Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Top Ten Most Controversial Japanese Films


Everyone loves a top ten list, not only so they can find out about new films, but also so they can argue with the people who compiled the list in the first place. “I can’t believe that was only at number five!!!” etc, etc. So with that in mind The Toronto J-Film Pow-Wow is launching our monthly Top Ten List. On the last Wednesday of each month we’ll be counting down not only the top ten films in various genres (yakuza eiga, samurai), but also our favorite actors, actresses and much more.

To immediately court controversy we thought we’d go right for the Japanese films that have shocked, outraged and disgusted audiences all over the world. That's right: The top ten most controversial films in Japanese cinema.

10. Ichi the Killer – Takashi Miike (2001)

We start of our list with a film that needs no introduction. When Takashi Miike’s 2001 ultra-violent adaptation of Hideo Yamamoto’s ultra-violent yakuza manga premiered as part of the Toronto International Film Festival’s Midnight Madness programme the audience was issued vomit bags. No word as to whether any of them were actually used (I’d imagine they are either treasured keepsakes or hot items on eBay now), but the promotion makes absolute sense. Miike’s treatment of the story of sado-masochistic yakuza Kakihara’s (Tadanobu Asano) search through the seedy under belly of Kabucki-cho for the killer of his boss and S&M master is filled with scenes of people being boiled by oil, impaled, disemboweled, sliced in half, decapitated and de-faced… literally. If there was any film that can say that it popularized the genre of “Japanese extreme cinema” then “Ichi the Killer” is it. But despite its cult status among fans the film initially suffered cuts due to its graphic depictions of violence against women, specifically the torture of a prostitute during which her nipples are sliced off. It was this scene and five other minutes of gore that British censors trimmed off the film, while Hong Kong censors cut nearly half an hour off the full 129 minute run time. Of course fans of “Ichi the Killer” know that Miike’s director’s cut was widely released in 2003. CM

9. The Horrors of Malformed Men – Teruo Ishii (1969)

Up until last year when Teruo Ishii’s 1969 Edogawa Rampo adaptation “The Horrors of Malformed Men” got released on DVD through Synapse Films it had been virtually impossible to see. Ishii and his screenwriter Masahiro Kakefuda assembled some of the most provocative elements of Rampo’s writings to tell the Island of Dr. Moreau-esque story of a mad scientist who has created an island of mutated humans. The casting of Tatsumi Hijikata, the founder of the avant-garde butoh movement of modern dance, as the scientist plus Ishii’s usual bent sensibilities created a queasy, psychedelic side show torture, sexuality and human experimentation the likes of which Japanese cinema hadn’t experienced before. None of this had to do with the self-imposed ban that the execs at Toei put on the film after its initial release though. The controversy surrounding the film came from its Japanese title, “Edogawa Rampo Taizen: Kyofu Kikei Ningen”. The term used in the title to describe deformed people “kyofu kikei ningen” is highly offensive in Japan , being roughly translatable to “disgusting deformed humans”. Not wanting to offend people with physical deformities and disabilities Toei locked the film away for nearly 30 years, thus creating its notorious reputation. CM

8. Prophecies of Nostradamus – Toshio Masuda (1974)

Like “The Horrors of Malformed Men”, Toshio Masuda’s science fiction film “Prophecies of Nostradamus” suffered its own self-imposed ban by its producers at Toho. Based on the famous prophecies made by 16th-century French seer Nostradamus the film Dr. Nishiyama, played by Tetsuro Tamba, who watches helplessly as the world is subjected to plagues of giant bats, slugs and human mutations caused by the over-reaching grasp of modern science. Flash forwards to the future show the apocalyptic results of these scientific missteps: nations devastated by war and humans who have been transformed into deformed cannibals by radiation. This last part is what got the film into trouble. The hibakusha, the survivors of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, found this depiction utterly offensive and after continued protests to either make cuts to or ban the film entirely Toho voluntarily pulled the film from circulation in 1980. Later that decade Toho was blocked from releasing “Prophecies of Nostradamus” on video cassette by organizations representing the hibakusha. While unavailable in Japan the film did make its way to home video in the U.S. under the title “The Last Days of Planet Earth”. CM

