It’s a foolish endeavour to try to determine the best film, year by year, of any filmmaking nation, let alone one with so extraordinary a cinematic history as Japan.
We’re foolish, too, if we think we can have a true grasp on a nation’s cinema from our crow’s nest on the other side of the globe, where so much of what we’ve been able to see has been funnelled through gatekeepers. Festival programmers, enterprising DVD labels and, yes, cultural institutions have all played their part in importing and making available for western viewers a subjective selection of the best or most marketable Japanese cinema at any one point in its development.
As we’re reminded often, the west began to ‘discover’ Japanese cinema in 1951, when Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. That same festival then devotedly gave an annual slot to Kenji Mizoguchi for each of the next five years, ensuring he was the next Japanese director to be thrust on to the world stage.
But, like the man whose name usually completes this triumvirate of Japanese masters, Yasujiro Ozu, Mizoguchi had been making films since the 1920s, working within genres, a studio system and a cultural tradition that would all take a huge amount of excavation for westerners to get any real handle on. Meanwhile, our sanctification of this trio meant that other filmmakers who were equally important to the times, and to the aesthetic development of Japanese cinema, were left in the half light.
If we’ve opted to gild our Japan 2020 celebration of Japanese cinema with a year-by-year timeline of bests rather than a traditional top 100, then part of the reason is to help move beyond our understandable excitement around certain golden ages, the New Wave, the rise of J-horror or modern anime in favour of a more evolutionary picture. This way, we take the rough vintages with the smooth, giving a cumulative panorama of the trends, genres, stars and directors who mattered over the last century. (We begin in 1925 for reasons of both manageability and availability: so many of Japan’s very early features are lost or remain difficult to see.)
This approach brings drawbacks of its own, of course. If there’s generally at least one great film to be discovered in any given year, there are also vintages where the agony of selection just proves unpleasant. 1936, 1953, most years of the early 1960s, 1985 and 1997 were all especially headache-inducing, whereas 1954 has some claim to being any nation’s greatest ever cinematic year. To choose between Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai and Kenji Mizoguchi’s Sansho Dayu – to say nothing of Mizoguchi’s Chikamatsu Monogatari, Mikio Naruse’s Sound of the Mountain and Late Chrysanthemums, Keisuke Kinoshita’s Twenty-Four Eyes, Heinosuke Gosho’s An Inn at Osaka and the first part of Hiroshi Inagaki’s samurai trilogy – is a Sophie’s choice made only more ludicrous in that it’s one we set ourselves. This was also the mighty year that a certain atomic reptile first emerged out of Tokyo Bay, for Godzilla’s sake.
Let’s smudge the lines a little and admit that while the list below offers all killer and no filler, we also wanted to make sure that a fuller richness of Japanese cinema was represented, and so only in rare cases does a single director have more than one or two films included. It’s the richness that was key.
In his recent history What Is Japanese Cinema? the essayist and critic Inuhiko Yomota observes that, in the very early days of cinema, kabuki actors disdainfully referred to films – which were staged on the ground rather than on kabuki’s raised, cypress-wood platforms – as ‘mud plays’. Our interest here, alongside a bit of fun, is to show just how fertile that soil has proven to be.
Director: Buntaro Futagawa
In the mid- and late-1920s, Japan produced more than 500 films annually; it’s heartbreaking to think that the vast majority of them have been lost. All the more reason to be grateful, then, for this surviving classic of the chanbara (action-oriented period film), the negative of which was preserved by its star Tsumasaburo Bando, who produced film for his own independent company. Bando gives a haunting performance as the honest samurai adrift in a corrupt world, and the film rises to a stylishly choreographed action climax. In 1965, benshi (silent-film narrator) Shunsui Matsuda devised a brilliant spoken commentary to accompany the film, a version of which is still performed live by his celebrated pupil, Midori Sawato. Once heard, never forgotten.
1926: A Page of Madness
Director: Teinosuke Kinugasa
Probably the most famous of all surviving Japanese films of the 1920s, A Page of Madness resulted from the unique collaboration between former onnagata (male actor playing female roles) star Teinosuke Kinugasa as director, and Yasunari Kawabata, the prominent novelist of Shinkankakuha (the New Perceptions School), as writer. It’s the first Japanese avant-garde feature, its stunning visuals comprising a magnificent mixture of different modes and influences: modern dance and traditional Japanese masks, the uncanny setting and chiaroscuro lighting of German Expressionist cinema, and the fast montage of that same era’s French Impressionist films. Set in a rural asylum, its psychologically poignant story includes vivid depictions of insanity and the madly rhythmic body.
1927: A Diary of Chuji’s Travels
Director: Daisuke Ito
This three-part epic, directed by a key figure in the evolution of the Japanese jidaigeki (period film), was so fondly remembered that the critics of Kinema Junpo (Japan’s Sight & Sound) pronounced it the greatest Japanese film ever made in 1959. By then, it had been unseen for decades and was believed to be lost, like the vast majority of Japanese silent films. The rediscovery of a condensed print in 1991 allowed a new generation of viewers to gain at least a partial appreciation of the qualities of this renowned film. It showcases the outstanding acting abilities of star Denjiro Okochi and the flair and flamboyance of Ito’s cinema, his love of extravagant camera movements, and his tragic vision, which (as scholar Mariann Lewinsky notes), exemplifies a narrative tradition in Japanese cinema stretching forward to Takeshi Kitano.
Director: Teinosuke Kinugasa
Challenging the convention of the jidaigeki period film, the second avant-garde release by the director of A Page of Madness, Teinosuke Kinugasa, abandons sword fighting in favour of bringing a complex psychological drama into the genre. The dizzying superimposition of circular motifs and hyperbolic facial expressions, the setting of a creaky old house and amusement district, and shots from astonishing angles create harmony and tension within the ironic story of a sister who turns to prostiution in order to pay for her brother’s eye treatment. The film is believed to the first Japanese feature to be screened in Europe, brought by Kinugasa himself, to high acclaim in Berlin and Paris.
1929: Days of Youth
Director: Yasujiro Ozu
The earliest surviving film by one of the major masters of Japanese cinema, Yasujiro Ozu, Days of Youth is an outstandingly creative intersection of various styles and genres that had emerged in Hollywood, Europe and Japan by the late 1920s. Visual rhymes and gags echo Ernst Lubitsch’s sophisticated comedy and Harold Lloyd’s ludic humour; the theme of student romance during a skiing trip places it within the boom of Japanese student sports movies (and under the influence of its Hollywood equivalent); and the panoramic mountain landscapes resonate with the popular German mountain films of the time. Most striking, however, is Ozu’s appropriation of Frank Borzage’s silent weepie 7th Heaven (1927). Ozu works references to this celebrated Hollywood melodrama into Days of Youth in various ways (including the film’s poster on the wall), while providing a unique twist on its central romance.
1930: What Made Her Do It?
Director: Shigeyoshi Suzuki
Representative of the socially conscious ‘tendency films’ of the 1920s and 30s in Japan during a boom in Marxist ideas (Kenji Mizoguchi’s Metropolitan Symphony and Tomu Uchida’s A Living Puppet, both 1929, are other examples), Shigeyoshi Suzuki’s masterpiece showcases not simply the capitalist exploitation of the working class, but a series of the heroine’s struggles with a variety of oppressors. While Eisenstein-like insert shots effectively caricature the privileged, the episodic plot shrewdly reveals the heroine’s gradual transformation from naif to rebel. Perhaps it was the relative smallness of the studio, Teikoku Kinema Engei, that allowed such free reign for this ambitious director to boldly tackle themes of oppression and class. It struck a nerve with the public, causing riots and becoming the most commercially successful Japanese film of the silent era.
1931: The Neighbour’s Wife and Mine
Director: Heinosuke Gosho
Japan came late to sound cinema; after a number of only moderately successful experiments, Heinosuke Gosho’s engaging comedy was the first feature-length Japanese talkie to win unequivocal critical praise and broad commercial success. The film’s innovative exploitation of the new medium, including imaginative use of off-screen sound, helped it seize the top spot in 1932’s Kinema Junpo critics’ poll. Significantly, the plot actually revolves around sound: an author struggling with writer’s block is further distracted by a series of noises, including the jazz music emanating from a nearby house. Gosho, a distinguished filmmaker neglected in the west, films the slapstick comedy with wit and lightness of touch, creating a convincing portrait of a traditional Japanese marriage threatened by the temptations of modernity.
1932: I Was Born, But…
Director: Yasujiro Ozu
The worlds of children and adults are played off against each other through visual rhythm and comic wit in this most celebrated of Ozu’s silent films. The tale of two young brothers’ hijinks in the neighbourhood, and their dawning disillusionment with their dad, I Was Born, But… is also a nuanced satire of pre-war Japanese society. In the children’s carefree world, power relations are changeable and wisdom is important to survive; but in the work-bound world of the adults, hierarchy is fixed and submission to others – your boss, your family – is inevitable. The tension unfolds within Ozu’s elaborately arranged spaces of everyday life – home, school, company, and vacant land – in a suburb of rapidly modernising Tokyo. I Was Born, But… is the zenith of Japan’s petit-bourgeois film genre, offering a virtuosic ensemble of humorous performances, stylistic elegance and subtle social irony.
