Names in this site follow the Japanese custom of family name first.

July 3, 2015

A History of Japanese Film by Year: The Rise of Indies (1990-1994)

Despite the bursting of the "economic bubble" and attendant malaise (which meant that some outsiders, such as Seibu Saison, retreated from investing in films), the 1990s are an interesting period dominated by indies and anime. New directors, who had only appeared in small numbers in the 1970s and 1980s, when many of the best films were still made by the old guard, now gradually take center stage. This is "Generation X," those who were (roughly) born around 1960 - such directors as Aoyama Shinji, Hiroki Ryuichi, Iwai Shunji, Kawase Naomi, Koreeda Hirokazu, Kurosawa Kiyoshi, Mochizuki Rokuro, Nakahara Shun, Shinozaki Makoto, Nakata Hideo, Suwa Nobuhiro, Tsukamoto Shinya and Zeze Takahisa - an explosion of talent, to which also the older Kitano Takeshi who in 1989 started as director can be added. Mark Schilling has dubbed them the "New Wave of the Nineties."  

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. 

1990
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)

1991
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)

1992
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)

Gekashitsu ("The Operating Room"), a fifty-minute film by famous Kabuki onnagata Bando Tamasaburo, based on a Shinpa story by Izumi Kyoka, became a popular success. The story, set in the Meiji period, tells about the forbidden passion of a married woman (Yoshinaga Sayuri) for a dashing young surgeon. Filmed as a dream, in soft focus. The next year Bando Tamasaburo - whose first film this was - made a second one, with the same actress, this time based on a story by Nagai Kafu about a prostitute, called Yume no Onna ("Yearning"). Although it would probably have been too campy, it is a pity Bando himself didn't play in these films - he could have revived the tradition of using onnagata instead of actresses in early Japanese films! (Asahi National Broadcasting Company / Genjiro Arato Pictures)


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.)

1993
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)

1994
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.]

June 26, 2015

A History of Japanese Film by Year: Disintegration of the Studio System (1980-1989)

The "decline and stagnation" of the previous years continues in the 1980s with the disintegration of the studio system. In 1961, six studios had made 520 films. In 1986 this number has dwindled to 3 studios who make only 24 films themselves (of course for the rest they fill their bill with films by others). 

Toho and Toei barely manage to stay in business. Toho has a few large films as The Makioka Sisters and Station, and restarts its Godzilla franchise in the middle of the decade. It also brings out popular anime for children, as the Doraemon series. Toho and Toei also switch to the system of advance tickets (like Kadokawa), to be bought up by related companies, so that they are assured of good ticket sales (even when the films are rubbish).

Toei looses most of its yakuza and other violent films to direct-to-video productions, but manages to launch one new successful series, The Yakuza Wives. It also makes several large-scale heroic films and nostalgic war films, as The Imperial Navy and The Great Japanese Empire (often brought out in August around the day WWII ended), keeping to masculine genres as of old.

Shochiku continues its dependence on the Tora-san films by Yamada Yoji, as in the previous decade; a new series is Tsuribaka Nisshi ("Fishing Fool's Diary"), based on a popular fishing manga, which starts in 1988 and will run to 20 films. Yamada Yoji is also here involved as screenwriter; the popular star of the series is Nishida Toshiyuki. The films are usually shown on a double bill with Tora-san.

Nikkatsu, finally, is hard hit because in the mid-eighties the VCR eliminates its booming "pink eiga" business. It makes its last Roman Porno films in 1988 and fails to restart a new identity with mainstream films. Still, Nikkatsu was the only studio to nurture new directors, who later went mainstream: Kurosawa Kiyoshi, Suo Masayuki, Zeze Takahisa, Nakahara Shun, Ishii Takashi and Morita Yoshimitsu, to name a few.

Violent gangster movies and sex films, the bread-and-butter of the seventies, are the first to move to the video racks (direct-to-video).

Beginning in the late seventies, ATG changes direction. From its initial emphasis on artistic and "difficult" films, it starts promoting young directors who rather make youth films or pure entertainment, although there are still great films in its line-up as Morita Yoshimitsu's The Family Game. But the company gets weaker as more and more of its cinemas close. Its production dwindles from 1985 on and the last film it supports is Shindo Kaneto's The Strange Tale of Oyuki in 1992. While it lasted, its influence on Japanese cinema in difficult years for the industry, was enormously positive.  

Kadokawa, finally, continues producing its media mix films at the pace of several a year, but with the one exception of Fall Guy by Fukasaku Kinji, none is of any artistic value.

The disintegration of the studio system also gives chances to outsiders. Companies that never had anything to do with film, now enter the world of the cinema. We have already seen the example of Kadokawa Shoten and its blockbuster strategy, assisted my massive advertising. In the eighties other newcomers are advertising agencies, trading companies, TV stations including cable TV companies, etc. Thanks to video tapes and later DVDs, films are not restricted to the cinema, but can be (re-)sold also in other forms - including pay channels on cable television. 

The large cinemas where the "program pictures" were shown close their doors and are refashioned into "mini theaters" with only 200 seats. Cinema complexes with a number of screens start being built, a trend that will only get stronger in the following decade. Especially in Tokyo, small and specialized theaters proliferate. 

But there is little renewal and the best films are made by the "old guard," such as Kurosawa (who makes his first film in five years), Suzuki Seijun who makes a comeback with independent productions, Yoshida Yoshishige who breaks a long silence and Imamura Shohei who wins the Palme d'Or in Cannes. These are all excellent films, but that many of the best films of the eighties were made by directors who flourished in the sixties also shows the decline of Japanese cinema in this decade.

New directors of this decade are most notably actor Itami Juzo, who achieves critical success with his first films, as well as Somai Shinji with his youth films and Japan's foremost animator Miyazaki Hayao. Others who should be mentioned are Yanagimachi Mitsuo, Omori Kazuki, Negishi Kichitaro and Morita Yoshimitsu.

Animation films increase in quality and popularity. Every summer and winter new anime feature films are released. In 1985 Studio Ghibli is set up, which in the next two decades will produce more than half of the 15 highest-grossing anime films ever made in Japan.

Finally, after the almost exclusively masculine and therefore violent late sixties and seventies in Japanese film, in the eighties more films are again made for women and also families.

1980
This year, there are 2,364 screens in Japan and total number of 320 films is produced (55% of total), for an audience of 164,422,000.

