Japan Navigator

Japanese sake and cuisine, travel and history, literature and art, film and music by Ad Blankestijn
21 Nov
In 1949, the Dutch Sinologue and diplomat Robert van Gulik translated an 18th century, anonymous Chinese crime novel under the title Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee. He found the original novel in a second-hand bookshop in Tokyo and hoped it would teach Japanese and Chinese authors of detective fiction something about their own rich tradition. When nobody took notice, Van Gulik started to write such detective novels himself, basing his character on the Judge Dee of the novel he had translated. (What Van Gulik perhaps didn't know was that there in fact already existed such a "homegrown" historical detective in modern Japanese fiction. Okamoto Kido had between 1917 and 1937 written a long series of stories featuring Japan's first detective, a trusted old Edo-period sleuth called Hanshichi, who because of the historical setting is comparable to Judge Dee. See my post about Hanshichi.)

Judge Dee (Di Renjie) was a real-life magistrate and statesman of the Tang court, who lived from 630 to 700. He was not a detective (detectives are a modern invention!), but the magistrate of a district, the smallest unit in the Chinese local bureaucracy, which forced him to execute many different duties in own person: head of the administration, head of police, and judge, to name a few (as you see, our modern "separation of powers" didn't exist in ancient China).

Between 1950 and 1968 Van Gulik would write 16 Judge Dee novels. Van Gulik wrote in English, but had the first novel (The Chinese Maze Murders) translated in Japanese by a Japanese friend, and made himself a Chinese translation. The Japanese translation is still available in Japanese bookstores, but as it proved difficult to inspire local detective authors to write about their country's historical heroes, Van Gulik finally resigned himself to writing for an international public in English. That was a good idea. Soon catching on in popularity, the novels were translated into many languages, including Van Gulik's native Dutch (partly by himself).

The first Judge Dee novel I read (a long time ago) was The Chinese Bell Murders, the second one Van Gulik wrote. I was immediately hooked and in high tempo read all the Judge Dee novels the local library had available. After that, I started collecting the missing volumes from second hand bookstores, both in Dutch and in English (at that time, they were out of print in the Netherlands; happily, later new editions appeared).

I was then still in high school, and had already made my decision to study Chinese and Japanese at university. The Judge Dee novels very much strengthened me in that resolve. Reading the novels almost felt as if living in a traditional Chinese city, visiting the market and the temples, the red light district and the Confucius Hall. The books have an original and authentic atmosphere, as nobody knew China better than Van Gulik, who lived there for long periods, was fluent in the language and also wrote many scholarly studies about Chinese culture. In the staunch Confucian Judge Dee, Van Gulik also tried to make us see what the values of educated people in traditional China were, and how their mind worked. We also get fascinating insights into China's material culture, law and punishment, and in human nature in general.

Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee was not translated in full by Van Gulik. He only took the first part, in which Judge Dee solves three cases when he was a local magistrate. And indeed, as a crime novel, that part can stand on its own. In reality, the Chinese original was not a crime novel at all, but a record describing the life of Judge Dee on two levels, first as a loyal servant of the Throne in the provinces, and in the untranslated second part at a high position in the capital, at Court, as a solver of various palace intrigues.

The original Judge Dee novel had one aspect Van Gulik borrowed in most of his own stories: the fact that Judge Dee has to solve several different crimes at the same time, usually three, which Van Gulik considered as more true to life than the single story line in the Western crime novel. But not all aspects of Chinese crime stories were fit for borrowing. Van Gulik rightly skipped such things as that the suspect is known from the start (the emphasis for the Chinese was on crime and retribution, not on suspense and detection) and that the truth is often revealed by supernatural means.

Van Gulik did copy the descriptions of the cruelty of the Chinese police apparatus, where suspects were exposed to severe torture to make them confess (and everyone who entered the magistrate's court was already more or less considered as guilty), although Judge Dee often showed his compassionate side. Van Gulik also included the in China mandatory description of the execution in his own novels (at least in the first five or so). This is also a grisly part (cutting criminals slowly in pieces and things like that), but was necessary in the Chinese context as the stories were after all meant as moralistic admonitions. Happily, there is nothing moralistic about Van Gulik's Judge Dee novels, which are only good fun...

If you have not read Judge Dee yet, I can warmly recommend these novels (both the ones Van Gulik wrote himself and the translation of Celebrated Cases). But be warned, they can be addictive...
Robert van Gulik, Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee (Dover Publications)

Wikipedia article with all titles of the Judge Dee novels.
13 Nov
Nagano Prefecture is landlocked and mountainous - nine of the twelve highest mountains of Japan can be found here. On the south side of the prefecture lie the Southern Alps, and on the north side the Northern Alps. One-fifth of Nagano consists of national parks. The prefecture is a popular destination for mountain climbers and skiers.

The capital Nagano is known for its famous pilgrimage temple, Zenkoji. In Suwa stands one of the oldest shrines of Japan, Suwa Taisha, with its boisterous Onbashira festival, and Matsumoto boasts one of the few original castles of the country.

The prefecture has many electric and optical industries. Agricultural products consist of fruits and vegetables and - beside sake - also miso and wine.

There are 81 sake breweries in Nagano Prefecture (2015), quite a high number. They vary in size from large to small and are mainly distributed in the Saku, Nagano, Suwa and Matsumoto areas. Due to the natural environment, the local market is rather fragmented.

Although small in number (about 50 persons in total), Nagano has its own brewers guilds: the Suwa, Otari and Iiyama toji.

The prefecture has developed its own sake rice called Miyama Nishiki. On the market since 1978, this has become the third popular sake rice in Japan, after Yamada Nishiki and Gohyakumangoku. It is suitable for mountainous areas.

The prefecture has also developed its own yeast for fragrant ginjo sake, called "Alps Yeast."

Usually, sake from Nagano has a full taste, with a plump sweetness to match the relatively salty local food. But recent ginjo sake from the prefecture has a lighter and dryer taste. All the same, sake from Nagano forms a great contrast to that from the neighboring prefecture, Niigata.

Some major breweries:
Chikumanishiki (Chikumanishiki Co., Ltd., Saku). "Brocade of Chikuma (name of the largest river in Nagano Prefecture)." Est. 1681. Uses four wells fed by subsoil water of the Chikuma River, soft with no iron content. Their Kizan sake (all junmai, since 1997) is full-bodied with a high acidity, even for the ginjo types. Uses Miyama Nishiki sake rice. Also makes a low alcohol (7%-8%) sake called Riz Vin 7. Brewery tours upon advance reservation. 15 min walk from Asama-guchi exit of Sakudaira St. on the Hokuriku Shinkansen. Hokko (Kadoguchi Sake Brewery, Iiyama). "Northern Light." Est. 1869, in the cold northern part of the prefecture where the Iiyama Toji hail from. Makes a dry Junmai sake and a sturdy genshu, to give two examples. English website.Kikuhide (Kitsukura Shuzo, Saku). Est. 1675. Uses Alps yeast to produce highly fruity sake, which also has a rich flavor. Uses the local rice for its Junmai products and strives to bring out the umami of the rice. Also makes shochu under the brand name Mine, with Nagano grown buckwheat. Brewery tours possible upon advance reservation. Operates antenna shop for tasting etc. next to the brewery.Kikusui (Kikusui Shuzo Co., Ltd., Iida). "Joy-Long-Water." One of the largest producers in Nagano, set up in 1946 through the mergers of 37 (!) smaller breweries. Uses famous water called "Sarugura no Izumi, "Spring of the Monkey Warehouse." Uses Alps Yeast to make smart ginjo sake. Large line-up, including a seven-year old Daiginjo Koshu. Also makes shochu and cider.  Operates showroom Suishokan (closed June-Sept.) where tasting is possible.Masuichi (Masuichi-Ichimura Sake Brewery, Obuse). "Square One." Set up in 1755 by the Ichimura family, owners of the confectionery shop Obusedo. Iiyama toji. Brewery features a "teppa" counter where sake is sold by the measure (now for tasting). Also store and restaurant. Obuse is a magical town with several interesting museums. The company has revived the Edo-period custom of "Oke-brewing" in wooden vats, which leads to sake with a deeper and more complex taste. English website. Masumi (Miyasaka Brewing Co., Ltd., Suwa). "Truth." Est. 1662. The company that developed the popular Association Yeast No. 7 ("Nanago") in 1946, at that time led by master brewer Kubota Chisato. One of the largest breweries in Nagano. Brews graceful sake and uses special sake rice even for regular sake. Its Daiginjo is called Sanka, "Mountain Flower." Active in exports. Extensive English and French website. Has opened a shop, Cella Masumi, next door to the brewery. Operates two breweries, the traditional one in Suwa, and a new facility at the foot of Mt Yatsugatake (Fushimi kura). Nanawarai (Nanawarai Shuzo, Kiso-Fukushima). "Seven Laughs." Est. 1892. Makes deep tasting sake, fit for its mountain location in the Kiso-Komagatake Highland, with much umami. Also well-known for its ginjo sakes (made with Alps Yeast), which are neither dry nor sweet and which have a pleasing acidity. Became well-known during the early Jizake boom.Reijin (Reijin Shuzo, Suwa). "Beauty." Est. 1789. Offers a wide and unique range of koshu. Rather dry taste for Nagano sake. Daiginjo is called Nozomi, "Hope," made with Alps Yeast. Started selling daiginjo at early date of 1976. Pioneer also in junmai, which it started brewing in 1957. Individualistic brewery.Shinanonishiki (Miyajima Brewery Co., Ina). "Brocade of Shinano (old name for Nagano Pref.)." Est 1911. Specializes in junmai sake and other premium products, pays special attention to the rice, much of which is organic (65%). All Miyama Nishiki variety. Soft subterranean water leads to mellow sake. Shuho Kikuzakari (Shinshu Meijo, Ueda). "Eminent Peak." Set up in late Edo period, after WWII joined with three more breweries to form new company. Makes excellent ginjo sake. Has interesting junmai made with extremely soft water called Kokuyo, "Obsidian." Employs toji from the small Otari guild.Nagano 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
Shinetsu/Hokuriku: Yamanashi - 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. The above text reflects his personal opinion. 
24 Sep
Although Yamanashi Prefecture has the image of being Japan's wine country, with its fresh water and cold winter climate, conditions for sake brewing are in fact also optimal.

