These directors make independent productions, and in fact are true "indies" - in contrast to earlier independents who in many cases still leaned on the studios. They have learned their trade in documentary films (Kawase, Koreeda), commercials or music video (Iwai), the straight-to-video market (Miike, Mochizuki) or pink films (Nakahara, Zeze). Although there are individual differences, their films are made cheaply, and often very quickly. In this respect, they are also different from the more consciously "high art" independent films made by ATG and others in the late sixties.
While the shift in the 1960s with the New Wave films of Oshima, Shinoda, Yoshida and Imamura meant a move away from "sentimental humanism" to a tougher and more ideological stance, the paradigm shift of the 1990s is a step towards a much harsher (even stomach turning) and more cynical view on life. This is undoubtedly because of the severe economic downturn in this period, but it is also helped by the fact that most directors had learned the trade in often violent and cruel genre films. Thematically, they respond to the issues of unclear identity and uncertain future generated in the nineties by the crash and subsequent long stagnation of the Japanese economy. But this is always on the level of personal issues, the directors of the nineties are generally not interested in the larger themes of politics or history (in strong contrast to the New Wave of the 1960s).
The style of filming is often minimalist and detached, with very long shots and a static camera. This is not so much influence from Ozu, as is sometimes thought, as from the Taiwanese New Wave (Hou Hsia-hsien, Tsai Ming-liang). Their films also often have the character of documentaries.
In the nineties, the studios have dwindled to the Big Three (Toho, Shochiku and Toei) and although they only rarely engage in the risky business of producing new films themselves, they remain important distributors because they own most of the cinemas in Japan. Toho even manages to become the largest owner of multiplexes. The studios continue to use the systems of block-booking and advance ticket sales for their home-made films. The films they produce are made via committees (iinkai), ad-hoc combinations of a studio (for the distribution), TV station, advertising agency, publisher, and trading or other company. The companies which take part in these ad-hoc combinations do so to promote themselves and for tax breaks. They also try to generate sales from spin-offs. None of those concerned is interested in making a good film. In short, the films produced by these committees are glossy but forgettable junk.
Toho has the largest theater chains and is financially most successful with its target of ten billion yen in annual distribution revenues. But the only films it makes itself are the Godzilla movies, which were restarted in 1984. This Heisei Godzilla series, however, is a safe, nostalgic rip-off of the older films, with no new creativity. But the series is successful with old fans, in and outside Japan. In 1995 the last release appears, as later becomes clear for strategic reasons, as Toho wanted to make the way free for the 1998 American Tristar Godzilla film. Toho again revived its money-making monster in 1999 for the "Millennium Series." For the rest, Toho earned money by distributing Itami Juzo's films as well as the anime made by Studio Ghibli. Its own Doraemon series, about a kid and his robot cat, aimed at kids, also continued. Toho also made several film versions of popular TV dramas, most notably the detective drama Odoru Daisosasen ("Bayside Shakedown") with Fuji TV, which became a great box office success.
Shochiku is hard hit when Atsumi Kiyoshi, the actor playing the ever popular Tora-san, dies in 1996. Happily, it had already launched its new series Tsuri Baka Nisshi ("Fishing Fool's Diary") in the last years of the previous decade, and this proves to be a stable income generator also in the 1990s. The studio makes an effort to revitalize its line-up via Okuyama Kazuyoshi, the maverick son of its president, who acts as producer and occasionally also director. Besides making several films which are successful at the box office, such as Hachiko Monogatari and Rampo, Okuyama also sets up Cinema Japanesque for producing and distributing independent films. Although one of its successful projects was Cannes winner The Eel by Imamura Shohei, the project fails to generate new income and in 1998 the Okuyamas are ousted from their positions. An earlier project, to distribute the films of Kitano Takeshi, also failed after a disagreement about Sonatine, which flopped in Japan. In the late nineties, Shochiku severely restructures, and also closes down its Cinema World theme park and Ofuna studios. Financially, Shochiku is in the 1990s the least successful of the Big Three.