Suzuki Seijun directs Zigeunerweisen, based on a novel by Uchida Hyakken. It takes its title from a gramophone recording of Pablo de Sarasate's violin composition, Zigeunerweisen, which features prominently in the film. Free from the cumbersome plots of his genre films, Suzuki puts his bizarre and brilliant visual language wholly in the service of an artistic film. Set in 1920s Japan, this surrealistic psychological drama will become the first part of Suzuki's "Taisho Roman Trilogy" (with Kagero-za, 1981, and Yumeji, 1991). With Otani Naoko, Harada Yoshio and Fujita Toshiya. All three films were produced by Arato Genjiro. When exhibitors declined to screen the film, Arato screened it himself in an inflatable, mobile tent in Tokyo to great success. Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film of the Year and Japan Academy Prize for Picture of the Year. Zigeunerweisen also won Honorable Mention at the 31st Berlin International Film Festival. (Cinema Placet)


Kurosawa Akira directs Kagemusha ("The Shadow Warrior"), an elegiac epic with grand medieval battles. For ten years Kurosawa had not been able to make a film in Japan, and now this was only made possible thanks to the financial support of two of his longtime admirers, American directors Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas. Kurosawa examines the concept of the double as a means to explore the slipperiness of identity, an old Kurosawa theme. He also delves into philosophical issues of power, leadership and the play between illusion and reality. Nakadai Tatsuya plays both the warlord Takeda Shingen, and the thief who is hired to impersonate him after Shingen's sudden death (which is kept secret). A great historical epic, that however compared with Kurosawa's earlier films strikes the viewer as rather static and monumental. Won the Palme d'Or at the 1980 Cannes Film Festival. Nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. (Kurosawa Production Co. / Twentieth Century Fox / Toho)

Hipokuratesu-tachi ("Disciples of Hippocrates") by Omori Kazuki is a semi-autobiographical rumination on the rigors of medical school - the director himself (born in 1952) had studied medicine in Kyoto. The film conveys a real sense of student life. Omori would make more youth films and love stories and become a commercial director in the nineties, when he worked regularly for Toho. (ATG)

Ichikawa Kon dramatizes alienation in his adaptation of Kawabata's Koto ("The Old Capital"), where long-separated twin sisters meet again, only to face estrangement. The movie was the last in which actress Yamaguchi Momoe appeared before she retired to marry her co-star, Miura Tomokazu. (Horikaku Production Company)

1981
Doro no Kawa ("Muddy River") by Oguri Kohei is a film about childhood friendship and premature awakening to adult realities, set in postwar Osaka. The somber film, with its focus on working class characters, pits the cruelty of the adult world against the purity of the young. It is about the age-old paradox between innocence and experience. Oguri Kohei (born in 1945) has created a small but fine oeuvre in a personal style. Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film of the Year. (Kimura productions)


Enrai ("Distant Thunder") by Negishi Kichitaro is about a young farmer (Nagashima Toshiyuki) who bravely persists despite the decline of agriculture in industrialized Japan, trying to come to terms with urban encroachment on his fields. Negishi Kichitaro (born in 1950) initially worked for Nikkatsu on Roman Porno, after which he got the chance to go mainstream via ATG with the present film. His films are characterized by subtlety and intelligence, and it is regrettable that he is unknown outside Japan. (ATG / New Century productions)

Kageroza ("Heat-Haze Theater") by Suzuki Seijun is a beautiful modern ghost story, based on a novella by Izumi Kyoka, and the second part of Suzuki's "Taisho Trilogy." The eccentric and nostalgic narrative is set in 1926 Tokyo, where a Shinpa playwright (Matsuda Yusaku) has a series of encounters with a strange woman (Okusu Michiyo), who seems to be the wife of his wealthy patron. She tells him that her soul is encapsulated in the fruit of the Chinese Lantern Plant (hozuki). Intrigued, as the mysterious woman resembles his past lover, the playwright follows her to rural Kanazawa, where his patron wants to draw him into a love-suicide with her. The story is complicated by the appearance of another woman (Kusuda Eriko), the first, German wife of his patron, who however wears dark lenses and colors her hair to appear Japanese - but the problem is that she is supposedly dead. The climax of the film is formed by a sequence in a kabuki theater where child performers enact the relation between both women. Not for nothing did Suzuki himself call this work "film Kabuki." With Zigeunerweisen, one of the best films of the decade. (Cinema Placet)

Eejanaika (lit. "What the hell!") is the first period film of Imamura Shohei, set in the cataclysmic last years of the shogunate. A big, sprawling film in which the director juggles various complex plots about forms of civil disobedience. "Eejanaika" was a real historical movement, a series of carnivalesque religious celebrations which were meant as social and political protests, occurring for about a year from June 1867 in various parts of Japan. A large set of the Ryogoku Bridge and adjoining fairgrounds was created for the film which seems to burst with energy. Screened at the 1981 Cannes Film Festival. (Imamura Productions)

1982
Kamata Koshinkyoku ("Fall Guy" lit. "Kamata March") by Fukasaku Kinji, with Matsuzaka Keiko. The only artistic film to come out of Kadokawa is a satire on the film industry. It is about a stuntman (the "fall guy," played by Hirata Mitsuru) and his arrogant movie star friend (Kazama Morio), who are engaged in the production of a samurai film at the Toei lot in Kyoto (the title ironically refers to "Kamata," where the studios of Shochiku were once located - the "Kamata March" was their theme song). Like other films by Fukasaku, it is ultimately a film about an honest man working for an undeserving boss. Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film of the Year and Japan Academy Prize for Picture of the Year. (Kadokawa Haruki Jimusho)


Saraba itoshiki daichi ("Farewell to the Land") by Yanagimachi Mitsuo shows the alienation of the modern Japanese from nature and culture, and the disintegration of traditional rural family structures. After two brothers die in a boating accident, the father descends into infidelity, drug addiction and violence. Entered into the 32nd Berlin International Film Festival. (Atelier Dancan / Gunro)

In Tenkosei ("Exchange Students") by cult director Obayashi Nobuhiko two students, a boy and a girl, come to inhabit each other's bodies through some sort of supernatural intervention. A timid girl becomes an effeminate and insecure boy, and a rascal becomes a loud and self-righteous girl. Both protagonists are splendid in their cross-gendered impersonations. A hilarious coming-of-age comedy. (ATG / Nippon Television Network)

Bakuretsu toshi ("Burst City") by "cyberpunk pioneer" Ishii Sogo is a brash film set in a sort of post-apocalyptic future, where groups of punkers and biker gangs battle each other and also protest together against the building of a massive power plant. High on energy, but style wins out over content. Ishii Sogo (born in 1957) is an experimental and innovative director who has also made many shorts and music videos. (Dynamite Production)

1983
Kazoku Gemu ("The Family Game") by Morita Yoshimitsu is a black comedy about a middle class family where the father, mother and two sons are only in name family, without having any deeply felt ties. The home tutor who is hired to help the second son pass his exam for a prestigious high school provides the commitment and love that are lacking in the parents. Besides taking on the family and education, the film is also a satire of middle class life in a tiny apartment - to reach his room, the first son has to pass through that of his brother; when the parents want discuss something in private, they have to sit in their car; and all members of the family eat facing in the same direction, as would become normal in families where the TV was always on. The celebratory dinner after the son passes his exam ends in a slapstick food fight because the teacher is fed up with this small-minded family. With Matsuda Yusaku as the unorthodox teacher and Itami Juzo as the authoritarian but ineffectual father. Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film of the Year. (ATG)