It has much free nature too - with Mt. Fuji straddling the border with Shizuoka Prefecture. Almost one-third of all land in Yamanashi consists of national parks. Besides grapes, the prefecture is also a producer of other fruits and its water quality is more than excellent - 40% of all bottled mineral water sold in Japan comes from Yamanashi and not for nothing Suntory operates its Hakushu whiskey distillery in the prefecture.

On the other hand, conditions for rice growing are not very good in this mountainous prefecture. Not surprisingly, there is no Yamanashi sake rice, although some sake rice from neighboring Nagano, Miyama Nishiki, is grown here.

There are 15 sake breweries in Yamanashi (2015). They lie along the Kamanashi and Fuefuki Rivers, and their confluence, the Fuji River. Toji are from Echigo, but also from neighboring Nagano (Suwa toji).

Sake from Yamanashi is soft and medium dry - one would expect a much sweeter taste from a landlocked prefecture, but that is not the case, perhaps because the water is medium-hard, too.

Some of the main breweries are (in alphabetical order):
Shichiken (Yamanashi Meijo Co., Ltd., Hokuto). "Seven Sages" (goes back to a Chinese group of sages of the 3rd c. who met in a bamboo grove to drink wine). At the eastern foot of the Southern Japanese Alps. Area famous for its water. Contracts with local farmers for growing Miyama Nishiki sake rice. Charming buildings (once a retreat for the Meiji Emperor) with tasting area and restaurant. 15 min by taxi from Nagasaka on the Chuo Main Line. English website.Shunnoten (Yorozuya Jozoten, Fujikawa). Est. 1790. The name "The Warbling of the Nightingale in Spring" goes back to a poem by Yosano Akiko, and is also the name of an ancient piece of Gagaku court music. Specializes in junmai sake, rice locally cultivated by contract farmers. Tasting area and gallery attached to brewery.Yamanashi Sake Breweries 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
Shinetsu/Hokuriku: Yamanashi - 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.
17 Sep
In 1868, at the beginning of the Meiji period, a complete transformation of Japanese society started, but that was not immediately true for literature, which continued very much in the old vein for almost two decades. We therefore begin our survey in the Annus Mirabilis of 1885 when finally the clarion call was sounded for a new literature.

Shosetsu Shinzui (The Essence of the Novel) by Tsubouchi Shoyo. A call upon writers to introduce elements of Western psychological realism. Until this time, Japanese literature of the Meiji period had consisted of a continuation of the humorous but frivolous gesaku fiction of the Edo period, of foreign novels in free adaptations and of political novels which were more a vehicle for propagating political ideals than literature (these political novels would remain popular through the late 1880s, until they disappeared naturally after having reached their purpose: the adoption of a constitution and establishment of a parliament in 1890). Shoyo advocated the autonomous value of the novel as a serious form of art, which should represent "the invisible and mysterious mechanism of human life." He emphasized the mimetic depiction of human feelings in contemporary society, portraying subtle, human feelings in ordinary, contemporary characters. The novel should not be a slave to didacticism, but art was important as an end in itself. Shoyo was the first to use the term "shosetsu" as a generic term for prose fiction - the Western novel stood for him at the apex as the "true shosetsu." This new novel should be written in a suitable, new style (in Shoyo's view, this was to be a modern style somewhere between the classical and colloquial style). Shoyo's essay can be understood as part of the larger drive in the 1880s to promote the rapid development and Westernization of Japan as a modern nation state. In Shoyo's view, the creation of a new literature worthy of the enlightened age was an important endeavor - a different assessment of the status of fiction writers than in the Edo-period when they had belonged to the demi-monde, or in early Meiji when they were journalists of sensational tabloids. Shoyo wrote his treatise with only superficial knowledge of Western literature, but it was not meant as a scholarly essay but rather as a "call to arms." His youthful enthusiasm managed to inspire a whole generation of writers, from Futabatei Shimei to Ozaki Koyo and Koda Rohan, however diverse these were in their literary attitudes. Koda Rohan, for example, said that nothing had ever given him such a jolt as The Essence of the Novel - "like tossing a rock into a quiet pond."
(Study: Origins of Modern Japanese Literature by Karatani Kojin, Duke University Press, 1993)

As a critic, playwright, translator and novelist, Tsubouchi Shoyo (1859-1935) ranks at the forefront of modern Japanese literary history. Born in Gifu, he graduated in English from Tokyo University in 1883 and became a professor at Waseda University (where the Tsubouchi Memorial Theater Museum is dedicated to him). Besides being a critic, Tsubouchi was also active as a modernizer of the theater (Shingeki). He is famous for his complete translation of Shakespeare, which he completed in 1928. Shoyo's own attempts to put his ideas about the novel into practice were less successful. That lines were never drawn very sharply is shown by Shoyo's own love of late Edo gesaku fiction, which influenced his 1885 novel The Characters of Modern Students, a work lacking in realism. His best and most modern work of fiction is the short story Saikun (The Wife, 1889), a description of an unhappy household seen through the eyes of the maid.

The Genbun itchi movement (unification of writing and speech) can also be dated to this year, as the term was popularized in 1885 by Kanda Kohei, a scholar of Western (Dutch) learning (it had in fact been first used by Maejima Hisoka, who in 1866 had pleaded for the abolishment of Chinese characters). There was a large disjunction in Japan between the spoken (kogo) and written languages (bungo). There were at least half a dozen distinctive literary styles, some based on Sino-Japanese, others on classical Japanese. Genbun itchi involved the invention of a new concept of writing as equivalent with speech. It was an effort at modernization similar to the Meiji constitution, but it would take until the beginning of the 20th century until a new style was found. There was opposition against it, for example by Koda Rohan, who claimed that speech changed too fast to be a model for writing, and in fact, except for Ukigumo of 1886, most modern literature in the 1880s and 1890s was written in some sort of neo-classical style. All writers, however, experimented with style, also for example a conservative writer as Ozaki Koyo, who popularized the use of "de aru" for the verb "to be." The switch was finally helped by the fact that from 1903 on all school textbooks were written in the genbun itchi style; and five years later - paralleling the rise of Japanese Naturalism - all novels, too, would be written in the genbun itchi style.
(Study: Karatani Kojin, Origins of Modern Japanese Literature; Tomi Suzuki, Narrating the Self, Stanford, 1996)

The first modern literary society, Kenyusha (Friends of the Ink Stone) is set up by the young Ozaki Koyo and others, all linked to Tokyo University (functions until 1903 when Ozaki dies). As a modern literary movement, the Kenyusha was the most important one that was active in the 1990s. Ozaki Koyo himself was a master storyteller who would become one of the most popular novelists of the late 19th c. Although he was inspired by Tsubouchi Shoyo's influential essay (especially its anti-didacticism and its serious approach to fiction), he based his flowery neo-classicist style on that of Edo period writer Ihara Saikaku who was rediscovered in this period, and limited his subject matter mostly to sentimental love stories with highly implausible plots and two-dimensional characters. He used the vernacular for dialogues, but resisted the genbun itchi style. He had a preference for traditional Japan and disliked the mania for European culture of his contemporaries. Ozaki Koyo entertained master-disciple relations with members of his group, which meant he taught them, helped them to get published (often initially under his own name) and generally sponsored their career. This type of master-disciple relation was normal in the Meiji-period (see below for the example of Higuchi Ichiyo). Kenyusha published various periodicals in the years of its existence, to which also non-Kenyusha members as Koda Rohan contributed. The many members of the group (including disciples of disciples) included Hirotsu Ryuro, Izumi Kyoka, Tayama Katai and Nagai Kafu.

Ozaki Koyo (1868-1903) was born in Tokyo. He dropped out of Tokyo University and became a novelist at an early age - his first success was with Ninin bikuni irozange (Love Confessions of Two Nuns) of 1889. The same year he joined the Yomiuri Shinbun newspaper as literary editor; all his subsequent novels were serialized in this large national newspaper. 

Ukigumo (Drifting Clouds) by Futabatei ShimeiUkigumo has been called "the first modern Japanese novel" on the basis of its style and psychological realism, introducing a new spirit into Japanese literature. Futabatei believed that a novelist had the duty to uncover the truths unique to his time. In his case, this meant writing a realistic novel about the society he saw collapsing around him in materialism and lack of morals. This is also reflected in the title: Futabatei saw the Japanese of his time as "drifting clouds," buffeted by new technology and new ideas from the West, which had cut them loose from the moorings of their own civilization. To him, Japanese society in the 1880s had lost its moral center. This is demonstrated through the story of Bunzo, a serious and introspective young man from the provinces, who stands outside the mainstream of modern life but rigidly adheres to traditional values of honesty, sincerity and restraint as a sort of a "superfluous man" of the Meiji period. His unwillingness to compromise and toady to his superiors costs him his government job, which is perceived in a bad light by his aunt, with whom he lodges, and his aunt's daughter Osei (the first Westernesque femme fatale), with whom he is in love. Osei falls under the spell of the shrewd and aggressive Noboru (lit. "Rising"), Bunzo's friend, who is a glib talker on a fast track to advancement in the bureaucracy (he represents the spirit of Meiji). With his half-baked enthusiasm for democracy and admiration for the West, he is portrayed as a model of vulgar success. But Noboru has his sights set higher than Osei... The characters have a life of their own and are developed naturally. Futabatei's primary model and inspiration was Russian realism (especially Turgenev), of which he had made an extensive study. Except in the first chapters where he was still trying to find his way, Futabatei uses the vernacular, undoubtedly helped by his experience as a translator of Russian fiction. Futabatei's landmark novel was enthusiastically praised by his contemporaries for its innovative subject matter and style, and later re-discovered by the Japanese Naturalists.We should however note that it remained an exception, and had no direct influence on the writers of the mid-eighties and nineties, who, instead of trying to write a Russian-type novel, were more interested in a dialogue with the Japanese tradition.
(Translation: excerpts in The Columbia Anthology I; full translation by Marleigh Grayer Ryan, Japan's First Modern Novel: Ukigumo of Futabatei Shimei, New York: Columbia University Press, 1965; Study: Indra E. Levy, Sirens of the Western Shore: The Westernesque Femme Fatale, Translation, and Vernacular Style in Modern Japanese Literature, Columbia Un. Press, 2010).

