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It has been over 60 years since Akira Kurosawa’s Venice Film Festival victory for Rashomon in 1951 saw the ushering in of a ‘Golden Age of Japanese Cinema’. Nevertheless, while certain western critics gushed purple prose over the works of the country’s grand masters, for the average moviegoer, the films of Kenji Mizoguchi or Yasujiro Ozu might just as well have hailed from another planet. Their window into this distant exotic land came through television airings or B-movie supporting features of redubbed and re-edited monster movies or maybe, later on, slightly more salacious fare.
It’s easy to forget in the UK that while the National Film Theatre was hosting Kurosawa and Ozu retrospectives, in the fleshpots of Soho, exposure to the Land of the Rising Sun was just as likely to be through such long-lost oddities as Keigo Kimura’s The Bath Harem (1958), Tetsuro Ono’s Girls behind the Bars (1960), Kan Mukai’s Naked Flesh (1965) or Tan Iida’s Portrait of Passion (1968).
Writing in 1998, in his introduction to Mondo Macabro: Weird & Wonderful Cinema around the World, Pete Tombs argues that you can learn more about a country from its action films, horror films, sex exploitation and monster movies than you can from serious art cinema, which “from almost anywhere in the world, tends to follow the same gods of style; the French New Wave and the Italian neo-realists still reign supreme.”
The boundaries between lowbrow and highbrow are less distinct now. Nevertheless, with an industry as large, complex and, let’s face it, downright foreign as Japan’s, the divide between the intentions of filmmakers and the interpretations of overseas viewers as to which is which is often vague.
It is this Janus-faced aspect that plays such a large part of the enduring interest in Japan’s cinema, and with Gareth Evans’ Hollywood reboot of that most Japanese of monsters, Godzilla, coming out in the UK on the same day as the BFI rerelease of An Autumn Afternoon (1962), the final film of that most Japanese of directors, Yasujiro Ozu, it seems a good time to weigh up the two competing trends: arthouse vs exploitation.
And so we skip down through the ages to re-appraise the critically sacrosanct and the more populist titles shown in the west that cinemagoers in Japan might have had the opportunity to choose between at particular points in time – some well-known, others not so. In doing so, we hope to raise the question of whether the shadow cast by a giant lizard awakened by an atomic blast might be longer than that of an autumn afternoon.
The early 1950s
In the arthouse corner: Tokyo Story (Yasujiro Ozu, 1953)
The Japanese film aficionado Donald Richie was fond to recount how during the initial rush of interest from the west, Shochiku studios refused to promote the works of its most esteemed director at overseas festivals, claiming they were “too Japanese” to be understood by foreigners. And yet, as Richie himself pointed out, there is nothing more universal than the intimate portraits of family dynamics that Ozu specialised in. The basic setup of Tokyo Story – an aged couple travel up to the big city to visit their offspring only to find them too busy with their own respective families and careers to have any time for them – is a case in point, portraying a gulf in understanding between the generations familiar the world over.
Nevertheless, the company might have had a point: when the film became the first Ozu title aired overseas, winning the Sutherland trophy for best film when it played at London’s National Film Theatre in 1958, documentary-maker and critic Paul Rotha dismissed it as “old-fashioned and dull”.
In the exploitation corner: Godzilla (Ishiro Honda, 1954)
Godzilla (1954) trailer
The concept of Ishiro Honda’s classic creature feature is famous: a giant prehistoric lizard is awakened from aeons of slumber by atomic testing in the Pacific. Honda’s tale is based on the real-life Bikini Atoll tragedy of 1 March 1954, when the crew of a Japanese fishing boat were exposed to lethal levels of radiation from American nuclear testing. Inspired by the rerelease of King Kong (1933) in Japan, Honda’s own giant monster was in cinemas within the year.
To this day it’s a surprisingly dark and potent film, much more so than the numerous sequels, remakes and other kaiju eiga (giant monster movie) variants that followed in the original leviathan’s wake. Nevertheless, it would be some time before overseas viewers would have the chance to witness Honda’s masterpiece in its unadulterated form; the dubbed version originally distributed in the west, released in 1956, was re-edited with new footage shot in America of Raymond Burr as a reporter covering the attack. Writing in the New York Times, Bosley Crowther panned this tamed Godzilla, King of the Monsters! as “an incredibly awful film” featuring “a miniature of a dinosaur made of gum-shoes and about $20 worth of toy buildings and electric trains.”
Nowadays, Tokyo Story is counted as one of the canonical classics of world cinema, continuing to top critics polls both within and outside of Japan. One could argue however that, at the time of its release, Ozu’s film was very much a genre piece, fitting into the established line of ‘home dramas’ that the director specialised in.
