shion, Yukisada Isao, Toyoda Toshiaki, Miki Satoshi and Lee Sang-Il. Gratifying is also that many woman directors break through the glass ceiling in an industry that long marginalized women: Kawase Naomi is joined by Nishikawa Miwa, Ninagawa Mika, Tanada Yuki, Ogigami Naoko, Ando Momoko, Yang Yong-hi, Oh Mipo and Sakamoto Ayumi. These directors are not incidentally today making some of Japan's most interesting films.

The general atmosphere of Japanese films remains dark. Often alienation from society and the search for identity are emphasized. These were the years of the "lost generation," young people who had grown up during the economic crisis. They often became "freeters" (free part timers), partly our of necessity (there were no stable jobs), partly out of choice (they didn't want to copy their fathers who had dedicated their lives to their companies, only to be discarded). 

The style of indies films remains that of the New Wave of the Nineties: a distant and objective camera, as well as long and static shots. In short, a minimalist style. An exception is Miike Takashi with his extremist and over the top style, full of stomach-turning violence, and also new director Sono Shion, who even outdoes Miike in this respect.

It is also the  period of postmodernism, which had of course already started in the 1980s-1990s, but which becomes dominant in this period with its many pastiches and remakes (remakes are of all time, especially in Japan, but now we find conscious pastiches rather than independent new versions). We also see that high art and low art styles are mixed, that art films borrow the style of genre films, while also many styles and genres can be mixed in one and the same film. The constructed nature of what appears on screen is not concealed, linear time is fragmented and there are many references to (quotes from) other films (intertextuality). Finally, postmodernism does not have faith in master narratives of history or culture or in the self as an autonomous subject. It is rather interested in contradiction, fragmentation, and instability. All these elements can be found in the indies of this period. 

For the general public, indies are out of their nature not very popular. The mainstream prefers anime (except a few such as those made by Ghibli, exclusively for children, taking care of 60% of total film production), nostalgic films and war films about how good and heroic Japan used to be (for the older generation), sentimental love stories (for young women) and TV series transferred to the large screen (mainly housewives). The dominance of a young, male public that asked for violence and sex in the 1960s and 1970s has been turned on its head. 

In 2000, the Japan Film Commission Promotion Council was established by the government and the next year the Japanese Foundation for the Promotion of the Arts laws were passed. These were intended to promote the production of media arts, including film; they also stipulated that the government must lend aid in order to preserve film media. There is however no direct support for new Japanese films as in France.

2000
This year, there are 2,524 screens in Japan, of which 1,123 in cinema complexes. 282 Japanese films are produced (31.8 % of total). Admissions stand at 135,390,000.

Battle Royale by Fukasaku Kinji becomes an ultra-controversial examination of the institutionalization of violence. A fascist teacher (Kitano Takeshi) maniacally leads his high school class on a government-sponsored survival-of-the-fittest experiment on a deserted island. The students are each given a bag with a randomly selected weapon and sent off to kill each other in a deathly game. They are also fitted with explosive collars that go off when they don't play by the rules. The sadistic instructor gleefully announces new deaths over a loudspeaker system. Uncompromising film with over-the-top violence among teenagers, which led to questions in the Japanese parliament (especially as real life cruel murders by juveniles were then getting much media attention) and a ban in several countries. But in Japan the film was a blockbuster. A sequel, Battle Royale II followed in 2003, but was of a very different nature and a flop (production started when Fukusaku was already very ill, and was completed by his son). (See my post about Best Cult Films at Splendid Labyrinths)


Kao ("Face") by Sakamoto Junji tells the story of a flabby, plain woman (marvelously played by character actress Fujiyama Naomi), who is drudging away as seamstress in her family's dry cleaning shop in Amagasaki, until she accidentally kills her haughty and dashing sister, in a quarrel after the death of their mother. She escapes (it helps that this is the early morning the Kobe earthquake struck) and starts a turbulent journey of self discovery, working as a maid, as a waitress and again as seamstress, making various friends along the way. At first, she looks so plain that nobody notices her, but as her self-confidence helps her blossom into beauty, that changes and several times she has to flee hastily. In the end, she swims away from the police chasing her on a small island. We know she will be caught and that she must atone for manslaughter, but we keep rooting for her. A wonderful film that won the Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film of the Year as well as Japan Academy award for Best Director; Fujiyama Naomi won several Best Actress awards, for example at the 22nd Yokohama Film festival. Abroad the film was less successful - our heroine is very far from your all-American role model - but that is exactly why I prefer Japanese cinema.


Hotaru ("Firefly") by Kawase Naomi is about the intense love affair between a traumatized striptease dancer (Nakamura Yuko) and a solitary potter (Nagasawa Toshiya) - they meet when the dancer returns after many years absence to her village in the Nara area. The firefly of the title is a symbol for the main character who, as a firefly, uses her shining beauty to attract a partner, but than gets burned by the heat. Again filmed in the director's signature documentary style, like her first film Suzaku. Shown at the Rotterdam Film festival of 2001 and winner of the Fricespi Award at the Locarno Film festival.

Eureka by Aoyama Shinji is a four hour drama about a bus driver (Yakusho Koji) and two children, a brother and sister, who are the only survivors of a murderous hijack of their bus and then have to live with their trauma, which sets them apart from other people. It also leads to the break-up of both their families. They come together with the driver as a surrogate parent and finally take a road trip to attempt to overcome their damaged selves and find hope for the future. Filmed in sepia tones. Inspired by the traumatization of the victims of the Aum Shinrikyo sarin attacks in the Tokyo subway. Entered into the 2000 Cannes Film Festival.


Tokyo Gomi Onna ("Tokyo Trash Baby") by former pink film director Hiroki Ryuichi is an ironic romantic drama. A waitress (Nakamura Mami) who works as freeter in a coffee restaurant has a crush on a rock musician living in the same apartment building and always goes stealthily through his garbage hunting for mementos (empty cans, empty packets of cereals, empty cigarette cases and cigarette butts, a torn jacket), with which she decorates her room. She has quite a collection, identifying with him through the discards of his day-to-day existence. When she finally becomes his girlfriend for one night, she is the following morning discarded like a piece of trash, which motivates her to collect all the collectibles and throw them away at Yumenoshima, a landfill island in Tokyo Bay built of trash. A gentle critique of consumer culture and the consumption of human relationships.

Dead or Alive 2: Tobosha ("Dead or Alive 2: Birds") by Miike Takashi is the best film of the DOA trilogy. Two contract killers (Takeuchi Riki and Aikawa Sho) from Osaka happen to meet in the course of different jobs of killing the same gang boss and realize they were childhood friends. They find themselves drawn back to their childhood haunt, on the remote Oki Islands in the Japan Sea off Shimane Prefecture (an area where exiles were sent in the past). They also meet another friend - the three of them were orphans in the local orphanage, for which they decide to do a theatrical play. There are many such nostalgic scenes, but fully in quirky Miike-style. Later, the killers go back to Osaka, donating the money they earn with their killings to African charities. And when they both have been fatally shot, in their minds they return once more to their island, now both surrealistically covered in blood. By the way, at the beginning of the film, Tsukamoto Shinya plays the role of a flamboyant bartender-conjurer.

Horyugai ("City of Lost Souls") is one of Miike Takashi's most over the top films. Set in the underground foreign communities of Shinjuku (Brazilians, Chinese, Russians, etc.) it tells about a Brazilian protagonist (Teah) who helps his beautiful Chinese girlfriend (Michelle Reis) escape the immigration authorities by a daring helicopter rescue, after which they want to leave Japan "legally" by obtaining false passports. But when they steal money for these passports, they antagonize both the yakuza and the Chinese mafia, which promises a wild ride. One the craziest films Miike has made, with weird camera angles (a killing filmed from the bowl of a toilet, in which turds are drifting), an unbelievable CGI cock fight, a dwarf who brushes his teeth with cocaine, and a booby-trapped ping pong match. That all tongue-in-cheek as a comic book come alive.

Brother by Kitano Takeshi unfortunately shows a decline compared to Kitano's work from the nineties. Made in Hollywood, it is a rather straightforward genre piece, with Kitano just showing off how sadistic he can be. There is none of the philosophical depth of, for example, Sonatine in this pastiche of his own style. Working abroad for a foreign audience has Kitano trying to demonstrate the "beauty" of Japaneseness, of all things in the ninkyo ideal of extreme loyalty that is seriously presented as worthy (his yakuza from the 1990s were on the contrary extremely disloyal, and that was more beautiful). The names of the yakuza in this film are based on the names of wartime heroes as Admiral Yamamoto, and that is unfortunately not meant ironically. The film's title refers to the fact that the yakuza are homosocially bonding as "brothers" and the African-American small-time criminal Denny is accepted as the "brother" of the main character played by Kitano. The acting in this film, by the way, is weak, perhaps also because story and characterization are never convincing.


Versus by Kitamura Ryuhei proves to be one of the most extreme offerings of Japanese cult cinema. It is a blood-soaked frenzy set in an enchanted forest full of marauding zombies. In these woods, an escaped mass murderer finds himself confronted by a group of yakuza who have kidnapped a young woman and together they run into a group of ghouls hungry for human flesh. The result is a gore fest full of nonstop battles, blood and beasts, without backstory or character development, but just a postmodern collage of gun-play, martial arts, flying limbs and other blood-drenched stunt work. The only negative point is that it is too long. Strictly for fans. Kitamura Ryuhei would go on to make rather silly commercial idol vehicles as Azumi and has not fulfilled the promise of this first film.  
Uzumaki ("Spiral" aka "Vortex") by Ukrainian-born director Higuchinsky (aka Higuchi Akihiro), and based on a manga by Ito Junji, shows how an entire rural town is besieged by horrific spirals. This supernatural J-Horror film patiently builds up mood, before letting the spiral madness explode. An impressive first feature filmed in an odd-ball, grotesque style. Just sit back and let the visuals spiral towards you. One of the best Japanese horror films - it deserves to be a cult item like House.


Dora-heita ("Alley Cat") by Ichikawa Kon is a period film based on a script written by Ichikawa together with Kurosawa Akira, Kobayashi Masaki and Kinoshita Keisuke. The project had originally been planned for 1970, but could only be executed when Ichikawa was the sole survivor of the group and in fact still going strong as a director at age 84 (!). It is the story of a new magistrate (Yakusho Koji) who cleans up a corrupt and lawless town. He pretends to be an ineffectual alcoholic in order to lull his opponents into sleep, but has in fact been sent by the shogun on a special assignment. Surprisingly, the film's major weakness is Yakusho Koji, elsewhere a versatile and intelligent actor, whose low-key style is not suitable for jidaigeki, as he doesn't project any power - when writing his scenario, Kurosawa was obviously thinking about a forceful and morally ambiguous type like Mifune Toshiro.

Chaos by Nakata Hideo is a clever, but conventional noir thriller, structured around a femme fatale (Nakatani Miki) and a fake kidnapping in which a handyman gets involved (Hagiwara Masato), who then has to solve the mystery to prove his innocence. A disappointing and two-dimensional creation from the maker of Ring, without cinematic interest (more like a TV film).

2001
Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi ("Spirited Away") by Miyazaki Hayao is the story of 10-year old Chihiro, who during a family outing looses her parents in an abandoned amusement park (they have been turned into pigs). Chihiro next ends up in a giant spirit bathhouse, peopled by bizarre creatures, and ruled by an old witch, Yubaba. She has to take the name Sen and learn the rules of the place. During her adventures, which are also a sort of spiritual journey, Chihiro learns how to survive - from a pampered 21st century kid she develops into a self-confident heroine. At the same time, as usual with Miyazaki, this is not just an entertaining story, but on a higher level a criticism of capitalist consumption culture. A truly wonderful film that deserves all the praise lavished upon it. Japan Academy Prize for Picture of the Year.


Akai hashi no shita no nurui mizu ("Warm Water under the Red Bridge") by veteran master Imamura Shohei is a heartwarming experience. Yakusho Koji plays a salaryman who has lost his job (and family) in the restructuring of the late nineties, but from a bum whom he meets in a tent city in one of Tokyo's parks, he hears about a treasure hidden in a house next to a red bridge in a small town on the Japan Sea coast. The real treasure he finds is the woman he meets in that house (Shimizu Misa), who has unusual life-giving faculties. Love blossoms, but first the redundant salaryman has to get back his self-esteem by doing some hard work with the local fishermen. This fairy tale would be Imamura's last feature film.


Suzuki Seijun, another veteran, makes Pistol Opera, a hyper-stylized, garishly colored remake of his 1967 Branded to Kill. Now there is a female lead (Esumi Makiko), called Stray Cat ("dogs follow masters, but I am a stray cat"), who is No. 3 Assassin and like in the previous film struggling to reach the position of No. 1. Filmed in a unique and mesmerizing style with complete disregard for plot and realistic scenes - in fact, the story is a mere hook for cinematic exuberance.


Koroshiya 1 ("Ichi the Killer") by Miike Takashi stars Asano Tadanobu as a sadomasochistic yakuza hitman, and Tsukamoto Shinya as a sort of puppet master. Tsukamoto wants to destroy Asano's yakuza group that controls Shinjuku, and as a secret weapon uses Ichi, an unassuming teenager who slices his opponents apart with blades hidden in the soles of his shoes. As usual, Miike is very inventive in dishing up novel ways of torture - this film has been denounced for its delirious and stomach-turning violence. Based on an equally outrageous manga by Yamamoto Hideo. On the other hand, it is so over the top, that you can't take it seriously and that takes some of the edge away.


Miike Takashi also makes Visitor Q, one of his most outrageous and provocative films. It starts with a broken family that gradually comes together through the presence of a stranger in their midst ("Visitor Q"), but along the way Miike throws in every taboo subject imaginable, from incest to drug addiction to teenage prostitution to necrophilia. The film ends with the mother lactating on the kitchen floor after which the family members reunite in this pool of mother milk (is this reference meant as satire or homage of Japanese hahamono, mother films?). Ultimately, the harmony in the family is restored, but at the cost of multiple homicide. A straight-to-video film, that copied its central idea about the seduction of a dysfunctional family by a mysterious stranger from Pasolini's Teorema.

Katakurike no kofuku ("The Happiness of the Katakuris"), also by Miike Takshi in this prolific year, is a black musical comedy about a family trying to run a country inn hoping that a future highway will bring in business. But their scattered guests have a knack of dying in odd ways, after which the family secretly buries them as those deaths might hurt their reputation. Unfortunately, they bury them right in the path of the planned highway... At the oddest moments, people break into song. A sort of impossible cross between The Sound of Music and The Living Dead. Features excellent actors as Sawada Kenji, Matsuzaka Keiko, Tanba tetsuro and Takenaka Naoto.


Go by new director Yukisada Isao is a film questioning existing preconceptions of national identity, in a story about a Japanese-born teenager of North-Korean descent (second generation, a so-called zainichi) and the discrimination he experiences as he grows up. But it is also also a youth film, full of energy and an indomitable spirit. More important than what it says on your passport, is who you really are - national identities are just administrative constructs. Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film of the Year.

Distance by Koreeda Hirokazu was directly inspired by the infamous Aum Shinrikyo sect that released sarin gas in the Tokyo subways in 1995. Four family members of people who joined a similar evil sect and were killed by their fellow members come together for a memorial and discuss the direction their lives have taken after the disaster.

Kurosawa Kiyoshi directs Kairo ("Pulse," lit. "Circuit"), a conventional J-Horror film that is a let-down after the director's artistic films Cure and Charisma. The protagonists are unmemorable teenagers like in Hollywood horror films, and the basic idea, of ghosts who via the internet invade our present world and destroy it as they have no space anymore in their own world, is rather ridiculous. If ghosts or souls would exist (which I deny), they would be immaterial and therefore take up no space! Moreover, Kurosawa forgets the basic rule of all horror films: never believe in your own ghosts, but present them ambiguously and teasingly as just a possibility, never as a fixed truth. With a later film like Loft (2005) Kurosawa would make an even more traditional and ridiculous horror flick (with a walking mummy); at least, on the positive side, Kairo contains ideas about loneliness in the contemporary world, which it philosophically equates with death. In that sense, the film could be seen as a post-mortem on a post-Bubble and post Aum-Shinrikyo Japan.

Electric Dragon 80,000 V. by veteran indie Sogo Ishii is a bizarre, 55-min. cyberpunk action flick about rock & roll and electricity. Filmed in a frenzied style that reminds one of Tetsuo, and with two literally high-voltage heroes (Asano Tadanobu and Nagase Masatoshi) slugging it out, this is a weird movie all in its own class.

Riri Shushi no subete ("All About Lili Chou-Chou"), a youth film by Iwai Shunji, was honored at the Berlin, the Yokohama and the Shanghai Film Festivals. The anguish of teen life is evoked in the shape of a bullied schoolboy, who seeks solace in the ethereal music of a fictional pop star about whom he hosts an internet chat

Onmyoji ("Onmyoji: The Yinyang Master") by Takita Yojiro is a minor but colorful extravaganza about the exploits of Abe no Seimei, a (historical) master of the occult who served the Heian court in the tenth century. The film was quite successful in Japan and set off a tourist boom to the small Abe no Seimei shrine in Kyoto. One reason for its popularity was that the main character was played by the androgynous Nomura Mansei, a famous Kyogen actor (who also played in Ran). He faces off with Sanada Hiroyuki as Doson, a rival occult master who plots the downfall of the emperor by harnessing the forces of darkness. The special effects are a bit cheesy, but Onmyoji's ironic tone makes much good. Its success even called for the inevitable sequel. (See my post on Japanese Horror Movies)


Sennen joyu ("Millenium Actress"), by Kon Satoshi, is arguably one of the best animation films ever made in Japan. An elderly actress is visited by a reporter and cameraman and asked to recount her life story. Her own touching memories center on the romantic feelings she developed for an artist / activist she met briefly during the war, but who had to flee and whom she never could find again, although she kept searching her whole life. These flashbacks merge with scenes from the many genre films in which she played (and which "cover a millennium," from period films to science-fiction) and gradually the reality of life and the fantasy of film become entwined. This Gordian knot is made even more intricate by the presence of the interviewers in her memories, first as onlookers, but finally also as participants. It is great to see how one cinematic medium, anime, celebrates another, live feature film, and this wonderful movie is also an interesting romp through Japanese film history.

Avalon by Oshii Mamoru is live action film by this anime director, made in Poland and with Polish actors. In a futuristic society, young people are increasingly addicted to an illegal interactive war game that is potentially deadly, but also offers escape from their bleak existence. One of the earliest Japanese films to fuse live action with the copious use of CGI (unfortunately, many more would follow).

Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within by Sakaguchi Hironobu is a computer animation (based on a popular game) with impressively realistic human figures. The story is a nuts-and-bolts space opera, about a woman scientist who with a team of ragtag militants tries to head off an invasion by phantom-like aliens. What is revolutionary for its time is the use of computer graphics to simulate human actors - it looks quite gorgeous and took four years and $140 million to make. But the robotic images - how realistic they look - also leave one cold, and not surprisingly, the film bombed at the box office.

2002
Tasogare Seibei ("The Twilight Samurai") was Yamada Yoji's first venture into period film territory and a deft demythologizing of the samurai. Based on a story by Fujisawa Shuhei. Set just before the Meiji Restoration, it follows the life of Iguchi Seibei (Sanada Hiroyuki), a low-ranking samurai employed as a bureaucrat. Seibei is nicknamed "Twilight" (Tasogare) because he always has to go home after work and never has time to go drinking with his colleagues (like a modern salaryman). This is because his wife has died and he has to take care of two young children and an almost senile mother. Miyazawa Rie shines as Seibei's love interest Tomoe, but Seibei feels he can't take a new wife because of his poverty. He also is a capable swordsman and when a renegade samurai barricades himself in a house in the town, Seibei is forced by the clan leaders to stand up for the "honor" of the clan, although he has no desire to fight. Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film of the Year and Japan Academy Prize for Picture of the Year. (See my post about Best Samurai Films)


Rokugatsu no hebi ("A Snake of June") by Tsukamoto Shinya is arguably the best film of this innovative director. It is an erotic film about a young woman (Kurosawa Asuka), married to a much older man (novelist Kotari Yuji), who experiences a sexual awakening when a stalker (Tsukamoto Shinya) blackmails her with compromising pictures he took of her and has her act out her own erotic fantasies. The film was shot in blue and gray tints and, as it is set in the rainy season of June, is full of gurgling water (clouds and rain are a sexual symbol in traditional East Asian culture). Tsukamoto, who here made his first film without horror or fantasy elements, handles the potentially exploitative subject with delicacy, and shows how the female protagonist develops into a self-confident individual. Won Special Jury Prize at the Venice Film festival of 2002.


In Dolls Kitano Takeshi shows us a "beautiful Japanese tradition," like in Brother, but now a more peaceful one, that of love until death as expressed in the bunraku puppet plays of Chikamatsu Monzaemon. Three stories of eternal love are crisscrossed, but all end fatally. Set design and cinematography are exquisite - in fact, somewhat too much so, as the beggar-lovers, tied together by a red chord, walk around in Yamamoto Yoji designer clothes, through the landscapes of the four seasons with cherry blossoms, red leaves and snowscapes, which look too much like a tourist brochure. The start and ending of the film with bunraku dolls and puppeteers is a reference to Shinoda Masahiro's famous Double Suicide. Despite its flaws, this is a much better film than Kitano's previous Brother.


OUT by Hirayama Hideyuki, loosely based on a novel by popular author Kirino Natsuo, is a show window of the social problems that have beset Japan in the new millennium: four housewives (Harada Mieko, Baisho Mitsuko, etc.) have to work night shifts in a company making lunch boxes to make both ends meet. One of them has a son who is a hikikomori and a husband who is a shoplifter, a second one is a brand shopaholic with debts, a third one has to nurse a demented parent in her house as there is no money for a nursing home, and a fourth has an abusive husband who gambles away his income and gets rid of his frustration by kicking her in her pregnant belly. In a fit of anger, she strangles him with his belt when he is asleep and then calls her three friends to help her get rid of the body. They help out of solidarity - this is also a film about female empowerment, and in that sense a film in the same vein as Kao (2000). But not only the police, also the yakuza (who are suspected of the murder) are on the track of the four women...

Umi wa mite ita ("The Sea Is Watching") by Kumai Kei, his last film, is based on a scenario inherited from Kurasawa Akira. It is the story of a late Edo-period brothel in Yoshiwara, centering on two prostitutes, Oshin (Tono Nagiko), who falls in love with unlucky patrons, but is also unlucky herself for they always leave her in the lurch, and Kikuno (Shimizu Misa), a more experienced and cynical woman, who is also unlucky, for although an older client is willing to buy up her contract, she stays put as she can't leave her yakuza boy friend. It all comes to a head during a thunderous typhoon. More a Mizoguchi than a Kurosawa story - reminding one of Mizoguchi's last film, Street of Shame, although that is the much superior movie. The Sea Is Watching has several flaws, from the casting to the use of silly CGI, but it is still worth watching.

Kagami no onnatachi ("Women in the Mirror") is the last feature film by veteran New Wave director Yoshida Yoshishige. It is an evocation of the Hiroshima disaster seen through the fate of three women: an older mother (Okada Mariko); her daughter (Tanaka Yoshiko) who ran away 24 years ago and now is presumably found back, but suffering from amnesia; and the granddaughter (Isshiki Sae), who was brought up by the grandmother. As the person who may be her daughter has a sole memory of a hospital room in Hiroshima, the three women travel there to reconstruct their personal histories. The idea behind the film is that the daughter's identity was destroyed by her experiencing the atomic bomb disaster. This has fragmented her self, as if staring in a broken mirror.

Aoi Haru ("Blue Spring") by Toyoda Toshiaki takes place at a high school full of delinquents and misfits, where utter anarchy reigns, although the students have also established their own hierarchy which is more cruel than that outside the gates. While the miserable, powerless teachers live in fear of the students, yakuza patrol the school's fences to find prey to recruit to their ranks. This film stresses the similarities between gang life, school life and corporate life. A most bleak view, but with surprisingly little onscreen violence.

If you think that Miike Takashi is weird, then watch this one: Jisatsu Sakuru ("Suicide Club") by Sono Shion starts with a bloody mass suicide of 54 teenage girls who jump together under a train and only gets weirder. "Nowadays Japanese are acting strange," says someone in this film, and that hits the nail on its head. Suicide seems a virus: teenagers jump from school roofs and train platforms, nurses fly from windows, others put their head in the oven, swallow pills or cut themselves to pieces. The investigating police detective (Ishibashi Renji) doesn't know what to make of it. Mysterious rolls of human skin are found, which seem to belong to the victims; an internet site seems to predict the suicides by colored dots; and a girl band sings a popular song "Mail Me," which may contain a subliminal message... Considering the fact that suicides in Japan were (and still are) at an annual high of about 30,000 this film gained a considerable amount of notoriety for its controversial subject matter and gory presentation. The film, by the way, can also be read as a critique of contemporary society, especially among the young, where commercial fads and trends pull people along who in the process loose their own identity. An impressive start for Sono Shion, who would become one of the most interesting directors of the new millennium.


Juon ("Ju-on: The Grudge") by Shimizu Takashi features the most creepy little boy in film history. He and his mother have been brutally murdered by the father and keep haunting their former house. When a social worker comes to visit that house, she is met by the terrible stare of the dead boy, while the mother comes slithering head-first down the stairs like a snake, waving her long black hair... An effective little shocker, one of the better J-Horror products. A sequel followed the same year, and a Hollywood adaptation was also made (with Shimizu himself as director). (See my post on Japanese Horror Movies)


Honogurai mizu no soko kara ("Dark Water") by Nakata Hideo is another J-Horror success of this year. A divorced mother who has just won a custody battle for her daughter, moves into an old apartment building, where water is constantly leaking and dripping, with great stains on ceiling and walls. Then a ghostly child appears... Nakata's best effort after Ring.

Neko no ongaeshi ("The Cat Returns," lit. "The Gratitude of the Cat") by Morita Hiroyuki is an anime film about a schoolgirl who is transported to the feline kingdom to marry a cat prince she saved from a speeding truck. This is the (rather unwelcome) "ongaeshi" or "act of gratitude" she receives from the King of Cats. Will she eventually be able to return to the human world? Based on a manga by Hiragi Aoi. Minor Ghibli, without any deeper philosophy, but still an enchanting fable for children.

2003
Zatoichi by Kitano Takeshi was not surprisingly this director's most successful film in Japan, as it is simply good, traditional chambara. Kitano was asked by a friend of Katsu Shintaro to make this film as an homage to the dead actor, and she put up part of the money. Kitano obliged with a twist, for his Zatoichi has bleached hair (chapatsu, which used to be a sign of rebellion among young people in the nineties, until it became somewhat mainstream). It is not a remake of any particular Zatoichi film, but rather a rearrangement of generic story elements. The tap dance at the end is also very effective, although not wholly original, for we already find jazzy dance and music in 1950s Toei period productions as the films with Misora Hibari. The difference with the Zatoichi from the 1960s and 1970s is that the blind swordsman at that time also embodied a certain form of social protest, while Kitano's postmodern pastiche is nothing more than entertainment.


Kohi Jiko ("Café Lumière") is a Japanese production by well-known Taiwanese "New Wave" director Hou Hsiao-hsien, made at the invitation of Shochiku as an homage to Ozu Yasujiro, whose centennial birth year was in 2003. Hou works with static cameras, and long and distant takes, something which inspired the young Taiwanese (and Japanese) directors of the nineties. His very distant camera and documentary style are however different from Ozu. The general homage to Ozu is clearest in the love of trains which runs through the film. The story is about a young Japanese woman (pop singer Hitoto Yo) who is researching the life of the Taiwanese composer Jiang Wen-ye, who studied in Japan before WWII, with the help of the friendly staff of a second hand book store (Asano Tadanobu). She is pregnant by her Taiwanese boyfriend, but does not plan to marry him, something about which she does not consult her parents in any way - she just informs hem. There are several quotes from Ozu's films, for example when the main character has to borrow sake and a glass from the landlady, like Hara Setsuko did from her neighbor in Tokyo Monogatari. Nominated for Golden Lion at Venice.


Sarasoju ("Shara") by Kawase Naomi is another film in documentary style shot on a Nara location, this time right in the middle of the old Nara town, near Gangoji temple. It is the story of how a family deals with grief: the Aso family had twin boys, but one day, one of them suddenly disappeared and was never found again - not even his body. Now it is five years later and the remaining brother is seventeen and has a girlfriend. The mother is again pregnant and the family has to go on with their lives.

Kurosawa Kiyoshi directs Akarui Mirai ("Bright Future"), a title that seems rather ironic, for the future of the two dangerous, aimless young men (Asano Tadanobu and Odagiri Joe) in this film is anything but bright. They work in a small factory producing oshibori hand towels. Both are prey to uncontrollable fits of rage, and especially irritated by their boss (although the boss is friendly and trying to help the boys). Not surprisingly, the factory owner is killed without reason and one of the young men is convicted of his murder - he commits suicide on death row. He used to keep a poisonous jellyfish as a pet and has given that in the care of his friend. The friend now sees the gulf between the bright future he dreamed of and the stark reality he finds himself in, but also realizes he must cope with life as he finds it. He releases the jellyfish, which reproduces in the drains of the city. One of the last shots of the film is a swarm of jellyfish making their way to the sea.


Joze to Tora to Sakanatachi ("Josee, the Tiger and the Fish") by Inudo Isshin is an offbeat drama about an average college student, popular with girls (Tsumabuki Satoshi), who unexpectedly falls in love with a defiantly independent, lonely disabled girl (Ikewaki Chizuru). Of course the ending is sad as the boy can't keep his promises and gives in to the pressure of society which is against the relation of a healthy boy with a crippled girl. Excellent performances by all.

Hiroki Ryukichi makes Vibrator - not about a sex toy, but the vibration when a mobile phone rings, which is the only connection left to the world for a bulimic, lonely young woman (who is a freelance writer, so an insecure "freeter") expertly played by stage actress Terajima Shinobu. But one time she feels attracted to a young truck driver with bleached hair (Omori Nao) she happens to meet in a convenience store, and spends the night in his cabin. The next day, she joins him in his truck for an impromptu ride to Niigata, embarking on what will be a life-changing journey where she (re)discovers her emotional life and sexuality - she literally gets "in touch" with another human being again. A raw psychological film, which is also strangely uplifting and unforgettable, addressing problems in Japanese society that are of wider relevance than only Japan. Based on a novel by Akasaka Mari.

