As I stared at the monochromatic figures struggling to save the peasant village, rain falling, swords flashing, I did feel transported. It may have been the big screen in the university classroom or sharing the moment with others interested in Japanese culture, but I’d like to think that Akira Kurosawa’s deep attention to detail and innovative camera techniques played a larger part. However, it’s not a sensation that his creations alone carry. Though his landmark film, Shichi Nin no Samurai (Seven Samurai), was my port of entry into the world of Japanese Cinema, it was only the beginning of the voyage.
The 1970’s and 80’s saw a decline in the movie going populace due to the success of television, opening the matinee doors to new, more specialized genres. Yakuza gangster films became all the rage like the classic “Battles Without Honor or Humanity”, the first part of Kinji Fukasaku’s Yakuza Papers series. In fact, this was a time when many gritty genre actors rose to great popularity. Takakura Ken, an actor who gained fame depicting hardened, silently cool gangsters and warriors, is known as “the Japanese Clint Eastwood”. Then there is Shintaro Katsu, already well known, continuing his reign at the movies and on T.V. as the blind swordsman Zatoichi. Having started in the early 1960’s, the tale of the wandering masseuse and avenger of the weak carried on into the 80’s. Though the big movie studios were losing strength, iconic directors like Akira Kurosawa defied the economic downturn with award winning films like Kagemusha and Ran, a Japanese version of Shakespeare’s King Lear.
Beginning in the 90’s, the modern era has seen a revival of the Japanese film industry. Multiplexes began to overflow with movies from prolific directors like “Beat” Takeshi Kitano, who dances the edge between gangster stories, dramas and comedy, often serving as both film-maker and actor in movies like Sonatine, Brother and his remake of Zatoichi. Director Naomi Kawase’s The Mourning Forest won the Cannes film festival 2007 Grand Prix and in the more commercial realm of cinematic success, a new generation of horror films like The Grudge series hearkened back to Japan’s original fascination with ghost stories. The country’s film industry is maturing, branching out in the themes it’s willing to explore with more complex stories like the remake of Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven”, Yurusarezaru Mono, a revisionist samurai tale starring Watanabe Ken.
It’s not impossible to get your hands on many of these films in your home country, so let me recommend some of my favorites. Firstly, if you’re going to dive into Japanese Cinema, you have to try Seven Samurai (Shichi nin no Samurai). It continues to occupy many notable film lists around the world, just make sure you have several hours to dedicate to it’s rich detail. While we’re on the subject of director Kurosawa, check out these classics; Yojimbo, which was remade into the Clint Eastwood spaghetti western “A Fist Full of Dollars”, an early example of splintered storytelling in Rashomon and The Hidden Fortress, a major influence on the original “Star Wars”.
If horror is a bit more your style, then 1968’s Kuroneko, a story of ghostly vengeance, is a unique film proving to be ahead of it’s time in atmospheric execution. Revisionist tales, stories that call us to question the traditional “hero vs. villain” archetypes, are also present in the excellent Twilight Samurai and Takashi Miike’s recent offering, 13 Assassins. There are also exciting Japanese/American films that deserve to be mentioned, as in Sydney Pollack’s gritty action film The Yakuza, starring Robert Mitchum and Takakura Ken. In covering this sub-genre, it would be a crime not to recommend the “Kill Bill” series, chronicling the exploits of Uma Thurman’s wronged former assassin, “The Bride”. Honorable mention goes to Tom Cruise’s and co-star Watanabe Ken’s The Last Samurai, a film that understandably polarizes film critics, but I feel still expresses the heart of Japan at war with itself during the shift from the age of the samurai to modern government.
However, I’m just here to offer suggestions. Why not try these films out and judge for yourself? Whether you’re in the mood for an introspective look at the culture or just need a night of entertainment, the cinema of Japan is incredibly diverse and ever growing in it’s line-up of movies from past and present. So fire up the popcorn, get your hands on a melon soda, if you can find one, and enjoy!