Meanwhile, it’s fair to say that for all its faults, the US version of the original Godzilla provided Japanese cinema with its widest audience ever. A generation of viewers grew up with the whole gamut of men in rubber suits unleashed by this beast, and 60 years on the franchise is still going strong. Gareth Evans’ new version is the second huge-budgeted adaptation in recent decades, following Roland Emmerich’s widely derided 1998 version. So in terms of sheer impact, yes, it is the giant lizard that has the longest tail, even if Ozu might have made the better films.
The late 1950s
In the arthouse corner: The Hidden Fortress (Akira Kurosawa, 1958)
Kurosawa’s first film in widescreen TohoScope saw the already much-garlanded ‘emperor’ of Japanese cinema romp home with the best director award from the Berlin Film Festival. It’s another period action movie – on a more modest scale than his monumental Seven Samurai (1954), but similarly set in the 16th century Warring States (Sengoku jidai) period of lawlessness and unrest.
“A story of rival clans, hidden gold and a princess in distress” goes the back cover blurb of the BFI DVD release, and that’s pretty much what one gets, in a nutshell. Few might argue for it as Kurosawa’s finest hour, but it is one of his most fun films, and certainly among his most influential – the device of framing the narrative through the comic foils of two bumbling lowly retainers and the tomboyish Princess Yuki provides some fairly obvious archetypes for a later saga that would unfold a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…
In the exploitation corner: The Man Who Causes a Storm (Umetsugu Inoue, 1957)
There were many in Japan bemused by western film festivals’ overwhelming preference for jidai-geki period dramas cinema during the 1950s. Who knows what they might have made of one British critic’s assessment of this rise-and-fall tale of a delinquent jazz drummer upon the occasion of its UK release in 1960 under the title of The Stormy Man. Finding his pure vision of the Orient sullied, the anonymous commentator exclaimed in Monthly Film Bulletin: “Usually the west is denied the worst excesses of the Japanese commercial film, but when one does slip through like The Stormy Man, one realises how easily the Japanese have imbibed the ugliest characteristics of the American cinema adding, for good measure, some of the least likable aspects of their own.”
Almost forgotten outside of Japan to this day, and yet one of the top grossing titles of its decade on home turf, this energetic youth film is indicative of the large number of more vernacular genre works circulated in Britain by smaller distributors that fell totally under the radar of most critics and historians. It’s a crying shame that this early critical slight has relegated the film to the shadows. As anyone who caught it at the BFI’s Seasons in the Sun: The Heyday of Nikkatsu Studios retrospective last year will testify, the film is pure unadulterated toe-tapping magic.
Star Wars fans will no doubt praise the heavens that George Lucas was introduced to the works of Kurosawa as a young cinephile. Jazz fans would undoubtedly feel just as strongly about one of the earliest and most impressively mounted cinematic showcases of this musical form produced anywhere across the world, if they had a chance to ever see it. In terms of sheer entertainment, and for providing a garishly coloured window on the vibrant youth culture of a rapidly modernising Tokyo, The Man Who Causes a Storm is long overdue critical re-evaluation.
In the arthouse corner: Onibaba (Kaneto Shindo, 1964)
The mismatch between Japanese filmmakers’ intended meanings and the interpretations of overseas audiences became increasingly dramatic throughout the 1960s. With this tale of a mother and daughter eking out an existence on the fringes of the 16th-century sengoku civil war by murdering passing combatants for their weaponry and armour, Kaneto Shindo (one of the country’s most steadfastly political independent filmmakers) intended a critique of Japan’s role as passive beneficiary to America’s wars against communism in Korea and Vietnam. But, in America, the film was marketed as a straight horror and advertised in Variety as “the most nude, sexiest pic to be unveiled in New York so far.”
Onibaba is certainly Shindo’s best-known work, and quite gorgeous to behold too. Its hypnotic rhythms and dreamlike imagery combine to make it one of the finest releases of its era, regardless of whichever category it might be filed under.
In the exploitation corner: Secret Acts behind Walls (Koji Wakamatsu, 1965)
By the mid-60s, the newly emerged genre of ‘eroduction’ or ‘pink films’ – cheaply produced independent exploitation films promising an abundance of female nudity – had risen to comprise almost half of Japan’s cinematic output. Koji Wakamatsu’s Secret Acts behind Walls became one of the first such titles to play overseas, at no less prestigious an event than the 1965 Berlin Film Festival, randomly selected by a German representative who happened to wander into an adult cinema during a trip to Tokyo. That the film hailed from such a disreputable sector, which fell outside the aegis of Eiren (the Motion Picture Producers Association of Japan), made it something of a succès de scandale at home, and the powers that be were most definitely not amused.
