Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The Top Ten Films that Changed Japanese Cinema

From the first exhibitions of Edison's kinetascope and the Lumière brothers' cinématographe in Kobe in the late 19th-century, through two "golden ages" recognized by critics and to the latest explosion of interest in the films of directors like Takeshi Kitano, Takashi Miike, Kiyoshi Kurosawa and others Japanese cinema has undergone an astounding evolution; but there were certain films that sped that evolution along, certain breakthroughs in style, technology and content that propelled what began as yet another Western marvel imported to the island nation to an art form that encompasses everything from the most traditional jidai-geki drama to the wild excesses of pinku eiga. To honour those films that pushed, challenged, outraged and dazzled both Japanese and international movie audiences the J-Film Pow-Wow is proud to present as this months top ten list the Top Ten Films that Changed Japanese Cinema.

10. Momotaro's Divine Sea Warriors - Mitsuyo Seo (1945)

So many people come to Japanese cinema through anime, so it only seems appropriate that we start our list with the very first feature length animated film in Japanese cinema history. Instead of the futuristic adventures or teen romances that so many fans of Japanese animation are used to nowadays though that very first feature film turned out to be a 74-minute long piece of WW2-era propaganda. Like all filmmakers working in Japan during the late 1930s and early 1940s animator Mitsuyo Seo was forced to produce films that would promote "the Japanese national philosophy", a philosophy of racial and cultural superiority and Imperialistic aggression. There probably was no better a subject to reflect this than Japan's surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941. Seo took that fateful day and incorporated it into his 1943 37-minute animated film "Momotaro's Sea Eagles" in which Momotaro, the Peach Boy of Japanese folklore, leads his troops of cute cartoon animals on a bombing run of "Demon Island". Japan's Naval Ministry were so pleased with the film that they ordered Seo to make a sequel. The result was "Momotaro's Divine Sea Warriors", a film that took inspiration from the most American of cultural icons, Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse, and had Momotaro's army singing and dancing as they "liberated" the Sulewasi Islands in the South Pacific. Long thought to have been destroyed during the American Occupation a copy of "Momotaro's Divine Sea Warriors" was discovered in the Shochiku vaults in 1984, a relic from a dark time in Japanese history, but one that nevertheless paved the way for the feature films of Hayao Miyazaki, Mamoru Oshii and Katsuhiro Otomo. CM

9. Carmen Comes Home - Keisuke Kinoshita (1951)

When most of us think of Japanese films from the early 1950s we think of the sad family dramas of Ozu, the highly mannered historical works of Mizoguchi or the monumental morality plays of Kurosawa. Okay, there was Ishiro Honda's "Godzilla" as well, but for the most part those years of the "Second Golden Age" of Japanese cinema are synonymous with sober, thoughtful and most importantly black and white films. While Hollywood had been shooting selected movies using the Technicolor process since the late 1920s Japan didn't enjoy the full spectrum on screen until 1951when Shochiku got their hands on a supply of Fujicolor film. Realizing the immense marketing appeal of a full colour spectacular the studio tagged the then 39-year-old Keisuke Kinoshita to helm the project. Not only did he and his cinematographer Hiroyuki Kusuda follow Shochiku's instructions to shoot as many vistas, mountains and green fields as they could in order to better showcase the Fujicolor technology, but Kinoshita also upped the entertainment value with musical numbers and a bit of skin. Hideko Takamine stars as O-Kin, a young woman returning to her hometown in the Japanese countryside after having schooled herself in the arts in metropolitan Tokyo. It turns out that "the arts" refers to burlesque and that O-Kin has become a dancer and now refers to herself as "Lily Carmen". With her fellow "artiste" and friend, Maya (Toshiko Kobayashi) Carmen convinces the gullible mayor as well as the old-fashioned schoolmaster (Chshu Ryu) that what the town needs is a bit of culture, but we all know what that will lead to. This all singing, all dancing extravaganza is terribly corny by today's estimation, but it was a huge hit with post-war fatigued Japanese, so much so that it spawned a sequel, "Carmen's Pure Love" the following year, as well as setting the standard for a full colour production for at least a decade after. CM

