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Japanese Cinema to 1960

by Gregg Rickman



Japan has long had one of the most beautiful cinemas in the world, with masterpieces extant from its prolonged silent era, from the militarist period of the late 1930s and early 1940s, through the postwar era of American occupation and economic resurgence. This primer covers films made through this postwar era, extending its commentary to the present day to demonstrate the continuing influence of Japan's film pioneers. Early Japanese cinema is hard to find, little of it surviving the firebombs of the Pacific War, and a small portion is presently available on DVD. This survey will comment not only on the few films now available for home viewing but other works as well, in hopes that as time passes more films will become available.


Shiro Asano imported the first motion picture camera to Japan in 1897, two years after the first Lumière Brothers screenings in Paris. Unlike the west, where for most of its formative early years the medium was considered working class entertainment, fit only for fairgrounds and the nickelodeon - and thus was able to develop as a vigorous, story-telling medium - the Japanese upper class favored the new medium from the start. As a consequence, until 1920 most films were filmed stage plays, drawn from either the classic kabuki form or the newer, post-1890, shimpa ("new school") theater. This division is the basis of the still-existing divide of Japanese cinema into historical, period films (jidaigeki) and contemporary pictures (gendaigeki). Both forms were stylized, shot in a series of long takes from a fixed, stage-like position, and drew from theatrical tradition as well in its use of female impersonators for women's roles.

Western films, widely imported to Japan after 1917, were a great contrast and quite successful. The young Akira Kurosawa's father took him to many imported American and European films, which he felt were "educational," and the boy, writing years later in his Something Like an Autobiography, was particularly impressed by the "reliable manly spirit and the smell of male sweat" of William S. Hart's westerns (a forecast perhaps of his own taste for samurai films). Devices such as pans and close-ups began to influence Japanese cinema. The first "realist" (in the western sense) Japanese film is considered to be the still-extant Souls on the Road (Minoru Mirata, 1921), a loose adaptation of Maxim Gorky's The Lower Depths (which Kurosawa himself would film in 1957).

A Page of Madness

German Expressionist cinema of the 1920s would influence two films by Teinosuke Kinugasa (1896-1982), who had entered cinema as a female impersonator in 1917 and directed two highly regarded experimental narratives, A Page of Madness (1926) and Crossroads (1928). A Page of Madness echoes The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari in its story of a man ridden with guilt by his wife's insanity; he takes a job in her asylum. Both films skip freely through time, as with many post-1960 experimental narratives from Resnais to Tarantino. Kinugasa had a long career - his colorful Gate of Hell (1952) was one of the first Japanese films to be seen worldwide.

Other foreign films and trends influenced Japanese silent cinema as well. The popularity of American slapstick, for example, gave rise to a nansensu ("nonsense") genre. Yasujiro Ozu's early films are nansensu in nature; his earliest surviving film, Days of Youth (1929) featured a bespectacled protagonist (à la Harold Lloyd) who chases a lost ski with a mind of its own. (A clip from this film can be seen in the documentary, I Lived, But…, which is included in the bonus disc for the Criterion Collection edition of Tokyo Story.)

But full adaptation of western filmmaking modes was impeded by the ongoing popularity of a figure who had died out in the west after 1910, a lecturer who sat beside the screen and gave a running interpretive commentary on the action. These lecturers (benshi) were popular in their own right, and their popularity held back the development of movies as a story-telling medium whose images could stand on their own. Even the coming of sound was delayed. The enormous popularity of Josef von Sternberg's Morocco in 1930 set the stage for Japan's first all-talking film (Heinosuke Gosho's The Neighbor's Wife and Mine) in 1931, but lingering resistance from benshi and from audiences delayed sound's complete triumph for several years. A stubborn Ozu continued to make silent films up through An Inn in Tokyo (1935). A key turning point was a 1932 strike by benshi against the announced policy that had urged theaters showing foreign films to fire all of their benshi. The strike was led by Akira Kurosawa's brother, Heigo, a famous benshi who committed suicide after the strike's failure.

By the 1930s, and despite the worldwide depression and political turmoil that affected the nation, Japan had a thriving film industry, vertically integrated like the American film industry at the time (Japanese studios owned their own theaters as MGM, Paramount, et al, owned chains of theaters in the US). Thus the studios had guaranteed outlets for their films, allowing for the same economies of scale that made Hollywood so strong. Japanese film directors, however, had more autonomy in story selection, screenwriting, cinematography and editing than did all but a few directors working on Hollywood's assembly line. They also had greater career stability - Yasujiro Ozu spent most of his career at one studio, Shochiku, while Akira Kurosawa made most of his films from 1943-65 at Toho. Much responsibility was assigned to a director's assistant directors, many of whom in turn became directors themselves. Ozu's assistants included Keisuke Kinoshita and Shohei Imamura, both of whom have had substantial careers; Kurosawa was trained in the prewar era by Kajiro Yamamoto, and one of his assistant directors, Ishiro Honda, went on to make Godzilla and many of its sequels.