Toei is under risk-averse management that tries to stop the gap left by Toei's pride, the yakuza films (which continue being made with other action films as straight-to-video films by Toei Video in the V Cinema series - in the late 1990s released at the rate of two a month), by various overblown costume dramas which mostly flop. The company also shows its conservative political colors in the many war films it continues making, which are increasingly revisionist, such as Pride-Unmei no Toki about the war crimes trial of Tojo Hideki. Its anime subsidiary, already set up in the late 1950s, continues generating good income with stuff like Dragon Ball Z. A much needed cinematic success is Shitsurakuen, a film about a passionate adulterous affair ending in love suicide, which made suicide seem romantic as it was spliced between steamy sex scenes. Financially, Toei did better this decade than Shochiku, but remained far below Toho.
Kadokawa, finally, continues cramming advance tickets down the throats of its partners (which are forcibly bought by, for example, a newspaper company and then given away to loyal customers) to be certain of good financial results by this tricky system. The films it makes are dull and plodding, the directors safe hacks - all just a waste of celluloid. Its greatest success is Ten to Chi to ("Heaven and Earth"), about the warlords Uesugi Kenshin and Takeda Shingen, a film (helmed by Kadokawa Haruki himself) which cost a whopping 5 billion yen and ends with a 30 min. battle between mounted samurai that took 50 days to film. The result was a boring history lesson, leading to the interesting circumstance that a box office success (based on advance ticket sales) actually played to half empty theaters. Another Kadokawa film was Rex, about a little girl and her baby dinosaur - a shameless rip-off of both E.T. and Jurassic Park, which only served to demonstrate how superior the average Hollywood product was to these terrible "mainstream" Japanese films.
Interestingly, the only studio that could take on Hollywood and Disney, was the small upstart producing animated films, Studio Ghibli. Co-founders Takahata Isao and Miyazaki Hayao rejected the Japanese industry custom to create recyclable formulas - every film they made was a stand-alone. Moreover, the money they spent on each film was twice the usual budget (two billion yen), in order to achieve technical and artistic excellence. In fact, with every film they made they again were betting the company - but it paid off, not only in financial, but above all in artistic terms.
Not only in indies, with the directors listed above, but also in anime films we thus find true auteur directors - besides Ghibli's Miyazaki Hayao, these are Ishii Mamoru and Kon Satoshi.
This year, there are 1,838 screens; 239 films are produced (among a total shown of 704) and attendance stands at 146,000,000.
3-4 x Jugatsu ("Boiling Point") by Kitano Takeshi is a cruel black comedy about a baseball player and gas-station attendant (played by a stone-faced and completely clueless Ono Masahiko) who with a friend travels to Okinawa (a bit like in the later Sonatine) to buy a gun in order to revenge his coach, an ex-yakuza, who on the teenager's behalf has gotten into trouble with the local gang. In Okinawa, he falls into the hands of a psychotic gangster (Kitano) who has been kicked out of the mob. Lots of gratuitous violence, sexual aggression, sadism, but also humor: the films starts and ends with Ono in a toilet near the baseball grounds, making the whole film the daydream he had while s(h)itting there. The peculiar title is explained as follows: 3-4x in baseball denotes a "victory snatched from the jaws of defeat at the last bat;" Jugatsu is "October," the month in which the pennant race to clinch the division title in a regular baseball season is held. Kitano's most experimental film, and in my view, one of his best. (Bandai Visual Company / Shochiku-Fuji Company / Yamada Right Vision)
Sakura no Sono ("The Cherry Orchard") by Nakahara Shun, a former pink film director, is an ensemble drama that enfolds in real time in the two hours before a student performance of Chekhov's play at a private girls' school. Bold and sharply observant, bringing out the emotional tensions in the lives and hearts of the four main characters, who are depicted as individuals, not types. Remade by the same director in 2008. Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film of the Year. (New Century Producers / Suntory)
Yume ("Dreams") by Kurosawa Akira is an omnibus containing eight autonomous episodes based on actual dreams of the director. Some are threatening (dead soldiers marching through a tunnel), others are fun (a meeting with Van Gogh, played by Martin Scorcese) and again others are very poetic (a foxes' wedding, or at the end of the film, a sort of rural paradise with Ryu Chishu imparting various wisdoms). Through it all Kurosawa spreads the humanistic message that we should be kind to each other, and have a humble feeling of respect for the unknown. The superb use Kurosawa makes of Dolby sound in this film has been noted by critics. (Warner Bros. / Akira Kurosawa USA)
