Yesterday, and Today: From Samurai to Surrealism
Not so much completely eschewing the visual heritage of their great cinematic forbears, auteurs like Jissoji, Wakamatsu, and Terayama built upon their cinematic inheritance – using equally the disciplined experimentation with technique, frame, and editing (as well as the meditative exploration of spiritual life) so vital to the work of masters like Yasujiro Ozu, as well as the kinetic camera and furious Western-influenced action style of Akira Kurosawa, to create a new aesthetic: one that includes both the introspective intensity of Ozu’s classic Tokyo City with the sweeping, adrenaline-charged lyricism of Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai or Sanjuro, yet winds up with something entirely different than either.
In the New Wave films, the two sides of the pre-war Japanese persona – its disciplined, social formality, and spiritually attuned ethos, as well as its passionate, dramatic, operatic nature – were given new expression, and found fresh modes of dramatic tension through a counterculture lens. Adding the elements of psychedelic surrealism and Pop art, along with an unprecedented ability to display sexuality and violence, the New Wavers wound up with a distinct approach that melds, in strange rhythms and pacing and unprecedented imagery, both the contemplative spirit and aggressive, mad, suddenly unreserved impulse of the Japanese cinematic personality.
In order to fuse these two strains successfully, the New Wave introduced to Japanese cinema innovative narrative and imagistic methods that remains arresting and influential to this day: bold color and art design, tour-de-force patterns of cinematography, a clash of the ancient and modern, of kabuki theater and rock and roll, the corporeal and surreal, and the incorporation of text as an integral part of the whole schemata. They were renegade filmmakers whose fusion of Dali, Warhol, Marx, and The Beatles with an inherited and uniquely Japanese spiritual and aesthetic flavor, can still terrify and overwhelm and surprise modern audiences. And it presages by decades the integration of art-house, underground cinema with modes of popular art that would later become (usually in a more vapid form) de rigeur on MTV and in the film of a new generation of “independent” American and Japanese filmmakers. By the mid-80s, with David Lynch’s Twin Peaks and music videos ubiquitous, America teenagers were getting a steady dose of watered-down, palatable, surrealism; and by the nineties up to the present day, with Tarantino and directors like Lars Von Trier, a mash-up of cultural symbols, and cinematic influences East and West, as well as a fusion of the avant-garde with graphic and violently-erotic themes are becoming known to mainstream audiences beyond the art-house. But those same filmgoers might be shocked to stillness in their seats by the first blast of counterculture cinema, which in its Japanese incarnation remains arguably unsurpassed in terms of visual consequence and emotional investment.
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