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April 26, 2015

A History of Japanese Film by Year: Golden Age of the Classical Studio System (1950-1954)

The 1950s mark the peak of the Japanese film industry. Six companies - Shochiku, Toho, Shintoho, Daiei, Toei (from 1951) and Nikkatsu (from 1954) - release two films per week, 50 weeks a year. The annual production of Japanese films exceeded 500 works, and all studios enjoyed brisk business.

With TV yet to penetrate the market and undeveloped amusement facilities in the 1950s, film was the prime entertainment for the general public; thus, any film became a hit once it was released. In the second half of the 1950s, ticket sales and numbers of cinemas in Japan reached their peak. In 1958, more than a billion tickets were sold on a population of less than 100 million, indicating that on average each Japanese went to the movies more than ten times a year. Furthermore, between 1958 and 1961, the number of cinemas exceeded 7,000 facilities, and even small towns had two or three cinemas.

The great thing is that auteurist directors could ride this wave of cinematic popularity: Kurosawa, Ozu, Mizoguchi, Kinoshita, Naruse, etc., all were on the payroll of one of the big studios and were basically allowed to do their thing because of the prestige their presence gave to the studio. They could thus avail themselves of the superior technological and other means of the big studios, not to mention the access to great actors and actresses. And that is of course the real golden age: that so many memorable, artistic films were made by these auteurist directors in so brief a time span. 

We find the following division among the six studios:

Shochiku: Shochiku continued with its successful prewar formula: home dramas, comedies in the bittersweet "Ofuna flavor," women's pictures. The major director was Ozu Yasujiro; younger directors in the postwar period were Kinoshita Keishuke and Shibuya Minoru; lesser talents were Oba Hideo and Nakamura Noboru. 

Toho: After the crisis in the late 1940s, Toho made a comeback by balancing prestige projects with more populist films. Prestige directors were Kurosawa with his serious period films and Naruse with his woman's films; among the latter group were comedies about white collar workers ("salaryman movies"), and - very famous abroad - the monster movies (kaiju eiga) such as Godzilla, mostly made by Kuosawa's friend Honda Ishiro. The company was organized in the American way around a production system. 

Daiei: Founded during the war, Daiei excelled in adaptations of classic and contemporary literature, focusing on female protagonists; later it made also chambara movies. Daiei was responsible for some of the first Japanese films to achieve widespread foreign distribution. Directors as Mizoguchi Kenji and Yoshimura Kozaburo realized subtle human dramas; Ichikawa Kon made satires on social and sexual mores. As many stars had left, Hasegawa Kazuo had become the company's pillar. New faces in the fifties were Kyo Machiko, Yamamoto Fujiko, Wakao Ayako, and Ichikawa Raizo.

Toei: Formed in 1951 through the merger of several smaller companies. Toei specialized in low-budget jidaigeki, although it also made some better genre films. Toei was based round a star system (Kataoka Chiezo, Tsukigata Ryunosuke, Ichikawa Utaemon, plus new faces as Nakamura Kinnosuke and Okawa Hashizo) and not directors. The studio produced enough films to fill a double bill each week. Its films - almost entirely unknown abroad - were bright entertainments, a mix of action, nostalgia and humor. 

Shintoho: Started life in 1947 as an ofshoot of Toho, as the name "New Toho" suggests. In its early period, the studio was able to do some prestige projects with Naruse and Gosho, but as it had no major talents under contract, it soon ran into difficulties. These were temporarily solved by switching to cheap thrillers, horror films and nationalistic war movies, but that move could not ultimately stem the decline. Its most distinctive director was Nakagawa Nobuo, who made surrealist ghost stories and is now considered as something of a "cult director."

Nikkatsu: The war had left Japan's oldest studio as only a theater owning company, but production was resumed in 1954. Nikkatsu soon opted for pictures aimed at a youthful audience, such as the violent and sexy Taiyozoku ("Sun Tribe") films, as well as romantic youth films with new young star Yoshinaga Sayuri,  and "mukokuseki" ("no nationality") action thrillers. Nikkatsu was also based around a star system - all new faces, as it lacked established stars (Ishihara Yujiro, Kobayashi Akira, Shishido Jo). 

For all studios the norm was that directors, actors, actresses and all technical staff were employed for a fixed salary, like "salarymen." Japan has never known the extravagant salaries of Hollywood.

The Korean War begins and SCAP orders the studios to expel all "communists." Film makers who loose their job are Imai Tadashi, Gosho Heinosuke, Kamei Fumio and Yamamoto Satsuo. These directors set up independent production companies and make films about social issues. None of these companies lasts very long. But it shows that in all periods Japan had independent productions besides the large studios.

Rashomon by Kurosawa Akira, an innovative period drama, questions the nature of memory: four contradictory and incompatible eyewitness accounts of the same rape-murder incident show that the witnesses are only concerned with their own pride (or, in Japanese terms, "face"). The truth cannot be known as the film registers all four accounts in the same realistic way. This was contrary to what the public in Japan expected, as so far films had always told them what they should think and what reality they should believe in. Viewers were confused, but that was Kurosawa's intention, who, considering their passiveness during the war years, wanted the Japanese to become stronger individuals, persons who thought for themselves and formed their own opinion. The film ends with a humanistic message when the woodcutter, who was witness to the crime, decides to bring up a foundling baby as his own child. Despite being a "difficult" film, Rashomon was a financial success in Japan, being the fourth largest grosser of the fifty-two pictures released by Daiei in 1950. After winning the Golden Lion at the Venice Film festival the next year, Rashomon was brought out to great acclaim in the U.S. and other countries. (Daiei).

Skyandaru ("Scandal"), also by Kurosawa, a lesser film, is a sharp protest against the scandal-mongering of the sensation press, which confused liberty with license. Rather sentimental second half, in which the lawyer assigned to assist against the press is playing both sides. The film features Yamaguchi Yoshiko (of Ri Koran fame) besides Kurosawa-stalwarts Mifune and Shimura. (Shochiku)

Munekata Shimai ("The Munekata Sisters") by Ozu Yasujiro. Again the cultural conflict between tradition and modernity embodied in two sisters, the elder, married one is conservative and dressed in kimono (Tanaka Kinuyo), the younger, unmarried one is liberal and wears Western dress (Takamine Hideko). The younger sister encourages the elder one to reunite with a former suitor (Uehara Ken), although she herself is also in love with him. Finally, the elder one nobly gives up her love. Another contrast is between the modern scenes in Tokyo and Kobe and the traditional temples in Kyoto and Nara. Rare for Ozu, this is an adaptation of a novel (by Osaragi Jiro). It is unfortunately also a rather heavy-handed, schematic and overtly melodramatic story featuring an alcoholic husband who suddenly drops dead - causing the only woman's scream in all of Ozu. (Shintoho)

Mata au hi made ("Until the Day We Meet Again") by Imai Tadashi is the first antiwar movie that is popular with a major public. It shows the effects of the war on the fate of two lovers who happen to meet in a bomb shelter in 1945. They will never meet again: she dies in an air raid, he in combat. There is a famous scene where they blow kisses at each other through a window pane. Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film of the Year. (Toho)

Mizoguchi Kenji makes Yuki Fujin Ezu ("A Picture of Madame Yuki"). Set in the resort of Atami, this film is about an affluent heiress (Kogure Michiyo), married to a vulgar, womanizing and spendthrift husband. She is in love with an earnest young scholar (Uehara Ken), but remains helplessly physically drawn to her brutish husband - it all ends in tragedy. Beautiful portrait of a proud and delicate woman threatened by the insensitivity around her. (Shintoho)

Shochiku reconstructs the war-damaged Kabukiza Theater.

Due to the forced merger of studios during the war, Japan's oldest film company, Nikkatsu, had lost its production arm to Daiei (including actors/actresses and technical staff) and was left with only its network of cinemas. It now has to start from scratch. Nikkatsu president Hori Kyusaku this year begins construction of a new production studio.

Another new company making preparations for starting production is Toei. Toei is established officially this year, on the basis of Toyoko Eiga (est. 1938) and others. Like Toho and its Hankyu link, this studio was also backed by railroad money, from the Tokyu Corporation. Okawa Hiroshi was appointed president. Toei planned to concentrate on period drama as soon as the U.S. Occupation would end and the company was fortunate enough to be able to attract a number of stars from the age of silent period drama: Kataoka Chiezo, Ichikawa Utaemon, and Tsukigata Ryunosuke. The Toei Studios Kyoto are set up in Uzumasa (converting the Toyoko Studio, which in its turn went back to studios owned by Daiei and Shinko Cinema, and finally to Ban-Tsuma's Production Uzumasa Studio of 1926).

Rashomon wins first prize at the Venice Film Festival, the first time that a Japanese film breaks through internationally. The film had been invited by the festival without the knowledge of Kurosawa, and no Japanese were present. Also Daiei president Nagata was surprised (he had had no confidence in this difficult movie), but he smelled money and would in the following years consciously make films aimed at foreign film festivals, trying to repeat the succes of Rashomon; also other studios would follow suit. The film also meant the breakthrough of the actor Mifune Toshiro.

Bakushu ("Early Summer") by Ozu Yasujiro. Chronicles three generations of the Kamakura-based Mamiya family, which is seeking a promising match for the eldest daughter, Noriko (Hara Setsuko). But Noriko has firm ideas about how and to whom she will give herself and surprises her family when she abruptly opts for a childhood friend, a poor doctor going to be posted in far-off northern Japan - she does this at the suggestion of his mother. Noriko fulfills her family's wishes, but also tears them apart. After she moves away the family lacks her contribution to the household income and has to split up. The grandparents, relieved that Noriko has been taken care of, move to the countryside of Nara, resigned to their own fate. Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film of the Year. (Shochiku)

Meshi ("Repast") by Naruse Mikio is a nuanced psychological masterpiece on the home life of a childless couple, a low-salaried clerk (Uehara Ken) and his wife (Hara Setsuko) living in Osaka. The wife begins to realize that all those years with the same man have given her no feeling of self-realization and she starts weighing her options - which are however rather meager. She returns to her family in Tokyo, seeking a job, but in the end resigns herself to going back to her husband. This is the first of six films that Naruse in the coming decade will base on the novels of Hayashi Fumiko. (Toho)

Ginza Gesho ("Ginza Cosmetics"), also by Naruse Mikio, depicts a few days in the life of a Ginza bar hostess, and is a sort of precursor to his later (and better) When A Woman Ascends the Stairs. About the hardships facing a bar hostess and the strength of character of the protagonist. It also shows one of Naruse's trapped characters, as the hostess is unable to escape from her hard life by catching a suitable husband. (Shintoho)

Karumen kokyo ni kaeru ("Carmen Comes Home") by Kinoshita Keisuke is Japan's first feature-length color movie, made with Japanese Fuji color film. Funny musical comedy in which a self-made woman, a striptease artist (Takamine Hideko), visits the village of her childhood. The baffled countryfolk shun her until she and her friend Akemi put on a benefit performance, after which they are able to leave the town as heroines. Kinoshita, by the way, was one of the few postwar directors like Ozu and Kurosawa who wrote almost all his own scripts - even without a co-writer. And like these two directors, he, too, had his own cinematic "family" to work with. (Shochiku)

Oyu-sama ("Miss Oyu") by Mizoguchi Kenji was loosely based on the novel Ashikari by Tanizaki Junichiro. Shinnosuke is planning to marry the young Shizu, but loses his heart to her elder sister, Oyu (Tanaka Kinuyo). Oyu, however, is a young widow, who for traditional reasons cannot remarry. Oyu then convinces Shinnosuke and Shizu to marry so that she can remain close to Shinnosuke. (Daiei)

Musashino Fujin ("Lady Musashino"), another movie Mizoguchi Kenji made this year, was based on a novel by Oka Shohei. Michiko (Tanaka Kinuyo) is a disillusioned young wife, trapped in a loveless marriage to her translator husband (Mori Masayuki), living in the western Tokyo suburbs; she eventually becomes entangled in a destructive affair with her cousin, who is too weak to support her love. (Toho)

Hakuchi ("The Idiot") by Kurosawa Akira. Kurosawa was a great Dostoevsky fan and based his film on the classical masterpiece. He transposed the story to Hokkaido and to postwar-Japan. This melodrama of jealousy and resentment has been considered a lesser Kurosawa film by Western critics; however, in Japan it has been consistently popular. Hara Setsuko is unexpectedly a stunning femme fatale and there are elegant patternings and great snowscapes. (Shochiku)

Imai Tadashi, one of the film makers who had lost their jobs in the red purge and set up independent production companies, makes Dokkoi Ikiteru ("And Yet We Live"), a work that chronicled the life of the urban poor, influenced by Italian Neo-Realism as De Sica's Bicycle Thieves. More than in his previous films, Imai here insists upon political action and social change.