Ageman ("A-Ge-Man: Tales of a Golden Geisha") by Itami Juzo is a comedy about a geisha (Miyamoto Nobuko) who brings luck to her men ("ageman"), but is rather out of luck herself as the various males in her life only want to take advantage of her. The film is a critique of Japanese gender relations, where the men, like spoiled boys, think they can do anything they want. The (ex-)geisha's most important relation is with a bank manager (Tsugawa Masahiko), who is a notorious philanderer, but we also meet a lascivious priest (again driving a Rolls, as in Ososhiki), an elderly kuromaku (behind the scenes politician who pulls the strings) and a debauchee who is pushing to become the next prime minister. Itami directs vicious criticism at corrupt money politics - in fact the political satire is so fierce that it overshadows the gender theme (although both are linked) and, about halfway through, the film stops being funny. (Itami Productions)
Roningai ("Roningai" aka "Street of Masterless Samurai") by Kuroki Kazuko (Makino Masahiro, who directed the original 1928 film as well as another version in 1957, is also credited as a sort of homage) is an enjoyable and well-crafted period film, starring Harada Toshio and Katsu Shintaro, the last one in his final role before his death in 1997. A group of masterless samurai living in a ghetto street near Edo's red light district decides to help the local prostitutes when a group of vigilantes starts killing them off for "moral" reasons. Kuroki deliberately mimics the visual style of silent chambara. A vibrant film, the best period drama made in the 1990s. (Nippon Television Network (NTV) / Shochiku Company / Yamada Right Vision Corporation)
Ano natsu, ichiban shizukana umi ("A Scene at the Sea," lit. "That summer, a most quiet sea") by Kitano Takeshi is a peaceful beach film about a young deaf-mute garbage collector who has found an old surfing plank and practices every day to master the waves, planning to eventually take part in a competition, while his equally deaf-mute girlfriend sits patiently watching him from the beach, smiling and folding his clothes. With its pared-down, visual-based style of storytelling, detached camera (never sentimental, sometimes even cruel in its objectivity) and assured pacing, this is almost a silent film, a very pure example of Kitano's style. (Office Kitano)
Yumeji by Suzuki Seijun is part of the "Taisho trilogy" of this director, although it appears with a time lag of almost ten years after Zigeunerweisen and Kageroza. But it is a film in the same surrealist style, now about a real-life painter, Takehisa Yumeji (1884-1934), who mainly painted delicately emaciated women. He also had several intense but unhappy love affairs. Instead of making a biopic, however, Suzuki takes us into the head of the painter and shows the colorful images he found there. Again a very beautiful and highly stylized film. Stars former rock musician Sawada Kenji as the painter, which in fact is its only weak point. (Genjiro Amato Pictures)
Hachigatsu no Rhapsody ("Rhapsody in August") by Kurosawa Akira. An American relative from Hawaii (Clark, played by Richard Gere) visits his Japanese aunt Kane (Murase Sachiko) in Nagasaki and hears about the atomic bombing and how it killed her husband. The film was criticized in the U.S. as it seemed to depict the Japanese solely as victims and whitewash their aggression - especially in the segment where Clark apologizes to his aunt. This was mistaken for an apology on behalf of America for dropping the bomb. But in fact Clark, as a member of Kane's family, is apologizing for the failure of the American relatives to fully realize the pain the grandmother has been suffering from her husband's death by the atomic bomb - quite another matter. The film does not dehistorize, but faces the past by remembering it. It is true that there are many Japanese revisionist war films made by studios as Toei or Toho, but Kurosawa's film is entirely different. There is, however, another point of criticism possible: although there are also very beautiful scenes, the film sometimes is too much like a history lesson. (Feature Film Enterprise II / Kurosawa Production Co. / Shochiku Eiga)
