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April 26, 2015

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

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

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

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

We find the following division among the six studios (in alphabetical order):

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

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

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

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

Toei: Formed in 1951 through the merger of several smaller companies. Toei specialized in low-budget jidaigeki, although it also made some better genre films. Toei was based round a star system (Kataoka Chiezo, Tsukigata Ryunosuke, Ichikawa Utaemon, plus new faces as Nakamura Kinnosuke and Okawa Hashizo) and not directors. The studio produced enough films to fill a double bill each week. Its films - almost entirely unknown abroad - were bright family entertainments, a mix of action, nostalgia and humor. In fact, they were also a form of anachronism, harking nostalgically back to the earliest period of jidaigeki and its stories of "rewarding good and punishing evil" (kanzen choaku). The swordplay was more like a ballet, without a drop of blood, and very different from the quick action scenes in the second half of the 1920s and 1930s.

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

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

1950
The Korean War begins and SCAP orders the studios to expel all "communists." Film makers who loose their job are Imai Tadashi, Gosho Heinosuke, Kamei Fumio and Yamamoto Satsuo. These directors set up independent production companies and make films about social issues. None of these companies lasts very long. But it shows that in all periods Japan had independent productions besides the large studios.

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

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

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

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

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

1951
Shochiku reconstructs the war-damaged Kabukiza Theater.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Hakuchi ("The Idiot") by Kurosawa Akira. Kurosawa was a great Dostoevsky fan and based his film on the classical masterpiece. He transposed the story to Hokkaido and to postwar-Japan. War trauma plays an important role: 'the idiot' here is a former soldier suffering from epileptic seizures caused by wartime experiences; all the other characters are also victims of the war. This melodrama of jealousy and resentment, in which 'the idiot' tries to help a young man ruined by the war and a woman hounded by a wealthy but cruel suitor, has been considered a lesser Kurosawa film by Western critics; however, in Japan it has been consistently popular. Hara Setsuko is unexpectedly a stunning femme fatale and there are elegant patternings and great snowscapes. (Shochiku)

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

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

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

1952
Nikkatsu finishes building the Chofu Studio in Tokyo as the largest modern film studio in the Asia Pacific Region.

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

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

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

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

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

Ikiru by Kurosawa Akira wins the Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film of the Year. It is Kurosawa's clearest and most compassionate statement of his existential humanism, in a story about a dying bureaucrat, Watanabe, who bypasses red tape in order to help others and give his life meaning, even by doing a small good. Before that, he had been so immersed in his small, daily routine, that he never learned to live. Arguably Kurosawa's greatest achievement, quiet and contemplative. The first half of the film gives us Watanabe's inner state in a straightforward plot, the second half fragments the story into flashbacks as the various colleagues at the funeral of Watanabe review his struggle through their eyes - failing to give him any credit for his effort to build a playground in a small wasteland in a poor section of the town. Shimura Takeshi delivers a great performance as Watanabe - his large pleading eyes and hangdog face are unforgettable. Won the Special Prize at the Berlin International Film Festival of 1954. (Toho)

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

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

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

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

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

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

1953
The Five-Company Agreement (Gosha Kyotei) is signed between Shochiku, Toho, Daiei, Shintoho, and Toei to prevent actors, directors and technical staff to be hired away by other studios. It made ordinary "company employees" of the actors and directors - only a few, who were famous enough, could get away from this by setting up their own production companies (Katsu Shintaro, Ishihara Yujiro, Mifune Toshiro, all in the sixties). Executed mainly under the leadership of Daiei's president Nagata Masaichi, the agreement was initially directed against Nikkatsu, which was trying to get back its former staff from Daiei. In 1956, however, Nikkatsu  also joined the agreement, which would be in force during the whole 1960s, until it naturally expired with Daiei's demise in 1971.

