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May 21, 2015

A History of Japanese Film by Year: The New Wave (1960-1964)

Although the violent youth films of the late fifties had been smothered by public outrage, between 1960 and 1965 the film industry would be radically transformed. The main reason was the appearance of a new, younger generation of directors as Imamura Shohei, Oshima Nagisa, Shinoda Masahiro, Yoshida Yoshishige, Teshigahara Hiroshi and Hani Susumu, who after their French colleagues as Truffaut and Godard, together are called the 'Japanese New Wave.' (Other directors as Masumura Yasuzo, Suzuki Seijun and Wakamatsu Koji are also closely allied to the New Wave). Although some of them started within the studio system (thanks to the opportunity afforded by Shochiku's president Kido Shiro), this was only for a few years and by the mid-sixties most were able to obtain funds for independent productions. Others such as Teshigahara and Hani were from the start independent film makers, although that was a rare situation in Japan where the distribution system was monopolized by the big studios. 

In contrast to the Taiyozoku films which were meant as commercial entertainment, these New Wave directors were not aiming at box office success, and therefore could not be silenced by the moral majority of consumers, although often their films were much more violent and amoral. The Japanese New Wave was characterized by the same stylistic modernism as the French Nouvelle Vague. The themes of these young directors were the uncomfortable realities of Japanese society and the fact that in their view Japan failed to deal with the modern world in a democratic manner. They had none of the restraint of the previous generation of film makers, whom they actively rejected. Politically, they were often engaged with the left.

For independent film makers, ATG, the
Art Theater Guild, played an important role. ATG had been founded in 1961 by husband and wife team Kawakita Nagamasa and Kashiko, with additional funding from Toho. It functioned as a distributor of foreign films and Japanese films produced outside the studio system; in the late 1960s ATG also began to fund the production of independent films. ATG encouraged innovation in form and content. 

In the 1960s, the audience for the cinema steadily declined due to television, with a sort of watershed in the year of the Tokyo Olympic, 1964, when television density reached a critical mass. The period film, a stable money maker, was taken over by television; chambara specialist Toei turned to more violent yakuza movies instead. The content of the films made by the studios became more and more dictated by commercial priorities (increasingly violent genre films) and from around the middle of the sixties they had no room anymore for auteurist directors. There also was a natural generational change as the classical auteurist directors such as Naruse and Kinoshita gradually retired, and Ozu died in 1963. Talented directors who stayed with the studios were forced to turn out mostly genre films. 

The studios in the 1960s (in alphabetical order):

Daiei: Daiei concentrated on well-crafted chanbara, with directors as Misumi Kenji, stars as Ichikawa Raizo and Katsu Shintaro, and hot series as Nemuri Kyoshiro and Zatoichi. Prestige directors Ichikawa Kon and Masumura Yasuzo continued the satirical and bungei traditions.

Nikkatsu: In this period mainly known for "Nikkatsu action" films. Best director was Suzuki Seijun (until 1967); star actors were Ishihara Yujiro and Shishido Jo; there was also a series of romantic youth films with Yoshinaga Sayuri. Nikkatsu also produced Imamura Shohei's artistic films.

Shintoho: bankrupted in 1961.

Shochiku: Responsible for the birth of the Japanese New Wave, giving the young directors Oshima Nagisa, Shinoda Masahiro and Yoshida Yoshishige the chance for experimentation. Although the commercial failure of these films made it impossible for Shochiku to continue sponsoring them, it had at least given these new directors a good start. During the early 1960s, Shochiku also made some interesting period films, for example by Kobayashi Masaki and Gosha Hideo. 

Toei: Continued its production of chanbara films in the early sixties, but from 1964-1965 it shifted to ninkyo eiga (films about noble yakuza) set in the late Edo to early Showa periods. Directors were Makino Masahiro and Kato Tai.

Toho: Okamoto Kihachi directed stylish action pictures. For the rest, Toho leaned on its twin pillars of monster movies and salaryman comedies, plus in the first half of the decade prestige films by directors as Kurosawa and Naruse. 

In The Japanese Film: Art and Industry, Anderson and Richie bewail the demise at the end of the 1950s of the classical Japanese film with its sentimental humanism, with "ordinary people doing ordinary things." But the 1960s were in fact a very exciting period in which many great films were made (if not a "golden age," than at least a well-polished silver one!), with numerous experiments to broaden the language of film. It was a decade full of creative ferment during which many magnificent films were made.

