Tokyo rising: how Japan’s new wave rose – and broke

In the 1960s Tokyo became the world’s largest city – as well as its most prosperous. But beneath the economic good times Japan’s youth were agitating for change – and with them a new generation of filmmakers broke away from the studio system to produce exciting, socially challenging work. Donald Richie tells the story of Japan’s new wave and its many triumphs in this feature originally published in our October 2001 issue.

12 February 2021

By Donald Richie

Sight and Sound
Crazed Fruit (Kurutta kajitsu, 1956)

In partnership with JNTO

Ten years after the US occupation ended in 1951 the new Japan was ready to sit down with the family of nations. The country had been working its way out of wartime poverty, and consolidating a bright economic future. In the 60s off came the wraps, and the new Japan was revealed.

All sorts of products and projects appeared: motorcycles, transistor radios, television sets, the Datsun, the Bluebird, the Toyota Publica; Tokyo’s old canals were filled in and superhighways built on top; an airport monorail, the very first Bullet Train; new architecture sprang up – Kenzo Tange’s National Yoyogi Sports Centre won the prestigious Prizker Prize, the futuristic Otani Hotel stood in for the SPECTRE mastermind’s headquarters in You Only Live Twice – and in 1964, the defining event: the XVIII Olympiad, the first in Asia.

Consolidating this, all of Japan was pouring into Tokyo. In 1950 the population had been just over six million; by 1960 there were well over 9 million inhabitants, topping London’s eight million and making Japan’s capital the largest city in the world. And the most economically active. The Gross National Product (GNP) went straight up, there was an electric rice-cooker in every home and even after the moral clean-up thought necessary for the holding of the Olympics, there were still over 25,000 bars and nightclubs in the capital. At the same time prices rose precipitously. Politicians made with the pork barrels, and by 1965 (nearly 11 million Tokyoites now) the price of land was out of reach and there were serious housing problems.

There were other problems too, and a corresponding public dissatisfaction. For one thing, much of the new affluence was predicated on Japan’s not having a defence budget. The US would protect its new ward in return for it becoming a bastion of freedom in the Cold War, and this meant the American military was still securely encamped a decade after the occupation was over. This well suited the government, the business leaders and the construction industry.

Funeral Parade of Roses (1969)

It did not, however, please all of Tokyo’s citizens. On 19 May 1960 there was mass opposition with street demonstrations – students, leftists, ordinary people against the renewal of the unpopular Mutual Security Treaty with the US. These people did not believe that Japan benefited from the treaty nor did they think that the US was actually capable of shielding Japan from further nuclear attack. Also – another reason for dissatisfaction – the man pushing the renewal was Kishi Nobosuke (Liberal Democratic Party), notoriously now prime minister, formerly a class-A war-crimes suspect who’d been sprung by the Americans.

With several hundred thousand people on the streets and President Eisenhower due to ride in an open-car motorcade with the emperor, the LDP asked Kodama Yoshio, a wealthy ultranationalist and former cell mate of Kishi who had been working for the CIA since 1958, to organise a ‘security force’. Some 30,000 right-wingers, including yakuza gang members, were assembled and the LDP willingly paid the $2 million bill. In the end Eisenhower cancelled his visit, but the riots continued, indicating that a large number of people were seriously displeased with the way their city and their country were going – unbridled economy on the one hand, unbridled corruption on the other.

A new tsunami

It was against this background that the spectacular counterculture of the 60s erupted. People marched, students dropped out, dissidents played guitars and smoked grass in public; playwrights Terayama Shuji and Kara Jūrō took the establishment apart in extravagant satires; choreographers Ono Kazuo and Hijikata Tatsumi questioned all urban values, novelists Abe Kobo and Nosaka Akiyuki turned militant, and over it all sailed pop-art graphic designer Yoko Tadanori gleefully mocking entrenched authority.

In cinema Masumura Yasuzo, just back from the Centro Sperimentale in Rome, called for the destruction of the old Japanese way of making movies and the creation of something more socially relevant. He displayed what he meant in Kisses (Kuchizuke, 1957) with its alienated young hero riding his bike around Tokyo looking for trouble. Young Oshima Nagisa saw the film and felt that “the tide of a new age could no longer be ignored by anyone, that a powerful irresistible force had arrived in Japanese cinema.”