Ichikawa Kon had made his first film in 1945; Koibito ("The Lovers") was his eleventh. The day before her wedding, a young woman goes out one last time with a former boyfriend. Ichikawa Kon (1915-2008) would become one of the most prolific and varied of Japanese masters, often basing his films on literary novels. The excellent scripts of his early films were written by his wife, Wada Natto. (Shintoho)

Ninaime Hasegawa Kazuo starts playing Zenigata Heiji, an okappi or sort of Edo-period policeman, in a popular series for Daiei that will run for ten years.

Nikkatsu finishes building the Chofu Studio in Tokyo as the largest modern film studio in the Asia Pacific Region.

With the departure of the Occupation authorities, censorship of the film world ends. It is replaced by Eirin, a voluntary body, which gives film makers great freedom to depict social, political and personal matters. Although the studios eschewed explicit sex or violence in the early and mid-fifties, Japanese films could now be much franker than Hollywood products.

With the end of the Occupation, the theme of revenge is immediately restored to period drama and sword-fighting scenes proliferate. A typical example is Jirocho Sankokushi ("Jirocho: The Record of the Three Provinces") by Makino Masahiro, the first of eleven films about this famous "Robin Hood"-type yakuza boss, all made between 1952 and 1955. (Toho)

Toei starts its massive production of period dramas with films as Mito Komon Manyuki ("Mito Komon's Pleasure Trip", with Ichikawa Utaemon), Tange Sazen ("Sazen Tange", with Bando Tsumasaburo) and Akojo ("Ako Castle", with Kataoka Chiezo), the first version since the end of the war of the Chushingura legend.

Shindo Kaneto treats another taboo subject in Genbaku no Ko ("Children of the Atomic Bomb"). A schoolteacher (Otowa Nobuko) returns six years after the war to Hiroshima where she observes the after-effects of the A-bomb (which has killed her own parents) and the endurance of the survivors. Their suffering is augmented by the prejudice they have to face in society. Shindo Kaneto (1912-2012) had a distinguished career of six decades in cinema, not only as a director, but also as screenplay writer for directors as Mizoguchi, Kinoshita, Imai, Ichikawa and especially Yoshimura Kozaburo. Starting in the social-realist vein, he made his best films in the 1960s. (Kindai Eiga Kyokai).

The above film had been sponsored by the Japan Teacher's Union, but they were dissatisfied with Shindo's self-critical film, and commissioned another one. That was Sekigawa Hideo's Hiroshima, which delivered the goods in showing that only the Americans were to blame - some scenes of this film were used (without giving credit) in Resnais' Hiroshima, mon amour. (East West)

Ikiru by Kurosawa Akira wins the Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film of the Year. It is Kurosawa's clearest and most compassionate statement of his existential humanism, in a story about a dying bureaucrat who bypasses red tape in order to help others and give his life meaning, even by doing a small good. Arguably Kurosawa's greatest achievement, quiet and contemplative. Won the Special Prize at the Berlin International Film Festival of 1954. (Toho)

Saikaku Ichidai Onna ("The Life of Oharu") by Mizoguchi Kenji was loosely based on a classical novel by 17th c. author Iharu Saikaku. The atypical period film chronicles the inexorable decline of a court lady (Tanaka Kinuyo) who falls in love with a man below her station (the man is dutifully executed for his trespass) and finally ends up as a cheap harlot, via being the concubine of a lord (solely to produce a baby), a geisha, and the wife of a fan maker. Finally, Oharu becomes a Buddhist nun. Imbued with a sad beauty. Mizoguchi received international renown for his cinematic techniques. Venice Film Festival International prize. (Shintoho)

Ochazuke no Aji ("The Flavor of Green Tea over Rice") by Ozu Yasujiro. Crisis in the life of a middle-aged, childless couple. Takeo (Kogure Michiyo) is bored by her dull husband, a quiet company executive (Saburi Shin), and - inspired by a rebellious niece who refuses an arranged marriage - runs off to a spa with her friends. But after this unsettling experience - and when a foreign assignment threatens to take her husband away - , she comes to a new appreciation of him and his relaxed and simple mode of life - while they share a meal of simply green tea over rice. (Shochiku)

Okasan ("Mother") by Naruse Mikio was one of the most successful of postwar shoshimin-eiga. A daughter witnesses her widowed mother (with three children), a tenacious, aging woman, struggling to keep the dry-cleaning business left by her husband going and avoid poverty. Melodramas about maternal love and sacrifice, so-called "haha-mono," were popular since the early fifties (Daiei made scores of sodden sentimental ones with actress Mimasu Aiko, "the mother of Japan" - these films about mothers suffering for the sake of their offspring apparently took their cue from Henry King's Stella Dallas, but it is also an age-old Japanese theme). (Shintoho)

Inazuma ("Lightning"), also by Naruse Mikio. Based on a novel by Hayashi Fumiko and featuring the director's frequent muse, Takamine Hideko. In contrast to the previous film, this is a story about a weak-willed mother with four children by different fathers. The youngest, unmarried daughter tries to break away from the sordidness around her, but in the end cannot help being kind to her pathetic mother. In Naruse's films the inner conflicts of the characters are subtly indicated by the absence of prolonged eye contact or by glances filled with a hidden flash of disgust. (Daiei)

Karumen Junjosu ("Carmen's Pure Love") by Kinoshita Keisuke was a sequel to his first Carmen-film. Uneducated women working as strippers protest against Japan's postwar rearmament. If anything is to be done, one must do it oneself - but the idiocy of the modern world is not helpful. (Shochiku)

Genji Monogatari ("The Story of Genji") by Yoshimura Kozaburo was entered in the 1952 Cannes Film Festival. This first film version of Japan's great 11th c. classical novel was made to celebrate the tenth anniversary of Daiei. The shining prince was played by Hasegawa Kazuo. Praised for its careful recreation of period and careful delineation of character. Quite popular (Daiei's top grossing picture of the year) as many teachers took their class to see the film as a cultural experience. (Daiei)

The Five-Company Agreement (Gosha Kyotei) is signed between Shochiku, Toho, Daiei, Shintoho, and Toei to prevent actors, directors and technical staff to be hired away by other studios. It made ordinary "company employees" of the actors and directors - only a few, who were famous enough, could get away from this by setting up their own production companies (Katsu Shintaro, Ishihara Yujiro, Mifune Toshiro, all in the sixties). Executed mainly under the leadership of Daiei's president Nagata Masaichi, the agreement was initially directed against Nikkatsu, which was trying to get back its former staff from Daiei. In 1956, however, Nikkatsu  also joined the agreement, which would be in force during the whole 1960s, until it naturally expired with Daiei's demise in 1971.

Daiei produces Teinosuke Kinugasa's Jigokumon ("Gate of Hell"), the first color film from Japan to be shown abroad, earning both an honorary Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film and best costume design, as well as the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival. Made with Eastmancolor as that was thought to have fresher colors than Japanese color film - the film indeed revels in color. Daiei's president Nagata hit the jackpot with this sumptuous production, in which he copied several elements from Rashomon: the period setting (12th c.); the "gate" in the title of the film; an original story by Akutagawa Ryunosuke; and Kyo Machiko as the female lead. But without being outright bad, the film strikes us now as a somehow empty display, as arty kitsch, with none of the depth of Rashomon (although that is of course a very high standard indeed). A samurai (Hasegawa Kazuo) has fallen in love with a palace lady (Kyo Machiko) and, although she is already married, keeps stalking her. Finally, she pretends to agree with a plan by her insistent lover: at night he will creep into her house to kill her husband - but she changes places with her husband and silently offers herself up for his life. (Daiei)

Tokyo Monogatari ("Tokyo Story") by Ozu Yasujiro. An elderly couple (Ryu Chishu, Higashiyama Chieko) from Onomichi visits their preoccupied children in Tokyo, but they are clearly a burden and packed off to Atami. Back home, the mother dies, and now it is the turn of the children to visit the town where they were born. The only child genuinely affectionate is the widowed daughter-in-law (Hara Setsuko); she is also the only one who understands the feelings of the widowed father. She offers to stay with him now that he is alone, but he refuses - he accepts life as it comes. Although Tokyo Story is now considered as one of the best films ever made, Ozu as a director was late in breaking through outside Japan. Only when it was shown in New York in 1972 (at the publication of Paul Schrader’s Transcendental Style in FilmTokyo Monogatari won the hearts of viewers. Instrumental in the breakthrough of Ozu was the unflagging advocacy by Donald Richie, whose detailed study on Ozu was published in 1974, finally convincing critics that this quiet filmmaker was one of cinema’s finest artists. (Shochiku)

Ugetsu Monogatari ("Ugetsu") by Mizoguchi Kenji, derived from stories by Ueda Akinari and Maupassant. One of the most perfect movies in the history of Japanese cinema, an exquisite blending of the otherworldly and the real. At a time of civil war, a potter (Mori Masayuki) leaves wife and child behind to go to the city to sell his wares. There he falls in love with a beautiful, mysterious woman (Kyo Machiko) who later turns out to be the ghost of a princess. She had never tasted love in her life and therefore must now seduce and destroy men. When at long last he manages to free himself from this beautiful, but malevolent spirit, the potter returns home where he finds his wife (Tanaka Kinuyo) waiting for him. The next morning he discovers she has been dead for some time - she is also a ghost. The difference is that she has become a benevolent spirit who watches over her husband and her son. Mizoguchi was often considered as "old-fashioned" by Japanese critics, but earned high praise in France, because his moving-camera, long-shot technique exemplified the aesthetic that the young Cahiers du cinéma critics were championing (and which they also found in films by, for example, Jean Renoir and Max Ophüls) - Godard called him “the greatest of Japanese filmmakers, or quite simply one of the greatest of filmmakers.” (Daiei)