To many, the greatest Japanese filmmaker and one of cinema's greatest overall, is Yasujiro Ozu (1903-62). Different commentators emphasize different things: Paul Schrader claimed for him (and two European filmmakers with intensely spiritual concerns, Carl Dreyer and Robert Bresson) a "transcendental style," while Japanese film scholar Donald Richie is interested in his expression of Buddhist mono non aware ("sympathetic sadness, serene acceptance"). They emphasize the profound sympathy the director engenders for his neglected parents (Tokyo Story, 1953) or widowed fathers marrying off their daughters (as in Late Spring, 1949, or Early Summer, 1951). Other commentators, like Noel Burch or David Bordwell, are more excited by the way he continually broke with standard (western) filmmaking technique, tending to shoot every scene from a low angle, bridging scenes with narratively irrelevant shots of tea kettles, laundry, banners and other mundane images ("curtain shots"), and continually breaking the rules of eyeline matches, screen direction and position. Famously, Ozu's editor in the late 1930s talked him into shooting a scene in the "correct" and in his regular fashion; Ozu purportedly said, "There is no difference." The incredible formal beauty (and sense of filmic play) his works offer show that there is.

Tokyo Story

Ozu has had an intense following outside of Japan at least since the 1970s, when his films began to be distributed abroad: the German filmmaker Wim Wenders directed a documentary about him (Tokyo-Ga, 1985), and Jim Jarmusch, whose long-take, deadpan style owes something to the director, namechecked him in Stranger Than Paradise (1983) by having names of horses on a racing form be drawn from characters in Ozu films. Filmmakers as disparate as Jarmusch, Wayne Wang (notably in his Dim-Sum, 1985) and Taiwan's Hou Hsiao-Hsien have demonstrated his influence on their work.

At home, Ozu, while deeply respected by many - the old formula was supposedly that Kurosawa was the most western of Japanese filmmakers and Ozu the most "Japanese" - was criticized by some in the New Wave generation of the 1960s, notably his ex-assistant director Shohei Imamura, for what they considered the conservatism of his family dramas. Nagisa Oshima's The Ceremony (1972) is a sort of anti-Ozu family drama. Yet Ozu's influence continues to resonate to this day: Hirokazu Kore-eda's Mabarosi (1995) clearly shows Ozu's influence, as does some of the imaginative framing of shots employed by the comedian/gangster filmmaker Hideko Takeshi (Kitano), notably in Hana-bi (Fireworks, 1997).

Criterion has produced all of the Ozu films currently (as of 2005) available on DVD: both versions of Ozu's warmly humorous story of a traveling theatrical troupe, A Story of Floating Weeds (1934) backed with the 1959 remake Floating Weeds, as well as the beloved family dramas Early Summer and Tokyo Story, and the comedy Ohayo (Good Morning, 1959), a remake of the unfortunately unavailable I Was Born, But… (1932). Both versions, full of aggressive children and bemused parents, satirize the lives of salary men (one of Ozu's favorite themes), with the earlier version much more biting.

Other Directors and Stars of the Prewar Era

After Ozu, the most highly regarded Japanese filmmaker of the era is Kenji Mizoguchi (1898-1956). To date, the only Mizoguchi film available on DVD is The 47 Ronin, Parts 1 and 2 (1941), a faithful adaptation of the oft-filmed feudal epic Chushingura about the protracted revenge of a disgraced lord's samurai. It employs a long-take, highly mobile camera technique that makes the director's films dazzling visual pleasures, notably in his postwar classics Ugetsu Monogatari (1953) and Sansho the Bailiff (1954). Many of Mizoguchi's films are jidaigeki, period films (unlike all of Ozu's, save his very first), employing a heightened, dispassionate vision that downplays immediate drama - all of the famed violence of the Chushingura saga takes place off-camera in Mizoguchi's version - in favor of tragic contemplation. A favorite theme of his, either in period or contemporary films, is the imprisonment of women within a harsh society: thus the modern-day working women of Sisters of the Gion and Osaka Elegy (both 1936), the period Life of Oharu (1952) or the post-war prostitutes of Street of Shame (his last film, in 1956).