1933: Japanese Girls at the Harbour
Director: Hiroshi Shimizu
A contemporary of Ozu at Shochiku, Hiroshi Shimizu was also instrumental in the formulation of the studio’s singular brand of cinematic modernism during the pre-war era, reflecting and interrogating the culture of a rapidly industrialising and internationalising nation through a focus on young, often marginalised characters and refining a distinctive style in which camera movement, typically into the frame, predominates. All these elements are much in evidence in his electrifying masterpiece of Japanese silent cinema set in the cosmopolitan port city of Yokohama, featuring two mixed-race Japanese schoolgirls, Sunako and Dora, whose friendship is put under strain by the appearance of a motorcycle-riding charmer named Henry.
1934: Our Neighbour, Miss Yae
Director Yasujiro Shimazu
Anyone who loves Ozu should also love Yasujiro Shimazu, who pioneered the Shochiku tradition of understated domestic drama of which Ozu was the most distinguished exponent. This subtle, charming, funny and bittersweet story of family life and romance is his representative work, perfectly illustrating its director’s penchant for understated melodrama and his beguiling blend of humour and pathos. It gives the effect (in Joseph Anderson and Donald Richie’s phrase) “of eavesdropping on life itself”. Shimazu’s influence on the Japanese cinema cannot be overstated: Heinosuke Gosho, Shiro Toyoda, Kozaburo Yoshimura, Keisuke Kinoshita and Yuzo Kawashima all served as his assistants, and he fostered a realist tradition that remains central to Japanese film art.
1935: Wife! Be like a Rose!
Director: Mikio Naruse
Although less well-known in the west than his contemporaries Ozu and Mizoguchi, Mikio Naruse was a major figure of Japan’s golden age. His directing career began in 1930 and provided many classics up until his sublime final film, Scattered Clouds, in 1967. He already had more than 20 films to his name by 1935 (most now lost), when he turned to talkies. An early peak, Wife! Be like a Rose! traces the story of a fragmented family: a grown-up daughter living with her mum in Tokyo, while dad has absconded to the country with his mistress. The first Japanese film to see a theatrical release in the US, Wife! Be like a Rose! still has a sprightly, modern feel to it, following the daughter Kimiko (played by Sachiko Chiba, who later became Naruse’s wife) as she goes looking for the dad she’s convinced is living in embarrassing squalor.
1936: Sisters of the Gion
Director: Kenji Mizoguchi
Although Kenji Mizoguchi had been directing since 1923, he was convinced that he achieved true maturity as a filmmaker in 1936 with a remarkable diptych of films: Osaka Elegy, set in Japan’s commercial capital, and Sisters of the Gion, set in the geisha quarter of Japan’s cultural capital, Kyoto. Isuzu Yamada, best known in the west as Kurosawa’s Lady Macbeth (Throne of Blood), gives an indelible performance as the rebellious geisha who tries to play the system, only to find that it’s too powerful to challenge. Yoko Umemura plays her conservative sister, but neither rebellion nor conformity offers much hope. Mizoguchi perfected his early style, reliant on long shot and long take, with an often static camera, and delivered his social analysis with concision, force, rigour and scalpel-like precision.
1937: Humanity and Paper Balloons
Director: Sadao Yamanaka
Of the 22 features Sadao Yamanaka directed between 1932 and 1937 only three remain. He’d directed his first six in 1932 alone, all of them – like the other 16 – jidaigeki, or period dramas. Humanity and Paper Balloons was his final film, a downbeat tale of suicide and disgraced ronin that spoke as much to its contemporary climate (the film was released domestically following a period of intense political violence) as it did to the feudal misery of its 18th-century Tokugawa-era setting. Despite being a devout student of American cinema, it’s Jean Vigo with whom Yamanaka is often compared. Like the French master, he died tragically young, at 28, closing his will with the imploration, “Please make good movies.”
1938: Fallen Blossoms
Director: Tamizo Ishida
Considering the time it was made, the rarely seen Fallen Blossoms is astonishingly bold in both style and content. It revolves around the fears and interactions of the all-female inhabitants of a geisha house in Kyoto’s Gion district while they batten down the hatches as the civil war leading to the Meiji Restoration reaches their front door. The drama unfolds as if in real time over the course of a single evening through a succession of unique shots in which the camera positioning remains inconspicuous yet is never once repeated. The result is a rigorous articulation of a living and working space in which, beyond the sounds of battle raging outside, any male presence is conspicuous by its absence. The film’s current obscurity is simply bewildering.
1939: The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums
Director: Kenji Mizoguchi
Set in Japan’s 19th-century theatre world, The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums is Mizoguchi’s most precious pre-war film, and one of his masterpieces. It traces the doomed love story between a spoiled young kabuki actor (Shotaro Hanayagi) and a nanny (Kakuko Mori) who sacrifices everything for her lover’s career, while he casually takes her kindness and devotion as his due. Mizoguchi’s signature ‘one scene, one shot’ method reached its apogee here, with his gliding camera movements elegantly exploring the film’s backstage world. One evocative tracking shot following the lovers as they walk home at dawn is one for the ages. As so often in Mizoguchi’s work, Chrysanthemums is also a commentary on the sidelining of women in Japanese society.
1940: Spring on Leper’s Island
Director: Shiro Toyoda
Constrained by the draconian Film Law, which imposed restrictions on content and expression, Japanese cinema faced profound ideological challenges in the early 1940s. Three cheers, then, for this delicate and compassionate story of a woman doctor (Shizue Natsukawa) working in a leper colony, which, as Joseph Anderson and Donald Richie comment, “ignored national policy” in order to pronounce “a cry for humanism in an age marching toward militarism”. Director Shiro Toyoda remains unjustly neglected in the west; he was to go on to craft a string of postwar masterpieces, among them Wild Geese (1953), the atmospheric account of an unhappily married woman’s love for a student, and Marital Relations (1955), a wonderfully delicate account of the affair between the son of a wealthy family and a geisha.
1941: Ornamental Hairpin
Director: Hiroshi Shimizu
Like his 1938 charmer The Masseurs and a Woman, Hiroshi Shimizu’s Ornamental Hairpin takes place at a mountain spa, unravelling a simple, short-story-like tale that builds to an emotional wallop. It’s a brief-encounter drama in which a soldier on leave (played by Ozu favourite Chishu Ryu) injures himself by treading on a hairpin in the hotspring. Seeing only poetry in the situation, he begins to speculate on what the woman who dropped it might be like, whereupon the lady in question (Kinuyo Tanaka) returns to the spa from Tokyo in contrition. Favouring outdoor shooting and improvisation, Shimizu’s films of this period are often deceptively slight and agreeable; like a revivifying glug from a mountain stream. Ornamental Hairpin gains its quiet power from the picture it traces of the world beyond this forest idyll: the war to which the soldier must return, and the patron who awaits Tanaka’s geisha back home.
1942: The War at Sea from Hawaii to Malaya
Director: Kajiro Yamamoto
It’s a shame that the name of Kajiro Yamamoto, Akira Kurosawa’s early mentor at Toho, is most regularly invoked in relation to one of Japan’s most notorious pieces of war propaganda. Nevertheless, given the national industry’s output at a time of governmental control over it, and the dearth of titles ever circulated abroad or surviving to this day from the Pacific War years, we should certainly consider this celebration of Japan’s military might as the most historically significant and, by some definitions, ‘best’ of 1942. Released in the week of the anniversary of Pearl Harbour and given a human hook in its narrative involving the training of two brothers, its dramatic reconstruction of the aerial attack using model work by Eiji Tsuburaya, the special effects wizard behind Godzilla (1954), was considered so convincing that the US occupation authorities reputedly assumed the footage was genuine and seized all prints of the film at the end of the war.
1943: The Life of Matsu the Untamed
Director: Hiroshi Inagaki
This tender account of a humble rickshaw man who falls in love with a young widow is one of the finest and most moving films produced during the war years. A renowned director in pre-war days, Mansaku Itami (father of the late 20th-century satirist Juzo Itami) was too ill to helm this project, but nevertheless furnished it with a superb script that gave full expression to his liberal principles. Indeed, it was cut by the militarist censors, who disapproved of its unabashed humanism. Director Hiroshi Inagaki imbued the film with convincing period atmosphere and elicited a superb central performance from Tsumasaburo Bando. He would remake the film in 1958 with the great star Toshiro Mifune in the lead; for most viewers, though, this earlier version remains the definitive one.
Director: Keisuke Kinoshita
An early film from Keisuke Kinoshita, the celebrated master of humanist cinema behind Twenty-Four Eyes (1954) and The Ballad of Narayama (1958). Made during the final stage of the Pacific War, when the film industry was under state control and subject to strict censorship, Army is intended to convey the patriotic commitment of an average family. The father (Chishu Ryu) and mother (an astonishing Kinuyo Tanaka) are proud to send their son to the Manchurian front for the glory of the empire and the honour of the family. And yet, right at the end, the mother can’t help but run desperately among the crowd to see him marching off, perhaps for the last time. Debunking the ideological illusion of self-sacrifice and duty of the rest of the film, the last scene not only presents the love and suffering of a mother, but also becomes a milestone of emotion, ambiguity and resistance against the dehumanising representation of jingoism in propaganda films. Of course, Kinoshita paid for his audacity and did not direct another film until after the war.