Gion Bayashi ("Gion festival Music") by Mizoguchi Kenji. Post-war variation on Sisters of the Gion made seventeen years earlier, again with a traditional elderly geisha (Kogure Michiyo) and this time, not her real younger sister, but her maiko apprentice (Wakao Ayako). But as times are different, the resistance against traditional customs of the younger geisha is actually transformed into something humorous (she bites a client who wants to force her to have sex with him in his face, so that he ends up in hospital), although also the dark side of the trade is shown, as the elder geisha is forced to sell her body to a powerful client on penalty of being exorcised from the profession. (Daiei)

Nihon no Higeki ("A Japanese Tragedy") by Kinoshita Keisuke. Sentimental tragedy criticizing the egoism of the younger generation. A mother has made every possible sacrifice to bring up her ungrateful son and daughter, but they reject her, searching for their own material comforts. The mother is unable to provide for herself and finally commits suicide. But life continues and this, too, is just an incident in an eternal flow. The personal tragedy is linked to the larger flow of events by mixing in newsreels and newspaper headlines from the postwar years. (Shochiku)

Entotsu no Mieru Basho ("Where Chimneys Are Seen") by Gosho Heinosuke is entered into the 3rd Berlin International Film festival. The lives of four ordinary people living in an industrial-residential area of Tokyo, centering around the anecdote of an unwelcome baby. Shows the charms of everyday life. The chimneys of the tile look different depending on the viewpoint of the observer, and so it is also with life - it is as each person happens to see it. With Tanaka Kinuyo, Takamine Hideko, Uekara Ken, etc. (Shintoho)

Tsuma ("Wife") is another film about marriage by Naruse Mikio. A white-collar office worker and his wife are drifting apart due to various circumstances. But when the wife realizes that she may loose her husband, she fights desperately to retain him.  (Toho)

Ani Imoto ("Older Brother, Younger Sister") by Naruse Mikio. Siblings grow up and grow apart. A sister who has gone to work in Tokyo returns home pregnant. Her rowdy brother scolds her and beats up her boyfriend. The marriage prospects of another sister are ruined by this scandal. The Tokyo sister is discarded by her family and finally becomes a streetwalker. (Daiei)

Nostalgic war films also start being made. An example is Taiheiyo no washi ("Eagle of the Pacific") by Honda Ishiro (of later Godzilla fame), insisting that war is somehow heroic. The insistence on warm comradeship ("male bonding"), like in the war films of the late 1930s and early 1940s, probably also helped make these films popular in the postwar age where everyone had to fend for himself. (Toho)

On a quite different note, Imai Tadashi makes an antiwar movie about a group of high-school girls who tragically perish in the battle for Okinawa: Himeyuri no To ("The Tower of Lilies") - the film was very popular in Japan. The major blame for the tragedy was put on traditional Japanese fatalism -  the girls had been trained to die in case of an American attack, so that is what they did. The film was named after the monument erected to commemorate this historical incident. (Toei)

Nigorie ("An Inlet of Muddy Water"), also by Imai Tadashi, wins Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film of the Year. Based on three stories by Higuchi Ichiyo about Meiji-period women and their dreary lot. One is cruelly abused in an arranged marriage; another, a prostitute, is thwarted in her efforts to gain respectable employment; and yet another is a young servant whose rich employers make her life hell. (Bungakuza)

The love drama ("surechigai") Kimi no Na wa ("What is Your Name?") by Oba Hideo established a famous box office record. It also demonstrated the enduring popularity of sentimental love stories centering on the ninaime lead (Sada Keiji) and the sorrowful heroine (Kishi Keiko). (Shochiku)

Koibumi ("Love Letters") by Tanaka Kinuyo. Tanaka Kinuyo was not only the most famous Japanese actress of her time, in the fifties and early sixties she was also active as one of the first woman directors of the country, making six films in all. This was the first one, based on a script by Kinoshita Keisuke, about a man (Mori Masayuki) who after the war gets by through writing love letters for other people. His personal principles are tested when he again meets his former girlfriend, a woman with a dark past (Kuga Yoshiko). (Shintoho)

Nikkatsu starts production again. The studio attempts to find an audience with high-quality literary adaptations.

Shichinin no Samurai ("Seven Samurai") by Kurosawa Akira, the best samurai film ever made, a thrilling three hour epic. In this seamless fusion of philosophy and entertainment, seven ragged samurai set out to protect a poor farming village from bandit raids in exchange for nothing but room and board. They win after breathtaking battle scenes in rain and mud (though three of their number are killed), but realize that the real winners are only the peasants who don't need them anymore and want them to leave so that they can go on with their normal lives - leaving the samurai to wonder about the purpose in life. Daily life, in this case the round of the seasons with its agricultural activities, is more important than winning a war, than friendship, than even love. Won the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival of 1954. (Toho)

Mizoguchi Kenji makes Sansho Dayu ("Sansho the Bailiff"), an expression of human resilience in the face of evil. An eleven-century family is broken up by politics - the father, a governor who disobeyed the ruling feudal lord, dies in exile. The wife and her two children are left to fend for themselves and eventually fall prey to slave traders. The son is finally reunited with the mother through the self-sacrifice of his sister. Based on a short story by Mori Ogai, which itself goes back to a medieval legend. One of cinema's greatest masterpieces. Venice Film Festival San Marco Silver Lion. (Daiei)

Mizoguchi also makes Chikamatsu Monogatari ("A Story from Chikamatsu aka Crucified Lovers"), based on Chikamatsu Monzaemon's 17th c. play "The Almanac Maker's Tale". Strongly anti-feudal film, about a merchant class woman who is unjustly accused of adultery with a servant. They flee, are caught and executed - at which time they realize that their shared experience has now made them fall in love. (Daiei)

Yama no Oto ("Sound of the Mountain") by Naruse Mikio, after the novel by Kawabata Yasunari. The heroine of this film (Hara Setsuko) finds relief from marital distress in the friendship with her father-in-law (Yamamura So).  (Toho)

Naruse also directs Bangiku ("Last Chrysanthemums"), about the loneliness and disillusion of four aging geisha, a subject Naruse had already touched on in Apart from You (1933). Based on short stories by Hayashi Fumiko. (Toho)

Onna no Sono ("The Garden of Women") by Kinoshita Keisuke describes the struggle against the feudal structure at a women's college. A pupil is driven to suicide by the discriminatory treatment she receives from her teacher. (Shochiku)

Nijushi no Hitomi ("Twenty-four Eyes") by the same director is a sentimental pacifist film, a chronicle of a teacher's dedication to her students, her profession and morality. Shot on location on the island of Shodoshima in the Inland Sea. Like the films of Ozu, Naruse and Gosho, this is a film free from tight plot and contrived story, reflecting life with great fidelity - something typical for the best Japanese films of this period. Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film of the Year. (Shochiku)

Inagaki makes Miyamoto Musashi ("Samurai") the first (but self-contained) part of a trilogy based on the popular novel by Yoshikawa Eiji. Mifune Toshiro plays the iconic title character (although he was in fact too old to play a teenage boy in the first part). Followed by Part II in 1955 ("Duel at Ichijoji Temple") and Part III in 1956 ("Duel on Ganryu Island"). Takezo is a farmer's son, a good-for-nothing who dreams of becoming a samurai in early 17th century Japan. Under the guidance of a Buddhist priest, and through the love of a pure woman, we see him evolve from a wild animal, a teenager filled with rage and violence, into the adult Miyamoto Musashi, a man who through study of the Way of the Warrior has achieved a deeper understanding of himself. This trilogy is arguably the most popular samurai movie outside Japan, but it is a pure genre film, an entertainment, not comparable to Kurasawa's Seven Samurai with its philosophic depth. Academy Award for the best foreign-language film of 1955. (Toho)

Toho makes the first of its many monster movies (kaiju eiga) with Gojira ("Godzilla"), helmed by Honda Ishiro. This first film is obviously by far the best of the series, not only because it has the advantage of a great actor, Shimura Takashi, but also because the story was inspired by realistic fear for the nuclear tests ongoing in the Pacific. A giant reptile, brought back to life by underwater nuclear testing, comes on land in Japan and goes on a rampage in Tokyo. An eccentric scientist does his best to destroy the beast with a new invention. The fact that it is in black-and-white makes it more convincing and even helps us accept the fact that the monster is a man in a rubber suit, stomping on mock-up buildings. The special effects were by Tsuburaya Eiji. The film became a huge international success, despite being heavily mutilated in its initial English release, and formed the beginning of a monster franchise that would run for many decades (and still has not died out). Godzilla would be joined by Rodan, the flying monster, by Mothra, and by King Ghidorah. He even became nationalistically Japanese when in the 1960s he fought against the "American monster" King Kong. The most popular entertainment ever to come out of Japan.
A History of Japanese Film by Year:
1896-1909 - First Stirrings
1910-1919 - Development
1920-1929 - Art Films and Nihilistic Heroes
1930-1939 - Social Realism and Shoshimin-Eiga
1940-1949 - Censorship during War and Occupation
1950-1954 - Golden Age of the Classical Studio System
1955-1959 - Taiyozoku and other Youth Films
1960-1964 - The New Wave
1965-1969 - Golden Age of Independent Film
1970-1979 - Sex and Violence
1980-1989 - Decline and Stagnation
1990-1999 - Indies and Anime
2000-2014 - Postmodern Genre Film 
[Reference works used: Currents In Japanese Cinema by Sato Tadao (Tokyo, 1987); The Japanese Film: Art and Industry by Joseph L. Anderson and Donald Richie (reprint Tokyo, 1983); A Hundred Years of Japanese Film by Donald Richie (Tokyo, 2001); Japanese Film Directors by Audrie Bock (Tokyo, 1985); A Critical Handbook of Japanese Film Directors by Alexander Jacoby (Berkeley, 2008); A New History of Japanese Cinema by Isolde Standish (New York, 2005); The Japanese Period Film by S.A. Thornton (Jefferson & London, 2008). All images are linked from Wikipedia.]

April 4, 2015

A History of Japanese Film by Year: Censorship during War and Occupation (1940-1949)

In 1937, the war in China started, followed by the war with the U.S. and its allies in 1941. 1945 brought the Occupation to a devastated country, with shortages of food and other necessities, and severe chaos including gangsterism and a thriving black market. It was not until the end of the 1940s that the Japanese could feel that peace and normality had finally returned to society.

The films of this period were all made under more or less strict censorship, first by the Japanese government, later by the U.S. Occupation authorities (S.C.A.P.). The Japanese government encouraged pictures that eulogized "essential Japaneseness," in these years found in the patriarchal family system and in the code of loyalty. Also sacrifice for the state and the greater well of society was an important theme. Decadent "Western" feelings such as love were frowned upon. The Americans, on the other hand, forbade these "feudal" ideas in 1945 and instead encouraged the production of films propagating democracy and individualism - and containing kissing scenes. The Occupation authorities also forbade period drama, which only came back (and with a vengeance!) after the San Francisco Treaty had been concluded in 1951. 

