10 great films set in classical Japan

Japan in the second half of the first millennium. A time of art and culture, but also of pestilence, power struggles and bloodshed. Here’s what the pre-medieval period looks like on film.

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013)

The jidaigeki – or period drama – is an enduring mainstay of Japanese cinema. While the Edo period (1603-1867) has proved the most popular destination for filmmakers delving into the nation’s past, there are plenty of riches to be found in cinematic depictions of the earlier medieval period (1185-1603). But now we’re sending the BFI DeLorean even further back in time, looking for some of the greats set in the pre-medieval era of classical Japan (538-1185).

This is the time of Japan’s foundational myths and legends, beginning with the introduction of Buddhism to the country in the early 6th century. The Buddhist Soga clan ruled for the period’s first hundred years or so, before being overthrown by the Fujiwara clan, who moved to centralise the imperial court.

Natural disasters plagued the land, with more than a quarter of the population wiped out by a smallpox epidemic in the 730s. By the time the Heian period (794-1185) rolled around, the imperial court was in decline. Countless power struggles led to the instalment of the Taira clan, who were in turn ultimately vanquished in the Genpei war that followed the 1160 Heiji rebellion.

Despite the bloodshed, Japan’s classical era was one of high art and culture. Early masterpieces of painting and literature – like Murasaki Shikibu’s Tale of Genji – would permeate the national consciousness into the modern age. Classical art proved a rich aesthetic well for filmmakers venturing to the dawn of Japanese history.

Here are 10 remarkable films inspired by stories handed down through the centuries.

Gate of Hell (1953)

Director: Teinosuke Kinugasa

Gate of Hell (1953)

“There is every possible reason for western film directors to learn from the Japanese film Gate of Hell, where the colours really serve their purpose,” wrote Carl Dreyer of Teinosuke Kinugasa’s eye-popping wonder. Martin Scorsese called it one of the 10 greatest colour achievements in cinema. It won the Grand Prix at Cannes, a pair of Oscars for best foreign language film and best costume design, and then, time having been unkind to its photochemical delicacy, it all but vanished.

It wasn’t until a 2011 restoration that audiences were able to again see Gate of Hell as originally intended. One of the first Japanese films to be shot in colour, Kinugasa’s revolutionary drama boasts a dynamic explosion of production design. Shot on sound stages, and set during the early 12th-century power struggle known as the Heiji rebellion, it’s ablaze with a seemingly impossible spectrum of colour, the gliding camera emulating the scroll paintings from which it drew inspiration. Screen depictions of classical Japan had never seen such luxuries of representation. To this day, it looks like little else in all of cinema.

  • Gate of Hell is available on Blu-ray from Eureka

Sansho Dayu (1954)

Director: Kenji Mizoguchi

Sansho Dayu (1954)

“This tale is set during the late Heian period,” reads the opening title of one of the greatest Japanese films, “an era when mankind had not yet awakened as human beings.” Mizoguchi took the Silver Lion in Venice for the second year in a row for his devastating adaptation of a short story by Mori Ogai, a film with all the emotional and mythological force of classical tragedy. The year after making her own directorial debut with Love Letter, Kinuyo Tanaka gives a heartbreaking performance as the mother separated from her children, who are stolen into forced labour under the tyranny of the ruthless, erratically-bearded steward Sansho (Eitaro Shindo).

One wrenching event follows another in the parallel lives of the separated family, but there’s a reason Mizoguchi is considered one of cinema’s great humanists. Sansho Dayu may be a film about suffering, yet somehow, in its boundless generosity and compassion, it captures something beyond the tangible, corporeal realm. The psychological scope of its tragedy is Shakespearean, but it’s the empathy of Mizoguchi’s gaze, and the unfathomable alchemy of his style, that lifts this spiritual odyssey into the sublime.

Tales of the Taira Clan (1955)

Director: Kenji Mizoguchi

Tales of the Taira Clan (1955)

Kenji Mizoguchi’s penultimate feature is an atypical entry in the maestro’s filmography. For starters, it’s not in black and white. Along with Princess Yang Kwei-fei (made the same year), it’s one of only two films his great cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa shot for him in ‘Daiei Color Process’. It’s also a rare Mizoguchi feature without a leading female character, one perhaps best described as a conversational epic, a chamber piece of courtly intrigue with a peripheral sense of scale.