1945: Momotaro, Sacred Sailors
Director: Mitsuyo Seo
This perplexing piece of war propaganda, funded by the Imperial Japanese Navy to promote a martial spirit among the young, is considered the country’s first feature-length animation. At 74 minutes, it’s double the length of its predecessor, Momotaro, Eagle of the Sea (1943). Its similarly slight narrative unfolds as a series of comic vignettes set to rousing military songs as the eponymous hero, born from a peach in a Japanese folktale, oversees the battle preparations of his airborne and seaborne squadrons of pheasants, monkeys, rabbits, dogs and other animals. Proceedings take a darker turn as they head off to rout the western devils – their designs modelled on Popeye’s adversary Bluto – from their island base of Onigashima (‘Devil’s Island’). Chilling stuff, but fascinating nonetheless.
1946: Utamaro and His Five Women
Director: Kenji Mizoguchi
Depictions of the floating world (ukiyo) – the culture of pleasure and decadence centred around the red light districts of the Edo period – had been central to Japanese cinema since the pioneering days. Yet in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, the occupying American forces banned period films for what was seen as their nationalistic celebrations of the past. For his second postwar production, Kenji Mizoguchi seems to have broken the cordon with this self-reflexive biopic of the 18th-century printmaker Kitagawa Utamaro, known for his portraits, scene-painting and erotica. Episodes from the artist’s life are presented in Mizoguchi’s customarily immersive style, his roving camera joining the dots of a stratified world of power and play. But the opening anecdote in which an Utamaro woodcut is seen to conceitedly assert the painter’s superiority over the prevailing style has left critics with little doubt which artist Mizoguchi is really tackling here.
1947: The Ball at the Anjo House
Director: Kozaburo Yoshimura
The signature work of a director still too little appreciated in the west, Kozaburo Yoshimura’s striking Chekhovian drama of the postwar decline of an aristocratic family boasts inventive camerawork, a telling script by future director Kaneto Shindo and a clutch of superb performances. Those used to Setsuko Hara’s understated acting in Ozu’s films may be startled by her vivacious and assertive persona here; likewise, those who know Masayuki Mori from Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950) and Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu Monogatari (1953) will be surprised to see him as an ‘angry young man’. Stylish and compelling, the film is both a moving drama and an intelligent study of Japan’s postwar transition.
1948: Children of the Beehive
Director: Hiroshi Shimizu
Though a versatile filmmaker who worked in many genres, Shimizu is celebrated above all for his films about children. This independently produced masterpiece, shot against the backdrop of a Japan scarred by war, is certainly the most urgent and probably the most moving of them all. It tracks the journey of a group of war orphans led across western Japan by a demobilised soldier to the orphanage where he himself was raised. The film parallels the then fashionable tradition of Italian neorealism in its location shooting and use of non-professional actors (the children were real-life war orphans), but Shimizu’s sympathetic understanding of his young protagonists is all his own.
1949: Late Spring
Director: Yasujiro Ozu
Yasujiro Ozu’s distinct brand of gendaigeki (contemporary drama) reached a point of exquisite refinement with a trio of films – completed by Early Summer (1951) and Tokyo Story (1953) – known as the ‘Noriko trilogy’, all featuring Setsuko Hara as a daughter figure called Noriko. There’s no Ozu Cinematic Universe at play here – these are three different Norikos that simply have the same name – but each of the films finds Ozu tilling his characteristic themes of filial responsibility and the changing face of the family in a modernising Japan. Late Spring is among the finest and most affecting films made anywhere in the 1940s, featuring Ozu regular Chishu Ryu as the widower who nudges his devoted daughter into marriage, even though he knows he’ll be left alone as a result. The backdrop of springtime underlines the sense of necessary change as time moves on, but as the camera lingers in hallways and rooms after the actors have left them, the sensation of absence is crushing.
Director: Akira Kurosawa
A landmark release from the 40-year-old Akira Kurosawa, Rashomon is heralded as the film that brought global attention to Japanese cinema and its star, Toshiro Mifune, following its unveiling at the Venice Film Festival in 1951, where it won the Golden Lion. A psychological crime thriller in jidaigeki costumes, this tale of truth and lies led to the term ‘the Rashomon effect’ – referring to the relativity of truth by which witnesses may produce contradictory accounts of events. In contrast to the serenity of Ozu or the elaborate camera movements of Mizoguchi (both of whom would be discovered in the west as the result of Kurosawa’s breakthrough), Rashomon illustrates the visual potency of Kurosawa’s assertive style, with a cinematic vision that’s pure poetry.
Director: Mikio Naruse
Mikio Naruse stands shoulder to shoulder with the greats of Japanese cinema, even as the bulk of his work remains difficult to see in the west. His run of masterpieces in the 1950s sees him in contention here for nearly every year of the decade, but 1951 represented something of a comeback. Repast was his third feature that year, and Toho studios were reluctant at first to hand a major Setsuko Hara vehicle over to a filmmaker who hadn’t had a hit since the 1930s. In the event, he delivered one of the great ‘women’s pictures’, the first of his six adaptations of the work of Fumiko Hayashi. As with many of his films, a surface stillness masks what Kurosawa described as a “raging undercurrent” of repression, remonstration and, finally, resignation at the limits of happiness afforded a housewife in postwar Japanese society.
1952: The Life of Oharu
Director: Kenji Mizoguchi
The tragic fate of women, mistreated by family, lovers and society, is a recurrent topic in Kenji Mizoguchi’s filmography, and The Life of Oharu is one of his finest and more epic examples. Adapting a Japanese novel from the 17th century, this period drama depicts the inexorable fall of a woman in a feudal and patriarchal society, from being a young noble daughter to becoming an elderly, derelict streetwalker and beggar nun. Oharu, played by Kinuyo Tanaka at the peak of her performing career and her collaboration with Mizoguchi, suffers cruelty and injustice beyond words, losing everyone and everything that matter to her. Nevertheless, all along the way, she fights for survival and maintains her human dignity and morality against those who intend to humiliate her. Accompanying Oharu’s narrative downfall, Mizoguchi’s visual mastery and exquisite camerawork is at its best, skilfully creating an aesthetic experience of suffering and emotion.
1953: Tokyo Story
Director: Yasujiro Ozu
Ozu’s most well-known work, Tokyo Story is among Japan’s most internationally acclaimed releases – being voted the third greatest film ever made in the 2012 Sight & Sound poll, among many other accolades. Moving between the harbour town of Onomichi and the metropolis of Tokyo, the film is set against the backdrop of postwar reconstruction and the emergence of a new urban lifestyle, with reflective observations on landscape and the city combined with a recurring focus in Ozu’s work: the family unit and family relations – in this case, particularly, the neglect with which two ageing grandparents are treated by their distracted offspring. Through Ozu’s emotive shooting style, often privileging low angles, namely his signature ‘tatami shot’, and contemplative shots, the film evokes an inherent truth that resonates profoundly.
1954: Seven Samurai
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Set in 16th-century Japan and starring Kurosawa’s regular collaborators Toshiro Mifune and Takashi Shimura, this jidaigeki film, steeped in intricate historical detail, is epic in scale and in length, at three and a half hours. With a $500,000 budget, it was the most expensive film ever produced in Japan by that time. In a seemingly straightforward plot, peasants hire seven ronin – masterless samurai – to protect their village from a bunch of plundering bandits. Delicately combining human emotion, self-sacrifice, honour and unrelenting action, the result was so compelling that it would lead to a Hollywood remake, The Magnificent Seven (1960), and a seismic influence on action cinema that’s been felt ever since.
1955: Forever a Woman
Director: Kinuyo Tanaka
With a female director (Kinuyo Tanaka) and a female scriptwriter (Sumie Tanaka) adapting the biography of a female poet (Fumiko Nakajo) who died of breast cancer, Forever a Woman is the epitome of women’s cinema. Despite the tragic story, the third film directed by Tanaka is a striking, well-crafted melodrama portraying the struggles of a middle-aged woman and mother facing divorce, illness and death. The film offers a daring depiction of female sexuality and desire as well as a powerful instance of women’s creativity and self-expression on and off the screen. Yumeji Tsukioka’s vivid performance in the leading role is a decisive part of the film’s appeal.
1956: Crazed Fruit
Director: Ko Nakahira
This feisty tale of sun, sea and sex is a key title in the short-lived ‘Sun Tribe’ (taiyozoku) movie boom, reflecting the trends, tastes and aspirations of an emergent generation of bebopping teens who were riding the waves of a new postwar affluence. It was scripted by the young novelist Shintaro Ishihara, and launched his rakish younger brother Yujiro to stardom in his first lead role. Indeed, it’s difficult not to perceive elements of sibling rivalry in its portrait of two brothers, set against the backdrop of the Shonan Beach area just south of Tokyo, as they vie for the attention of a flirty young woman, already married to an American. Yujiro subsequently married co-star Mie Kitahara while Shintaro later retreated into the world of politics, achieving some notoriety as the outspoken Governor of Tokyo between 1999 to 2012.