Due the adverse circumstances and the lack of film stock and equipment, considerably fewer films were made in these years. This decade was also rather poor in great films, due to the war and various forms of censorship - a huge difference compared to the golden decades before and after the 1940s. Also the early postwar period produced no great films, we have to wait until 1948 and 1949 for new talent to ripen (Kurosawa), or older talent to find a new groove (Ozu). Many films reflect the harsh realities of postwar life, and although this was an independent phenomenon, it is the same type of transformation that occurred in Italy where neo-realism was born. As Richie has phrased it, "all Japanese cinema became, for a season, shomingeki."

Despite the war, the cinema remains popular. There are more than 2,300 theaters which sell more than 400 million tickets this year.

Toyoda Shiro, the director of literary films, evades the war as subject and makes Kojima no Haru ("Spring on Leper's Island"), about a woman doctor's devotion to her leper patients on an isolated island. A cry for humanism in an age marching to the tune of militarism. Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film of the Year.

That was not true of Yoshimura Kozaburo, who made Nishizumi Senshacho-den ("The Story of Tank Commander Nishizumi"), although it must be said that also this film contains some dim humanistic elements. Heart-throb Uehara Ken played the tank commander.

Tatakau Heitai ("Fighting Soldiers") by Kamei Fumio, a documentary maker, was a film depicting the tragic side of the war. When the censors belatedly noticed its antiwar ideas, Kamei was arrested and forbidden to make any more films.

Naniwa Onna ("The Woman of Osaka") by Mizoguchi Kenji depicts rivalries in the Osaka Bunraku puppet theater world, a safe topic.

Gosho Heinosuke protested in another way to the war, by turning all military scripts submitted to him into simple love stories. An example from this year is Mokuseki ("Wooden Head"), a psychological study of an unmarried woman doctor who adopts an illegitimate child to keep the father's name clear.

Japanese cinema also expanded to the occupied territories in Asia. One example is the Manchurian Motion Picture Association, which had been set up in 1938 under sponsorship of the army. This year it made its most popular film, Shina no Yoru ("China Night"), about the love between a Chinese war orphan (played by Yamaguchi Yoshiko, also known at that time as Ri Koran, as she had adopted a Chinese name for propaganda reasons) and a Japanese naval officer (Hasegawa Kazuo).

All American and European films (except German ones) are banned.

Ozu Yasujiro makes Todake no Kyodai ("Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family"), about a widow and her youngest daughter who have lost their home and move in with successive family members, causing many tensions. The spirit of the times can be seen obliquely in the idea that it is the death of the patriarch (and his authority), occurring at the beginning of the film, that is the origin of all these problems. For the rest the film is filled with small daily activities, like all Ozu films. It was also made with an almost silent-film technique. Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film of the Year.

Yamamoto Kajiro makes Uma ("Horse"), a portrayal of country life, part of it directed by his assistant, Kurosawa Akira. A colt raised by a poor farm girl in the end becomes an army horse, but the tacked on message (necessary to get permission to make the film) does not destroy this poetical work, which is almost a documentary about horse breeding.

Mizoguchi Kenji makes Genroku Chushingura ("The Loyal 47 Ronin"), a two-part version of the popular kabuki classic glorifying feudal loyalty and self-sacrifice. The film shows its wartime origin in its sober and grave dignity - the final vendetta in the snow is left out. The military had demanded this film from Shochiku because the studio had failed to make a sufficient number of national policy films. Mizoguchi volunteered to save Shochiku. This film was made in what Darcell William Davis in Picturing Japaneseness calls "the monumental style," "an aspiration to reclaim the cinema for Japan and transform Japanese tradition from a cultural legacy into a sacrament."

Kanzashi ("Ornamental Hairpin") by Shimizu Hiroshi depicts several holidaymakers in a hot spring hotel, including a wounded soldier and a geisha. The poetic film seems like a holiday from the war and is more about delineation of character than plot. It is a bittersweet tale with great performances by Tanaka Kinuyo and Ryu Chishu, sensitively suggesting unspoken emotions.

At Toho, Naruse Mikio makes Hideko no Shasho-san ("Hideko, The Bus Conductor"), based on a short story by Ibuse Masuji, and starring the young Takamine Hideko. Hideko works as conductor for a company in the countryside (Yamanashi), where the number of passengers is dwindling. She asks a visiting author to write commentaries on local sites so that she can recite these to the passengers during the trip through the countryside. Not only a wonderfully peaceful and pleasant film made in the war years, but also a remarkable story about a young woman coming out as a professional. And, as in some films from the 1930s, for example Arigato-san, great location shots through the windows of the bus.

The ten film companies then operating are reorganized under government control. The original idea was to form two companies (by merging all the others into Shochiku and Toho), but Nagata Masaichi, then an executive of Shinko Kinema, pushed hard for three companies, the third one consisting of Shinko Kinema, Daito Eiga and the production arm of Nikkatsu (the Nikkatsu theaters prefer to remain independent and will in 1951 make a fresh start with film production under the Nikkatsu name). This third company - in fact a new one - is called Daiei and the first president is the novelist and playwright Kikuchi Kan; Nagata becomes one of its executives. The new company's studios were located in Chofu (Tokyo) and Uzumasa (Kyoto).

Hawai-Marei Oki Kaisen ("The War at Sea from Hawaii to Malaya") was a popular war film, which also netted the Kinema Junpo Award. In this Toho production, director Yamamoto Kajiro makes heroes of the pilots who attacked Pearl Harbor in a film released on the first anniversary of the attack. Responsible for the special effects with miniatures was Tsuburaya Eiji, of later Godzilla fame. They were so realistic that the Occupation authorities later thought the film contained parts of actual newsreels. By the way, the enemy in this and most other war films remains vague and is is never clearly shown (here he is only represented by planes and warships): while other countries at war used the cinema as a tool to arouse hostility and hatred by depicting the enemy as cruel and inhuman, in Japan the enemy was elided and the emphasis is wholly on the Japanese effort itself. That does not absolve The War at Sea from Hawaii to Malaya from being a false piece of propaganda. Film critic Sato Tadao relates how he was inspired by this film to join a training school for air cadets, but found daily life very different from the warm comradeship depicted in the film: the recruits were continually subjected to brutal beatings and other forms of cruelty, just for the personal gratification of the NCOs.

But not all was war, even in this year. Ozu Yasujiro makes Chichi Ariki ("There Was a Father"), one of the best films to come out of these dark years. It is about the deep relation between a school teacher and his son. When the boy grows up, he is drafted, but the teacher has the pleasure of seeing him married to the daughter of his best friend. A perfect film with a superb performance by Ryu Chishu as the father. Although the emphasis was on obligations to family and society, the tone was far removed from the usual wartime propaganda.

Two more excellent films were made in the next year. Kurosawa Akira directs his debut film, Sugata Sanshiro, about a Meiji-period judo champion (Fujita Susumu) who learns from his sensei (Okochi Denjiro) that spiritual discipline is more important than simple prowess. The authorities liked it, because it showed Japan's valorous ways - but the film in fact strongly emphasized the individuality of its hero. Superbly made film, especially considering the wartime conditions and the fact that this was Kurosawa's first - it would not be until Drunken Angel and Stray Dog of the late 1940s that Kurosawa would display the same artistry. Kurosawa worked at Toho, where he would remain until the mid-sixties.

[Poster for Sanshiro Sugata]

Another fine and moving film was Muhomatsu no Issho ("The Life of Matsu the Untamed") by Inagaki Hiroshi, a humanistic film about the relations of a rickshaw driver with a widow and her young son, also set in the Meiji-period. It will be remade by Inagaki in 1958, but this version is generally thought to be superior, especially as period drama star Bando Tsumasaburo gave the best performance of his career - as a tateyaku actor, he played the rickshaw man with a pride not inferior to that of a samurai.

Kinoshita Keisuke (1912-1998) directs his first film, Hana Saku Minato ("The Blossoming Port"), a film in a light satiric vein about the virtues of islanders who make honest men of swindlers. Kinoshita would become one of the most popular and prolific of post-war directors, known for his devotion to a sentimental ideal of purity and beauty, a director also who was not bound by genre.

In this dark year, the subject matter of all films is the war effort. A good example is Ichiban Utsukushiku ("The Most Beautiful") by Kurosawa Akira, a semi-documentary on women working in a vital war industry, optical instruments. Shows the fanatical dedication of one young women who strives to make as many instruments as the male workers. Interestingly, the film strongly resembles Communist propaganda from the S.U. or the P.R.C., showing that propaganda is propaganda, wherever it comes from.

Kinoshita Keisuke makes Rikugun ("Army"), about a family with a strong military tradition; the son is initially weak but grows stronger when he is in adolescence and the film concludes with his joining the army: the last, long shot shows his tearful mother following the parade as he goes off to the front. Not surprisingly, the film was decried by the military censor as being insufficiently ideological.

Lack of equipment results in the film industry becoming forced inactive - in this last war year only 26 feature films are made. Two of these were by Kurosawa Akira: Sugata Sanshiro II, a rather jingoistic and worthless sequel to his excellent 1943 movie, and the much better Tora no O wo Fumu Otokotachi ("The Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail"), a slyly subversive version of the kabuki play Kanjincho, about a loyal retainer who beats his lord in order to hide their identities. Kurosawa added a character not in the original: a porter, played by the popular comedian Enoken. His total misunderstanding of the principles motivating the behavior of the samurai slyly undermines the feudal ideology of the play. In other words, this is a rather strongly anti-feudal film - something the Occupation authorities also didn't get, for they banned it. It was only shown in 1953.

After Japan's defeat, motion picture companies are placed under the Occupation forces, which prohibit films with themes of revenge (including all chanbara films) or antidemocratic principles - so censorship continues, albeit of a different kind.

Many prewar and wartime films were deliberately destroyed by the Occupation authorities, further reducing an archive already meager due to natural disasters, inflammable nitrate stock and indifference.

Many theaters have been destroyed during the war and a rebuilding boom starts, bringing the number from 845 operating theaters in October of this year to more than 1,130 at the beginning of 1946. Still, that is less than half of the number of theaters of 1940. Due to the occupation, foreign (American) films become more dominant than they had ever been before, but they are still decades from being greater in numbers or receipts than Japanese films.

Sword fighting scenes are banned, so the stars of period drama are forced to don modern garb and appear as gangsters with pistols instead of brandishing swords. The Occupation does, however, encourage kissing scenes. The first kiss ever in Japanese cinema was shown on June 23, 1946 simultaneously in two otherwise unremarkable films; Daiei and Shochiku shared the honors. One of these kisses took place behind an umbrella because the Japanese were still shy about it.

Another banned theme is the suffering inflicted by the atomic bomb explosions.

Half the theaters in the major cities have been destroyed, but the studios are intact so production can start again.

Due to the strong leftist atmosphere in the early postwar years, labor disputes occur in almost every motion picture company. The strongest (Communist-inspired) union exists at Toho - it even obtains the right to participate in film planning and almost gets the studio under its management.