Futabatei Shimei (1864-1909) was born in Tokyo and studied Russian at the Tokyo Gaigo Gakko foreign language school. He became known as a distinguished translator of Russian literature, especially his Turgenev translations were excellent - his translations of Sketches of a Sportsman would help the development of nature writing in Japan and greatly influenced Kunikida Doppo, Shimazaki Toson and Tayama Katai. Futabatei was a social critic who was constantly dissatisfied with his own work, and steadfastly refused to write for money. He saw literature as a sacred linguistic art for revealing the truth. As Ukigumo was written in a sort of vacuum - no one else was trying to do the same, the book was far in advance of its time - Futabatei fell silent for twenty years. After Ukigumo, Futabatei wrote only two more novels (at the time of the rediscovery of Ukigumo by the Japanese Naturalists), Sono omokage (In His Image aka An Adopted Husband) in 1906, and Heibon (Mediocrity) in 1907, but these were less successful. Shimei initially was a disciple of Tsubouchi Shoyo and Ukigumo was therefore first published under the name of his master.
(Study: Hiroko Cockerell, Style and Narrative in Translations: The Contribution of Futabatei Shimei, Routledge, 2014)

Koda Rohan writes Furyu Butsu (Love Bodhisattva aka The Icon of Liberty), a story of a Buddhist sculptor who seeks artistic perfection so that "Westerners with alabaster noses like statues" will not look in contempt at his country. He has rescued a young woman, Otatsu, from her uncle who wants to sell her into prostitution; later when he falls ill, Otatsu nurses him back to health and they fall in love. After she is called away by her father, he sculpts a statue of the Bodhisattva Kannon in her image. The statue is first normally sculptured with a dress, but the sculptor removes layer upon layer until it becomes a nude statue of the Bodhisattva. In a rage when he hears Otatsu is to marry a certain nobleman, he almost destroys the statue, but then it miraculously comes to life and Otatsu herself stands beside him, like in the Pygmalion legend... so perfect was his art. They then ascend to heaven as husband and wife. The story with its lofty theme (and a new view of love) had an immense impact, despite its lack of realism. It was written in an obscure neo-classical style. Rohan tried to reinvent the Japanese language and its literature for a new era without throwing away its Sino-Japanese heritage (he called the genbun itchi style "Russian style grammar," as the style became first and for all famous through Futabatei Shimei's translations from the Russian).
(Translation in The Columbia Anthology I)

Koda Rohan (1867-1947) was born in Tokyo and educated in the Japanese and Chinese classics. After graduation from a technical school, he turned to literature. Rohan was a Renaissance man, a towering figure who combined immense learning with strong principles - he has been called the last kunshi, Confucian scholar-gentleman. He captured the constructive idealism and vitality of the Meiji period and was a precursor of Japanese romanticism and symbolism. He wrote in a pithy, pseudo-classical style, modeled on that of the great 17th c. author Ihara Saikaku and full of classical allusions. His best fiction was written early in his career; the 1890s were called "the age of Ozaki Koyo and Koda Rohan" (Ko-Ro jidai). Rohan's stories always have an idealistic, didactic intent - he was much more serious than Ozaki Koyo. Later he turned away from the novel to concentrate on essays, and historical and scholarly works, such as commentaries on the haiku from the Basho school. He was awarded the Order of Culture in 1937. His philosophy was an interesting synthesis of Buddhist metaphysics, Daoist mysticism, Confucian activism, Western humanism and Japanese aestheticism. 
(Study: Koda Rohan by Chieko Mulhern, Twayne Publishers, 1977)

Maihime (The Dancing Girl) by Mori Ogai (1862-1922) is a romantic story based on the author's experiences as a foreign student in Germany. Written in the first person, it describes a love affair between a Japanese student in Berlin with Elise, a German dancer, and is innovative in Japanese literature of that time for its expression of personal emotions. Ogai delves deep into the psychology of his protagonist. The student even gives up his studies to support Elise and her mother, and leads a happy life with her, but is tracked down by a friend from Japan who urges him not to throw his future and his career in his home country away. The student then breaks with Elise (who is just then pregnant and goes out of her mind) and returns to Japan, although on the way back he is torn between guilt and regret. This last element seems cynical but is another theme that would occupy Ogai throughout his career as a writer: the clash between duty and self-fulfillment. Although composed in the neo-classical language, and despite its Romanticism (not something innate to Ogai, but rather picked up by him from German literature) qua intent the story is more modern than Futabatei's Ukigumo. It is about a man whose discovery of his inner feelings and individuality clashes with his place in the world and the allegiances that go with it - the larger question is of course the identity of the self. The story is partly based on Ogai's own experiences (his German girlfriend even followed him to Japan, only to be rejected by his family) - it was through the writing of this lyrical story that he found self-expression and self-understanding.

Mori Ogai wrote two more romantic stories in 1890-1891: Utakata no ki (A Sad Tale aka Foam on the Waves) and Fumizukai (The Courier). The first is the story of a Japanese painter in Munich, who is in love with a model; from her he hears the story of the "mad king" Ludwig II who was in love with her mother, as an interesting frame tale; the third tale is about a Japanese officer who is invited by a beautiful princess to climb a pyramid together, but instead of experiencing romance, he is asked to act as courier to carry a letter so that the princess - as he later learns - can join the court as a way to escape a loveless marriage. In both these tales the narrator remains an observer, although his experience as a bystander helps him grow in self-understanding. In all three stories Ogai used elements from his own life in Germany, from military maneuvers to aristocratic court balls, adding authenticity to his tales. In the 1890s, Ogai would be in the first place active as translator - his translation of the romantic novel The Improvisatore by Hans Christian Andersen exerted a great influence in Japan. He also set up an influential magazine which helped spread Romanticism.
(Translation of all three stories: Mori Ogai, Youth and Other Stories, ed. J. Thomas Rimer)

Mori Ogai (1862-1922) was born in Shimane as the son of a surgeon serving the Tsuwano clan. After graduating from the University of Tokyo Faculty of Medicine in 1881 (he was the first generation of students to study modern Western medicine with German professors), he became an army physician and as such, he was sent to Germany to study continental hygiene. He remained in Germany from 1884 to 1888. This experience gave Ogai an important exposure to German and other European literature, as is also clear from Maihime which was among others inspired by Goethe. After his return, Ogai founded a literary journal to introduce the philosophy and literature of European romanticism, particularly Germany, to Japan. He also became known as an important translator of European literature. In 1907, he was promoted to surgeon general and was appointed head of the Medical Division of the Army Ministry. During his whole life, he combined an active bureaucratic career with his literary work. From 1909, inspired by the success of Natsume Soseki, Ogai again started writing fiction, first contemporary short stories and novellas, and - after the death of Emperor Meiji in 1912 - historical tales and scholarly biographies of historical figures. Ogai experimented with different styles and in general cultivated a "distanced" narratorial technique. Different from Tsubouchi Shoyo's one-sided insistence on realism, Ogai insisted on the necessity of ideals in literature - in this, he resembled Koda Rohan. 
(Study: Mori Ogai by J. Thomas Rimer, Twayne Publishers, 1975)

Tai Dokuro (Encounter with a Skull) by Koda Rohan is the story of a young man who, after a terrible trek through the snow, takes refuge in a lonely hut in the mountains where he meets a beautiful woman who invites him to stay the night. After a bath and a simple meal, it is time to go to bed - but unfortunately there is only one bed. The woman offers it to her guest, the guest in his turn asks the lady to sleep in her own bed. When the lady proposes that they share the bed, the highly moral young man shudders and recites a Chinese poem warning against lust. They then decide to stay up both, and the young man asks the lady to tell him the story of her life. She was brought up in comfortable circumstances, she says, but on her deathbed, her mother gave her the injunction never to marry (the lady refuses to narrate the reason behind this injunction, but it might be that she had been taught the meaningless of the flesh). When a noble young man fell in love with her, she kept refusing him. When her suitor finally died, she felt real compassion and retired to this hut in the mountains. As dawn breaks, the house and the woman vanish suddenly and the narrator sees only a bleached white skull lying at his feet. Later he learns that a mad beggar woman (who may have been a leper) has strayed into the mountains about a year ago. He apparently has helped release her spirit - this is all in the eerie tradition and style of a Noh play (although her ghost is not a vengeful one). Now it is his task to tell her tale of Buddhist compassion and salvation to the world. The motif of this story (meeting a beautiful woman in a deserted spot, spending the night in her house, and discovering the next morning that she must have been a ghost) is a traditional one in East Asian literature. This story was much admired by Tanizaki Junichiro. The Buddhist rejection of lust and the ideals of love in this story are typical of Rohan.
(Translation: Pagoda, Skull & Samurai, 3 stories by Rohan Koda by Chieko Irie Mulhern, Tuttle Publishing)

Goju no To (The Five-storied Pagoda) by Koda Rohan again addresses the theme of art and how it can help achieve enlightenment. The story is about a competition between two master builders who both want to be in charge of constructing a pagoda for the Tennoji Temple in Edo. Such an endeavor is in itself a religious act, as the pagoda stands for the Buddha, his teachings through the Lotus Sutra, and the whole universe. Genta is a rich patrician of established social standing, Jubei is poor and socially inept (and has been the disciple of Genta). But he comes into his own as the great craftsman he is when he visits the abbot to present his plan. Although the abbot wants both men to cooperate on the project, Jubei is determined to execute the whole project on his own, and Genta finally yields (a Confucian virtue). Jubei's confidence in his own ability is not hubris or individualism (the pagoda is built by the teamwork of his whole crew) but ambition - willpower on the grandest scale in order to do good for mankind is what separates man from animal, according to the Confucian tenets of Rohan. Jubei builds such a sturdy pagoda that it even withstands the force of a terrible typhoon (the description of the typhoon is famous and was for many decades included in school textbooks). The forces of nature are personified as demons, but note that in Buddhism demons are the guardians of the Law whose mission it is to shepherd erring humans to salvation - intrinsic evil as an antithesis of the Good, as Satan in Christianity, does not exist. Finally Jubei wins even Genta's admiration. Again a story in which the ideals of art and goodness are triumphant. This novella is usually considered as Rohan's best work. Rohan's heroes are not brooding, introspective Meiji protagonists, but masculine heroes who battle with nature and apply their energies positively to their work. Tennoji is located in Tokyo's Yanaka area, but its pagoda unfortunately fell victim to arson (combined with a double suicide) in the 1950s.
(Translation: Pagoda, Skull & Samurai, 3 stories by Rohan Koda by Chieko Irie Mulhern, Tuttle Publishing)