Gozu by Miike Takashi is a surrealistic, Lynchian yakuza flic, in which one man (Sone Yuta) has to get secretly rid of a colleague (Aikawa Sho) whose erratic behavior worries his bosses. He doesn't want to kill the colleague to whom he owes his life, but accidentally does so when he slams the brakes of his car and the colleague hits his head against the window. Next the corpse disappears and the unfortunate yakuza starts looking for it in a town where everyone seems to have a screw loose - a descent into the grotesque that is symbolic for the protagonist's confusion, and which is in fact a descent into his own Freudian subconscious. This V-Cinema film was shown in the Director's Fortnight section at Cannes.

Chakushin ari ("One Mised Call"), also by Miike Takashi, is this director's contribution to the J-Horror genre. The idea is the same as that of Ring: teenagers who hear a message on their mobile phone, are fated to die. After a conventional J-Horror start, in the second half we finally get some true Miike touches. Film did well at the box office (calling for a sequel), but has also been called a turning point in Miike's career to (slightly) more mainstream films. (See my post on Japanese Horror Movies)

Hanai Sachiko no karei na shogai ("The Glamorous Life of Sachiko Hanai") by Meike Mitsuru is a clever pastiche of pink films and at the same time one of the best pink films ever made. It tells the tongue-in-cheek story of a call girl (Hayami Kyoko) who is shot in the head and thanks to the bullet lodged in her brain turns into an intellectual superwoman, also possessing psychic powers. Viewers also encounter North-Korean agents, a rather stimulated professor and the cloned finger of George W. Bush that controls the atomic button... This loopy sex comedy made quite an impression internationally.



2004
A great and sensitive film is Tony Takitani by Ichikawa Jun, about a lonely technical illustrator who marries a woman obsessed with designer clothes and who attempts to replace her with another woman after her death in a traffic accident. He asks the new woman, whom he finds via a classified ad, to impersonate his deceased wife by wearing her clothes. The finest adaptation made so far of a work by popular author Murakami Haruki. Features stage actor Ogata Issei and Miyazawa Rie with fine performances. Poetic and restrained, a gripping meditation on loneliness and loss, filmed in a minimalist style which keeps very close to the original story.


Another film with Miyazawa Rie is Chichi to kuraseba ("The Face of Jizo") by Kuroki Kazuo. Based on a play by Inoue Hisashi (and still feeling too much like a theater play), this story is set in Hiroshima in 1948 and dramatizes the life of a young woman who is her family's sole survivor of the atomic blast. She imagines that her father is still alive and living with her, and has whole conversations with him. He even gives her advice when she meets a shy researcher in the library where she works and feels she cannot accept his gentle advances out of guilt for being the sole survivor.

Daremo shiranai ("Nobody Knows") by Koreeda Hirokazu is heartbreaking film about four children (by as many different fathers) who are left in the lurch by a irresponsible, single young mother, who goes off with a new boyfriend. The kids have never been sent to school, but spend their days playing games and watching TV. The mother leaves some money, and the elder boy takes charge, but gradually things inevitably break down as finally the money runs out. Filmed almost as a documentary with the children behaving naturally, without obvious acting - the film was in fact based on a real incident, in which similarly abandoned children lived for months without parent, undetected by society. Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film of the Year.


Chi to hone ("Blood and Bones") by Sai Yoichi is an epic family saga, based on a semi-autobiographical novel, about a Korean who as a teenager in 1923 moves to Osaka and there over six decades builds up a fortune with a factory for processed seafood products, exploiting his employees. The cruel and violent man is like a moral black hole, he abuses and destroys the lives of his wife and family, has countless mistresses and children out of wedlock and shows no respect for anybody. Later he closes the factory to become a loan shark. Kitano Takeshi gives a fine performance as the brutal protagonist. What makes this film about an unlikable character worth watching is the humanity shown by the suffering family members around him.

Kakushi ken oni no tsume ("The Hidden Blade") is the second film in Yamada Yoji's samurai cycle, based on novels by Fujisawa Shuhei. The story of anther low-level samurai (Nagase Masatochi) from northern Japan, who is in love with the peasant servant girl of his family, but cannot marry her because of their difference in status. The film also shows the changing times as the samurai have to learn the use of artillery. As in all three films, Yamada Yoji gives a revisionist view of the samurai, and shows that their daily lives were very different from the heroic sword-slinging that is usually shown on the big screen.


Miike Takashi makes two films. Izo is a typical art film, about a samurai (Nakayama Kazuya) who in the late Edo period is unjustly executed on the cross and after death harbors such a strong lust for revenge that he keeps returning to earth in various periods and settings, always to kill his opponents. So this is a constant action film with one bloody killing after another, a bit like Versus, but with a philosophical twist: violence is unfortunately part of the DNA of humans and we can't get rid of it.

Zebraman, on the contrary, is a more commercial work, mainly aimed at children, about a dopey schoolteacher (Aikawa Sho) who believes he has to save the world from evil by enacting Zebraman, the superhero of an old TV series. A spoof of superhero films, such as the Japanese Ultraman, but ultimately rather kid stuff.

Marebito ("The Stranger from Afar") by Shimizu Takashi features Tsukamoto Shinya as a freelance cameraman who is investigating an urban legend about spirits that haunt the Tokyo subways. What he finds is a young woman whom he takes back to his apartment. She does not speak, does not eat, and only drinks blood. In order to nurse her, the cameraman becomes a serial killer. Extremely claustrophobic, but one of the last J-Horror films worth watching as the boom had faded by now.


Hauru no ugoku shiro ("Howl's Moving Castle") by Miyazaki Hayao took position between Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke as one of the three best grossing films made in Japan at the Japanese box office of all time - and all were anime films made by Studio Ghibli. Based on a fantasy novel by British writer Diana Wynne Jones, this is a complex fairy tale about a strong young woman working as a hatter in an idealized central European town. After being cursed by a witch, her body turns into that of an old hag and her only chance of breaking the spell lies with the flamboyant young wizard Howl who lives in a sort of steam vehicle annex castle that walks around on legs. A beautiful, life-affirming film, which is also a philosophical examination of identity. My only negative point is that I disliked the Harry potter-type witchcraft, but much was made good by the strong antiwar statement the film makes (which is typically Miyazaki).

Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence by Oshii Mamoru is a philosophical sequel to the groundbreaking 1995 film about futuristic crime fighters Batou and Togusa, made with a huge budget of 2 billion yen. This time they have to track down "gynoids" (a sort of sex bots) who have gone on a murder spree. Innocence was shown in competition at the Cannes Film Festival (the 6th anime film to have that honor).

Godzilla: Final Wars, directed by Kitamura Ryuhei (who here goes completely commercial), is released to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Godzilla. The film (No. 28, and the final one of the Millennium Series) incorporates many nostalgic elements of the past (including actors in cameo roles and a variety of old monsters) - indeed, this monster movie was also a postmodern pastiche.

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
1970-1974 - Sex and Violence
1975-1979 - Decline and Stagnation
1980-1989 - Disintegration of the Studio System
1990-1994 - The Rise of Indies
1995-1999 - Revival
2000-2004 - Postmodern Peak
2005-2009 - Cinematic Bubble[Reference works used: Currents In Japanese Cinema by Tadao Sato (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); Eros plus Massacre, An Introduction to the Japanese New Wave Cinema by David Desser (Bloomington and Indianopolis, 1988); Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema by David Bordwell (Princeton University Press: Princeton, 1988); Kurosawa: Film Studies and Japanese Cinema by Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto (Duke University Press: Durham, 2000); The Waves at Genji's Door by Joan Mellen (Pantheon Books: New York, 1976); Japanese Classical Theatre in Film by Keiko I. Macdonald (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1994); From Book to Screen by Keiko I. Macdonald (M.E. Sharpe: New York and London, 2000); Reading a Japanese Film by Keiko I. Macdonald (University of Hawai'i Press: Honolulu, 2006); Behind the Pink Curtain, A Complete History of Japanese Sex Cinema, by Jasper Sharp (Fab Press: Godalming, 2008); Contemporary Japanese Film by Mark Schilling (Weatherhill: New York and Tokyo, 1999); The Midnight Eye Guide to New Japanese Film by Tom Mes and Jasper Sharp (Stone Bridge Press: Berkeley, 2005); Kitano Takeshi by Aaron Gerow (British Film Institute: London, 2007); Iron Man: the Cinema of Shinya Tsukamoto by Tom Mes (Fab Press: Godalming, 2005); Agitator: The Cinema of Takashi Miike by Jasper Sharp (Fab Press: Godalming, 2003); Nihon Eigashi by Sato Tadao (Iwanami Shoten: Tokyo, 2008, 4 vols.); Nihon Eigashi 110-nen by Yomota Inuhiko (Shueisha; Tokyo, 2014). All images are linked from Wikipedia.]
10 Jul
The first half of the 1990s was still very much like the stagnant eighties, but the second half is harvest time. See my previous post for a general impression of the whole decade. 

In the last years of the millennium the revival of Japanese cinema through indies and anime finally becomes pronounced. 1997 even has been called an "annus mirabilis" (Mark Schilling). It is also at the end of the decade that Japanese cinema starts regularly appearing at film festivals abroad. Prestigious prizes are won by for example Imamura Shohei (his second Golden Palm) and Kitano Takeshi, but also films by Kawase (Suzaku) and Koreeda (Maborishi) create quite a splash. Shall We Dance, although a lesser film, becomes a great box office success in the United States. Miike Takashi's Audition shocks worldwide audiences. Excellent anime films which conquer world screens are Princess Mononoke and Ghost in the Shell. These years also see the start of the J-Horror craze with the worldwide success of The Ring. Japanese cinema has finally overcome the chaos created by the demise of the studios (as producers) and an alternate system is now firmly in place. 

In the indies of this period, we see a group of works that share feelings of profound loss, alienation and hopelessness, caused by the disappearance of a beloved person, suicide or murder. There is a general feeling of lack of certainty, something not only brought about by the economic malaise, but also by the Kobe Earthquake and Aum Shinrikyo sarin gas attacks which both happened in the first months of 1995 (although the films do not directly address these two causes). Examples are Kitano's Hanabi, Koreeda's Maboroshi, Kawase's Suzaku, Imamura's The Eel, Shinozaki's Okaeri, Higashi's Village of Dreams and Ichikawa Jun's Tokyo Lullaby. The millennium ends on a sad note in Japanese cinema.

1995
This year, there are 1,776 screens; 289 films are produced (among a total shown of 610) and attendance stands at 127,040,000.

Gogo no yuigonjo ("A Last Note") by Shindo Kaneto is about an elderly actress (Sugimura Haruko, well-known from Ozu's films) who spends a vacation at her summer villa in the mountains. There are several surprises: her housekeeper confesses that her daughter was fathered by the (now deceased) husband of the actress; and a equally elderly couple, who are old friends of the actress, comes to visit in what later proves to be a farewell gesture - the wife is suffering from dementia and they will later commit suicide together. A quiet and sensitive film by the 83-year old director, which also contains the last role of his wife, Otowa Nobuko, as the housekeeper of the actress. Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film of the Year and Japan Academy Prize for Picture of the Year. (Kindai Eiga Kyokai)


Tokyo Fist by Tsukamoto Shinya is another kind of "body horror" (compared to the same director's previous Tetsuo), about being beaten to pulp in boxing. Tsukamoto himself plays the main role of a nerdy salaryman. When a former classmate who is now a boxer (played by the director's brother, Tsukamoto Koji) "steals" his girlfriend (Fujii Kaori), the flabby salaryman starts training in earnest as a boxer and transforms himself into a mean fighting machine. The girlfriend, by the way, doesn't allow herself to be stolen, but discovers her own world of tattooing and body piercing while the two men slug it out as a form of sexual sublimation. In the end, all three reach liberation through pain. You have never seen such bruised and bloodied faces. A mad sadomasochistic film. Tsukamoto's overarching theme is the rediscovery of instincts that have been forgotten in modern city life, but those instincts then lead to chaos. (Kaijyu Theater)

Another violent film is Gonin ("The Five") by Ishii Tadashi, about a gang of five losers (who have nothing to loose anymore), victims of the economic downturn, who take on the yakuza by stealing a gang's money. At the same time a grim account of the rapid moral, social and economic decline of Japan in the nineties. A very intense and pessimistic film that explores the borderland of sanity, going over the top with ultra-violence and nightmarish images. The following year Ishii would follow this up with Gonin 2 about a similar gang of five women, but that one was devoid of deeper meaning. (Bunkasha / Image Factory IM Co. Ltd.)

Kamikaze Taxi by Harada Masato is about a young yakuza seeking revenge for the killing of his prostitute girlfriend by a perverted ultra-right politician in liege with his yakuza boss. In his revenge mission he gets unexpected help from a taxi driver (Yakusho Koji) whose parents emigrated to Peru and who has come back to work in Japan. The taxi driver in fact becomes his closest friend and guardian. Combination of road movie, gangster movie and social criticism - especially of the racism experienced by the Peruvian taxi driver who speaks "funny Japanese." (Pony Canyon)

Love Letter by Iwai Shunji has been called "Kieslowski's The Double Life of Veronique without the Catholicism." Two women (both played by Nakayama Miho) who have never met each other, have been in love with the same man, who is now dead. Through their correspondence they learn to come to terms with their loss. A trendy, romantic film, which was a hit with a hip, young and female audience. (Fuji TV)


Kokaku Kidotai ("Ghost in the Shell") is an SF anime by Oshii Mamoru, about a cyborg-cop heroine who chases after a "brain hacker" called the Puppet Master, before joining forces with him ("he" is in fact a sort of computer virus). The story is rather labyrinthine, but the film is eventually less concerned with plot than with philosophical questions about the blurring of the boundaries between humankind and its digital servants. The heroine is called a "ghost in a shell" because as a human robot she has been manufactured by the government and therefore does not own her body, which is just a shell for her consciousness, the only part that belongs to herself. Set in a fantasy, futuristic Hong Kong (but with still the old Kai Tak airport in Kowloon!). A sequel called Ghost in the Shell: Innocence will come out in 2004. (Bandai Visual Company / Kodansha / Production I.G.)

1996
Nikkatsu starts production again.

The number of admissions this year is the lowest ever since the Motion Picture Producers Association of Japan started counting in 1955: only 119,575,000.

Moe no suzaku ("Suzaku") by Kawase Naomi follows over 30 years the disintegration of a rural family living in the mountains of southern Nara Prefecture in documentary-like fashion. Mostly amateur cast. Local communities increasingly consist of only the elderly and are cut off from the world by the disappearance of public transport and other amenities, so people have no choice but to leave. The family consists of a grandmother, her son, his much younger second wife, his son by his previous wife, and a daughter by his present wife. The father is morose and on a certain day, just disappears into the mountains. His wife and her stepson are attracted to each other, but also the daughter has tender feelings for her half-brother. In the end, the mother and daughter return to her family, while the son and his grandmother plan to work at an inn, where they can get board and lodging. Shows the simplicity of life in such a cut off community, which Japan's wealth and modernization seem to have passed by. A beautiful, quiet film, with long shots like Ozu (but also improvisation which Ozu never allowed), that keeps the emotions seething under the surface solidly under cover. Wins the Golden Camera at Cannes for New Director. (Bandai Visual / WOWOW)

Maboroshi no hikari ("Maboroshi," lit. "Phantom Lights") by Koreeda Hirokazu is the story of a young woman (Esumi Makiko) who looses her husband through an unexplained suicide. Even after she remarries with a widower (like her, with one small child) five years later and moves to the Noto Peninsula and its majestic seascapes, she keeps being plagued by grief and even guilt. She is also afraid the same thing may happen again, as if her presence brings on death. When she shouts out her non-understanding, her present husband answers that it might be the phantom lights one sometimes sees hovering above the sea that have lured her previous husband away. In other words, it is something beyond human understanding and it makes no sense to keep thinking about it. Filmed in the typical nineties New Wave style with very long and static shots, with a distant camera. Based on a novel by Miyamoto Teru. A perfect first feature film. Wins the Golden Osella for Best Director at the Venice Film festival. (TV Man Union)

Okaeri by Shinozaki Makoto is about a young couple brought to sanity through the wife's mental illness (marvelously played by Ueshima Miho). A high school teacher only gradually notices the changes in his wife's personality. Also a critique of Japanese society where the man is busy outside, coming home late, and the wife is expected to be all day at home (in the film she has typically given up her own career to marry, and only does some part time translation work at home). "Okaeri" is the traditional greeting to welcome someone home, in the situation sketched above said by the wife to the husband. An earnest and touching film, shot in static takes. (Comteg)

E no naka no boku no mura ("Village of Dreams") by Higashi Yoichi is a magical evocation of rural life in Japan. Depicts the childhood of two nine-year olds in an idyllic but also haunted landscape in the years just after WWII - a landscape that now has disappeared. Berlin Silver Bear. (Siglo)

Shall We dance? by Suo Masayuki is a feel-good, light comedy about a (married) salaryman (Yakusho Koji) who tries to find a purpose outside his housing loan and office drudgery through social dancing. It helps that he is in love with his dancing teacher (Kusakari Tamiyo). Takenaka Naoto plays his equally dance-crazed colleague who is obsessed with Latin dancing and even wears a wig. This overrated, too slick comedy could also have been made in Hollywood; it not for nothing became the largest grossing Japanese film ever in the U.S. Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film of the Year and Japan Academy Prize for Picture of the Year (prizes which in my view should have gone to Maboroshi or Suzaku). (Altamira Pictures Inc. / Daiei Studios / Nippon Television Network)


Kids Return by Kitano Takeshi is a nostalgic look at Kitano's own youth and an ironic account about the different paths in life taken by two juvenile delinquents, school bullies who waste their youth: one becomes an up-and-coming boxer, the other a low-level gangster. They both fail in their endeavors because of self-destructive character flaws. Another student, a quiet boy who always sits in a coffee restaurant to attract the attention of the waitress, equally fails in the salaryman job he gets, and after that also flukes his work as taxi driver. At the same time, two fellow students become stand-up manzai comedians - like Kitano himself - and they gradually do well. A film with conscious repetitions and circular motions, as if to emphasize that there is no escape from the past or one's own character. The camera always remains detached. (Bandai Visual Company / Office Kitano / Ohta Publishing)

Nemuru otoko ("Sleeping Man") by Oguri Kohei. After an accident in the mountains, a comatose man sleeps through the film and illuminates the experiences and emotions of those who look on. Set in a small onsen village in Gunma prefecture. A very poetic film about the passing of time, the cycle of life and the role of tradition in rural communities. Sponsored by the prefecture where Oguri was born, the shots of "traditional Japan" have sometimes been too much beautified. (Gunma Prefecture)

Gokudo Sengokushi Fudo ("Fudoh: The New Generation") by Miike Takashi is a mad fest of macabre humor, and a demented, mayhem parody of the yakuza genre. For more details, see my post about Yakuza Films (Excellent Film / GAGA)

1997
Princess Mononoke breaks the box office record with theatrical earnings of 19.30 billion yen.

Shall We Dance becomes a hit in the U.S.

Unagi ("The Eel") by Imamura Shohei. About a man (Yakusho Koji) who murders his faithless wife, and when he comes out of prison takes up with a young woman (Shimizu Misa) who has dark secrets of her own. Their connection will prove to be a healing experience for them both. The title is based on the fact that the man has a pet eel to which he imparts his thoughts. A surrealistic comedy. Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film of the Year. Palme d'Or Cannes, Venice Golden Lion. (Eisei Gekijo / Groove Corporation / Imamura Productions)


Kyua ("The Cure") by Kurosawa Kiyoshi is a haunting police thriller about murder and mind control, and an odd hybrid of philosophy and horror. Could only have been made after the mind control mass murders of Aum Shinrikyo. A streak of seemingly serial murders (where a large X is carved in the body of the victims) is not what it seems, for as the investigating detective (Yakusho Koji) discovers, the murderers are unrelated. However, they all have met a mysterious young guy who asks people "who they are" and by hypnosis brings out their hidden murderous desires. In this very bleak account, nobody is spared from the virus, and even the detective (plagued by the mental illness of his wife, as in Shinoda's Okaeri) falls victim to it. (Daiei)

Bounce Ko Gals by Harada Masato is a film about enjo kosai or "compensated dating" (a euphemism for teenage prostitution), a big item in the mid-1990s, with the whole country worried over the moral of its youth (of course it was also played up by foreign media and the internet, where the more extreme aspects of Japanese society are usually misleadingly magnified). Enjo kosai was not motivated by poverty, but by the desire for luxury goods or just "belonging" by doing the same thing as one's friends - and it was made possible by the elderly men who paid big cash. In this brisk and witty film, with three charming heroines (and Yakusho Koji as a yakuza boss angry with the "amateurs" for impinging on his prerogative of managing the sex industry in his "territory"), Harada heavily criticizes the sexual attitudes and economic realities of a male-oriented society which fostered this trend, refusing to pass moral judgement on his female subjects. (Horipro / Panasonic Digital Contents / Shochiku)

Kuroi shitagi no onna: Raigyo ("Raigyo") by Zeze Takahisa. Zeze came from pink film production and this film somehow still straddles the fence with that genre. Based on a real crime: the murder of a man by a woman he met through a telephone dating service. Shocking because of the explosion of violence, when the woman in the "love hotel" room suddenly starts hacking her customer to pieces. Concentrates on the psychology of the woman who always dresses in black. Set in a very bleak landscape, where violence seems the only way out. Zeze Takahisa was the most prominent among four directors who came up in the early nineties in post-Roman Porno pink cinema, and who tried to transcend the exploitation format through experimentation and social criticism. (Kokuei / Shintoho)

Tokyo Yakyoku ("Tokyo Lullaby") by Ichikawa Jun is an account of the emotional dislocation caused by a failed love affair. Also shows the detrimental effect of these passions on family life. With Momoi Kaori, who won Best Actress from Kinema Junpo. Like the other Tokyo films by Ichikawa Jun (The Tokyo Siblings, 1994, and Tokyo Marigold, 2001), an elegant homage to both Ozu and the city in which Ichikawa grew up. (Kindai Eiga Kyokai / Shochiku)

Gokudo kuroshakai ("Rainy Dog") by Miike Takashi chronicles the last days of a Japanese gangster (Aikawa Sho) stranded in Taiwan. He must take work as a hired killer from a local crime boss as his money has run out; on top of that, suddenly a woman he knew in the past presents a son to him. When he goes on his rounds of killings, the boy just follows in his footsteps. One of Miike's most subtle films, with rounded characters. Filmed during endless cloud bursts in the Taiwan rainy season. Part 2 of the director's "Black Society Trilogy," three (unrelated) films focusing on Sino-Japanese relations. Shinjuku Triad Society (1995) was about the pursuit of a Chinese gangster by a mixed-race cop, and Ley Lines (1999) about a group of young Chinese sucked into crime after they move to Tokyo. (Daiei / Excellent Film)

Onibi ("Onibi: The Fire Within") by Mochizuki Rokuro is the tale of an aging yakuza trying to go straight, an effort undermined by the revenge the woman he loves wants to take on the man who has exploited her. Mochizuki had learned the trade in pornography and straight-to-video before in the nineties making a number of tragic but realistic yakuza movies with intelligently depicted and believable characters. Won Best Director from Kinema Junpo in 1998. (GAGA)

Mononoke-hime ("Princess Mononoke") by Miyazaki Hayao is an ecological fantasy set in medieval Japan. A young warrior is stricken with a deadly curse when protecting his village from a rampaging boar-god. He travels to find a cure and gets embroiled in the war between Tatara, a mining colony led by the ambitious Lady Eboshi, and the forest gods, who want to save their forest from human depredation. On the side of the forest gods also fights a young woman called Princess Mononoke, who was raised by a wolf-god. Lady Eboshi uses guns against her enemies (firearms were introduced to Japan in the 13th century, but generally found little use). Miyazaki draws no simplistic line between good and evil, showing the complexity of making choices in real life: Lady Eboshi destroys the forest, but she also gives many people a better future; she has bought up contracts of prostitutes to set them free, and she employs lepers (a class of people discriminated against until late in the 20th c.) as the builders of her guns. Japan Academy Prize for Picture of the Year. (Studio Ghibli / Dentsu / Nibariki / NTV)

1998
The Ring sets off the J-Horror boom.

The box office hit of the year is Bayside Shakedown: The Movie, a police procedural drama based on a popular TV series, made by TV Fuji and Toho. Shows the tendency of mainstream Japanese cinema to safely repeat proven successes. However, inflated television does not make great cinema.

Hana-Bi ("Fireworks") by Kitano Takeshi. A cop feels dreadful for having let down a buddy (who after being shot is confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life, which makes him suicidal) and also for neglecting his wife who is slowly dying of leukemia. Spiraling into depression, he leaves the police force and makes an ominous choice: he robs a bank and with the money starts touring around Japan with his sick wife. But there is no way out, and the ending is tragic. The road movie part of the film becomes a sort of michiyuki followed by the couple to their suicide. The colleague who ends up in a wheelchair is condemned to life, but finds some relief in painting (the colorful paintings used here were made by Kitano himself after suffering a scooter accident in 1994). Arguably Kitano's best film, his most consciously artistic work, and a sort of summing up of the films that went before. Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film of the Year. Golden Lion at the Venice Film festival. (Office Kitano / Bandai Visual / TV Tokyo)


Wandafuru raifu ("After Life") by Koreeda Hirokazu shines a new light on matters of life and death. A film about the Other Side, but free from New Age ideas. The newly dead arrive in a sort of Limbo, where guides help them to pick a cherished memory they want to take with them into eternity (in Japanese, the film is titled "Wonderful Life"). They have three days to do this; at the end, a video of the selected memory is made. Koreeda uses documentary methods, working partly with amateurs whom he actually interviewed about their most cherished memory. He did the same with the professional actors playing in the film. An impressive, life-affirming film. (Engine Film / Sputnik Productions / TV Man Union)

Chugoku no Chojin ("Bird People in China") by Miike Takashi. A salaryman and a yakuza are both sent to a remote Chinese village to evaluate precious jade found there. When in the remote, paradisial area, they are sidetracked from their job by a mysterious rumor about people who are able to fly like birds, something which they start investigating... An interesting idea, but the execution remains rather thin. (Excellent Film / Sedic)

Kanzo sensei ("Doctor Akagi") by Imamura Shohei is set in WWII and tells the story of a country doctor (Emoto Akira) whose blanket diagnosis is always hepatitis, an illness he wages a one-man crusade against, earning him the nickname "Dr. Liver." His fervid campaign brings him the disfavor of the army, in the days that the war has turned against Japan. A former prostitute (Aso Kumiko) hooks up with him, but he is too busy to pay much attention to her. They happen to be out in a boat in the Inland Sea when the atomic bomb is dropped on Hiroshima. Dr Liver observes that the mushroom cloud looks exactly like "a hypertrophied liver." Based on a novel by Sakaguchi Ango. An interesting film of this great director that unfortunately has fallen a bit between the cracks. (Catherine Dussart Productions (CDP) / Comme des Cinémas / Imamura Productions)

Bullet Ballet by Tsukamoto Shinya is about an advertising executive (played by the director) who one day comes home to find that his longtime girlfriend has committed suicide with a gun. His life shattered by this death, the executive then develops in interest in guns. He finally joins a group of thugs who aimlessly wander around Tokyo beating up salarymen. Shot with a handheld camera in black and white. Continues the theme from Tokyo Fist. (Kaijyu Theater)


Ringu ("The Ring") by Nakata Hideo is the start of the J-Horror boom. A video tape with mysterious images on it kills those who watch it within seven days. When a TV journalist (Matsushima Nanako) investigates this (in a race against time because she has also watched the video!) together with her ex-husband (Sanada Hiroyuki), she discovers that the legend of Sadako, a child psychic who was killed by throwing her down a well, lies behind the video. The top grossing horror film ever at the domestic box office. Who can forget those final images when Sadako, her long black hair hanging before her white face like a curtain, glides out of the TV set? Set off the J-Horror boom, a torrent of terrors that included the Tomie films, The Grudge, and of course Ring sequels (and even a Hollywood remake, not to mention the Korean spin-off). (Omega Project / Imagica / Asmik Ace Entertainment) (See my post about Japanese Horror Movies)

Perfect Blue by Kon Satoshi is another psycho-horror film, but this time in anime format. A teen idol is suffocated by her own idol image and descends into insanity. A complex film with labyrinthine flashbacks and some strong adult content. A great debut by Kon Satoshi, who used to be a manga artist, and a new direction in anime. (Madhouse / Rex Entertainment)

1999
A, haru ("Wait and See") by Somai Shinji. A quiet and understated film about a successful salaryman, who has a beautiful wife and young son on whom he dotes. Everything in his life seems fine until one evening he is accosted by a disheveled man who claims to be his dead father. The dirty old man also invites himself to stay with the young family, a la Boudu Saved from Drowning by Jean Renoir. Then the financial company the protagonist works for is suddenly on the brink of bankruptcy. Both events severely lower the status the protagonist thought he possessed, and lead to a reexamination of his life. Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film of the Year. Winner of the FIPRESCI Prize at the 1999 Berlin International Film Festival.


Gohatto ("Taboo") by Oshima Nagisa shows - like did his Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence - how obsession with love upsets strongly regimented organisations. The macho Shinsengumi army, at the end of the Edo period defending the shogun's lost cause, is joined by a beautiful seventeen-year old recruit (Matsuda Ryuhei) whose androgynous beauty generates so much passion that military order is upset. Love of boys was historically speaking quite normal among samurai (it was called wakashudo or nanshoku), although these men would also have wives and families. The title refers to the many rules a samurai had to obey, but ironically (at least, seen from a modern perspective) there was no taboo on nanshoku. This was Oshima's final film - a strange film, but also one with great charm and a rich blue-black color palette that wins from repeated viewings. Kitano Takeshi plays the recruit's captain. (Oshima Productions / Shochiku / Kadokawa Shoten)

Karisuma ("Charisma") by Kurosawa Kiyoshi is an allegorical tale about a tree of that name. Yakusho Koji plays a detective who has bungled a hostage situation. While traveling to recuperate in an unnamed area, he comes upon a singular tree, about which the locals are engaged in a struggle with each other: some regard the tree as sacred and unique, others see it as a blight to the other trees in the forest which they claim it is poisoning, and a third group of greedy people wants to steal the tree. The detective finally has to make the clear choice he couldn't make in the hostage situation, when his wish to save both criminal and hostage led to disaster. Screened in the "Directors Fortnight" section of the 1999 Cannes Film Festival and at the 1999 Toronto International Film Festival. (King Records / Nikkatsu / Tokyo Theatres K.K.)