Kisses (Kuchizuke, 1957)

Oshima joined the force. Attacking conventional Japanese cinema, he said: “Our generation cannot rely on the congeniality of our all being Japanese in order to communicate.” Asked about alternatives, he cited Godard, saying: “I don’t agree specifically with any of Godard’s positions, but I agree with his general attitude in confronting political themes seriously in film.”

This Oshima attempted in A Town of Love and Hope (Ai to kibo no machi, 1959), a film that had neither hope nor love (the title was thought up by production company Shochiku). Shot on the streets of proletarian Tokyo, it angered Shochiku’s head Kido Shiro, who called it leftist and gave it only restricted distribution. Nevertheless, it got reviewed and made some money.

In the rip of a skirt and the buzz of a motorboat, we heard a new generationOshima Nagisa

In 1958, five years after television was first shown in Japan, there were only about a million or so sets; by 1962 there were well over 12 million and by 1969 nearly 22 million, near saturation. At the same time there was a disastrous falling away of film attendance. There were over a billion paid admissions in 1958 and only 300 million in 1968. During this time half of the movie theatres in Japan closed.

The industry responded with widescreens of various widths, clusters of stars and congresses of monsters. Films about wild youth (the taiyozoku genre) sold well, so the new breed of counterculture filmmakers was promoted since the young folks seemed to like them and young folks had the spending money.

Also there was a precedent – something Japan often finds necessary. In France the media had grouped a few directors together and constructed the nouvelle vague, its products representing a new commodity. Now Tokyo’s studios could attempt the same – Shochiku leading the way. Consequently the company allowed several assistant directors unheard-of liberties and made up its own nuberu bagu (new wave).

Bad Boys (1961)

Among these was not only Oshima but also, most notably, Yoshida Yoshishige and Shinoda Masahiro. In actuality, however, Shochiku’s new wave wasn’t the breakthrough it advertised. There had already been politically critical independent productions and successful alternatives to the studio system. Hani Susumu was already making independent documentaries, shot on the streets of Tokyo, and his Bad Boys (Furyô shônen, 1960) might be seen as one of the first countercultural volleys.

But Shochiku took all credit for the movement. Oshima’s Cruel Story of Youth (Seishun zankoku monogatari, 1960), Yoshida’s The Blood Is Drying (Chi wa kawaita iru, 1960) and Shinoda’s Dry Lake (Kawaita mizu umi aka Youth in Fury, 1960) made money and the nuberu bagu seemed a good marketing ploy.

That is, until Oshima released Night and Fog in Japan (Nihon no yoru to kiri, 1960). Kido, enraged, yanked it out of his cinemas after only a few days. A completely political film about the failure to prevent the renewal of the US-Japan Mutual Security Treaty, it’s surprising that Oshima thought he could foist it on his studio and amazing that Shochiku allowed him to make it at all. Perhaps the company was reassured by the inclusion of a wedding, a Shochiku staple. But the wedding in question – an allegorical device symbolising the interrupted nuptials of Japan and the US – was a shambles and Kido was furious.

Night and Fog in Japan (1960)

So was Oshima. He stormed out of the studio and called for Shochiku to stop calling its product new wave. In so doing he led the growing independent movement that eventually undermined such relics as Shochiku. During the 60s and later most of the younger directors left their studios and went into independent production.

Independents’ day

Now directors, newly independent for the first time in Japanese cinematic history, could make what they wanted to make in the way they wanted to make it. Before, this prerogative had belonged only to a few (Mizoguchi, Ozu, Kinoshita and to an extent Kurosawa) whose films brought in so much money that the studios granted them this freedom. Now directors and producers, liberated from the crippling expense of the studio system, could consider an independent attitude. Films that cost much less could show a profit much sooner.

Also, the studios, strapped into a weekly double-feature demand, inadvertently offered to help. They became customers. Shochiku, Daiei, Toho and Toei would buy independent features and slap on the studio distribution logo. Most had never before shown such politically irreverent – or meaningful – films and great was the boardroom consternation. But when Toho/Towa noticed these new independent films were sometimes money-makers, the Art Theatre Guild (ATG) was initiated by Kawakita Nagamasa and his wife Kashiko to give seed money and distribution to directors with interesting-sounding independent projects.

Death by Hanging (1968)

During the 60s and 70s the ATG was responsible for almost all the better Japanese films. It owned only one theatre, the Shinjuku Bunka, and its underground annexe, the Theatre Scorpio, but they were where the critical young congregated. Oshima made all his best pictures with ATG. So did Yoshida, Shinoda and Hani. None of these directors experienced any restrictions whatsoever.