Takekurabe (Child's Play aka Growing Up, lit. Comparing Heights), Nigorie (Troubled Waters) and Jusanya (Two Nights Before the Full Moon aka The Thirteenth Night) are three novellas published by Japan's first modern woman writer, Higuchi Ichiyo. The much acclaimed Takekurabe is a story of loss of innocence, about children growing up in Daionjimae, next to the Yoshiwara brothel district. Among them, the tomboyish, spirited Midori realizes the day her hair is done up in adult style that her childhood is over and that the harsh reality of life as a prostitute awaits her, like her elder sister who is already a celebrated courtesan. One of her playmates, the shy, bookish Nobu, the son of a priest, has fallen silently in love with her, but is so uneasy about his new affection that he can no longer speak to her. The pain of leaving childhood is described intelligently, but without any sentimentality. The style is based on Ihara Saikaku, especially in the descriptive passages. Nigorie is the story of the prostitute Oriki who is unable to forget Genshichi, a former customer, though his extravagance and neglect of his business has driven him and his family into poverty. The story ends with Genshichi killing Oriki and committing suicide afterward. This a modern, critical variant of the love suicides (shinju) in the plays of the Edo playwright Chikamatsu. Jusanya, finally, is a more serenely sad story: a woman who has married above her station and is mistreated by her cruel husband, returns by rickshaw to her parents' home, but they are unwilling to give up the advantages of having a rich son-in-law and persuade their daughter to go back to her husband. She also realizes that she could not leave her young son (in case of a separation, the children stayed with the father according to Meiji law). The rickshaw puller who brings her back happens to be a childhood friend, forced by circumstances to do menial labor. Takekurabe was filmed in 1955 by Gosho Heinosuke with Misora Hibari; Nigorie and The Thirteenth Night (together with another story, The Last Day of the Year), were filmed in 1953 by Imai Tadashi.
(Translation of all three stories: In the Shade of Spring Leaves by Robert Lyons Danly, W.W. Norton & Company; Study: "Their Time as Children, A Study of Higuchi Ichiyo's Growing Up," in Text and the City, Essays on Japanese Modernity by Maeda Ai, Duke Un. Press, 2004)

Higuchi Ichiyo (1872-1896) was born in Tokyo. Interested in literature, she entered a poetry academy, where she was nurtered on the Genji Monogatari and the waka of the Imperial anthologies. But contrary to her fellow students, her family was poor and she was forced to earn her own living by her father's death in 1889. She ran a shop selling household goods and cheap sweets in Daionjimae, in downtown Tokyo, right next to the Yoshiwara prostitution quarter (the setting of Takekurabe). In 1891, she became the pupil of Nakarai Tosui and started writing stories. Tosui was a popular gesaku-style newspaper novelist, but at least helped her publish her first stories. In 1892, Ichiyo had to end all contact with him due to (unfounded) rumors that their relation involved more than literature. Ichiyo was an admirer of Koda Rohan; she was also inspired by the writings of Ihara Saikaku - her style was classical but her content modern. She died in 1896 of tuberculosis, after having written her best stories in a miraculous period of just fourteen months, and being recognized and praised by the literary establishment, such as Mori Ogai. She is the first outstanding female writer in modern Japanese literature.
(Biography: In the Shade of Spring Leaves by Robert Lyons Danly, W.W. Norton & Company. Study: The Uses of Memory, The Critique of Modernity in the Fiction of Higuchi Ichiyo, by Timothy J. Van Compernolle, Harvard 2006)

Gekashitsu (The Operating Room, 1895) by Izumi Kyoka brought a new romantic voice on the literary scene. This short story is impossibly melodramatic, but very beautifully written in the neo-classical style. A countess must undergo a breast operation. She refuses anesthetic as she is afraid she will reveal "her secret" under its influence. The surgeon then agrees to operate without anesthesia. The countess bears the pain without flinching, but suddenly grabs the surgeon's hand and plunges the scalpel deep in her breast. In a flashback we learn that the countess and surgeon - then a medical student - met nine years earlier and fell in love but could not marry due to their difference in status. After the fatal operation the doctor, who has remained unmarried, commits suicide as well. This in itself crude plot was sufficiently unusual for Japanese readers to give it an air of glamour. The story is called kannen shosetsu (idea fiction) because it challenges conventional ideas of love by introducing a couple who die for their "illicit" passion. The story was filmed in 1992 by Bando Tamasaburo with Yoshinaga Sayuri as the countess.
(Translation: Japanese Gothic Tales by Charles Shiro Inouye, Hawaii Un. press)

Izumi Kyoka (1873-1939) was born in Kanazawa. In 1890 he went to Tokyo to become a live-in disciple of Ozaki Koyo. Izumi Kyoka has been called the supreme romanticist of Meiji literature. His stories often deal with the world of fantasy and the supernatural, or are set in the geisha world (these stories often contain interesting descriptions of contemporary Tokyo). Kyoka wrote in a densely, imaginistic style and is in the first place read for the literary excellence of his style, rather than plot - often there is no true story line, but rather a juxtapositioning of individual, almost pictorial scenes. His style owed much to Ozaki Koyo and Edo gesaku writers. As a writer he is often linked with the later Nagai Kafu and Tanizaki Junichiro because of their shared love of Edo culture and their depiction of life in the pleasure quarters. Kyoka was also active as a playwright in the Shinpa style. Later in life he retreated to Zushi, not far from Kamakura. Devoted fans of his work were Akutagawa Ryunosuke, Satomi Ton, Tanizaki Junichiro and, later, also Mishima Yukio and Shibusawa Tatsuhiko. For much of the 20th c. Kyoka was dubbed "a dropout of the modern age," but Mishima asserted that Kyoka was on the contrary too far ahead of his own time to be properly understood. It is indeed true that Kyoka (and also Rohan) look strikingly contemporary when seen from the perspective of the postmodern novel.
(Study: The Similitude of Blossoms: A Critical Biography of Izumi Kyoka by Charles Shiro Inouye, Harvard University Press, 1998)

One of the better Kenyusha writers was Hirotsu Ryuro (1861-1928), who is known for his grave (shinkoku) or tragic (hisan) novels emphasizing the dark aspects of society. He is now almost forgotten, but one of his stories still deserves attention: Imado Shinju (The Love Suicides at Imado), a sort of transposition of Chikamatsu to the realities of Meiji. Yoshizato, a top prostitute, has fallen in love with her customer Hirata, who however urgently has to return to his family in the provinces. She kept an other admirer, Zenkichi, whose infatuation has cost him his business, at a distance. But touched by Zenkichi's sincere love, although he is a rather clownish man, Yoshizato now allows him to stay a few days with her in the brothel, paying his bills herself. In the meantime she hopes that Hirata will come back. That doesn't happen and one day, Yoshizato and Zenkichi throw themselves together in the river. Written in a vivid colloquial style, this story is a superb evocation of the atmosphere of a Yoshiwara brothel. Regrettably, this excellent story has not yet been translated.

Gen Oji (Old Gen) by Kunikida Doppo is the first short story by this romantic author. Although Doppo would become known for his use of the genbun itchi style, this first story is still written in the neo-classical language. The story is based on materials Doppo gathered while working as English teacher in a small town in Kyushu, but the major inspiration was Wordsworth's pastoral poem Michael. Old Gen is a boatman who adopts a vagrant boy after the death of his own son. He attempts to communicate his fatherly feelings, but the wild boy is unable to respond. In the end Old Gen hangs himself, but the idiot boy still understands nothing. More than for its sentimental plot, the story is interesting for its nature descriptions, such as an effective evocation of a storm that wrecks the boat of Old Gen. One can say that Doppo tried to discover the meaning of life in nature, which is also clear from Musashino, a story written in 1898, about the landscape of Musashino in the outskirts of Tokyo. That landscape was not particularly famous or striking, but that was exactly the point, for Doppo saw beauty in ordinary things and ordinary persons. Musashino is a beautiful piece of impressionistic writing.
(Translation Old Gen: "Five Stores by Kunikida Doppo" (tr. Jay Rubin), Monumenta Nipponica, Vol. 27 No. 3. (Autumn 1972), pp. 273-341)

Kunikida Doppo (1871-1908) was born in Choshi (Chiba) and studied English literature at the precursor of Waseda University. Inspired by the poetry of Wordsworth, in the mid-nineties he started writing lyric poetry. He was also a convert to Christianity. His early works include a diary (Azamukazaru no ki) and a new-style poetry collection. After an unhappy marriage that ended in divorce in 1896 (and that became the basis for the plot of Arishima Takeo's 1919 novel A Certain Woman), he withdrew from the community of Christian social reformers. Instead, he became a close friend of the writer Tayama Katai. In the late nineties, he started writing short stories, first collected in 1901 as Musashino. He became well-known for his lyrical evocation of natural scenes, although there is also a neurotic form of introspection in his work. A few of his later stories are often seen as precursors of Japanese Naturalism, but fundamentally Doppo was a Romantic. According to Karatani Kojin, Doppo was the first fully modern writer for two reasons: his descriptions of external nature, and his introspection, his internal consciousness (paired with the genbun itchi style). Other excellent stories by Doppo are Takibi (The Bonfire), Wasureenu hitobito (Unforgettable People), Gyuniku to bareisho (Meat and Potatoes), Jonan (Woman Trouble), Unmei ronsha (The Fatalist), and my personal favorite, the bittersweet Kawagiri (River Mist). Doppo died at age 37 of tuberculosis. 

Ozaki Koyo starts serializing his most popular novel Konjiki Yasha (The Gold Demon) in the Yomiuri Shinbun. Ozaki was the most popular novelist of his day. His novels were serialized in the Yomiuri Shinbun, ensuring a wide readership. The Gold Demon was Ozaki's most popular novel, but it remained incomplete at his death in 1903. The book is filled with highly melodramatic scenes, and was so popular it was immediately adapted for the stage, but it has aged badly - no modern reader will enjoy the books' most famous scene, set at the beach in Atami, where the exasperated hero abuses his lover, and when she kneels to beg forgiveness, even kicks her. But the novel's depiction of the rise of aggressive merchant capitalism in Japan at the time is sociologically interesting.
(Translation: excerpt in The Columbia Anthology I; paraphrase by A. and M. LLoyd, Tokyo 1917 as The Gold Demon. Study: Practices of the Sentimental Imagination, Melodrama, the Novel, and the Social Imaginary in Nineteenth Century Japan by Jonathan E. Zwicker, Harvard U.P.)