This year, Japan's studios are still going strong: 547 films are released. Attendance is also massive at 1,014,364,000 and there are 7,457 cinemas.

It was an important year for the launch of Shochiku's brand of 'Nuberu Bagu' (Nouvelle Vague, New Wave). Oshima made three films in a row, Yoshida Yoshishige two, and Shinoda Masahiro also two. The three directors were still under the age of 30. The Japanese New Wave was not a movement, by the way, in the sense that these directors often met and exchanged ideas. In fact, they hardly knew each other and had very different ideas and personalities. 'Japanese New Wave' is not more than a convenient label that was affixed by others.

Oshima Nagisa creates a stir with Seishun Zankoku Monogatari ("Cruel Story of Youth" aka "Naked Youth"), a nihilistic account of adolescent criminals, the Japanese Rebel Without a Cause. Makoto excepts rides from middle-aged men, after which her boyfriend Kiyoshi suddenly appears to extort money from them. Makes extensive use of handheld cameras in true Nouvelle Vague fashion. Although an extension of the revolt of the Taiyozoku, Oshima's much harsher films are interesting for their narrative innovations and social concerns (this film is set against the backdrop of the Ampo demonstrations). Oshima uses crime to suggest the underlying rottenness of society. At a time that Ozu and Kinoshita's humanistic films were still the norm, Oshima shocks by the amount of venom he directs at Japanese society and the social taboos he tramples on. The film became a sensation. (Shochiku)

This same year also saw Oshima's Taiyo no hakaba ("The Sun's Burial"), a sordid story of sex and violence among a gang of juvenile delinquents, set in a poor slum, Kamagasaki, in Osaka. The title is also highly symbolical, as Japan is after all the Land of the Rising Sun; at the same time it could refer to the burial of the Sun Tribe, the Taiyozoku - youth is destroyed by the commercial-materialistic society that Japan has become. The narrative is about the lucrative sale of blood (of people who are forced to sell it to survive economically) to cosmetics companies, and switches from pimps and hookers to thieves and extortionists - all of them in some way lunatic. In this cutthroat universe, everyone is devoted to vice, and only the strong and ruthless survive. Typically, the petty thieves are under the control of a militarist fanatic who dreams of resurrecting the Imperial Army. Visually spectacular with widescreen compositions of Osaka's garish neon signs. Also this film did very well at the box office. (Shochiku)

A third film by Oshima in this prolific year was Nihon no Yoru to Kiri ("Night and Fog in Japan"), about the disunity of the radical left and its failure to end the United States-Japan Security Treaty during the 1960 demonstrations (Oshima himself was once a student protester). The film is set in October 1960 at a wedding party of two student protesters who met during the big demonstration of June that year, where a heated political discussion ensues. As it was taboo in Japan to make such strongly anti-government and provocative films (and that at a major studio!), Kido of Shochiku after a only few days pulled the film from distribution, upon which Oshima left the company. Interestingly, at this time Oshima married the actress Koyama Akiko and at the reception he gave a speech like the one in his film, but now denouncing Shochiku, making the rift irreparabe. This highly ideological film formed a true watershed and audiences now realized that an alternate cinema had been born. (Shochiku)

Oshima Nagisa (1932-2013) studied political history at Kyoto University and made his first film for Shochiku in 1959. After the above-mentioned conflict with the studio, he started his own production company. In the sixties his films were highly political, from a leftist, revolutionary stance. He always questioned social constraints and received political doctrines. In the 1970s he challenged Japanese censorship with his films about sexual obsession. In the 1980s, in a milder style, he also enjoyed much critical success outside of Japan. Oshima was also a prolific writer on film.

Yoshida Yoshishige makes Rokudenashi ("Good-for-Nothing"), in which a bored and alienated student, one of four idle, wealthy youths, starts a sadomasochistic sexual relationship with the secretary of his rich friend's father, after first robbing her with his friends just for kicks. He is killed when he tries to stop a second robbery of his girlfriend by the other three, claiming that it was all merely for recreation. A bitter follow-up of the Taiyozoku wave. He also made Chi wa kawaiteru ("Blood is Dry"), in which an assurance company employee threatens suicide after a massive layoff is announced by the management. This film contains a surprisingly high number of images of a man holding a gun to his head, but is in fact more a backward looking social melodrama. Yoshida would come back in 1962 with Akitsu Onsen, his most important early film. (Shochiku)

Yoshida Yoshishige (born 1933) was active both as director and screenwriter. In 1964 he left Shochiku to start his own production company. He also writes about film, including a thorough study about Ozu Yasujiro (whom he admired). He is more a philosophical type (he graduated in French literature from the prestigious Tokyo University) and not the iconoclast that the young Oshima was; he disliked the violence in the latter's films. Yoshida is married to the actress Okada Mariko, who often appeared in his films.