8. Koibumi (Love Letter) - Kinuyo Tanaka (1953)

To say that the Japanese film industry is a boy's club is a bit unfair, as it presupposes that the film industry around the world isn't. Of course we know that isn't that case, that women behind the camera have been just as rare in Hollywood, but in notoriously chauvinistic Japan female filmmakers have had an exceptionally hard go of it. If it weren't for one remarkable woman who bucked that trend in 1953 it is doubtful that we would have the films of Sumiko Haneda, Naomi Kawase, Mika Ninagawa or Mai Tominaga today. That remarkable woman was Kinuyo Tanaka, already a veteran actress by the early 1950s having starred in over 90 films by Hiroshi Shimizu, Yasujiro Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi. It was the same year that Tanaka would star as the potter's wife in the latter director's landmark film "Ugetsu monogatari" that she she herself would get the opportunity by the execs at Toho to helm her own feature film. Based on a novel by Fumio Niwa and scripted by none other than Keisuke Kinoshita "Koibumi (Love Letter)" starred Tanaka's "Ugetsu" co-star Masayuki Mori as Reikichi, a soldier returning to Japan after the war only to find that his high school sweetheart Michiko (Yoshiko Kuga) had become the mistress of an American officer. Besides her duties behind the camera Tanaka also played a small supporting role in the film as Reikichi's landlady. While "Koibumi" would mark the first time that a woman would direct a feature length production in Japan it wouldn't be the only time that Tanaka would direct a film. While she went on to star in over 40 more films until her death in 1977 she still found time to direct five other films including the 1955 romance "The Moon Has Risen" with which she again had help on the screenplay from another Japanese cinema legend, namely Tanaka's long-time collaborator and friend Yasujiro Ozu. CM

7. Battles Without Honor and Humanity - Kinji Fukasaku (1973)

During the American Occupation the film censorship wing of SCAP (Supreme Command for the Allied Powers) was responsible for making sure that the films produced in Japan did not include any hint of feudal loyalty. That meant no samurai selflessly upholding the code of Bushidō, the honor of his clan, the Shōgun and disemboweling himself if he failed to fulfill his duties. Not that samurai disappeared entirely, but their depiction became more humanistic as in the films of Akira Kurosawa; but by the early 1960s these centuries old values reappeared without the chonmage (top knot) in stories of Japanese gangsters, the yakuza. These yakuza-eiga starred the likes of Koji Tsurata and Ken Takakura as street criminals who valiantly upheld the yakuza code, the honor of their clan, bosses and would chop off their pinky fingers if they failed to fulfill their duties. Everything old was new again and these ningyo-eiga or “chivalry films” became wildly popular with male audiences. The thing is they didn’t come close to the brutal and amoral world of real-life yakuza who ruthlessly controlled the countries gambling, sex industries and black market. It wasn’t until 1973 when Toei unleashed Kinji Fukasaku’s “Battles without Honor and Humanity” that audiences got a glimpse what was really going on in the streets. The film chronicled the rise of Shozo Hirono (Bunta Sugawara) from hot-headed former soldier returning to the bombed out shell of Hiroshima to a violent foot soldier for the Yamamori clan. While Hirono may start out loyal to his clan he can’t stay loyal as allegiances shift and bloody betrayals go down in the back rooms and alleys of the city. Based on journalist Koichi Iiboshi’s adaptations of the prison memoirs of yakuza Kozo Mino “Battles without Honor and Humanity’s” rage and nihilism heralded a monumental shift in yakuza-eiga, established a new sub-genre, the jitsuroku eiga or "true document film", spawned four sequels and would pave the way for the gritty, bloody films of Takeshi Kitano, Rokuro Mochizuki and Takashi Miike. CM

6. Crazed Fruit - Ko Nakahira (1956)

In the summer of 1956 a film would be released that would spark a cultural and artistic revolution in Japan and abroad. Based on the Akutagawa prize-winning novel "Taiyō no kisetsu (Season of the Sun)" by Shintarô Ishihara and starring his brother Yûjirô "Crazed Fruit" was part of Nikkatsu's plan to stave off bankruptcy by cashing in on Japan's taiyozoku or "Sun Tribe" youth culture that was paralleled in the United States in such films as Richard Brooks' "Blackboard Jungle" and Nicholas Ray's "Rebel Without a Cause". Revolving around a tragic love triangle between brothers Natsuhisa (Yûjirô Ishihara) and Haruji (Masahiko Tsugawa), and a beautiful but manipulative girl named Eri (Mie Kitahara) "Crazed Fruit" didn't just strike a cord with disaffected, post-war Japanese teenagers, but a whole new generation of filmmakers as well. "In the rip of a woman's skirt and the buzz of a motorboat, sensitive people heard the heralding of a new generation of Japanese film." That's how Nagisa Oshima described the impact that the film had on him and the burgeoning Japanese New Wave, while French New Wave pioneer François Truffaut recommended the film be shown at France's prestigious Cinémathèque Français. Some film historians even argue that "Crazed Fruit" was a major influence on Truffaut's 1962 "Jules et Jim". Whether or not that was the case this story of young people rejecting traditional Japanese values and embracing thrills, violence and sex would pave the way for future juvenile delinquent films like Yasuharu Hasebe and Toshiya Fujita's "Stray Cat Rock" series, Masato Harada's "Bounce KO Gals" and some could argue Kinji Fukasaku's "Battle Royale"; but while Nakahira's place in film history was cemented with this groundbreaking film his career after "Crazed Fruit" paralleled the slow decline of the Japanese film industry. Through the 1960's Nikkatsu had him churn out exploitative "Crazed Fruit" knock-offs until he ended up directing low budget martial arts films in Hong Kong under the name Yang Shu Hsi. CM