Ugetsu Monogatari

Mizoguchi, influenced in the 1920s by western art and literature, made an early impression with films such as the now-lost Metropolitan Symphony (1929) and And Yet They Go On (1931), part of a group of left-leaning "social tendency films" produced by progressive filmmakers in the early 1930s. As they decade wore on, Japan's increasingly militarist government instituted a crackdown on the political content of films, which were expected by the end of the decade to conform to a "national policy" of pro-family and pro-military values. (Mizoguchi's The 47 Ronin would qualify as a "national policy" work, for despite its complete lack of blood lust it emphasizes honor, loyalty and self-sacrifice.) Some filmmakers employed passive resistance as means of resisting military demands. Ozu made only two films after 1936 and before the end of the war, both of which - Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family (1941) and There Was a Father (1942) - were arguably pro-family in their approach but not more so than his other films. He resisted every effort to engage in positive propaganda for the war and spent most of it in Burma watching and enjoying captured American films. (He did intervene decisively to allow the release of Akira Kurosawa's first film, Sanshiro Sugata, in 1943, which had been taxed by military censors as too western in its style.)

Other filmmakers were less lucky. One of the most talented directors to emerge in the 1930s, Sadao Yamanaka (1909-38) emphasized individual feelings rather than heroics in his satire of the chambara (sword-fighting) genre The Pot Worth a Million Ryo (1935), and the gentle Humanity and Paper Balloons (1937). Evidently a dissident, he was drafted and sent to the Chinese front, where he died.

A number of Japan's best directors launched successful, long-lasting careers in this prewar era, which, despite its problems, was a very rich one for Japanese cinema. Like Ozu, Mizoguchi, and Teinosuke Kinugasa, Heinosuke Gosho (1902-81) and Mikio Naruse (1905-69) had substantial careers both before and after the war. Gosho's A Tricky Girl (1928) was seen by Sergei Eisenstein, who is said to have complained that it opened like a Hollywood slapstick film and ended in despair. These mixed tones are characteristic of Gosho and some of the other greatest Japanese filmmakers. Gosho's subsequent films of note include The Neighbor's Wife and Mine (1931), the first all-sound Japanese film, and the excellent postwar drama Where Chimneys Are Seen (1954). His No Return (1926) has just been issued on DVD under the title "One-Way System."


Mikio Naruse directed the first Japanese film distributed in the West (the sweet Wife! Be Like a Rose!, 1935). Unfortunately, neither that film or any of his outstanding series of thoughtful postwar melodramas (among them, Mother, 1952; Lightning, 1952; Floating Clouds, 1955, Flowing, 1956, When a Woman Ascends the Stairs, 1960) are currently available on DVD. Many of these are based on the fiction of the female author Fumiko Hayashi. Hideko Takemine (born 1924), whose film career dates to 1929, and who scored a great early success in Naruse's Hideko the Bus Conductress (1941), starred in all of these but Mother, and is astoundingly good as the bar hostess in When a Woman Ascends the Stairs. She plays Hayashi in Naruse's film about the author's life, Horoki (A Wanderer's Notebook, 1962). Unfortunately, only Takemine's small but crucial role in The Human Condition Part III: A Soldier's Prayer (1961), the last leg of Masaki Kobayashi's trilogy set in war-torn Manchuria, is available on DVD at this time. It's been suggested however that Takemine inspired Satoshi Kon's anime Millennium Actress (2001), which follows the life of a teenage star of the 1930s whose career continues through the postwar era.

Another great actress with a long career, Kinuyo Tanaka (1910-77), can be seen on DVD in Akira Kurosawa's Red Beard (1965). Highlights of her career include five early films by Ozu, including the outstanding Where Now Are the Dreams of Youth (1935), as well as postwar films of his like Equinox Flower (1958). Others of her films include Gosho's The Neighbor's Wife and Mine and Where Chimneys Are Seen, Naruse's Mother and Flowing, and Mizoguchi's masterpieces Utamaro and His Five Women (1946), My Love Has Been Burning (1949), Miss Oyu (1951), The Life of Oharu, Ugetsu Monogatari and Sansho the Bailiff. She also appeared in Keinosuke Kinoshita's Ballad of Narayama (1958), Kon Ichikawa's Alone on the Pacific (1963) and the very popular Sandakan 8 (Kei Kumai, 1974). In Horoki, she plays Hideko Takamine's mother. She also directed six movies herself.

Continue to Part 2...

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