Shinoda Masahiro's contributions were Koi no katamichi kippu ("One-Way Ticket for Love") about a rock 'n' roll singer and an indictment of the false promotionalism of the music world, a film capitalizing on the youth film boom, which was however a commercial failure, and more importantly Kawaita Mizuumi ("Dry Lake"), which contrasts three young people: a frustrated student revolutionary who wants to take justice in his own hands; a disaffected young man with wealthy parents who (mis-)uses his money for power; and Yoko (Iwashita Shima), a young woman whose father has committed suicide because of pressure by a corrupt politician but who refuses to be victimized and breaks away from her corrupt friends to join the Ampo demonstrations, which give her new hope. This film, which showed the options open to Japanese youth, was the first partnership with Terayama Shuji as scenario writer. In the next two years, Shinoda would make several more youth films for Shochiku. (Shochiku)

Shinoda Masahiro (born 1931) studied theater at Waseda University and joined Shochiku already in 1953 as assistant-director. He directed his first films in 1960 and left Shochiku in 1965 to start his own production company, Hyogensha. He often worked together with avant-garde artists as Terayama Shuji and Takemitsu Toru. He is married to the actress Iwashita Shima, who often appeared in his films.

Warui Yatsu Hodo Yoku Nemuru ("The Bad Sleep Well") by Kurosawa Akira was an attack on the collusion between Big Business and government, a great social problem film (shakai-mono) with noir overtones and a very dark conclusion. This was after all 1960 (the year of big demonstrations against the renewal of the Security Treaty with the U.S.) and rebellion against the authorities was in the air. A man (Mifune Toshiro) hides his identity in order to expose the corruption in a construction company with government ties and avenge the forced suicide of his father. Some elements from Hamlet have been worked into the story - there is even a sort of ghost. Mori Masayuki plays the boss and Kagawa Kyoko his crippled daughter. Very tense drama. Marks the debut of Kurosawa's own production company - Kurosawa's films were more expensive than those of other directors at Toho and the studio asked him to step in as co-producer. Entered into the 11th Berlin International Film Festival. This film may be less known, but it certainly is not lesser Kurosawa. (Toho)

Karakkaze Yaro ("A Man Blown by the Wind" aka "Afraid to Die") by Masumura Yasuzo is not only interesting because it has writer Mishima Yukio in the title role of gangster, but also for its stylish noir character (very different from the later ninkyo/yakuza films). It was the acting debut of the dandy-like author who liked to play violent death scenes until finally starring in a real one. (Daiei)

Hadaka no Shima ("The Naked Island") by Shindo Kaneto shows the harsh conditions under which people on a tiny island in the Inland Sea have to labor. The family of five suffers several devastating blows, for example when the eldest son dies. It was entirely made without dialogue, like a documentary, but is also full of visual poetry - it was wholly shot on location. Won the Grand Prix at the 2nd Moscow International Film Festival. This production becomes the model for small, autonomous film production companies. (Kindai Eiga Kyokai)

Onna ga Kaidan wo Agaru Toki ("When a Woman Ascends the Stairs") by Naruse Mikio is set in the Ginza bar world. Takamine Hideko plays a strong and dignified widow who runs a bar and encounters nothing but exploitation by men and her greedy family. She struggles to maintain her independence in a male-dominated society and every evening again ascends the stairs to her second floor bar, trying hard to put on a happy face for the customers. Shows the impossibility of escape. A most beautiful film, in which Takamine Hideko gives an magnificent performance - with great depth, nuance and delicacy - as a woman much superior to her surroundings. Has Nakadai Tatsuya as a comical bar tender. (Toho)

Also other established directors are very active this year. Kinoshita Keisuke directed Fuefukigawa ("The River Fuefuki"), about medieval wars seen through five generations of farmer's eyes. A very theatrical film, monochrome but with some fierce colors added like a woodblock print. The action is now and then halted by the insertion of still photos. (Shochiku)

