Early Japanese Cinema (1896-1926)
Shortly after the Lumiere brothers exhibited the first movies in Paris, films were screened in Tokyo in 1897. During the Russo-Japanese War, teams of filmmakers were sent to the front lines to document the fighting. By 1912, there were four major film companies in Japan which ultimately merged into one. In the 1920s, Japanese filmmakers and studio heads visited Hollywood to learn studio management techniques. There was a lively and productive film culture in Japan in the early 20th century, mostly inspired by traditional Japanese theater forms, like Noh theater (the oldest theater form, anti-realistic, often dealing with the return of ghosts of warriors or lovers—Noh plays are about one character expressing one emotion), kabuki theater (originally a “theater of the lower classes” it uses music and dance to tell highly stylized domestic and historical dramas), and bunraku (which uses life-sized puppets operated by people dressed in black who are visible to the audience—often focusing on tragic tales).
|Noh theater actors usually wear masks like this one.|
Unfortunately, many films from the beginning of Japanese cinema were systematically destroyed by the American military when they occupied Japan after World War II “to ensure that feudal ideas would not be recirculated among the population.” This is a great cultural tragedy and loss.
The Pre-War Films of Yasujiro Ozu
Yasujiro Ozu made films exploring Japan’s transition from a traditional/feudal-type society to a more modern/industrial society, and the strains this change placed on relationships, particularly among parents and children of different generations. Here are some mini reports I wrote after watching some of Ozu’s films, many of which are currently streaming on Hulu...
A Story of Floating Weeds (1934). A film about a strained father-son relationship, this one is about a travelling theater group on its last legs. The leader of the troupe has a son who doesn't know he's his father. It's a complex situation in which the father didn't want his son to follow in his footsteps as a poor wandering actor, so he left him with the mother, so the boy could go to school and have a better life. Both father and son lost something in this situation. This film is about various inter-family crises in a rapidly changing society. Ironically, this new generation in which the older generation placed such high hopes would soon fight in World War II, and die in huge numbers.
The Only Son (1936). Ozu's first talkie, a meditation on family, working-class disappointment, and the difficulty of upward mobility, begins with this quote: "Life's tragedy begins with the bond between parent and child." It tells the story of a single mother who works in a silk factory to pay for her son's education. When she visits him in Tokyo, after he has graduated and begun his working life, she finds that his education has not a guaranteed pathway to success and happiness. He lives in a poor area and works as a low-paid night school teacher. Sitting in a field near the massive Tokyo garbage incinerators, he tells his mother he regrets moving to Tokyo and all she sacrificed to put him through school. He tells her his life has not turned out like he imagined it would. Later, when everyone in the family is crying over their disappointing lives, Ozu cuts away to the man's sleeping baby, then to a really long still shot of a "charm" (basically a painting) for keeping babies from crying at night, suggesting that the adults need this sort of traditional comfort too. The film is also, like most of Ozu's films, a meditation on the gains and losses of rapid industrialization.
Other important filmmakers of the pre-war era include: Mikio Naruse, Uchida Tomu, Murata Minoru. and Yamanaka Sadeo.
Post-War Japanese Cinema: Ozu, Kurosawa, and Mizoguchi
It is sometimes difficult for Americans to understand how totally devastating World War II was for Japanese society. During the War, the country's major cities were relentlessly bombed by American and Allied forces, including the atomic bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Nochimson writes, "One of the defining themes of mid-twentieth century Japanese cinema...[was] the options for the new postwar generation in a Japan trying to pull itself up from the rubble of its bombed-out cities...Because the US mainland was never bombed during World War II, many Americans of the time might have found it difficult to understand what it was like to be a young person in a shattered, occupied country." Films of the postwar era in Japan deal with the traumas of War, and the effort to rebuild a country and a society in the aftermath of so much destruction.
|Charred human remains left after the firebombing of Tokyo by the U.S. in 1945.|
Here are a few important films of this era:
Stray Dog (directed by Akira Kurosawa). 1949. This Japanese adaptation of the American film noir genre tells the story of a young police detective whose gun is stolen, then used by a young criminal in a series of murderous crimes. Like in Kurosawa's samurai films, the young detective (played by Toshiro Mifune) teams up with an older mentor (Takashi Shimura) to find the stolen gun and arrest the criminal. Interestingly, the film shows the young criminal with surprising empathy--a traumatized veteran of World War II, caught up in desperate postwar suffering.
