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. 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.
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. 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. 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).
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. 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 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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.