Primer - Dangerous Liberation: The Japanese New Wave of the 60’s and 70’s

By Simon P. Augustine

"Your liberation – who is it for?"
       – from Throw Away Your Books, Rally In The Streets

The advent of the internet has changed the landscape for cinema lovers forever,unveiling whole treasure troves, and in some cases entire sub-genres of filmic history that may have heretofore escaped the eyes of even the most ardent critic or cinephile. Within the matrix of video rental services, websites devoted to cinema culture, blogs, etc., there is almost no dark corner of the world’s movie theater that cannot now be explored. A happy example of this phenomenon for me is a recent encounter with a group of bold, visually stunning, intellectually challenging, spiritually and erotically charged films that rival the most daring films of today’s international and independent scene: the cinema which emerged from Japan in the 60’s and 70’s.

Cinema this effective and groundbreaking, virtually unknown to audiences in the US before a recent trickle of works onto DVD (Criterion has released Eclipse sets by New Wave auteurs Shohei Imamura, Nagisa Oshima, and Koreyoshi Kurahara) begs the question: how could directors as provocative as David Lynch, Takashi Miike and Lars Von Trier, and in many cases displaying greater depth in their surreal and experimental visions, go unseen by a large proportion of connoisseurs of independent and art cinema?

It is a question both uncomfortable and hopeful, making even the most knowledgeable film lovers painfully aware that there is always some stunningly brilliant work with the potential to be freshly unearthed in the ever-expanding spotlight of the internet.


Part I (below): Jissoji and Mandara: Sex and the Spirit
Part II: Wakamatsu: Lyricism Amid Exploitation
Part III: Oshima’s Death By Hanging: Human Folly
Part IV: Kurahara’s Black Sun: Unexpected Jazz / Mishima’s Patriotism: Culture in Transition
Part V: Terayama and Throw Away Your Books, Rally In The Streets: A Lost Masterpiece
Part VI: Yesterday, and Today: From Samurai to Surrealism


Jissoji and Mandara: Sex and the Spirit

Case in point: Akio Jissoji. Upon seeing the opening shot of his masterpiece Mandara (1971), I knew I had stumbled upon something special. It [consists of] an extended visual sequence that is as at once ethereal and shocking in its unusual composition: to the sounds of delirious female moaning, a man and a woman toss in a sea of white. Even when it becomes apparent they are writhing in white bedding against a white wall, the demarcation lines remain barely visible, and the overall effect is abstract – a couple making love as if in the plush abyss, void of color.

The scene is startling, not only because of its strange purity, but because of the elegant staging of the two figures against the vast whiteness. In Mandara, and Jissoji’s work as a whole, every scene is carefully orchestrated to the extent that, even if taken out of context, nearly every frame could stand alone as a beautiful, intriguing image. Like Kubrick, to whom he has sometimes been compared, Jissoji brings a painter’s eye to his camera shots that carry their own fascinating and purposeful geometry, their own balanced but unconventional structure.

Akio-jissoji-mandala

Adding to this effect, the director often interpolates stunning black and white still photographs with live action. His framing and use of cinematographic motion – the camera often in delirious but smooth movement – is a worthy rival to the most visually astute of filmmakers – i.e. Kubrick or Tarkovsky or Peter Greenaway. Commonplace locations are opportunities for Jissoji, with his fast and roving eye, to extract the grandeur and “cinematic” quality hidden in seemingly mundane inanimate objects or scenes or bodies, brought forth by means of their idiosyncratic positioning, relation to another object, or the positioning of the kinetic lens circling about them.

Jissoji’s Mandara (a.k.a. Mandala) is part of the “Japanese New Wave,” a relatively short-lived genre that lasted from the early/mid-1950s to the mid-1970s, characterized by films responding to and expressive of the wave of international leftist counterculture that swept through primarily North America, Europe and Eastern Asia during the 60s. The Japanese New Wave specifically focuses on what happens when a country that highly values tradition, family structure, discipline, and honor clashes with a burgeoning youth movement concerned with freedom and experimentation in the political, social, and sexual realms. The result is a related series of works that explode with energy, surreal and poetic language, jarring, erotic and outlandish imagery, jazz/rock music, and is touched with cultural confusion, pathos, a sense of loss, and too, a sense of feeling lost. It confronts the stark contrasts between old and new, devotion and sex, spirituality and the erotic, stillness and foment, silence and noise, and political fashion versus genuine progress.

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