Soseiji ("Gemini") is a rarity in Tsukamoto Shinya's work as it is an opulent historical film set in the Meiji period and (freely) based on a story by Edogawa Ranpo. It is the tale of a bourgeois doctor who during an epidemic refuses to treat slum people but who is then confronted by a vengeful twin brother who contests his comfortable life. The brother even imprisons the doctor in the dried up well in the garden. With lush colors and exaggerated make-up and costume design, this fantasy stands in stark contrast to the J-Horror films made in the same period. (Kaijyu Theater / Sedic / Marubeni)

Kikujiro no natsu ("Kikujiro") by Kitano Takeshi is a road movie about a loudmouthed drifter, a low level gangster, who escorts a boy to visit the mother he has never yet met. As she has remarried and obviously doesn't need him, the boy returns to his grandmother without speaking to her. Has been criticized for its mix of sentimentality and slapstick, and also for the flimsiness of its story - but the fact that Kitano is comfortable with long periods of inactivity, here and in other films, is exactly a distinctive element of his style. The relaxed rhythm is similar to that in A Scene at the Sea. And this is no kid's movie, as some of the jokes are "Kitano-esquely" cruel indeed. (Office Kitano / Bandai Visual / Nippon herald Films)

Odishon ("Audition") by Miike Takashi, based on a novel by Murakami Ryu, is a visceral shocker that created a big stir at the Rotterdam International Film festival in 2000. Starts as a romantic drama in which a middle-aged widower (Ishibashi Ryo), helped by a producer friend, holds a mock audition to find a new, young wife. He finds his ideal partner in Asami (a perfectly cast Shiina Eihi), a former ballet dancer who seems the ultimate, traditional-type of wife. But there is a whole world of fear and horror hidden behind her calm exterior, as the middle-aged lover will discover too late. The descent into a grotesque nightmare is so stomach-turning, that many in the audience in Rotterdam headed for the exit. And your view of Japanese women will never be the same again... (Basara Pictures / Creators Company Connection / Omega Project)

Dead or Alive: Hanzaisha ("Dead or Alive"), also by Miike Takashi, starts with such a fantastic ten minute intro rocking through criminal Shinjuku, that the rest of the film can only disappoint. It is the story of a gangster of Chinese descent (Takeuchi Riki), who wants to take over the Shinjuku underworld from Chinese and Japanese gangsters, and a cop (Aikawa Sho), who stands between him and complete domination. A very violent film, with rather graphic scenes. Unfortunately, the ending is just silly. Two unrelated sequels would follow in 2000 and 2002, making "Dead or Alive" a trilogy like "Black Society." (Daiei / Toei / Excellent Film)

Ame agaru ("After the Rain") is a period film based on the last script written by Kurosawa Akira and is directed by his former assistant director of 28 years, Koizumi Takashi. Travelers are trapped in a country inn due to bad weather, and as tensions rise among them, a ronin wants to cheer up everyone by arranging a great feast. The only problem is that he has no money, but there his prowess with the sword may help... A gentle film based on a story by Yamamoto Shugoro. Protagonist Terao Akira won the Japan Academy Award for Best Actor in 1999 and the film the Japan Academy Award for Best Film in 2000. (7 Films Cinéma / Asmik Ace Entertainment / Kurosawa Production Co.)

Poppoya ("Poppoya: Railroad Man") by Furuhata Yasuo is a typical vehicle for Takakura Ken, who plays his usual scarred and brooding elderly male. In this glossy melodrama he is a railroad man in Hokkaido, fully dedicated to his job (the poor workaholic has nothing else, his wife and daughter are dead), but nearing retirement ("poppoya" is a nickname for those railroad men who still have known steam engines). Then a young woman appears (idol Hirosue Ryoko, who can pull cute faces but hasn't learned how to act) who seems to be the ghost of his deceased daughter... A tearjerker strictly for Takakura fans (of which there are a great many in Japan). Won the Japan Academy Award for Best Film. (Toei)

Gekko no sasayaki ("Moonlight Whispers") by Shiota Akihiko is one of the many teenage romances that keep flooding Japanese cinema since the nineties, but with a twist: during kendo the boy discovers he likes to be hit by his girlfriend. When she notices his fetishistic and sadomasochistic urges, her first impulse is to send him packing, but then she realizes this also gives her power over her boyfriend... she even finds a perfect way of cruelly dominating him. (Viz Films)

Even at the end of the millennium, Japan remains under monster attack. Gamera 3; Jashin (Irisu) Kakusei ("Gamera 3: Revenge of Iris") by Kaneko Shusuke is a dynamic piece of monster mayhem (if you believe in stomping turtles), better than all previous Gamera films which were too childish, and also superior to most Toho fare - not for nothing Toho asked Kaneko to direct one of its next monster movies in 2001. (Daiei Studios / Hakuhodo / Nippon Shuppan Hanbai (Nippan) K.K.)

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
1970-1974 - Sex and Violence
1975-1979 - Decline and Stagnation
1980-1989 - Disintegration of the Studio System
1990-1994 - The Rise of Indies
1995-1999 - Revival
2000-2004 - Postmodern Peak
2005-2009 - Cinematic Bubble[Reference works used: Currents In Japanese Cinema by Tadao Sato (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); Eros plus Massacre, An Introduction to the Japanese New Wave Cinema by David Desser (Bloomington and Indianopolis, 1988); Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema by David Bordwell (Princeton University Press: Princeton, 1988); Kurosawa: Film Studies and Japanese Cinema by Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto (Duke University Press: Durham, 2000); The Waves at Genji's Door by Joan Mellen (Pantheon Books: New York, 1976); Japanese Classical Theatre in Film by Keiko I. Macdonald (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1994); From Book to Screen by Keiko I. Macdonald (M.E. Sharpe: New York and London, 2000); Reading a Japanese Film by Keiko I. Macdonald (University of Hawai'i Press: Honolulu, 2006); Behind the Pink Curtain, A Complete History of Japanese Sex Cinema, by Jasper Sharp (Fab Press: Godalming, 2008); Contemporary Japanese Film by Mark Schilling (Weatherhill: New York and Tokyo, 1999); The Midnight Eye Guide to New Japanese Film by Tom Mes and Jasper Sharp (Stone Bridge Press: Berkeley, 2005); Kitano Takeshi by Aaron Gerow (British Film Institute: London, 2007); Iron Man: the Cinema of Shinya Tsukamoto by Tom Mes (Fab Press: Godalming, 2005); Agitator: The Cinema of Takashi Miike by Jasper Sharp (Fab Press: Godalming, 2003); Nihon Eigashi by Sato Tadao (Iwanami Shoten: Tokyo, 2008, 4 vols.); Nihon Eigashi 110-nen by Yomota Inuhiko (Shueisha; Tokyo, 2014). All images are linked from Wikipedia.]
3 Jul
Despite the bursting of the "economic bubble" and attendant malaise (which meant that some outsiders, such as Seibu Saison, retreated from investing in films), the 1990s are an interesting period dominated by indies and anime. New directors, who had only appeared in small numbers in the 1970s and 1980s, when many of the best films were still made by the old guard, now gradually take center stage. This is "Generation X," those who were (roughly) born around 1960 - such directors as Aoyama Shinji, Hiroki Ryuichi, Iwai Shunji, Kawase Naomi, Koreeda Hirokazu, Kurosawa Kiyoshi, Mochizuki Rokuro, Nakahara Shun, Shinozaki Makoto, Nakata Hideo, Suwa Nobuhiro, Tsukamoto Shinya and Zeze Takahisa - an explosion of talent, to which also the older Kitano Takeshi who in 1989 started as director can be added. Mark Schilling has dubbed them the "New Wave of the Nineties."  

These directors make independent productions, and in fact are true "indies" - in contrast to earlier independents who in many cases still leaned on the studios. They have learned their trade in documentary films (Kawase, Koreeda), commercials or music video (Iwai), the straight-to-video market (Miike, Mochizuki) or pink films (Nakahara, Zeze). Although there are individual differences, their films are made cheaply, and often very quickly. In this respect, they are also different from the more consciously "high art" independent films made by ATG and others in the late sixties.

While the shift in the 1960s with the New Wave films of Oshima, Shinoda, Yoshida and Imamura meant a move away from "sentimental humanism" to a tougher and more ideological stance, the paradigm shift of the 1990s is a step towards a much harsher (even stomach turning) and more cynical view on life. This is undoubtedly because of the severe economic downturn in this period, but it is also helped by the fact that most directors had learned the trade in often violent and cruel genre films. Thematically, they respond to the issues of unclear identity and uncertain future generated in the nineties by the crash and subsequent long stagnation of the Japanese economy. But this is always on the level of personal issues, the directors of the nineties are generally not interested in the larger themes of politics or history (in strong contrast to the New Wave of the 1960s). 

The style of filming is often minimalist and detached, with very long shots and a static camera. This is not so much influence from Ozu, as is sometimes thought, as from the Taiwanese New Wave (Hou Hsia-hsien, Tsai Ming-liang). Their films also often have the character of documentaries.

In the nineties, the studios have dwindled to the Big Three (Toho, Shochiku and Toei) and although they only rarely engage in the risky business of producing new films themselves, they remain important distributors because they own most of the cinemas in Japan. Toho even manages to become the largest owner of multiplexes. The studios continue to use the systems of block-booking and advance ticket sales for their home-made films. The films they produce are made via committees (iinkai), ad-hoc combinations of a studio (for the distribution), TV station, advertising agency, publisher, and trading or other company. The companies which take part in these ad-hoc combinations do so to promote themselves and for tax breaks. They also try to generate sales from spin-offs. None of those concerned is interested in making a good film. In short, the films produced by these committees are glossy but forgettable junk.

Toho has the largest theater chains and is financially most successful with its target of ten billion yen in annual distribution revenues. But the only films it makes itself are the Godzilla movies, which were restarted in 1984. This Heisei Godzilla series, however, is a safe, nostalgic rip-off of the older films, with no new creativity. But the series is successful with old fans, in and outside Japan. In 1995 the last release appears, as later becomes clear for strategic reasons, as Toho wanted to make the way free for the 1998 American Tristar Godzilla film. Toho again revived its money-making monster in 1999 for the "Millennium Series." For the rest, Toho earned money by distributing Itami Juzo's films as well as the anime made by Studio Ghibli. Its own Doraemon series, about a kid and his robot cat, aimed at kids, also continued. Toho also made several film versions of popular TV dramas, most notably the detective drama Odoru Daisosasen ("Bayside Shakedown") with Fuji TV, which became a great box office success.

Shochiku is hard hit when Atsumi Kiyoshi, the actor playing the ever popular Tora-san, dies in 1996. Happily, it had already launched its new series Tsuri Baka Nisshi ("Fishing Fool's Diary") in the last years of the previous decade, and this proves to be a stable income generator also in the 1990s. The studio makes an effort to revitalize its line-up via Okuyama Kazuyoshi, the maverick son of its president, who acts as producer and occasionally also director. Besides making several films which are successful at the box office, such as Hachiko Monogatari and Rampo, Okuyama also sets up Cinema Japanesque for producing and distributing independent films. Although one of its successful projects was Cannes winner The Eel by Imamura Shohei, the project fails to generate new income and in 1998 the Okuyamas are ousted from their positions. An earlier project, to distribute the films of Kitano Takeshi, also failed after a disagreement about Sonatine, which flopped in Japan. In the late nineties, Shochiku severely restructures, and also closes down its Cinema World theme park and Ofuna studios. Financially, Shochiku is in the 1990s the least successful of the Big Three.

Toei is under risk-averse management that tries to stop the gap left by Toei's pride, the yakuza films (which continue being made with other action films as straight-to-video films by Toei Video in the V Cinema series - in the late 1990s released at the rate of two a month), by various overblown costume dramas which mostly flop. The company also shows its conservative political colors in the many war films it continues making, which are increasingly revisionist, such as Pride-Unmei no Toki about the war crimes trial of Tojo Hideki. Its anime subsidiary, already set up in the late 1950s, continues generating good income with stuff like Dragon Ball Z. A much needed cinematic success is Shitsurakuen, a film about a passionate adulterous affair ending in love suicide, which made suicide seem romantic as it was spliced between steamy sex scenes. Financially, Toei did better this decade than Shochiku, but remained far below Toho. 

Kadokawa, finally, continues cramming advance tickets down the throats of its partners (which are forcibly bought by, for example, a newspaper company and then given away to loyal customers) to be certain of good financial results by this tricky system. The films it makes are dull and plodding, the directors safe hacks - all just a waste of celluloid. Its greatest success is Ten to Chi to ("Heaven and Earth"), about the warlords Uesugi Kenshin and Takeda Shingen, a film (helmed by Kadokawa Haruki himself) which cost a whopping 5 billion yen and ends with a 30 min. battle between mounted samurai that took 50 days to film. The result was a boring history lesson, leading to the interesting circumstance that a box office success (based on advance ticket sales) actually played to half empty theaters. Another Kadokawa film was Rex, about a little girl and her baby dinosaur - a shameless rip-off of both E.T. and Jurassic Park, which only served to demonstrate how superior the average Hollywood product was to these terrible "mainstream" Japanese films. 

Interestingly, the only studio that could take on Hollywood and Disney, was the small upstart producing animated films, Studio Ghibli. Co-founders Takahata Isao and Miyazaki Hayao rejected the Japanese industry custom to create recyclable formulas - every film they made was a stand-alone. Moreover, the money they spent on each film was twice the usual budget (two billion yen), in order to achieve technical and artistic excellence. In fact, with every film they made they again were betting the company - but it paid off, not only in financial, but above all in artistic terms. 

Not only in indies, with the directors listed above, but also in anime films we thus find true auteur directors - besides Ghibli's Miyazaki Hayao, these are Ishii Mamoru and Kon Satoshi. 

1990
This year, there are 1,838 screens; 239 films are produced (among a total shown of 704) and attendance stands at 146,000,000.

3-4 x Jugatsu ("Boiling Point") by Kitano Takeshi is a cruel black comedy about a baseball player and gas-station attendant (played by a stone-faced and completely clueless Ono Masahiko) who with a friend travels to Okinawa (a bit like in the later Sonatine) to buy a gun in order to revenge his coach, an ex-yakuza, who on the teenager's behalf has gotten into trouble with the local gang. In Okinawa, he falls into the hands of a psychotic gangster (Kitano) who has been kicked out of the mob. Lots of gratuitous violence, sexual aggression, sadism, but also humor: the films starts and ends with Ono in a toilet near the baseball grounds, making the whole film the daydream he had while s(h)itting there. The peculiar title is explained as follows: 3-4x in baseball denotes a "victory snatched from the jaws of defeat at the last bat;" Jugatsu is "October," the month in which the pennant race to clinch the division title in a regular baseball season is held. Kitano's most experimental film, and in my view, one of his best. (Bandai Visual Company / Shochiku-Fuji Company / Yamada Right Vision)

Sakura no Sono ("The Cherry Orchard") by Nakahara Shun, a former pink film director, is an ensemble drama that enfolds in real time in the two hours before a student performance of Chekhov's play at a private girls' school. Bold and sharply observant, bringing out the emotional tensions in the lives and hearts of the four main characters, who are depicted as individuals, not types. Remade by the same director in 2008. Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film of the Year. (New Century Producers / Suntory)

Yume ("Dreams") by Kurosawa Akira is an omnibus containing eight autonomous episodes based on actual dreams of the director. Some are threatening (dead soldiers marching through a tunnel), others are fun (a meeting with Van Gogh, played by Martin Scorcese) and again others are very poetic (a foxes' wedding, or at the end of the film, a sort of rural paradise with Ryu Chishu imparting various wisdoms). Through it all Kurosawa spreads the humanistic message that we should be kind to each other, and have a humble feeling of respect for the unknown. The superb use Kurosawa makes of Dolby sound in this film has been noted by critics. (Warner Bros. / Akira Kurosawa USA)

Ageman ("A-Ge-Man: Tales of a Golden Geisha") by Itami Juzo is a comedy about a geisha (Miyamoto Nobuko) who brings luck to her men ("ageman"), but is rather out of luck herself as the various males in her life only want to take advantage of her. The film is a critique of Japanese gender relations, where the men, like spoiled boys, think they can do anything they want. The (ex-)geisha's most important relation is with a bank manager (Tsugawa Masahiko), who is a notorious philanderer, but we also meet a lascivious priest (again driving a Rolls, as in Ososhiki), an elderly kuromaku (behind the scenes politician who pulls the strings) and a debauchee who is pushing to become the next prime minister. Itami directs vicious criticism at corrupt money politics - in fact the political satire is so fierce that it overshadows the gender theme (although both are linked) and, about halfway through, the film stops being funny. (Itami Productions)

Roningai ("Roningai" aka "Street of Masterless Samurai") by Kuroki Kazuko (Makino Masahiro, who directed the original 1928 film as well as another version in 1957, is also credited as a sort of homage) is an enjoyable and well-crafted period film, starring Harada Toshio and Katsu Shintaro, the last one in his final role before his death in 1997. A group of masterless samurai living in a ghetto street near Edo's red light district decides to help the local prostitutes when a group of vigilantes starts killing them off for "moral" reasons. Kuroki deliberately mimics the visual style of silent chambara. A vibrant film, the best period drama made in the 1990s. (Nippon Television Network (NTV) / Shochiku Company / Yamada Right Vision Corporation)

1991
Ano natsu, ichiban shizukana umi ("A Scene at the Sea," lit. "That summer, a most quiet sea") by Kitano Takeshi is a peaceful beach film about a young deaf-mute garbage collector who has found an old surfing plank and practices every day to master the waves, planning to eventually take part in a competition, while his equally deaf-mute girlfriend sits patiently watching him from the beach, smiling and folding his clothes. With its pared-down, visual-based style of storytelling, detached camera (never sentimental, sometimes even cruel in its objectivity) and assured pacing, this is almost a silent film, a very pure example of Kitano's style. (Office Kitano)

Yumeji by Suzuki Seijun is part of the "Taisho trilogy" of this director, although it appears with a time lag of almost ten years after Zigeunerweisen and Kageroza. But it is a film in the same surrealist style, now about a real-life painter, Takehisa Yumeji (1884-1934), who mainly painted delicately emaciated women. He also had several intense but unhappy love affairs. Instead of making a biopic, however, Suzuki takes us into the head of the painter and shows the colorful images he found there. Again a very beautiful and highly stylized film. Stars former rock musician Sawada Kenji as the painter, which in fact is its only weak point. (Genjiro Amato Pictures)


Hachigatsu no Rhapsody ("Rhapsody in August") by Kurosawa Akira. An American relative from Hawaii (Clark, played by Richard Gere) visits his Japanese aunt Kane (Murase Sachiko) in Nagasaki and hears about the atomic bombing and how it killed her husband. The film was criticized in the U.S. as it seemed to depict the Japanese solely as victims and whitewash their aggression - especially in the segment where Clark apologizes to his aunt. This was mistaken for an apology on behalf of America for dropping the bomb. But in fact Clark, as a member of Kane's family, is apologizing for the failure of the American relatives to fully realize the pain the grandmother has been suffering from her husband's death by the atomic bomb - quite another matter. The film does not dehistorize, but faces the past by remembering it. It is true that there are many Japanese revisionist war films made by studios as Toei or Toho, but Kurosawa's film is entirely different. There is, however, another point of criticism possible: although there are also very beautiful scenes, the film sometimes is too much like a history lesson. (Feature Film Enterprise II / Kurosawa Production Co. / Shochiku Eiga)

Musuko ("My Sons") by Yamada Yoji takes up where Ozu's Tokyo Monogatari left off. The sons of a widower from Iwate Prefecture are both living in Tokyo, one as a married salaryman with a tiny apartment, the other still single and only doing part time work. There are two plot lines: the family wonders what to do with the old man (in the end he remains alone in his large farm house), and that of the younger son who finally finds a more stable job with a steel company (doing tough, dirty and dangerous work very unpopular with the young) and falls in love with a beautiful girl who is however a deaf mute. This typical shoshimin eiga for the modern age is by far not as good as Yamada's non-Tora-san films from the 1960s and 1970s: both the script and the acting are too emphatic, and several actors seem miscast, most of all Mikuni Rentaro as an Iwate tobacco farmer - he is much too suave. Tanaka Kunio as truck driver is also hamming away in a terrible fashion, showing how limited his acting talents are. In addition, in various monologues Yamada too much drives his criticism of contemporary Japan home, although his meaning is already obvious from the images alone. The Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film of the Year and Japan Academy Prize for Picture of the Year are not really deserved - any of the above films is better. (Shochiku)

1992
Tetsuo II: Body Hammer by Tsukamoto Shinya is not a sequel of Tetsuo, but a new fantasy based on the same theme of flesh morphing into machine (a theme inspired by the inhumanity of life in the metropolis). This version is in color (mostly hues of blue, gray and brown) and less hectic. A mild-mannered salaryman morphs into a sort of Terminator (a canon grows out of his breast) when his young son is kidnapped by a group of shaven-headed punks. The punks belong to a cult whose leader wants to use the salaryman for a guinea pig experiment, but things get soon out of hand. (Kaijyu Theater / Toshiba EMI)

Hashi no nai kawa ("The River with No Bridge") by Higashi Yoichi, and based on a novel by Sumii Sue, is a film about Japan's social outcasts, the burakumin, who also figured in Ichikawa Kon's Hakai. (The same novel had already been adapted by Imai Tadashi, in a version colored with that director's communist ideology.) Higashi Yoichi had earlier made films about victimization, such as Saado, and this film fits into that pattern. It is an epic treatment of its subject matter, showing how the protagonist comes to terms with his status as an outcast. ( Galeria / Seiyu Production)
Gekashitsu ("The Operating Room"), a fifty-minute film by famous Kabuki onnagata Bando Tamasaburo, based on a Shinpa story by Izumi Kyoka, became a popular success. The story, set in the Meiji period, tells about the forbidden passion of a married woman (Yoshinaga Sayuri) for a dashing young surgeon. Filmed as a dream, in soft focus. The next year Bando Tamasaburo - whose first film this was - made a second one, with the same actress, this time based on a story by Nagai Kafu about a prostitute, called Yume no Onna ("Yearning"). Although it would probably have been too campy, it is a pity Bando himself didn't play in these films - he could have revived the tradition of using onnagata instead of actresses in early Japanese films! (Asahi National Broadcasting Company / Genjiro Arato Pictures)


Minbo no onna ("The Gentle Art of Japanese Extortion") by Itami Juzo features the director's wife Miyamoto Nobuko as a lawyer who helps businesses (in this case, a hotel) harassed by the yakuza. "Minbo" is the contraction of a legal term for "gangsters ripping off the public via various scams." The film starts funny enough, but soon Itami falls into a sort of teaching mode of "how to deal with the yakuza." The end of the film is therefore a foregone conclusion before we are even halfway through. After the freshness and inventiveness of Ososhiki and Tampopo, it seems that Itami's imagination is exhausted here. (Itami Films)

Shiko funjatta ("Sumo Do, Sumo Don't") by Suo Masayuki. An amusing but rather predictable tale about a young man forced to participate in his university’s lamentably bad sumo wrestling team for an important tournament. Of course, he has never before taken part in sumo... Became a box office success thanks to the presence of Motoki Masahiro, a popular idol singer. The Japanese title refers to the stamping in the ring by sumo wrestlers as a warm-up (shiko wo fumu). 1992 must have been a rather meager cinematic year, as this simple comedy managed to win both the Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film of the Year and the Japan Academy Prize for Picture of the Year. (Cabin Company Ltd. / Daiei)

Kurenai no buta ("Porco Rosso") by Miyazaki Hayao shows the director's passion for airplanes and other flying machines. The sweeping aerial scenes are dazzling, the airplane designs finely detailed. The story is set on the Adriatic coast in Italy, where an aviator who has turned into a pig (out of guilt for the fact that many of his comrades died in WWI), continues to patrol the skies and rid the land of the menace of pirates. Having seen the horrors of war, he will not allow the innocent to be oppressed. He flies into action when the pirates kidnap a boatload of little girls, and finally has to fight a brazen American aviator who has taken the side of the enemy. (Japan Airlines / Nibariki, Nippon Television Network / Studio Ghibli)

Topazu ("Tokyo Decadence") is a cultish pink film written and directed by author Murakami Ryu (known for such violent and erotic novels as Almost Transparent Blue and Coinlocker Babies, as well as the story on which Miike Takashi based Audition). This was his fourth endeavor as director. The film stars Nikaido Miho as a high-class prostitute called Ai, catering to perverted businessmen who want to engage in various forms of SM and bondage - some of which are rather dangerous. Ai also is looking for a former lover and comes under the influence of a fortune teller, who is surprisingly played by one of Japan's internationally most famous contemporary artists, Kusama Yayoi. The score is by Sakamoto Ryuichi. Despite this impeccable pedigree, the film is rather repellent - it is painful to watch the indignities Ai has to undergo and how that slowly but inevitably leads to her mental breakdown. (Cinemabrain / Japan Video Distribution (JVD) Co. Ltd. / Melsat Inc.)

1993
In Sonatine by Kitano Takeshi a world-weary gangster (played by the director) is dispatched to Okinawa with a band of his killers to help out a friendly gang in a turf war with rivals. Kitano's first yakuza film, but a strange one as all traditional elements are skipped. As it turns out that no assistance is actually needed in the gang war, what is left is a sort of Waiting for Godot on the balmy southern beach, kidding around with childish games and a local girl, while waiting for instructions from home. The central character is completely nihilistic and emotionally drained, suffering from a strong death wish long before he commits suicide in the last reel - just look at his silly, empty grin when he plays Russian roulette. As usual in Kitano's films, violence flashes up in daily life like a lightning bolt, out of the blue. An existential meditation on death and violence, imbued with a heavy sense of the futility of everything, as many Japanese films at the end of the millennium. Flopped at the box office, as the film was too nihilistic for the average Japanese. (Also see my post about yakuza films) (Bandai Visual / Shochiku)


In Ohikkoshi ("Moving") by Somai Shinji a sharp twelve-year old girl, Renko (a wonderful performance by amateur Tabata Tomoko), is confused by the divorce of her parents (very modern parents for Japan in 1993, as both are working). She engages in various schemes to bring her parents together again, but eventually has to accept the inevitable. In the meantime, she quickly grows up and leaves her childhood behind her. A beautiful film, shot in a documentary style on location in Kyoto. (Yomiuri Television)


Madadayo ("Madadayo: Not yet") by Kurosawa Akira is based on the life of the (in the West almost unknown) cult writer Uchida Hyakken (1890-1971; Hyakken for example wrote the story Zigeunerweisen on which Suzuki Seijun's film was based), which Kurosawa follows from the spring of 1943 when Hyakken leaves his teaching position to concentrate on his writing to 1962 when he celebrates his 75th birthday (the script is based on episodes from Hyakken's own writings). The film concentrates on the relation Hyakken had with his students - throughout the years, they continue having annual reunions. Kurosawa depicts an ideal situation where sensei and disciples fully trust and respect each other - a thing very much of the past in contemporary Japan. The title refers to the children's game of hide-and-seek, where the seeker asks "Madada kai" (Are you ready) and either gets the answer "Madada yo" (Not yet) or "Mo ii yo" (Yes, I'm ready). On a higher level, this refers to the game of hide-and-seek the elderly Hyakken plays with Death - the other theme of the film is the evanescence of life. By the way, Hyakken's love of cats is also important in the film, a feeling he had in common with many other Japanese writers. (Dentsu Music and Entertainment / Daiei Motion Picture Company / Kurosawa Production Co.)

Tsuki wa dochi ni dete iru ("All Under the Moon") by Sai Yoichi. Irreverent take on resident Koreans. A taxi driver takes advantage of Japanese "racism," but gives his heart to another outsider, a Filipina. Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film of the Year. (Cine Qua Non Films)

1994
Ranpo ("The Mystery of Rampo") by Mayazumi Rintaro / Okuyama Kazuyoshi. Edogawa Ranpo continues to fascinate the Japanese and 1994 was the centennial of his birth. As also Shochiku had turned 100 (when counting from its Kabuki activities, which were 25 years older than its cinematic endeavors), producer Okuyama Kazuyoshi decided to celebrate both memorials in style with a big Ranpo film. Edogawa Ranpo is played by Takenaka Naoto, but this is not a straight biopic. With a media mix of special effects, animation, wild imagery and period drama, the film tries no less than to plumb the mind of Ranpo, at a time he was battling the censorship of the state. As Okuyama was not satisfied with director Mayazumi's rather sedate version, he reshot 70% of the film himself to make it into the cinematic event he had in mind. Although both versions were released, the unrestrained visual extravaganza of Okuyama has won the day. A fitting homage to a great author. By the way, in this centennial year, more Ranpo films would be made, such as a new adaptation of Yaneura no sanposha by Jissoji Akio which had already been done by Tanaka Noboru in the eighties. (Daiwa Building / Daiwa Securities Group / Obayashi Corporation / Orix / Shochiku / Team Okuyama)


Minna Yatteruka! ("Getting Any?") by Kitano Takeshi is a zany black comedy in "Beat Takeshi" style, with hilarious gags - a sort of Japanese version of Monty Python. The flimsy story is about a pleasant half-wit (Dankan) whose sole ambition is to get laid. He starts by buying a car for car sex, and runs the gamut of other male fantasies before deciding to become invisible - a Peeping Tom. There is in fact a strong feminist message behind the male madness. The film is structurally a grab bag of references to other films, such as Zatoichi, monster movies, yakuza flicks, etc. A different, but equally interesting side of Kitano Takeshi. (Office Kitano)

Sharaku by Shinoda Masahiro is a vivid depiction of Edo culture, centering on the mysterious figure of ukiyo-e artist Sharaku. Sharaku (played by Sanada Hiroyuki) suddenly started publishing his portraits of Kabuki actors, which were close to caricature, in 1794. After making 140 prints, he again disappeared 10 months later. Even today, scholars have not succeeded in establishing his real identity. In the film he is presented as a Kabuki actor who does acrobatic stunts, and who, thrown out of work due to an injury, turns to ukiyo-e, under the guidance of a shrewd publisher (Frankie Sakai). The script of the film leaves something to be desired, but costumes and sets succeed in a masterful evocation of Edo. (Hyogen-sha / Sakai Sogo Kikaku / Seiyu Production)
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
1970-1974 - Sex and Violence
1975-1979 - Decline and Stagnation
1980-1989 - Disintegration of the Studio System
1990-1994 - The Rise of Indies
1995-1999 - Revival
2000-2004 - Postmodern Peak
2005-2009 - Cinematic Bubble[Reference works used: Currents In Japanese Cinema by Tadao Sato (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); Eros plus Massacre, An Introduction to the Japanese New Wave Cinema by David Desser (Bloomington and Indianopolis, 1988); Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema by David Bordwell (Princeton University Press: Princeton, 1988); Kurosawa: Film Studies and Japanese Cinema by Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto (Duke University Press: Durham, 2000); The Waves at Genji's Door by Joan Mellen (Pantheon Books: New York, 1976); Japanese Classical Theatre in Film by Keiko I. Macdonald (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1994); From Book to Screen by Keiko I. Macdonald (M.E. Sharpe: New York and London, 2000); Reading a Japanese Film by Keiko I. Macdonald (University of Hawai'i Press: Honolulu, 2006); Behind the Pink Curtain, A Complete History of Japanese Sex Cinema, by Jasper Sharp (Fab Press: Godalming, 2008); Contemporary Japanese Film by Mark Schilling (Weatherhill: New York and Tokyo, 1999); The Midnight Eye Guide to New Japanese Film by Tom Mes and Jasper Sharp (Stone Bridge Press: Berkeley, 2005); Kitano Takeshi by Aaron Gerow (British Film Institute: London, 2007); Iron Man: the Cinema of Shinya Tsukamoto by Tom Mes (Fab Press: Godalming, 2005); Agitator: The Cinema of Takashi Miike by Jasper Sharp (Fab Press: Godalming, 2003); Nihon Eigashi by Sato Tadao (Iwanami Shoten: Tokyo, 2008, 4 vols.); Nihon Eigashi 110-nen by Yomota Inuhiko (Shueisha; Tokyo, 2014). All images are linked from Wikipedia.]
26 Jun
The "decline and stagnation" of the previous years continues in the 1980s with the disintegration of the studio system. In 1961, six studios had made 520 films. In 1986 this number has dwindled to 3 studios who make only 24 films themselves (of course for the rest they fill their bill with films by others). 