Tokutomi Roka writes Hototogisu (The Cuckoo aka Nami-ko), about the grossly unequal treatment women received in Meiji Japan due to the supremacy of the family. It is a rather melodramatic tale about the breakup of a marriage in the privileged class, in which a wicked mother-in-law, a former rejected suitor and finally tuberculosis play out their nefarious roles. The novel was very popular - not only in Japan, for it was soon translated into several European languages. In 1901, Roka also wrote Omoide no ki (Footprints in the Snow), a fictionalized story about his own development as a writer, inspired in part by David Copperfield. It is full of lofty ideals, which appealed to contemporary readers, but like Hototogisu, does not rise above the limits of popular fiction. More than for his novels, Roka is interesting for his powerful eccentric individuality.
(Translation: Footprints in the Snow by Kenneth Strong, Tuttle Publishing)

Tokutomi Roka (1868-1926) was born in Kumamoto Prefecture. He was the brother of the historian Tokutomi Soho. Roka corresponded with Tolstoy and in 1906 even traveled to Yasnaya Polyana to meet the great man (he left an interesting record of this visit). From 1907 until his death, he lived in a farm house in Musashino (now Setagaya-ku, Tokyo), where he worked the land in the style of Tolstoy. The property now is a metropolitan park called Roka Koshun-en.

[Reference works used: Dawn to the West by Donald Keene (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1984); Modern Japanese Novelists, A Biographical Dictionary by John Lewell (New York, Tokyo and London: Kodansha International, 1993); Narrating the Self, Fictions of Japanese Modernity by Tomi Suzuki (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996); Oe and Beyond, Fiction in Contemporary Japan, ed. by Stephen Snyder and Philip Gabriel (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1999); Origins of Modern Japanese Literature by Karatani Kojin (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1993); The Columbia Anthology of Modern Japanese Literature, 2 vols, ed. by J. Thomas Rimer and Van C. Gessel (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005 and 2007); The Fantastic in Modern Japanese Literature by Susan J. Napier (London and New York: Routledge, 1996); Writers & Society in Modern Japan by Irena Powell (New York, Tokyo and London: Kodansha International, 1983).]Modern Japanese Fiction by Year (1): 1885-1899, Beginnings
Modern Japanese Fiction by Year (2): 1900-1909, The Flourishing of Meiji
12 Sep
Although there exist several interesting, individual breweries here, the Kanto area generally speaking is not a major sake producing area. This despite the presence of towns like Sawara (Chiba) and Ishioka (Ibaraki) where in the Edo-period brewing was flourishing. The vast metropolis of Tokyo and its satellite cities have gradually filled up the Kanto plain and made this into an area of consumers, rather than producers. There are no Toji guilds in the Kanto, but traditionally one finds brewmasters from the Echigo guild (Niigata) here, and recently also from the Nanbu guild.

In line with the citified character of the area, the taste of sake here - although traditionally rich and umami-based - nowadays is mainly fresh, light and elegant.

Ibaraki: fresh, soft and a bit sweet (due to soft water)
Tochigi: sweet in the past, now relatively dry
Gunma: medium dry (sweet in the past)
Saitama: light and fresh
Chiba: several individualistic, sturdy sakes
Tokyo: light
Kanagawa: light and dry

Ibaraki is the prefecture with the largest number of breweries, Kanagawa the smallest (even nationwide). In Chiba prefecture one finds several individualistic breweries producing Kimoto sake, aged sake (Koshu) or junmai sake of which the rice has been milled only slightly.

In total there are 189 active sake breweries in the Kanto area (figures 2015).
Sake by Region:
Hokkaido/Tohoku: Hokkaido - Aomori - Akita - Iwate - Miyagi - Yamagata - Fukushima
Kanto area: Ibaraki - Tochigi - Gunma - Saitama - Chiba - Tokyo - Kanagawa
Shinetsu/Hokuriku: Yamanashi - 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
11 Sep
Here are three more updates in the series of sake by region: Chiba, Saitama and Kanagawa.
10 Sep
Two new updates in the sake by region series have appeared on my site: Tochigi and Gunma, both in the Kanto area.
3 Sep
Although the annual production of Japanese films scales new heights (408 in 2010, rising to 615 in 2014), unfortunately the quality of Japanese cinema is not commensurate to these voluminous figures. Instead, the number of artistic and intelligent films rather decreases. After all, more than 60% of Japanese films are anime aimed at below-twelve kids. Another large chunk is made up by the sheer countless teenage dramas (first love and all that heart-breaking matter), and another again by romantic comedies for young women. That leaves little space in the national cinema for serious works. 

But that is not all: also indies and serious films in this period are often limited, due to insufficient depth, the lack of a good narrative, and dearth of social vision; there are also problems with editing and cinematography, and in general too little critical stance. We could say that the creative wave that came up in the 1990s ("The New Wave of the Nineties") peaked before its time and that some directors who were part of the Wave didn't completely fulfill their high expectations. 

Japanese cinema is in the grip of risk avoidance, not only the mainstream (which always plays on safe and follows Hollywood-type investment models), but also indies and other independent films. Subjects are based on already popular manga, television drama, trendy novels and older films, and TV celebrities (who are not always good actors) are used as protagonists to get fans into the theater. The strange circumstance, that one after another great classical films (that in their original form are widely available on DVD) are being remade, is a good indication of the regrettable lack of creativity that plagues Japanese cinema today. 

But despite all this, Japanese cinema remains interesting as a window on Japanese culture and society. 

The best film of the year is Akunin ("Villain") by Lee Sang-Il. Although his Hula Girls showed the potential birth of a safe hack, Lee makes much good in this noir thriller based on an interesting novel by Yoshida Shuichi. It is a story about alienated and lonely young people who meet via dating sites. One young woman (Mitsushima Hikari) who uses these sites to earn money from the men she meets and who brags to her friends about her success in love, meets her destiny on a lonely road. The young man (an unresponsive Tsumabuki Satoshi, but in a way that fits his role) who inadvertent kills her (in fact, it is more like manslaughter) soon after meets the woman of his dreams (a very good Fukatsu Eri), and she the man of her dreams, but it is too late... He looks like a sociopath with his bleached hair, but is in fact a tragic anti-hero. We also have a grandmother (Kirin Kiki) who is cheated out of her savings by gangsters and a father (Emoto Akira) who wants to physically avenge the death of his daughter. An impressive exploration of society's ills. The film earned a much deserved Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film in 2011.

Haru to no tabi ("Haru's Journey," lit. "Journey with Haru") by Kobayashi Masahiro is a road movie in which a young woman, Haru (Tokunaga Eri), living in Mashike, Hokkaido, as a teacher, has just seen her school closed down due to the decline in population. She wants to find work in Tokyo, but these last five years she has been taking care of her widowed grandfather, Tadao (Nakadai Tatsuya), an embittered and angry man who has difficulty walking. They start a trip by train to find a family member who is willing to take grandfather in so that Haru can go to Tokyo. But Tadao has not made things easy as his past egoistic behavior has rather estranged him from his brothers and sister, as well as from his son (Haru's father - who in his turn has discarded Haru). This humanistic film is supported by an excellent cast: Otaki Hideji and Sugai Kin as Tadao's eldest brother and his wife; Tanaka Yuko as the wife of the second brother; Awashima Chikage as the sister who operates a ryokan in Naruko (Miyagi); Emoto Akira and Miho Jun as the younger brother and his wife; and Kagawa Teruyuki as Tadao's son / father of Haru. The film is not only the story of an estranged family, it is also the story of how the uneasy relationship between Haru and her grandfather softens and grows, so much that she finally even decides to return to Hokkaido with him.

Sweet Little Lies by Yazaki Hitoshi (of Strawberry Cakes fame), based on the novel by Ekuni Kaori, is the quiet but clinical story of the disintegration of a marriage, after just three years. Nakatani Miki plays a housewife who designs teddy bears as her hobby and Omori Nao is her IT-employed husband, who locks himself all his free time in his hobby room playing video games. Their emotional distance is so large that they communicate by mobile telephone even in their small apartment. Although they find it convenient to be married, there is no emotion, let alone love, between them and mentally they have little in common. So not surprisingly, when both in turn are aggressively approached by potential adultery partners, they swallow the bait of seduction: the wife with a musician, an arty type (Kobayashi Juichi) she meets in her teddy bear gallery, and the husband with a former schoolmate he sees at a class reunion (Ikewaki Chizuru). We then follow the parallel affairs and the games both play to keep up the deception. The end, however, is a surprise, because both decide to "return home" again...

How many 98 year old directors still make films (how many people reach that age)? Shindo Kaneto (in what would be his last film) has made an incisive anti-war film, Ichimai no hagaki ("One Postcard"), which earned a belated Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film in 2012. It is the tragedy of a peasant women who looses first one, then a second husband and her parents in law to the folly of war. With excellent performances by Otake Shinobu and Toyokawa Etsushi.

Caterpillar by Wakamatsu Koji is an even fiercer anti-war statement, based on a story by Edogawa Ranpo that was also filmed in Rampo Noir (2005), of a war veteran (Kasuya Keigo) who is just a torso and a battered head, like a caterpillar. He can see, but not hear or talk. The ugly lump of flesh of the medal-decorated war hero is considered as a military god by the village from which new men are constantly leaving for the killing fields, until only women, children and the elderly are left behind. But our amputee can only eat, sleep and have sex (he still functions below the waist, although his wife has to do all the work). The wife (Terashima Shinobu in a Berlin Silver Bear winning performance) first is shocked, then decides to stand by her man and care for him, but gradually realizes that she also can exploit her husband's condition and so take revenge on him for his brutish behavior towards her in the past. To pester him, she starts pulling him in a cart through the village, where everyone has to pay their respects to the "war god"...