Narayamabushi-ko ("The Ballad of Narayama") by Imamura Shohei is a second adaptation of the novel by Fukazawa Shichiro, about life in a mountain village where the aged are taken to Mt Narayama to die. The first adaptation was made in the fifties by Kinoshita. In comparison to Kinoshita's highly stylized "Kabuki-like" version, Imamura is down to earth naturalistic and also cranks up the sex content. Many critics seem to have a slight preference for Kinoshita's adaptation. With Ogata Ken as the unwilling son and Sakamoto Sumiko as the elderly mother who swiftly makes her preparations for the journey to the mountain. Japan Academy Prize for Picture of the Year and Palme d'Or winner at Cannes. (Toei)

Senjo no Merii Kurisumasu ("Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence") by Oshima Nagisa, based on stories about his experiences as Japanese prisoner of war during WWII by South-African author Laurens van der Post. The foreign financed film has an interesting actor line-up in rock star David Bowie, Japanese musician Sakamoto Ryuichi (who also wrote the score) and - in a first film role - Kitano Takeshi. Explores one of Oshima's constant themes: how social constructions (such as in this case, an army) are undermined by love (here between Bowie's and Sakamoto's characters). Entered into the 1983 Cannes Film Festival. (Recorded Picture Company (RPC) / National Film Trustees / Oshima Productions)
 
Sasameyuki ("The Makioka Sisters") by Ichikawa Kon is a gorgeous kimono show (not surprisingly one of the sponsors of the film was a kimono company), interspersed with cherry blossom shots and the like, but this eye-candy fails as a serious adaptation of the eponymous, complex masterwork by Tanizaki Junichiro. It is as if the director was obsessively searching for "Japaneseness," without being able to go any deeper than the surface. This story of the gentle decline of an old merchant family from Osaka, consisting of four sisters, was inspired by Tanizaki's life in Kobe in the late 1930s with his wife and her three sisters (see my post about the house where they lived, Ishoan). The two eldest sisters are married, the third one is trying hard to find a partner (via a miai) and the fourth sister is running wild. In Ichikawa's film, this is played for comedy; another element added by Ichikawa is the secret attraction the husband of the second sister feels for the third sister. With Kishi Keiko, Yoshinaga Sayuri, Itami Juzo and Ishikawa Koji. (Toho)

Hadashi no Gen ("Barefoot Gen") is an anime film by Mori Masaru, loosely based on the manga series by Nakazawa Keiji. It depicts the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima from the point of view of a small boy. (Madhouse / Gen Productions)

1984
Ososhiki ("The Funeral") by Itami Juzo. With Miyamoto Nobuko and Yamazaki Tsutomu. When the wife's father suddenly dies, a couple is faced with the task to organize a funeral for the first time in their lives. Everything has to be done by the rule-book in Japan, but in the modern age the bereaved don't know anymore how to hold a proper traditional funeral, so they have to watch an instructional video to learn the etiquette. The three enervating days until the funeral are filmed in detail and with much humor and feeling. There are also farcical elements, such as the rapacious priest who arrives in a Rolls-Royce. Itami's first film and arguably his best. Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film of the Year and Japan Academy Prize for Picture of the Year. (Itami Productions / New Century Productions)


Hentai kazoku: aniki no yomesan ("Abnormal Family: Older Brother's Bride") by Suo Masayuki is a pink film and at the same time a spoof on Ozu - his camera style, his music, the way his characters talk (or rather, are silent), to even the signs of bars. The family consists of a father, two sons and a daughter. The eldest son marries and brings his buxom bride home, to engage in non-stop and rather loud sex. Father is silently in love with a bar hostess, the daughter starts working in a Soapland, and the younger son is confused by all the lust swirling around him. Further complications arise when the married son switches from his new bride to the father's bar hostess, with whom he engages in interesting SM sessions. (Kokuei Company)

Gyakufunsha kazoku ("The Crazy family") by Ishii Sogo is an absurdistic comedy and black social satire about a family that moves to a new home in the suburbs, after which everyone falls prey to various comic obsessions. In the end, hostilities escalate and the new dreamhouse becomes a sadistic battlefield. The madness level is just too high for the film to be wholly effective. (ATG)

Saraba hakobune ("Farewell to the Ark") is the last film by Terayama Shuji, who dies at age 47. It is a (very loose) transposition of the story of Garcia Marquez' novel A Hundred Years of Solitude to Okinawa. A surreal exploration of memory and a fascinating final film - just as though-provoking as the director's earlier Pastoral Hide and Seek. Entered into the 1985 Cannes Film Festival. (ATG)

Taifu kurabu ("Typhoon Club") by Somai Shinji depicts the lives of a group of high-school students in a Tokyo suburb, who are temporarily marooned in the school's gymnasium because of a typhoon. Somai Shinji (1948-2001) was an independent director who made 10 films between 1980 and 2000, in which he often shows a compassionate understanding for alienation and loneliness. He was especially good at examining the awkward feelings of adolescents.

In the documentary film Antonio Gaudi Teshigahara Hiroshi visits the best known buildings of this Catalan architect and sculptor, including the famous Sagrada Familia Cathedral. With little narration, but music by Takemitsu Toru. (Teshigahara Productions)


Toho scores at the box office with its Godzilla revival (brought out at Godzilla's 30th anniversary), Gojira ("The Return of Godzilla"), the first of the "Heisei Godzilla" films. It is the 16th film in the total series, but as concerns plot brought out as a direct sequel to the 1954 original Gojira film. This revival returns to the darker themes and mood of some of the early films and brings on the original destructive monster. (Toho)

Kaze no Tani no Naushika ("Nausicaä of the Valley of the Winds") by Miyazaki Hayao is an ecological anime feature based on an original manga story by the director. A young princess named Nausicaä, living in a near-feudal, post-apocalyptic world in which only small pockets of humanity survive, tries to understand nature, rather than destroy it. She is faced with a difficult choice when her world is invaded by enemies and her father killed: will she join the battle or seek for a peaceful solution? (Hakuhodo / Nibariki / Tokuma Shoten)

1985
This year, there are 2,137 screens in Japan. A total of 319 Japanese films is produced (50.9% of total films shown) and shown to an audience of 155,130,000.