A long title sequence fills us in on the state of Kyoto in 1137, where the story begins. It’s a time of economic uncertainty and famine in the general populace, in which power struggles between the nobility and priesthood hold the promise of “momentous events” unfolding. It feels like a late film in the best sense, with one eye fixed on an encroaching shift in social and cultural tides, the other closed in spiritual exhaustion. Suspicious of nostalgia and critical of tradition, while still able to land emotional bodyblows when required, it exemplifies Mizoguchi’s empathy for the marginalised, which burned bright to the very end.

The Demon of Mount Oe (1960)

Director: Tokuzo Tanaka

The Demon of Mount Oe (1960)

Life was hard enough in Japan’s classical era without having a demon-infested mountain looming over your manor. Local warlords are kidnapping each other’s princesses and plotting hostile takeovers, but that’s the least of their problems once demonic forces descend from a nest high in the mountains. This was one of Daiei’s earliest ventures into ‘tokusatsu’ (special effects pictures). With the third-act emergence of a giant, infernal spider, it stands among their first ‘kaiju’ monster movies too.

For this mid-budget spectacular, based on the 10th-century legend of demon master Shuten-doji, the Daiei studio hired up-and-coming filmmaker Tokuzo Tanaka, who would go on to lend a steady hand to the studio’s Zatoichi sequels. His list of credits as assistant director couldn’t be more impressive, including Rashomon (1950), Ugetsu Monogatari (1953), Sansho Dayu (1954) and The Crucified Lovers (1954). The Demon of Mount Oe is a different kettle of fish altogether, combining a sugar rush of swords and sorcery with demonic skirmishes and political intrigue. From the moment a diabolical ox appears in the sky in the film’s opening minutes, you know you’re in for a good time.

The Mad Fox (1962)

Director: Tomu Uchida

The Mad Fox (1962)

During the 10th-century reign of Emperor Suzaku, a white rainbow appears in a bloody sky. Mount Fuji has erupted; a devastating omen for the heirless crown prince. Only one man can interpret its meaning – a doctor of astrology and custodian of the The Golden Crow, an ancient Chinese scroll that holds the secrets of Yin and Yang. But he dies suddenly, initiating a power struggle between his two disciples. When the scroll is stolen, his adopted daughter Sakaki falls under suspicion. Tortured to death, she delivers her lover Yasuna, the most gifted of the astrologer’s disciples, into insanity and obsession.

Director Tomu Uchida’s formal conceits in The Mad Fox are extraordinary. His expressionist use of colour gives even Gate of Hell and Kwaidan (1964) a run for their money. It’s a film steeped in theatricality, employing elements from both kabuki and bunraku (puppet theatre) to hyper-stylised effect. A central set-piece charts Yasuna’s hallucinatory descent into madness in a field of golden flowers, while the film’s second half leans into the supernatural and offers an intoxicating blend of animation, mask work and practical effects.

  • The Mad Fox is available on Blu-ray from Arrow

Kwaidan (1964)

Director: Masaki Kobayashi

Kwaidan (1964)

Adapted from Lafcadio Hearn’s collections of folk tales, Masaki Kobayashi’s dazzling anthology film consists of four stories spanning some 800 years of Japanese history. It’s just the opening segment that’s of interest to us here, a supernatural tale taken by Hearn from a 12th-century book of traditional legends called Konseki Monogatari, a collection of morally instructive fables that find mortals battling evil forces.

In ‘The Black Hair’, an impoverished samurai takes a job in the house of a nobleman, abandoning his wife to re-marry into wealth. When he returns years later, in search of the woman he wronged, he finds his former home in ruins, and his wife hunched over her loom, as young as the day he left her. Of course, all is not what it seems with his suspiciously submissive spouse, and as night falls, her flowing locks want to have a word…

Kwaidan is a ravishingly handmade feat of production design and art direction, and an Oscar-nominated triumph for its director. This first segment only lasts for 30-odd minutes of the epic’s three hours, but keep watching for some of the most striking images ever put on film.

Kuroneko (1968)

Director: Kaneto Shindo

Kuroneko (1968)

“Strange things happen in a war-torn land,” says the samurai to the beautiful woman who has given him shelter for the night. A few minutes later, she’s tearing his throat out with her teeth. All is not what it seems in the bamboo grove by Rashomon Gate, where countless samurai have been found mutilated.