Tokyo Story (directed by Yasujiro Ozu). 1953. This is undoubtedly Ozo's most famous film, and it is often cited on lists of "best films ever made" perhaps because it expresses so concisely many of the themes the director explored throughout his life. This film tells the story of an elderly Japanese couple from a rural town who visit their children in Tokyo. It is similar to Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family in that it shows how the younger generation has lost their concern and connection to the older generation. The sons and daughters shuffle their parents around, ultimately leaving them at a resort. The only member of the family who cares for the parents is their poor, widowed daughter-in-law, whose husband (their son) died in the war. There is a profound feeling of pathos throughout this film--the family dysfunction reflects a larger dysfunction and loss in postwar Japanese society.
Ugetsu (directed by Kenji Mizoguchi). 1953. This beautiful and heartbreaking film from the “Golden Age” of Japanese cinema tells the story of poor villagers caught up in the tragedy of war. Though it is set in the 1500s, the feudal age of samurai and kings, Ugetsu uses this old setting to comment on the recent tragedy of World War II, particularly its impact on women. Both male characters abandon their wives, who are then killed and raped. Nochimson explains how “the women pay the price of war while the men pursue outlandish and destructive dreams.” This is a decidedly anti-war film, which comments indirectly on “the war fever that mistakenly passed for patriotism in Japan in the 1930s and 1940s.” Ugetsu is an epic and unflinching meditation on war and its casualties.
Rashomon (directed by Akira Kurosawa). 1950. A unique and mysterious film which tells the same story from four different points of few, Rashomon is about a bandit who encounters a samurai and his wife in a forest; the samurai is killled and the wife is (possibly) raped. The film tells this story from the different perspectives of the bandit, the ghost of the samurai, his wife, and a woodcutter. Who did the deed? As the film goes along, you suspect that none of the characters is particularly trustworthy. Kurosawa has said that all the characters are lying. Thus, the film transcends the cliché “whodunit” murder mystery formula and raises deeper questions about problems of human perception and how most people “cannot survive without lies to make them feel they are better people than they really are.” In a Japan still recovering from the trauma of World War II, this film encourages viewers to ask themselves, “What story will we tell ourselves, and in what sense will it be true?”
Seven Samurai (directed by Akira Kurosawa). 1954. Set in the chaos of feudal Japan, The Seven Samurai tells the story of a group of villagers who hire seven samurai to protect them from roving bandits. Often called one of the greatest films ever made, this film inspired the classic western The Magnificent Seven. The samurais’ different personalities and motivations for helping the villagers (greed, lust, desperation, boredom, honor) allow for a profound meditation on the traditional Japanese samurai code of bushido, which may or may not have relevance for modern, postwar life.
The New Wave
All over the world, the 1960s were a time of social protest, student movements, radical ideas, and creative new forms of expression. In France, New Wave directors like Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut sought to challenge established film conventions and made wildly creative new types of cinema. A similar development happened in Japan. A new group of directors like Nagisa Oshima, Shohei Imamura, and Shinoda Masahiro sought to distance themselves from the older generation of filmmakers like Yasujiro Ozu and Akira Kurosawa. Japanese New Wave films expressed rage against American imperialism, and they sought to create “a cinema of violence, explicit sexuality, and fragmentation that tended to portray history as a series of random, meaningless events dominated by arbitrary authorities.” Interestingly, however, most New Wave films were produced by major studios who were seeking “shocking” films to compete with the growing popularity of television. These challenging and exciting films explored the complex problems of a society in the throes of change.
Crazed Fruit (directed by Ko Nakahira). 1956. Though relatively tame by modern standards, this film shocked audiences when it first premiered, with its portrayal of sexual desire—a topic previously seen as taboo. Crazed Fruit tells these story of an upper class young man who falls in love with a young woman who is married to an older American man. The film is notable for its portrayal of teenage angst (sort of like Rebel Without a Cause), and its cynical representation of a Japan increasingly fixated on American products and materialism: “American style clothes, home decor, and cars, which many Japanese aspired to own as signs of status, dominate the look of the film.” The films casts a critical eye on these postwar American influences on Japanese values and culture. The cinematography is also notable for its spontaneity of movement, as opposed to the more tightly controlled shots of Ozu and Kurosawa. Though made in the 1950s, this film influenced later New Wave directors.