Toho and Toei barely manage to stay in business. Toho has a few large films as The Makioka Sisters and Station, and restarts its Godzilla franchise in the middle of the decade. It also brings out popular anime for children, as the Doraemon series. Toho and Toei also switch to the system of advance tickets (like Kadokawa), to be bought up by related companies, so that they are assured of good ticket sales (even when the films are rubbish).

Toei looses most of its yakuza and other violent films to direct-to-video productions, but manages to launch one new successful series, The Yakuza Wives. It also makes several large-scale heroic films and nostalgic war films, as The Imperial Navy and The Great Japanese Empire (often brought out in August around the day WWII ended), keeping to masculine genres as of old.

Shochiku continues its dependence on the Tora-san films by Yamada Yoji, as in the previous decade; a new series is Tsuribaka Nisshi ("Fishing Fool's Diary"), based on a popular fishing manga, which starts in 1988 and will run to 20 films. Yamada Yoji is also here involved as screenwriter; the popular star of the series is Nishida Toshiyuki. The films are usually shown on a double bill with Tora-san.

Nikkatsu, finally, is hard hit because in the mid-eighties the VCR eliminates its booming "pink eiga" business. It makes its last Roman Porno films in 1988 and fails to restart a new identity with mainstream films. Still, Nikkatsu was the only studio to nurture new directors, who later went mainstream: Kurosawa Kiyoshi, Suo Masayuki, Zeze Takahisa, Nakahara Shun, Ishii Takashi and Morita Yoshimitsu, to name a few.

Violent gangster movies and sex films, the bread-and-butter of the seventies, are the first to move to the video racks (direct-to-video).

Beginning in the late seventies, ATG changes direction. From its initial emphasis on artistic and "difficult" films, it starts promoting young directors who rather make youth films or pure entertainment, although there are still great films in its line-up as Morita Yoshimitsu's The Family Game. But the company gets weaker as more and more of its cinemas close. Its production dwindles from 1985 on and the last film it supports is Shindo Kaneto's The Strange Tale of Oyuki in 1992. While it lasted, its influence on Japanese cinema in difficult years for the industry, was enormously positive.  

Kadokawa, finally, continues producing its media mix films at the pace of several a year, but with the one exception of Fall Guy by Fukasaku Kinji, none is of any artistic value.

The disintegration of the studio system also gives chances to outsiders. Companies that never had anything to do with film, now enter the world of the cinema. We have already seen the example of Kadokawa Shoten and its blockbuster strategy, assisted my massive advertising. In the eighties other newcomers are advertising agencies, trading companies, TV stations including cable TV companies, etc. Thanks to video tapes and later DVDs, films are not restricted to the cinema, but can be (re-)sold also in other forms - including pay channels on cable television. 

The large cinemas where the "program pictures" were shown close their doors and are refashioned into "mini theaters" with only 200 seats. Cinema complexes with a number of screens start being built, a trend that will only get stronger in the following decade. Especially in Tokyo, small and specialized theaters proliferate. 

But there is little renewal and the best films are made by the "old guard," such as Kurosawa (who makes his first film in five years), Suzuki Seijun who makes a comeback with independent productions, Yoshida Yoshishige who breaks a long silence and Imamura Shohei who wins the Palme d'Or in Cannes. These are all excellent films, but that many of the best films of the eighties were made by directors who flourished in the sixties also shows the decline of Japanese cinema in this decade.

New directors of this decade are most notably actor Itami Juzo, who achieves critical success with his first films, as well as Somai Shinji with his youth films and Japan's foremost animator Miyazaki Hayao. Others who should be mentioned are Yanagimachi Mitsuo, Omori Kazuki, Negishi Kichitaro and Morita Yoshimitsu.

Animation films increase in quality and popularity. Every summer and winter new anime feature films are released. In 1985 Studio Ghibli is set up, which in the next two decades will produce more than half of the 15 highest-grossing anime films ever made in Japan.

Finally, after the almost exclusively masculine and therefore violent late sixties and seventies in Japanese film, in the eighties more films are again made for women and also families.

1980
This year, there are 2,364 screens in Japan and total number of 320 films is produced (55% of total), for an audience of 164,422,000.

Suzuki Seijun directs Zigeunerweisen, based on a novel by Uchida Hyakken. It takes its title from a gramophone recording of Pablo de Sarasate's violin composition, Zigeunerweisen, which features prominently in the film. Free from the cumbersome plots of his genre films, Suzuki puts his bizarre and brilliant visual language wholly in the service of an artistic film. Set in 1920s Japan, this surrealistic psychological drama will become the first part of Suzuki's "Taisho Roman Trilogy" (with Kagero-za, 1981, and Yumeji, 1991). With Otani Naoko, Harada Yoshio and Fujita Toshiya. All three films were produced by Arato Genjiro. When exhibitors declined to screen the film, Arato screened it himself in an inflatable, mobile tent in Tokyo to great success. Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film of the Year and Japan Academy Prize for Picture of the Year. Zigeunerweisen also won Honorable Mention at the 31st Berlin International Film Festival. (Cinema Placet)


Kurosawa Akira directs Kagemusha ("The Shadow Warrior"), an elegiac epic with grand medieval battles. For ten years Kurosawa had not been able to make a film in Japan, and now this was only made possible thanks to the financial support of two of his longtime admirers, American directors Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas. Kurosawa examines the concept of the double as a means to explore the slipperiness of identity, an old Kurosawa theme. He also delves into philosophical issues of power, leadership and the play between illusion and reality. Nakadai Tatsuya plays both the warlord Takeda Shingen, and the thief who is hired to impersonate him after Shingen's sudden death (which is kept secret). A great historical epic, that however compared with Kurosawa's earlier films strikes the viewer as rather static and monumental. Won the Palme d'Or at the 1980 Cannes Film Festival. Nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. (Kurosawa Production Co. / Twentieth Century Fox / Toho)

Hipokuratesu-tachi ("Disciples of Hippocrates") by Omori Kazuki is a semi-autobiographical rumination on the rigors of medical school - the director himself (born in 1952) had studied medicine in Kyoto. The film conveys a real sense of student life. Omori would make more youth films and love stories and become a commercial director in the nineties, when he worked regularly for Toho. (ATG)

Ichikawa Kon dramatizes alienation in his adaptation of Kawabata's Koto ("The Old Capital"), where long-separated twin sisters meet again, only to face estrangement. The movie was the last in which actress Yamaguchi Momoe appeared before she retired to marry her co-star, Miura Tomokazu. (Horikaku Production Company)

1981
Doro no Kawa ("Muddy River") by Oguri Kohei is a film about childhood friendship and premature awakening to adult realities, set in postwar Osaka. The somber film, with its focus on working class characters, pits the cruelty of the adult world against the purity of the young. It is about the age-old paradox between innocence and experience. Oguri Kohei (born in 1945) has created a small but fine oeuvre in a personal style. Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film of the Year. (Kimura productions)


Enrai ("Distant Thunder") by Negishi Kichitaro is about a young farmer (Nagashima Toshiyuki) who bravely persists despite the decline of agriculture in industrialized Japan, trying to come to terms with urban encroachment on his fields. Negishi Kichitaro (born in 1950) initially worked for Nikkatsu on Roman Porno, after which he got the chance to go mainstream via ATG with the present film. His films are characterized by subtlety and intelligence, and it is regrettable that he is unknown outside Japan. (ATG / New Century productions)

Kageroza ("Heat-Haze Theater") by Suzuki Seijun is a beautiful modern ghost story, based on a novella by Izumi Kyoka, and the second part of Suzuki's "Taisho Trilogy." The eccentric and nostalgic narrative is set in 1926 Tokyo, where a Shinpa playwright (Matsuda Yusaku) has a series of encounters with a strange woman (Okusu Michiyo), who seems to be the wife of his wealthy patron. She tells him that her soul is encapsulated in the fruit of the Chinese Lantern Plant (hozuki). Intrigued, as the mysterious woman resembles his past lover, the playwright follows her to rural Kanazawa, where his patron wants to draw him into a love-suicide with her. The story is complicated by the appearance of another woman (Kusuda Eriko), the first, German wife of his patron, who however wears dark lenses and colors her hair to appear Japanese - but the problem is that she is supposedly dead. The climax of the film is formed by a sequence in a kabuki theater where child performers enact the relation between both women. Not for nothing did Suzuki himself call this work "film Kabuki." With Zigeunerweisen, one of the best films of the decade. (Cinema Placet)

Eejanaika (lit. "What the hell!") is the first period film of Imamura Shohei, set in the cataclysmic last years of the shogunate. A big, sprawling film in which the director juggles various complex plots about forms of civil disobedience. "Eejanaika" was a real historical movement, a series of carnivalesque religious celebrations which were meant as social and political protests, occurring for about a year from June 1867 in various parts of Japan. A large set of the Ryogoku Bridge and adjoining fairgrounds was created for the film which seems to burst with energy. Screened at the 1981 Cannes Film Festival. (Imamura Productions)

1982
Kamata Koshinkyoku ("Fall Guy" lit. "Kamata March") by Fukasaku Kinji, with Matsuzaka Keiko. The only artistic film to come out of Kadokawa is a satire on the film industry. It is about a stuntman (the "fall guy," played by Hirata Mitsuru) and his arrogant movie star friend (Kazama Morio), who are engaged in the production of a samurai film at the Toei lot in Kyoto (the title ironically refers to "Kamata," where the studios of Shochiku were once located - the "Kamata March" was their theme song). Like other films by Fukasaku, it is ultimately a film about an honest man working for an undeserving boss. Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film of the Year and Japan Academy Prize for Picture of the Year. (Kadokawa Haruki Jimusho)


Saraba itoshiki daichi ("Farewell to the Land") by Yanagimachi Mitsuo shows the alienation of the modern Japanese from nature and culture, and the disintegration of traditional rural family structures. After two brothers die in a boating accident, the father descends into infidelity, drug addiction and violence. Entered into the 32nd Berlin International Film Festival. (Atelier Dancan / Gunro)

In Tenkosei ("Exchange Students") by cult director Obayashi Nobuhiko two students, a boy and a girl, come to inhabit each other's bodies through some sort of supernatural intervention. A timid girl becomes an effeminate and insecure boy, and a rascal becomes a loud and self-righteous girl. Both protagonists are splendid in their cross-gendered impersonations. A hilarious coming-of-age comedy. (ATG / Nippon Television Network)

Bakuretsu toshi ("Burst City") by "cyberpunk pioneer" Ishii Sogo is a brash film set in a sort of post-apocalyptic future, where groups of punkers and biker gangs battle each other and also protest together against the building of a massive power plant. High on energy, but style wins out over content. Ishii Sogo (born in 1957) is an experimental and innovative director who has also made many shorts and music videos. (Dynamite Production)

1983
Kazoku Gemu ("The Family Game") by Morita Yoshimitsu is a black comedy about a middle class family where the father, mother and two sons are only in name family, without having any deeply felt ties. The home tutor who is hired to help the second son pass his exam for a prestigious high school provides the commitment and love that are lacking in the parents. Besides taking on the family and education, the film is also a satire of middle class life in a tiny apartment - to reach his room, the first son has to pass through that of his brother; when the parents want discuss something in private, they have to sit in their car; and all members of the family eat facing in the same direction, as would become normal in families where the TV was always on. The celebratory dinner after the son passes his exam ends in a slapstick food fight because the teacher is fed up with this small-minded family. With Matsuda Yusaku as the unorthodox teacher and Itami Juzo as the authoritarian but ineffectual father. Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film of the Year. (ATG)


Narayamabushi-ko ("The Ballad of Narayama") by Imamura Shohei is a second adaptation of the novel by Fukazawa Shichiro, about life in a mountain village where the aged are taken to Mt Narayama to die. The first adaptation was made in the fifties by Kinoshita. In comparison to Kinoshita's highly stylized "Kabuki-like" version, Imamura is down to earth naturalistic and also cranks up the sex content. Many critics seem to have a slight preference for Kinoshita's adaptation. With Ogata Ken as the unwilling son and Sakamoto Sumiko as the elderly mother who swiftly makes her preparations for the journey to the mountain. Japan Academy Prize for Picture of the Year and Palme d'Or winner at Cannes. (Toei)

Senjo no Merii Kurisumasu ("Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence") by Oshima Nagisa, based on stories about his experiences as Japanese prisoner of war during WWII by South-African author Laurens van der Post. The foreign financed film has an interesting actor line-up in rock star David Bowie, Japanese musician Sakamoto Ryuichi (who also wrote the score) and - in a first film role - Kitano Takeshi. Explores one of Oshima's constant themes: how social constructions (such as in this case, an army) are undermined by love (here between Bowie's and Sakamoto's characters). Entered into the 1983 Cannes Film Festival. (Recorded Picture Company (RPC) / National Film Trustees / Oshima Productions)
 
Sasameyuki ("The Makioka Sisters") by Ichikawa Kon is a gorgeous kimono show (not surprisingly one of the sponsors of the film was a kimono company), interspersed with cherry blossom shots and the like, but this eye-candy fails as a serious adaptation of the eponymous, complex masterwork by Tanizaki Junichiro. It is as if the director was obsessively searching for "Japaneseness," without being able to go any deeper than the surface. This story of the gentle decline of an old merchant family from Osaka, consisting of four sisters, was inspired by Tanizaki's life in Kobe in the late 1930s with his wife and her three sisters (see my post about the house where they lived, Ishoan). The two eldest sisters are married, the third one is trying hard to find a partner (via a miai) and the fourth sister is running wild. In Ichikawa's film, this is played for comedy; another element added by Ichikawa is the secret attraction the husband of the second sister feels for the third sister. With Kishi Keiko, Yoshinaga Sayuri, Itami Juzo and Ishikawa Koji. (Toho)

Hadashi no Gen ("Barefoot Gen") is an anime film by Mori Masaru, loosely based on the manga series by Nakazawa Keiji. It depicts the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima from the point of view of a small boy. (Madhouse / Gen Productions)

1984
Ososhiki ("The Funeral") by Itami Juzo. With Miyamoto Nobuko and Yamazaki Tsutomu. When the wife's father suddenly dies, a couple is faced with the task to organize a funeral for the first time in their lives. Everything has to be done by the rule-book in Japan, but in the modern age the bereaved don't know anymore how to hold a proper traditional funeral, so they have to watch an instructional video to learn the etiquette. The three enervating days until the funeral are filmed in detail and with much humor and feeling. There are also farcical elements, such as the rapacious priest who arrives in a Rolls-Royce. Itami's first film and arguably his best. Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film of the Year and Japan Academy Prize for Picture of the Year. (Itami Productions / New Century Productions)


Hentai kazoku: aniki no yomesan ("Abnormal Family: Older Brother's Bride") by Suo Masayuki is a pink film and at the same time a spoof on Ozu - his camera style, his music, the way his characters talk (or rather, are silent), to even the signs of bars. The family consists of a father, two sons and a daughter. The eldest son marries and brings his buxom bride home, to engage in non-stop and rather loud sex. Father is silently in love with a bar hostess, the daughter starts working in a Soapland, and the younger son is confused by all the lust swirling around him. Further complications arise when the married son switches from his new bride to the father's bar hostess, with whom he engages in interesting SM sessions. (Kokuei Company)

Gyakufunsha kazoku ("The Crazy family") by Ishii Sogo is an absurdistic comedy and black social satire about a family that moves to a new home in the suburbs, after which everyone falls prey to various comic obsessions. In the end, hostilities escalate and the new dreamhouse becomes a sadistic battlefield. The madness level is just too high for the film to be wholly effective. (ATG)

Saraba hakobune ("Farewell to the Ark") is the last film by Terayama Shuji, who dies at age 47. It is a (very loose) transposition of the story of Garcia Marquez' novel A Hundred Years of Solitude to Okinawa. A surreal exploration of memory and a fascinating final film - just as though-provoking as the director's earlier Pastoral Hide and Seek. Entered into the 1985 Cannes Film Festival. (ATG)

Taifu kurabu ("Typhoon Club") by Somai Shinji depicts the lives of a group of high-school students in a Tokyo suburb, who are temporarily marooned in the school's gymnasium because of a typhoon. Somai Shinji (1948-2001) was an independent director who made 10 films between 1980 and 2000, in which he often shows a compassionate understanding for alienation and loneliness. He was especially good at examining the awkward feelings of adolescents.

In the documentary film Antonio Gaudi Teshigahara Hiroshi visits the best known buildings of this Catalan architect and sculptor, including the famous Sagrada Familia Cathedral. With little narration, but music by Takemitsu Toru. (Teshigahara Productions)


Toho scores at the box office with its Godzilla revival (brought out at Godzilla's 30th anniversary), Gojira ("The Return of Godzilla"), the first of the "Heisei Godzilla" films. It is the 16th film in the total series, but as concerns plot brought out as a direct sequel to the 1954 original Gojira film. This revival returns to the darker themes and mood of some of the early films and brings on the original destructive monster. (Toho)

Kaze no Tani no Naushika ("Nausicaä of the Valley of the Winds") by Miyazaki Hayao is an ecological anime feature based on an original manga story by the director. A young princess named Nausicaä, living in a near-feudal, post-apocalyptic world in which only small pockets of humanity survive, tries to understand nature, rather than destroy it. She is faced with a difficult choice when her world is invaded by enemies and her father killed: will she join the battle or seek for a peaceful solution? (Hakuhodo / Nibariki / Tokuma Shoten)

1985
This year, there are 2,137 screens in Japan. A total of 319 Japanese films is produced (50.9% of total films shown) and shown to an audience of 155,130,000.

Ran by Kurosawa Akira is a monumental film in which Shakespeare’s King Lear is transported to sixteenth-century Japan: an elderly lord (grandly played by Nakadai Tatsuya) abdicates to his three sons, two of whom then turn against him. The actor Peter (known from Funeral Parade of Roses) plays the transvestite fool and there is a Mahleresque score by Takemitsu Toru. Again a majestic and monumental film, showing the blight of greed and thirst for power, as well as the folly of war. Among the many awards won by Ran, Wada Emi won an Oscar for best costume design.  (Greenwich Film Productions / Herald Ace / Nippon Herald Films)


Himatsuri ("Fire Festival") by Yanagimachi Mitsuo. Yanagimachi's critically acclaimed masterwork, based on a screenplay by Nakagami Kenji, is a modern cautionary fable with overtones of ancient Shinto, set in a picturesque fishing village in Kumano (southern Wakayama Prefecture) slated for corporate development. A macho lumberjack (Kitaoji Kinya), who hunts boars and monkeys with the young Ryota (Nakamoto Ryota), faces off with vengeful nature as well as with the fishermen of the village who suspect him of polluting the fish pens. A powerful film with a shocking conclusion - one of the best films made in the 1980s in Japan. Screened at the 1985 Cannes Film Festival; won various awards at international film festivals, such as Rotterdam and Locarno. (Cine Saison / Gunro / Seibu)

Sorekara ("And Then") by Morita Yoshimitsu is a bungei eiga based on a novel by Natsume Soseki. Daisuke (Matsuda Yusaku) is an aesthete who abhors the harsh, capitalistic atmosphere of the last years of the Meiji period. He lives a quiet life, without working, as his father, a rich businessman of samurai stock (Ryu Chishu), gives him an allowance. But Daisuke's life is thrown into turmoil when he meets his former sweetheart, Michiyo (Fujitani Miwako), again, whom he three years earlier had given in marriage to his best friend Hiraoka. His love is rekindled and he refuses a marriage proposal sponsored by his father, with disastrous results. A poetical film, that makes much of white lilies, the flowers with which Michiyo is associated. Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film of the Year. (Toei)

Tampopo (lit. "Dandelion") by Itami Juzo is a film for foodies: a "noodle Western." Miyamoto Nobuko plays a woman who wants to make a success of her ramen restaurant by creating the best ramen of Japan, and Yamazaki Tsutomu plays the trucker with cowboy hat who helps her by tasting. A very funny film, which also includes a biting satire of Japan's passion for the West, such as the scene in the Italian restaurant where a group of Japanese ladies tries to eat their pasta noiselessly, but after they hear a foreigner at the next table slurping, they start slurping away, too. (Itami Productions / New Century Productions)

1986
Umi to dokuyaku ("The Sea and Poison") by Kumai Kei is based on a novel by Endo Shusaku about vivisection experiments on captured Americans undertaken by the Japanese Army with Kyushu University in the last days of the war - a historical fact. While Endo in his book took this as an opportunity to examine the national conscience and the Japanese perception of crime and punishment, Kumai has made a leftist political version, holding "the system" on both sides of the Atlantic responsible for this terrible train of events. Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film of the Year; also won the Jury Grand Prix at Berlin. (Nippon Herald)

Max, Mon Amour ("Max") by Oshima Nagisa is a deadpan comedy about a woman (Charlotte Rampling) who falls in love with a chimpanzee. The film was born out of Oshima's long admiration for Luis Buñuel and in fact written in collaboration with Buñuel's frequent screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere. A wife's amorous attention to a large, affectionate chimp called Max infuriates her diplomat husband (Anthony Higgins) and sparks a delicious farce. Obsessing about their relationship, the husband invites the chimp into their home, but also peers through the keyhole to see what is happening between the two. Shows an unexpected side of Oshima, with as only possible criticism that his other films go much farther than this rather restrained comedy. All the same, this anarchistic subversion of bourgeois values deserves to be better known. (Serge Silberman / Greenwich Film Productions / Greenwich Films).

Yari no Gonza ("Gonza the Spearman") by Shinoda Masahiro. A visually beautiful historical film based on a play by Chikamatsu. A handsome youth (Go Hiromi), already in love with a young woman who has pledged her troth by giving him her sash, gets entangled in an intrigue woven by the spouse of his tea master (Iwashita Shima), who wants him to marry her young daughter. In the end, the spouse and the young man are caught in a compromising situation (without being guilty of adultery), meaning that the only course left them is to flee together. A very stylized and elegant film. Won the Silver Bear at the 36th Berlin International Film Festival. (Hyogensha / Shochiku)

A-homansu is popular actor Matsuda Yusaku's only effort as director, but a singularly good one. It is a cyperpunk action movie in which he rejects the screen image of tough guy he had build up in the 1970s (and indeed, he would play very different and more difficult roles in his films of the eighties, such as the teacher in The Family Game). The actor Matsuda plays a lonely biker who helps a gang of punks led by Ishibashi Ryo against another gang. But director Matsuda consciously breaks all rules of the genre by ridiculing action hero cool and preventing the audience from sympathizing with the protagonist. The tough guy's "performance" is just "stupid," as also the title of the film indicates ("aho" means "stupid" in Kansai dialect, and "mansu" refers to "performance"). (Central Arts / Kitty Films)

Ningen no yakusoku ("A Promise") by Yoshida Yoshishige. After an old woman dies, her widower suffering from dementia confesses to having killed her. We then get the story in flashbacks. Screened at the 1986 Cannes Film Festival. (Kinema Tokyo Company Ltd. / Seibu Saison Group / Seiyu Company Ltd)

Gokudo no Onnatachi ("Gang Wives") by Gosha Hideo and with Iwashita Shima and Katase Rina. Based on a reportage by journalist Ieda Shoko, who demonstrated that the women in the yakuza world were strong personalities with nerves of steel. Iwashita Shima (the wife of director Shinoda Masahiro) was a golden choice for the gang-boss wife, cool and steely, but also elegant and stately. She rules the mob like a business imperium, but just in case also hides a gun under her kimono. This first film still has the feel of the reportage on which it was based, which adds to authenticity. In total ten installments would be made until 1997, when Iwashita bowed out, making it the only yakuza hit series of the decade. (Toei) (See my post on yakuza movies)

1987
Marusa no Onna ("A Taxing Woman") by Itami Juzo. After his two more artistic films, Itami now hits the jackpot with a light comedy in which his wife, the actress Miyamoto Nobuko, plays a plucky tax agent who goes after tax cheats, represented by tax evader king Yamazaki Tsutomu. Part 2 was made in 1988 and features a religious sect led by Mikuni Rentaro as holy tax evader. Besides the social satire, the films are interesting in presenting a strong, modern type of female lead. Unfortunately, the film's success meant that Itami would apply a similar formula to various other fields of activity, eventually leading to routine films with little innovation. But this funny first film deservedly received the Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film of the Year and Japan Academy Prize for Picture of the Year. (New Century Producers / Itami Productions)


Zegen by Imamura Shohei is a black comedy that takes up the theme from his documentary Karayuki-san and is set in the decades of Japan's colonial expansion in the first half of the 20th c. A Japanese businessman realizes that his country's armed forces will soon be advancing across Asia, and decides that they will require brothels, so he sets up shop in Southeast Asia. A very black satire, also criticizing Japan's (then seemingly boundless) economic expansion. With Ogata Ken and Baisho Mitsuko. Entered into the 1987 Cannes Film Festival. (Imamura productions)

Shinran: Shiroi michi ("Shinran: Path to Purity") by Mikuni Rentaro is the actor's only effort as director. It tells the story of one of Japan's major medieval Buddhist figures, the founder of the Jodo Shin sect of Pure Land Buddhism. Won the Jury Prize at the 1987 Cannes Film Festival. (Kinema Tokyo Company Ltd. / Nichiei)

1988
Nikkatsu makes its last Roman Porno films. The studio tries to return to mainstream feature films under the brand name Ropponica, but fails and stops after making just two films.

Dogura Magura by Matsumoto Toshio is a comeback of this individualistic film maker with a surreal adaptation of the famous cult novel by Yumeno Kyusaku. A young man awakes in an insane asylum with no memory and a doctor tries to help him with the technique of "inherited memories." Although the film also contains a crime story, the main question it poses is the nature of reality. (Katsujindo Cinema / Toshykanky Kaihatsu AG)

Arashigaoka ("Onimaru") by Yoshida Yoshishige is a "Japanization" of the famous Emily Bronte novel. Set in the Muromachi-period and imbued with the mysterious atmosphere of the Noh theater. Matsuda Yusaku plays Onimaru, the character based on Heathcliff. With its hysterical atmosphere very different from the films Yoshida has made before. Entered into the 1988 Cannes Film Festival. (Mediactuel / Saison Group / Seiyu Production)
Tonko ("The Silkroad") by Sato Junya is based on the novel Dunhuang by Inoue Yasushi. The big spectacle film is extremely dull, but I mention it here because it was a historic co-production between Japan and China. The colorful banners and thousands of extras can't hide that the story is cliché-ridden and pulpy and doesn't do justice to Inoue's historical novel. Japan Academy Prize for Picture of the Year. (August 1st Film Studio / China Film Co-Production Corporation)
Tsuribaka Nisshi ("Fishing Fool's Diary") is a comedy film by Kuriyama Tomio, based on a fishing manga by Yamasaki Juzo and Kitami Kenichi. It is the first film in a series that would run to twenty installments until 2007. Most of the early films were released on a double bill with Otoko wa tsurai yo. The film focuses on salaryman Hamasaki Densuke ("Hama-chan," played by Nishida Toshiyuki), who is a typical irresponsible salaryman a la Ueki Hitoshi as his overriding passion is for fishing. His unlikely fishing mate is the CEO of the construction company where he works, Suzuki-san (Mikuni Rentaro), something that has to be kept hidden from colleagues on the workfloor. (Shochiku)

Bakayaro! Watashi Okottemasu ("Bakayaro! I'm Plenty Mad") is a four-part omnibus made by little-known young directors, such as Nakashima Tetsuya and Tsutsumi Yukihiko, and scripted by Morita Yoshimitsu. Shows several irritations which Japanese in the past would bear with patience, but which in the film lead to an anger explosion. Was popular enough to merit a second part the next year. (Kouwa International)

Akira by Otomo Katsuhira (based on the director's own, 1,000 page manga) is the mother of all post-apocalyptic anime films. It is also a true groundbreaking cult film that is often called one of the best anime features of all time - despite the lack of characterization and the over-the-top effects. An incredibly dense story about biker gangs in Neo-Tokyo, psychic powers and a secret government project called AKIRA, ending in a violent catharsis. (Bandai Visual)


Tonari no Tottoro ("My Neighbor Totoro") by Miyazaki Hayao. Satsuki and her little sister Mei move with their father to the countryside, to be near their mother who is in a hospital recovering from a long illness. In the peace and beauty of their lush green surroundings (set in the 1950s), the sisters find a magical world, including a fluffy troll-like animal with a Cheshire-cat-like grin dubbed "Tottoro" by the younger sister. A film that admonishes us to be concerned about tradition and our natural environment (the link with living nature has been lost also in contemporary Japan). Arguably Miyazaki's best effort, with lots of nice effects. Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film of the Year. (Tokuma Japan Communications / Studio Ghibli / Nibariki)
Hotaru no haka ("Grave of Fireflies") by Takahata Isao is an animated feature film based on an eponymous short story by Nosaka Akiyuki. Seita and his little sister Setsuko are left homeless by the firebombing of Kobe in 1945, which claims their mother's life. They can't find their father and finally move in with a shrewish aunt who constantly reminds Seita he is not doing enough for the war effort. Eventually, they leave and start living in an air-raid shelter in the countryside, begging and stealing food, but are unable to ward off starvation. (Shinchosha / Studio Ghibli)

1989
Matsuda Yusaku, the iconic actor of the seventies and eighties, who appeared in such artistic films as The Assassination of Ryoma, Heat-Haze Theater, The Family Game and And Then, dies at the young age of only 39. His last film was Ridley Scott's Black Rain.