Tsumetai Nettaigyo ("Cold Fish") by Sono Shion is a return to extreme violence and gore by this provocative director in a film about bullying - not at school but in society. The weak and unsuccessful fish store owner Shamoto (Mitsuru Kukikochi), who is despised by his slutty (second) wife (Kagurazaka Megumi) and rebellious daughter, is sucked up into the orbit of the powerful and unscrupulous Murata (a tour de force performance by Denden). Of course, Murata's fish store Amazon Gold is many times larger than Shamoto's and he employs sexy girls to entice customers. As one of these, Murata also hires Shamoto's disobedient daughter and next seduces his wife. He also does other things: when someone gets in his way, Murata kills him and then cuts up the body and incinerates the parts - something Shamoto is forced to participate in. The first to go is Murata's business partner, for Shamoto will take the place of the poor man - after helping cut up his body in a church. During this all, Shamoto is bullied by the stronger and more successful entrepreneur and his wife, who is his partner in crime (Kurosawa Asuka). In the end something snaps in him, and then he takes a terrible revenge on Murata and all others who have used him as a doormat... showing that the bullied do not become heroes, but are just as mean and vile as their oppressors, as they can only imitate them. There is not inconsiderable gore, but it is all cartoonish. This is not a horror movie, but a (very) black comedy about social breakdown.

Heaven's Story by Zeze Takahisa is a film full of anger, frustration and feelings of revenge - and it lasts four and a half hours, divided into nine episodes. The film follows family members of murder victims and shows how their lives were changed by these terrible events; the film also shows in Babel-like fashion, how the lives of a dozen people intersect over a period of ten years, connected as they are by murder and loss. Revenge will of course create new painful reverberations in this net of connections. The film is as dark as previous work by this initial pink film director, such as Raigyo. A massive monster of film that does not wholly succeed in its high aims, but is still an interesting experiment, showing that there is at least one director left who dares to take risks.

Okan no yomeiri ("Here Comes the Bride, My Mother!") by woman director Oh Mipo starts out in a fresh way. A mother (Otake Shibobu) one day comes home and introduces a young guy with bleached hair (Kiritani Kenta) as "the bridegroom" to the daughter in her twenties with whom she lives together (Miyazaki Aoi) - not a man for her daughter, but for herself. This causes the daughter to start sulking, despite the efforts of the groom to ingratiate himself by being friendly to her. So the first part of the film consists of quiet comedy, before entering into darker territory: Tsukiko, the daughter, is in fact sitting at home - the only thing she does outside is walking the dog - like a hikikomori because she was stalked and harassed by a male colleague in the office where she used to work. Then we get a plot twist which unfortunately spoils the film by dousing it in melodrama: the mother is revealed as having a terminal illness and her boyfriend who knew this is just marrying her to make her last days happy... Why does the director need such a trashy plot twist to justify the second marriage to a much younger man of the mother, as if women in their forties have no right to make new choices in their lives? A disappointment, despite the setting in Kyoto along the Keihan line.

Noruwei no mori ("Norwegian Wood") by Vietnamese/French director Ahn Hung Tran, based on the popular novel by Murakami Haruki, is beautifully filmed (thanks to the richly saturated images of cinematographer Pin Bing Lee), but hampered by the simplistic and sentimental love story that lies at its basis. It is about sub-twenties who are suffering from sexual and emotional angst. Kizuki commits suicide for the silly reason that he is unable to perform the act with his girlfriend Naoko. Naoko looses her mental stability because she blames herself for this and is put away in a mental hospital; she will finally commit suicide as well. Toru, Kizuki's best friend, is in love with Naoko, who still loves Kizuki, but he also meets the forward Midori (the only person who seems to be in charge of herself in this film) and, typically indecisive, finds himself shuttling between both of them. Despite the good performances (especially Kikuchi Rinko of Babel-fame as Naoko), this is mainly a juvenile tearjerker lacking the humor of the original novel.

Kitano Takeshi makes Outrage, a conventional yakuza flick as they are made by the dozen for the straight-to-video market in Japan. It was clearly aimed at a segment of his foreign audience that craved more yakuza films from him, but all he comes up with is a dull and tired story. On top of that, we by now have had enough of Kitano's signature sudden bursts of violence, with chopsticks rammed into eyes or ears. After three autobiographical films which became increasingly trivial, Kitano apparently unashamedly tried to go for the foreign box office. As they liked it in Cannes, Kitano even made a sequel, Beyond Outrage (2012), that gives addicts to cheap violence more of the same (and is marginally better). Instead of "Glory to the Filmmaker," this should be called "The End of a Filmmaker." Kitano Takeshi made some excellent films in the 1990s, starting with Violent Cop, and leading to such highlights as Sonatine and Hana-Bi, with in between more peaceful films as A Scene at the Sea and Kids Return, but in the new century seems to have lost his way, despite his one-off commercial success with Zatoichi.

The same is unfortunately true of Tsukamoto Shinya. Tetsuo the Bulletman is a dull remake of his Tetsuo and Tetsuo II, frenetic and genuinely disturbing films made on a zero budget about 20 years ago. Tsukamoto offers nothing new and, despite the now much larger budget, makes a much lesser and in fact unnecessary film, adding an unconvincing back story to a plot that should have remained mysterious. He ruins his film even more by trying to appeal to a foreign audience by employing an unconvincing American actor as his protagonist.

Another unnecessary movie is Jusannin no shikyaku ("Thirteen Assassins") by Miike Takashi. What is the use of remaking excellent classical films? Doesn't this stem purely from a lack of creativity? The original film by Kudo Eiichi simply can't be improved upon, and Miike's almost shot-by-shot remake is just another piece of evidence of the sad lack of ideas in Japanese cinema in the second decade of the 21st century.

Ototo ("Her Younger Brother") by Yamada Yoji was advertised as a tribute to the then 81-year old Ichikawa Kon, who in 1960 made a famous film of the same title. It is not a remake so much as meant to be an homage to the veteran director. Yamada only borrows the idea of a sister covering for the mistakes of her rowdy brother, in fact the situation he had already borrowed in his Otoko wa tsurai yo films. So this is rather a "remake" of Tora-san, but unfortunately Shofukutei Tsurube (a popular rakugo artist and TV personality, who did a better job in Dear Doctor) is no Atsumi Kiyoshi and the film gets bogged down in sentimentality and tears (the rowdy brother has to die a lonely death), despite the efforts of Yoshinaga Sayuri as the sister and Aoi Yu as her daughter.

Kokuhaku ("Confessions") by Nakashima Tetsuya is a safe journeyman product, based on a popular thriller by Minato Kanae. Like the novel, the film is hopelessly unrealistic, with countless plot holes, but I bring it up here for the insight it offers into Japanese society. The little daughter of a female teacher (Matsu Takako) has been killed by two underage pupils in her class. As the law can't do much, she decides to take revenge by herself and laces the school milk of the two kids with the AIDS virus (conveniently, her boyfriend has AIDS). Although neither of them becomes ill, as a result one boy turns into a hikikomori obsessed with avoiding contact with others so as not to infect them; he eventually kills his mother. The other boy still comes to school but is bullied by the rest of the class as an AIDS victim (the film here shows the sad workings of Japanese society where victims are sometimes bullied). This boy is an inventor (he also had invented the electrical shock purse that killed - or at least stunned - the little girl) and now makes a bomb with which he is planning to blow up himself including the school at the graduation ceremony. The teacher has read his webpage on which he announces this plan (!) and removed the bomb. Instead, she has put it in the university building where the boy's mother works (he hankers after his mother who has discarded him), so when the boy activates the bomb with his mobile phone, he blows up his own mother. The end. The biggest plot hole is of course that there seems to be no police to arrest a teacher who has tried to kill two of her own pupils. And by re-planting the bomb, she becomes a mass-murderer herself - but such niceties are never addressed. The reason I bring up this film is that it was so popular in Japan it was even sent in officially to the Academy Awards - although it is unimaginable that a film about a teacher killing her own pupils would ever win an Oscar. But the movie aptly reveals the feelings of revenge against criminal youths in Japan.

Byakuyako ("Into the White Night") by Fukagawa Yoshihiro is a crime story based on a popular novel by Higashino Keigo. It is a well-made film, shot in a dark and minor mode, focusing on character development and therefore justifiably taking its time. It shows how the murder of their parents by two children (one of them abused and mistreated by both victims) follows the main characters throughout their lives, leading again and again to new crimes. It also shows the utter and altruistic devotion of a boy and young man to the beautiful girl he once saved, and whom he keeps helping, even onto his own death. His love is never requited and is of a kind you'll only find in Japanese culture. The film also shows how different the characters of both protagonists are, he (Kora Kengo) totally unselfish, but cruel on her behalf, she (Horikita Maki) from the start calculating, using the people around her for her own purposes and not allowing anyone to cross her. And, for more than two decades, we also follow the police officer (Funakoshi Eiichiro) who ultimately discovers the truth. The crime is initially shelved, but he keeps doggedly coming back to it and gradually unravels the web of lies, even after he has already been pensioned off.

Aburakasu no Matsuri ("Abraxis") by Kato Naoki is wonderful film about Jonen, a young Buddhist priest and family man - priests are allowed to marry in Japan - who used to be a rock guitarist (played by actual rocker Suneohair). As he is struggling with inner doubts and demons, his spiritual mentor suggests that he once more holds a concert. Jonen decides to reunite for that concert with his old band, but instead of going to Tokyo, selects the grounds of his temple in a quiet coastal town in Fukushima for the concert (the film was made just before the earthquake and tsunami). He has posters made and puts these up himself all over the town. Suneohair gives a sensitive portrayal of Jonen and shows off his guitar playing in a celebration of non-conformity. An excellent feature film, showing the small happenings of daily life, based on a novel by Zen priest / author Genyu Sokyu. Note the sake that Jonen drinks in the film: Daishichi!

Kiseki ("I Wish") by Koreeda Hirokazu is a joyful film about two brothers, small boys, who have been separated because of the divorce of their parents: Koichi lives with his mother in Kagoshima and Ryunosuke with his father in Fukuoka. Their greatest ambition is to reunite their estranged parents. Then they hear the Shinkansen route is being extended from Hakata to Kagoshima. This will not only bring them closer together, but they also believe that a miracle will occur when two Shinkansen trains pass each other in opposite directions. While not reaching the dizzying heights of Still Walking, this is a delightful film with excellent performances.