It’s a portrait of the stifled denizens of a suburban tenement block predominantly framed through the telescope of a high-school peeping Tom as he spies at frustrated housewives and drug-addled former Communist party members instead of cramming for his university entrance exams – a far cry from conventional erotica. As Wakamatsu recalled of his trip to Berlin, “I guess the opening scene was pretty shocking for a European audience. You know, the scene where the man with the keloid scar and his lover have sex in front of Stalin’s picture. This image and the image of the atomic bomb took many by surprise.”
It’s doubtful whether many outside of Japan really understood either film entirely at the time of their releases, during a peculiarly heated period in the nation’s political history. Both possess a certain dark beauty, but while there are plenty of devotees of Wakamatsu’s nihilistic vision, Secret Acts behind Walls is nevertheless very much a product of a time and place that the sublime Onibaba manages to transcend completely.
In the exploitation corner: Tokyo Emmanuelle (Akira Kato, 1975)
Japanese cinema had a pretty negligible presence internationally throughout the 1970s. The domestic industry, having fallen prey to Hollywood and television, focused instead on providing what these dual threats couldn’t with the resources at hand – flesh and fantasy. Symptomatic of this was the new Roman Porno line of erotic films that formed the focus of Japan’s oldest studios, Nikkatsu, from 1971. Some of these are justifiably regarded as classics to this day, but few were shown in the west at the time.
However, this perfunctory Roman Porno response to the infamous Just Jaeckin blockbuster Emmanuelle (1974) was in fact distributed in the UK, under the title Emmanuelle in Tokyo. Leading lady Kumi Taguchi’s half-Caucasian ancestry lent her a presence that would have proven just as exotic to Japanese as western viewers, but the generic softcore plotting – following a young Japanese woman’s sexual odyssey in Paris, as she relays it to her husband upon her return – is really nothing to write home about.
In the arthouse corner: In the Realm of the Senses (Nagisa Oshima, 1976)
Nagisa Oshima’s recounting of the real-life Sada Abe incident of 1936, in which a lowly geisha castrated and throttled her lover to death while in the throes of passion, can be seen as a reaction against his national cinema’s descent into the kind of self-absorbed decadence represented by Roman Porno. It’s simultaneously a critique of such films’ superficial use of sex as seasoning rather than subject, as well as of his country’s stringent censorship laws, which had seen a number of Nikkatsu employees prosecuted for obscenity in a trial that was still running when his film was released.
Much of this would probably have gone over the heads of its viewers, lured to the film by the promise of explicit unsimulated sex between its lead players, as would the fact that, though filmed in Japan with an all-Japanese cast, technically it was a French production. Banned in Japan in its uncut version for decades, it quickly became a crucial part of the tourist circuit for Japanese travellers to Paris, and in the UK was only seen in members-only cinema clubs and later on bootlegged VHS.
Debates have raged about Oshima’s film’s status as either art or pornography since its release, although its director himself stressed that the two categories were never mutually exclusive. That said, dominated by Eiko Matsuda’s unnerving presence as a woman literally possessed with a desire that overwhelms its subject, it certainly doesn’t satisfy the immediate requirements of the sex film. What it is, however, is meticulously constructed and composed, fittingly for a work that is really about power relations and control. By contrast, Tokyo Emmanuelle is, like so much from the rising tide of fleshy filmic fripperies of the era, both forgettable and forgotten.
In the arthouse corner: The Ballad of Narayama (Shohei Imamura, 1983)
For much of the 1980s, Japanese cinema might just as well as not have existed as far as the rest of the world was concerned. Aside from such late career works from Akira Kurosawa as Kagemusha (1980) and Ran (1985), the type of films favoured by highbrow festivals just weren’t being made by the industry any more, with over half the industry output made up of sex films. Even Nagisa Oshima had given up on his home turf, making international productions such as Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence (1983) and Max, mon amour (1986).
Fortunately another luminary of the 60s New Wave was going from strength to strength. With The Ballad of Narayama, Shohei Imamura delivered arguably the finest picture of his career. The Cannes jury agreed, awarding the director his first Palme d’or (he received his second in 1997 for The Eel). It’s the second film adaptation of a novel based on a folk legend, Obasute, about a small village community who, in order to preserve scant resources, maintain the custom of abandoning their elderly on a mountaintop to die when they reach the age of 70. Imamura’s version sits in stark contrast to Keisuke Kinoshita’s highly stylised Kabuki-esque 1958 version however. Imamura’s film is like a nature documentary in which, whether scrabbling for food or engaging in grubby peasant sex, the human inhabitants of this harsh mountain community very much belong to a wider ecosystem.