Ten star actors and actresses at Toho (including Okochi Denjiro, Hasegawa Kazuo, Fujita Susumu, Irie Takako and Hara Setsuko) oppose this state of affairs and break away to form a new company, Shintoho ("New Toho"). Shintoho officially starts in 1948 and would remain in existence until 1961. In its initial period, it focused on artistic films (it produced for example Kurosawa's Stray Dog in 1949, The Life of Oharu by Mizoguchi in 1952, Mother by Naruse in 1952 and Growing Up by Gosho in 1955, before degrading into exploitation cinema). There existed no animosity between the old and the new Toho, as Toho theaters distributed Shintoho films, and later several of those who had left returned to the Toho fold.

This exit of stars from Toho did give a chance to young talent, of whom the major one was Mifune Toshiro (1920-1997), who would play the main character in Kurosawa's Drunken Angel and Stray Dog.

Waga Seishun ni Kui Nashi ("No Regrets for Our Youth") is a sharp examination of academic freedom by Kurosawa Akira. A university professor (Okochi Denjiro) is suspected of liberal views and one of his students (Fujita Susumu) - who is married to the professor's daughter (Hara Setsuko) - is arrested as a spy and executed. The daughter then makes a strongly individual choice by going to work on the farm of her husband's parents and enduring the worst of wartime suspicion. After the war, she stays on in the village as she has learned to love the rural life and "has no regrets for her youth." This is the only Kurosawa film that features a woman as protagonist. It is a strong feminist statement.

Utamaro wo Meguru Gonin no Onna ("Utamaro and his Five Women") was the first postwar film of Mizoguchi Kenji, based on the life of the famous woodcut artist. Mizoguchi himself pleaded the case of this film with the Occupation censorship, presenting Utamaro as a sort of "pre-Occupation democrat" and the film as a plea for female emancipation. In reality, the film is more a meditation on the role of the artist in society.

Osone-ke no ashita ("Morning for the Osone Family") by Kinoshita Keisuke shows a Japanese family examining itself on the morning after the great defeat in the war. Peace brings new hope to the family whose sons were involved both in war and anti-war efforts. Prominent is also a militarist uncle who is involved in shady deals. Sometimes a mouthpiece for political ideas, but deeply felt and beautifully acted. Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film of the Year. It is interesting to see the conversion to democratic ideals that directors like Kinoshita, Kurosawa and many others underwent as soon as the war had ended!

Toho continues under control of the labor union. Works of "democratic enlightenment" are made.

Nagata Masaichi (1906-1985) becomes president of Daiei, a position in which he remains until 1974.

This year, two films are based on the life of Japan's first modern stage actress (and one of Japan's first emancipated women) Matsui Sumako, who committed suicide in 1918 because of social pressure. She was the first major star in the Shingeki theater movement and played the role of Nora in Ibsen's A Doll's House. Mizoguchi Kenji makes Joyu Sumako no Koi ("The Love of Sumako, the Actress"), and Kinugasa Teinosuke Joyu ("Actress"). Kinugasa's version is generally considered better.

Ozu Yasujiro makes his first postwar film, Nagaya Shinshiroku ("Social Record of a Tenement House"), about a boy, Kohei, who has been separated from his father and is picked up by the poor inhabitants of a tenement house. He is taken care of by the widow Otane (Iida Choko), who first finds him bothersome, but gradually grows to love him. When the father finally appears and takes the boy with him, she decides to adopt a war orphan. The film shows the ninjo, the warm human feelings of the lower classes, like several of Ozu's "social realistic" prewar films did. The message is that in the difficult time after the war, when everyone only cares for himself, such feelings are all the more important.

Kurosawa Akira makes Subarashiki Nichiyobi ("One Wonderful Sunday"), a sunny, sentimental comedy about a young couple in Tokyo who have a great date together without any money to spend. In the finale the boy tries to conduct Schubert's Unfinished Symphony in an empty bandstand (in Hibiya Park) and she, at least, believes in him...

[Poster for The Ball at the Anjo House]

Yoshimura Kozaburo makes The Ball at the Anjo House, about the decline of the prewar aristocracy - an intelligent analysis of social change in Japan, where masters and servants are now equal. The story was indebted to Anton Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard. The father, who has to sell the family mansion, is on the verge of suicide, but his optimistic daughter (played by Hara Setsuko) shows him how to begin again. At the end of the film, they dance the tango together. Yoshimura, who worked at Shochiku, has been compared to Mizoguchi for his sympathetic portrayal of female characters. Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film of the Year.

The conflict at Toho continues with a strike and occupation of the studios. The police and even the U.S. army are used to disperse the strikers. The union is defeated and its leaders are driven from Toho.

Several films made this year depict the harsh realities of postwar Japan.

Yoidore Tenshi ("Drunken Angel") by Kurosawa Akira is a drama about an alcoholic doctor (the angel of the title, played by Shimura Takashi) and a death-obsessed gangster with TB (Mifune Toshiro) he tries to save. The film is set in the ruins of Tokyo at a very symbolical swamp and is seen as a brilliant evocation of the immediate postwar years in Japan, which were chaotic, poor and full of corruption due to the black market and gansterism. Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film of the Year.

[Poster for Drunken Angel]

Yoru no Onnatachi ("Women of the Night") by Mizoguchi Kenji. Story about an Osaka streetwalker (again with Tanaka Kinuyo), a realistic film, made on location, that shocked the nation. Reduced to poverty after the war, many women were forced into prostitution ("panpan girls"). Contains many superb scenes as well as a message of sympathy for the panpan girls. Helped to bring about a ban on street prostitution (although only in the late 1950s).

Hachi no Su no Kodomotachi ("Children of the Beehive") by Shimizu Hiroshi. About gangs of homeless and parentless children who wander the streets after the war, this film has been called a masterpiece of neo-realism. Shimizu here turns the poetic films about children he made in the late 1930s on their head.

Kaze no Naka no Mendori ("A Hen in the Wind") by Ozu Yasujiro. Melodrama about a woman, Tokiko (Tanaka Kinuyo), waiting for her husband to come home from the war. When her child falls ill, she is forced to prostitute herself to pay the medical bill. The husband initially reacts with anger and violence to her confession, but later learns to accept her act as necessary. In fact, Tokiko's act symbolizes Japan's loss of purity due to the war, her husband's violent reaction the ingrained brutality of militarism. The film's lesson is more soberly realistic than of other postwar films: the couple decides to forget past mistakes and face the future with "impure" but realistic hope. A human-scale compromise typical of Ozu.

Aoi Sanmyaku ("Blue Mountains") by Imai Tadashi stressed that young people should be allowed to make their own choices in this drama about young love and parental authority. The love between students in a co-educational school overcomes the conservative attitudes of the adults. Imai Tadashi (1912-1991) was highly acclaimed by critics in Japan - in the 1950s, he won more Kinema Junpo awards for his films than Ozu and Kurosawa combined. He was a polemical film maker, who leaned strongly towards the left and who addressed social problems. His work shows some stylistic unevenness but he was always a sincere humanist. Despite his high status in Japan, he is almost unknown abroad.

Kurosawa Akira makes Nora Inu ("Stray Dog") about a young policeman (Mifune Toshiro) whose pistol is stolen and used to kill someone. He goes nearly crazy getting it back, running all around Tokyo. His supervisor (Shimura Takeshi) lends moral support. The film shows that in a more individualistic society, one must bear the consequences of one's actions. The last part is an almost documentary-like chase film, in which hunter and hunted more and more come to resemble each other.

[Poster for Stray Dog]

This year, Kurosawa also makes the lesser Shizukanaru Ketto ("The Quiet Duel"), about a doctor who gets syphilis from a scalpel cut and then decides to give up his fiancee and dedicate his life to medicine.

Mizoguchi Kenji makes Waga Koi wa Moenu ("My Love Burns"), about a fighter for women's rights. More radical in its conclusion than any Hollywood film then and since has dared to be.

Shimizu Hiroshi makes Ohara Shosuke-san ("Mr. Shosuke Ohara"), one of his masterpieces. Okochi Denjiro plays a landowner who looses all his money through "sleeping in the morning, drinking sake in the morning and taking a bath in the morning" - plus being too good for this world as he can refuse no requests for financial help. Okochi gives a splendid tateyaku performance, in which his character never looses his composure and conceals his tragedy with rich humor.

Kinoshita Keisuke makes three interesting films: Ojosan Kanpai ("A Toast to the Young Miss") shows how love crosses class barriers. A refined, rich girl (Hara Setsuko) forgives a young entrepreneur who is making love to her his boorish manners by appreciating his frankness. Yotsuya Kaidan ("The Yotsuya Ghost Story," in two parts) is Kinoshita's take on a famous story of the revenge by the spirit of a scorned wife. Kinoshita concentrates on human relations and foregoes the grotesque horror effects common to other versions of this tale. In Yabure-daiko ("The Broken Drum") Bando Tsumasaburo plays a blustering father who tries to rule his family along authoritarian lines. He fails and has to give in to the young and modern individuals of his family.

[Poster for Late Spring]

Ozu makes Banshun ("Late Spring"), a masterpiece on the peaceful life of a middle-class family. The most ordinary things happen in a moving way in this unforgettable film, the greatest film of the whole decade. A daughter (Hara Setsuko) lives with her widowed father (Ryu Chishu). He wants her to get married and have a life of her own, she wants to stay at home and look after her father. In the end, the father pushes her into marriage by pretending he himself is getting married again. After she has married, he sits alone in the now empty house, feeling sad. Accepting life's changes as they come - to live in harmony with both the self and the world - is also a form of transcendence. Interesting is, that the wedding ceremony - which in a Hollywood film would have formed the grand finale - is entirely left out, we do not even see the face of the groom. Set in a quiet residential area of Kamakura, this film made audiences feel that peace indeed had come to Japan. The film's iconography of "Japaneseness" (Zen gardens, Noh Drama, the tea ceremony) is meant to underline that Japanese tradition can be reconciled with the liberalism of the Occupation era. The film also shows the liberal view of family relations and marriage that had been introduced - marriage is for love and happiness, not for the perpetuation of the family. The only outrageous thing for us is the old-fashioned view that Noriko must marry since she is getting in her "late spring," but that would also change in Ozu's last film. Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film of the Year.

As is well known, Ozu always worked with the same crew and often the same cast. From this film on until his last one in 1962, his staff basically stayed the same. It consisted for example of co-scriptwriter Noda Koga and cameraman Atsuta Yuharu. His actors were often Hara Setsuko, Ryu Chishu and Sugimura Haruko.

A History of Japanese Film by Year:
1896-1909 - First Stirrings
1910-1919 - Development
1920-1929 - Art Films and Nihilistic Heroes
1930-1939 - Social Realism and Shoshimin-Eiga
1940-1949 - Censorship during War and Occupation
1950-1954 - Golden Age of the Classical Studio System
1955-1959 - Taiyozoku and other Youth Films
1960-1964 - The New Wave
1965-1969 - Golden Age of Independent Film
1970-1979 - Sex and Violence
1980-1989 - Decline and Stagnation
1990-1999 - Indies and Anime
2000-2014 - Postmodern Genre Film
[Reference works used: Currents In Japanese Cinema by Sato Tadao (Tokyo, 1987); The Japanese Film: Art and Industry by Joseph L. Anderson and Donald Richie (reprint Tokyo, 1983); A Hundred Years of Japanese Film by Donald Richie (Tokyo, 2001); Japanese Film Directors by Audrie Bock (Tokyo, 1985); A Critical Handbook of Japanese Film Directors by Alexander Jacoby (Berkeley, 2008); A New History of Japanese Cinema by Isolde Standish (New York, 2005); The Japanese Period Film by S.A. Thornton (Jefferson & London, 2008). All images are linked from Wikipedia.]