Household X by Yoshida Koki is a story about alienation and the breakup of a family. A mother on the verge of a breakdown (Minami Kaho), her husband who is only nervous about losing his work (Taguchi Tomorowo) and their uncommunicative son and "freeter" (Kaku Tomohiro) live "together apart." That there is little communication between them is underlined by the fact that they are almost never filmed together. A simple but heart-rending family tragedy.

Tokyo Koen ("Tokyo Park") by Aoyama Shinji, the director who has previously given us Eureka and Sad Vacation, is a youth film about a boy whose hobby is photography and who likes to take stealthy pics of women in parks. This setting seems a bit like Antonioni's mysterious Blow Up, but Aoyama only tells a dull tale about a man asking the youth to photo-stalk a woman (apparently his wife) and her kid through Tokyo's parks. The mystery is too thin to keep viewers interested for a full two and a half hours; the rest of the film is filled with rather boring discussions the boy has with his dead room mate (yes, he has a problem coming to terms with his grief), with his girl friend, a gay barman and with his stepsister who is secretly in love with him. The acting is bad - the protagonist (Miura Haruma) is played totally unconvincing - and the cinematography is as humdrum as your daily TV show.

Also Hiroku Ryuichi makes a film that is inferior to his best ones as Vibrator and It's Only Talk. Keibetsu ("The Egoists", lit. "Contempt"), although based on a novel by Nakagami Kenji, one of Japan's greatest postwar authors, is a sort of "pink" melodrama that flounders due to the incredibly mawkish plot. Moreover, one of the protagonists, Kora Kengo, sports such a weird colored hairstyle that is impossible to take him serious. He plays a gambler (originally the scion of an important local family who has gone astray) who has to flee Tokyo because of his debts. He takes his pole-dancing girlfriend with him (Suzuki Anne), and returns to his hometown (Shingu in the novel), hoping to lead a normal life. That is difficult as the locals look down upon them (the "contempt" of the title) and his family rejects his girlfriend as a suitable marriage partner. Their hot love affair therefore finally descends into self-loathing and ennui. Of course his past also catches up with him and in a long scene that takes its cue from Godard's Breathless, he is killed in the local deserted shotengai. A sentimental love story, played out on the template of doom, without redeeming elements.

Himizu (lit. a sort of mole) by Sono Shion is a brutally violent story based on a cruel manga, to which he has added a background story borrowed rather opportunistically from the 3.11 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, which happened earlier in the year. In other words, this is not a film about the disaster and its human tragedy, but we have a director who (mis-)uses the disaster to make his film more topical. Accidentally, the movie itself is also a total disaster: caricatures of people are killing each other, fighting each other, shouting at each other, and continually hyperventilating. Every inch of the film is blown up. All the usual Sono Shion elements are there, but - besides that we are getting tired of even more weird sects or scenes of meaningless violence - this time it doesn't work. (In his Kibo no kuni ("Land of Hope") of 2012 Sono tries a more serious approach to the Fukushima disaster, but that later attempt plays out like an overblown TV drama and was selected as the worst film of the year 2012 by Eiga Geijutsu).

Ichi Mei ("Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai")  by Miike Takashi again leaves one with the big question: why try to remake one of the undisputed masterpieces of Japanese cinema that everyone can find on DVD (Harakiri by Kobayashi Masaki)? This is truly an excess of the postmodern remake bubble and evidence that many film makers in Japan have no original ideas anymore. It is a flat and ineffective version (who cares for 3D?), with the annoying overuse of CGI many contemporary films suffer from. The best that be can said is that this crappy remake will hopefully inspire some viewers to seek out the 1962 original - which is truly one of the great films of Japanese cinema.

Kazoku no kuni ("Our Homeland") is the first feature film of Yang Yong-hi, made after a series of documentaries in which this director explored issues in her Korean/Japanese family. The film is based on a little known fact of contemporary history: the emigration to North Korea of many Koreans living in Japan (who today still are split in adherents of the South and the North) in the 1950s-1970s, lured by false promises of the Communist paradise. Director Yang follows the story of Sonho (Arata Iura) who as a teenager was sent to North Korea by his father, an ardent supporter of the North, and also staff member of the North Korean culture center, a quasi embassy. Now Sonho is allowed to briefly return to Japan to seek medical care for a serious illness. He meets his family - his father, his mother who runs a small cafe, his younger sister who is a teacher (and the center of the film, played by Ando Sakura), and his uncle - but is all the time under the strict supervision of a North Korean security agent who traces his every step. Sonho would like to persuade his sister to move to North Korea, but has no chance as she rightly hates the regime. And then, out of the blue, after just a few days with his family and one initial medical check-up, without explanation Sonho receives the order to immediately return to North Korea (where he has left his own family behind), although he had permission to stay in Japan for three months. This is not a perfect film (interestingly, the Koreans in the film are even more non-verbal than Japanese usually are, and because of this the film looses something in expressiveness), but it deftly brings out the tensions caused by history in the relations of a family. Winner of the Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film.

Helter Skelter by Ninagawa Mika is just such a colorful spectacle as the director's previous Sakuran, but it is also more lacking in content and often just plays out as a gorgeous fashion show. Top model LiLiCo (a perfect Sawajiri Erika), the most popular model in Japan, is adored by millions of fans, has in fact turned into an arrogant and narcissistic bitch - as her manager Michiko (Terajima Shinobu) knows all too well. But only her stylist Kinji (Arai Hirofumi) and her agency director Hiroko (Momoi Kaori) know another secret: the beautiful shell of the super star is artificial, created by hundreds of beauty operations. Then one day, dark spots appear in LiLiCo's face - is her beauty beginning to peel off? This happens just when a rival, Kozue (Mizuhara Kiko), starts challenging her top status... Not only wonderful eye-candy, but also excellent performances all around.

Yume uru futari ("Dreams For Sale") by Nishikawa Miwa is unfortunately a much lesser film than her previous work as Yureru or Dear Doctor. It is the story of a married couple, Satoko (Matsu Takako) and Kanya (Abe Sadao), whose restaurant burns down. Needing money to build a new place, and after the husband has accidentally received a large sum of money for his equally accidental one-night stand with regular customer Reiko (Suzuki Sawa), the wife comes up with a nifty scam whereby Kanya has to make up to lonely unmarried women and con them out of their savings by pretending to love them. Kanya is indeed able to lend the willing ear these solitary souls crave for. His first victim is prim Satsuki (Tanaka Lena), and there is still comedy here, but afterwards the film drifts into melodramatic territory when the new victims are obese Olympic weightlifter Hitomi (Ebara Yuki), abused prostitute Kana (Ando Tamae), and divorcee with a young son Takiko (Kimura Tae). Not surprisingly, Kanya gets emotionally involved with his victims, spending more and more time with them, and the marriage starts to crack (Satoko in contrast discloses her underlying selfishness by the joy she takes in the suffering of other women) - until a few contrived plot twists bring Kanya in jail and Satoko working at a fish market to pay back the money they have "loaned." The film not only wavers between comedy and melodrama, but also has totally unwarranted moments of knockabout farce, in which the protagonists' exaggerated performances are in the worst tradition of over-acting.

That Miike Takashi has lost his magic touch was already clear from his delving into remakes. Aku no Kyoten ("Lesson of Evil" - in the studio's wrong English called "the Evil" - are there no people left in the Japanese film industry who are capable of checking the grammar of a simple English phrase?), based on a novel by Kishi Yusuke, is a revolting film about a psychopathic teacher who kills off scores of his high-school pupils (and has an affair with one of them). The director revels in one shot after another of blood-smeared pupils or exploding chests - Miike apparently doesn't realize that such crimes are all too real elsewhere in the world. As is usual with him, he refuses to confront his material from a moral point of view, but just makes a slasher gore film as pure "entertainment." But alas, the plot is full of holes and the actors are hamming away in a terrible fashion.

Pekorosu no haha ni ai ni iku ("Pecoross’ Mother and Her Days") by Morisaki Azuma is the story of the sixty-two year old Yuichi (Iwamatsu Ryo), a Nagasaki-born baby-boomer with a shiny bald head (leading to the nickname "pecoross," a small onion), who is a "bad" salaryman who spends most of his days stealthily drawing manga or making music. He lives with his son Masaki and his eighty-nine year old mother Mitsue (Akagi Harue) who the last ten years, since the death of her husband, is suffering from dementia. This is described not with disgust as in some other films, but with humor and sweet sorrow. Mitsue goes out to buy sake for her dead husband, or sits all day waiting for Yuichi to comeback from work at the parking lot of his car. As she keeps going out on her own, it becomes unwise to leave her alone in the house, so Yuichi decides to entrust her to the care of a nursing home. Mitsue, however hates that, and keeps to her room like a hikikomori, drawing further and further back into herself and into her past life (which we get in flashbacks). She even imagines that her little daughter, who died at a young age, is coming to visit her... Based on an essay manga by Okano Yuichi. Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film. The director, Morisaki Azuma, is himself 87 and therefore the oldest active film maker in Japan. Surprisingly, he has made a light and heart-warming movie about a serious subject. It is regrettable this wonderful film is not better known.

Soshite Chichi ni Naru ("Like Father, Like Son") by Koreeda Hirokazu is a breakthrough to the mainstream for this director, although to do so, he unfortunately makes several compromises and delivers a film that is rather below his best work. The strength and interest of his best film Still Walking was the lack of an all too obvious plot, the feeling of just looking in on a day in the life of an ordinary family. In this new movie, Koreeda introduces a Hollywood-type plot that is just too obvious from the beginning, and that leads to an iron conclusion we can see coming from afar. Moreover, the acting of protagonist Fukuyama Masaharu, who is originally a singer, is just below par - the kids in the film do a better job. Fukuyama plays a career yuppie who suddenly is informed officially that his six-year old son has accidentally been switched at birth with another baby, who is the son of a poor but laid-back family. Should they be switched back? The question is nature versus nurture, with the father opting for the bloodline (moreover, he already thought his son was too weak to be his real offspring) and the mother for the life lived together, for the shared culture. As the opinion of men still prevails in Japan, the kids are temporarily switched back to the real parents, but of course that doesn't work out. We knew so from the very start. But despite its flaws, this film is well worth watching.