In the exploitation corner: Tetsuo – The Iron Man (Shinya Tsukamoto, 1989)
Like Takeshi Kitano, whose Violent Cop was released the same year, Shinya Tsukamoto was instrumental in not only putting Japanese cinema back on the global map, but reinvigorating and redefining it for an entirely new generation of overseas viewers for whom ‘Akira’ equated to anime rather than Kurosawa. At a time when the traditional studio system was all but finished, he came from completely outside the industry, from a background in 8mm amateur movie-making, with Godzilla and Ultraman as his muses.
Tetsuo is a minutely-budgeted portrayal of a man mutating from flesh to machine in a decaying, post-industrial metropolis, shot using 16mm monochrome in a deliberately rough-hewn and unpretty style (including its trademark stop-motion transformation sequences). Initially, it was all but ignored in the west, until its best film award at the Fanta-Festival in Rome brought it a mass foreign acclaim that could no longer be ignored.
If the focus throughout the whole of Imamura’s filmography can be described as the persistence of pre-modern elements of Japanese culture and tradition into the modern era, then Tsukamoto’s film articulates a pessimistic vision of its post-industrial era. Taken together they are representative and reflective of how Japan was viewed from inside and outside at either side of its economic boom years, by two filmmakers with very different backgrounds and means at their disposal. One whose vision developed alongside the backdrop of the Showa period of internationalisation and economic growth, and another whose appearance coincided with the post-bubble pessimism and uncertainty of the Heisei era. Imamura’s work in general can be appreciated for its empathy and humanity towards its flawed characters, while some might find Tsukamoto’s mechanical bricolage bleak and impenetrable – but then again, surely isn’t this the point? To describe one as better than the other is like arguing night is day.
The end of the millennium
In the exploitation corner: Ring (Hideo Nakata, 1998)
Now that the ghost seems to have been laid to rest with the at-one-time seemingly interminable J-horror cycle that marked the turning of the millennium, it’s easier to appreciate the title that set the ball rolling for what it is – a very modern take on classic supernatural horror material. Hideo Nakata’s Ring is a reworking of Koji Suzuki’s original novel about a malevolent avenging ghost, Sadako, who vents her spleen at the world via videotape and cathode ray tube. It instils much of its sense of unease largely through its rejection of the more emphatic tropes of American horror, in which every shock is signalled aurally by shrieks, screams and deafening fanfares on the soundtrack.
It’s an approach that Gore Verbinski largely rejected for the inevitable Hollywood remake, which arrived in 2002 – by which time horror fans with a taste for this new wave of chills from the east were already well acquainted with similar titles like Tomie (1999), Shikoku (1999), Audition (1999), Uzumaki (2000) or the even less orthodox offerings of that real genre master, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, like Cure (1997) and Pulse (2001). Unconstrained by the problems of distribution in earlier decades, the dissemination of these films across the world was via subtitled VCDs and DVDs, VHS dupes and DVD rips, their cult status fostered via the internet.
In the arthouse corner: After Life (Hirokazu Koreeda, 1999)
Hirokazu Koreeda’s second feature distributed outside of Japan, after Maboroshi (1995), was the one that established him as the country’s leading auteur of his generation. Many still consider it his best. Its depiction of a motley crew of the recently deceased, as they arrive in a way station towards the place where their spirits will finally find rest, is startling original, both thematically and in its inventively lo-fi execution.
At its heart, After Life is less a meditation upon death, but an appraisal of happiness throughout the stages in a person’s life, and on how so much of one’s personality is determined by individual memories and subjective interpretations of past events. This is a film simply bursting with ideas, but also surprisingly accessible, at times darkly humorous and at others incredibly emotionally affecting.
These two separate portraits of lost souls in limbo have much in common, in their musings on life beyond this world of dust, in how past actions have repercussions in the afterlife, and in how one’s physical essence might be extracted into more abstract analogue form after death (the chosen memories in After Life are shown being recreated on film).
The immense influence of Ring is undeniable and far-reaching. However, what is more important is how both films spell the end of a very different age in cinema – firstly in that Sadako’s contagion and manifestation via tape and screen were already being superseded by new digital technologies and changing patterns of production, distribution and exhibition even before its US remake was announced. Secondly, while both clearly belonged to distinct genres, with After Life just as identifiable as belonging within the marketplace of global arthouse cinema as Ring is within the commercial horror genre, they ushered in an era in which when a new international fanbase for Japanese cinema as a whole was beginning to emerge that was just as comfortable with either style (in the UK, both received their theatrical premieres at the Institute of Contemporary Arts).
From this moment, the increased exposure to Japanese cinema brought about by DVD and Blu-ray, more so than video, and specifically for titles that never received a theatrical release, as well as the massive explosion of contextual information and debate about such films on the internet, effectively meant the end of an epoch in which the markets for the country’s arthouse or cult cinema had been assumed to be distinct.