March 28, 2015

A History of Japanese Film by Year: Social-realism and Shoshimin-Eiga (1930-1939)

Japanese cinema is 35 years old and has attained full maturity. It can withstand comparison with any other national cinema of the day. It shows life as it is (rather than as how it should be) and puts emphasis on character and mood rather than plot. 

The commercial studio system with its sophisticated machinery for production and consumption of films (the studios owned their own theaters) is in full swing. There is a star system, but also maverick directors who later would be recognized as auteurs have their place. The great classical directors such as Ozu, Mizoguchi, Naruse, Gosho, Shimizu, Kinugasa, etc., have all made their first films in the 1920s or early 1930s and will continue production until well in the 1960s and 1970s, thus ensuring continuity, especially as they often worked with fixed actors/actresses and a fixed team of technical staff and scenario writers. 

Japan had such a large public for film - a public that moreover in these years preferred Japanese films - that the industry could rely on the internal Japanese market and exports were not necessary. Foreign films were shown in different theaters and were only watched by a small but sophisticated public of urban intelligentsia. The 1930s have been called the "First Golden Age of Japanese Cinema."

As the benshi was very popular, so-called "silent films" (which were not at all silent but accompanied by music, song and the benshi narration - the benshi could even enact dialogues!) remained dominant for the first half of this decade. When sound was finally generally introduced in 1935, it was technologically more advanced than it had been in the late twenties or early thirties. Happily, Japan also evaded the phenomenon that plagued Hollywood where films became a sort of "canned theater," without filmic qualities. For most Japanese directors, a good sound film was one with lots of silence.

Unfortunately, even from this period, many films have been lost, as is shown by the example of director Yamanaka who worked in the 1930s: of his more than twenty films, only three have been preserved. The quality of the preserved copies, also, can't stand comparison with films from for example the U.S., France or Germany, where already starting in the late twenties, often beautiful copies without blemishes have been preserved. 

The leftist movement is at its peak and as these films make money, the studios encourage their production. Naniga Kanojo wo So Saseta ka? ("What made her do it?") by Suzuki Shigeyoshi (1900-1976), is Japan's most famous leftist film (keiko eiga), about a naive orphan girl, Sumiko (Takatsu Keiko), up against corrupt and materialistic society. After her father commits suicide, she is sent to live with relatives who steal her money and sell her to a circus. The faces in this film are great - the poor are not heroic proletarians, but look realistically mean and degraded. Via the poorhouse, she later lands a job as maid with a rich family and very pampered daughter, making for some nice contrast. The daughter spits out her food when she finds a small fish bone in it, but the maids have to do with leftovers. Sumiko is finally forced to commit arson. When the film was first shown, audiences rioted in support of its anti-capitalist sentiments. It scored Kinema Junpo Best Film for this year.

Hogaraka ni Ayume ("Walk Cheerfully") was Ozu's 14th film and the second one still extant (disregarding the fragment from I Graduated, But...). It is a sort of gangster comedy in which the delinquent reforms for love of a pure young woman, a typist. Two other extant Ozu films from this year are Rakudai wa Shita Keredo... ("I Flunked, but..."), a "nonsense" comedy with the message that being stuck in school after failing the exams, is not so bad as there are no jobs for graduates anyway - containing the first substantial role of Ryu Chishu; and Sono Yo no Tsuma ("That Night's Wife"), about an impoverished father who robs a bank. As an adaptation of a piece of American pulp fiction, it also shows the impact which American films and Western culture had in Japan. On the other hand, we also already find one of Ozu's characteristic film elements: the close-up of objects which serve as sheer transition, without carrying connotative weight.

Already in this year, the year of the Manchurian Incident, political suppression put an end to Pro Kino and the popularity of leftist tendency films waned, although generally speaking, many films from the 1930s do contain strong socialist-realist elements. This is true of many of the films from the 1930s by Ozu, by Mizoguchi, and by Tasaka Tomotaka, Yamamoto Kajiro and Uchida Tomu.

[The Neighbor's Wife and Mine]

More importantly, 1931 is the year the first Japanese sound film was made, although the general introduction of sound would have to wait until the middle of the decade - it remained a rarity. That film was Madamu to Nyobo ("The Neighbor's Wife and Mine") by Gosho Heinosuke (1902-1981), a domestic comedy (shoshimin-eiga) made at Shochiku about a playwright suffering from writer's block and distracted by various noises, such as a baby crying, the ticking of a clock, but most of all a jazz band practicing in the home of the modern woman living next door (a good excuse to go there and join the party). Sound is used sparingly and inventively - this is a film that needs sound for the many off-screen noises and could never have worked with a benshi. On top of that, it introduced many new Hollywood codes, and was also inspired by French film such as René Clair's Under the Roofs of Paris (of which the signature melody is whistled in Madamu to Nyobo). Kinema Junpo Best Film for this year. Gosho, whose career spanned the years 1922-1977, was another outstanding practitioner of shomingeki. In contrast to Ozu and Naruse, he is still waiting to be properly assessed by Western film fans. His work is imbued with compassionate humanism, and is rich and complex, while also being visually intelligent (showing a debt to Lubitsch). By the way, how gradually sound was introduced in Japan is shown by the fact that Gosho after Madamu to Nyobo returned to silent production until 1935. And again to show how much has been lost: Madamu to Nyobo was Gosho's earliest film that has survived, but in fact the 39th movie he made (Gosho had started as a director in 1925).

I already mentioned Naruse Mikio (1905-1969) in the above paragraph. He was a shoshimin-eiga director with a rather dark view, who like Ozu made his greatest work in the 1950s and early 1960s (all women's films). His first preserved film is Koshiben Gambare ("Flunky, Work Hard!") from this year, about an impoverished insurance salesman. The salesman desperately tries to sell accident coverage to a wealthy woman with five children, while his own uninsured son is hit by a train.

Ozu made two films this year, Shukujo to Hige ("The Lady and the Beard") and Tokyo Gassho ("Tokyo Chorus"), the first a nonsense comedy about a bearded kendo swordfighting star, who is tamed by his girlfriend and made to shave. The second one is a shomingeki about an office worker who sticks up for a colleague and gets fired himself. After the student comedies and other nonsense films, this is Ozu's first (preserved) home drama, a big step towards next year's I Was Born, But..., with which it has the young salaryman family in common.

Of course, as every year many period films were made. There were two outstanding ones this year. Mabuta no Haha ("Long-sought Mother") by Inagaki Hiroshi (1905-1980), with Kataoka Chiezo, was based on a novel by Hasegawa Shin, a lyrical story about a ronin's search for and rejection by his long lost mother, - still extant and many times remade. Inagaki was a versatile film maker who mostly worked in jidaigeki - after WWII, he would become internationally famous with the Miyamoto Musashi Trilogy and The Rickshaw Man. Otsurae Jirokichi Goshi ("Jirokichi the Rat") by Ito Daisuke with Okochi Denjiro, is one of the rare surviving films by this period director. The climax consists of a dazzling lantern-filled pursuit.

This year Ozu Yasujiro made one of his best films (still a "silent" film) and at the same time one of the best Japanese films ever made: Umarete wa mita keredo... ("I was born, but..."). Two small boys learn to live with the fact that their father is not a great man, but simply a company employee ("salaryman"), who has to be obsequious to his boss. The worst moment comes when the boss gives a show for the neighborhood of a home movie he shot in which the father is shown clowning to please his superior. The boys ask why their father has to behave so silly, and why they can't beat up the boss' kid when they are stronger? In the end, of course, they have to learn something of the ways and compromises of the adult world. A serious comedy, funny and devastating at the same time, that teaches us to accept life as it is. Kinema Junpo Best Film for this year. Technically, in this film also Ozu's systematic low-angle frontality begins to appear.

[I Was Born, But...]

Nasanu Naka ("No Blood Relations") by Naruse Mikio is a melodrama about a Japanese film star who has become rich in Hollywood and now returns to Japan to search for the little daughter she has left behind. With the help of her brother, a gangster, she succeeds in wrestling away the girl from the step-mother, but as the girl now really loves the step-mother, she in the end gives in and returns alone to America.

Itami Mansaku (1900-1946), a friend of Ito Daisuke, brought new ideas to period drama. In Kokushi Muso ("Peerless Patriot"), the story of poor ronin who impersonates a famous swordsman, he ridiculed feudal traditions. Also more generally speaking, with the demise of leftist tendency films, also the nihilistic hero was on his way out. He was supplanted by what Sato Tadao calls "the free spirit hero," replacing nihilism with an advocacy of freedom portrayed in resistance against feudal authority. As in this film, Kataoka Chiezo became the typical actor for such roles.

A new film company, P.C.L. (later renamed to Toho) is set up to take advantage of sound technology. Founder was the owner of the Hankyu Railway group, Kobayashi Ichizo, and the company also managed the Tokyo Takarazuka Theater (Kobayashi had already set up the all-female Takarazuka revue in 1914) and the Imperial Theater. It specialized in the adaptation of modern novels and attracted inventive directors as Naruse Mikio. Naruse switched to the new studio from Shochiku, as there he had to work under the constant shadow of Ozu Yasujiro, both being shomingeki directors.

The best film of this year is another Ozu work, Dekigokoro ("Passing Fancy"). This silent film is about a father, Kihachi, and a son living together in impoverished circumstances. The father here is not a "salaryman" but works in a brewery. A widower, he becomes captivated by a new girl in the area, but she herself is infatuated with his younger friend, who is still single. The father recognizes his folly when the son becomes seriously ill and barely survives. Sakamoto Takeshi plays the father; Kihachi's type would recur several times in Ozu's cinema of the 1930s, and in fact formed the inspiration for the famous character of Torasan played by Atsumi Kiyoshi from 1969 to 1995. Kinema Junpo Best Film for this year.

A second Ozu film from this year is the short feature Tokyo no Onna ("Woman of Tokyo") about a young woman (Tanaka Kinuyo) who puts her younger brother through school with the money she earns. But when he notices that she not only works in an office but also is a prostitute at night, he commits suicide. More than for the melodramatic story, this film is interesting for the development of two of Ozu's style characteristics: besides the further development of his "cut-away still-lifes," we also find the systematic disregard for eye-line matching here.

1933 is also the year from which we have one of the first surviving films by Mizoguchi Kenji (1898-1956), with Ozu and Kurosawa one of the greatest Japanese directors of all time. Mizoguchi had already become a director in 1923, at Nikkatsu where he made films based on contemporary urban melodramas (shinpa); this was his 48th film (!), again vividly demonstrating how much has been lost. Taki no Shiraito ("The Water Magician") is a Shinpa-style melodrama about a girl water magician who falls in love with a poor student and puts him through college, after which they loose contact. Later she is driven to murder an usurer; at the trial she meets her former lover again, who is now a judge. He has to give her the death sentence. Based on a play by Izumi Kyoka. The melodrama is redeemed by Mizoguchi's cool, distant take. Mizoguchi's prewar films were often about the plight of women trapped in impossible situations. After WWII, this would change into the more general liberal-humanist topic about the liberation of women. In all cases, Mizoguchi expressed his deep sympathy for women victimized by an oppressive society.