7. For Those We Love – Taku Shinjo (2007)

Japan’s war time past has been a hot button issue both nationally and internationally, but in recent years Japanese moviegoers have been treated to a number of right-wing leaning dramas that it can be argued either tried to honour the sacrifice of individuals during WW2 or present a revisionist glorification of Japanese war of aggression in the Pacific. No other fictionalized account of this period has drawn more protests than Taku Shinjo’s 2007 film “For Those We Love.” Written by Shintarô Ishihara, the right-wing governor of Tokyo, whose book “The Japan That Can Say No” (co-written with Sony founder Akio Morita) gained him international attention for its critical view of U.S.- Japanese relations, the film presents a glossy, patriotic take on Japan ’s infamous kamikaze pilots. Nobody’s getting high on crystal meth before crashing into a battleship here. Told from the point of view of a mama-san who runs a Kyushu restaurant the film follows the lives of the fresh-faced young Japanese pilots who volunteered to end their lives in aerial suicide missions against the allied forces. Voices of protest were raised against the film both within Japan and from abroad calling it “fascistic,” and “alarming.” What can you expect from a politician who says that the atrocities inflicted on the citizens of Nanking in 1937 never happened? CM

6. The Whispering of the Gods - Tatsushi Ômori (2005)

Based on the semi-autobiographical novel by “outlaw writer” Mangetsu Hanamura “The Whispering of the Gods” is a blistering attack on the Catholic Church as told from the viewpoint of Rou (Hiroumi Arai), a young man seeking asylum for murder in a church run community in the Japanese countryside. Rou gets his asylum, but only if he agrees to provide sexual favours to the head priest, Father Kamiya (Kei Sato) and the other members of the clergy. Explicit in its depiction of sexual abuse, humiliation and animal cruelty it’s a miracle that “The Whispering of the Gods” got screened in Japan at all, and if it wasn’t for producer Genjiro Arato it probably wouldn’t have. Arato worked as the producer on Seijun Suzuki’s 1980 return to the cinematic fold “Zigeunerweisen” which he showed in its own tent theatre as a way to circumvent the Japanese theatres who were wary of screening such a surreal film. Arato chose the same tactic for Ômori’s film not because it was strange, but because it would never get cleared through the Japanese censors to release in a regular theatre. While not reaching the same level of success as “Zigeunerweisen” Ômori’s grim, unforgiving look at how faith can be used to manipulate did have an extended run in its tent in Ueno Park and garnered a nomination for the Tokyo Grand Prix. CM

5. Night and Fog in Japan – Nagisa Oshima (1960)

Nagisa Oshima’s contribution to the Shochiku-Ofuna New Wave initiative to highlight young filmmakers “Night and Fog in Japan” was the center of controversy almost immediately after it was released. The plot of the film centers around the wedding of Nozawa and Reiko, a young couple with a politically radical past. When the guests at the wedding start to question the political integrity of the bride and groom Oshima uses flashback to show the audience the couple’s involvement in protests against the AMPO Treaty that outlined security relations between United States and Japan . With the film being released only four short months after the Treaty was signed Shochiku was concerned that its bold political message might inflame a still delicate situation; and after the assassination of Socialist politician Inejiro Asanuma by a right-wing student the studio yanked “Night and Fog in Japan” from theatres. Oshima was understandably furious and proclaimed publicly that, “my film is the weapon of the people's struggle.” Despite the film being pulled from theatres it still ranked in the top ten of Kinema Junpo’s picks for best films of 1960, and after having left Shochiku in protest Oshima went on to found his own independent production company called Sozosha (Creation) through which he released his next dozen films. CM

4. In the Realm of the Senses – Nagisa Oshima (1976)

The second of Oshima’s films on this list and probably one of if not the best known film by the director. While the final castration scene in this film based on the actual case of Japanese murderess Sada Abe who in 1936 killed her lover during a session of erotic asphyxiation and then cut off his genitals as a souvenir was obviously fake, that’s about all that was. Oshima made the choice of having his actors, Eiko Matsuda as Sada and Tatsuya Fuji as her lover Kichizo, engage in actual sexual intercourse throughout the film. It was this decision that forced Oshima to dodge the Japanese censors, smuggle the undeveloped footage out of Japan to France and dub it a French co-production in order to complete the film. Upon its release in 1976 “In the Realm of the Senses” was either banned or severely censored in the U.S., Canada, Germany and Japan, and it was only in the early 90s that the complete “In the Realm of the Senses” was screened and released on DVD. It is still banned in the Republic of Ireland. To this day “In the Realm of the Senses” is viewed as one of the most controversial films in cinema history, but also one of the most groundbreaking, paving the way for other sexually explicit films like John Cameron Mitchell’s “Shortbus” and Michael Winterbottom’s “9 Songs.” CM