Kono otoko, kyobo ni tsuki ("Violent Cop," lit. "Warning: this man is violent") is the first film made by actor, writer and TV comedian Kitano "Beat" Takeshi, in the double role of director and actor. Kitano plays a Dirty Harry-type detective, a loose cannon who uses violent methods when confronting criminals. After the kidnapping of his mentally retarded sister by gangsters, he really goes berserk. In contrast to Peckinpah c.s. who filmed violence in slow motion, in Kitano's films violence is sudden, unexpected and lightning-fast. It was maverick Shochiku producer Okuyama Kazuyoshi who gave Kitano the chance to direct after the original director Fukasaku Kinji bowed out because of scheduling problems. In this film Kitano ushered in the "detached style" of Japanese cinema of the 1990s, with long takes and minimum close-ups, and a relaxed editing rhythm. At the same time, generic plot motifs are filmed in unusual ways. The camera has no empathy with the characters. Violence is all the more shocking because it is understated. (Bandai Media Department / Shochiku-Fuji Company)

Kuroi ame ("Black Rain") by Imamura Shohei, tells about the aftermath of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, based on a novel by Ibuse Masuji, who in turn borrowed from diaries of survivors. Filmed in black-and-white to avoid sensationalism. Focuses on how this tragic event affects one family: a young woman, Yasuko, who lives with her aunt and uncle. The title refers to the rain that fell soon after the explosion and that was mixed with radioactive soot. Yasuko was caught in this rainfall, and her family is not only worried about her health, but also how it may affect her socially and mentally. Filmed with sincerity and compassion. Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film of the Year and Japan Academy Prize for Picture of the Year. Also two awards at Cannes. (Hayashibara Group / Imamura Productions / Tohokushinsha Film Corporation)
Rikyu by Teshigahara Hiroshi features Mikuni Rentaro in the title role of the famous tea master who is forced to commit suicide by Japan's ruler Hideyoshi (Yamazaki Tsutomu). A lush spectacle with beautiful costumes, but also a great statement of Teshigahara's aesthetics as head of the Sogetsu School of Ikebana. The film shows the clash between parvenu Hideyoshi with his golden tea house and flashy clothes and the austere tea master, who puts a single flower in a bare tea room, even cutting off all other flowers in the garden through which the guests have to pass. (C. Ito and Company Ltd. / Shochiku / Teshigahara Productions)

Tetsuo ("Tetsuo: The Iron Man") by Tsukamoto Shinya is a true cult film of the "body horror" sort. The story of a man (Taguchi Tomorowo) who literally transforms into a "man of (scrap) iron," a metallic monster, after a hit-and-run incident. He first notices this while shaving, when his razor touches a metal screw in his cheek. Filmed with primitive special effects and shot with thousands of cuts in black and white with expressionistic lightning, and accompanied by a soundtrack full of experimental noise (by Ishikawa Chu). This ultra-violent and ultra-erotic fantasy is a singular cinematic experience, and also a piece of fetishism worthy of Cronenberg. Delivers a raw emotional punch. Took the grand prize at the Fantastic Film festival in Rome. (Japan Home Video (JHV) / K2 Spirit / Kaijyu Theater)

Katsu Shintaro climbs into the director's chair for a remake of Zatoichi ("Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman"). Zatoichi takes action after he learns that his teacher has been murdered and the teacher's daughter forced into prostitution. More violence than in any previous Zatoichi film, but also something of a vanity piece for the 59-year old actor/director. Much is made good, however, by the presence of Ogata Ken as a sleepless, artistically inclined ronin. During the swordplay, a supporting actor was killed, something indicative of the low technical level film in the eighties has sunk to. (Katsu Production)

Majo no takkyubin ("Kiki's Delivery Service") by Miyazaki Hayao is the story of a thirteen-year old witch who runs an air courier service on her broomstick. She is headstrong but also resourceful and in addition gets some help from a talking cat. Has been called one of the best children's films ever made.  (Nibariki / Nippon Television Network (NTV) / Studio Ghibli)

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
1970-1974 - Sex and Violence
1975-1979 - Decline and Stagnation
1980-1989 - Disintegration of the Studio System
1990-1994 - The Rise of Indies
1995-1999 - Revival
2000-2004 - Postmodern Peak
2005-2009 - Cinematic Bubble[Reference works used: Currents In Japanese Cinema by Tadao Sato (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); Eros plus Massacre, An Introduction to the Japanese New Wave Cinema by David Desser (Bloomington and Indianopolis, 1988); Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema by David Bordwell (Princeton University Press: Princeton, 1988); Kurosawa: Film Studies and Japanese Cinema by Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto (Duke University Press: Durham, 2000); The Waves at Genji's Door by Joan Mellen (Pantheon Books: New York, 1976); Japanese Classical Theatre in Film by Keiko I. Macdonald (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1994); From Book to Screen by Keiko I. Macdonald (M.E. Sharpe: New York and London, 2000); Reading a Japanese Film by Keiko I. Macdonald (University of Hawai'i Press: Honolulu, 2006); Behind the Pink Curtain, A Complete History of Japanese Sex Cinema, by Jasper Sharp (Fab Press: Godalming, 2008); Contemporary Japanese Film by Mark Schilling (Weatherhill: New York and Tokyo, 1999); The Midnight Eye Guide to New Japanese Film by Tom Mes and Jasper Sharp (Stone Bridge Press: Berkeley, 2005); Kitano Takeshi by Aaron Gerow (British Film Institute: London, 2007); Iron Man: the Cinema of Shinya Tsukamoto by Tom Mes (Fab Press: Godalming, 2005); Agitator: The Cinema of Takashi Miike by Jasper Sharp (Fab Press: Godalming, 2003); Nihon Eigashi by Sato Tadao (Iwanami Shoten: Tokyo, 2008, 4 vols.); Nihon Eigashi 110-nen by Yomota Inuhiko (Shueisha; Tokyo, 2014). All images are linked from Wikipedia.]
20 Jun
A continuation of the first half of this decade, with more of the same. But while the Nikkatsu Roman Porno films are still going strong, the short flowering of Toei's "pinky violence" is over and the ultra violent jitsuroku yakuza films are already getting less popular. Even the ever beloved Toho monster Godzilla is forced to leave the stage. Kadokawa starts making its blockbuster thrillers with Ichikawa Kon, and Miyazaki Hayao makes his first feature length anime film. 

1975
This year, the downward trend of film attendance reaches 174,020,000. The number of screens tumbles to 2,443 and the production of Japanese films to 333 (44.4% of the total number of films shown), the bulk of which are pink films and other marginal sex exploitation pictures.

Jingi no Hakaba ("Graveyard of Honor") by Fukasaku Kinji, with Watari Tetsuya, tells about a self-destructive, renegade yakuza, whose violent antics get him into trouble with his own clan, which costs him his pinkie. He sinks further into the abyss after becoming addicted to drugs. His gentle girlfriend, a prostitute, catches tuberculosis from the inhuman monster and commits suicide. Our "hero" then goes over the edge and is found nibbling on her bones after the cremation. Remade in 2002 by Miike Takashi. (Toei)


Jitsuroku Abe Sada ("A Woman Called Sada Abe") by Tanaka Noboru was the Roman Porno version of a bizarre true-life story that happened in 1936 and that became a national sensation. A woman (Abe Sada) spends a month locked with her lover in a hotel room, in a passionate and violent bout of mad lovemaking. In the end, seeking to possess him entirely, she erotically asphyxiates him and cuts off his private parts, which she carries in her handbag until her arrest. The next year, Oshima Nagisa would base his The Realm of the Senses on the same material, a film very different in intention from Tanaka, who was rather aiming to make high-class erotica. As a result, Tanaka's version is less explicit and more stylish (with beautiful color photography). Tanaka also gives a more rounded portrayal of Abe's life through various flashbacks. (Nikkatsu)

Tanaka Noboru (1937-2006) is generally regarded as one of the best of Nikkatsu's Roman Porno directors. Making his first Roman Porno film in 1972, he would produce a total of 25 such films, before leaving the studio to direct mainstream films, which were however less successful. Tanaka's films are known for their imaginative use of color and poetic imagery.

Unable to work in Japan, Kurosawa Akira makes Dersu Uzala for Mosfilm in Russia, his first film in five years, wholly shot on location in the Siberian wilderness, under very difficult circumstances, and with a Russian cast. The story is set at the beginning of the 20th c. and tells of a Siberian native, a Goldi hunter (Maxim Munzuk), who guides a Russian explorer (Yuri Solomin) and his expedition through the treacherous snowy wilderness. Friendship develops between the elderly, but seasoned local guide and the explorer during the long trek. Won the 1975 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in addition to the Golden Prize at the 9th Moscow International Film Festival. (Mosfilm)

Shinoda Masahiro makes Sakura no mori no mankai no shita ("Under the Blossoming Cherry Trees"), based on a short story by Sakaguchi Ango. The title harks back to the folk belief that passing through a forest of blossoming cherry trees in the mountains would induce insanity. A rough robber living in the mountains (Wakayama Tomisaburo) captures a beautiful woman (Iwashita Shima) and makes her his prisoner - but he himself becomes the real captive - the seemingly so helpless female subjugates the wild man through his lust. The woman first demands that he kills all the other women in his "harem" except a limping girl who has to be her servant. Then she pushes him to start living in the city, where she leads a glamorous life, while the man is away stealing and killing. He has to bring her the heads of people he has killed, which she then uses for her bizarre games, a sort of theater of the grotesque. But the mountain man is out of place in the city, becomes listless and wants to return to the mountains. The woman agrees. On their way back into the mountains, they pass through a forest of blossoming cherry trees, and then the real nature of the woman is revealed. A bizarre ghostly drama, with echoes of both Ugetsu and Kwaidan. (Geiensha)

Aru eiga-kantoku no shogai: Mizoguchi Kenji no kiroku ("Kenji Mizoguchi: The Life of a Film Director") is a documentary film on the life and works of director Mizoguchi Kenji, directed by Shindo Kaneto. Interesting for the footage of Mizoguchi himself and the interviews with people who had interacted with him. Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film of the Year. (Kindai Eiga Kyokai)

Torakku Yaro: goiken muyo ("Truck Guys: Your Opinion is Useless") is the first film in a series of ten popular Japanese comedy-action films released from 1975 to 1979. All ten films are directed by Suzuki Noribumi and star Sugawara Bunta as Hoshi Momojiro ("Ichibanboshi" or "First Star") and Aikawa Kinya as Matsushita Kinzo, also known as "Jonathan". They are two truckers who travel around Japan in highly decorated trucks ("dekatora"). Momojiro is unmarried and lives in his truck (after spending his evening sometimes in a "Soapland"), while Jonathan has a motherly wife with seven or eight kids and the next one underway. The plot formula borrows one element from Tora-san: as soon as Momojiro falls in love he becomes immensely shy. Moreover, also like Otoko wa tsurai yo, his choice is always an unlucky one as he ends up having to help his beloved one in her romance with another man. In the finale of the film he then has to race his truck to meet a deadline to bring this couple together. Although completely unknown abroad, this ten film series is in Japan considered as "cult director" Suzuki Noribumi's greatest contribution to cinema. (Toei)

Shinkansen daibakuha ("The Bullet Train") by Sato Junya is a disaster film mega production starring about everyone associated with Toei, including Takakura Ken as a leftist radical who has rigged the bullet train so that it will explode if it slows down to below a certain speed. Notably, Japan Railways refused to lend support so the director had to make do with a miniature train instead of the real thing. Others starring in this film are Sonny Chiba as the conductor, Shimura Takashi as the president of the railway line and Tanba Tetsuro as police inspector. Was more popular abroad than in Japan. (Toei)

Mekagojira no Gyakushu ("Terror of Mechagodzilla") is the fifteenth and final installment in the original series of Godzilla films and it also is the last Godzilla film to be directed by Honda Ishiro. Its commercial failure may have contributed to Toho's decision to end the series. (Toho)

1976
The sensation of the year is Oshima's Ai no korrida ("The Realm of the Senses"), based on the above mentioned real-life crime of passion involving Abe Sada, and played by Fuji Tatsuya and Matsuda Eiko. The Japanese title literally means "Bullfight of Love" ("korrida" is the Spanish word for bullfight, corrida). The hardcore film was developed in Paris, and the version shown in Japan was severely cut by the censors. It still has never been shown in complete form in Japan, although it really is the least sexy porno film ever made. There is nothing in this obsessed and claustrophobic story to titillate viewers, contrary to the Roman Porno film by Tanaka Noboru on the same subject. In fact, it is a very feminist film, for the male protagonist offers up his life with the sole purpose to give his woman pleasure - he is completely dedicated to her. More than anything else, it may have been this stance that enraged critics and censors. Not only in Japan - the film was banned in several countries and was disqualified from appearing at the Cannes Film Festival. (Argos Films / Oshima Productions / Shibata Organisation) (See my post about Japanese Cult Films)


Edogawa Ranpo ryoki-kan: Yaneura no sanposha ("Watcher in the Attic") by Tanaka Noboru and with Miyashita Junko and Ishibashi Renji, free after a story by Edogawa Ranpo. A voyeuristic landlord roams the rafters to spy on the sexual encounters of his boarders. These include a girl dressed in animal hides and an over-sexed Pierrot, plus a young man who builds a hidden compartment into an armchair so that he can hide inside and enjoy the sensation when the woman he adores sits on him (this motif is based on another Edogawa Ranpo story, The Human Chair). This beautifully shot film is generally regarded as one of the best films to come out of Nikkatsu's Roman Porno. (Nikkatsu)

Kinkakuji ("The Temple of the Golden Pavillion") by Takabayashi Yoichi is the second adaptation of the famous novel by Mishima Yukio. Takabayashi Yoichi (1931-2012) was a pioneering independent film maker who won various prizes at international festivals with his short films. In the mid-seventies he moved on to making feature films and one of the first was Kinkakuji. Compared to the first adaptation by Ichikawa Kon, Takabayashi follows Mishima much more closely in this story of a man imprisoned in himself, out of tune with the world, and seeking liberation through the destruction of beauty. But Takabayashi is also preoccupied with the actual suicide of Mishima just a few years earlier, which guides his interpretation. (ATG)

Hasegawa Kazuhiko directs Seishun no Satsujinsha ("Young Murderer") about an angry young man who kills both his parents. Hasegawa (born 1946) had started his career as a script writer of Nikkatsu's Roman Porno movies, before making two provocative feature films with ATG in the mid-seventies. In the present film he presents a very dark view of the disintegration of traditional family structures as Japan has modernized. The totally alienated protagonist rebels violently against conventional society, but in the end, although he cheats death and justice, he has no future. Based on a novel by Nakagami Kenji. Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film of the Year. (ATG / Imamura Productions / Soeisha)

Kimi yo funne no kawa wo watare ("Manhunt") by Sato Junya. A police detective (Takakura Ken) is falsely accused of break-in and rape by a to him unknown couple. Fearing a trap, and angry about the false accusation, he goes on the run to clear his name. He gets unexpected assistance from a beautiful woman... After the ninkyo eiga boom stopped, Takakura Ken moved on to playing other tough characters, such police officers with a violent streak. Sato Junya was a director of violent yakuza movies who turned to assorted blockbusters later in his career. (Nagata Productions / Daiei)

One of the most popular films of the year is Inugamike no ichizoku ("The Inugamis") by Ichikawa Kon, based on a novel by Yokomizo Seishi. This convoluted murder mystery features detective Kindaichi Kosuke - arguably Japan's most beloved detective, with his untidy Japanese-style clothes and long, unkempt hair covered by an old hat - here played admirably by Ichizaka Koji. The commercial success of this film allowed Ichikawa Kon to continue working through the eighties and nineties, although this and other films he made in this period lack the relevance and artistry of his earlier work. (Kadokawa Haruki Jimusho)

1977
Yamada Yoji's Shiawase no Kiiroi Hankachi ("The Yellow Handkerchiefs of Happiness") tells a moving story of three strangers who embark on a road trip through Hokkaido. One is a young guy (Takeda Tetsuya) who has been left by his girlfriend, quits his job, buys a new car and starts touring in Hokkaido. He picks up two hitchhikers, a young woman (Momoi Kaori) and a mysterious man (Takakura Ken), who as is gradually revealed has been in jail for murder. The ex-convict is anxious to see his wife (Baisho Chieko) again, although he has divorced her when he was in jail. Will she be waiting for him by giving a sign of hoisting a yellow handkerchief as a flag? Yamada's presentation of wholesome love stands out in an age of cinematic sex and violence. The heart-warming film was inspired by a story written by American journalist Pete Hamill. Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film of the Year and Japan Academy Prize for Picture of the Year. (Shochiku)


Hanare Goze Orin ("Banished Orin") by Shinoda Masahiro. About a blind woman minstrel or "goze" (Iwashita Shima), who wanders around the countryside entertaining people with her shamisen playing. She has been expelled from her group of minstrels because she had relations with a man, which was forbidden (goze are supposed to be "married" to the Buddha Amida). Later she teams up with a deserted soldier (Harada Yoshio) who claims only to have brotherly affection for her, for he doesn't want to leave her in the lurch after sleeping with her like all her other men did. But the film ends bleak after this soldier is arrested and tortured by the military police. The final shot shows the evanescence of life. (Toho)

Hausu ("House") is a horror film by Obayashi Nobuhiko, originally aimed at a young audience, but later becoming a cult film, also abroad. A schoolgirl travels with six classmates to the country home of her aunt. There various supernatural events happen, as the house literally starts devouring the girls one by one. The redeeming quality of this rather shoddily made horror spoof is the outrageous imagination of the director. Obayashi Nobuhiko (born 1938) started making experimental short films in the 1960s; House was his first feature film. In the following decades Obayashi has broadened his mainstream appeal and has become known in Japan for his coming-of-age movies which incorporate surreal fantasy elements.  (PSC)

1978
The Japan Academy Prize is a series of awards established from this year by the Nippon Academy Prize Association for excellence in Japanese film. The first film to win is The Yellow Handkerchiefs of Happiness made the previous year by Yamada Yoji. Despite the prestige of this new price, its choices are influenced by the big studios (just like its more famous American namesake) and therefore less interesting than those of the more independent Kinema Junpo Prize (determined by the votes of independent critics).

Ai no Borei ("Empire of Passion") by Oshima Nagisa surprises after the shocking The Realm of the Senses as being a rather straightforward murder mystery and ghost story, set in 1895 and based on a real incident. After having shown the effect of obsessive passion on the lovers themselves in Ai no korrida, here he probably wanted to show its negative effect on others. A beautiful peasant woman and her young lover conspire to murder the woman's husband when their passion gets out of hand. They throw his body in an abandoned well, claiming he is away on a trip to Tokyo. They only see each other seldom to avoid suspicion. But then the woman starts having visions of her dead husband and both murderers are consumed by guilt, while a bumbling police inspector is on their trail. Won Best Director at the 1978 Cannes Film Festival. (Argos Films / Oshima Productions / Toho-Towa)


Sonezaki Shinju ("Double Suicide at Sonezaki" aka "The Love Suicides at Sonezaki") by Masumura Yasuzo is a film based on a Kabuki play by Chikamatsu Monzaemon about passion that ends in death. The plot closely follows the original work and is in fact the most faithful film adaptation of any of Chikamatsu's plays. Tokubei (Uzaki Ryudo), a soy-sauce maker, falls in love with indentured prostitute Ohatsu (Kaji Meiko). After her indenture is bought by a wealthy patron, they decide to commit suicide. A film with a high reputation, showing Masumura back in form, after he had been forced to make rather forgettable films during most of the seventies. Kaji Meiko also won several awards for her lead role, which is arguably her best performance. (See my post about the Ohatsu Tenjin shrine in Osaka's Sonezaki district, where both lovers still are honored) (ATG)

Saado ("Third Base") by Higashi Yoichi, on a script by Terayama Shuji, is a semi-documentary study of a juvenile murderer in a reformatory. The boy (Nagashima Toshiyuki) played third base man in a high school baseball team, and therefore was called "Third Base." One day, wanting some money with his friends, he pimped his schoolmates and got involved in a struggle with a yakuza, who was killed. In the reformatory he is an outsider, because he is not a real criminal. Higashi Yoichi (born 1934) has produced an intelligent oeuvre of liberal political commitment. Saado was his first critically acclaimed film, shot with a restraint and understatement that has been compared to Bresson. Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film of the Year. (ATG / Gentosha)

Kichiku ("The Demon") is a psychological drama directed by Nomura Yoshitaro, based on a novel by Matsumoto Seicho. Consumed by the jealousy and power struggles of their own relationships, a man, his mistress and his wife involve three children in their games - with tragic results. A grim but compelling film. This year Nomura Yoshitaro also makes Jiken ("The Incident"), based on a novel by Oka Shohei, a respectable bungei eiga that wins the Japan Academy Prize for Picture of the Year. (Shochiku)

Yagyu Ichizoku no Inbo ("The Yagyu Clan Conspiracy" aka "Shogun's Samurai") is a violent period film directed by Fukasaku Kinji. The fanatical lord Yagyu (Nakamura Kinnosuke) will do everything to keep the disfigured shogun, who is going mad, in office, including genocide and warring with his own son, Yagyu Jubei ("Sonny" Chiba). Based on a popular TV series. Fun, but from a historical point of view the story is nonsense. The same year Fukasaku makes his adaptation of the 47 ronin story, Akojo danzetsu ("The Fall of Ako Castle"). (Toei)

1979
Imamura Shohei directs Fukushu Suru wa Ware ni Ari ("Vengeance Is Mine"), a semi-documentary about a historical serial killer, Iwao Enokizu (Ogata Ken in a great performance). The protagonist is a completely amoral man, with no soul, who in the early 1960s murdered two delivery van employees for the money they carried and then fled across Japan - killing, committing fraud, posing as a university professor, and somehow eluding the police for 78 days. Imamura always chooses the side of the underdog and here, too, we can feel a glimmer of sympathy for Iwao, not for his murders which are presented as the senseless deeds that they were, but for the short lived feeling of freedom and happiness the fugitive achieves during his flight. Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film of the Year and Japan Academy Prize for Picture of the Year. (Imamura Productions / Shochiku)


"Nikkatsu Queen" Tani Naomi makes her last film, a lavish period piece called Nawa to Hada ("Rope and Skin"), directed by Nishimura Shogoro. Based on a story by SM author Dan Oniroku. She plays a tough yakuza gambler who is subjected to sexual torture and S&M abuse by the leader of a rival gang. Fuller story line than in most Nikkatsu Roman Porno films. (Nikkatsu)

Actress Miyashita Junko wins the Kinema Junpo Prize for Best Actress for her performance in Nikkatsu Roman Porno film Akai Kami no Onna ("A Woman with Red Hair"), directed by Kumashiro Tatsumi. Based on a story by Nakagami Kenji. Miyashita plays a hitchhiker who is picked up by a truck driver (Ishibashi Renji) who takes her to his rundown hovel, where they engage in a grueling routine of non-stop sex. Claustrophobic is the right term. It all ends in mayhem when her violent ex-boyfriend pays an unexpected visit. Regarded as one of the best movies in its genre. (Nikkatsu)

Taiyo wo nusunda otoko ("The Man Who Stole the Sun") by Hasegawa Kazuhiko (the second of only two feature films made by this interesting director) is a film about a high school science teacher (Sawada Kenji) who builds a homemade atomic bomb and uses it to hold the government to ransom and demand a Rolling Stones concert in Tokyo. The teacher is pitted against a heroic cop, played by Sugawara Bunta. A satirical thriller, that spoofs Hollywood tough-guy movies. (Kitty Films / Tristone Entertainment Inc.)

Jukyusai no chizu ("A Nineteen-Year-Old's Map") by Yanagimachi Mitsuo, after a story by Nakagami Kenji, tells about an embittered student / newspaper boy who plans to blow up the houses where he delivers his papers. But the film ends ironically with the realization by the protagonist that he even lacks the courage to destroy. Yanagimachi Mitsuo (born in 1945), an independent film maker with a small oeuvre of just eight films, is known for his austere studies of the socially marginalized. He had debuted 1976 with the biker gang documentary Goddo supiido yuu! Burakku emparaa ("Godspeed You! Black Emperor). (Gunro)

Animator Miyazaki Hayao makes his first feature film, Rupan Sansei: Kariosutoro no Shiro ("The Castle of Cagliostro"), featuring flamboyant international master thief Arsène Lupin III from Monkey Punch's manga series. Since its first appearance in 1967, the adventure-comedy series Lupin III has been consistently popular in Japan, in all formats, from manga to anime to TV. This was the second theatrical feature film, set in a European never-never land with a castle, a princess and a treasure, and it remains the best. (Tokyo Movie Shinsha)

Miyazaki Hayao (born in 1941) is Japan's foremost animator who has achieved such great international fame that he needs no further introduction. With Takahata Isao he co-founded Studio Ghibli in 1984.
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
1970-1974 - Sex and Violence
1975-1979 - Decline and Stagnation
1980-1989 - Disintegration of the Studio System
1990-1994 - The Rise of Indies
1995-1999 - Revival
2000-2004 - Postmodern Peak
2005-2009 - Cinematic Bubble[Reference works used: Currents In Japanese Cinema by Tadao Sato (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); Eros plus Massacre, An Introduction to the Japanese New Wave Cinema by David Desser (Bloomington and Indianopolis, 1988); Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema by David Bordwell (Princeton University Press: Princeton, 1988); Kurosawa: Film Studies and Japanese Cinema by Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto (Duke University Press: Durham, 2000); The Waves at Genji's Door by Joan Mellen (Pantheon Books: New York, 1976); Japanese Classical Theatre in Film by Keiko I. Macdonald (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1994); From Book to Screen by Keiko I. Macdonald (M.E. Sharpe: New York and London, 2000); Reading a Japanese Film by Keiko I. Macdonald (University of Hawai'i Press: Honolulu, 2006); Behind the Pink Curtain, A Complete History of Japanese Sex Cinema, by Jasper Sharp (Fab Press: Godalming, 2008); Contemporary Japanese Film by Mark Schilling (Weatherhill: New York and Tokyo, 1999); The Midnight Eye Guide to New Japanese Film by Tom Mes and Jasper Sharp (Stone Bridge Press: Berkeley, 2005); Kitano Takeshi by Aaron Gerow (British Film Institute: London, 2007); Iron Man: the Cinema of Shinya Tsukamoto by Tom Mes (Fab Press: Godalming, 2005); Agitator: The Cinema of Takashi Miike by Jasper Sharp (Fab Press: Godalming, 2003); Nihon Eigashi by Sato Tadao (Iwanami Shoten: Tokyo, 2008, 4 vols.); Nihon Eigashi 110-nen by Yomota Inuhiko (Shueisha; Tokyo, 2014). All images are linked from Wikipedia.]
11 Jun
In the seventies, the disintegration of the studio system could no longer be halted. In 1971, 421 feature films were made, which seems a quite respectable number, until one realizes that half of these films were low-budget "pink" productions made outside the studio system. 

Here is an overview of what happened to the various studios during this decade:

Daiei goes bankrupt in 1971 (en passant the end of the five-company agreement). The union succeeds in reviving the company, by having Tokuma Yasuyoshi, the president of the publishing house Tokuma Shoten, take it over. Tokuma Shoten would remain the owner of Daiei until selling it to Kadokawa Shoten in 2002. However, in the years that Tokuma owns Daiei it only makes a small number of films. Daiei was in fact reduced to becoming a small independent producer, without its own studio lot. 

Nikkatsu also goes bankrupt, but is reestablished in 1971 by its union which even manages to buy back the production studio. The company however decides to make exclusively "roman porno" films, softcore films of a higher production quality than the ordinary "pink film."  During the seventies, this strategy is very successful and Nikkatsu even becomes the only studio where new talent is nurtured. "Pink movies" become a stepping stone for many young independent filmmakers. Interesting new directors are for example Kumashiro Tatsumi, Tanaka Noboru and Konuma Masaru. But Nikkatsu's move to porno also means that many actors leave the studio, such as Kobayashi Akira, Watari Tetsuya and Kaji Meiko who go to Toei, or Shishido Jo who moves to television. 

Shochiku survives the 1970s by depending on its cash cow, the Tora-san films, and an occasional more serious effort by Yamada Yoji. As these are all "Ofuna flavor" films, it can be said that Shochiku kept its authentic mix of comedy and melodrama intact. Besides that, the studio brought out some distinguished thrillers by director Nomura Yoshitaro, based on the popular novels of Matsumoto Seicho. 

Also Toei remains faithful to its original manner, even in these difficult years, although it switches from "ninkyo" (chivalrous) to "jitsuroku" (real account) in the yakuza genre. Besides these jitsuroku films, starring Sugawara Bunta, it leaned on the following pillars of violence and sex: (1) "pinky violence" series (action films with some nudity) such as the Sasori "female prisoner" series with Kaji Meiko or the "girl gang" series (Delinquent Girl Boss; Girl Boss Blues) with Ike Reiko; (2) "cult" films with lots of violence and sex by Ishii Teruo and Suzuki Noribumi, such as Ishii's "porno period film" "Bohachi" or Suzuki's "Sex and Fury;" (3) Noribumi Suzuki's more mainstream and in Japan very popular Torakku Yaro series about the adventures of a pair of truckers with Sugawara Bunta and Aikawa Kinya; (4) a sort of kungfu films with Sonny Chiba, such as The Streetfighter, which were very popular abroad; and (5) several violent period films made later in the decade by Fukasaku Kinji. For the rest, it concentrates on TV (such as the popular SF and tokusatsu superhero series Kamen Rider). 

