The history of cinema in Japan is a long one, dating back to the arrival of camera equipment and the development of cinematic techniques in 1897. Since then, Japan’s film industry has grown to become one of the most prolific in the world, and it has produced some of the most impressive and highly acclaimed films of all time. Patrick Ball takes a look at ten of the best Japanese directors and their work, from understated family dramas to shockingly violent exploitation films.
Yasujiro Ozu is most well known for Tokyo Story, a poignant, reflective film about inter-generational tension and alienation that is widely considered a masterpiece. In 2012 it broke Citizen Kane’s five-decade run at the top of the Sight & Sound directors’ poll of the best films ever made. His other late films – Late Spring, Early Summer and Floating Weeds – explore similar themes to Tokyo Story: the inevitable changes brought about by our progression through life. Ozu used a suite of idiosyncratic, sometimes rule-breaking cinematic techniques that reflected the everyday nature of his subjects while granting them great gravitas and transcendence. The most famous of his techniques is the ‘tatami shot’: a long, static shot taken from a very long angle, casting the viewer in the role of someone kneeling on a tatami mat; he also positioned the camera directly in front of each participant in a conversation, to create a style that was at once intimate and alienated.
When Kenji Mizoguchi was a child at the beginning of the twentieth century, his fourteen year old sister was put up for adoption and eventually forced to become a geisha. The event was to have a profound influence on his life, opinions and films, many of which were concerned with the struggles and brutalities faced by women in Japan. He is therefore considered to be amongst the very first feminist directors. Although he worked extensively in the silent era of cinema, almost all of Mizoguchi’s films from this period were lost or destroyed; he is most well known in the West for his later, post-war works The Life of Oharu and Ugetsu, which won the Silver Lion for Best Direction at the Venice Film Festival in 1953. Mizoguchi is famous for his ‘one scene one shot’ approach to film making, born out of his love for theatre, a style which was considered antiquated at the time: filming scenes from a distance in long, single, elegant takes, eschewing close-ups and fast cuts.
Akira Kurosawa is the director most responsible for bringing the cinema of Japan to a Western audience, starting with his breakthrough picture Rashomon in 1950. This is the story of a single, horrible crime recounted four times by four different people – each tainting the account with their own interests. Both structurally and aesthetically innovative, the film won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 1951. He is perhaps best known for the samurai films, Yojimbo and Seven Samurai, both of which helped to establish many of the conventions of the modern action film – Yojimbo would be remade in the West as A Fistful of Dollars and Seven Samurai as The Magnificent Seven (the Pixar animation A Bug’s Life is also an extended homage to Seven Samurai). He directed in a wide range of differing genres, however – from the Macbeth adaptation Throne of Blood to intimate, modern-set dramas such as Ikiru. Kurosawa kept directing right up to his death in 1998.
Kaneto Shindo was born in Hiroshima Prefecture in 1912. After a period in the 1930s and early 1940s working at Nikkatsu Studios in Tokyo with Kenji Mizugochi, he was drafted into the Imperial Japanese Navy in 1944. Of his unit of one hundred, Shindo was one of six survivors; in the closing days of the war, he would also learn of the destruction of his childhood home by the atom bomb. These events would go on to inform a great deal of his work as a director; he made films about survivors and about those that had been left behind. Some, like Children of Hiroshima, the story of a teacher returning home to Hiroshima to search for survivors from her class, would confront these events directly. Others were more allegorical – such as The Naked Island, which has no dialogue, merely showing the struggles of two people attempting to build a life. He continued making films in a great many genres throughout his life before returning to the theme of war survivors with his final film, Postcard, which he completed when he was 99 years old.
After a tumultuous early life, including a stint in prison for robbery while involved with gangs in Tokyo, Koji Wakamatsu rose to become the most well-known and respected director working in the Japanese ‘pink film’ exploitation genre in the 1960s. His films were violent, sadistic, pornographic and produced on shoestring budgets, but were also aesthetically and politically daring; his 1969 film Go, Go Second Time Virgin was praised for its low-budget stylistic flourishes and its overt political and social criticism – including criticising the misogyny of its own genre. Later in his life, he moved out of exploitation but continued to make radically political films such as United Red Army and the Golden Bear nominated Caterpillar, which criticised the militarism of World War II Japan.