Musuko ("My Sons") by Yamada Yoji takes up where Ozu's Tokyo Monogatari left off. The sons of a widower from Iwate Prefecture are both living in Tokyo, one as a married salaryman with a tiny apartment, the other still single and only doing part time work. There are two plot lines: the family wonders what to do with the old man (in the end he remains alone in his large farm house), and that of the younger son who finally finds a more stable job with a steel company (doing tough, dirty and dangerous work very unpopular with the young) and falls in love with a beautiful girl who is however a deaf mute. This typical shoshimin eiga for the modern age is by far not as good as Yamada's non-Tora-san films from the 1960s and 1970s: both the script and the acting are too emphatic, and several actors seem miscast, most of all Mikuni Rentaro as an Iwate tobacco farmer - he is much too suave. Tanaka Kunio as truck driver is also hamming away in a terrible fashion, showing how limited his acting talents are. In addition, in various monologues Yamada too much drives his criticism of contemporary Japan home, although his meaning is already obvious from the images alone. The Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film of the Year and Japan Academy Prize for Picture of the Year are not really deserved - any of the above films is better. (Shochiku)
Tetsuo II: Body Hammer by Tsukamoto Shinya is not a sequel of Tetsuo, but a new fantasy based on the same theme of flesh morphing into machine (a theme inspired by the inhumanity of life in the metropolis). This version is in color (mostly hues of blue, gray and brown) and less hectic. A mild-mannered salaryman morphs into a sort of Terminator (a canon grows out of his breast) when his young son is kidnapped by a group of shaven-headed punks. The punks belong to a cult whose leader wants to use the salaryman for a guinea pig experiment, but things get soon out of hand. (Kaijyu Theater / Toshiba EMI)
Hashi no nai kawa ("The River with No Bridge") by Higashi Yoichi, and based on a novel by Sumii Sue, is a film about Japan's social outcasts, the burakumin, who also figured in Ichikawa Kon's Hakai. (The same novel had already been adapted by Imai Tadashi, in a version colored with that director's communist ideology.) Higashi Yoichi had earlier made films about victimization, such as Saado, and this film fits into that pattern. It is an epic treatment of its subject matter, showing how the protagonist comes to terms with his status as an outcast. ( Galeria / Seiyu Production)
Minbo no onna ("The Gentle Art of Japanese Extortion") by Itami Juzo features the director's wife Miyamoto Nobuko as a lawyer who helps businesses (in this case, a hotel) harassed by the yakuza. "Minbo" is the contraction of a legal term for "gangsters ripping off the public via various scams." The film starts funny enough, but soon Itami falls into a sort of teaching mode of "how to deal with the yakuza." The end of the film is therefore a foregone conclusion before we are even halfway through. After the freshness and inventiveness of Ososhiki and Tampopo, it seems that Itami's imagination is exhausted here. (Itami Films)
Shiko funjatta ("Sumo Do, Sumo Don't") by Suo Masayuki. An amusing but rather predictable tale about a young man forced to participate in his university’s lamentably bad sumo wrestling team for an important tournament. Of course, he has never before taken part in sumo... Became a box office success thanks to the presence of Motoki Masahiro, a popular idol singer. The Japanese title refers to the stamping in the ring by sumo wrestlers as a warm-up (shiko wo fumu). 1992 must have been a rather meager cinematic year, as this simple comedy managed to win both the Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film of the Year and the Japan Academy Prize for Picture of the Year. (Cabin Company Ltd. / Daiei)
Kurenai no buta ("Porco Rosso") by Miyazaki Hayao shows the director's passion for airplanes and other flying machines. The sweeping aerial scenes are dazzling, the airplane designs finely detailed. The story is set on the Adriatic coast in Italy, where an aviator who has turned into a pig (out of guilt for the fact that many of his comrades died in WWI), continues to patrol the skies and rid the land of the menace of pirates. Having seen the horrors of war, he will not allow the innocent to be oppressed. He flies into action when the pirates kidnap a boatload of little girls, and finally has to fight a brazen American aviator who has taken the side of the enemy. (Japan Airlines / Nibariki, Nippon Television Network / Studio Ghibli)
Topazu ("Tokyo Decadence") is a cultish pink film written and directed by author Murakami Ryu (known for such violent and erotic novels as Almost Transparent Blue and Coinlocker Babies, as well as the story on which Miike Takashi based Audition). This was his fourth endeavor as director. The film stars Nikaido Miho as a high-class prostitute called Ai, catering to perverted businessmen who want to engage in various forms of SM and bondage - some of which are rather dangerous. Ai also is looking for a former lover and comes under the influence of a fortune teller, who is surprisingly played by one of Japan's internationally most famous contemporary artists, Kusama Yayoi. The score is by Sakamoto Ryuichi. Despite this impeccable pedigree, the film is rather repellent - it is painful to watch the indignities Ai has to undergo and how that slowly but inevitably leads to her mental breakdown. (Cinemabrain / Japan Video Distribution (JVD) Co. Ltd. / Melsat Inc.)