1957: A Sun-Tribe Myth from the Bakumatsu Era
Director: Yuzo Kawashima
Yuzo Kawashima is the missing link between the classic Japanese cinema and the 1960s New Wave. His signature work, this witty, relaxed and irreverent film unfolds in and around a brothel on the road west from Edo (today’s Tokyo). Inspired by the tradition of comic storytelling, or rakugo, Kawashima integrates characters from its classic repertoire with elements of the turbulent history of a mid-19th century Japan on the verge of dramatic transformation, while also nodding slyly to the experience of the postwar Japan in which the film was made. Comedian Frankie Sakai, a regular collaborator of the director, gives a splendidly vital performance. Shohei Imamura, just about to embark on his own directorial career, co-wrote the screenplay; he later commented that the film is “essential to an understanding of Kawashima”.
1958: Giants and Toys
Director: Yasuzo Masumura
This deliciously wicked satire on the new cut-throat competitiveness of the postwar corporate world depicts the employees of three rival confectionary companies and their efforts to outdo one another with a series of increasingly ambitious, not to mention ludicrous, promotional campaigns. The ante is upped when World Caramel’s two admen steal a march on their competitors after plucking a coarse but winsome 18-year-old girl from the streets to mould as the face of their brand. The whole enterprise looks set to be brought to its knees, however, when the younger of the pair rebuffs her romantic advances, prompting her to capitalise on her newfound public popularity and go it alone. Yasuzo Masumura fills his widescreen scope frame with garish colours and hectic compositions in this marker point of modernist cinema.
1959: Fires on the Plain
Director: Kon Ichikawa
Thematically eclectic, but marked by a striking visual style that testifies to his early career as a graphic designer, the work of Kon Ichikawa is full of the kind of contradictions represented by the two films for which he’s best known in the west. If The Burmese Harp (1956) was a humanist treatise on individual action and responsibility, Fires on the Plain unflinchingly illustrates the depths of dehumanising atrocity at the Philippine front in the final days of the war. Stark widescreen compositions lay bare the panorama of horrors through which the hollow-eyed, tubercular protagonist trudges, on an agonising quest to retain his sense of self between an opening slap to the face and the infernal descent towards cannibalistic insanity that follows.
1960: The Naked Island
Director: Kaneto Shindo
With virtually no dialogue, the hypnotic The Naked Island portrays the stoic routines of a family living isolated in a tiny island, tirelessly carrying water for their meagre crops. Written, directed and co-produced by Kaneto Shindo (later known for the terrifying Onibaba,1964), the film advanced the full bloom of Japanese avant-garde cinema in the 1960s and its fascination with the vulnerability of human life and the ‘primitive’. The extraordinary performances of Nobuko Otowa and Taiji Tonoyama, and the haunting sounds of their physical work accompanied with the cyclical music score by Hikaru Hayashi, make of The Naked Island an intense sensorial experience. It will leave your hands aching and your throat desperate for a sip of water.
1961: Bad Boys
Director: Susumu Hani
Susumu Hani had worked on documentary in the 1950s, and the influence of the documentary form is very much apparent in his feature debut, an understated and affecting study of the lives of juvenile delinquents in a reform school. Toru Takemitsu’s guitar-dominated score is very much of the 1960s, but the film, with its use of amateur actors and location shooting in a real reformatory, feels as much neorealist as New Wave. Its non-judgemental, carefully observant approach was to prove typical of Hani, who was to go on to realise a series of intricate dramas on themes of female emancipation and adolescent psychology, and to explore themes of culture clash in films set in Kenya and Peru.
Director: Masaki Kobayashi
1962 brought the first pink film (Flesh Market), the first instalment of the long-lived samurai saga of Zatoichi (The Tale of Zatoichi), the first film from Hiroshi Teshigahara (Pitfall) and the last one from Yasujiro Ozu (An Autumn Afternoon). But this jidaigeki from Masaki Kobayashi, the director of the Human Condition trilogy (1959-61) and Kwaidan (1964), stands as one of the most thrilling and sophisticated examples of the genre – a tense masterpiece of the widescreen frame. Centring around an impoverished samurai who seeks revenge against the corrupted, entrenched power of a prominent clan by committing seppuku (suicide by disembowelment), the film unfolds like a tight psychological thriller enclosed in the ritual space of the palace’s courtyard.
1963: The Insect Woman
Director: Shohei Imamura
The opening macroscopic sequence of a beetle crawling across the width of the screen introduces the humans-as-animals metaphor that’s central to the work of New Wave luminary Shohei Imamura. The original title of this examination of a woman’s life across several decades of dramatic socioeconomic change – from impoverished rural origins through dogged ascent, following her arrival in Tokyo, from bar hostess to sex worker to brothel madame – literally translates as ‘Entomological Account of Japan’, and the director certainly frames his guileless but instinctive protagonist as never really in control of her fate, just changing course and carrying on in a new direction when confronted by the many setbacks in her life. Imamura’s messy, almost documentary, approach, his sexual frankness and the warts-and-all naturalism of his approach to a city in the process of construction make this a pivotal work in Japanese cinema.
1964: Woman of the Dunes
Director: Hiroshi Teshigahara
One of four collaborations between modernist writer Kobo Abe and avant-garde director Hiroshi Teshigahara, Woman of the Dunes is the most extraordinary of this tetralogy of works: a stylish, scintillating adaptation of the existential source novel that makes great use of Hiroshi Segawa’s elegant cinematography and a memorably unnerving string-heavy soundtrack from Toru Takemitsu. In it, an amateur entomologist goes bug-hunting in the dunes only to find himself trapped in the home of a strange young widow. As he becomes stuck in an increasingly surreal tryst, surrounded only by mountains of sand, a strange form of Stockholm syndrome starts to settle in.
1965: A Fugitive from the Past
Director: Tomu Uchida
This monumental crime thriller, adapted from a novel by Tsutomu Minakami, opens with the recreation of a real-life typhoon that in 1954 sent the ferry between Hokkaido and the Japanese mainland plunging to the bottom of the sea with much loss of life. Travelling on the boat were three criminals just escaped from Hokkaido’s high-security Abashiri Prison, but when the police discover the corpses of just two of them, they realise the storm isn’t to blame for their deaths, and a hunt for the fugitive ensues across the country that lasts many years. With grainy 35mm scope cinematography blown up from 16mm monochrome to lend a gritty newsreel reality and a dark, foreboding air, Tomu Uchida’s late-career masterwork evokes a moral and spiritual vacuum at the heart of postwar Japan.
1966: Silence Has No Wings
Director: Kazuo Kuroki
Kazuo Kuroki’s imaginative, elliptical and individual films mark him out as one of the unsung visionaries of Japanese modernism. This, his auspicious feature debut, is surely his most radical and challenging work, rich in fascinating ambiguity as the device of a caterpillar’s journey across Japan is used to explore such themes as the legacy of war and the rise of organised crime. It’s as hard to interpret Kuroki’s images as it is easy to marvel at their beauty and lyricism; cinematographer Tatsuo Suzuki deserves a name check for his exquisite monochrome imagery. Mariko Kaga, in multiple roles, holds the film together with her haunting central presence.
1967: Branded to Kill
Director: Seijun Suzuki
Number Three Killer is a member of the Tokyo underground with a fetish for the smell of steamed rice. Branded to Kill follows the hits of this nihilistic hero (played by Joe Shishido) through a delirium of breathless action, exuberantly exhibited in black-and-white widescreen (Nikkatsu Scope). Considered by many the ultimate yakuza thriller, the film cost Seijun Suzuki his position as director in Nikkatsu studios, but also transformed him into a counterculture cult figure of world cinema. Nikkatsu accused Suzuki of making films nobody could understand, and perhaps they had a point. But who needs meaning when greeted with such a feast of visual bravado and startling editing?
- Branded to Kill is coming soon to BFI Player
1968: Death by Hanging
Director: Nagisa Oshima
At the start of Death by Hanging, radical political filmmaker Nagisa Oshima – the most famous of the directors associated with the Japanese New Wave – asks his audience a chilling question: “Have you ever witnessed an execution?” Looking to challenge preconceptions, he then shows them one – only for it to fail when the man due to be hanged survives. Based on a real incident, the complex farce that follows contains many of the key themes of Oshima’s career, the director precisely and penetratingly employing Brechtian theatrical techniques to expose the hypocrisy, bigotry and incompetence of the figures trusted with authority to take a life away. His film also critiques the societal structures that granted them such terrible power.
1969: Funeral Parade of Roses
Director: Toshio Matsumoto
A stimulating filmmaker and sharp critic, Toshio Matsumoto left behind a rich trail of experimental shorts in which he sought to dismantle the traditional visual aesthetic of cinema. All of that same sense of play and investigation into the medium is up there on the screen in his feature-length debut, Funeral Parade of Roses. This groundbreaking queer manifesto mixes documentary, animation and avant-garde techniques to tell the story of a young trans woman of Shinjuku and her lover. Riffing on Oedipus Rex, Matsumoto’s film muses on the politics of the gendered body, while offering an indelible survey of Tokyo’s gay underground of the 1960s. Another radical release from the Art Theatre Guild, it proved a key influence on Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971).