Toho stops making its "salaryman" comedy series and fires all actors on its payroll. It even retires its ever favorite monster Gojira in 1975. In the second half of the seventies, Toho co-produces the successful series of adaptations made by Kadokawa Pictures of the thrillers of popular author Yokomizo Seishi. Toho also co-produces some of Kumai Kei's films with social criticism and - on a more conservative note - the old-fashioned literary adaptations with idol Yamaguchi Momoe of Nishikawa Katsumi (co-produced with talent agency Horipro). In this sense, the seventies saw the start of "idol eiga," films starring young "idols," who would bring in audiences solely based on their popularity, unrelated to the quality of the film. Toho also made some blockbusters, as the disaster film "Japan Sinks."

Not only the studio system, but also the attendant star system disintegrates in the 1970s. Actors and actresses (and the same goes for directors) are no longer in the fixed employment of studios, but are hired separately per film. Many stars set up their own production companies. The biggest problem is that there is no nurturing and training of new talent in the film world anymore. New actors come from TV or from the above mentioned world of "idols" (also called "tarentos," a Japanese term indicating teenage singers whose personality and career are created by the record companies and who - besides having a nice face - are usually singularly untalented). There also is a dearth of good technical staff due to lack of continuity. 

Happily, ATG continues going strong in the 1970s. Some of its most important New Wave films are made in the early seventies (Hana Susumu, Yoshida Yoshishige, Oshima Nagisa, Wakamatsu Koji, Terayama Shuji, etc.). Two new directors are Jissoji Akio and Kuroki Kazuo. Also established directors who have lost the support they had of the studios, such Ichikawa Kon and Masumura Yasuzo, make use of the services of ATG. Young film makers who boost their career by making films with ATG later in the seventies are Hasegawa Kazuhiko, Ishii Sogo, Omori Kazuki and Morita Yoshimitsu. In its heyday, ATG had ten theaters in Tokyo and Osaka where its films were shown, but this number would gradually start to decrease during the decade. 

A new film company is also set up in this decade: Kadokawa Pictures, established by publishing company Kadokawa Shoten in 1976. The new company will only produce popular blockbuster films, aiming at synergy benefits ("media mix") by creating adaptations of its popular novels. A good example is The Inugamis, directed by Ichikawa Kon and adopted from a Kadokawa Shoten published novel by Yokomizo Seishi. Due to an aggressive marketing campaign, the film ends as the second-largest earner of the year. Kadokawa would follow this strategy also for its other films: large-scale epics with sizable budgets and matching advertising campaigns (incl. TV), aimed at mass audiences and box-office success. In the seventies, it made especially thrillers, besides Yokomizo Seishi, based on novels by for example Morimura Seiichi and Hanmura Ryo. Not surprisingly, the critics were not always kind to these blown-up commercial vehicles, and the way they managed to attract a large public was rather tricky, i.e. by having other companies buy large amounts of tickets in advance to be used as give-aways (these would often end up for lower prices in "ticket shops"). It is a moot point whether these films and advertising tactics helped stem the tide of cinematic decay, or on the other hand accelerated it.

In short, film making had become more difficult than in the previous two decades. ATG films were essentially a low-budget affair, and a director like Kurosawa who made expensive films, was forced into silence. Kurosawa finally found financing abroad. Later in the seventies, also Oshima turned to foreign financiers. Because of lack of financing, Teshigahara and Suzuki didn't make feature films in the seventies and Imamura Shohei mostly turned to documentary. Except for a few new directors in "roman porno" and the above mentioned young ATG directors, there is little new talent. 

1970
The downward trend of cinema attendance that set in during the 1960s, continues, with 254,799,000 moviegoers this year. There are now 3,246 cinemas left. This year, 423 films are produced in Japan. The share of Japanese films in the total of films exhibited is 59.4%.

Jissoji Akio directs Mujo ("This Transient Life"), a powerful, sensual treatment of incest and the first of a trilogy of films around Buddhist philosophy (with Mandala, 1971, and Uta, 1972). Jissoji looks at Buddhism in the same way Danish director Dreyer looked at Protestantism and his film is a study of the consequences of a single transgressive act, the incestuous relationship between a brother (who is studying Buddhist sculpture) and sister that results in pregnancy. The film sparked controversy, but also ticket sales, becoming ATG's biggest hit. It was also internationally hailed as a masterpiece, winning the 1970 Golden Leopard at the Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland. (ATG)

Jissoji Akio (1937-2006) first directed for television in the sixties, being involved in for example the popular Ultraman SF series for children. In the seventies he moved to arthouse cinema for ATG with Mujo and other impressive films. In the eighties he again worked mainly in television, but he returned to the big screen with a big budget horror film Teito Monogatari (1988). Later he made several interesting adaptations of the ero-guro stories of Edogawa Ranpo (Yaneura no sanposhaRanpo jigoku) as well as a film version of Kyogoku Natsuhiko's Ubume. An interesting cult director.

Yoshida Yoshishige directs part two of his trilogy of Japanese radicalism, Rengoku eroica ("Heroic Purgatory"). The wife of a scientist brings a confused girl home who starts treating the scientist and his wife as her parents. A mysterious man appears who claims to be her father, but the girl wants to have nothing to do with him. The appearance of the man arouses memories about his youth as a revolutionary in the minds of the scientist, obscured by dreamlike disruptions. The theme of incest is also addressed when the girl who masquerades as the scientist's daughter becomes his seducer. (ATG / Gendai Eigasha)

Imamura Shohei directs the feature-length documentary set in Japan's naval port with a large American base, Yokosuka, Nippon Sengoshi - Madamu Onboro no Seikatsu ("History of Postwar Japan as Told by a Bar Hostess"). Onboro-san, a bar hostess and a member of Japan's outcast group, sits together with Imamura in front of a projection screen, and is interviewed about her life story while watching various newsreels, starting with the end of the war. She thus provides an alternate voice to "official" history. Madame Onboro is one of Imamura's "earthy women," as she is very pragmatic and has made her own way through her own efforts. At the end of the film she boards a plane with her baby for the U.S. to marry a sailor half her age. She is also a-political: Imamura's demonstrates his own rather more critical stance about the course taken by Japan after the war by a clever selection of images which sometimes ironically undercut the words of the bar hostess. (Nihon Eiga Shinsha)

Oshima depicts the schism between concept and reality in Tokyo Senso Sengo Hiwa ("The Man Who Left His Will on Film"), a film about revolutionary activity, despair and frustration of the young. Student demonstrations in 1969 are filmed by other students, who see this as a way of participating. One of the filmers is thought to have committed suicide, but the film in his camera only contains nondescript street scenes. When one young man realizes that these scenes all relate to his own life, he commits the suicide ascribed to the filmer. (ATG / Sozosha)

Shinoda Masahiro directs Buraikan ("Buraikan" aka "The Scandalous Adventures of Buraikan"), about the mindless, pleasure-seeking world of the late Tokugawa period, making sure viewers see the parallel with their own times. Based on a script by Terayama Shuji (who in turn used a Kabuki play by Kawatake Mokuami), and with Nakadai Tatsuya and Iwashita Shima, this film offers a pulsating flow of vignettes from Japan during the Tenpo Reforms of 1842. A lazy fortune teller wants to become a famous kabuki actor and marry a prominent geisha, against the will of his imperious mother. Through this runs the story of an outlaw (Tanba Tetsuro) who opposes the political and social reforms undertaken at that time, which forbid all pleasure and ban the popular theater. But the film ends with the realization (typical of the seventies) that revolution is meaningless as one power will always be replaced by another. One of Shinoda's finest films. (Ninjin Club)

Dodeskaden is the first film Kurosawa Akira makes since Red Beard in 1965; it is also his first color film. Based on a novel by Yamamoto Shugoro, the film focuses on the lives of a group of people who live on a rubbish dump. A mentally challenged boy runs around fanatically playing that he is both a tram and its driver ("dodeskaden" is an onomatopoeia for the sound the tram makes). The film - which was unlike anything Kurosawa had made before and may have disappointed fans who were hoping for another Yojimbo - was a financial failure which sent Kurosawa into such a deep depression that he tried to commit suicide in 1971. It would be another five years before he could make his next film, and that would be in the Soviet Union. Dodesukaden was the only film made by an independent producer set up by Kurosawa with three other directors, Kinoshita Keisuke, Kobayashi Masaki and Ichikawa Kon (Yonki no Kai). Nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. (Yonki no Kai)

Kazoku ("Where Spring Comes Late," lit. "The Family") by Yamada Yoji is one of the best non-Tora-san films of this prolific director. It is a road movie of how a family consisting of husband (Igawa Hisashi), wife (Baisho Chieko), a boy, a baby girl and the husband's father (Ryu Chishu) moves from the southern island of Kyushu to work on a livestock farm in northern Hokkaido. It is the year of the Osaka Expo, which is also visited by the family (although they can't actually enter because of the endless lines waiting at the gates). It is interesting to see Japan in its energetic period of high growth. The film was made on location and contrasts the beautiful but severe nature of Hokkaido with the grimy mine where the husband used to work, or the chemical complex they visit on the way where his brother is employed, as well as with the hectic atmosphere of the big cities Osaka and Tokyo the family passes through. It has its sentimental moments when the baby girl dies on the way through neglect (the family had carried it to the Expo without resting) and when Grandpa closes his eyes for good just after settling down in Hokkaido, but is basically a life affirming film. Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film of the Year. (Shochiku)


Hasebe Yasuharu opens the genre of "pinky violence" (films combining eroticism with action-packed stories) with a youth film, Nora Neko: Onna Bancho ("Stray Cat Rock: Delinquent Girl Boss"), about a gang of young women. The film was meant as a vehicle for popular singer Wada Akiko, but she was put in the shadow by her charismatic co-star Kaji Meiko. Wada plays a biker who comes to the assistance of Kaji and her girl gang, when these are pursued by a male gang in league with a sinister rightist owning a private army (like Mishima Yukio). The film has its exploitative moments, but also presents the theme of female empowerment. A dynamic movie with freewheeling camerawork by director Hasebe, that spawned four sequels. (Hori Production / Nikkatsu)

Zatoichi to Yojinbo ("Zatoichi meets Yojimbo") by Okamoto Kihachi is one of the most interesting entries in the long Zatochi series. It shows a conflict between two great sword fighters (Yojinbo is of course the hero of Kurosawa's eponymous film) and also the clash of two great egos, Katsu Shintaro and Mifune Toshiro. Of course, it ends in a sort of draw. It is one of the last films in the long series (a total of 25 films), as the collaboration of Katsu Productions with tottering Daiei was coming to an end. In the mid-seventies, Zatoichi would move to the small screen for a five year - 100 episode run. The popular character of the blind gambler / swordsman would then be revived by Katsu Shintaro in 1989 and by Kitano Takeshi in 2003. (Katsu Productions / Daiei)

1971
Nikkatsu launches its "Roman Porno" series with Danchizuma: Hirusagari no joji ("Apartment Wife: Affair In the Afternoon"), directed by Nishimura Shogoro and starring Shirakawa Kazuko. The film becomes a hit, inspiring twenty sequels within seven years, and establishes Shirakawa as Nikkatsu's first "Queen." Nikkatsu would focus on these higher-quality pink films, making them for the next 17 years at an average rate of three per month, taking the market away from lower quality pink productions. Nikkatsu gave its directors a great deal of artistic freedom in creating their films, as long as they met the "minimum quota" of four nude scenes per hour. The series was not only popular with audiences, but also with critics: in the seventies, Roman Porno films would appear with some regularity on the lists of Best Films of Kinema Junpo. The boom ended in the mid-1980s, when the VCR killed the theatrical pornographic film. (Nikkatsu)

Sho o suteyo machi e deyo ("Throw Away Your Books, Rally in the Streets") is the first feature-length film made by avant-garde poet and dramatist Terayama Shuji (1935-1982), one of the most provocative creative artists to come out of Japan. The youth culture film shows the disintegration of a family as a metaphor for Japan's descent into materialism. The protagonist is a young man who in contrast to his family members who have resigned themselves to their downward spiral, is determined to achieve something in life. But the result is that he grows increasingly disillusioned. Won the grand prize at the San Remo Film Festival. (ATG / Jinriki Hikokisha)

Oshima directs Gishiki ("The Ceremony"), summarizing Japan's postwar history in the depiction of a provincial family of status and their marriages and funerals, all "ceremonies." It is a masterful film, one of Oshima's best: while all characters are fully rounded, each of them also personifies a certain facet of Japanese society. The film is also more melodramatic than usual for Oshima. The complex family relationships are observed through the eyes of a son born in Manchuria and returned home after the war. The family is dominated by an authoritarian grandfather, bringing up the theme of lingering vestiges of patriarchy in the modern family, of the nation's imperialist and militarist traditions, and of the disillusionment of the younger generation, who have no new ideals or beliefs with which to resist the old order. Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film of the Year. (ATG / Sozosha)


Tsuchimoto Noriaki shakes the world with a documentary dedicated to the Minamata mercury poisoning incident, Minamata: Kanja-san to sono sekai ("Minamata: The Victims and Their World"). The documentary was screened at various film festivals and won numerous awards. (Higashi Productions)

1972
Kumashiro Tatsumi's Ichijo Sayuri: Nureta yokujo ("Sayuri Ichijo - Following Desire" aka "Ichijo's Wet Lust") on the anarchistic life of a stripper wins critical acclaim: it won the Kinema Junpo Awards for Best Director, Best Screenplay and Best Actress. Ichijo Sayuri was a very popular real-life stripper and she appears here in a fictionalized account of her life. She is a vigorous woman, who gives a brilliant and humorous performance in this - her only - film. In the story, she is in competition with a younger stripper called Harumi (Shirakawa Kazuko), both trying to outdo the other by the extremity of their strip acts. The police several times raid the show (as happened in real life). The women bear the brunt while their (male) managers are allowed to go free. But this is basically a film full of fun, in racy Osaka dialect. Both strippers are a far cry from the idealized passive woman of Japanese culture: they are lively, talkative, aggressive, manipulative, and always full of humor and humanity - something unusual for the genre. (Nikkatsu)

Kumashiro Tatsumi (1927-1995) was with Tanaka Noboru the most important director of Nikkatsu's Roman Porno. He made films full of life and freedom, focusing on strong, active women, but also often marked by nihilism. His style was one of gritty realism.

In the same year another Nikkatsu film, Yamaguchi Seiichiro's Koi no Karyudo ("Love Hunter") with Tanaka Mari, managed to be banned for obscenity, and its director was arrested. This was the last time a film was prosecuted for obscenity in Japan, and in 1978 the trial ended in a declaration of "not obscene."

Tenshi no kokotsu ("The Ecstasy of Angels") by Wakamatsu Koji. A militant revolutionary group is torn apart by dissent as its members descend into paranoia and sexual decadence. As usual, Wakamatsu combines sexploitation with radical politics. Here, he anticipated the future real-life attacks by the extreme left, making this ATG's most controversial film. (ATG / Wakamatsu Production)

Shinobugawa ("The Long Darkness") by Kumai Kei. A delicate study of the relationship between two disillusioned young people (played by Kato Go and Kurihara Komaki), coming to terms with a traumatic past, whose mutual affection gives them the strength to face the vicissitudes of life. Great shots of the decaying lumberyards in Tokyo's Fukagawa. The use of black and white saves the story from sentimentality. Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film of the Year. (Haiyuza)

Kumai Kei (1930-2007) was an auteurist director with a slender but intelligent output in which he often asked attention for social problems. His camera work is characterized by restraint, and that same quality is apparent in his use of black and white in some of his films of the seventies, when color was the norm.

Gunki hatameku moto ni ("Under the Flag of the Rising Sun") by Fukasaku Kinji is a powerful anti-war, anti-authority tale about one man's fate on the front lines of World War II, and his widow's attempts to find out how and why he met his death by firing squad in New Guinea in the last days of the war (and clear his name so that she can get a pension). Everyone she approaches tells a different story, not because the truth cannot be known as in Rashomon, but out of hypocrisy. Fukasaku mingles fictional narrative with documentary-type film fragments of bloody combat, starved corpses, and the cruel ruin and waste that attend battle. (Shinsei Eigasha)

Tabi no omosa ("Journey into Solitude") by Saito Koichi is the story of a sixteen year-old girl (Takahashi Yoko) who is unsatisfied with her life and suddenly leaves her mother (Kishida Kyoko) to start hiking the 88-temple pilgrimage of Shikoku. The girl (who is never named in the film) meets all kinds of people and her various experiences make her pilgrimage a sort of voyage of self-discovery. (Shochiku)

Saito Koichi (1929-2009), a movie stills photographer turned director, broke through with a series of movies about young people searching for their identity in the countryside. Saito made his best films in the 1970s, when his success allowed him to continue filming while many of his colleagues were forced into silence.

Furusato ("Home from the Sea") by Yamada Yoji is a drama about life in the island communities of the Inland Sea. A couple (Igawa Hisashi and Baisho Chieko) makes their living by transporting rocks to construction sites with their old boat, but their chosen lifestyle becomes increasingly difficult to maintain. They have to decide whether once more to repair their tottering boat or give up altogether and move to Onomichi for an industrial job. Ryu Chishu again plays the grandfather. A strong depiction of atmosphere and environment; the love of the couple for their leisurely island country overwhelmed by modernization is impressive. (Shochiku)

This year, Yamada Yoji also makes one of the best Tora-san films (the 9th installment of 48), Otoko wa tsuraiyo - Shibamata bojo ("It's Tough to be a Man - Tora-san's Dear Old Home"), with former Nikkatsu youth-film star Yoshinaga Sayuri as "madonna." She plays Utako, a girl whom itinerant peddler Tora-san (Atsumi Kiyoshi) meets on a beach in Fukui, where she is holidaying with her friends. Utako is unhappily bound to her divorced and aging father, a writer, and secretly longs to marry a potter in the faraway countryside, but as usual Tora-san mistakenly believes she is in love with him. This leads to various complications with his family when she comes to visit them in Shibamata. A very funny comedy that deserves to be better known outside Japan, just like the other Tora-san films (see my post about Atsumi Kiyoshi and the Tora-san films). (Shochiku)

Ito Shunya makes Joshu Nana-maru-ichi-go / Sasori ("Female Convict 701: Scorpion") featuring Kaji Meiko as a violent female convict - an example of Toei's "pinky violence." After being cruelly set up by Sugimi, a crooked detective who also happens to be her boyfriend, and stabbing him on the steps of the police headquarters, Matsushima Nami ends up in a woman's prison run by sadistic guards. But Sugimi is still alive and sets up a scheme to have Nami killed in prison as she knows to much about his sinister deals. Little does he realize how great Nami's thirst for revenge is... Scorpion would become a series of four and also several remakes would be attempted. (Toei)

Kozure Okami: Ko wo kashi udekashi tsukamatsuru ("Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance") by Misumi Kenji is a delightful zankoku jidaigeki: it tells the story of Ogami Itto, a wandering assassin for hire who is accompanied by his young son Daigoro sitting in a baby cart that has been rigged to conceal various weapons. Based on a popular manga. Energetic and fun genre movie, the first in a series of six. (Katsu Production / Toho)

1973
The extremely violent Jinginaki tatakai ("Battles Without Honor and Humanity") by Fukasaku Kinji, with Sugawara Bunta, becomes a box office hit. This first jitsuroku yakuza film gave the death blow to the popularity of ninkyo films, replacing them by gloomy violent films of gangster battles. The film chronicles the tribulations of Hirono Shozo (Bunta Sugawara), an ex-soldier and street thug in post-war Hiroshima and neighboring Kure. Cruel film full of ferocious fights, filmed with a hand-held camera. First in a series of five, made by Fukasaku in just two years. Won the 1974 Kinema Junpo Awards for Best Film, Best Actor (Sugawara) and Best Screenplay. (Toei)


The Roman Porno film Yojohan fusuma no urabari ("The World of Geisha") by Kumashiro Tatsumi, starring Miyashita Junko, is included by Kinema Junpo in their list for best ten films of the year of 1973. It  has been called a masterful film, rich in emotion, anarchy and nihilism. The story, set in 1918, focuses on tensions among the inhabitants of a geisha house and especially on the fact that one geisha falls in love with a customer, thereby breaking house rule No. 1. The lead male character in the film, who has been raised in a brothel and is accustomed to the company of prostitutes, is a typical ninaime character: irresponsible and only dedicated to sensual pleasure - but this makes him also sympathetic. The film is more stylish than Kumashiro's usual work, playing games with linear storytelling. Based on an "underground" erotic novel by Nagai Kafu. (Nikkatsu)

Yoshida Yoshishige directs part three of his trilogy of Japanese radicalism, Kaigenrei ("Coup d'Etat" aka "Martial Law"). The film is an account of the failed militarist coup of February 26, 1936, and has also been described as a freestyle biopic of Kita Ikki, the ultra-nationalist intellectual whose ideas inspired the coup (and who also featured prominently in Suzuki Seijun's Elegy to Violence of 1966). The film's experimental cinematography brought it wide critical acclaim. (ATG / Gendai Eigasha)

Tsugaru jongarabushi ("Tsugaru Folk Song") by Saito Koichi. A gangster and his girlfriend hide out in a fishing village (the girl's hometown) to elude pursuing gangsters. Bored at first, the protagonist is gradually drawn into the community around him, discovering a new home, despite the bleakness of the surroundings. Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film of the Year. (ATG / Saito Koichi Production)

Matatabi ("The Wanderers") by Ichikawa Kon. A bitter satire about homeless, wandering toseinin, itinerant gamblers, wearing blue capes and flat-topped sedge hats. Sometimes these were free spirits, young men who adapted the code of yakuza behavior so that they could be assured of free lodging in any town where there was a yakuza organization. But in this bleak film they meet only death and in the end the yakuza code compels one of them to kill his own father. (ATG)


Shura Yuki Hime ("Lady Snowblood"), based on a manga, is an over-the-top violent movie about a woman who takes vengeance on three men who raped her mother and killed her father and brother. With Kaji Meiko in the title role; directed by Fujita Toshiya. Cartoonish but effective story - Yuki hides her blade in the stem of her umbrella a la Zatoichi - although the "fountains of blood" are rather too unrealistic. Was a major influence on Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill films. There was one sequel. (Toho)

Karayuki-san ("Karayuki-san, the Making of a Prostitute") by Imamura Shohei is a fine documentary about a Japanese woman (again from Japan's outcast class) sent to Malaysia in her youth and forced to become a prostitute. She choose not to return to Japan after the war, and is now, in her mid-seventies, the widow of an Indian shopkeeper. Like Madame Onboro (in Imamura's documentary from 1970), she remains cheerful, never complaining about what must have been a harrowing life.

1974
Terayama Shuji directs Den'en ni Shisu ("Pastoral Hide and Seek"), a beautiful avant-garde film of erotic folklore. Set in the remote Shimokita Peninsula of Aomori Prefecture, around Mt. Osore which in legend marks the entrance to hell, the film tells about an adolescent boy trying to escape his overprotective mother and the traditional values of the superstitious countryside. It also pays attention to budding eroticism - the teenager is in love with the married woman next door - and to his brush with the frightening world outside in the form of a visiting circus. Entered into the 1975 Cannes Film Festival. (ATG / Terayama Productions) (See my post about Japanese Cult Films)


Independent film maker Kuroki Kazuo produces Ryoma ansatsu ("The Assassination of Ryoma"), a film that shows us the last three days in the life of Sakamoto Ryoma (1836-1867), an imperial loyalist who is a popular historical figure in Japan (here played by Harada Yoshio) - bringing the legend to a human level by stressing the hero's fearfulness and ordinariness, and inviting a comparison with the director's own time. Shot like a documentary with a hand-held camera. (ATG / Eiga Dojinsha)

Kuroki Kazuo (1930-2006) was a belated contributor to the New Wave, who made very individualistic and imaginative films. He first worked in documentary, before moving to feature films in the late sixties. Ryoma ansatsu is considered as his best work. In other films, Kuroki often touched on the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Sandakan Hachiban Shokan: Bokyo ("Sandakan No. 8") by Kumai Kei. A women journalist (Kurihara Komaki) interviews an elderly woman (Tanaka Kinuyo, who won Best Actress for her performance at Berlin) who was forced into foreign prostitution, the fate of many poor Japanese women who were trafficked to East and South-East Asia in the first half of the 20th century. They were called "Karayuki-san," a phenomenon for which Imamura Shohei had also asked attention in his documentary from the previous year, as he would do again in his feature Zegen. Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film of the Year. (Haiyuza Film Production Company / O&R Productions)

Hana to hebi ("Flower and Snake") by Konuma Masaru is the first "roman porno" film starring the popular Tani Naomi, after an SM novel by Dan Oniroku, Japan's best known author of such fiction. A company president is rebuffed by his wife and hires his manager - whom he caught in the possession of bondage photos - to make his wife "sexually submissive." Visually a lush film, although viewers will be offended by the spectacle of women being twisted and stretched in every way imaginable. The bondage extravaganza was remade in 2004 by Ishii Takashi.  (Nikkatsu)

Suna no utsuwa ("Castle of Sand") by Nomura Yoshitaro, after a novel by Matsumoto Seicho (in a heavily abridged English version translated as Inspector Imanishi Investigates). In Japan this film was acclaimed as Nomura's masterpiece, but in fact his earlier thrillers, as Stakeout (1958) and Zero Focus (1961) are much more intelligent. Suna no utsuwa is a rather conventional police procedural flawed by a laborious flashback denouement. The only interesting thing is that it touches on the ostracism of sufferers of leprosy in Japan at that time. (Shochiku)

Izu no odoriko ("The Izu Dancer"), by Nishikawa Katsumi (a director who specialized in rather superficial remakes of classics), was purely a star vehicle for teenage idol Yamaguchi Momoe, a prettily photographed story of passion without sexuality or depth. Forgettable, but I mention it here because such films were popular at the time. (Toho)

Another superficial but sensational phenomenon were disaster movies (popular like in Hollywood), of which the most famous example is Nihon chinbotsu ("Japan Sinks" aka "Tidal Wave"), based on an SF novel by Komatsu Sakyo about ominous happenings in the Japan Trench. Roger Ebert called it "a wretched failure, a feeble attempt to paste together inept special effects." I could not agree more, but it caused a sensation in Japan and spawned a lot of later disaster movies. (Toho)

Gekitistu! Satsujinken ("The Streetfighter") is a popular cult film, especially outside Japan, starring Sonny Chiba. These Japanese kungfu films, containing lots of gratuitous violence, were one of Toei's franchises in the 1970s. It became one of the grindhouse films liked by Quentin Tarantino, who also cast Sonny Chiba in Kill Bill. (Toei)

Gokushiteki erosu - Renka 1974 ("Extreme Private Eros - Love Song 1974") by Hara Kazuo is an excruciatingly private and masochistic documentary, in which the filmer documents the break-up of his relation with a woman called Miyuki, who first moves to Okinawa (where she meets various bar girls and also has a relation with an African-American soldier) and later joins a women's commune. (Shisso Production)
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
1970-1974 - Sex and Violence
1975-1979 - Decline and Stagnation
1980-1989 - Disintegration of the Studio System
1990-1994 - The Rise of Indies
1995-1999 - Revival
2000-2004 - Postmodern Peak
2005-2009 - Cinematic Bubble[Reference works used: Currents In Japanese Cinema by Tadao Sato (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); Eros plus Massacre, An Introduction to the Japanese New Wave Cinema by David Desser (Bloomington and Indianopolis, 1988); Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema by David Bordwell (Princeton University Press: Princeton, 1988); Kurosawa: Film Studies and Japanese Cinema by Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto (Duke University Press: Durham, 2000); The Waves at Genji's Door by Joan Mellen (Pantheon Books: New York, 1976); Japanese Classical Theatre in Film by Keiko I. Macdonald (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1994); From Book to Screen by Keiko I. Macdonald (M.E. Sharpe: New York and London, 2000); Reading a Japanese Film by Keiko I. Macdonald (University of Hawai'i Press: Honolulu, 2006); Behind the Pink Curtain, A Complete History of Japanese Sex Cinema, by Jasper Sharp (Fab Press: Godalming, 2008); Contemporary Japanese Film by Mark Schilling (Weatherhill: New York and Tokyo, 1999); The Midnight Eye Guide to New Japanese Film by Tom Mes and Jasper Sharp (Stone Bridge Press: Berkeley, 2005); Kitano Takeshi by Aaron Gerow (British Film Institute: London, 2007); Iron Man: the Cinema of Shinya Tsukamoto by Tom Mes (Fab Press: Godalming, 2005); Agitator: The Cinema of Takashi Miike by Jasper Sharp (Fab Press: Godalming, 2003); Nihon Eigashi by Sato Tadao (Iwanami Shoten: Tokyo, 2008, 4 vols.); Nihon Eigashi 110-nen by Yomota Inuhiko (Shueisha; Tokyo, 2014). All images are linked from Wikipedia.]
8 Jun
Two more posts in my Sake by Region series which is under revision, have been updated and expanded: Aomori and Akita.

Sake by Region:
Hokkaido/Tohoku: Hokkaido - Aomori - Akita - Iwate - Miyagi - Yamagata - Fukushima
Kanto area: Ibaraki - Tochigi - Gunma - Saitama - Chiba - Tokyo - Kanagawa - Yamanashi
Shinetsu/Hokuriku: Nagano - Niigata - Toyama - Ichikawa - Fukui
Tokai area: Shizuoka - Aichi - Gifu - Mie
Kansai area: Shiga - Kyoto - Osaka - Hyogo - Nara - Wakayama
Chugoku area: Tottori - Shimane - Okayama - Hiroshima - Yamaguchi
Shikoku: Tokushima - Kagawa - Ehime - Kochi
Kyushu/Okinawa: Fukuoka - Saga - Nagasaki - Kumamoto - Oita - Miyazaki / Kagoshima / Okinawa
5 Jun
I am planning a continuation of my series about sake by region, hoping to give this subject my full attention in a few weeks time after my survey of Japanese film is finished.

In the meantime, I have started to update / streamline the posts already written about "sake regions" in the past.

The first one to be updated is my post on Sake from Hokkaido.
1 Jun
While the New Wave continued in the latter half of the sixties, this period was also the first "golden age" of independent film production in Japan. By the mid-sixties, almost every New Wave director had formed his own production company. Some directors, such as Hana Susumu, Teshigahara Hiroshi and Wakamatsu Koji from the start of their careers only worked through their own production companies. Also other New Wave directors, as Oshima Nagisa, after making a few films for studios, soon switched to own productions. As the studios owned all the major theaters, and needed films which they themselves were producing in decreasing numbers, the independent producers often teamed up with a major studio for the distribution and exhibition of the film - often the studio where in the past they had worked. 