3. Guinea Pig: Flower of Flesh and Blood - Jyunko Okamoto (1986)

“Guinea Pig: Flower of Flesh and Blood” has got a pedigree that most horror films would (excuse the pun) kill for. It’s an urban legend now that actor Charlie Sheen handed over this film to the FBI after he’d viewed it at a party and thought he’d discovered an actual snuff film. If that wasn’t grisly enough for you try this. When police searched the home of Japanese child killer Tsutomu Miyazaki they discovered a copy of “Flower of Flesh and Blood” amongst his collection of sadistic manga and porn. It’s mostly for the latter reason that the entire “Guinea Pig” series has been made illegal in Japan. This is truly rough stuff. The film consists of 42 minutes of the slow, graphic and disturbingly convincing dismemberment of a woman by a man dressed in traditional samurai garb, and that’s it. This one peddles to the lowest common denominator and I guarantee you that whoever has seen even a clip of this grandfather of the “torture porn” genre won’t soon forget it… and not because it’s a fun film. Trust me. CM

2. Emperor Tomato Ketchup – Shuji Terayama (1970)

No, this is not an album by Stereolab… Well, it is, but the London-based post-rock band took the name of its 1996 album “Emperor Tomato Ketchup” from the 1970 film by Japanese poet, playwright and filmmaker Shuji Terayama. The founder of the Tenjō Sajiki experimental theatre company and over 200 written works Terayama is thought of as the leading voice of the 60s and 70s avant-garde in Japan, an artist whose output was consistently provocative and taboo-breaking. Nothing sums this up better than “Emperor Tomatoe Ketchup,” a surreal, dream-like film that portrays a world where children have revolted and turned the social order upside down, “condemn[ing] their parents to death for depriving them of self-expression and sexual freedom.” While the parallels to the 60s youth-centered counterculture is evident it’s the last part of that quote from Amos Vogel’s "Film as a Subversive Art" that has gotten the film in so much trouble. Interspersed with scenes of adults being bound and humiliated by their new rulers are scenes of nudity and simulated sex involving children. While Terayama continued to maintain that this was not done for pornographic intent, but as a symbolic tool to explore issues of oppression the full 75-minute version of “Emperor Tomato Ketchup” has been frequently banned. This happened most recently in 2004 when the plug got pulled on a planned screening of the film in Austin, Texas during which it was to be synched with Stereolab’s album. CM

1. Yasukuni – Ying Li (2007)

No film in Japanese cinema history has seen the kind of controversy that Tokyo-based filmmaker Ying Li’s documentary “Yasukuni” has. 10 years in the making the film takes 90-year-old swordsmith Naoji Kariya as its center piece, exploring the history not only of the Yasukuni swords, katana that were forged and sent to the front line troops on the Asian mainland during WW2, but also the history of the nearly 150-year-old shrine that houses the “kami” of 2,466,000 men and women who died defending the honour of the Emperor. Yasukuni Shrine and the yearly visits paid to it by high-ranking officials in the ruling LDP government depicted in the film have become a symbol of Japan’s unrepentant stance to the atrocities that the Imperial Army committed during the war as 1,068 of the soldiers enshrined there are convicted war criminals. While Li does his best to present a neutral view of the shrine and its history the reactions by Japanese audiences has been anything but. Screenings of the film in Japan have been met with denouncements, boycotts and protests from right-wing nationalists. In July a theatre in Kochi that had booked a screening of the film even received bomb threats. At the height of the controversy in April of this year representatives from the shrine and Kariya the swordsmith both requested to have extensive cuts made to the film, in Kariya’s case because he claimed that he did not know what type of film Li was making. Speculation was that key lawmakers in the LDP Party were working behind the scenes of these requests, but producers for “Yasukuni” refused. Thankfully the doc has been able to screen without major incident at festival throughout the rest of the world and even snagged a nomination for the Grand Jury Prize at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival. CM


Agree? Disagree? Leave a comment.

1 comment:

Dan said...

First of all, congratulations for the marvelous blog.
About the list:
I agree with the Oshima's masterpiece and Ichi. I have to see the first position (available in DVD?) and Masuda's very interesting movie (idem...?).
But I'd include Miike's "Izo" and the influential "Bara no soretsu".
See you!