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


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

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


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

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

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

Tsuma ("Wife") is another film about marriage by Naruse Mikio. A wife (Takamine Mieko) finds out that her husband (Uehara Ken), a white-collar office worker, is cheating on her. To avoid the stigma of a broken marriage, she desperately decides to do everything necessary to  retain him. Based on a story by Hayashi Fumiko. (Toho)

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

Toyoda Shiro makes the bungei film Gan ("The Wild Geese"), an adaptation from a famous novel by Mori Ogai. Otama (Takamine Hideko) out of economic necessity becomes the mistress of a wealthy widower to help support her poor family. But then she meets Okada, a medical student she feels instantly attracted to, and she has to decide whether to follow her heart or do her duty to her family. (Daiei)

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

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

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

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

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

1954
Nikkatsu starts production again. The studio attempts to find an audience with high-quality literary adaptations.

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


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

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


Yama no Oto ("Sound of the Mountain") by Naruse Mikio, after the novel by Kawabata Yasunari. The heroine of this film (Hara Setsuko), a young bride, finds relief from marital distress when her husband slights her for another woman, in the friendship with her father-in-law (Yamamura So). The youthful enthusiasms of the wife are crushed by the unfeeling husband and only the aging father-in-law is moved by her sadness. (Toho)

Naruse also directs Bangiku ("Last Chrysanthemums"), about the loneliness and disillusion of three aging geisha, struggling to retain their dignity in a cold and unfeeling world, a subject Naruse had already touched on in Apart from You (1933). Naruse again demonstrates his deep understanding of female psychology in these sharp portraits of women who are experienced, proud and disillusioned. Permeated with a general feeling of regret and sadness. Based on three short stories by Hayashi Fumiko. (Toho)

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

Nijushi no Hitomi ("Twenty-four Eyes") by the same director is a pacifist film, a chronicle of a teacher's dedication to her students, her profession and her values, which she tries to maintain in the face of an increasingly aggressive militaristic government. Shot on location on the island of Shodoshima in the Inland Sea. Like the films of Ozu, Naruse and Gosho, this is a film free from tight plot and contrived story, reflecting life with great fidelity - something typical for the best Japanese films of this period. As life progresses, we see how ideals are inevitably shattered and compromised. Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film of the Year. (Shochiku)

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


Toho makes the first of its many monster movies (kaiju eiga) with Gojira ("Godzilla"), helmed by Honda Ishiro. This first film is obviously by far the best of the series, not only because it has the advantage of a great actor, Shimura Takashi, but also because the story was inspired by realistic fear for the nuclear tests ongoing in the Pacific. A giant reptile, brought back to life by underwater nuclear testing, comes on land in Japan and goes on a rampage in Tokyo. An eccentric scientist does his best to destroy the beast with a new invention. The fact that it is in black-and-white makes it more convincing and even helps us accept the fact that the monster is a man in a rubber suit, stomping on mock-up buildings. The special effects were by Tsuburaya Eiji. The film became a huge international success, despite being heavily mutilated in its initial English release, and formed the beginning of a monster franchise that would run for many decades (and still has not died out). Godzilla would be joined by Rodan, the flying monster, by Mothra, and by King Ghidorah. He even became nationalistically Japanese when in the 1960s he fought against the "American monster" King Kong. The most popular entertainment ever to come out of Japan.
A History of Japanese Film by Year:
1896-1909 - First Stirrings
1910-1919 - Development
1920-1929 - Art Films and Nihilistic Heroes
1930-1939 - Social Realism and Shoshimin-Eiga
1940-1949 - Censorship during War and Occupation
1950-1954 - Golden Age of the Classical Studio System
1955-1959 - Taiyozoku and other Youth Films
1960-1964 - The New Wave
1965-1969 - 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
2000-2004 - Postmodern Peak
2005-2009 - Cinematic Bubble
2010-2014 - Risk Avoidance
[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); Kitano Takeshi by Aaron Gerow (British Film Institute: London, 2007); Iron Man: the Cinema of Shinya Tsukamoto by Tom Mes (Fab Press: Godalming, 2005); Agitator: The Cinema of Takashi Miike by Jasper Sharp (Fab Press: Godalming, 2003); 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.]