Another interesting film of 1933 is Izu no Odoriko ("Dancing Girl of Izu") by Gosho Heinosuke, based on the eponymous novella by Kawabata Yasunari. Although in the original story the theme is in the first place the acceptance of the lonely student by a troupe of itinerant actors (the lowest of the lowest at that time, often forbidden entry into the villages) and his happiness at being connected with humanity, Gosho sets the tone for a whole string of Odoriko films in which the (platonic) love between the student and the underage dancing girl is highlighted, ending in a moving scene of separation. Tanaka Kinuyo played the dancing girl, and as she was a real actress (in contrast to the singers and teenage "talents" who would follow), she is by far the best. The film as a whole is not so good, as Gosho unfortunately tacked on a subplot about a gold mine which is not in Kawabata, but it was shot on location in the Izu Peninsula and there are beautiful landscapes. This film also was the start of what has been called the jun-bungaku or "Pure Literature" movement in film, the adaptation to the cinema of literary masterworks. More would follow later on in the 1930s.

[Tanaka Kinuyo]

There was more in this rich year: a friend and contemporary of Ozu at Schochiku, Shimizu Hiroshi (1903-1966), made Minato no Nihon Musume ("Japanese Girls at the Harbor"), a romantic melodrama in which he probed the dilemmas of a country posed between native and Western ideas, tradition and liberalism. It is an aesthetically exciting film, visualized in terms of art deco patternings. Shimizu made subtle, charming and humorous films, often about children, and is known for the humanity of his oeuvre.

Finally we have to mention two films by Naruse Mikio, Yogoto no Yume ("Every Night Dreams"), a melodrama about the poor, visually influenced by Von Sternberg's 1928 The Docks of New York, and Kimi to wakarete ("After Our Separation"), a love melodrama set in the geisha world.

Nikkatsu finishes building its Tamagawa studio in Tokyo; from now on, it will make gendaigeki in Tokyo and jidaigeki in Kyoto.

Ozu made another great film in 1934, which again won the Kinema Junpo Best Film award: Ukigusa Monogatari ("A Story of Floating Weeds"), a film about the head of a traveling theater group (Sakamoto Takeshi) who in a mountain village meets again the - now grown-up - son who was the result of a casual affair. Based on a forgotten American 1928 circus film, The Barker. Ozu added the character of the former mistress (played by a strong Iida Choko) to the story and in his subtle characterization of the older actor and his jealous wife far surpasses the original. Ozu remade the film in 1959 in color (and, of course, sound).

Although little known today, Shimazu Yasujiro (1897-1945) was the pioneer of the shomingeki genre ("films about people like you and me") at Shochiku, who made his first comedy about the everyday life of the lower middle class already in 1921. One of his best films was made this year, the domestic drama (shoshimin-eiga) Tonari no Yae-chan ("My Little Neighbor, Yae"), the story of a young girl who falls in love with the boy next door. The carefully calculated lack of action in this film gives the effect of "eavesdropping on life itself," as Anderson & Richie put it. Shimazu had a great talent for realistic observation and his blending of humor and pathos as well as his understated melodrama have influenced many other directors, such as Gosho, Kinoshita and Kawashima.

The third major film corporation, Toho (formerly PCL) starts operation. There are now 1,500 theaters in Japan; audiences also have steadily increased to a total of 185 million admissions annually. This is the year that sound finally becomes widely accepted.

The film companies have their own house styles: Shochiku specializes in shoshimin-eiga (home drama about the lower middle class); Nikkatsu in realistic period drama (jidaigeki) and films based on literary works; Toho also specializes in literary adaptations of modern novels. There are also other differences between the studios. For example, Toho based its mode of production around the central figure of the producer (Hollywood -style), but Shochiku favored a "director system" - thereby giving directors like Ozu the means to assemble a team of people for different, specialized fields of production and to cultivate them so that they could continue to work together.

The Kinema Junpo Best Film award went this year to Naruse's Tsuma yo, bara no yo ni ("Wife, Be Like a Rose"), his first true success. A bright office girl who lives with her mother, a poet, finds out that her father is living in the countryside with his disreputable mistress. She visits them intending to ask the father to come back home. But she finds a large, poor family with many children and also sees the love of the mistress for her father. In fact, the daughter discovers the mistress to be good and the (ex-)wife to be the worse of the two. Although the father comes to town when she has her wedding, he again returns permanently to the other family, for that is where he now belongs. We find again a mature acceptance of life as it is in this Japanese film, rather than a forced happy ending in Hollywood-style. Interestingly, this became one of the first Japanese feature films to be distributed in the United States (the first one may have been Gosho's A Daughter of Two Fathers, which played in 1928 in New York).

[The Hundred Ryo Pot)

My favorite film of the year is Hyakumanryo no Tsubo ("The Hundred Ryo Pot") by Yamanaka Sadao (1909-1938), a period film that is at the same time a breezy farce about the fruitless search for a lost pot thought to contain a map pointing to a treasure. The film features the famous one-eyed and one-armed swordsman Tange Zazen, played by Okochi Denjiro - since 1927 a staple of jidaigeki - but Yamanaka turns him into a soft-hearted slacker who sponges off the much stronger woman who operates a shooting gallery (the only film role played by Kiyozo, a real-life geisha from the Shinbashi district in Tokyo). This subversion of Bushido (and of the tateyaku type) is typical of the humanist Yamanaka - there is no swordplay in this home comedy. In the end, Tange and the shooting gallery mistress adopt a little boy who helped in the search for the pot and become a happy family. Yamanaka directed 26 films between 1932 and 1938 and was one of the greatest upcoming directors of Japanese cinema; tragically, he died in 1938 from an illness in Manchuria, after having been drafted into the army.

Shunkinsho: Okoto to Sasuke ("Okoto and Sasuke") by Shimazu Yasujiro is a rendering of Tanizaki Junichiro's famous novella Shunkinsho in the style of a shoshimin-eiga, set in down-town Osaka. At the same time it is one of the earliest and most successful bungei-eiga, also thanks to the solid acting of the two stars Tanaka Kinuyo and Takada Kokichi. Despite the addition of some funny elements, the film works very well, and is in fact a surprisingly good version of the difficult to adapt Tanizaki story.

Mizoguchi Kenji made Maria no Oyuki ("Oyuki the Madonna"), a period drama about a prostitute with a heart of gold, interestingly based on Maupassant's Boule de Suif.

Ozu Yasujiro made another social-realist film with the Kihachi character, Tokyo no Yado ("An Inn in Tokyo"), about a vagrant father and his two sons who find the companionship of a poor widow and her little daughter.

A rich year. Mizoguchi Kenji makes his two best films of this decade. Naniwa Ereji ("Osaka Elegy") is his first work with script writer Yoda Yoshikata. A young telephone operator, a very modern woman (played by Yamada Isuzu), is ruined when she tries to help her father with a money problem by becoming the mistress of her boss. When her employer tires of her, she has no recourse but prostitution, especially when a scheme to cheat the boss' friend out of his family backfires and lands her in police custody. Her fiance (of course, a ninaime type) stands helplessly by. Filmed in a modern style, with an open ending: a close-up of the face of the protagonist as a big question mark. The film in which Mizoguchi found his true direction. Also an invaluable document of Japanese urban life in the mid-thirties. The reality of the location is emphasized by the use of Osaka dialect.

[Poster for Osaka Elegy]

That is also true of the other Mizoguchi film from this year, after modern Osaka situated in traditional Kyoto. Gion no Shimai ("Sisters of the Gion") takes a realistic look at the glamorous world of traditional geisha in Kyoto's Gion district. There is an interesting contrast between a strict and traditional elder sister (Umemura Yoko) who is faithful to her patron even after he has gone broke and a younger one (Isuzu Yamada) who is modern and opportunistic - she goes from man to man for money, being a geisha is after all "business." Although the director's sentiments seem to go to the elder sister, the end of the film leaves her in fact condemned. Kinema Junpo Best Film for this year.

Shochiku opens its Ofuna studio on the Miura Peninsula near Kamakura, which would remain in operation for 64 years.

Ozu finally changes to sound in Hitori Musuko ("The Only Son"), an example of Japanese "neo-realism" avant-la-date. A mother has slaved to send her son to college in Tokyo. After she has not heard anything from him for a long time, she visits him, using up all her savings. She finds him poor, a teacher at a night school, living in eye-sore suburbia, with wife and child (the existence of both also new to her!), and wholly disillusioned. But he borrows money to entertain his mother and she returns to the countryside where she still pretends to be proud of him. A moving work about the disappointments of family life, and the essential loneliness of human beings. The first film in Ozu's fully established mature style. Interesting is the use of off-screen sound: when we are in the living room of the son's house, we constantly hear the clicking of the machinery of a nearby factory.

Shimizu Hiroshi directs his lyrical masterpiece Arigato-san ("Mister Thank-you"), about a polite and kind bus driver (Uehara Ken). The film was shot entirely on location in the Izu Peninsula, almost like an impromptu, and in its exquisite landscape photography expresses Shimizu's love of the countryside. At the same time, he also shows the extreme poverty of country dwellers during the Depression. A wonderful film, with only a flimsy story, almost like a documentary. Uehara Ken really had to learn how to drive a bus for the film.

Gosho Heinosuke made what may well be his best film of the '30s with Oboroyo no Onna ("Woman of the Mist"), a fusion of shoshimin-eiga with romantic comedy. A widow is slaving to put her son through university (a common theme in the 1930s), but he has other interests beside his study, resulting in the pregnancy of a waitress (Iizuka Toshiko). To save the future of the boy, his (married but childless) uncle (as usual, a very warmhearted Sakamoto Takeshi) pretends that the child is his. The waitress agrees, although she had hoped to marry the student, sacrificing herself to save his future. But sadly, mother and child die in hospital due to complications with the pregnancy...

Itami Mansaku, like Yamanaka Sadao another great director of humanistic jidaigeki with little or no swordplay, directs Akanishi Kakita ("Capricious Young Man"), an intelligent comedy based on a story by Shiga Naoya, about a poor and unskilled country samurai (Kataoka Chiezo) who comes to the city, breaking all rules pertaining to his class - he likes his cat better than his sword. The film was restored by the director's son, Itami Juzo who was a director in his own right.

Another humanistic period film is Kochiyama Soshun by Yamanaka Sadao. Although based on a low-life Kabuki play by Kawatake Mokuami, the film also takes its inspiration from Ozu's 1933 Dragnet Girl. By a great act Soshun and his friend transcend their degraded lives: they trick a lord out of his money, give it to a young punk and his sweetheart, and then die in the sewers to hide their escape.

With the start of the Sino-Japanese War, the government demands the cooperation of the film industry with the war effort and bans "decadent" films. Still, this year 562 films were produced in Japan, making it a peak year. Film had become a fundamental component of national culture.