Ichikawa Kon makes Ototo ("Her Brother"), which was entered into the 1961 Cannes Film Festival. Based on a novel by Koda Aya. In a very un-Ozu-like fashion, it shows the fierce discord in a family consisting of a husband and wife (he, always shut up in his study, she ailing and passive) and son and daughter (he, the black sheep causing trouble, she, the only one who keeps things going). Interesting is that Kishi Keiko as the outspoken daughter and Tanaka Kinuyo as the complaining mother seem to be acting against character. To achieve a desaturated look for the film, Ichikawa used a special technique (bleach bypass). Received Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film of the Year in 1961. The same story was filmed again in 2010 by Yamada Yoji as an homage to Ichikawa Kon. (Daiei)

Bonchi, also by Ichikawa Kon, is about matriarchy - mother and grandmother work together to control the life of Kikuji, the scion of an Osaka merchant family ("bonchi" is Osaka dialect for "pampered young master"). He stands helplessly by even when his wife is thrown out of the house for producing a son instead of a daughter. Foreshadows Ichikawa's later The Makioka Sisters in its nostalgia and visual sophistication. Based on a popular novel by Yamazaki Toyoko. (Daiei)

Akibiyori ("Late Autumn") by Ozu Yasujiro shows a mother-daughter instead of a father-daughter relationship as in Late Spring, but the story is similar. Three older men try to help the widow of a late friend to marry off her daughter. The daughter is less than happy at the proposals, mainly because of her reluctance to leave her mother alone. After a novel by Satomi Ton. Hara Setsuko now plays the mother, Tsukasa Yoko the daughter. "Akibiyori" literally means "a clear autumn day," in Japan more an "Indian summer" than the dark and stormy impression that the term "late autumn" makes on my Northwest European sensibility. (Shochiku)

Gosho Heinosuke makes Ryoju ("Hunting Rifle") based on a novel by Inoue Yasushi, an example of bungei eiga. Describes the complex relations of a man with his wife, mistress and the daughter of the mistress. Situated in the Kobe-Ashiya area. (Shochiku)

Jigoku ("Hell") by Nobuo Nakagawa becomes the last film made by ailing Shintoho. A student has a friend who is pure evil, and who - like Mephisto - pulls him along, so that his life disintegrates and ends literally at the gate of Buddhist Hell. Made with scarce means and in a hurry, it is amazing that Nakagawa manages to evoke such an expert surrealist atmosphere. (Shintoho) (See my post about Japanese cult films)

Shintoho is declared bankrupt after making its last film, Jigoku.

ATG (Art Theater Guild) is founded by Kawakita Nagamasa and Kashiko, with some funding from Toho. It will function as a distributor of foreign art films (French New Wave) as well as Japanese films produced outside the studio system (the studios all had their cinema chains to which they only distributed their own films).

The five studios cease to offer films for television, and restrict television performances of films with company-exclusive actors. This leads to an increase in foreign films on TV and the promotion of new actors solely for TV.

Furyo Shonen ("Bad Boys") by Hani Susumu, a film about juvenile delinquents, one of the best films of the New Wave. Hani shot Bad Boys in a documentary style, using nonprofessional actors, with hand-held cameras and location shooting (all elements in true Nouvelle Vague style) - mostly in a reformatory that doesn't seem to do the boys any good. Received Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film of the Year in 1962. (Iwanami Productions)

Hani Susumu (born 1928) first worked as a journalist. His father was a famous leftist historian. Half of his 18 films are documentaries. He was mostly active in the 1960s and stopped in the early 1980s with making feature films - since then has mainly made wildlife documentaries in Africa for TV. He was for a time married to the actress Hidari Sachiko.

Buta to Gunkan ("Pigs and Battleships") by Imamura Shohei is set at the Yokosuka naval base, where the American military comes into contact with the dregs of Japanese society. Sardonic drama about a young hoodlum, whose greed draws him into drug dealing, pimping, and racketeering (and tending the pigs of his boss), criticizes both the American treatment of Japan as well as Japan's own moral corruption. (Nikkatsu)

Kohayagawa-ke no Aki ("The End of Summer") by Ozu Yasujiro. Nakamura Ganjiro delightfully plays the patriarch of the Kohayagawa family, who runs a sake brewery in Kyoto. His family shockingly discovers that at his advanced age he is visiting a mistress from his youth. They become concerned about his health and money spending. Hara Setsuko, Aratama Michiyo and Tsukasa Yoko play his daughter-in-law and daughters. Entered into the 12th Berlin International Film Festival. Title lit. "The Autumn of the Kohayagawa Family." (Shochiku)