Ran by Kurosawa Akira is a monumental film in which Shakespeare’s King Lear is transported to sixteenth-century Japan: an elderly lord (grandly played by Nakadai Tatsuya) abdicates to his three sons, two of whom then turn against him. The actor Peter (known from Funeral Parade of Roses) plays the transvestite fool and there is a Mahleresque score by Takemitsu Toru. Again a majestic and monumental film, showing the blight of greed and thirst for power, as well as the folly of war. Among the many awards won by Ran, Wada Emi won an Oscar for best costume design.  (Greenwich Film Productions / Herald Ace / Nippon Herald Films)


Himatsuri ("Fire Festival") by Yanagimachi Mitsuo. Yanagimachi's critically acclaimed masterwork, based on a screenplay by Nakagami Kenji, is a modern cautionary fable with overtones of ancient Shinto, set in a picturesque fishing village in Kumano (southern Wakayama Prefecture) slated for corporate development. A macho lumberjack (Kitaoji Kinya), who hunts boars and monkeys with the young Ryota (Nakamoto Ryota), faces off with vengeful nature as well as with the fishermen of the village who suspect him of polluting the fish pens. A powerful film with a shocking conclusion - one of the best films made in the 1980s in Japan. Screened at the 1985 Cannes Film Festival; won various awards at international film festivals, such as Rotterdam and Locarno. (Cine Saison / Gunro / Seibu)

Sorekara ("And Then") by Morita Yoshimitsu is a bungei eiga based on a novel by Natsume Soseki. Daisuke (Matsuda Yusaku) is an aesthete who abhors the harsh, capitalistic atmosphere of the last years of the Meiji period. He lives a quiet life, without working, as his father, a rich businessman of samurai stock (Ryu Chishu), gives him an allowance. But Daisuke's life is thrown into turmoil when he meets his former sweetheart, Michiyo (Fujitani Miwako), again, whom he three years earlier had given in marriage to his best friend Hiraoka. His love is rekindled and he refuses a marriage proposal sponsored by his father, with disastrous results. A poetical film, that makes much of white lilies, the flowers with which Michiyo is associated. Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film of the Year. (Toei)

Tampopo (lit. "Dandelion") by Itami Juzo is a film for foodies: a "noodle Western." Miyamoto Nobuko plays a woman who wants to make a success of her ramen restaurant by creating the best ramen of Japan, and Yamazaki Tsutomu plays the trucker with cowboy hat who helps her by tasting. A very funny film, which also includes a biting satire of Japan's passion for the West, such as the scene in the Italian restaurant where a group of Japanese ladies tries to eat their pasta noiselessly, but after they hear a foreigner at the next table slurping, they start slurping away, too. (Itami Productions / New Century Productions)

1986
Umi to dokuyaku ("The Sea and Poison") by Kumai Kei is based on a novel by Endo Shusaku about vivisection experiments on captured Americans undertaken by the Japanese Army with Kyushu University in the last days of the war - a historical fact. While Endo in his book took this as an opportunity to examine the national conscience and the Japanese perception of crime and punishment, Kumai has made a leftist political version, holding "the system" on both sides of the Atlantic responsible for this terrible train of events. Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film of the Year; also won the Jury Grand Prix at Berlin. (Nippon Herald)

Max, Mon Amour ("Max") by Oshima Nagisa is a deadpan comedy about a woman (Charlotte Rampling) who falls in love with a chimpanzee. The film was born out of Oshima's long admiration for Luis Buñuel and in fact written in collaboration with Buñuel's frequent screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere. A wife's amorous attention to a large, affectionate chimp called Max infuriates her diplomat husband (Anthony Higgins) and sparks a delicious farce. Obsessing about their relationship, the husband invites the chimp into their home, but also peers through the keyhole to see what is happening between the two. Shows an unexpected side of Oshima, with as only possible criticism that his other films go much farther than this rather restrained comedy. All the same, this anarchistic subversion of bourgeois values deserves to be better known. (Serge Silberman / Greenwich Film Productions / Greenwich Films).

Yari no Gonza ("Gonza the Spearman") by Shinoda Masahiro. A visually beautiful historical film based on a play by Chikamatsu. A handsome youth (Go Hiromi), already in love with a young woman who has pledged her troth by giving him her sash, gets entangled in an intrigue woven by the spouse of his tea master (Iwashita Shima), who wants him to marry her young daughter. In the end, the spouse and the young man are caught in a compromising situation (without being guilty of adultery), meaning that the only course left them is to flee together. A very stylized and elegant film. Won the Silver Bear at the 36th Berlin International Film Festival. (Hyogensha / Shochiku)

A-homansu is popular actor Matsuda Yusaku's only effort as director, but a singularly good one. It is a cyperpunk action movie in which he rejects the screen image of tough guy he had build up in the 1970s (and indeed, he would play very different and more difficult roles in his films of the eighties, such as the teacher in The Family Game). The actor Matsuda plays a lonely biker who helps a gang of punks led by Ishibashi Ryo against another gang. But director Matsuda consciously breaks all rules of the genre by ridiculing action hero cool and preventing the audience from sympathizing with the protagonist. The tough guy's "performance" is just "stupid," as also the title of the film indicates ("aho" means "stupid" in Kansai dialect, and "mansu" refers to "performance"). (Central Arts / Kitty Films)

Ningen no yakusoku ("A Promise") by Yoshida Yoshishige. After an old woman dies, her widower suffering from dementia confesses to having killed her. We then get the story in flashbacks. Screened at the 1986 Cannes Film Festival. (Kinema Tokyo Company Ltd. / Seibu Saison Group / Seiyu Company Ltd)

Gokudo no Onnatachi ("Gang Wives") by Gosha Hideo and with Iwashita Shima and Katase Rina. Based on a reportage by journalist Ieda Shoko, who demonstrated that the women in the yakuza world were strong personalities with nerves of steel. Iwashita Shima (the wife of director Shinoda Masahiro) was a golden choice for the gang-boss wife, cool and steely, but also elegant and stately. She rules the mob like a business imperium, but just in case also hides a gun under her kimono. This first film still has the feel of the reportage on which it was based, which adds to authenticity. In total ten installments would be made until 1997, when Iwashita bowed out, making it the only yakuza hit series of the decade. (Toei) (See my post on yakuza movies)

1987
Marusa no Onna ("A Taxing Woman") by Itami Juzo. After his two more artistic films, Itami now hits the jackpot with a light comedy in which his wife, the actress Miyamoto Nobuko, plays a plucky tax agent who goes after tax cheats, represented by tax evader king Yamazaki Tsutomu. Part 2 was made in 1988 and features a religious sect led by Mikuni Rentaro as holy tax evader. Besides the social satire, the films are interesting in presenting a strong, modern type of female lead. Unfortunately, the film's success meant that Itami would apply a similar formula to various other fields of activity, eventually leading to routine films with little innovation. But this funny first film deservedly received the Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film of the Year and Japan Academy Prize for Picture of the Year. (New Century Producers / Itami Productions)


Zegen by Imamura Shohei is a black comedy that takes up the theme from his documentary Karayuki-san and is set in the decades of Japan's colonial expansion in the first half of the 20th c. A Japanese businessman realizes that his country's armed forces will soon be advancing across Asia, and decides that they will require brothels, so he sets up shop in Southeast Asia. A very black satire, also criticizing Japan's (then seemingly boundless) economic expansion. With Ogata Ken and Baisho Mitsuko. Entered into the 1987 Cannes Film Festival. (Imamura productions)

Shinran: Shiroi michi ("Shinran: Path to Purity") by Mikuni Rentaro is the actor's only effort as director. It tells the story of one of Japan's major medieval Buddhist figures, the founder of the Jodo Shin sect of Pure Land Buddhism. Won the Jury Prize at the 1987 Cannes Film Festival. (Kinema Tokyo Company Ltd. / Nichiei)

1988
Nikkatsu makes its last Roman Porno films. The studio tries to return to mainstream feature films under the brand name Ropponica, but fails and stops after making just two films.