The iconoclastic and experimental filmmaker Nagisa Oshima infamously hated the grouping of his work into the Japanese New Wave category as a whole, but his films do share many themes and motifs with others in the movement: the use of outcasts as protagonists, the direct and radical confrontation of social norms and the exploration of taboo subjects. His 1976 film In the Realm of the Senses was an explicit exploration of eroticism, power and violence, featuring unsimulated sex scenes, and was banned in many countries. The film had to be officially listed as a French production, and developed and edited in France to avoid Japan’s censorship laws. Oshima’s films often drew comparisons between the approbation of the sexual deviances depicted in films like In the Realm of the Senses and Empire of Passion, and the wide mainstream acceptance in Japan of racism and social injustice, explored in The Catch and Death by Hanging.
Kon Ichikawa is perhaps best known for Tokyo Olympiad, a documentary about the Tokyo Olympics in 1964 that turned its attention more towards the human stories of the athletes and those involved in the Games than the sporting events themselves. Ichikawa, however, also worked a great deal in fiction and in particular his work explores the effects of war on Japan’s development; his breakout film in the West, The Burmese Harp, is the story of a Japanese soldier in Burma during World War II who, after the surrender in 1945, becomes a Buddhist priest and devotes his time to burying the dead. One of his few period pieces, the 1963 film An Actor’s Revenge, tells of a male player of female parts in the kabuki theatre that plots the demise of the three men responsible for his parents’ death. The film references Ichikawa’s affection for and early career in animation, impressively blending this influence with the kabuki theatre of the plot and ukiyo-e woodcuts into an eclectic technical feat.
Shohei Imamura started out in the movie industry as an assistant for Yasujiro Ozu at Shochiku Studios, but he developed a style in opposition to Ozu’s precise and regimented approach. In the 1960s, he emerged as one of the standout talents of the Japanese New Wave movement. Imamura is frequently concerned with the fringe echelons of Japanese society: prostitutes, petty thieves, black marketeers, serial killers and pornographers. This preoccupation was first seen in Pigs and Battleships, the story of a couple trying to illegally sell pigs during the US occupation of Japan. This film was also the first outing for two of Imamura’s most prevalent motifs: the equating of humans with animals and the presence of strong, uncompromising women. He won the Palme d’Or twice, for the Ballad of Narayama in 1983 and the Eel in 1997.
The animator Hayao Miyazaki is Japan’s most successful filmmaker, and is also one of its most successful cultural exports. His 2001 film Spirited Away – about a young girl exploring a bizarre fantasy realm to find a cure for her parents’ sudden metamorphosis into pigs – broke Titanic’s box office records in Japan and won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature in 2003. It was the international breakout moment for his studio, Ghibli, after almost twenty years of producing hand-animated feature-length films, predominantly aimed at children, but with sophisticated themes about humanity’s relationship with its environment, the transition into adulthood and the fuzzy boundaries between good and evil. Standing in contrast to the black-and-white morality of most films for children, his antagonists are often sympathetic characters led by mistakes or confusion into inadvertent destruction, while his protagonists play roles of peacemaking or mediation rather than confrontation.
Takeshi Kitano leads a sort of double life: on the one side he is a director acclaimed in Europe and the West; on the other, he is ‘Beat’ Takeshi, an acerbic stand-up comic, actor, and ubiquitous TV host in his native Japan. A large portion of his films are nihilist and understated but violent yakuza movies – including the Golden Lion-winning Hana-Bi, in which Kitano plays a sociopathic cop trying to look after his wife – but he does occasionally turn his attention towards more tender topics. His stylised 2002 film Dolls, informed by bunraku puppetry, is a fairytale in which a young man wanders Japan while tied to the fiancee he abandoned at the altar by a red rope – though, in its two other subplots, it retains a great deal of the violence for which Kitano is best known. In 2003 he released Zatoichi, based on the blind masseur-swordsman from a popular series of films in the 1960s. This is a revenge drama interspersed with occasional musical numbers, cementing his reputation as one of Japan’s most wild and unpredictable figures.
By Patrick Ball