Sayonara Keikoku ("The Ravine of Goodbye") by Omori Tatsushi, based on a novel by Yoshida Shuichi, is about a difficult subject that some might find offensive: a woman, Kanako (Maki Yoko), has been raped by fellow student Shunsuke (Onishi Shima) in high school, something which destroys her life as she can not keep future boyfriends or even hold a job. So when 15 years later she meets her rapist again, she starts living with him. Shunsuke is burdened with guilt, Kanako can't escape her past - she should not be considered as a victim fallen under the spell of her victimizer, but rather as a woman who in Shunsuke finds a refuge from the world outside. Moreover, she has power over him. This story is presented obliquely, as it comes out gradually through the investigation by two journalists of the murder of a child of a family living next door in which Shunsuke may have been implicated (the journalists are played by Omori Nao and Suzuki Anne).

Fune wo Amu ("The Great Passage") by Ishii Yuya is an office drama, set at a publishing company, about the making of a dictionary called "The Great Passage." The small dictionary team has to fight against many odds to complete their ten-year task, such as the danger that the project will be canceled. The protagonist is new member Matsuda Ryuhei, an emotional nerd whose coming of age story this is (his name is "Majime," which means "serious" but is written with different kanji). Shishido Jo plays his extroverted colleague, and it is nice to see Kato Go and Ikewaki Chizuru in small roles, while Miyazaki Aoi is a suitable love interest as the granddaughter of Majime's landlady. In fact, this is a typical Shochiku film promoting all-Japanese values: diligence (even when the task is boring and sheer endless), perseverance ("gambaru"), perfectionism (when one small miss is found, the group spends day and night rechecking all materials), excellent teamwork and "wet" human feelings. It is therefore interesting for the insight it provides into Japanese culture and the values that ideally drive the Japanese.

R100 by Matsumoto Hitoshi (of Big Man Japan fame) has an interesting premise but fails to make the most of it by undermining its own story but not taking it serious enough. A man working as sales manager in a department store, living alone with his young son as his wife is in hospital, joins a mysterious SM club, where the rules are rather different: the membership is for a whole year and cannot be canceled, and what is more, the "playground" is everywhere - wherever the man is, he can suddenly be attacked by a vicious dominatrix swinging her whip through the air, or placing a well-aimed a karate kick in his face. When this escalates and the man is even attacked at his workplace or in the hospital when he visits his wife, things get badly out of hand. In the end, he seeks refuge in the farm of his father-in-law, where a large group of leather-clad women approaches like an army of zombies... Filmed in bleached colors, which are almost black and white. The title is a joke about the rating: not R15 or R17, but "R100."

Kyoaku ("The Devil's Path") by Shiraishi Kazuya is a well-made crime drama about the omnipresence of evil in everyday society. A dogged but tired young reporter (Yamada Takayuki) is contacted by a death row inmate, the yakuza Sudo (Pierre Taki), who seven years ago has committed various murders at the instigation of his boss, a real estate agent called "sensei" (Lily Franky). That boss went scot-free and Sudo now seeks revenge. So he confesses to a series of nihilistic crimes which have not yet been discovered, such as the live burial of a victim and ramming another man into an incinerator. Most sickening for its casualness is the third murder of an elderly man, with the complicity of his family and (initially) the victim himself, in order to pay off a debt with his life assurance. The man is first fed lots of shochu and finally slowly killed by electric shocks from a stun gun, while the killers are rolling on the floor from laughter. This removes any sympathy we may have felt for Sudo, putting his confession in a cynical light. The reporter struggles against his boss who at first doesn't believe in the importance of the article he is writing, and also against his family situation, where his wife is unable to continue caring for his mother suffering from Alzheimer. Performances are excellent, especially Lily Franky, who, expertly cast against type, appears as a demon in human guise. An unembellished study of human nature at its most evil, the only flaw in this film is the cinematography, which doesn't rise above the level of a TV movie.

The remakes roll on, and it gets even more ridiculous. One of the best films ever made in the world is Tokyo Story by Ozu Yasujiro. It is the perfect masterpiece. Yamada Yoji has had the audacity to remake this in a modern setting as Tokyo kazoku ("Tokyo Family"). The new film is dull and plodding and not even good when we forget it is a remake. Compared to Ozu's immortal masterwork, Yamada's film is an ant trying to be a unicorn. Designated as "worst film of the year" by the Eiga Geijutsu magazine.

Soko nomi nite hikari kagayaku ("The Light Shines Only There") by Oh Mipo is the tragic story of three young people set in Hakodate. Tatsuo (Ayano Go) is traumatized because he has caused an accidental death of a colleague in his job as stone worker - he now spends his days playing pachinko and his nights drinking; his new friend Takuji (Suda Masaki) is on parole after stabbing a man; and his sister Chinatsu (Ikewaki Chizuru) provides for the family by working as a prostitute. Tatsuo and Chinatsu set tentative steps towards a relation, but it is clear that luck will not be on their side. A grim film, but as there are no strange plot twists, much better than Oh's previous comedy. Not only the acting, but also the cinematography (by Kondo Ryuto) are first class.

Kami no Tsuki ("Pale Moon") by Yoshida Daihachi stars Miyazawa Rie as Rika, working at a bank where she is in charge of wealthy customers to whom she has to make home visits, and unhappily married to a busy salaryman. She thinks she has found something more in life when she meets the young nephew of one of her clients, a student half her age, and starts an affair with him. Unfortunately, the bland boy is played by a juvenile who considering his non-existent acting, still has to go to Theater School. But also from the side of Miyazawa there is not a single spark of screen passion, so their relation is unconvincing, to say the least. Rika is more like an elder sister or surrogate mother, also when she starts stealing money out of the accounts of her clients, first to help the boy through college, later to buy him increasingly expensive presents. Yoshida nowhere makes plausible why she would take such a high risk, nor what she gets out of it. The boy leaves her finally in the lurch for a girl his own age and Rika's embezzling is caught by her shrewd supervisor, Ms Sumi (played by Kobayashi Satomi), a colleague who supports the system although she has reached a dead end in her career. The direction by Yoshida is dull like a TV film, the story is predictable, and even Miyazawa Rie, who elsewhere is a forthright presence, seems nervous and uncertain. This film is unfortunately too flawed to be a statement about the empowerment and liberation of a forty-year old woman in stratified Japanese society.

Miike Takashi makes Kuime ("Over Your Dead Body"), a dull version of the classical ghost story Yotsuya Kaidan that has already been filmed countless times. Although this a not a straight remake as Miike introduces a new perspective by presenting the play in the form of a rehearsal by actors whose lives start running parallel to those of the protagonists of the play, the film never comes to life. The reason is that Miike forgets to fill in the lives and characters of the contemporary actors - we mainly see them in their luxury cars riding to and from the studio - and for the rest we have to watch a rather boring rehearsal. As regards Yotsuya Kaidan, I advise you to watch the version Nakagawa Nobuo made in 1959.

Miike Takashi also makes Kamisama no iu-tori ("As the Gods Will"), an old-fashioned splatter-fest based on a manga about "killer dolls:" a Daruma doll, a Maneki-neko cat, four Kokeshi dolls, a wood-carved ice bear and even a set of Matrioshka dolls. It is another gleeful carnage of high-school teenagers, although this time the story is so cartoonish and silly (taking its cue partly from Gantz) that it is less offensive than Aku no kyoten. But isn't this all old hat?

Another director who surprisingly has lost her magic is Kawase Naomi. Futatsume no mado ("Still the Water") is for the first time set outside Kawase's native Nara Prefecture, on Japan's southern island of Amami-Oshima. It is a coming of age story that unfortunately is overshadowed by boring touristy images of various festivals and songs and dances. Instead of making a film like a documentary, as many directors who started filming in the 1990s did, including Kawase herself, Kawase here just inserts documentary elements in a feature film, without proper justification. Her first work, Suzaku, remains my favorite among her films.

The remake machine rolls on. This time the perpetrator is Lee Sang-Il, who made the excellent The Villain (2010) discussed above. Now he derails by remaking Clint Eastwood's Western The Unforgiven in a late Edo samurai setting. Again, the original (as all originals) is much superior, and Lee has ended up making another unnecessary film. There are so many historical novels in Japan, was there really no original story to be found?

The remake merry-go-round takes another swing. Another famous film gets the treatment, this time Ichikawa Kon's Nobi, based on a novel by Ooka Shohei, remade by Tsukamoto Shinya. Where Ichikawa's artful and humanistic work was a "horror of war" film, Tsukamoto's giallo product is a mere "war horror" film, with stacked corpses, decapitated heads and other splatter effects. When the subplot of cannibalism kicks in, we are finally and truly in zombie-land. Tsukamoto plays the lead character, inviting a negative comparison with the excellent Funakoshi Eiji of the earlier film. More than that, this awful movie almost invites a reevaluation of Tsukamoto's earlier work as a 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
2010-2014 - Risk Avoidance[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.]
1 Sep
Two posts in the Sake by Region series which is under revision, have been updated and expanded and are available at: Ibaraki and Tokyo.
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. 

- 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.

- 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.

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.

("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...

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
2010-2014 - Risk Avoidance[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!

In total, there are 224 active sake breweries in Hokkaido and Tohoku (figures 2015).
Sake by Region: Hokkaido/Tohoku: Hokkaido - Aomori - Akita - Iwate - Miyagi - Yamagata - Fukushima
Kanto area: Ibaraki - Tochigi - Gunma - Saitama - Chiba - Tokyo - Kanagawa
Shinetsu/Hokuriku: Yamanashi - 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
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 (also in French, Dutch, traditional and simplified Chinese, as well as Korean). 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
Shinetsu/Hokuriku: Yamanashi - 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:

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.

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).

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.

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.

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 Ryuichi 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.

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
2010-2014 - Risk Avoidance[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.

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.)

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)

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)

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)

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
2010-2014 - Risk Avoidance[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. 

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)

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)

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.)

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)

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
2010-2014 - Risk Avoidance[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.

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)

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)

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)

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)

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)

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)

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)

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)

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)

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
2010-2014 - Risk Avoidance[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. 

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)

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)

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)

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)

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
2010-2014 - Risk Avoidance[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. 

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)

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)

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)

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.

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
2010-2014 - Risk Avoidance[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. 

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)

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.

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)

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)

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
2010-2014 - Risk Avoidance[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.]
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