Dogura Magura by Matsumoto Toshio is a comeback of this individualistic film maker with a surreal adaptation of the famous cult novel by Yumeno Kyusaku. A young man awakes in an insane asylum with no memory and a doctor tries to help him with the technique of "inherited memories." Although the film also contains a crime story, the main question it poses is the nature of reality. (Katsujindo Cinema / Toshykanky Kaihatsu AG)

Arashigaoka ("Onimaru") by Yoshida Yoshishige is a "Japanization" of the famous Emily Bronte novel. Set in the Muromachi-period and imbued with the mysterious atmosphere of the Noh theater. Matsuda Yusaku plays Onimaru, the character based on Heathcliff. With its hysterical atmosphere very different from the films Yoshida has made before. Entered into the 1988 Cannes Film Festival. (Mediactuel / Saison Group / Seiyu Production)

Tonko ("The Silkroad") by Sato Junya is based on the novel Dunhuang by Inoue Yasushi. The big spectacle film is extremely dull, but I mention it here because it was a historic co-production between Japan and China. The colorful banners and thousands of extras can't hide that the story is cliché-ridden and pulpy and doesn't do justice to Inoue's historical novel. Japan Academy Prize for Picture of the Year. (August 1st Film Studio / China Film Co-Production Corporation)

Tsuribaka Nisshi ("Fishing Fool's Diary") is a comedy film by Kuriyama Tomio, based on a fishing manga by Yamasaki Juzo and Kitami Kenichi. It is the first film in a series that would run to twenty installments until 2007. Most of the early films were released on a double bill with Otoko wa tsurai yo. The film focuses on salaryman Hamasaki Densuke ("Hama-chan," played by Nishida Toshiyuki), who is a typical irresponsible salaryman a la Ueki Hitoshi as his overriding passion is for fishing. His unlikely fishing mate is the CEO of the construction company where he works, Suzuki-san (Mikuni Rentaro), something that has to be kept hidden from colleagues on the workfloor. (Shochiku)

Bakayaro! Watashi Okottemasu ("Bakayaro! I'm Plenty Mad") is a four-part omnibus made by little-known young directors, such as Nakashima Tetsuya and Tsutsumi Yukihiko, and scripted by Morita Yoshimitsu. Shows several irritations which Japanese in the past would bear with patience, but which in the film lead to an anger explosion. Was popular enough to merit a second part the next year. (Kouwa International)

Akira by Otomo Katsuhira (based on the director's own, 1,000 page manga) is the mother of all post-apocalyptic anime films. It is also a true groundbreaking cult film that is often called one of the best anime features of all time - despite the lack of characterization and the over-the-top effects. An incredibly dense story about biker gangs in Neo-Tokyo, psychic powers and a secret government project called AKIRA, ending in a violent catharsis. (Bandai Visual)


Tonari no Tottoro ("My Neighbor Totoro") by Miyazaki Hayao. Satsuki and her little sister Mei move with their father to the countryside, to be near their mother who is in a hospital recovering from a long illness. In the peace and beauty of their lush green surroundings (set in the 1950s), the sisters find a magical world, including a fluffy troll-like animal with a Cheshire-cat-like grin dubbed "Tottoro" by the younger sister. A film that admonishes us to be concerned about tradition and our natural environment (the link with living nature has been lost also in contemporary Japan). Arguably Miyazaki's best effort, with lots of nice effects. Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film of the Year. (Tokuma Japan Communications / Studio Ghibli / Nibariki)

Hotaru no haka ("Grave of Fireflies") by Takahata Isao is an animated feature film based on an eponymous short story by Nosaka Akiyuki. Seita and his little sister Setsuko are left homeless by the firebombing of Kobe in 1945, which claims their mother's life. They can't find their father and finally move in with a shrewish aunt who constantly reminds Seita he is not doing enough for the war effort. Eventually, they leave and start living in an air-raid shelter in the countryside, begging and stealing food, but are unable to ward off starvation. (Shinchosha / Studio Ghibli)

1989
Matsuda Yusaku, the iconic actor of the seventies and eighties, who appeared in such artistic films as The Assassination of Ryoma, Heat-Haze Theater, The Family Game and And Then, dies at the young age of only 39. His last film was Ridley Scott's Black Rain.

Kono otoko, kyobo ni tsuki ("Violent Cop," lit. "Warning: this man is violent") is the first film made by actor, writer and TV comedian Kitano "Beat" Takeshi, in the double role of director and actor. Kitano plays a Dirty Harry-type detective, a loose cannon who uses violent methods when confronting criminals. After the kidnapping of his mentally retarded sister by gangsters, he really goes berserk. In contrast to Peckinpah c.s. who filmed violence in slow motion, in Kitano's films violence is sudden, unexpected and lightning-fast. It was maverick Shochiku producer Okuyama Kazuyoshi who gave Kitano the chance to direct after the original director Fukasaku Kinji bowed out because of scheduling problems. In this film Kitano ushered in the "detached style" of Japanese cinema of the 1990s, with long takes and minimum close-ups, and a relaxed editing rhythm. At the same time, generic plot motifs are filmed in unusual ways. The camera has no empathy with the characters. Violence is all the more shocking because it is understated. (Bandai Media Department / Shochiku-Fuji Company)


Kuroi ame ("Black Rain") by Imamura Shohei, tells about the aftermath of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, based on a novel by Ibuse Masuji, who in turn borrowed from diaries of survivors. Filmed in black-and-white to avoid sensationalism. Focuses on how this tragic event affects one family: a young woman, Yasuko, who lives with her aunt and uncle. The title refers to the rain that fell soon after the explosion and that was mixed with radioactive soot. Yasuko was caught in this rainfall, and her family is not only worried about her health, but also how it may affect her socially and mentally. Filmed with sincerity and compassion. Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film of the Year and Japan Academy Prize for Picture of the Year. Also two awards at Cannes. (Hayashibara Group / Imamura Productions / Tohokushinsha Film Corporation)

Rikyu by Teshigahara Hiroshi features Mikuni Rentaro in the title role of the famous tea master who is forced to commit suicide by Japan's ruler Hideyoshi (Yamazaki Tsutomu). A lush spectacle with beautiful costumes, but also a great statement of Teshigahara's aesthetics as head of the Sogetsu School of Ikebana. The film shows the clash between parvenu Hideyoshi with his golden tea house and flashy clothes and the austere tea master, who puts a single flower in a bare tea room, even cutting off all other flowers in the garden through which the guests have to pass. (C. Ito and Company Ltd. / Shochiku / Teshigahara Productions)

