A Brief But Essential Introduction to Japanese Cinema
A look at the genres, directors and most outstanding works in Japanese filmmaking.
The synthetic character of Japanese art has been part of its cinema since the beginning. The idea of the haiku as poetic art that narrates with images inspired the juxtaposition of shots in silent films by masters such as Kenji Mizoguchi and Yasujiro Ozu, and Japanese cinema thus found a distinctive feature that would serve as the basis of its identity.
In short, the narrative structure of haiku is fundamental to understanding the foundations of Japanese filmmaking. Once that base was defined, that country’s school of film clearly split into two: into realism and fantasy. The former found its first great representation in the film Otome-gokoro-Sannin-shimai (1935), by Mikio Naruse, while Mizoguchi took fantasy to its extreme in 1953 with the beautiful Ugetsu Monogatari. This film, set in medieval Japan, in the times of the Shogun, is part of a sub-genre that deals with a period in the country’s history that is fundamental to understanding Japan’s idiosyncrasy.
Samurai cinema is an obligatory genre, equivalent to the Hollywood western: duels in which, instead of Colt pistols, katanas are used, with honor as the theme of the plot, and revenge feeds the structure of the dialog and singular dress codes, among other elements.
Samurai cinema was headed by Akira Kurosawa and his best films in this genre could be Yojimbo (1961) and Sanjuro (1962). Perhaps the most sophisticated samurai film is Hara-Kiri (Masaki Kobayashi, 1962), whose structural narrative, influenced by Rashomon (Akira Kurosawa, 1950), uses narration within narration, like a series of memories experienced by the film itself.
It is the integrity that gives the strength of the formal Western style to this director, whose main concern is the story. Kurosawa was the precursor of multiple cinematographic styles, and his work also influenced blockbusters such as Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977), whose narrative bumpers, among other resources, come from this master. Some of his greatest works are tragedies adapted from Shakespeare, such as Throne of Blood (1957) and Ran (1985), although his more intimate films, transcendental humanist works, such as Ikiru (1952) and his masterpiece Dersu Uzala (1975) feature overwhelming existentialist plots.
An outstanding member of the Japanese new wave, this director is the counterpoint to Kurosawa and who questions humanism per se. Imamura portrays how the economic system transformed Japan’s spirit with films such as The Pornographers (1966), The Ballad of Narayama (1983), Black Rain (1989) and The Ballad of Narayama (1983) and The Eel (1997), both of which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes.
A director adored and imitated by many, including Wim Wenders and Jim Jarmusch, who regularly used a 50mm at tatami level, designing an unusual way of frontally approaching the axis of action. Ozu told endearing tales, in simple ways, about the post-war Japanese middle class. He made several masterpieces, including Tokyo Story (1953), which simply describes how an elderly couple travels to Tokyo to visit their children and discover that they do not have time to see them. And such was Ozu’s cinema, a moral lesson, but so close to his characters and with so much respect that they were neither sentimental nor sweet but totally the opposite.
Cinema vs. the war
When reviewing Japanese cinema we can’t neglect to mention the anti-war films of Kon Ichikawa, powerful and socially responsible stories that created an entire school, such as The Burmese Harp (1956). It is worth highlighting that without those films there would have been no such contemporary classics as The Thin Red Line (Terrence Malick, 1998) or Letters from Iwo Jima (Clint Eastwood, 2006). In this anti-war genre we could also mention the anti-nuclear cinema of creatures, led by Ishiro Honda and his defining creation, the monster Godzilla, from 1954.
Another curious genre in Japanese film from the late 1950s is Yakuza. With a clear relation to the Hollywood gangster films, this genre documented the uses and customs of the Japanese mafia, a cultural phenomenon that has its antecedents in the samurai tradition with its codes of humor. Over time, Yakuza cinema would become ultra violent in the hands of directors such as Takashi Miike with films such as Gozu (2003).
An exemplary filmmaker from the Yakuza genre and who was a major influence on famous directors including Tarantino. Susuki made absurd films, like life itself, to the frenetic rhythm of be bop, greatly indebted to jazz and using the elements of Yakuza cinema to talk about human existence.
From surrealism to terror
Hiroshi Teshigahara (1927-2001) was Japan’s greatest proponent of surrealist cinema. Films such as The Woman in the Dunes (1964) and The Face of Another (1966) metaphorically explore humankind’s dark side and exalt the art of filmmaking. Other outstanding films in this genre are the beautiful Kwaidan (Masaki Kobayashi, 1964), brought to the big screen with exceptional artistry, and Kuroneko (Kaneto Shindo, 1968), a work of great expressionist value set in medieval Japan.
Later, Nobuhiko Obayashi would inaugurate with House (1977) a new way of making films, combining pop art with horror. On the other hand, Hideo Nakata, with The Ring (1998) significantly influenced contemporary horror films, and together with Ju On (2000) by Takashi Shimizu put Japan on the map of commercial cinema – both even traveled to Hollywood to direct US versions of their films.
Kiyoshi Kurosawa could be considered the maximum heir of this surrealist horror genre, with metaphysical plots that could be dreams, such as Cure (1997) and Charisma (1999).
With pink cinema, Japan’s films achieved international success. Almost pornographic, these sexploitation films were produced by independent studios that suddenly became millionaires. As a result, a new wave of Japanese cinema emerged, with directors debuting in this genre and then moving into others. It is a kind of filmmaking that evolved the authorial discourse, using alienation as the central theme and looking at the alternative or politically correct ways of life. Nagisa Oshima made more than 20 films of this type, between 1959 and 1999, and which questioned the status quo.
Soon ultra-violent styles appeared in Japanese cinema with unusual sub-genres such as Guinea Pig, which are way too explicit for any level of sensitivity. Often lacking plots, their stories are simply narrative pretexts to sow fields of blood. Despite the fact that this cinema springs from a notable de-sensitivity in the new audience, from a commercial cinema that demanded more violence to sell more popcorn, outstanding directors also emerged from it, such as Takashi Miike (Audition) and Sion Sono (Suicide Circle).
Japanese animation deserves a chapter all to itself. Without a doubt the maximum exponent of this genre is Hayao Miyazaki, whose work stands out for its highlighting of human values based on an exceptional technique that connects with the public on an aesthetic level, creating a mirror suspended in time. Essential films are Princess Mononoke (1997), and Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi / Spiriting Away (2001), while two other directors to take note of are Kastsuhiro Otomo (Akira) and Satoshi Kon (Paprika).
The current panorama
Currently, Naomi Kawase (The Mourning Forest) is a director worth watching. She began in documentary and uses that approach to reality to draw emotional haikus. The endearing Hirokazu Kore Eda (Like Father, Like Son) is without a doubt Japan’s leading director right now. With emotional portraits of human relationships in the insensitive post-industrial age, both directors evoke powerful emotions in the audience using modest resources, showing that the haiku remains more present than ever at the heart of Japanese cinema.
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