Double Suicide (directed by Shinoda Masahiro). 1969. Based on the famous 18th century play The Love Suicides at Amijima by Chikamatsu Monzaemon, this beautiful and challenging film tells the story of a “respectable” merchant and a geisha (a type of prostitute) who fall in love and then kill themselves because they cannot be together. The film creatively jumbles time and space and, in true postmodern fashion, highlights its own artificiality—sometimes the characters literally become puppets, as in the traditional Japanese theater form called bunraku. The film offers a critique of the social conventions that govern and restrict our lives, suggesting that society “is nothing more than a doomed system of interconnected repressions.”
Pigs and Battleships (directed by Shohei Imamura). For eight years following World War II, the United States military occupied and basically ruled Japan. To be occupied by the nation that bombs out your cities, killing hundreds of thousands of people, must have created some anger and resentment among Japanese people. Unfortunately, Japanese filmmakers could not explicitly express this anger because the American military censored Japanese cinema of this time. The book Mr. Smith Goes to Tokyo gives a fascinating insight into this topic. After the U.S. occupation ended, a new generation of Japanese filmmakers like Yohei Imamura were able to express their feelings toward Americans more honestly. Imamura’s 1961 film Pigs and Battleships is a perfect example of such a film—expressing unbridled rage at what America had wrought upon Japan. It’s a scathing indictment of the exploitation of Japanese women by American servicemen, and a brutal portrayal of a country still reeling from the wounds of war.
Contemporary Japanese Cinema
The chapter on Japanese cinema from World on Film is, of course, incomplete and mostly leaves out important genres like monster films (Godzilla, etc.), anime, and, more generally, contemporary Japanese cinema. I hope to fill in these gaps with further research. That said, I’d like to end this post with a bit of information on some contemporary Japanese films that I find interesting.
Ran (directed by Akira Kurosawa). 1985. Throughout his lengthy career, Akira Kurosawa directed two adaptations of Shakespeare plays, set in feudal Japan: Throne of Blood (an adaptation of Macbeth), and Ran (an adaptation of King Lear). Ran is Kurosawa’s first color film and it is glorious to behold. Like Shakespeare’s play, Ran is the story of a king who foolishly divides his kingdom amongst his three heirs—which leads to betrayal, warfare, and desolation. The values of bushido are painfully absent in the bleak, bloody, and corrupt world of Ran. The title “Ran” translates to “chaos” — the chaos brought about by a collapse of values. The film presents “a vision of hell on earth that Kurosawa said was meant to show war through the eyes of a Buddha in tears.”
Akira (directed by Katsuhiro Otomo). 1988. Among comic book/manga super-nerds, no anime film is more universally beloved than Akira, a weird post-apocalyptic epic about motorcycle gangs, shadowy government programs, and genetically enhanced children, set in “Neo Tokyo.” As a relative latecomer to the amazing world of manga and anime, I was first introduced to Akira by the 2005 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz, which is about a chubby, nerdy Puerto Rican kid who is obsessed with J.R.R. Tolkien, Marvel Comics, and Akira. The movie’s plot is perhaps too weird to describe, so I recommend you check out this gem for yourself. A good question to ponder when considering the themes of Akira is: Does the film see hope for the future in an increasingly technological/industrialized Japan? If so, where does this hope lie?
Spirited Away (directed by Hayao Miyazaki). 2001. Hayao Miyazaki is perhaps the most famous and successful of Japanese anime filmmakers. His films are often equally appealing to children and adults. Children may enjoy the fantastically fairy tales, while adults may find profound subtext in these unique movies. Spirited Away works on both these levels. It’s an exciting and magical story of a young girl who must save her parents (who have been transformed into pigs by their unthinking consumption). It’s a meditation on the evils of excess and the virtues of “traditional” values like work, perseverance, restraint, kindness, and love. Interestingly, it is the younger generation who must rediscover these values. In contrast to the angst and despair of New Wave filmmakers, contemporary filmmakers like Miyazaki find hope for the future, perhaps through the imagination and innocence of children, and the re-integration of older vales into a modern, industrialized society.
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