After the Postwar Was Over
As noted, other postwar filmmakers besides Akira Kurosawa expressed a resolute idealism in their work. The films of Keisuke Kinoshita (1912-98), include, in addition to the colorful comedy Carmen Comes Home (1951) and the honestly sentimental Twenty-Four Eyes (1954), about the romance of a stripper and the struggles of a rural schoolteacher, respectively (both played by Hideko Takamine), the excellent dramas A Japanese Tragedy (1952) and The Ballad of Narayama (1958), the latter remade by Shohei Imamura in 1983.
Of the postwar humanists, second only to Kurosawa in ambition and talent would be Masaki Kobayashi (1916-96), who challenged Japanese behavior in the war in the ambitious, nine-hour epic The Human Condition, released in three parts (1959-61). Tatsuya Nakadai played an idealistic soldier who tries to improve the lot of everyone whose path he crosses in Japanese occupied Manchuria, be they exploited Chinese miners or Japanese soldiers, only to meet resistance at every turn. Kobayashi's subsequent films include two superb anti-heroic samurai films, Harakiri (1962) and Samurai Rebellion (1967) - both starring Nakadai - as well as the four-part ghost story Kwaidan (1964), a brilliant exercise in style.
Harp of Burma
The career of the versatile Kon Ichikawa (born 1915, and still active as of 2002) reminds one of an American filmmaker like John Huston in its longevity and wide shifts in tone and style. Harp of Burma (1956) - which the filmmaker remade in 1985 - is the quintessential postwar humanist work in its story of a Japanese soldier in occupied Burma, who takes on monk's robes and devotes himself to burying his dead comrades after war's end. The tragic absurdism of Fires on the Plain (1959) seems to come from some other director in this savage film about defeated Japanese soldiers in the Philippines struggling to survive, and in some cases resorting to cannibalism. Conflagration (1958), after a novel by Yukio Mishima, is a brilliant psychological study about a misfit's destruction of a temple he loved (Paul Schrader used this same story as an episode in his film Mishima). His other films include the grotesque sex drama The Key (1959), about an aging man's obsession with virility; the child's point-of-view, puppet mouse-starring Topo Gigio and the Missle War (1967). His best known film in the US is probably the documentary record Tokyo Olympiad (1965).
Also expressing idealism in films seen by millions is the work of Akira Kurosawa's former assistant director and good friend, Ishiro Honda (1911-93). Honda shot the very lengthy montage of detective Toshiro Mifune's tour of the Japanese underworld in Stray Dog and returned to Kurosawa as an assistant director for Kagemusha and Ran. What he's best known for, however, is his work directing Godzilla (1954) and its many sequels and variants - Rodan (1956), The Mysterians (1957) and many more. His honest, non-condescending handling of genre material marks him as a master of his craft. He ended his career as the uncredited director of some of the episodes of Dreams as well as Madadayo.
Japanese films of the later 1950s anticipate the disillusionment that will mark later Kurosawa films and the Japanese New Wave alike. A good example of this is Giants and Toys (Yasuzo Masumura, 1958), a satire of consumerism that parallels American films like Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? and The Apartment in its dyspeptic cynicism. Japanese cinema underwent a radical shift after 1960, a New Wave emerging of directors like Nagisa Oshima and Shohei Imamura breaking stylistically and politically with their predecessors. Within a few years the long-established studio system would collapse and an industry-wide slump rendered filmmaking very difficult in the 1970s and 1980s. New genres rose and fell. In the 1990s, new filmmakers emerged and currently, in the new century, Japanese cinema is enjoying something of a renaissance.
Understanding and appreciating the work of great filmmakers like Takashi Kitano and Hideko Kore-eda is made easier with the recovery and circulation of Japan's silent, wartime, and postwar film heritage.
Top Ten Pre-1960 Japanese Films on DVD
- Stray Dog (Akira Kurosawa, 1949). A detective loses his gun and must find it somewhere in Japan's underworld. A boilingly hot and sunny film noir.
- Rashomon (Kurosawa, 1951). What is truth?
- Early Summer (Ozu, 1951). Lovely family drama from the genre's master.
- Ikiru (Kurosawa, 1952). A dying man who's done nothing with his life decides to challenge local gangsters and a choking bureaucracy to leave a park behind him when he goes. Poignant and honorable.
- Tokyo Story (Ozu, 1953). Two parents are rejected by their children in this loose remake of the equally poignant Hollywood film Make Way for Tomorrow (Leo McCarey, 1937).
- Seven Samurai (Kurosawa, 1954). Perhaps the best action film ever made. Ever.
- Godzilla (Ishiro Honda, 1954). Perhaps the best giant monster film ever made. Ever.
- The Human Condition (Masaki Kobayashi, 1959-61). Three part, nine hour saga of a decent man trying to survive the hell of war. Deserves to be better known than it is.
Gregg Rickman is the editor of The Film Comedy Reader (2001) and The Science Fiction Film Reader (2004) as well as the co-editor of The Western Reader (1999). In the 1980s he published two books of interviews and a biography of the late Philip K. Dick. He's also the author of our Silent Film Comedy, Screwball Comedy and British Comedy primers. Rickman teaches film at San Francisco and Sonoma State Universities and lives with his wife, dog and cat in Berkeley, California.
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