Oshima went on to make Death by Hanging (Kōshikei, 1968), a severe questioning of Japanese criminal law; that quintessential Tokyo counterculture film Diary of a Shinjuku Thief (Shinjuku dorobo nikki, 1969) starring pop-art designer Yoko Tadanori and with playwright Kara Jūrō naked in the finale; and The Man Who Left His Will on Film (Tokyo sensa sengo hiwa, 1970), the self-reflexive and ultimately rebellious student movie.

Yoshida made Eros Plus Massacre (Eros purasu gyakusatsu, 1969) about counterculture lovers then and now. Shinoda made Double Suicide (Shinju ten no Amijima, 1969), a glorious indictment of feudalistic repression. Matsumoto Toshio made Funeral Parade of Roses (Bara no sōretsu, 1969) about the transvestites and hustlers of uptown Tokyo. Hani made what for many remains the most redolent example of 60s counterculture: The Inferno of First Love (Hatsukoi jigokuhen, aka Nanami, 1968).

The Inferno of First Love (Hatsukoi jigokuhen, aka Nanami, 1968

Social concern and the will to do something about the worst of the political excesses brought a kind of interdisciplinary co-operation new to Japanese cinema. Playwright Terayama Shuji wrote Shinada’s Dry Lake and Hani’s Inferno of First Love. Author Abe Kobo wrote most of the films of Teshigahara Hiroshi, including the famous Woman of the Dunes (Suna no onna, 1963). Novelist Nosaka Akiyuki wrote two of Imamura Shohei’s best pictures, The Pornographers (Erogotoshitachi: Jinruigaku nyumon, 1966) and A Man Vanishes (Ningen johatsu, 1967).

Even those who stayed behind in the studios were inspired by the questioning irreverence of the times. Daiei’s Masumura Yasuzo had made Giants and Toys (Kyojin to gangu, 1958), a ferocious exposé of the machinations of television, and went on to lambaste the army in Hoodlum Soldier (Heitai yakuza, 1965).

Nikkatsu’s Suzuki Seijun fired an early shot with Aim at the Patrol Car (Sono gososha o nerae, 1960) and went on to make the classic statement on how to make a modern fascist Elegy to Violence (Kenka ereji, 1966). Such independence was for him short-lived. Nikkatsu fired its maverick, and though his fans marched outside the company’s offices, it was decades before Suzuki could make another film.

Street life

The countercultural films of the 60s not only took up pressing social concerns and pursued liberal attitudes, they were also shot in a different way from studio product and so showed a different side of the city where they were made. Since budgets were small and elaborate sets impossible, most were shot on location. This was decidedly not the norm for studio pictures: even Ozu’s Tokyo Story (Tokyo monogatari, 1953) used locations only for establishing shots. Everything else in Japanese films (those lovingly crafted warrens of little Ginza bars in Ozu, the wonderfully authentic middle-class homes in Naruse and the detailed lower-class dwellings in Toyoda) were all expensive sets.

Crazed Fruit (Kurutta kajitsu, 1956)

The films of the 60s, however, revealed the real Tokyo as the camera, freed from its tripod, dollied and panned through the streets. Imamura put the camera on a train in Intentions of Murder (Akai satsui, 1964); Nakahira Ko had put it in a speedboat in Crazed Fruit (Kurutta kajitsu, 1957), of which Oshima said: “In the rip of a woman’s skirt and the buzz of a motorboat, we heard the heralding of a new generation of Japanese film.” Along with the new mobility went lenses that zoomed in and out, film stock that needed less light and new ways of editing so that the jump cut became as common as the matched splice. And, with it all, a new way of thinking about Tokyo on film.

Japan had long maintained a duality between the rural and the urban. Early Japanese cinema is filled with celebrations of life in the furusato or hometown. (Mizoguchi made two films named Furusato – one of them, a talkie, featured a song about small-town virtues.) For the hometown to appear pristine it was necessary to present a corrupt counterpart. So in both Tokyo March (Tokyo Koshinkyoku, 1929) and Metropolitan Symphony (Tokai kokyogaku, 1929) Mizoguchi showed proletarian families of rural origin struggling in the capital.