In 1967, also ATG which until then had mainly been a distribution company, started seriously producing films. Their typical policy was to put up half the production budget in partnership with a director's own company, which put up the other half. The importance of ATG in sustaining the New Wave cannot be overestimated. Oshima's films from 1968 through 1972 were all ATG co-productions / distributions, while other crucial films of the movement, such as Shinoda's Double Suicide, Hani's Inferno of First Love and Yoshida's Eros + Massacre, were similarly ATG partnerships. 

In the second half of the 1960s, the financial position of the studios had deteriorated so much, that they could not produce the films of their prestige directors any more. Typically, Kurosawa Akira made his last film with Toho in 1965 (already since 1960 he had been helping Toho by financing part of his expensive films with his own production company). Now, he had so much difficulty bringing the money for his next film together, that he had to remain idle until 1970. 

Behind this all was also a change in the movie-going public. Married women (often living in the suburbs) preferred to watch their favorite home dramas on television. The same was true for the elderly who could also find their favorite, Toei-type friendly period drama on TV. Men above 30 were too busy to go to the cinema in this period of high economic growth. Young women favored romantic Western films and didn't want to go to cinemas where the public consisted mainly of men. So young unmarried men were the only category left as movie-goers of Japanese films. Their preference was for violent and generally anti-social films, which were not available on TV.

For this reason, genre films became more cruel and extreme, as is clear from the fad for ninkyo yakuza films, which was strongest in these years. Sex was also on the rise as a component, as is evident from the rise in "pink films," and also in the films of Wakamatsu Koji, although it must be said that for Wakamatsu sex was not about pleasure but rather a means of social criticism. His films were not typical "pink films," but underground films with a sexy touch that availed themselves of the eroduction distribution system. 

1965
There are now 4,649 cinemas in Japan and the number of films produced is 487 (66.7% of total films shown). The number of admissions has sunk to 372,676,000.

Etsuraku ("Pleasures of the Flesh") by Oshima Nagisa. A young man is blackmailed into keeping a suitcase full of embezzled money until the thief, a high-ranking government official, gets out of prison. He can't go to the police because the embezzler witnessed the young man commit a murder (he has killed the man who raped a girl he is in love with). The young man decides to spend the money on "pleasure" (he starts by hiring a call girl to live with him) and then commit suicide, as life is anyway empty. Parable of the nouveau-riche Japanese nation that lacks ideals. (Sozosha)

Yoshida Yoshishige, Mizu de kakareta monogatari ("A Story Written with Water"), is a family drama a la Ozu (Yoshida was the only New Wave director who greatly admired the Master), only much harsher and with the eroticism lacking in Ozu but always strong in Yoshida. Shizuka (Okada Mariko) and Denzo (Yamagata Isao) have had a long affair, which is also known to Shizuo, the son of Shizuka. He starts even doubting who his real father is and this doubt becomes acute when he is recommended to marry Yumiko (Asaoka Ruriko), the daughter of Denzo. To complicate things, Shizuo also harbors repressed incestuous desires for his mother, and these will surface with fatal consequences... Beautifully shot film, the first one Yoshida made with his own production company. (Chunichi Eigasha)


Utsukushisa to kanashimi to ("Beauty and Sadness" - the translation "With Beauty and Sorrow" one often sees is wrong) is a bungei film by Shinoda Masahiro based on Kawabata Yasunari's eponymous novel. A girl who is in love with her (female) painting teacher decides to destroy the middle-aged married man who once made the teacher pregnant and then left her. The girl seduces the man's son and causes him to die in a boating accident. (Shochiku)

Ibun Sarutobi Sasuke ("Samurai Spy"), also by Shinoda Masahiro, is a period film with a twist. It is about spies, counter-spies and double spies battling each other around the year 1600, when the Tokugawa regime was established, but on a deeper level it tells a story of disillusionment with politics. Ordinary men like Sarutobe, the low-level spy who is the protagonist, just want to live their life in peace.  (Shochiku)

Kabe no naka no himegoto ("Secrets Behind the Wall") by Wakamatsu Koji. In a housing complex, a Communist party member with a keloid scar and his lover have sex in front of Stalin's picture. An introverted student practices voyeurism rather than studying and finally assaults his sister in the shower and then attacks and murders the neighboring housewife. Entered into the 15th Berlin International Film Festival, something which gave rise to much indignation in Japan, for it exposed the grimy underbelly of the country abroad, just after the prestigious Tokyo Olympics. The official channels had of course been by-passed, but rather by the German organizers than Wakamatsu, who initially was not even aware of the selection. But it meant that only two years after Wakamatsu had started on the lowest rung of the film world, he now was an international star. Also influential critics in Japan as Oshima Nagisa and Teruyama Shuji backed up Wakamatsu, and later ATG would become interested and even enable him to get to Cannes in 1971. (Wakamatsu Pro)

Wakamatsu Koji (1936-2012) was a maker of independent, self-produced and extremely low-budget underground films, walking a fine line between sexual exploitation and strong leftist political commentary. He came from a rural background and had been a construction worker after coming to Tokyo at age 17. His first contact with the film world was made when he worked for a local yakuza group in Shinjuku and had to act as scout to indicate that crews on location shoots had mob approval. Wakamatsu's films are outrageous in their sickening violence and excesses. But his artificial theatricality also creates distance and alienation (like Brecht or Godard), and provokes the viewers into questioning their own reaction to the onscreen violence. In his films of the sixties and early seventies, Wakamatsu often teemed up with far left screenwriter (and director in his own right) Adachi Masao.

Takechi Tetsuji, the maker of Daydreams, the first mainstream "pink film" in Japan, shocks with another work, Kuroi yuki ("Black Snow"). It is the story of a young man who, after spying on his mother embracing an African American serviceman, finds himself impotent unless fondling a loaded gun. Finally, he murders the GI before running amok; he is then shot by U.S. soldiers. After the release of this film, Takechi was arrested on indecency charges. The trial became a public battle over censorship between Japan's intellectuals and the government. Oshima Nagisa, Suzuki Seijin, Abe Kobo and Mishima Yukio all stood on the side of Takechi. Takechi won the lawsuit, enabling the wave of softcore pink films which came to dominate the cinema during the latter 1960s and 1970s. (Daisan Pro)


Shunpuden ("Story of a Prostitute") by Suzuki Seijun charts the experiences of Japanese "comfort women" in wartime China. A disillusioned woman (Nogawa Yumiko) becomes a volunteer prostitute for the Japanese troops in Manchuria. After she and a soldier fall in love, they make a futile escape into the desert, only to die in a sandstorm. The second adaptation of a novel by Tamura Taijiro (the first one was Akatsuki no Dasso, "Escape at Dawn" by Taniguchi Senkichi from 1950, a much softer version as it had been censored). (Nikkatsu)

Irezumi ichidai ("Tattooed Life") by Suzuki Seijun is a generic ninkyo yakuza story set in the Taisho period, given depth by the detailed recreation of the specific milieu. A yakuza boss is coerced to kill a rival gang leader, after which he has to flee with his artistic younger brother while his own gang turns on him. They start working in a mine, but are recognized as yakuza because of their tattoos. When the younger brother is killed, the older brother has to avenge him, showing he can't escape from his "tattooed life." (Nikkatsu)

Tokyo Orinpikku ("Tokyo Olympiad") by Ichikawa Kon is a revolutionary sports documentary that concentrates on the human, rather than the athletic or nationalistic aspects of the games. Criticized in Japan because it didn't give enough attention to the successes of the Japanese athletes. (Organizing Committee for the XVIII Olympiad) 
Akahige ("Red Beard") by Kurosawa Akira explores the relation between an elder, autocratic doctor (Mifune Toshiro) called "Red Beard" who runs a public clinic giving free care to the poor and a young, ambitious doctor (Kayama Yuzo) who has studied modern Dutch medicine in Nagasaki. The young intern first is arrogant and rebellious, proud of his bookish knowledge, but gradually comes to understand how difficult the work is that Red Beard is humbly performing among the poor. A celebration of human goodness, altruism and compassion. Excellent characterization and perfectionism into the smallest details of the mise-en-scene, but also a rather long, talky and static period film (with no swordplay). Stark, austere scenes show the grim atmosphere in the clinic. The last Kurosawa film in which Mifune Toshiro appears. Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film of the Year and Moscow Film Festival Soviet Film-makers' Association Prize. (Toho)


Heitai Yakuza ("The Hoodlum Soldier") by Masumura Yasuzo is film about life in the barracks among Japanese infantry and artillery men stationed in Manchuria, where everyday forms a repetition of the previous one, and loyalty to the group, duty and hierarchy are of utmost importance. But the two main characters are different from their colleagues: a disillusioned, pacifist sergeant (Tamura Takahiko) and a recruit with a yakuza background (Katsu Shintaro), the hoodlum soldier of the title. These two become buddies through their shared hatred of the army. In the end they try to desert by stealing a train. Filled with torture and horseplay, this film is so cynical about national ideas that there was talk of not releasing it abroad. But in Japan it was very popular and fathered a chain of seven sequels (1965-1972). (Daiei)

Samurai ("Samurai Assassin") by Okamoto Kihachi is about a ronin (Mifune Toshiro) who in the last years of the shogunate falls in with a group of assassins plotting to kill a counselor of the shogunate. What Mifune's character doesn't realize is that this man is also his very own father. Great cinematography and a climactic battle taking place in a blinding snowstorm. Mifune is the opposite from his trickster character in Yojinbo: here he is a psychologically scarred man, who is cruelly manipulated by a wily schemer. (Mifune Productions / Toho)

Uchida Tomu directs Kiga Kaikyo ("Hunger Straits" aka "Fugitive from the Past"), a dark and powerful police procedural crime film, that is also a critique of Japanese society. Interlocking stories of two persons, a prostitute and a police detective, searching for the same fugitive. Shot in great black-and-white CinemaScope. Based on a novel by Mizukami Tsutomu. (Toei)

Kedamono no Ken ("Sword of the Beast") is the second period film by Gosha Hideo. Low-level swordsman Gennosuke is on the run after taking part in a plot to kill one of his clan's ministers. His comrades have turned on him, and he is so shaken by their betrayal that he bitterly decides to live as a ronin. Next he encounters a motley group who are illegally mining the shogun's gold, and, with the aid of another swordsman, gets a chance to recover his honor. (Shochiku)

Abashiri Bangaichi ("Abashiri Prison") by Ishii Teruo with Takakura Ken is an entertaining ninkyo yakuza potboiler, the start of a new series after becoming a huge box office hit. Ishii Teruo helmed the first ten films of the series, after which other directors took over for another eight films. Instrumental in making a great star of Takakura Ken as a basically good-hearted yakuza. This first film contains a breath-taking escape sequence, in which Takakura Ken flees handcuffed to another convict in a railway handcar hurtling down a steep mountain in the desolate snow country of Hokkaido. (Toei) (See my post about yakuza movies)


Ishii Teruo (1924-2005) was director of SF children's films at Shintoho before moving to Toei where he worked as a prolific director of well-regarded thrillers. From the late 1960s on, he also directed various notorious exploitation films full of stylish savagery which established his name as a cult director.

Showa Zankyoden ("An Account of the Last Knights of the Showa Era") by Saeki Kiyoshi, with Takakura Ken and Ikebe Ryo as his older ally who aids him in the final melee with the large gang. This series saw nine entries between 1965 to 1972. The main difference with the Nihon Kyokyakuden series is that the stories are set in the more modern Showa-period in which chivalry was an even rarer item and that Ikebe Ryo always is killed in the ultra-violent finale. (Toei) (See my post about yakuza movies)

Nihon Ichi no Goma-suri Otoko ("The Greatest Flatterer in Japan") stars Ueki Hitoshi, who again provides a guide for "proper" salaryman conduct. He adroitly uses flattery to get a promotion, without being in any way obsequious like "salarymen" from the past - he in fact adroitly "uses" his superiors. (Toho)

Via Daikaiju Gamera ("Gamera"), made by Yuasa Noriaki, also Daiei jumps on the monster movie bandwagon. Gamera is a flying, fire-breathing giant turtle. In a riff on the first Godzilla film, he has been awakened by the crash of a Russian bomber in the Antarctic, that was carrying nuclear bombs. A Japanese scientist (Funakoshi Eiji) has to save the world. Last kaiju film in black and white. Gamera became an icon in its own right and like Godzilla still continues to haunt cinemas. (Daiei)

1966
In many films made this year sex is the central theme. Erogotoshotachi - Jinruigaku Nyumon ("The Pornographers: Introduction to Anthropology") by Imamura Shohei is a dark satire about a man (Ozawa Shoichi) who makes 8-millimeter porno shorts, as an aid to repressed society, as he says, but also to augment the income of his widowed landlady and her family. He shares his landlady's bed (played by Sakamoto Sumiko, she imagines that he is her dead husband, although she also believes the man is now reincarnated as a carp in the fish-tank in the living room), and things are further complicated by a son with Oedipal feelings and an impudent adolescent daughter whom the pornographer himself lusts after. On top of that, the pornographer has to battle both the police and the local yakuza. In the end he drifts out to sea in a small skiff with a sex doll as his only companion. Full of subversive humor, although the treatment of taboos as voyeurism and incest sparked controversy when the film was released. As is usual for him, Imamura refrains from easy moralizing and just runs the wry story in front of our eyes so that we can make our own conclusions. Based on a novel by Nosaka Akiyuki. (Imamura Productions / Nikkatsu)

Hakuchu no torima ("Violence at Noon") by Oshima Nagisa is the story of a sex criminal, a phantom rapist and killer, who is pursued by a police detective; however, the two women who know he is the killer, choose not to turn him in. There is as usual with Oshima a political context here: failed political attempts are connected with failed romantic attempts, the mad "floating ghost" (the criminal) is the result of lost ideals. Lightning paced editing, with 2000 shots in only 90 minutes, to portray the madness of the protagonist. The complex story is presented in a disjointed way. Considered as one of the best films of Oshima. (Sozosha)

Onna no Mizuumi ("Lake of Women") by Yoshida Yoshishige. A married woman (Okada Mariko) has an affair. Her lover takes nude pictures of her and these end up in the possession of a man who starts blackmailing the couple. A critique of the subjugation of women as possessions and sexual objects. As usual in the films of Yoshida, the narrative is fractured and sometimes obscure. An expressionist tour-de-force. Loosely based on the novel The Lake by Kawabata Yasunari. (Gendai Eigasha)


Taiji ga mitsuryo suru toki ("The Embryo Hunts in Secret") by Wakamatsu Koji is a disturbing and claustrophobic film about a male boss who captures a female employee in his apartment and then proceeds to abuse and torture her. He also confesses that he had an oedipal relationship with his mother who hanged herself, and that his wife has cheated on him and left him. He alternatively abuses and caresses his victim, at one moment crying for his mother in a fetal position. At the end, the woman breaks free and kills her captor. The static location (entirely filmed in Wakamatsu's own apartment) is enlivened by dramatic framing and editing and innovative camera angles. (Wakamatsu Pro) (Also see my post about Japanese Cult Films)

Shokei no Shima ("Punishment Island" aka "Captive's sland") by Shinoda Masahiro tells the story of a man's vengeful search for the guard who tormented him during the war, when he was a prisoner in a reformatory on a small island. Flashbacks show the incredible cruelty he endured, as a sort of microcosm of the war. The torturer (a former Kempeitai officer) stands for the patriarchal and authoritarian system of old Japan. He is now only a shell of his former self. The man seeking revenge has him cut off his thumb as penance and then hurls that into the sea. A film that deals with the legacy of militarist tyranny both in political and in psychological terms. (Nissei Theatre)

Kenka Erejii ("Fighting Elegy") by Suzuki Seijun. A middle-school student (Takahashi Hideki) wholly in the grip of his glands, learns to sublimate his feelings of sexual anguish by practicing violence and beating up people. He learns martial arts and joins a gang. Gradually, he aligns himself with the right-wing Kita Ikki, and becomes a stand-in for the attitudes of Japanese youth who embraced the imperialism leading to WWII - in the end finding more violence than he could ever have hoped for. Screenplay written by Shindo Kaneto. A masterpiece by Suzuki Seijun, who here gives up his usual wild visuals for a more sensitive style. (Nikkatsu)


Akai Tenshi ("The Red Angel") by Masumura Yasuzo. A brutal portrayal of individuals clinging to their humanity while enduring the horrors of war. Set in 1939, the film tells the story of Nishi Sakura (Wakao Ayako), a young nurse who works at a field hospital during Japan's war with China. The clinic is flooded by wounded men, although the conditions are so primitive that amputation is the only treatment available. Despite the insanity of the war raging around her, Nishi does her best to heal both the physical and emotional wounds of those she encounters. She is raped by a patient but continues caring for him; later, she has a sexual relation with a man who has lost both his arms - but he finally commits suicide, showing the futility of it all.  (Daiei)

Rikugun Nakano Gakko ("The Nakano Army School"), about a top secret spy school at the start of the Sino-Japanese war, is another movie by Masumura Yasuzo that is critical of Japan's military past. Ichikawa Raizo plays a young lieutenant who undergoes grueling and bizarre training and in the end has to make a difficult choice between personal life and duty. (Daiei)

Shiroi kyoto ("The White Tower") by Yamamoto Satsuo, and based on a novel by Yamasaki Toyoko, contrasts the life of two doctors, former classmates and now both assistant professors at Naniwa University Hospital in Osaka. The brilliant and ambitious surgeon Zaizen Goro stops at nothing to rise to an important position, while the friendly Satomi Shuji is content to be busy with his patients and his research. Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film of the Year and Silver Prize at the 5th Moscow International Film Festival (Daiei)

Tanin no Kao ("The Face of Another") by Teshigahara Hiroshi is one of the director's films based on the avant-garde novels of Abe Kobo. Nakadai Tatsuya plays an engineer whose face is severely burnt in a work-related accident and is fitted with a lifelike mask (but different from his original face). The scientist who has developed the mask cautions him that it may change his behavior and personality and even make him loose his sense of morality. To test the mask, the man proceeds to seduce his estranged wife (Kyo Machiko), which is surprisingly easy - and indeed, she confesses she knew all along who he was. A film of pure, surreal claustrophobia and a meditation on what a "face" is, in a country where Face is very important. (Teshigahara Productions / Tokyo Eiga)


Tokyo Nagaremono ("Tokyo Drifter") by Suzuki Seijun, with Watari Tetsuya. Suzuki transforms a conventional yakuza potboiler into a frenzied fantasia with eye-popping visuals, lurid colors, and weird camera angles, in this film in which a reformed yakuza hitman is unable to enjoy his new life as he has to keep on the run from his old rivals who are still eager to assassinate him. Both a satire on yakuza ideals as well as a revolt against the dumb genre films the intelligent and artistic director was forced to make. Suzuki reaches new heights of surrealism with lurid color schemes: a psychedelically yellow bar, or the final scene filmed on a white stage, with Watari Tetsuya dressed in white but his opponents in black. (Nikkatsu) (Also see my post about Japanese Cult Films)

Daibosatsutoge ("The Sword of Doom") by Okamoto Kihachi. Based on the novel by Nakazato Kaizan, which was filmed several times, Nakadai Tatsuya plays a sociopath samurai who is drunken with killing and goes completely berserk. The abrupt ending (originally a continuation was planned) in fact fits very well. An extremely violent film. (Takarazuka Eiga / Toho)


Tange Sazen: Hien aigiri ("The Secret of the Urn") by Gosha Hideo features a wonderful performance by Nakamura Kinnosuke as the one-eyed, one-armed samurai Tange Sazen. A light-hearted but entertaining remake of Yamanaka's film of 1935. (Toei)

Kutsukake Tokijiro ("Tokijiro of Kutsukake") by Kato Tai is a fine genre film, a matatabi jidaigeki from the years that even Toei had turned violent, with an intense performance by Nakamura Kinnosuke as the hero Tokijiro and as a bonus an early Atsumi Kiyoshi (of later Tora-san fame). Based on a story by Hasegawa Shin (adapted for the screen more than seven times!), about a wandering gambler who has to kill an to him unknown man as an obligation to a gang. In recompense, he takes on the responsibility of caring for the slain man's sick wife and child. (Toei)

Daiei also tries out another special effects series, Daimajin, made by Yasuda Kimiyoshi. It is about an ancient statue in the form of a giant haniwa warrior who comes to the rescue of a village oppressed by an evil tyrant. This franchise was less successful and stopped after the third film. (Daiei)

Novelist, playwright, dandy and morbid prankster Mishima Yukio makes the short film Yukoku ("Patriotism"), based on his own eponymous short story, in which he rehearses his suicide of four years later. Mishima plays a lieutenant who has taken part in the 2.26 failed coup attempt of 1936 and decides to commit seppuku together with his wife (played by Tsuruoka Yoshiko). They make passionate love (Mishima from his earliest work has linked eroticism with death) and then commit suicide to the tones of Liebestod from Wagner's Tristan and Isolde. There is no dialogue in the 30 min film (only intertitles), which is shot in a static way.

1967
Katsu Shintaro, the star of the Zatoichi and Akumyo series, leaves the payroll of Daiei and sets up his own production company. This year, Daiei tumbles into the red.

Oshima makes Nihon Shunka-ko ("A Treatise on Japanese Bawdy Song"), an embittered portrait of a youth culture whose visions of sex and rebellion are nothing more than dreams. Four provincial students are in Tokyo for final exams and wander the city dreaming of sexual exploits, but their songs of protest and revolution and fantasies of love and sex lead nowhere. An ambiguous film that has been compared to Godard's La Chinoise. (Sozosha)

Another film by the same director is Muri Shinju Nihon no Natsu ("Japanese Summer: Double Suicide"), Oshima's most pulpy film. A man who is looking for someone to kill him and a woman seeking someone to make love to her find themselves stuck in a hideaway of revolutionaries (or gangsters), while an American sharpshooter is on the loose killing whoever comes his way. Ends in a big final gundown. But there are also absurd dialogues and Oshima's "brand" images of sex, death and the flag. (Sozosha)

Honoo to Onna ("Impasse") by Yoshida Yoshishige charts the gradual disintegration of a marriage due to the husband's sterility. The wife resorts to artificial insemination, but then seeks to exclude the husband from the upbringing of "her" child. The son later tries to find his biological father... (Gendai Eigasha / Shochiku)

Joen ("The Affair"), also by Yoshida Yoshishige, is about a young woman, married without love, who is haunted by the idea of her mother who had a passionate life with many lovers. She feels sexually repressed and guilty for the death of her mother. Liberation is only possible after she sleeps with one of her mother's lovers, a blue collar laborer. After a novel by Tachihara Masaaki. (Gendai Eigasha)

Wakamatsu Koji directs Okasareta hakui ("Violated Angels"), a sado-masochistic movie in which a young man (Kara Juro) breaks into a nurses' dormitory and proceeds to murder them one by one. The nurses are strangely passive. While going about his killing spree, he has recollections of the various problems he has had with women. The mostly improvised low-budget film was shot in just three days. A disturbing film, criticized for its anti-feminist and misogynistic sadism. (Wakamatsu Pro)

Koroshi no rakuin ("Branded to Kill") by Suzuki Seijun, with Shishido Jo. Again a film full of great visuals in this wild ride through the bypaths and alleys of the yakuza genre. Shishido plays a yakuza assassin who is vying for the place of No. 1 killer, but who is also despised by his sex-starved wife and who needs to sniff boiled rice as a turn-on. A butterfly who lands on his gun just as he is about to pull the trigger, makes him miss his target and instead kill an innocent bystander. A brilliant, modernist masterpiece. (Nikkatsu) (See my post about yakuza movies)


Imamura Shohei directs the documentary Ningen Johatsu ("A Man Vanishes"), in which a woman's private life is investigated through a hidden camera. (ATG / Imamura Productions)

Midaregumo ("Scattered Clouds") is the last film by Mikio Naruse, made two years before his death. Tsukasa Yoko plays a widow who falls in love with the driver (Kayama Yuzo) who accidentally killed her husband. She gives a beautifully restrained performance which indeed symbolizes the end of an era. (Toho)

Masumura Yasuzo makes Hanaoka Seishu no tsuma ("The Doctor's Wife") based on the eponymous novel by Ariyoshi Sawako about the first doctor in the world to operate a patient under a general anesthetic in 1804 (played by Ichikawa Raizo), with techniques going back to both Dutch and Chinese medicine. The main character is the doctor's wife (Wakao Ayako), who - in fierce competition with her mother-in-law - offers to test the powder that is used as anesthetic and as result goes blind. (Daiei)


Joiuchi ("Samurai Rebellion") by Kobayashi Masaki. Another story of feudal cruelty by this critical director and scriptwriter Hashimoto Shinobu. Mifune plays an aging samurai whose son is more or less forced to marry a mistress of their daimyo (Tsukasa Yoko), who has lost favor, although she has born the lord a child. The son accepts the woman and they in fact fall deeply in love, having a child of their own. But then the heir of the clan lord dies and the former mistress has to return as the mother of the new heir. When she and her husband refuse to follow the command of the clan, the lord sends soldiers to kill them. Will an appeal to Edo help? Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film of the Year. (Mifune Productions / Toho)

Kenju wa ore no pasupooto ("A Colt is my Passport") by Nomura Takashi. Shishido Jo plays a hitman who on behalf of one gang, kills the boss of another gang. But when both gangs make up their differences and start a partnership, Shishido and his faithful driver are outlawed and hunted by both gangs. Escape is difficult, a last stand the only alternative - and the ending a surprise. A delicious noir film, set in Yokohama. (Nikkatsu)


Kudo Eiichi makes his third violent period film about the fight against a tyrant, Ju-ichinin no samurai ("Eleven Samurai"). Once again, the tyrant is protected by a strong swordsman and once again, the last 20 minutes of the film are an unrelieved carnage. Kudo captures the feudal mindset of fanatical loyalty and pitiless vengeance with an unerring eye, but as in his previous films is also subtly alluding to contemporary politics. (Toei)

1968
The Japanese Art Theater (ATG) begins production of successful low-cost, experimental films.

As the New Left becomes more active, there is an increase in the number of independent productions of social documentaries.

Suzuki Seijun is fired by Nikkatsu's Hori Kyusaku after making the "incomprehensible" Koroshi no Rakuin, a move seen by Suzuki's many fans as a scapegoating of the studio's own flagging fortune. Suzuki becomes a cause celebre when he decides to take his former employers to court, a case that was finally concluded in 1971 with a settlement for Suzuki. But the long conflict had muddied his name and none of the major studios would have him. During a period of ten years Suzuki can make nothing else but commercials and TV dramas.

Koshikei ("Death by Hanging") by Oshima is an avant-garde anti-establishment film. Based on the real story of a Korean high school student who raped and killed two girls and was five years later hanged for his crime. Focuses on the problems of Koreans in Japan as well as on the subject of the death penalty. The botched hanging leaves its Korean victim an amnesiac. The first ATG production. Also Oshima's next film, Kaettekita Yopparai ("Three Resurrected Drunkards") is about Koreans in Japan, but this time with a lighter touch, a fable about the construction of artificial ethnic identity. (ATG / Sozosha)

Hatsukoi: Jigokuhen ("Nanami: The Inferno of First Love") by Hani Susumu. A teenage boy goes to a love hotel with a nude model. As he is shy, they start talking about their pasts. The boy is an orphan with a miserable childhood who is now caught in a dead-end job. The girl, after coming to Tokyo, could find no other work than that of a nude model (in fact S&M photo shoots). When the boy later comes to girl's house for a date, the gangsters who are exploiting her chase him away, right under a passing car, while she waits in vain for him in a nearby hotel. A bleak but seminal film, based on a script by Terayama Shuji. Shinjuku's nightspots are fascinatingly displayed and Hani is at his most documentary-like. Entered into the 18th Berlin International Film Festival (ATG / Hani Productions)


Kamigami no Fukaki Yokubo ("The Profound Desire of the Gods") by Imamura Shohei is a masterpiece set on the outlying tropical island of Kuragejima, recounted from a cultural anthropological viewpoint. It took 18 months to make the film which chronicles the clash between the animist (and sometimes rather bizarre) traditions of the islanders and modern materialism. An engineer has come from Tokyo to do advance research for the digging of a well for a local sugar mill. He becomes increasingly confused by the local customs, religious beliefs and incestuous relationships on the primitive island. A woman who acts as the local shaman priestess is loved by her own brother, but also makes sexual advances to the engineer. The brother has to dig a pit and remove a large rock to atone for certain transgressions, such as fishing with dynamite. To the same family belongs a mentally challenged young woman, who is abused by the patriarch, her grandfather, who is at the same time her father. The patriarch wants the engineer to marry this woman. Finally, the brother and sister lovers try to escape by sea, but the islanders give chase and are out to punish them; the demented girl is set up as the new priestess. The engineer returns to Tokyo; when years later he again visits the island it has been modernized and there is now a railway - but an apparition of the demented girl dances in front of the locomotive on the railway tracks. This costly film failed at the box office and led to Imamura's retreat into smaller, documentary-like films for the next decade. Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film of the Year. (Nikkatsu)

Yabu no naka no kuroneko ("Kuroneko") by Shindo Kaneto brings on the same sort of ghostly women as did Mizoguchi's Ugetsu. A mother and her daughter-in-law have been murdered by enemy troops in a period of civil unrest and after that their burned-out house is haunted by a black cat. Several passersby have been bewitched and killed. When the son and husband, a fierce young samurai, returns from the war, the governor assigns him the duty to quell what is evidently a ghost. He encounters the two women in an eerily beautiful scene... but will he be able to exorcise their wrath? Extremely stylized and beautifully filmed in black and white. (Toho) (Also see my post about Japanese horror films)

In Nikudan ("Human Bullet") Okamoto Kihachi examines the psychology of young kamikaze pilots at the end of WWII. Toho had asked him to make Nippon no ichiban nagai hi ("Japan's Longest Day") the previous year, about the difficult decision of Japan's surrender, but as he felt he had not been able to express his own ideas about the war sufficiently, he made Nikudan as an independent. It is a forceful black comedy that highlights the total absurdity of war. (ATG)

Fukasaku Kinji makes Kurotokage ("Black Lizard"), a campy cult film based on an "Ero-Guro Nansensu" detective novel by Edogawa Rampo and its theatrical adaptation by Mishima Yukio, who himself played an interesting cameo as the statue of a Greek wrestler. A famous female thief, the Black Lizard (played by drag queen Maruyama Akihiro) kidnaps the daughter of a jeweler in order to obtain a famous diamond. Detective Akechi Kogoro (Kimura Isao) follows the trail all the way to the lair of the thief on a remote island, where she keeps an eerie collection of human dolls. (Shochiku) (Also see my post about Japanese Cult Films)

Fukasaku Kinji (1930-2003) started as director of B-films at Toei, where he mainly made gritty yakuza films, the best ones with Tsuruta Koji. As these were produced at Toei's Tokyo studios, they were more realistic and modern than the ninkyo yakuza films Toei made at its Kyoto studios. Fukasaku's greatest success came with the series Battles Without Honor and Humanity which started in 1973, ultra-violent, documentary-style (often filmed with a hand-held camera) films set in post-war Hiroshima. In 1970, Fukasaku was recruited to direct the Japanese portion of the US-Japan war film, Tora! Tora! Tora!, after Akira Kurosawa pulled out. In the 1980s and 1990s he made several cult films, ending with the shocking Battle Royale in 2000.