Toho lures away ninaime star actor Hasegawa Kazuo from rival Shochiku. Hasegawa was probably attracted by the technical advantages of Toho as a new company. Such star-stealing often resulted in violence, as here: Hasegawa was attacked by a man who slashed his face with a razor, and who later appeared to be a professional gangster hired via-via by Shochiku.

The best film of 1937 (in my view, not of Kinema Junpo, which selected another film) and again one of the best Japanese films of all-time was Ninjo Kamifusen ("Humanity and Paper Balloons") by Yamanaka Sadao. It is a bleak and pessimistic masterpiece with claustrophobic qualities, set in a slum quarter in Edo, presenting its samurai "hero" as a pathetic, servile man who is out of work. His wife has to make paper balloons so that they have something to eat. The ronin spends his days going around town begging for work. Then they become involved in drama when their neighbor, Shinza the barber, kidnaps the daughter of a wealthy merchant and hides her in the apartment of the ronin. A wonderful humanistic film made in dark times, showing something of the true life under the Tokugawa regime. Adapted from a Kawatake Mokuami kabuki play. In this and his previous film Yamanaka worked with actors and actresses of the Zenshinza, a troupe of radical kabuki players, part of a socially critical subculture.

[Poster for Humanity and Paper Balloons]

Aienkyo ("The Straits of Love and Hate") is a rather melodramatic film by Mizoguchi Kenji. A girl working at a spa hotel runs off to Tokyo with her lover. He is taken back by his father, she is left with a baby. She joins a traveling theater group and meets her lover again. His father continues his opposition to their union, so she returns to the troupe and the poor stage partner she really loves.

Kaze no naka no Kodomo ("Children in the Wind") by Shimizu Hiroshi contrasts the trusting world of the young with the corrupt world of adults. A father is accused of embezzlement at his firm and one of his sons - the younger, wilder one - is sent to live with an uncle. Making films about children was a good way to evade censorship and Shimizu proved to be a master in this genre.

Shukujo wa Nani wo Wasureteka? ("What Did the Lady Forget?") by Ozu Yasujiro is a bright comedy set among the upper classes. A bourgeois housewife (Kurishima Sumiko) has her husband completely cowed, but - goaded on by his modern niece from Osaka who is visiting - he for once fights back, which finally leads to a better mutual understanding. The answer to the questioning title is, that the lady forgot to be nice to her husband. Ozu on bubbles, a film that deserves to be better known.

After finishing this film, Ozu was drafted and sent to China, where he remained for two years, until summer 1939. One can easily imagine his reaction to the barbarity of war and the regimentation he hated so much. In China he also briefly met Yamanaka Sadao, before the untimely death of this director who could be called the "Ozu of period drama."

The worst film of the year was without a doubt Atarishiki Tsuchi ("The New Earth"), also known as Die Tochter des Samurai as it was a Japanese-German co-production intended to show the union between both allies. The union did not work out, as the Japanese director, Itami Mansaku, who had been selected simply because he was the top director of his studio, and German director Arnold Fanck, who had strong Nazi sympathies, did not at all hit it off - they ended up making two different versions of the film. Also as regards the content, it was a failed attempt to form for Japan alien Nazi propaganda out of Japanese raw materials. The film was a box office disaster, despite the fact that the samurai daughter was played by a young Hara Setsuko.

The government calls for more patriotic films. Several directors take refuge in the safe territory of films about children or works set in the world of traditional music and theater.

Gonin no Sekkokei ("Five Scouts") by Tasaka Tomotaka was one of the first real war movies. It is about five scouts sent out to reconnoiter of whom only one returns - but he knows his time has come, too, when the signal for a general attack is given. A documentary-like war film in which no fighting is shown, but only the effects of the war. There are no heroes, but only ordinary people. Kinema Junpo Best Film for this year. It was also nominated Best Film at the Venice International Film Festival of 1939 - Japan at that time was aligned with Axis countries Italy and Germany. Also Tasaka's Tsuchi to Heitai ("Earth and Soldiers") from 1939, although celebrating duty and sacrifice, was similarly a continuation of the 1930s interest in human values.

Abe Ichizoku ("The Abe Clan") by Kumagai Hisatora is a masterful period drama examining the samurai spirit. It is based on a story by Mori Ogai about a retainer who commits junshi (seppuku to follow a deceased lord in death) in defiance of the shogun's command, a deed which leads to the destruction of his entire clan. Very ritualistic in style. Kumagai started as a leftist film maker, but later shifted to the right and ended up making patriotic propaganda films.

Haha to Ko by Shibuya Minoru (1907-1980) is a family melodrama in the Shochiku style, about a clerk (Saburi Shin) who rejects his lover to get engaged to the daughter of the company president (by a mistress) with a view to advancement in his job. Satisfyingly, the daughter (Tanaka Kinuyo) in the end rejects the clerk and chooses an independent lifestyle. Shibuya was one of Shochiku's most significant directors, who had started out as an assistant to Ozu and Gosho.

Hana Chirinu ("Fallen Blossoms") by Ishida Tamizo (1901-1972) is a portrait of life in a geisha house at the end of the Edo-period. Stylistically interesting for its technique of fragmentation and also for the sympathy it shows for its subject. Ishida's work is barely known, also in Japan, and most of his other films have been lost.

Nakimushi Kozo ("Crybaby Apprentice") by Toyoda Shiro (1905-1977) is about a boy whose family is too busy to care for him; he is shifted from relation to relation and when he finally returns home, his mother has eloped with a boyfriend. A typical handkerchief film, based on a story by Hayashi Fumiko. Toyoda was a craftsman working in the classical studio system known for his many adaptations of Japanese literature. Although his films are intelligent, he never developed a personal style.

Robo no Ishi ("A Pebble by the Wayside") by Tasaka Tomotaka (1902-1974) is about a poor youth fighting adversity and making his way alone in the cold world of grown-ups. Based on a famous novel by Yamamoto Yuzo and full of melancholy naturalism. Although Tasaka specialized in romantic melodrama, he is now best known for his war films, such as the ones mentioned above.

Tsuzurikata Kyoshitsu ("Composition Class") by Yamamoto Kajiro (1902-1974), with Takamine Hideko, shows the everyday life of the lower classes, based on the compositions of a poor girl in primary school - another film about the "safe" topic of children. Yamamoto was the mentor of Kurosawa Akira. He worked for Toho and is now best known for the patriotic war films he made. Together with Robo ni Ishi, Nakimushi Kozo and Haha to Ko, this film was part of the above-mentioned "Pure Literature" movement in film, which was now in full swing. It would continue after the war especially in the hands of Toyoda Shiro.

With the Motion Picture Law, the film industry is placed completely under government control. All scripts have to be passed by censors. And still, several beautiful, humanistic films were made... Japan never was a fascist country and there was no empty triumphalism about the war, which was rather depicted as hardship for the common soldiers and a great suffering for the Japanese people.

The best film of this year is Zangiku Monogatari ("Story of the Last Chrysanthemums") by Mizoguchi Kenji. It is the tragedy of a woman in the feudalistic and snobbish world of the Kabuki, but at the same time an almost "sacramental" depiction of the family system. A kabuki actor injures the dignity of his family by falling in love with a woman of the lower classes. She sacrifices herself for his career, even at the expense of her health, but he succeeds. Sodden melodrama filmed in a most refined way. Mizoguchi sought shelter from censorship by making this and other films about Japanese traditions.

Aizen Katsura ("The Love-Troth Tree") by Shochiku house director Nomura Hiromasa (1905-1979), about the thwarted love between a weak hero, a doctor (Uehara Ken, the most famous pre-war ninaime actor), and an unfortunate heroine, a nurse (Tanaka Kinuyo). The nurse is in fact a widow with a little daughter, something which means the doctor's parents will not permit their marriage. On top of that she is poor and he is rich, the son of the owner-administrator of the hospital. Although he leaves home to marry her, she does not show up at the station due to a sudden illness of her child. The film was an unabashed tearjerker that was immensely popular with the public, although not with the critics. It belongs to the type of "surechigai," where the lovers repeatedly come close to a meeting but most of the time narrowly miss each other (another and even more famous example is the postwar film What is Your Name? by Oba Hideo). However, in the end the power of love overcomes all obstacles. (Note that there are no kisses or embraces yet in pre-1945 Japanese films - they just look each other soulfully in the eyes).

Ani to Sono Imoto ("An Older Brother and His Younger Sister")by Shimazu Yasujiro, was an oblique critique of the family system, but also showed feminist sympathies in its treatment of the heroine's rejection of a marriage proposal.

Danryu ("Warm Current") by Yoshimura Kozaburo was a major commercial success, a low-keyed melodrama about the romantic and professional problems of a young hospital superintendent. Great acting by Takamine Mieko as the daughter of the wealthy hospital owner and Saburi Shin as the young go-getting superintendent. She thinks she doesn't love him and refuses his proposal, but when another young woman confesses her ardent love for him, she feels confused. Another case of a modern, Westernized version of romantic love slipping past the censor.

Hataraki Ikka ("The Whole Family Works") by Naruse Mikio was a realistic treatment of the hardships of the working class. All eleven members of a printer's family have to work so that there is enough to eat, also the young children and the grandparents; a crisis ensues when the oldest son wants to quit work to go to technical college.

Kodomo no Shiki ("Four Seasons of Children") by Shimizu Hiroshi. Another lyrical film about country children.

Tsuchi ("Earth") by Uchida Tomu. Realistic depiction of the lives of poor peasants, showing the cycle of the seasons. Made on location behind the back of the studio (it was made by director and staff in their spare time, with resources left over from other projects) by Uchida and his staff. Contains almost no plot and little dialogue. Called one of the finest films of the decade. Kinema Junpo Best Film for this year. Uchida Tomu was a film maker who managed to put his personal ideas in genre plots. After the war, he became famous for his versions of Daibosatsu Toge and Miyamoto Musashi.

When one sees how many wonderful films were still being made in the late 1930s, the hiatus caused by the war is all the more regrettable. Also when one notices through these films how modern Japan was becoming in the thirties, it is a pity that the war in a social and economic sense pushed the country back for at least ten years.

A History of Japanese Film by Year:
1896-1909 - First Stirrings
1910-1919 - Development
1920-1929 - Art Films and Nihilistic Heroes
1930-1939 - Social Realism and Shoshimin-Eiga
1940-1949 - Censorship during War and Occupation
1950-1954 - Golden Age of the Classical Studio System
1955-1959 - Taiyozoku and other Youth Films
1960-1964 - The New Wave
1965-1969 - Golden Age of Independent Film
1970-1979 - Sex and Violence
1980-1989 - Decline and Stagnation
1990-1999 - Indies and Anime
2000-2014 - Postmodern Genre Film
[Reference works used: Currents In Japanese Cinema by Sato Tadao (Tokyo, 1987); The Japanese Film: Art and Industry by Joseph L. Anderson and Donald Richie (reprint Tokyo, 1983); A Hundred Years of Japanese Film by Donald Richie (Tokyo, 2001); Japanese Film Directors by Audrie Bock (Tokyo, 1985); A Critical Handbook of Japanese Film Directors by Alexander Jacoby (Berkeley, 2008); A New History of Japanese Cinema by Isolde Standish (New York, 2005); The Japanese Period Film by S.A. Thornton (Jefferson & London, 2008). All images are linked from Wikipedia.]