Tetsuo ("Tetsuo: The Iron Man") by Tsukamoto Shinya is a true cult film of the "body horror" sort. The story of a man (Taguchi Tomorowo) who literally transforms into a "man of (scrap) iron," a metallic monster, after a hit-and-run incident. He first notices this while shaving, when his razor touches a metal screw in his cheek. Filmed with primitive special effects and shot with thousands of cuts in black and white with expressionistic lightning, and accompanied by a soundtrack full of experimental noise (by Ishikawa Chu). This ultra-violent and ultra-erotic fantasy is a singular cinematic experience, and also a piece of fetishism worthy of Cronenberg. Delivers a raw emotional punch. Took the grand prize at the Fantastic Film festival in Rome. (Japan Home Video (JHV) / K2 Spirit / Kaijyu Theater)

Katsu Shintaro climbs into the director's chair for a remake of Zatoichi ("Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman"). Zatoichi takes action after he learns that his teacher has been murdered and the teacher's daughter forced into prostitution. More violence than in any previous Zatoichi film, but also something of a vanity piece for the 59-year old actor/director. Much is made good, however, by the presence of Ogata Ken as a sleepless, artistically inclined ronin. During the swordplay, a supporting actor was killed, something indicative of the low technical level film in the eighties has sunk to. (Katsu Production)

Majo no takkyubin ("Kiki's Delivery Service") by Miyazaki Hayao is the story of a thirteen-year old witch who runs an air courier service on her broomstick. She is headstrong but also resourceful and in addition gets some help from a talking cat. Has been called one of the best children's films ever made.  (Nibariki / Nippon Television Network (NTV) / Studio Ghibli)

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.]

June 20, 2015

A History of Japanese Film by Year: Decline and Stagnation (1975-1979)

A continuation of the first half of this decade, with more of the same. But while the Nikkatsu Roman Porno films are still going strong, the short flowering of Toei's "pinky violence" is over and the ultra violent jitsuroku yakuza films are already getting less popular. Even the ever beloved Toho monster Godzilla is forced to leave the stage. Kadokawa starts making its blockbuster thrillers with Ichikawa Kon, and Miyazaki Hayao makes his first feature length anime film. 

1975
This year, the downward trend of film attendance reaches 174,020,000. The number of screens tumbles to 2,443 and the production of Japanese films to 333 (44.4% of the total number of films shown), the bulk of which are pink films and other marginal sex exploitation pictures.

Jingi no Hakaba ("Graveyard of Honor") by Fukasaku Kinji, with Watari Tetsuya, tells about a self-destructive, renegade yakuza, whose violent antics get him into trouble with his own clan, which costs him his pinkie. He sinks further into the abyss after becoming addicted to drugs. His gentle girlfriend, a prostitute, catches tuberculosis from the inhuman monster and commits suicide. Our "hero" then goes over the edge and is found nibbling on her bones after the cremation. Remade in 2002 by Miike Takashi. (Toei)


Jitsuroku Abe Sada ("A Woman Called Sada Abe") by Tanaka Noboru was the Roman Porno version of a bizarre true-life story that happened in 1936 and that became a national sensation. A woman (Abe Sada) spends a month locked with her lover in a hotel room, in a passionate and violent bout of mad lovemaking. In the end, seeking to possess him entirely, she erotically asphyxiates him and cuts off his private parts, which she carries in her handbag until her arrest. The next year, Oshima Nagisa would base his The Realm of the Senses on the same material, a film very different in intention from Tanaka, who was rather aiming to make high-class erotica. As a result, Tanaka's version is less explicit and more stylish (with beautiful color photography). Tanaka also gives a more rounded portrayal of Abe's life through various flashbacks. (Nikkatsu)

Tanaka Noboru (1937-2006) is generally regarded as one of the best of Nikkatsu's Roman Porno directors. Making his first Roman Porno film in 1972, he would produce a total of 25 such films, before leaving the studio to direct mainstream films, which were however less successful. Tanaka's films are known for their imaginative use of color and poetic imagery.

Unable to work in Japan, Kurosawa Akira makes Dersu Uzala for Mosfilm in Russia, his first film in five years, wholly shot on location in the Siberian wilderness, under very difficult circumstances, and with a Russian cast. The story is set at the beginning of the 20th c. and tells of a Siberian native, a Goldi hunter (Maxim Munzuk), who guides a Russian explorer (Yuri Solomin) and his expedition through the treacherous snowy wilderness. Friendship develops between the elderly, but seasoned local guide and the explorer during the long trek. Won the 1975 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in addition to the Golden Prize at the 9th Moscow International Film Festival. (Mosfilm)

Shinoda Masahiro makes Sakura no mori no mankai no shita ("Under the Blossoming Cherry Trees"), based on a short story by Sakaguchi Ango. The title harks back to the folk belief that passing through a forest of blossoming cherry trees in the mountains would induce insanity. A rough robber living in the mountains (Wakayama Tomisaburo) captures a beautiful woman (Iwashita Shima) and makes her his prisoner - but he himself becomes the real captive - the seemingly so helpless female subjugates the wild man through his lust. The woman first demands that he kills all the other women in his "harem" except a limping girl who has to be her servant. Then she pushes him to start living in the city, where she leads a glamorous life, while the man is away stealing and killing. He has to bring her the heads of people he has killed, which she then uses for her bizarre games, a sort of theater of the grotesque. But the mountain man is out of place in the city, becomes listless and wants to return to the mountains. The woman agrees. On their way back into the mountains, they pass through a forest of blossoming cherry trees, and then the real nature of the woman is revealed. A bizarre ghostly drama, with echoes of both Ugetsu and Kwaidan. (Geiensha)

Aru eiga-kantoku no shogai: Mizoguchi Kenji no kiroku ("Kenji Mizoguchi: The Life of a Film Director") is a documentary film on the life and works of director Mizoguchi Kenji, directed by Shindo Kaneto. Interesting for the footage of Mizoguchi himself and the interviews with people who had interacted with him. Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film of the Year. (Kindai Eiga Kyokai)

Torakku Yaro: goiken muyo ("Truck Guys: Your Opinion is Useless") is the first film in a series of ten popular Japanese comedy-action films released from 1975 to 1979. All ten films are directed by Suzuki Noribumi and star Sugawara Bunta as Hoshi Momojiro ("Ichibanboshi" or "First Star") and Aikawa Kinya as Matsushita Kinzo, also known as "Jonathan". They are two truckers who travel around Japan in highly decorated trucks ("dekatora"). Momojiro is unmarried and lives in his truck (after spending his evening sometimes in a "Soapland"), while Jonathan has a motherly wife with seven or eight kids and the next one underway. The plot formula borrows one element from Tora-san: as soon as Momojiro falls in love he becomes immensely shy. Moreover, also like Otoko wa tsurai yo, his choice is always an unlucky one as he ends up having to help his beloved one in her romance with another man. In the finale of the film he then has to race his truck to meet a deadline to bring this couple together. Although completely unknown abroad, this ten film series is in Japan considered as "cult director" Suzuki Noribumi's greatest contribution to cinema. (Toei)