Yamashita Kosaku directs Socho Tobaku ("Big-Time Gambling Boss"), usually considered as one of the best ninkyo yakuza movies ever made. Tsuruta Koji delivers a powerful performance as the unwilling executioner of four people he had no intention of harming, purely our of obeisance to the gang code, among them his close friend (Wakayama Tomisaburo) - who accepts his death with a smile. Finally Tsuruta goes after the human slime (with the same dirty upper lip as Hitler) whose machinations have caused all this havoc. Asked if he has forgotten the way of ninkyo, he replies: "I am just a low-down killer," and plunges in his knife. This is part four of the ten part Bakuto series. (Toei)

Hibotan Bakuto ("Red Peony Gambler") is the start of a highly popular series, with actress Fuji Junko in the main role of the knife-wielding female yakuza Oryu, a wandering gambler. Although some installments also figure Takakura Ken, Tsuruta Koji or Wakayama Tomisaburo, the top attraction is the alluring Fuji Junko who wears an immaculate kimono and has perfectly polite manners, but who also possesses nerves of steel and can kill in the blink of an eye. There would be eight installments until 1971. The best of these is the fourth installment, made in 1969, called Hibotan Bakuto: Hanafuda Shobu ("Red Peony Gambler: Flower Cards Match") by director Kato Tai and with Takakura Ken and Wakayama Tomisaburo. (Toei) (See my post about yakuza movies)

1969 
Ichikawa Raizo, who had become the sole remaining star actor at Daiei, dies of an illness. He was only 37. He made a total of 158 films during his short life.

Yoshida Yoshishige directs Erosu purasu gyakusatsu ("Eros + Massacre") is an avant-garde masterpiece examining sexual and political liberation. On the one hand the complex film follows the life of anarchist Osugi Sakae and his relationship with three women in the 1920s (including feminist Ito Noe, played by Okada Mariko), on the other hand as a sort of mirror it also shows how two radical students, who are both documentary film makers, in the film's present time are researching Osugi's theories (Osugi was an early advocate of free love, abolition of private property and women's liberation). (Gendai Eigasha / Bungakuza / ATG)

In the late 1960s the youth movements undergo a transformation throughout the world and in Shinjuku Dorobo Nikki ("Diary of a Shinjuku Thief") Oshima Nagisa depicts Shinjuku, the center of that transformation in Tokyo. The film has a documentary feel and tells the story of a young book thief who is caught by a store clerk. The two finally become lovers and start committing thefts together. Suggests a link between crime, sexual liberation and political change. Also mimics the artifice of Godard, the director to whom Oshima was closest in style and themes. (Sozosha / Kinokuniya)

Shonen ("Boy"), also by Oshima, is again based on a real incident: a couple has trained their small child to run in front of passing cars and pretend to be injured. They then demand financial compensation from the frightened drivers. The father, an army veteran who claims he is unable to work because of his wounds, first forced his wife to perform the dangerous scam, but when she was unable to do so any longer, the choice fell on the boy. The dysfunctional family has to keep moving around Japan as they can't perform the same scam twice in the same city. The chaotic family life and forced scams which lead to bruises take their toll on the traumatized boy, who once tries to run away. The final scene plays out in snowy Hokkaido (all outside scenes are shot on location) where the scam causes a fatal accident and ends with the arrest of the couple. (ATG / Sozosha)

In Shinju Ten no Amijima ("Double Suicide") Shinoda Masahiro mixes classical kabuki with avant-garde dramaturgy. Based on the puppet play by Chikamatsu Monzaemon from 1720. The austerely monochrome film is as unreal and stagy as possible. We see puppeteers (kuroko) move among the actors, as if manipulating them like puppets (symbolizing that the characters in the film are not free); walls and floors are covered with images from woodblock prints. Iwashita Shima plays both the wife of paper merchant Kohei, as the courtesan with whom he falls in love, as if to show that a man always pursues the same type of woman. Sex was allowed in Edo, just as in 19th c. France, but love was a no-go area as it meant the break-up of the family and social disgrace. Jihei therefore is torn between giri (the rules of society) and ninjo (his passion), which the film shows as mutually exclusive. Finally the two lovers conclude a double suicide pact to escape the rigid rules of society. Their last lovemaking takes suitably place in a graveyard. Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film of the Year. (ATG / Hyogensha) (Also see my post about Japanese Cult Films)

Bara no Soretsu ("Funeral Parade of Roses") by Matsumoto Toshio is a wildly experimental and truly Nouvelle Vague film about transvestites in Tokyo's Shinjuku ward. The story is about a club "madame" who is upstaged by one of her own transvestite employees. Avant-garde editing makes violence cartoonish, irrelevant images are cut into the movie at important moments and on screen the protagonists are even interviewed about their role in the film! The main role of Eddie is played by Peter, a transvestite actor, who also played the jester in Kurosawa's Ran. (ATG / Matsumoto Production Company)

Yuke yuke nidome no shojo ("Go, Go, Second Time Virgin") by Wakamatsu Koji is about the strange friendship between a girl, who has been violated by a gang of four boys on the flat roof of an apartment building and the teenager who happened to be a passive witness. They talk about the various forms of sexual abuse they both have suffered. The girl repeatedly asks the boy to kill her, but he refuses. When the gang returns for more of the same, the boy attacks them and kills them all. As he still refuses to kill the girl, they finally both jump to their deaths from the rooftop. (Wakamatsu Pro)

Shojo geba geba ("Violent Virgin") by Wakamatsu Koji is one of the more unusual entries in this director's repertoire. A gang of three men and three women bring a couple (Hoshi and Hanako) into a barren landscape (Wakamatsu filmed this at the foot of Mt. Fuji). It appears that Hanako was the girl of the gang's boss, but she eloped with Hoshi. They have been caught and now are going to be punished. They are both stripped naked and while Hanako is tied to a cross, Hoshi is told he will be "boss" for the day and all the female members make love to him before he will be killed. But Hoshi manages to strangle the first woman and escapes naked into the dunes, but that is not the end yet... the film gets only more bizarre. With its games centering on sex and power, the film is a kind of study of behavior in social groups; it can also be said to address the thin wall between man and beast. (Wakamatsu Pro)

Moju ("Blind Beast") by Masumura Yasuzo, with Funakoshi Eiji and Midori Mako. A blind sculptor kidnaps a young fashion model and keeps her in his Dali-esque cavernous studio decorated with female body parts executed in plaster. It is his dream to sculpt the perfect female form. Their strange sado-masochistic relationship reminds one of (the later) In the Realm of the Senses. Visually inventive, this is a tale of madness and obsession after an original story by Edogawa Ranpo. A true classic of erotic horror. (Daiei) (Also see my post about Japanese Cult Films)

Kyofu kikei ningen ("Horrors of Malformed Men") by Ishii Teruo. In Japan a controversial film, as it depicts people with physical deformations, played by Butoh actors (including Butoh founder Hijikata Tatsumi). A mad scientist, living on a private island, turns normal humans through surgery into monstrosities. Properly surrealistic, combining exploitation, perverse family relationships and experimental performance art into one bizarre and sadistic whole. There is however little real horror and the weak ending is a disappointment. Based on two novels by Edogawa Ranpo. (Toei) (Also see my post about Japanese Cult Films)


Akage ("Red Lion") by Okamoto Kihachi. Mifune (sporting a gorgeous red lion mane wig) plays a peasant who dreams of glory as a warrior during the chaotic period at the end of the Shogunate. He is manipulated and cheated on all sides, but what strikes the viewer is the enormous energy Mifune puts in his role. (Mifune Productions / Toho)

Goyokin by Gosha Hideo. Nakadai Tatsuya and Tanba Tetsuro face off when a clan on the snowy Japan Sea coast wants to steal the shogun's gold (mined at Sado Island and passing by this coast on transport ships) and exterminate a whole village that is witness to the crime - a crime that has already been committed before. Bushido is exposed as a hollow platitude used to cover up the criminal acts of despicable men. The film also shows the sympathy for the underdog which is a recurrent feature in Gosha's work. Great scenes in snowy landscapes and a riveting climax with eerily masked villagers dancing around a bonfire to the tune of huge taiko drums. (Fuji TV / Tokyo Eiga) (See my post on samurai movies)

Hitokiri ("Tenchu!"), also by Gosha, feautures Katsu Shintaro as a mad-dog ronin in desperate financial straights. The anti-hero sacrifices his life to get revenge on the man who betrayed him. Also with Nakadai Tatsuya, Ishihara Yujiro, and Mishima Yukio (who is again allowed to practice seppuku). (Fuji TV / Katsu Production)

Furin kazan ("Samurai banners") by Inagaki Hiroshi, based on a novel by Inoue Yasushi and script by Hashimoto Shinobu. One of the last great samurai epics made in Japan. Mifune Toshiro gives one of his greatest performances as the ruthlessly ambitious Yamamoto Kansuke, a strategist who systematically plots his way up the ladder, eventually becoming the trusted vassal of warlord Takeda Shingen (Nakamura Kinnosuke). The long film pays a lot of attention to the portrayal of military conquest and protocol and can become a bit tedious. (Mifune Productions / Toho)

Otoko wa tsurai yo ("It's Tough being a Man") by Yamada Yoji is the first installment in the Tora-san series about a tekiya, a small-time yakuza who peddles articles at temple and shrine festivals. Tora-san travels around the country with his suitcase filled with cheap stuff, dressed in geta, a brown, checked jacket and a haramaki (a knitted stomach band). Although he is rather excitable, he also has a big heart. He is yasashii (soft, friendly) and always wants to help others, but as he is a bad listener and too hasty, so unfortunately he only makes situations worse. In the course of the long series Tora-san became nothing less than a national hero. In this first installment Tora-san returns home after many years' absence. He attends his sister's wedding, falls in love with the priest's daughter (who is engaged to another man), and causes overall embarrassment, before again setting out on his travels. Otoko wa Tsurai yo was the only consistently successful series during the decades of decline of the Japanese film industry and it has been said that the popularity of this series alone served to keep Shochiku afloat in the harsh seventies and eighties. (Shochiku)


Yamada Yoji (born 1931) graduated from Tokyo University and entered Shochiku in 1954, where he first worked as a scriptwriter and assistant director under Nomura Yoshitaro. He directed his first film in 1961. Although he is best known for the long Tora-san series, for which he also wrote the screenplays, in addition he made many other, more serious films and received important awards. Also the Tora-san films can on a higher level be viewed as clever pastiches of a variety of film styles. On top of that, Yamada's inspiration never flags, which can't be said of most other series. With his focus always on the small tribulations of ordinary people, Yamada Yoji became the only standard bearer of the "Ofuna Flavor" of Shochiku and a beacon of normality in a cynical age of sex and violence.
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
1970-1974 - Sex and Violence
1975-1979 - Decline and Stagnation
1980-1989 - Disintegration of the Studio System
1990-1994 - The Rise of Indies
1995-1999 - Revival
2000-2004 - Postmodern Peak
2005-2009 - Cinematic Bubble[Reference works used: Currents In Japanese Cinema by Tadao Sato (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); Eros plus Massacre, An Introduction to the Japanese New Wave Cinema by David Desser (Bloomington and Indianopolis, 1988); Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema by David Bordwell (Princeton University Press: Princeton, 1988); Kurosawa: Film Studies and Japanese Cinema by Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto (Duke University Press: Durham, 2000); The Waves at Genji's Door by Joan Mellen (Pantheon Books: New York, 1976); Japanese Classical Theatre in Film by Keiko I. Macdonald (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1994); From Book to Screen by Keiko I. Macdonald (M.E. Sharpe: New York and London, 2000); Reading a Japanese Film by Keiko I. Macdonald (University of Hawai'i Press: Honolulu, 2006); Behind the Pink Curtain, A Complete History of Japanese Sex Cinema, by Jasper Sharp (Fab Press: Godalming, 2008); Contemporary Japanese Film by Mark Schilling (Weatherhill: New York and Tokyo, 1999); The Midnight Eye Guide to New Japanese Film by Tom Mes and Jasper Sharp (Stone Bridge Press: Berkeley, 2005); Kitano Takeshi by Aaron Gerow (British Film Institute: London, 2007); Iron Man: the Cinema of Shinya Tsukamoto by Tom Mes (Fab Press: Godalming, 2005); Agitator: The Cinema of Takashi Miike by Jasper Sharp (Fab Press: Godalming, 2003); Nihon Eigashi by Sato Tadao (Iwanami Shoten: Tokyo, 2008, 4 vols.); Nihon Eigashi 110-nen by Yomota Inuhiko (Shueisha; Tokyo, 2014). All images are linked from Wikipedia.]
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 (in alphabetical order):

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.

Shintoho: bankrupted in 1961.

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. 

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.

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. 

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: 547 films are released. Attendance is also massive at 1,014,364,000 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, and only the strong and ruthless survive. 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. 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. Interestingly, at this time Oshima married the actress Koyama Akiko and at the reception he gave a speech like the one in his film, but now denouncing Shochiku, making the rift irreparabe. This highly ideological 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)

Manga artist Tezuka Osamu sets up Mushi Production as a competitor to Toei Animation. The company will mainly produce anime films for TV of Tezuka's manga, such as Astro Boy (starting on the small screen in 1963). Later also productions not based on work by Tezuka are made.

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 (and, implicitly, twentieth century militarism). 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 (called zankoku jidaigeki). The film that starts the ninkyo eiga boom is Toei's Jinsei Gekijo: Hishakaku ("Theater of Life: Hishakaku") by director Sawashima Tadashi, based on a novel by Ozaki Koyo. The film features Tsuruta Koji and Takakura Ken and was a great box office success, with not only a story about a wandering gambler who because of "one night's lodging" gets involved in a vicious gang warfare, but also the love Hishakaku and a rival swordsman both develop for the geisha Otoyo. (Toei)

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, with Hidari Sachiko and Okada Eiji.. About the problems and loniless of "apartment life," and the consequent desolation of human relations. This is contrasted with the closeness of the poor in a rag pickers slum. 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 38% 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
1970-1974 - Sex and Violence
1975-1979 - Decline and Stagnation
1980-1989 - Disintegration of the Studio System
1990-1994 - The Rise of Indies
1995-1999 - Revival
2000-2004 - Postmodern Peak
2005-2009 - Cinematic Bubble[Reference works used: Currents In Japanese Cinema by Tadao Sato (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); Eros plus Massacre, An Introduction to the Japanese New Wave Cinema by David Desser (Bloomington and Indianopolis, 1988); Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema by David Bordwell (Princeton University Press: Princeton, 1988); Kurosawa: Film Studies and Japanese Cinema by Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto (Duke University Press: Durham, 2000); The Waves at Genji's Door by Joan Mellen (Pantheon Books: New York, 1976); Japanese Classical Theatre in Film by Keiko I. Macdonald (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1994); From Book to Screen by Keiko I. Macdonald (M.E. Sharpe: New York and London, 2000); Reading a Japanese Film by Keiko I. Macdonald (University of Hawai'i Press: Honolulu, 2006); Behind the Pink Curtain, A Complete History of Japanese Sex Cinema, by Jasper Sharp (Fab Press: Godalming, 2008); Contemporary Japanese Film by Mark Schilling (Weatherhill: New York and Tokyo, 1999); The Midnight Eye Guide to New Japanese Film by Tom Mes and Jasper Sharp (Stone Bridge Press: Berkeley, 2005); Kitano Takeshi by Aaron Gerow (British Film Institute: London, 2007); Iron Man: the Cinema of Shinya Tsukamoto by Tom Mes (Fab Press: Godalming, 2005); Agitator: The Cinema of Takashi Miike by Jasper Sharp (Fab Press: Godalming, 2003); Nihon Eigashi by Sato Tadao (Iwanami Shoten: Tokyo, 2008, 4 vols.); Nihon Eigashi 110-nen by Yomota Inuhiko (Shueisha; Tokyo, 2014). 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
This year there are 5,184 cinemas in Japan and 423 films are made (65.8% of the total), for an audience of 868,912,000.

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... The angry young man gives vent to his frustrations through exaggerated actions, rather than through languishing melancholically as in older films. 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. Again a film full of vitality and exaggerated actions. 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.

The first color anime feature film is made: Hakujaden ("The Tale of the White Serpent"), based on a Chinese folktale. The film was produced by Toei Animation (set up by Toei and other shareholders in 1956, after buying up Japan Animated Films), which over the years would create a large number of anime TV series and theatrical features and would be instrumental in creating the boom of the genre. Moreover, many important anime directors, as Miyazaki Hayao and Takahata Isao, received their training in this company.

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 (and now sounds rather ironical). 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 - Independent Productions
1970-1974 - Sex and Violence
1975-1979 - Decline and Stagnation
1980-1989 - Disintegration of the Studio System
1990-1994 - The Rise of Indies
1995-1999 - Revival
2000-2004 - Postmodern Peak
2005-2009 - Cinematic Bubble[Reference works used: Currents In Japanese Cinema by Tadao Sato (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); Eros plus Massacre, An Introduction to the Japanese New Wave Cinema by David Desser (Bloomington and Indianopolis, 1988); Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema by David Bordwell (Princeton University Press: Princeton, 1988); Kurosawa: Film Studies and Japanese Cinema by Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto (Duke University Press: Durham, 2000); The Waves at Genji's Door by Joan Mellen (Pantheon Books: New York, 1976); Japanese Classical Theatre in Film by Keiko I. Macdonald (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1994); From Book to Screen by Keiko I. Macdonald (M.E. Sharpe: New York and London, 2000); Reading a Japanese Film by Keiko I. Macdonald (University of Hawai'i Press: Honolulu, 2006); Behind the Pink Curtain, A Complete History of Japanese Sex Cinema, by Jasper Sharp (Fab Press: Godalming, 2008); Contemporary Japanese Film by Mark Schilling (Weatherhill: New York and Tokyo, 1999); The Midnight Eye Guide to New Japanese Film by Tom Mes and Jasper Sharp (Stone Bridge Press: Berkeley, 2005); Kitano Takeshi by Aaron Gerow (British Film Institute: London, 2007); Iron Man: the Cinema of Shinya Tsukamoto by Tom Mes (Fab Press: Godalming, 2005); Agitator: The Cinema of Takashi Miike by Jasper Sharp (Fab Press: Godalming, 2003); Nihon Eigashi by Sato Tadao (Iwanami Shoten: Tokyo, 2008, 4 vols.); Nihon Eigashi 110-nen by Yomota Inuhiko (Shueisha; Tokyo, 2014). 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 (in alphabetical order):

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.

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). 

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."

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. 

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.

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. 

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: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
1970-1974 - Sex and Violence
1975-1979 - Decline and Stagnation
1980-1989 - Disintegration of the Studio System
1990-1994 - The Rise of Indies
1995-1999 - Revival
2000-2004 - Postmodern Peak
2005-2009 - Cinematic Bubble[Reference works used: Currents In Japanese Cinema by Tadao Sato (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); Eros plus Massacre, An Introduction to the Japanese New Wave Cinema by David Desser (Bloomington and Indianopolis, 1988); Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema by David Bordwell (Princeton University Press: Princeton, 1988); Kurosawa: Film Studies and Japanese Cinema by Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto (Duke University Press: Durham, 2000); The Waves at Genji's Door by Joan Mellen (Pantheon Books: New York, 1976); Japanese Classical Theatre in Film by Keiko I. Macdonald (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1994); From Book to Screen by Keiko I. Macdonald (M.E. Sharpe: New York and London, 2000); Reading a Japanese Film by Keiko I. Macdonald (University of Hawai'i Press: Honolulu, 2006); Behind the Pink Curtain, A Complete History of Japanese Sex Cinema, by Jasper Sharp (Fab Press: Godalming, 2008); Contemporary Japanese Film by Mark Schilling (Weatherhill: New York and Tokyo, 1999); The Midnight Eye Guide to New Japanese Film by Tom Mes and Jasper Sharp (Stone Bridge Press: Berkeley, 2005); Kitano Takeshi by Aaron Gerow (British Film Institute: London, 2007); Iron Man: the Cinema of Shinya Tsukamoto by Tom Mes (Fab Press: Godalming, 2005); Agitator: The Cinema of Takashi Miike by Jasper Sharp (Fab Press: Godalming, 2003); Nihon Eigashi by Sato Tadao (Iwanami Shoten: Tokyo, 2008, 4 vols.); Nihon Eigashi 110-nen by Yomota Inuhiko (Shueisha; Tokyo, 2014). 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 - Independent Productions
1970-1974 - Sex and Violence
1975-1979 - Decline and Stagnation
1980-1989 - Disintegration of the Studio System
1990-1994 - The Rise of Indies
1995-1999 - Revival
2000-2004 - Postmodern Peak
2005-2009 - Cinematic Bubble[Reference works used: Currents In Japanese Cinema by Tadao Sato (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); Eros plus Massacre, An Introduction to the Japanese New Wave Cinema by David Desser (Bloomington and Indianopolis, 1988); Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema by David Bordwell (Princeton University Press: Princeton, 1988); Kurosawa: Film Studies and Japanese Cinema by Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto (Duke University Press: Durham, 2000); The Waves at Genji's Door by Joan Mellen (Pantheon Books: New York, 1976); Japanese Classical Theatre in Film by Keiko I. Macdonald (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1994); From Book to Screen by Keiko I. Macdonald (M.E. Sharpe: New York and London, 2000); Reading a Japanese Film by Keiko I. Macdonald (University of Hawai'i Press: Honolulu, 2006); Behind the Pink Curtain, A Complete History of Japanese Sex Cinema, by Jasper Sharp (Fab Press: Godalming, 2008); Contemporary Japanese Film by Mark Schilling (Weatherhill: New York and Tokyo, 1999); The Midnight Eye Guide to New Japanese Film by Tom Mes and Jasper Sharp (Stone Bridge Press: Berkeley, 2005); Kitano Takeshi by Aaron Gerow (British Film Institute: London, 2007); Iron Man: the Cinema of Shinya Tsukamoto by Tom Mes (Fab Press: Godalming, 2005); Agitator: The Cinema of Takashi Miike by Jasper Sharp (Fab Press: Godalming, 2003); Nihon Eigashi by Sato Tadao (Iwanami Shoten: Tokyo, 2008, 4 vols.); Nihon Eigashi 110-nen by Yomota Inuhiko (Shueisha; Tokyo, 2014). 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.

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 shoshimin-eiga. 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 shoshimin-eiga 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 shoshimin-eiga 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 (also called bungei eiga), 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 shoshimin-eiga 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 - Independent Productions
1970-1974 - Sex and Violence
1975-1979 - Decline and Stagnation
1980-1989 - Disintegration of the Studio System
1990-1994 - The Rise of Indies
1995-1999 - Revival
2000-2004 - Postmodern Peak
2005-2009 - Cinematic Bubble[Reference works used: Currents In Japanese Cinema by Tadao Sato (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); Eros plus Massacre, An Introduction to the Japanese New Wave Cinema by David Desser (Bloomington and Indianopolis, 1988); Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema by David Bordwell (Princeton University Press: Princeton, 1988); Kurosawa: Film Studies and Japanese Cinema by Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto (Duke University Press: Durham, 2000); The Waves at Genji's Door by Joan Mellen (Pantheon Books: New York, 1976); Japanese Classical Theatre in Film by Keiko I. Macdonald (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1994); From Book to Screen by Keiko I. Macdonald (M.E. Sharpe: New York and London, 2000); Reading a Japanese Film by Keiko I. Macdonald (University of Hawai'i Press: Honolulu, 2006); Behind the Pink Curtain, A Complete History of Japanese Sex Cinema, by Jasper Sharp (Fab Press: Godalming, 2008); Contemporary Japanese Film by Mark Schilling (Weatherhill: New York and Tokyo, 1999); The Midnight Eye Guide to New Japanese Film by Tom Mes and Jasper Sharp (Stone Bridge Press: Berkeley, 2005); Kitano Takeshi by Aaron Gerow (British Film Institute: London, 2007); Iron Man: the Cinema of Shinya Tsukamoto by Tom Mes (Fab Press: Godalming, 2005); Agitator: The Cinema of Takashi Miike by Jasper Sharp (Fab Press: Godalming, 2003); Nihon Eigashi by Sato Tadao (Iwanami Shoten: Tokyo, 2008, 4 vols.); Nihon Eigashi 110-nen by Yomota Inuhiko (Shueisha; Tokyo, 2014). 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 period films, but of a much more modern type, both as regards contents (more geared towards adults) and style (a less fixed camera). Makino would play a defining role in the development of period film as we know it.

Nikkatsu now controls half of all 600 cinemas in Japan.
1923
The Great Kanto Earthquake destroys many old film resources. It also destroysthe Nikkatsu production studio in Mukojima in Tokyo. The company concentrates its production facilities in Kyoto (Daishogun, from 1928 Uzumasa).

Instead of the term "kyuha," the word "jidaigeki" starts being used for costume drama. A new type of period film, realistic and meant for adults, starts being made. In fact, we could say that the birth of period film was 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. .In general, period films from now on are based in the first place on popular historical novels rather than on Kabuki or Kodan stories, leading to a more mature content and greater complexity.

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.


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 - the first great jidaigeki film - fits squarely in the "rebel sub-genre" and 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 that our daily world can become hell. The film is ferociously rebellious descrying differences in status and wealth. The only negative point still  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. Marxism was very popular among intellectutals - the complete works of Marx and Engels were published earlier in Japan than in the Soviet Union or Germany.

[Orochi}
1926
The film magazine Kinema Junpo starts its annual rankings. The best film for 1926 is the comedy 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, most notably by Masumura Yasuzo in 1960.

[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 solemn 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), Shimazu Yasujiro (1897-1945) 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. Tanaka Kinuyo was active from 1929 to 1976 and appeared in 259 films. She was also one of the first Japanese women to work as a film director, debuting in 1953.

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. The story was remade several times, most notably by Kato Tai in 1966. 

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 - Independent Productions
1970-1974 - Sex and Violence
1975-1979 - Decline and Stagnation
1980-1989 - Disintegration of the Studio System
1990-1994 - The Rise of Indies
1995-1999 - Revival
2000-2004 - Postmodern Peak
2005-2009 - Cinematic Bubble[Reference works used: Currents In Japanese Cinema by Tadao Sato (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); Eros plus Massacre, An Introduction to the Japanese New Wave Cinema by David Desser (Bloomington and Indianopolis, 1988); Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema by David Bordwell (Princeton University Press: Princeton, 1988); Kurosawa: Film Studies and Japanese Cinema by Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto (Duke University Press: Durham, 2000); The Waves at Genji's Door by Joan Mellen (Pantheon Books: New York, 1976); Japanese Classical Theatre in Film by Keiko I. Macdonald (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1994); From Book to Screen by Keiko I. Macdonald (M.E. Sharpe: New York and London, 2000); Reading a Japanese Film by Keiko I. Macdonald (University of Hawai'i Press: Honolulu, 2006); Behind the Pink Curtain, A Complete History of Japanese Sex Cinema, by Jasper Sharp (Fab Press: Godalming, 2008); Contemporary Japanese Film by Mark Schilling (Weatherhill: New York and Tokyo, 1999); The Midnight Eye Guide to New Japanese Film by Tom Mes and Jasper Sharp (Stone Bridge Press: Berkeley, 2005); Kitano Takeshi by Aaron Gerow (British Film Institute: London, 2007); Iron Man: the Cinema of Shinya Tsukamoto by Tom Mes (Fab Press: Godalming, 2005); Agitator: The Cinema of Takashi Miike by Jasper Sharp (Fab Press: Godalming, 2003); Nihon Eigashi by Sato Tadao (Iwanami Shoten: Tokyo, 2008, 4 vols.); Nihon Eigashi 110-nen by Yomota Inuhiko (Shueisha; Tokyo, 2014). 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 - Independent Productions
1970-1974 - Sex and Violence
1975-1979 - Decline and Stagnation
1980-1989 - Disintegration of the Studio System
1990-1994 - The Rise of Indies
1995-1999 - Revival
2000-2004 - Postmodern Peak
2005-2009 - Cinematic Bubble[Reference works used: Currents In Japanese Cinema by Tadao Sato (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); Eros plus Massacre, An Introduction to the Japanese New Wave Cinema by David Desser (Bloomington and Indianopolis, 1988); Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema by David Bordwell (Princeton University Press: Princeton, 1988); Kurosawa: Film Studies and Japanese Cinema by Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto (Duke University Press: Durham, 2000); The Waves at Genji's Door by Joan Mellen (Pantheon Books: New York, 1976); Japanese Classical Theatre in Film by Keiko I. Macdonald (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1994); From Book to Screen by Keiko I. Macdonald (M.E. Sharpe: New York and London, 2000); Reading a Japanese Film by Keiko I. Macdonald (University of Hawai'i Press: Honolulu, 2006); Behind the Pink Curtain, A Complete History of Japanese Sex Cinema, by Jasper Sharp (Fab Press: Godalming, 2008); Contemporary Japanese Film by Mark Schilling (Weatherhill: New York and Tokyo, 1999); The Midnight Eye Guide to New Japanese Film by Tom Mes and Jasper Sharp (Stone Bridge Press: Berkeley, 2005); Kitano Takeshi by Aaron Gerow (British Film Institute: London, 2007); Iron Man: the Cinema of Shinya Tsukamoto by Tom Mes (Fab Press: Godalming, 2005); Agitator: The Cinema of Takashi Miike by Jasper Sharp (Fab Press: Godalming, 2003); Nihon Eigashi by Sato Tadao (Iwanami Shoten: Tokyo, 2008, 4 vols.); Nihon Eigashi 110-nen by Yomota Inuhiko (Shueisha; Tokyo, 2014). 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.


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