In Sonatine by Kitano Takeshi a world-weary gangster (played by the director) is dispatched to Okinawa with a band of his killers to help out a friendly gang in a turf war with rivals. Kitano's first yakuza film, but a strange one as all traditional elements are skipped. As it turns out that no assistance is actually needed in the gang war, what is left is a sort of Waiting for Godot on the balmy southern beach, kidding around with childish games and a local girl, while waiting for instructions from home. The central character is completely nihilistic and emotionally drained, suffering from a strong death wish long before he commits suicide in the last reel - just look at his silly, empty grin when he plays Russian roulette. As usual in Kitano's films, violence flashes up in daily life like a lightning bolt, out of the blue. An existential meditation on death and violence, imbued with a heavy sense of the futility of everything, as many Japanese films at the end of the millennium. Flopped at the box office, as the film was too nihilistic for the average Japanese. (Also see my post about yakuza films) (Bandai Visual / Shochiku)
In Ohikkoshi ("Moving") by Somai Shinji a sharp twelve-year old girl, Renko (a wonderful performance by amateur Tabata Tomoko), is confused by the divorce of her parents (very modern parents for Japan in 1993, as both are working). She engages in various schemes to bring her parents together again, but eventually has to accept the inevitable. In the meantime, she quickly grows up and leaves her childhood behind her. A beautiful film, shot in a documentary style on location in Kyoto. (Yomiuri Television)
Madadayo ("Madadayo: Not yet") by Kurosawa Akira is based on the life of the (in the West almost unknown) cult writer Uchida Hyakken (1890-1971; Hyakken for example wrote the story Zigeunerweisen on which Suzuki Seijun's film was based), which Kurosawa follows from the spring of 1943 when Hyakken leaves his teaching position to concentrate on his writing to 1962 when he celebrates his 75th birthday (the script is based on episodes from Hyakken's own writings). The film concentrates on the relation Hyakken had with his students - throughout the years, they continue having annual reunions. Kurosawa depicts an ideal situation where sensei and disciples fully trust and respect each other - a thing very much of the past in contemporary Japan. The title refers to the children's game of hide-and-seek, where the seeker asks "Madada kai" (Are you ready) and either gets the answer "Madada yo" (Not yet) or "Mo ii yo" (Yes, I'm ready). On a higher level, this refers to the game of hide-and-seek the elderly Hyakken plays with Death - the other theme of the film is the evanescence of life. By the way, Hyakken's love of cats is also important in the film, a feeling he had in common with many other Japanese writers. (Dentsu Music and Entertainment / Daiei Motion Picture Company / Kurosawa Production Co.)