5. Souls on the Road - Minoru Murata (1921)

In his 2001 book "A Hundred Years of Japanese Film" preeminent author and Japanese film scholar Donald Richie outlined that while late 19th-century Western audiences viewed motion picture technology as being allied with photography their Japanese counterparts viewed it as being a form of theatre; so while early film masters like D.W. Griffiths and Ernst Lubitsch were experimenting with cross and reverse angle cutting, point of view shots and flashbacks early Japanese filmmakers set up their camera in a fixed position in front of their sets and filmed the actors often in one long continuous shot as if the camera frame doubled as a proscenium stage. This wasn't the only device from Japanese theatre that these first directors utilized though. Acting was highly mannered, any swordplay or action was stiffly choreographed and women were equally as forbidden in motion pictures as they were on the Japanese stage. Oyama, male actors who impersonated women were used to play female roles. As foreign films were imported into Japan this strict adherence to theatrical traditions began to give way, but it wasn't until 1921 when Shochiku released Minoru Murata's "Souls on the Road" that anything that today's moviegoers would recognize as a modern film was produced in Japan. Weaving together works by Russian author Maxim Gorky and German author Wilhelm Schmidtbaum Murata and his screenwriter Kiyohiko Ushihara purposefully set out to make a film "in the foreign manner". That meant that instead of only a handful of shots 127 were edited together using flashbacks, wipes and fades to cut between dual plotlines, one centering around Koichiro (Denmei Suzuki), a young man from Hokkaido trying to make it as a violinist in Tokyo, and the other about two escaped convicts, Kamezo (Shigeru Tsutamura) and Tsurikichi (Komei Minami) and their search for work in the countryside. Add to that close ups, a camera rigged up to a dolly for a panning shot and the film's heroine Yoko being played by early Japanese screen starlet Haruko Sawamura (an actual woman!) and "Souls on the Road" would herald a whole new era for Japanese cinema. CM

4. The War at Sea from Hawaii to Malaya - Kajiro Yamamoto (1942)

The second war time propaganda features on our list is little known (or seen) today, but it was the involvement of a 41-year-old former assistant cameraman for legendary filmmaker, Teinosuke Kinugasa that earns it its place as a film that changed the direction of Japanese cinema. In 1942 the Imperial government ordered Toho to produce a film that would commemorate the first anniversary of Japan's glorious war in the Pacific. Toho spared no expense, green lighting a budget of $380,000, almost ten times the budget of an average film at that time, and tagged Akira Kurosawa's mentor, Kajiro Yamamoto, to helm the epic story of the years of strategizing and planning that lead up to the attack on Pearl Harbor. In order to depict the conflict as realistically as possible Toho wanted to have a scale model of the U.S. Navy Fleet built on its back lot and that is where Eiji Tsuburaya, Kinugasa's former camera assistant comes in. Tsuburaya had already been involved in creating models and special effects for other "national-policy films", but Yamamoto's "The War at Sea from Hawaii to Malaya" would have him pushing his skills into whole new territory, re-creating that fateful day in perfect detail. His effort paid off. The film opened on December 7th, 1942, exactly a year after Pearl Harbor, to great acclaim and financial success. Tsurubaya's skills weren't just appreciated by the Japanese moviegoing audiences though. During the Occupation the American's discovered a print of the film and thought that they had actual top secret footage of Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor. Once the war and Occupation had ended Toho didn't forget its first special effects blockbuster and wanting to capitalize on the market without resorting to jingoistic war films. Tsuburaya was brought back in to apply his skills learned on "The War at Sea" to an even more fantastic kind of film. Starting with Ishiro Honda's 1954 film "Godzilla" Tsurubaya would give life to the titrular monster as well as other Toho creations like "Mothra", "Ghidorah: The Three-Headed Monster" and "Varan the Unbelievable". The kaiju eiga or monster movie genre had been born. CM