- Funeral Parade of Roses is coming soon to BFI Player
- 10 great gay films from east and south-east Asia
1970: Eros + Massacre
Director: Yoshishige Yoshida
Although less celebrated in the west than contemporaries such as Oshima and Imamura, Yoshishige (aka Kiju) Yoshida is one of the outstanding figures of the New Wave. Working in vital partnership with his wife and star, Mariko Okada, he realised a sequence of films probing themes of politics and transgressive sexuality. Premiered in France in 1969 but not seen in Japan until March 1970, Eros + Massacre is a film on which he was able to work with complete artistic freedom. Widely considered his masterpiece, it juxtaposes the life and loves of an early 20th-century anarchist with the experiences of two students researching his theories in the late 1960s. Yoshida rightly made grand claims for the film: “The fundamental theme is: how to change the world, and what is it that needs to be changed?”
1971: Throw Away Your Books, Rally in the Streets
Director: Shuji Terayama
“If the end of the world comes tomorrow, I will plant an apple tree today!” proclaims the destitute and disillusioned young protagonist of prolific avant-garde poet, playwright, filmmaker and photographer Shuji Terayama’s spectacularly titled debut feature. Shouted at anyone who will listen, his line – paraphrased from a maxim apparently popularised by Martin Luther King – embodies this inventive and iconoclastic film’s philosophy, a statement film that’s packed full of joy, rage and anarchy. An ambitiously over-stuffed descent into delirium, Terayama’s infectiously energetic madcap musical revolts against taste and civility, favouring song, sex and excess – all in vibrant colour.
1972: Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41
Director: Shunya Ito
Seventies exploitation never looked so stylish as when realised within the Japanese studio system, which fell back on more sensationalist fare to get it through the decade. The second of Toei’s four-film series of manga adaptations featuring Meiko Kaji as the taciturn jailbird with the deadly stare, wronged by the man she loves and wrongly imprisoned for his crime, goes that extra distance in aesthetic flare after the fairly standard women-in-prison antics of the first instalment. Its jailbreak narrative, as the eponymous Sasori (Scorpion) leads the gang of inmates flying their coop, unfolds in striking colours and widescreen compositions, with an unforgettable kabuki-inspired break midway through the proceedings introducing the convicts and their crimes. This is a key title in Japanese cult film fandom; along with the following year’s Lady Snowblood, it’s among the more obvious influences on Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill (2003).
1973: Battles without Honour and Humanity
Director: Kinji Fukasaku
The yakuza-eiga, or gangster film, wasn’t born in 1973, but that was the year it was subjected to electric shock treatment in the form of Kinji Fukasaku’s Battles without Honour and Humanity saga. Over five films, released across 18 months in 1973 and 1974, the series lobotomised any romantic notions of gangsterdom that had been percolating in both Japanese and western cinema (the first Godfather film had been released the previous year). It’s a densely plotted 20-year narrative of political manoeuvres, vendettas, mis- and displaced loyalties, face-stamping and arm-slicing – all delivered via Fukasaku’s ultra-violent, handheld stylistic blitzkrieg. The series gets off to a lightning start in the opening minute of the first film, and doesn’t stop for breath for the next 500.
1974: Sandakan No. 8
Director: Kei Kumai
Before the war, life in some of Japan’s regional areas was below the poverty line. To help families to survive, underage girls were often sold to brothels, and some were sent overseas, labelled as karayuki-san. Directed by Kei Kumai, a filmmaker renowned for his passion and approach to social issues, Sandakan No. 8 is a film that gouged out the dark side of women’s history in Japan. Playing aged Osaki, the returned karayuki-san, Kinuyo Tanaka – one of Japan’s best-known actresses, who worked with many old masters, including Mizoguchi and Ozu – won the Silver Bear for best actress at the Berlin Film Festival, while the film was named best of its year by Kinema Junpo (the second of three times Kumai would be so honoured). The painful reality of voiceless and forgotten women is laid bare here, and leaves a lasting impression.
1975: The Shiranui Sea
Director: Noriaki Tsuchimoto
Some documentarians find themselves fixated on a subject. This is certainly the case with Noriaki Tsuchimoto, whose deeply humane interest in the after-effects of a devastating mercury poisoning incident in the seaside town of Minamata resulted in several masterful longitudinal films covering the disaster and the resultant disease. As with his preceding film Minamata: The Victims and Their World (1971), Tsuchimoto’s focus is on the victims, working with them to depict their reality sensitively and empathetically on screen, as well as following their battles against Chisso, the polluting corporation who denied culpability and used intimidation to suppress the complaints of the afflicted.
1976: Watcher in the Attic
Director: Noboru Tanaka
Much as many critics decried the major studio Nikkatsu’s near wholesale shift to eroticism between 1971 and 1988, a number of mini-masterpieces can be found among the near thousand features turned out as part of its Roman Porno adult line. Noboru Tanaka’s delirious tale of voyeurism and murder, adapted from a short story by the mystery-horror writer Edogawa Rampo, whose stories from the prewar era were branded with the label ‘erotic grotesque nonsense’, is one such work. Its hallucinatory depiction of the abnormal antics of the denizens of a 1923 boarding house captures the jarring conflation between Japanese and western culture at the heart of Rampo’s prose, and within Taisho era (1912-26) culture in general, while hinting at the cultural cataclysm that would succeed it.
1977: The Yellow Handkerchief
Director: Yoji Yamada
This is the veteran director Yoji Yamada’s still talked about Japanese road movie centred on three strangers who are thrown together on a journey to Hokkaido. It was a game changer for the legendary actor Ken Takakura, previously typecast for his roles in Toei-produced yakuza films of the 60s (including our 1965 choice, A Fugitive from the Past). Takakura’s stoic performance makes the film, together with Yamada’s favourite actress, Chieko Baisho, playing Takakura’s wife. Although it did not overtake Yamada’s own long-running Tora-san series at the box office that year, it touched people’s hearts and won the first ever prize for best film at the new Japanese Academy Awards. Though loosely based on a column by Pete Hamill for the New York Post and arguably influenced by western road movies, it’s a distinctively Japanese film in many ways – though not sufficiently so to prevent a 2008 Hollywood remake starring William Hurt.
1978: The Demon
Director: Yoshitaro Nomura
Despite working across multiple genres throughout his career, it’s the crime thriller – particularly those adapted from the works of popular novelist Seicho Matsumoto – for which Yoshitaro Nomura is best known. A brilliant studio technician with a keen eye for genre subversion, complex narrative structures and formal gymnastics, he’s like the missing link between Alfred Hitchcock and Brian De Palma – a comparison emphasised in the Herrmann/Donaggio-esque scores of collaborator Yasushi Akutagawa. Taking home a slew of domestic awards on release, The Demon tells the horrific tale of a father driven by his sadistic wife to abuse his children after their mother – his mistress – abandons them. It may temper some of the director’s baroque sensibilities in favour of a grim, social realist approach, but it provocatively underlines man’s capacity for evil with greater force than any of his other available pictures.
1979: The Man Who Stole the Sun
Director: Kazuhiko Hasegawa
This feverish, Dr. Strangelove-style nightmare from political activist-turned-director Kazuhiko Hasegawa critiques Japan’s dependency on nuclear energy, 32 years before the Fukushima disaster. It features national rock star Kenji Sawada in the main role of Makoto, who assembles an atomic bomb in his tiny apartment with stolen plutonium and uses it to make demands on the Japanese government, among them allowing The Rolling Stones – then barred from Japan for narcotics possession – to play a concert in Tokyo. The script was co-written by Leonard Schrader, an American Japanophile who lived and taught in Japan for many years, also co-writing Sydney Pollack’s The Yakuza (1974) and a brace of his brother Paul’s films – Blue Collar (1978) and Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985).
Director: Seijun Suzuki
The farrago surrounding Seijun Suzuki’s dismissal from Nikkatsu after Branded to Kill (1967) saw him effectively barred from filmmaking for a decade, save for the mixed bag of his golfing psychodrama comeback A Tale of Sorrow and Sadness (1977). Though more evidently cast in the arthouse mould than the action B-movies he is remembered for, his first independent production, Zigeunerweisen, is much more representative of the Suzuki spirit. Set during the Taisho Era (1912-26), when western ideas, technologies and fashions began permeating everyday life, this dreamlike supernatural drama revolves around two former colleagues from military academy linked by a record of the titular Sarasate violin piece and several women bearing uncanny resemblances to one another who may or may not be dead. The plot is maddeningly (although deliberately) impenetrable, but Suzuki’s evocation of the pandemonium, decadence and musty exoticism that this interwar period came to symbolise results in a potent work that led to the similarly cryptic Kagero-za (1981) and Yumeji (1991) to form his so-called Taisho trilogy.