Tsuki wa dochi ni dete iru ("All Under the Moon") by Sai Yoichi. Irreverent take on resident Koreans. A taxi driver takes advantage of Japanese "racism," but gives his heart to another outsider, a Filipina. Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film of the Year. (Cine Qua Non Films)
Ranpo ("The Mystery of Rampo") by Mayazumi Rintaro / Okuyama Kazuyoshi. Edogawa Ranpo continues to fascinate the Japanese and 1994 was the centennial of his birth. As also Shochiku had turned 100 (when counting from its Kabuki activities, which were 25 years older than its cinematic endeavors), producer Okuyama Kazuyoshi decided to celebrate both memorials in style with a big Ranpo film. Edogawa Ranpo is played by Takenaka Naoto, but this is not a straight biopic. With a media mix of special effects, animation, wild imagery and period drama, the film tries no less than to plumb the mind of Ranpo, at a time he was battling the censorship of the state. As Okuyama was not satisfied with director Mayazumi's rather sedate version, he reshot 70% of the film himself to make it into the cinematic event he had in mind. Although both versions were released, the unrestrained visual extravaganza of Okuyama has won the day. A fitting homage to a great author. By the way, in this centennial year, more Ranpo films would be made, such as a new adaptation of Yaneura no sanposha by Jissoji Akio which had already been done by Tanaka Noboru in the eighties. (Daiwa Building / Daiwa Securities Group / Obayashi Corporation / Orix / Shochiku / Team Okuyama)
Minna Yatteruka! ("Getting Any?") by Kitano Takeshi is a zany black comedy in "Beat Takeshi" style, with hilarious gags - a sort of Japanese version of Monty Python. The flimsy story is about a pleasant half-wit (Dankan) whose sole ambition is to get laid. He starts by buying a car for car sex, and runs the gamut of other male fantasies before deciding to become invisible - a Peeping Tom. There is in fact a strong feminist message behind the male madness. The film is structurally a grab bag of references to other films, such as Zatoichi, monster movies, yakuza flicks, etc. A different, but equally interesting side of Kitano Takeshi. (Office Kitano)
Sharaku by Shinoda Masahiro is a vivid depiction of Edo culture, centering on the mysterious figure of ukiyo-e artist Sharaku. Sharaku (played by Sanada Hiroyuki) suddenly started publishing his portraits of Kabuki actors, which were close to caricature, in 1794. After making 140 prints, he again disappeared 10 months later. Even today, scholars have not succeeded in establishing his real identity. In the film he is presented as a Kabuki actor who does acrobatic stunts, and who, thrown out of work due to an injury, turns to ukiyo-e, under the guidance of a shrewd publisher (Frankie Sakai). The script of the film leaves something to be desired, but costumes and sets succeed in a masterful evocation of Edo. (Hyogen-sha / Sakai Sogo Kikaku / Seiyu Production)
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 - Independent Productions
1970-1974 - Sex and Violence
1975-1979 - Decline and Stagnation
1980-1989 - Disintegration of the Studio System
1990-1994 - The Rise of Indies
1995-1999 - Revival
[Reference works used: Currents In Japanese Cinema by Tadao Sato (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); Eros plus Massacre, An Introduction to the Japanese New Wave Cinema by David Desser (Bloomington and Indianopolis, 1988); Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema by David Bordwell (Princeton University Press: Princeton, 1988); Kurosawa: Film Studies and Japanese Cinema by Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto (Duke University Press: Durham, 2000); The Waves at Genji's Door by Joan Mellen (Pantheon Books: New York, 1976); Japanese Classical Theatre in Film by Keiko I. Macdonald (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1994); From Book to Screen by Keiko I. Macdonald (M.E. Sharpe: New York and London, 2000); Reading a Japanese Film by Keiko I. Macdonald (University of Hawai'i Press: Honolulu, 2006); Behind the Pink Curtain, A Complete History of Japanese Sex Cinema, by Jasper Sharp (Fab Press: Godalming, 2008); Contemporary Japanese Film by Mark Schilling (Weatherhill: New York and Tokyo, 1999); The Midnight Eye Guide to New Japanese Film by Tom Mes and Jasper Sharp (Stone Bridge Press: Berkeley, 2005); Japanese Cinema, Texts and Contexts ed. by Alastair Phillips and Julian Stringer (Routledge: London and New York, 2007); Kitano Takeshi by Aaron Gerow (British Film Institute: London, 2007); Nihon Eigashi by Sato Tadao (Iwanami Shoten: Tokyo, 2008, 4 vols.); Nihon Eigashi 110-nen by Yomota Inuhiko (Shueisha; Tokyo, 2014). All images are linked from Wikipedia.]