3. In the Realm of the Senses - Nagisa Oshima (1976)

A list of the films that changed Japanese cinema wouldn't be complete without Nagisa Oshima's 1976 "In the Realm of the Senses". While many would argue inclusion of a film representing the pinku eiga genre it would be hard to select one that challenged the definitions of art and pornography in the way that Oshima’s film did. Never one to avoid controversy (his 1960 film “Night and Fog in Japan” was famously yanked from theatres for its depiction of the AMPO Treaty student protests) In adapting the real-life story of a former prostitute, Sada Abe, and her murderous love affair with a married inn keeper named Kichizo Ishida in 1930’s Tokyo Oshima pushed his usual themes of sex and death to the extreme by having the film’s leads Eiko Matsuda and Tatsuya Fuji (as well as a number of supporting actors) engage in unsimulated sexual intercourse. It was a move that Oshima must have known would incite the wrath of Eirin, the Japanese film censorship board. After principal photography Oshima was forced to smuggle the undeveloped footage of the film to France in order to complete production and upon its release it was banned in Japan and several other countries. The question of whether Oshima had made an obscene film became the subject of a 1978 trial in which “Branded to Kill” director Seijun Suzuki testified in Oshima’s defense while Oshima, himself a former law student, argued that what was left unseen was what constituted true obscenity. In the end the court could’nt define what was “obscene” and the film was allowed to pass, but with several cuts (which today have thankfully been reversed). That trial didn’t just change Japanese cinema history, but along with the 1960 trial against Penguin Books and their publication of D.H. Lawrence's novel "Lady Chatterly's Lover" and the 1965 trial against William Burroughs' novel "Naked Lunch" Oshima’s film broke ground as to what was permissible and possible on the printed page, on the stage or in a film. CM

2. The Neighbour's Wife and Mine - Heinosuke Gosho (1931)

So far on our list we've had films that have challenged morals, created new genres or radically shifted existing ones and heightened the profile of Japanese cinema abroad, so why would the first film with sound chart so highly, especially when "Carmen Comes Home" Japan's first colour film only made it to number 9? Well, while "Carmen's" feast for the eyes may have been the first film that would make its black and white predecessors obsolete it didn't herald the end of a venerable narrative tradition the way Heinosuke Gosho's comedy "The Neighbour's Wife and Mine", Japan's very first "talkie" did. To say that films shown in Japan between 1897 and 1930 were silent would be highly inaccurate. Yes, the films themselves included no synchronized sound track, but what was absent in the technology was made up for by the live narration of the benshi. Just as in the Japanese theatrical traditions of kabuki, noh and bunraku in which one or an entire chorus of performers provide the narration for the play benshi performers would not only give voice to the actors on screen, but would also elaborate on the plot and provide explanation for unfamiliar details, especially in films imported from abroad. In many cases the benshi were just as famous as the early screen stars, but after Gosho's story of a writer on a tight deadline (Atsushi Watanabe) who keeps getting distracted by various annoying sounds including the modern young woman next door and her jazz band was released in 1931 the benshi's revered position was threatened; so threatened in fact that an unsuccessful strike of benshi and theatre musicians (led by Akira Kurosawa's older brother Heigo) was called in 1932 . Even though filmmakers like Ozu and Mizoguchi continued producing silent films well into the mid-1930s, the initial novelty of sound eventually became what Japanese film audiences expected, leaving benshi to become a curio of an earlier time. CM

1. Rashomon - Akira Kurosawa (1950)

In 1951 Giuliana Stramigioli was tasked to find a Japanese film to program at that year's Venice International Film Festival. Stramigioli, who was both the head of the Japanese branch of the Italian film promotion agency, Italiafilm, and a professor of Italian and Literature at Tokyo's University of Foreign Studies selected a little known picture from Daei Studios due to what she described as the "strangeness" of it's plot. Unfortunately its producer, Masaichi Nagata, hated the film and could make absolutely no sense of its contradictory accounts of the rape of a noblewoman and the murder of her husband by a highway bandit. He had thought that Tadashi Imai's romance "Until We Meet Again" would be much more representative of Japanese cinema, but in the end Stramigioli convinced him otherwise. Hopefully it would screen at the festival and that would be that, but instead of disappearing that film, Akira Kurosawa's "Rashomon" went on to take home The Golden Lion, the festival's top honour and subsequently it was dubbed "the film introduced Japanese cinema to the world." Since 1935 and Mikio Naruse's "Wife, Be Like a Rose" certain Japanese films had received limited theatrical releases in North America, but none of them captured the West's imagination like Kurosawa's combined adapation of Ryūnosuke Akutagawa's two short stories "Rashomon" (1914) and "In a Grove" (1921). Besides its obvious visual beauty that was brought to the screen care of cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa, and the career defining performances of Toshiro Mifune as Tajômaru the bandit and Machiko Kyô as the noblewoman it was that "strangeness" as Stramigioli put it, it's presentation of human truth as something utterly subjective and entirely unreliable that places the film decades ahead of its time. In terms of how "Rashomon" changed Japanese cinema, well, it goes without saying that I wouldn't be writing this list for thousands of fans of Japanese film if it weren't for Signora Stramigioli's insistence that Kurosawa's film be included in that year's programme at Venice. CM

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Theres a clip of Momotarō’s Divine Sea Warriors here, its great to watch.