- Zigeunerweisen is coming soon to BFI Player
1981: Muddy River
Director: Kohei Oguri
Based on a bestselling novel, Kohei Oguri’s feature debut is set in the late 1950s when, despite the economic miracle, parts of Japan were still mired in postwar poverty. The protagonist is a boy whose father runs a shabby diner on the banks of a river in Osaka. One day the boy spies a brother and sister duo emerging from the cabin of a moored boat, and decides to make friends. His father warns his son not to visit the siblings after dusk, as it turns out that their mother (Mariko Kaga) is a sex worker receiving clients at night. Playing out like a blues song, Muddy River offers gorgeous black-and-white visuals to offset the pathos and desperation of its evocative setting. Oguri’s film met with international acclaim but would be the last Japanese production to be nominated for the Oscar for best foreign-language film until The Twilight Samurai in 2003.
1982: I Are You, You Am Me
Director: Nobuhiko Obayashi
The late Nobuhiko Obayashi began his career as a pioneering figure in Japanese experimental film in the 1960s before making his feature debut with the surreal, nay bonkers, haunted house tale Hausu (1977) – still his most famous film in the west. In the 1980s, his work branched out in a more commercial direction. I Are You, You Am Me (aka Exchange Students) is the first of a series of coming-of-age films constituting the so-called ‘Onomichi trilogy’, named after Obayashi’s hometown where they were shot. It’s a body swap comedy that’s ripe with quirky moments and nostalgic sentiment, following Kazuo and Kazumi as they find themselves trapped in the other’s body and forced to navigate society’s rigid gender norms.
1983: The Family Game
Director: Yoshimitsu Morita
This scabrous, funny and visually inventive satire on the Japanese family and the bourgeois obsession with academic achievement was the first major work of director Yoshimitsu Morita, a fascinating presence in late 20th- and early 21st-century Japanese cinema. The quintessential postmodern director, Morita here uses a generally static camera and frequent frontal compositions to create a sly pastiche of Yasujiro Ozu’s instantly recognisable film style; in doing so, he cleverly emphasises the obsolescence of traditional family values, and the effect is as telling as it is hilarious. Yusaku Matsuda gives an outrageous performance as the tutor hired to coach a wayward adolescent; sadly this talented actor died of cancer, aged only 40, in 1989.
1984: The Funeral
Director: Juzo Itami
Juzo Itami (son of the respected pre-war director Mansaku Itami) was long established as an actor, and had won acclaim playing the father in The Family Game the year before, when he made his belated directorial debut at the age of 50 with this pointed black comedy. In this account of a family preparing for their father’s cremation, elements of slapstick jostle with a more refined and penetrating social satire; the humour derives from the awkwardness of people unfamiliar with established rituals and out of touch with the traditions of their society. Itami followed it up a year later with the equally engaging ‘ramen western’ Tampopo, a hilarious parody that sends up the conspicuous consumption of the Bubble era.
1985: Fire Festival
Director: Mitsuo Yanagimachi
One of the rare masterpieces of the 1980s, this brooding, breathtaking fable is the most significant work of independent filmmaker Mitsuo Yanagimachi, who mingles the earthy and everyday with the mysticism of Shinto lore. A lumberjack in a remote fishing village resists the development of a planned marine park, stirring tensions in the community, as the story builds slowly and implacably towards a devastating climax. An admirer of Mizoguchi and Robert Bresson, Yanagimachi directed a sequence of austere and haunting dramas. He described this film as a study of “the relationship between nature and man”, produced at a time when a developed, urbanised Japan was increasingly alienated from nature and from its historic traditions.
1986: To Sleep So as to Dream
Director: Kaizo Hayashi
Kaizo Hayashi’s magical monochrome debut is a delightful celebration of cinephilia, featuring two private detectives from 1950s Tokyo in search of a silent screen actress trapped eternally within the frame of a scratchy old ninja film from 1915. Playing for the most part without dialogue, it drifts between illusion and allusion, toying with the conventions of both the silent film and hardboiled detective genres in a mobius-strip narrative that leads the viewer through a maze of such baroque locales as a carnival fairground and a deserted film studio. The sets are by Takeo Kimura, known for his work with Seijun Suzuki in the 1960s, while cameos from a host of veteran talent include the benshi silent film narrators Shunsui Matsuda and Midori Sawato.
1987: The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On
Director: Kazuo Hara
Firebrand documentarian Kazuo Hara’s most well-known work follows Kenzo Okuzaki, a controversial Second World War veteran of Japan’s New Guinea campaign turned anti-Imperial activist, imprisoned for murder and for shooting pachinko balls at Emperor Hirohito. Drawn to the motivations behind Okuzaki’s pursuit in challenging authority, Hara follows him on his obsessive quest to unearth the truth behind war atrocities as he unleashes his violent tendencies on those he accuses. Despite losing footage shot in New Guinea, Hara spent five years editing the remaining material to produce this extraordinary documentary, still screened every summer in Japan, reaching new young and curious audiences.
Director: Katsuhiro Otomo
Painstakingly handcrafted and presented with earth-shaking intensity, Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira was a landmark moment in anime and Japanese film as a whole. Adapted from his own manga of the same name, its exhilarating mix of explosive and precisely animated action and a paranoid, dystopian narrative had a lasting effect on sci-fi, inspiring a new wave of cyberpunk anime and many western imitators. 1988 was already a momentous year for anime – Studio Ghibli having released a legendary double bill in the form of My Neighbour Totoro and Grave of the Fireflies – but it was Akira that made the biggest bang.
1989: Tetsuo: The Iron Man
Director: Shinya Tsukamoto
Shinya Tsukamoto’s most famous work is an abrasive frenzy of metal and flesh that won’t soon be forgotten by anyone who witnesses it. With a namesake from and inspired by Akira, the previous entry on this list, Tsukamoto’s unhinged tale of a ‘metal fetishist’ addicted to embedding various pieces of metal into his body is utterly relentless. The cult director has gone on to make a number of vivid deconstructions of sexual repression and a will towards violence (see the equally gruesome Tokyo Fist, 1995), but Tetsuo will forever be his rawest: anarchy seared onto black-and-white celluloid.
1990: The Cherry Orchard
Director: Shun Nakahara
Schoolgirls have become a fetishised icon in Japanese cinema in the modern era, but The Cherry Orchard predates all that. Shun Nakahara’s film is based on a series of 1980s manga by Akimi Yoshida, offering a layered, intricate portrayal of a group of teens in an all-girls high school during the two hours that they prepare for an annual stage production of Chekhov’s titular play. An ode to fleeting youth and friendships, Nakahara’s film is shot in a naturalistic style, allowing the camaraderie between the nearly all-female cast to blossom. Intriguingly, Nakahara remade The Cherry Orchard himself in 2008, but didn’t achieve the same poignant freshness.
1991: Only Yesterday
Director: Isao Takahata
Isao Takahata’s career with Studio Ghibli often presented him as the left brain to Hayao Miyazaki’s right: while both were known for obsessive naturalist detail in their work (and a flaunting of schedules), Takahata’s films are quieter, sometimes even softer. It’s something that’s apparent in the very faces of the characters, drawn to replicate even the smallest of muscle movements, rather than exaggerate them. Focused on the 30-year-old Taeko’s reflections on memories from her childhood at 10 years of age, Only Yesterday was proof that even the most humble of animated stories can contain fantastical wonder.
1992: Porco Rosso
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Porco Rosso stands as one of veteran animator Hayao Miyazaki’s more straightforward adventures, but that’s part of its greatness. Following an Italian fighter pilot cursed to live as a pig after the First World War, its plot may appear simple compared with much of his filmography, but there are complex emotions at its heart. Chief among these is Miyazaki’s dreamy love of fighter planes, complicated by the grim reality of their usage (a theme he revisits in 2013’s The Wind Rises). Porco Rosso favours romantic adventure over sombre realism, in an unforgettable and high-flying anime that walks a delicate line between brightly-coloured derring-do and a melancholic reflection on lost love.
Director: Takeshi Kitano
One of Takeshi Kitano’s most celebrated films, Sonatine is the one that endeared him to critics and directors in the west. Quentin Tarantino liked it so much that he engineered the film’s opening in the US, and later cited it as one of the driving inspirations behind Kill Bill (2003). An offbeat yakuza thriller, Sonatine sees the prolific TV superstar-turned-auteur throw his best punches as both performer, playing a tragic gang boss, and writer-director, as he offers up his poetic brand of minimalism, machismo and violence. What surfaces here is Kitano’s deep sense of resignation, a recurring theme in many of his films. His portrayal of a kingpin caught in a war between clans is full of despair, laying the groundwork for a nihilistic finale.
Director: Naomi Kawase
The personal 8mm work, which also includes Embracing (1992), with which Naomi Kawase emerged to become Japan’s foremost female director still seems remarkably fresh. This intimate portrait of the woman Kawase calls “grandmother”, who raised her when her parents disappeared, contains a pun on the words katatsumuri (‘snail’) and tsumori (‘intention’), playing on a childhood misunderstanding that slugs, like herself, were really snails looking for their homes. It unfurls as a vivid invocation of the everyday as filtered through its maker’s subjective experiences, a hypnotic collage of mundane suburban landscapes, simple household objects and interiors, trees and other organic forms – inanimate objects brought to life by the animating force of the camera, inscribed in natural light in the grainy texture of home-movie stock.
