A cinematic extravaganza just finished this month with the Tokyo International Film festival. Scores of directors, producers and actors offered up their celluloid creations to be enjoyed by the public and judged by credited officials. Due to my own love of movies, I thought it’d be a perfect opportunity to talk about the world of Japanese cinema. However this topic cannot possibly fit into one post, especially if i’m going to make some suggestions on films to watch, so this will simply be part one. Since Japanese animation was covered in April’s “anime” post, how about we go on a little walk down live-action lane.
The Japanese film industry is one of the oldest and most diverse in the world with a history stretching back over a century. As with many movie cultures around the globe, there are a plethora of genres in Japan but their themes extend beyond the borders of mere entertainment. From the period of the samurai warring states and later eras of unified government to life after World War II; Japan’s cinematic endeavors have grown into a sort of doorway into the country’s heart, the people’s feelings about life, death and conflict. Some of these genres include; jidai-geki (period pieces set during the edo period), Kaiju or giant monster films, anime and Yakuza gangster stories.
There is also a strong presence of the country’s legends and folklore and the long lasting silent era was filled with ghost stories initially captured by Thomas Edison’s kinetescope. These short films were influenced by kabuki and actually kept some of their traditions in the theater, as in having a story-teller sit by the stage to narrate. However, at the beginning of the 20th century film critics began to emerge, helping to move Japan’s cinematic style away from stage and theater influences. Directors and cinematographers evolved into using the untapped potential of the camera for dramatic storytelling; close ups, zooming out, fades and dissolves. Films like Masahiro Makino’s Roningai (1927) used these techniques to create well cut and rapid fight scenes which would go on to pave the way for many more.
After a lull in the industry because of WWII, a time filled with many propaganda films, the famous Akira Kurosawa released his first feature, Sanshiro Sugata (Judo Saga). The story of judo and it’s rivalry with jujitsu, it pioneered many of the director’s classic techniques.
Kurosawa himself can be considered one of the first to begin the so called “golden age” of Japanese cinema in the 1950’s-60’s. Classic films of his like Shichi-nin no samurai (Seven Samurai), which dealt with the themes of social class while wrapped in a well executed action tale, and his adaptation of the famous writer Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s Rashomon, began to win foreign film awards and help secure Japan’s place in the world cinematic arena. Other directors from this era were no less influential; Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story is still considered one of the greatest films of all time, Ishiro Honda directed Godzilla, a film that though originally a statement against nuclear war spawned the Kaiju genre, Kenji Mizoguchi won the 1963 Venice Film Festival Silver Lion award for his jidai-geki ghost story, Ugetsu.
It was in my university’s Japanese pop-culture class that I first laid eyes on one of these films; Seven Samurai. The professor dimmed the lights, the black and white Toho logo blazed on the screen and the class began part one. I hope you’ll go out and see a few of these movies and then come back here next month for part two.