Later (in the tradition of Bowery-based or Limehouse-set films in the West) Japanese directors even discovered ‘dangerous’ sections of Tokyo, in reality the safest of cities. In The Lights of Asakusa (Asakusa no hi, 1936) Shimazu Yasujiro saw the old down-town section as a haven for criminals. In Naked Town (Hadaka no machi, 1937) Uchida Tomu has his hero ruined in the financial sector – he acts as a guarantor to a city-slicker friend, and then tumbles to the depths. Even in more temperate films, the theme is not so much what the city was as what it wasn’t. In Ozu’s The Only Son (Hitori musuko, 1936) a mother works hard so her son can go to Tokyo, only to find disappointment. In Tokyo Story the capital is contrasted unfavourably with Onomichi, a port on the Inland Sea, through the grown children’s city-bred coldness to their visiting parents.

About all you can do with the city is to try to install furusato values. In One Wonderful Sunday (Subarashiki nichiyobi, 1947) Kurosawa has his young couple build up a system of cosy small-town beliefs. In From Where Chimneys Are Seen (Entotsu o mieru basho, 1953) Gosha Heinosuke has his characters construct a furusato in the middle of the city. In Flowing (Nagareru, 1960) Naruse Mikio’s geisha make a haven in the heart of the cold entertainment district. To be sure, it doesn’t last. After the last reel is over they will be kicked out into the heartless urban world, but the big thing was to have tried. This is the theme of Yamada Yoji’s endlessly popular Tara-san series It’s Tough Being a Man (Otoko wa tsurai yo), all 48 instalments where our friendly small-town peddler goes from one metropolis to another only to find there’s no place like home.

Diary of a Shinjuku Thief (1969)

This all changed in the 60s because the counterculture films were about the future, not the past. The city was where things were happening, where you could make a difference, where social wrongs could be righted. Oshima’s Diary of a Shinjuku Thief had Kara Jūrō, like a loin-clothed new samurai, leading the youth on the streets. Terayama Shuji advised students – in the title of one of his films – to Throw Away Your Books and Go Out Into the Streets. Tokyo, far from the embodiment of urban menace, became a promised land, a cornucopia of opportunity, a place where the young had their say and old fogies were forever banished.

Death by assimilation

But old fogies know how to take care of their own interests. The renaissance of 60s counterculture Tokyo barely lasted out the decade. There was never any official repression – except for the pot smokers in Shinjuku station plaza – because official Japan counters its critics by absorbing them.

So the radicals were encouraged to continue their radicalising in the coffee shops. Anarchy was domesticated to fashion through shocking new haircuts and the like. Within a decade or so Terayama’s troupe would be sponsored by a trendy department store, Kara would be given official honours and invited to lecture at universities, and ATG would have vanished. Oshima would continue as best he could, but Teshigahara and Shinoda would be making expensive mainstream historical dramas. Hani would have left the country to direct nature documentaries in Africa – where, he told me, he could again find the innocence, purpose and promise he had once seen in his own country.

The independent film became a mainline product and designer violence took the place of political concern. Now cops and robbers play continually on tube and screen, and political confrontation is nowhere to be seen. The Mutual Security Treaty is still in place and political pork barrelling has reached noticeably new heights.

The Man Who Left His Will on Film (1970)


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Five contemporary Japanese films to watch on BFI Player

BFI Player has teamed up with the Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO) to bring you some of the best of Japanese cinema, and a serious dose of wanderlust. These five gems offer viewers a tour of the finest contemporary Japanese films and a chance to sample the country’s breathtaking landscapes.


Kitano Takeshi, 1993

Location: Okinawa

Sonatine (1993)

A masterful gangster film about a yakuza sent to the beautiful beaches of Okinawa where he has time to ruminate on his fate.

Nobody Knows

Koreeda Hirokazu, 2003

Location: Tokyo

Nobody Knows (2003)

A heartbreaking study of neglect about four children left to fend for themselves.

The Mourning Forest

Naomi Kawase, 2007

Location: Nara

The Mourning Forest (Mogari No Mori, 2007)

A haunting tale about an elderly widower and his young nurse who get lost in a forest.

The Woodsman and the Rain

Okita Shûichi, 2011

Location: Nagano

The Woodsman and the Rain (2011)

A lumberjack in the Kiso mountains is roped into the shooting of a zombie film.

Journey to the Shore

Kurosawa Kiyoshi, 2015

Location: Kanagawa

Journey to the Shore (2015)

The living and the dead coexist in this beautiful meditation on love and loss.