1995: Like Grains of Sand
Director: Ryosuke Hashiguchi
When director Ryosuke Hashiguchi came out as gay in 1993, he spoke of his life “expanding from standard to Vista”. Made soon afterwards, this charming and very touching story, celebrated in Sight & Sound by Tony Rayns as “very probably the best film ever made about problems faced by a gay kid in his teens”, is one of the Japanese cinema’s most upbeat and affirmative portraits of homosexuality. It focuses on a 17-year-old boy with an unrequited crush on his straight best friend; he in turn has feelings for a new girl in school, who has her own secret… Hashiguchi charts the shifting dynamics of the triangle with poise and precision in this gently paced and freshly observed film.
1996: Shall We Dance?
Director: Masayuki Suo
In the mid to late 90s, Japan’s ‘Great Recession’ was taking a huge toll on the ordinary salaryman, and office workers became a key archetype in films of the time. Superstar Koji Yakusho had himself worked as a municipal clerk before taking up an acting career, so was a good fit for the role of Sugiyama, the deskworker who glimpses a beautiful woman (real-life ballerina Tamiyo Kusakari) giving social dance lessons from the window of his commuter train and decides that he too must learn to waltz. Dancing provides Sugiyama the kind of joy that had always eluded him, and this uplifting story of reinvention turned out to be hugely appealing to audiences worldwide, making it a substantial hit. Fourteen Japanese Academy Awards followed, and Shall We Dance? was remade in Hollywood in 2004, with Richard Gere and Jennifer Lopez hitting the dancefloor.
Director: Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Few directors have managed to articulate such an air of cold desperation and emotional abandonment from the cityscapes of post-Bubble-era Tokyo as Kiyoshi Kurosawa does in Cure. Evil seems to linger behind each blank building facade or facial expression in this unique take on the psychological thriller, whose spare and detached approach often feels like it is holding back on the very thrills the genre trades on. The ubiquitous Koji Yakusho stars as anguished police detective Takabe, whose obsessive investigations into an apparently perpetrator-less string of homicides lead him through a labyrinthine narrative. Mesmerism, amnesia and appropriated identities present various paths of an enquiry that take him further from a spiritual emptiness much closer to home.
- Cure is coming soon to BFI Player
Director: Hideo Nakata
A huge hit both domestically and around the globe, Hideo Nakata’s Ring announced a millennial boom in Japanese horror. Based on a 1991 novel by Koji Suzuki, it derives its frightful potency from riffiing on the traditional vengeful spirit (onryo) archetype of Japanese folklore, while tapping into a very modern sense of technology-induced anxiety. The story hinges on a reporter’s investigations into strange cases of people being found dead after watching an apparently cursed videotape – a chilling toxification of technology that’s become synonymous with J-horror. The film’s creeping pace never calls for jump scares; rather the uncanny dread is what glues us to the screen. Sequels became a franchise, and an American remake followed, while Nakata freaked us all out again with Dark Water in 2002.
Director: Takashi Miike
Takashi Miike’s films are the last word in brutal violence and copious bloodshed, offering one murderous episode after another. This hugely prolific talent has directed more than 100 film and TV titles, but if he’s to be represented by just one film on this list, let it be Audition. Another pre-millennial J-horror release that plunged a stake of fear and shock into the hearts of cinemagoers worldwide, it finds a director whose stories often involve men decapitating each other in a rare, quasi-feminist mood. As he traces the story of widower Aoyama (Ryo Ishibashi), who stages a fake movie audition to look for a new, young wife, Miike highlights the man’s ageist, sexist inclinations. You can then practically hear him chortling with glee when, in the latter half of the film, Aoyama pays dearly for his actions.
Director: Shinji Aoyama
The shadow of the 1995 sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo subway looms heavily over Shinji Aoyama’s Cannes prize-winner Eureka, whose simple set-up sees a bus driver and two school-age siblings trying to piece together their lives after a violent bus-jacking that results in all other passengers dying. Joined by the shell-shocked teenagers’ elder cousin, this ad-hoc family unit take off in an old bus on a long road trip across Japan with seemingly no purpose or destination, in an attempt to come to terms with the trauma. A runtime topping three-and-a-half hours and featuring numerous subplots make this a long ride, but Masaki Tamura’s breathtaking sepia-toned photography and the sheer scale of Aoyama’s slow-cinema depiction of those trying to make sense of random acts of violence results in an undeniably affecting experience.
2001: Spirited Away
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Perhaps the most complete encompassment of the most common themes of Miyazaki’s work, Spirited Away is a major touchstone for many an animation fan. A fantasy film telling the story of Chihiro, a young girl whose parents undergo a mysterious transformation in a bizarre punishment for greed, this coming-of-age tale is imbued with a Shinto perspective on responsibility and the natural world. It’s an emotionally dense work, but a very approachable one nonetheless, its relatable emotivity bolstered by an all-time great score by Miyazaki’s longtime collaborator Joe Hisaishi. It doesn’t take long to realise just why this is considered one of Studio Ghibli’s best – and one of the great films of the then new millennium.
2002: The Twilight Samurai
Director: Yoji Yamada
There’s no stopping Yoji Yamada, who’s been making movies since 1961 and, at 88 years old, is still going strong today. 2002’s The Twilight Samurai is his most successful film overseas, one which brought much wider international recognition for the acting prowess of lead Hiroyuki Sanada. The tale of a poor, single-dad samurai eking out a living from managing the clan’s food storage house in 19th-century Japan, the film also offers wonderful turns from Rie Miyazawa as the samurai’s secret love and Keiko Kishi as his grown-up daughter. The first Japanese film to be nominated for the Oscar for best foreign film in 22 years, it began Yamada’s ‘Samurai trilogy’, completed by The Hidden Blade (2004) and Love and Honour (2006), all part of a resurgence of cinematic interest in the samurai in the early years of the 21st century – see also Takeshi Kitano’s reboot of Zatoichi (2003).
2003: Wild Berries
Director: Miwa Nishikawa
This is the debut film of one of the most widely known and respected female directors in contemporary Japan, Miwa Nishikawa. A former assistant to Hirokazu Koreeda, who serves here as producer, Nishikawa also wrote the original script of the film, constructing a brilliant story about the secrets and lies behind the apparent normality of a middle-class family. Ironic and tense in equal measure, with surprising moments of gritty humour (see the scene of the grandfather’s funeral), Wild Berries presents a fascinating narrative of deception, a subject that Nishikawa has continued to explore throughout her career.
2004: Nobody Knows
Director: Hirokazu Koreeda
With Maborosi (1995) and After Life (1998), Hirokazu Koreeda emerged as a major new force in Japanese arthouse cinema, his quiet, observational mode and domestic focus drawing frequent comparison with Ozu. After a best actor win at Cannes for teenager Yuya Yagira, the youngest performer ever to win the award, Nobody Knows cemented his position as a festival darling and subsequently became his most widely seen feature thus far. Based on a true story, it’s about four kids (all with different fathers) whose mother abandons them while she goes off to marry her new lover. Yagira plays the oldest son, who must take care of his siblings after she disappears, the rent isn’t paid and utilities are cut off in their little apartment. Heart-rending, and with a tragic finale.
2005: Linda Linda Linda
Director: Nobuhiro Yamashita
Four schoolgirls form a rock band to participate in their high school graduation festival. In the hands of Nobuhiro Yamashita, this simple storyline becomes an intimate coming-of-age film that reveals the trials and dreams of youth with delicacy and a pinch of nostalgia. Minimalist in style, with an abundance of static shots, ambient sound and slow pacing, the quiet atmosphere and feelings are interrupted only by the explosive sound of the catchy title track, originally a piece by Japanese punk band The Blue Hearts, that’s sure to get stuck in your head. Korean actor Bae Doona as an exchange student and the band’s singer adds nice moments of comedy to this action-light story.
Director: Satoshi Kon
“This is your brain on anime”, proclaimed the (western) poster of Paprika, sadly the final feature film made by Satoshi Kon before his death in 2010. The statement feels apt, as its intense sensory overload takes the viewer on a madcap journey (said to have inspired Christopher Nolan’s Inception) through the inner workings of the mind. As in Perfect Blue (1997) and Millennium Actress (2001), Kon is interested in the relationships between identity, dreams and media, making this an eerily suitable cap to the animator’s idiosyncratic career. Paprika is a testament to the power of animation, blurring the line between the dreamscape and the real in a way that live action could never replicate.
2007: United Red Army
Director: Kôji Wakamatsu
Known for his politically charged and formally experimental work in the adult ‘pink film’ field in the late 60s, Koji Wakamatsu returned to this same period with this gripping self-funded three-hour docudrama detailing the events leading to the notorious Asama Mountain Lodge Incident of February 1972. This 10-day siege saw five members of the United Red Army left-wing radical group occupying a remote mountain inn, and two police officers and one civilian killed and many injured in the ensuing shootout. Given Wakamatsu’s own anti-authoritarian reputation, his harrowing depiction of the would-be revolutionaries’ violent internal ideological purges in the run up to the standoff hardly condones or frames his protagonists as counter-cultural heroes. Instead, he provides an assured and insightful account of the moment the turbulent world of 1960s political activism turned toxic.