Shinkansen daibakuha ("The Bullet Train") by Sato Junya is a disaster film mega production starring about everyone associated with Toei, including Takakura Ken as a leftist radical who has rigged the bullet train so that it will explode if it slows down to below a certain speed. Notably, Japan Railways refused to lend support so the director had to make do with a miniature train instead of the real thing. Others starring in this film are Sonny Chiba as the conductor, Shimura Takashi as the president of the railway line and Tanba Tetsuro as police inspector. Was more popular abroad than in Japan. (Toei)

Mekagojira no Gyakushu ("Terror of Mechagodzilla") is the fifteenth and final installment in the original series of Godzilla films and it also is the last Godzilla film to be directed by Honda Ishiro. Its commercial failure may have contributed to Toho's decision to end the series. (Toho)

1976
The sensation of the year is Oshima's Ai no korrida ("The Realm of the Senses"), based on the above mentioned real-life crime of passion involving Abe Sada, and played by Fuji Tatsuya and Matsuda Eiko. The Japanese title literally means "Bullfight of Love" ("korrida" is the Spanish word for bullfight, corrida). The hardcore film was developed in Paris, and the version shown in Japan was severely cut by the censors. It still has never been shown in complete form in Japan, although it really is the least sexy porno film ever made. There is nothing in this obsessed and claustrophobic story to titillate viewers, contrary to the Roman Porno film by Tanaka Noboru on the same subject. In fact, it is a very feminist film, for the male protagonist offers up his life with the sole purpose to give his woman pleasure - he is completely dedicated to her. More than anything else, it may have been this stance that enraged critics and censors. Not only in Japan - the film was banned in several countries and was disqualified from appearing at the Cannes Film Festival. (Argos Films / Oshima Productions / Shibata Organisation) (See my post about Japanese Cult Films)


Edogawa Ranpo ryoki-kan: Yaneura no sanposha ("Watcher in the Attic") by Tanaka Noboru and with Miyashita Junko and Ishibashi Renji, free after a story by Edogawa Ranpo. A voyeuristic landlord roams the rafters to spy on the sexual encounters of his boarders. These include a girl dressed in animal hides and an over-sexed Pierrot, plus a young man who builds a hidden compartment into an armchair so that he can hide inside and enjoy the sensation when the woman he adores sits on him (this motif is based on another Edogawa Ranpo story, The Human Chair). This beautifully shot film is generally regarded as one of the best films to come out of Nikkatsu's Roman Porno. (Nikkatsu)

Kinkakuji ("The Temple of the Golden Pavillion") by Takabayashi Yoichi is the second adaptation of the famous novel by Mishima Yukio. Takabayashi Yoichi (1931-2012) was a pioneering independent film maker who won various prizes at international festivals with his short films. In the mid-seventies he moved on to making feature films and one of the first was Kinkakuji. Compared to the first adaptation by Ichikawa Kon, Takabayashi follows Mishima much more closely in this story of a man imprisoned in himself, out of tune with the world, and seeking liberation through the destruction of beauty. But Takabayashi is also preoccupied with the actual suicide of Mishima just a few years earlier, which guides his interpretation. (ATG)

Hasegawa Kazuhiko directs Seishun no Satsujinsha ("Young Murderer") about an angry young man who kills both his parents. Hasegawa (born 1946) had started his career as a script writer of Nikkatsu's Roman Porno movies, before making two provocative feature films with ATG in the mid-seventies. In the present film he presents a very dark view of the disintegration of traditional family structures as Japan has modernized. The totally alienated protagonist rebels violently against conventional society, but in the end, although he cheats death and justice, he has no future. Based on a novel by Nakagami Kenji. Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film of the Year. (ATG / Imamura Productions / Soeisha)

Kimi yo funne no kawa wo watare ("Manhunt") by Sato Junya. A police detective (Takakura Ken) is falsely accused of break-in and rape by a to him unknown couple. Fearing a trap, and angry about the false accusation, he goes on the run to clear his name. He gets unexpected assistance from a beautiful woman... After the ninkyo eiga boom stopped, Takakura Ken moved on to playing other tough characters, such police officers with a violent streak. Sato Junya was a director of violent yakuza movies who turned to assorted blockbusters later in his career. (Nagata Productions / Daiei)

One of the most popular films of the year is Inugamike no ichizoku ("The Inugamis") by Ichikawa Kon, based on a novel by Yokomizo Seishi. This convoluted murder mystery features detective Kindaichi Kosuke - arguably Japan's most beloved detective, with his untidy Japanese-style clothes and long, unkempt hair covered by an old hat - here played admirably by Ichizaka Koji. The commercial success of this film allowed Ichikawa Kon to continue working through the eighties and nineties, although this and other films he made in this period lack the relevance and artistry of his earlier work. (Kadokawa Haruki Jimusho)

1977
Yamada Yoji's Shiawase no Kiiroi Hankachi ("The Yellow Handkerchiefs of Happiness") tells a moving story of three strangers who embark on a road trip through Hokkaido. One is a young guy (Takeda Tetsuya) who has been left by his girlfriend, quits his job, buys a new car and starts touring in Hokkaido. He picks up two hitchhikers, a young woman (Momoi Kaori) and a mysterious man (Takakura Ken), who as is gradually revealed has been in jail for murder. The ex-convict is anxious to see his wife (Baisho Chieko) again, although he has divorced her when he was in jail. Will she be waiting for him by giving a sign of hoisting a yellow handkerchief as a flag? Yamada's presentation of wholesome love stands out in an age of cinematic sex and violence. The heart-warming film was inspired by a story written by American journalist Pete Hamill. Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film of the Year and Japan Academy Prize for Picture of the Year. (Shochiku)


Hanare Goze Orin ("Banished Orin") by Shinoda Masahiro. About a blind woman minstrel or "goze" (Iwashita Shima), who wanders around the countryside entertaining people with her shamisen playing. She has been expelled from her group of minstrels because she had relations with a man, which was forbidden (goze are supposed to be "married" to the Buddha Amida). Later she teams up with a deserted soldier (Harada Yoshio) who claims only to have brotherly affection for her, for he doesn't want to leave her in the lurch after sleeping with her like all her other men did. But the film ends bleak after this soldier is arrested and tortured by the military police. The final shot shows the evanescence of life. (Toho)

Hausu ("House") is a horror film by Obayashi Nobuhiko, originally aimed at a young audience, but later becoming a cult film, also abroad. A schoolgirl travels with six classmates to the country home of her aunt. There various supernatural events happen, as the house literally starts devouring the girls one by one. The redeeming quality of this rather shoddily made horror spoof is the outrageous imagination of the director. Obayashi Nobuhiko (born 1938) started making experimental short films in the 1960s; House was his first feature film. In the following decades Obayashi has broadened his mainstream appeal and has become known in Japan for his coming-of-age movies which incorporate surreal fantasy elements.  (PSC)

1978
The Japan Academy Prize is a series of awards established from this year by the Nippon Academy Prize Association for excellence in Japanese film. The first film to win is The Yellow Handkerchiefs of Happiness made the previous year by Yamada Yoji. Despite the prestige of this new price, its choices are influenced by the big studios (just like its more famous American namesake) and therefore less interesting than those of the more independent Kinema Junpo Prize (determined by the votes of independent critics).