Loosely adapted from the supernatural tales in the Konjaku Monogatari, Kaneto Shindo’s Kuroneko was a last hurrah for the traditional ghost story in Japanese cinema, as audiences and filmmakers began gravitating towards more violent, western-influenced fare. Shooting in stark, expressionistic black and white, and using an array of experimental lighting effects, Shindo draws inspiration from the kabuki theatre, especially in the wirework that sees the film’s cat-possessed demons leaping through the treetops like wuxia warriors.

Kuroneko isn’t explicitly dated, but the character of Raiko – a real-life samurai leader – places it somewhere towards the end of the 10th century. Samurai aren’t noble figures in the films of Kaneto Shindo, and Kuroneko proves no exception: they rape and murder their way through rural villages, summoning the titular black cat – a potent animistic force in Japanese folklore – to wreak its bloody revenge.

Portrait of Hell (1969)

Director: Shiro Toyoda

Portrait of Hell (1969)

A depiction of classical Japan about depictions of classical Japan, Shiro Toyoda’s masterwork is an infernal study in ego. In the Heian era, famine and disaster plague the land. The tyrannical lord Hosokawa has cloistered himself in his mansion, raving about his own divinity and benevolence while blind to the misery outside its walls. He hires the great Korean artist Yoshihide to paint a pastoral mural on the walls of his temple depicting his heavenly realm. But the vainglorious painter is so obsessed with artistic truth, he can only paint what he sees: he pitches instead a Bosch-ian portrait of hell, which begins to infect the minds of all who look upon it.

Adapted from a short story by Ryunosuke Akutagawa – the same author who provided the source material for Kurosawa’s Rashomon – Portrait of Hell charts the battle of wills between these twinned despots. Yoshihide proves as open to a bit of torture as his megalomaniacal patron, unable to paint true suffering unless he sees it with his own eyes. Tatsuya Nakadai, an incredible physical actor best known for his performances in The Sword of Doom (1966) and Ran (1985), embodies the depraved artist with nightmarish intensity, while Toyoda tightens his noose of madness en route to a spectacular, unspeakably bleak finale.

Dojoji Temple (1976)

Director: Kihachiro Kawamoto

Dojoji Temple (1976)

One of Japan’s most enduring folkloric legends, the tale of Kiyohime and Anchin – “the destructive love of a widow for a monk” – first appeared in the early years of the 11th century. Its cultural influence is far-reaching, inspiring 14th-century Noh dramas and 19th-century kabuki plays alike. In cinema, it served as the basis for Kon Ichikawa’s debut film, a puppet adaptation called The Girl at Dojo Temple (1946).

This 1976 iteration comes from one of Japan’s masters of animation. Kihachiro Kawamoto was a puppet designer and stop-motion animator who studied under his Czech hero Jiří Trnka, making a series of idiosyncratic shorts heavily influenced by the traditions of bunraku, kabuki and Noh. Dojoji Temple is an uncanny wonder of mixed-media animation, beautifully blending watercolour backdrops with stop-motion puppetry. It’s just one of many fine films from a fiercely independent artist whose work deserves to be better known in the west.

The Tale of Princess Kaguya (2013)

Director: Isao Takahata

The Tale of Princess Kaguya (2013)

One of the most serene and beautiful films in the Studio Ghibli canon, The Tale of Princess Kaguya is an epic adaptation of the oldest surviving Japanese folk tale. Written sometime in the late 9th or early 10th century, The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter tells of a princess from the moon who is discovered by a lowly peasant in a bamboo shoot, and whose beauty attracts the attention of a series of suitors, including the emperor of Japan. She sets them all impossible tasks to prove their love, before revealing her true origins and returning to the heavens.

Stunningly animated in hand-drawn, pastel-hued watercolours, and with one exceptional sequence – in which the princess escapes her city mansion – captured in a frenzy of charcoal expressionism, Isao Takahata’s final film remains the most expensive Japanese production to date. A melancholy ode to spiritual independence steeped in Heian-era ritual, it’s a pointedly feminist critique of cultural tradition. As films about love, loss and responsibility for our loved ones goes, it’s up there with the same director’s earlier Grave of the Fireflies (1988) as one of the most emotionally wrenching films from the great animation house.

  • The Tale of Princess Kaguya is currently streaming on Netflix
BFI Player logo

Discover award-winning independent British and international cinema

Free for 14 days, then £4.99/month or £49/year.

Try for free