2008: Love Exposure
Director: Sion Sono
A comedy-action-romance-movie with a runtime approaching four hours about the wayward son of a Catholic priest with a penchant for upskirting might not seem an enticing proposition on paper. However, if maverick bad-boy Sion Sono has ever made a masterpiece, then this is it. As our hero cross-dresses as Meiko Kaji’s character in the 1970s Female Convict Scorpion film series and finds redemption in the face of a high-school-girl religious cult member, Love Exposure whisks the viewer to all manner of unimaginable emotional spaces. It unfolds with such brio and unpredictability that one barely notices the ludicrousness of its premise, nor even that the opening credits occur a full hour into the action.
2009: Summer Wars
Director: Mamoru Hosoda
Described by director Mamoru Hosoda as a mash-up of different ideas he didn’t get to delve into with his work on popular children’s series Digimon Adventure (1999), Summer Wars feels like more than the sum of its parts. Following the teenage maths genius Kenji, staying with a friend’s family as he attempts to save a virtual world from a rogue artificial intelligence, the film is a popular benchmark in Hosoda’s career. Its loopy sci-fi concept and hyperactive action is consistently grounded by sincere and down-to-earth family drama, as in The Girl Who Leapt through Time (2006) before it, and Mirai (2018) to come. Summer Wars is memorable not just for its unique approach to spaces existing outside of reality, but for its attention to how these spaces affect his characters.
Director: Lee Sang-il
Based on Shuichi Yoshida’s best-selling crime novel of the same title, and adapted for the screen by the author, this sprawling thriller is set in a remote village near Nagasaki. Its central figure is Yuichi (Satoshi Tsumabuki), a young working-class loner suffering from a traumatic childhood, who meets Mitsuyo (Eri Fukatsu), a shop assistant, through an online dating site. The pair fall in love, but when Yuichi becomes prime suspect in a murder investigation, their romance faces a desperate future on the run. Korean-Japanese director Lee Sang-il (Hula Girls, 2006) and star Tsumabuki (Waterboys, 2001), who coveted the role, did not disappoint fans of the cult novel, and the film earned numerous awards – including Kinema Junpo’s best film – as well as strong box office. Reflecting dark issues in contemporary Japanese society, it poses provocative questions of the nature of good and evil.
2011: I Wish
Director: Hirokazu Koreeda
The second Koreeda title on this list – the sublime Still Walking (2008) fell inbetween – finds him again working with child actors, inimitably drawing out their natural talent and potential. It’s the heartwarming tale of two brothers who are separated after their parents divorce and pine to live together again. It proved the sleeper hit of 2011 in Japan, opening three months after the East Japan earthquake that subsequently triggered the Fukushima disaster; I Wish was perhaps the kind of cinematic balm that audiences needed to see. It was two years before the film saw a release in the UK, when The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw hailed it as one of the year’s best: “the moving and deeply satisfying work of a director who just keeps on getting better”.
2012: Flashback Memories 3D
Director: Tetsuaki Matsue
Tetsuaki Matsue’s work is indicative of the importance of the field of ‘jishu eiga’, a creative wellspring of self-financed independent films from which figures like Naomi Kawase, Kiyoshi Kurosawa and Shinya Tsukamoto emerged. His debut Annyong Kimchi (1999) explored his Japanese-Korean identity, while Live Tape (2009) – a zero-budget, one-camera, one-take, one DV-tape concert film of musician Kenta Maeno – won a major award at the 2009 Tokyo International Film Festival. Flashback Memories 3D is an unorthodox documentary portrait of a didgeridoo player, Goma, who is unable to form new memories following a traffic accident. Matsue charts his rehabilitation through a seamless blend of live footage of his performances, old photographs, animations and excerpts from his wife’s diaries. The relentless, hypnotic throb of his playing and inventive use of 3D contribute to this overwhelming sensory portrait of a man frozen in the moment.
2013: Tale of Iya
Director: Tetsuichiro Tsuta
This patient, compelling and beautiful account of rural life in the Iya Valley, one of Japan’s remotest regions, is filmmaking in a heroic mode. It could have been a realist film, about the daily lives of locals and urban exiles, and the conflicts over the construction of a tunnel that will inevitably bring the outside world closer. Yet in its length and visual grandeur, it has the scope of an epic. Director Tetsuichiro Tsuta (a native of Tokushima Prefecture where the film is set) and cinematographer Yutaka Aoki employed the now rare medium of 35mm, capturing the dramatic mountain vistas to stunning effect. Critic Mark Schilling has compared the film to Gabriel García Márquez’s novel One Hundred Years of Solitude, as a work, “in which the fantastic and the supernatural not only impinge on the everyday, but poetically coexist with it – and finally supersede it.”
2014: The Light Shines Only There
Director: Mipo Oh
This is the second film of the ‘Hakodate trilogy’ (the others being Sketches of Kaitan City by Kazuyoshi Kumakiri and Over the Fence by Nobuhiro Yamashita), adapted from the novel by Yasushi Sato, who took his own life in 1990. It brought a then relatively new female director, Mipo Oh, to sudden stardom on the domestic and international stage with a rush of awards and acclaim, including the chance to represent Japan in the foreign language section of the 87th Academy Awards. Marshalling superb acting, camerawork and music, Oh, who is always interested in family bonds, sensitively created a dynamic love story from a female perspective. It’s set in the northern port city of Hakodate over one summer, and centres on the turbulent affair between an aimless man and a woman in poverty with inescapable family responsibilities.
2015: Happy Hour
Director: Ryusuke Hamaguchi
Becoming a major force on the international festival circuit, Ryusuke Hamaguchi is one of the most promising Japanese filmmakers of the new generation. On completion of a graduate programme in film at the Tokyo University of the Arts, he came up with his degree project, Passion (2008), a mature drama concerned with the fragility of human relationships. When Happy Hour, his magnificent five-hour-long journey into the lives of four friends, premiered at Locarno, Hamaguchi’s approach of workshopping a film through improvisation paid dividends, resulting in the extraordinary performances of the four leading women, winning them a shared best actress award. His next, Asako I & II, was selected for the main competition at Cannes 2018.
Director: Kôji Fukada
There are echoes of Koji Fukada’s much-praised Hospitalité (2010) in 2016’s Harmonium, in which the arrival of an unexpected guest into a seemingly ordinary lower-middle-class suburban household reveals complex fissures in the father-mother-daughter dynamic. The title refers to the organ that the young daughter struggles doggedly to get a tune from, providing the only real soundtrack to the delightfully observed absurdities of family life before things take a much darker turn. Fukuda’s spare, tightly framed visual approach and an emphasis on the colour red contribute to the all-pervading air of claustrophobia and dread anticipation of the plot’s string of gut-punch revelations.
- Harmonium is coming soon to BFI Player
Director: Nobuhiko Obayashi
While Nobuhiko Obayashi’s international reputation rests largely, and misleadingly, on his oddball teen horror feature debut Hausu, this vivid evocation of youthful idealism, friendship and romance among a group of teenagers before their salad days are cut short by war has a similar stylistic panache. Based on a 1937 novel by Kazuo Dan, its exaggerated phantasmagorical approach harks back to the director’s origins in 8mm experimental filmmaking in the 1960s, refined across a subsequent decade working in television advertising. That the then 78-year old Obayashi had been diagnosed with cancer and given mere months to live before embarking on his 168-minute opus is impressive enough. That he followed it with the equally ambitious crowning achievement of his career, Labyrinth of Cinema (2019), is simply astonishing.
Director: Hirokazu Koreeda
Continuing Koreeda’s fascination with the family unit, this 2018 Palme d’Or winner marked what the director himself described as the end of the second phase in his filmmaking career. Shoplifters paints a portrait of a makeshift family of outcasts living on the outskirts of Tokyo. Existing on the outskirts of the city reflects their marginalised existence within society, reliant on shoplifting to survive. Through a subtle dissection of the ‘improvised’ family unit, Koreeda’s nuanced psychological tale, full of complexity, reveals that all is not what it seems, as the director ventures to reflect a darker side of modern Japan.
Director: Natsuka Kusano
After studying filmmaking in Tokyo, Natsuka Kusano announced her talent in 2014 with Antonym. Her second film, Domains, is more ambitious still, offering a stark deconstruction of the cinematic experience. At the very beginning, we encounter the film’s climax: Aki killed her childhood friend’s daughter. As for why, the question is momentarily left unanswered. Then, the film follows two tracks: the police investigation and the actors’ reworking of the film’s scenes. Mixing fiction with non-fiction, Kusano defies chronological order, editing the many rehearsed scenes together for us to pinpoint the subtle changes in the actors’ performances. Here to close our list is a film of startling freshness and invention, so attuned to the dislocation of our times that, upon UK release in early 2020, the Guardian called it “the first movie of the coronaviral era”.
With thanks to Alexander Jacoby, Jasper Sharp and Junko Takekawa for consulting on the selections.
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Originally published: 14 May 2020