Ai no Borei ("Empire of Passion") by Oshima Nagisa surprises after the shocking The Realm of the Senses as being a rather straightforward murder mystery and ghost story, set in 1895 and based on a real incident. After having shown the effect of obsessive passion on the lovers themselves in Ai no korrida, here he probably wanted to show its negative effect on others. A beautiful peasant woman and her young lover conspire to murder the woman's husband when their passion gets out of hand. They throw his body in an abandoned well, claiming he is away on a trip to Tokyo. They only see each other seldom to avoid suspicion. But then the woman starts having visions of her dead husband and both murderers are consumed by guilt, while a bumbling police inspector is on their trail. Won Best Director at the 1978 Cannes Film Festival. (Argos Films / Oshima Productions / Toho-Towa)


Sonezaki Shinju ("Double Suicide at Sonezaki" aka "The Love Suicides at Sonezaki") by Masumura Yasuzo is a film based on a Kabuki play by Chikamatsu Monzaemon about passion that ends in death. The plot closely follows the original work and is in fact the most faithful film adaptation of any of Chikamatsu's plays. Tokubei (Uzaki Ryudo), a soy-sauce maker, falls in love with indentured prostitute Ohatsu (Kaji Meiko). After her indenture is bought by a wealthy patron, they decide to commit suicide. A film with a high reputation, showing Masumura back in form, after he had been forced to make rather forgettable films during most of the seventies. Kaji Meiko also won several awards for her lead role, which is arguably her best performance. (See my post about the Ohatsu Tenjin shrine in Osaka's Sonezaki district, where both lovers still are honored) (ATG)

Saado ("Third Base") by Higashi Yoichi, on a script by Terayama Shuji, is a semi-documentary study of a juvenile murderer in a reformatory. The boy (Nagashima Toshiyuki) played third base man in a high school baseball team, and therefore was called "Third Base." One day, wanting some money with his friends, he pimped his schoolmates and got involved in a struggle with a yakuza, who was killed. In the reformatory he is an outsider, because he is not a real criminal. Higashi Yoichi (born 1934) has produced an intelligent oeuvre of liberal political commitment. Saado was his first critically acclaimed film, shot with a restraint and understatement that has been compared to Bresson. Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film of the Year. (ATG / Gentosha)

Kichiku ("The Demon") is a psychological drama directed by Nomura Yoshitaro, based on a novel by Matsumoto Seicho. Consumed by the jealousy and power struggles of their own relationships, a man, his mistress and his wife involve three children in their games - with tragic results. A grim but compelling film. This year Nomura Yoshitaro also makes Jiken ("The Incident"), based on a novel by Oka Shohei, a respectable bungei eiga that wins the Japan Academy Prize for Picture of the Year. (Shochiku)

Yagyu Ichizoku no Inbo ("The Yagyu Clan Conspiracy" aka "Shogun's Samurai") is a violent period film directed by Fukasaku Kinji. The fanatical lord Yagyu (Nakamura Kinnosuke) will do everything to keep the disfigured shogun, who is going mad, in office, including genocide and warring with his own son, Yagyu Jubei ("Sonny" Chiba). Based on a popular TV series. Fun, but from a historical point of view the story is nonsense. The same year Fukasaku makes his adaptation of the 47 ronin story, Akojo danzetsu ("The Fall of Ako Castle"). (Toei)

1979
Imamura Shohei directs Fukushu Suru wa Ware ni Ari ("Vengeance Is Mine"), a semi-documentary about a historical serial killer, Iwao Enokizu (Ogata Ken in a great performance). The protagonist is a completely amoral man, with no soul, who in the early 1960s murdered two delivery van employees for the money they carried and then fled across Japan - killing, committing fraud, posing as a university professor, and somehow eluding the police for 78 days. Imamura always chooses the side of the underdog and here, too, we can feel a glimmer of sympathy for Iwao, not for his murders which are presented as the senseless deeds that they were, but for the short lived feeling of freedom and happiness the fugitive achieves during his flight. Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film of the Year and Japan Academy Prize for Picture of the Year. (Imamura Productions / Shochiku)


"Nikkatsu Queen" Tani Naomi makes her last film, a lavish period piece called Nawa to Hada ("Rope and Skin"), directed by Nishimura Shogoro. Based on a story by SM author Dan Oniroku. She plays a tough yakuza gambler who is subjected to sexual torture and S&M abuse by the leader of a rival gang. Fuller story line than in most Nikkatsu Roman Porno films. (Nikkatsu)

Actress Miyashita Junko wins the Kinema Junpo Prize for Best Actress for her performance in Nikkatsu Roman Porno film Akai Kami no Onna ("A Woman with Red Hair"), directed by Kumashiro Tatsumi. Based on a story by Nakagami Kenji. Miyashita plays a hitchhiker who is picked up by a truck driver (Ishibashi Renji) who takes her to his rundown hovel, where they engage in a grueling routine of non-stop sex. Claustrophobic is the right term. It all ends in mayhem when her violent ex-boyfriend pays an unexpected visit. Regarded as one of the best movies in its genre. (Nikkatsu)

Taiyo wo nusunda otoko ("The Man Who Stole the Sun") by Hasegawa Kazuhiko (the second of only two feature films made by this interesting director) is a film about a high school science teacher (Sawada Kenji) who builds a homemade atomic bomb and uses it to hold the government to ransom and demand a Rolling Stones concert in Tokyo. The teacher is pitted against a heroic cop, played by Sugawara Bunta. A satirical thriller, that spoofs Hollywood tough-guy movies. (Kitty Films / Tristone Entertainment Inc.)

Jukyusai no chizu ("A Nineteen-Year-Old's Map") by Yanagimachi Mitsuo, after a story by Nakagami Kenji, tells about an embittered student / newspaper boy who plans to blow up the houses where he delivers his papers. But the film ends ironically with the realization by the protagonist that he even lacks the courage to destroy. Yanagimachi Mitsuo (born in 1945), an independent film maker with a small oeuvre of just eight films, is known for his austere studies of the socially marginalized. He had debuted 1976 with the biker gang documentary Goddo supiido yuu! Burakku emparaa ("Godspeed You! Black Emperor). (Gunro)

Animator Miyazaki Hayao makes his first feature film, Rupan Sansei: Kariosutoro no Shiro ("The Castle of Cagliostro"), featuring flamboyant international master thief Arsène Lupin III from Monkey Punch's manga series. Since its first appearance in 1967, the adventure-comedy series Lupin III has been consistently popular in Japan, in all formats, from manga to anime to TV. This was the second theatrical feature film, set in a European never-never land with a castle, a princess and a treasure, and it remains the best. (Tokyo Movie Shinsha)

Miyazaki Hayao (born in 1941) is Japan's foremost animator who has achieved such great international fame that he needs no further introduction. With Takahata Isao he co-founded Studio Ghibli in 1984.
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.]