Yojimbo by Kurosawa Akira is a hard-boiled Western in samurai guise, that would inspire countless Westerns in its turn, such as Sergio Leone's A Fistful of Dollars. A thoroughly amoral ronin (Mifune) arrives in a small town where competing crime lords vie for supremacy. The two bosses each try to hire the newcomer as a bodyguard and the ronin sardonically plays both sides, encouraging the bad guys to clean out each other. Full of brutal and subversive humor, for example in the grotesque opening shot of a dog holding a severed human hand in his mouth. The dynamic energy of the film explodes in the finale, a duel with a gun-toting thug (Nakadai Tatsuya). A very deserved Venice Film Festival Best Actor for Mifune Toshiro. Yojimbo did what Seven Samurai had not yet been able to do: it gave the deathblow to Toei's soft-hearted, warm, family-type period films. (Toho) (See my post about samurai movies)

Ichikawa Kon makes Kuroi Junin no Onna ("Ten Dark Women"), a black comedy and thriller that satirizes male chauvinism in Japan. A womanizing TV producer (Funakoshi Eiji) has nine mistresses in addition to his legal wife (Kishi Keiko, Kishida Kyoko, Yamamoto Fujiko, etc.). All are equally fed up with his arrogance and selfishness, and together devise a plan to kill him (although each would be happy to let him live if she could be the only woman in his life). (Daiei)

Kinoshita Keisuke makes Eien no Hito ("Immortal Love"). The son of a landowner (Nakadai Tatsuya) returns from the war a semi-cripple and falls in love with the daughter of a tenant-farmer (Takamine Hideko). He lies that her fiance has died in the war and forces himself on her. Pregnant, she has no choice but to marry him. But then her fiance returns. The marriage based on a lie becomes hell for both partners and their children. So this is not a love story! Nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. (Shochiku)

Toho starts its Wakadaisho ("Young Captain," the leader of a sports team) series with Kayama Yuzo. Wakadaisho ran from 1961 to 1971 and was one of the four comedy series and money cows of Toho. In every film a different sport is introduced, to make the Japanese ripe for the upcoming Tokyo Olympics of 1964. Tanaka Kunie plays a rich kid as Kayama's comical counterpart. (Toho)

Miyamoto Musashi (Part 1) by Uchida Tomu - series in five parts will run until 1965. Uchida's Musashi (Nakamura Kinnosuke) is a savage megalomaniac, who distorts Zen into self-worship. Same story (based on the Yoshikawa Eiji novel) as Inagaki's Samurai Trilogy. Although this five part series from Toei is little known in the West, I prefer it because of the fierce and realistic acting. Part 1, for example, is better than Inagaki's first film, if only because Nakamura Kinnosuke is more convincing as the young Musashi. Part 4 and 5 are really fabulous. The last shot is of Musashi looking at his bloody hands after killing Sasaki Kojiro (played by Takakura Ken). Like other films by Uchida, Miyamoto Musashi has none of the softness of the usual Toei products, on the contrary even. That Uchida is a great action director was already clear from the masterful Chiyari Fuji. Nakamura Kinnosuke would grow into a big star whose popularity was second only to that of Ishihara Yujiro. (Toei)

Nomura Yoshitaro films Zero no Shoten ("Focus Zero"), a popular thriller by Matsumoto Seicho, set in snowy Kanazawa and on the Noto Peninsula. Only one week after Teiko (Kuga Yoshiko) has married Kenichi, her husband disappears while on a business trip to Kanazawa. Teiko travels across Japan to find him and discovers that he has been leading a strange double life... An interesting noir film. (Shochiku) (See my post about Matsumoto Seicho)

Start of Daiei yakuza series Akumyo ("Tough Guy") with Katsu Shintaro (running till 1974). Katsu Shintaro plays a rough and ready young thug with a peasant background who easily gets into fist fights, but who is basically very chivalrous at heart. In Japan this was a popular series, still available on DVD, but it seems totally unknown abroad. (Daiei) (See my post about yakuza movies)

Daiei tries to attract viewers with a super spectacle film in 70 mm format based on the life of the Buddha, Shaka ("Buddha"), made by Misumi Kenji, with every star of the studio in it. The result is rather weak (like Toho's mythological spectacle Nippon no Tanjo of 1959). (Daiei)

Mosura ("Mothra") is an installment in the Godzilla franchise (director Honda Ishiro, with special effects man Tsuburaya Eiji). On a southern island, a larva jealously guarded by twin sisters who stand only a few inches high, is transformed into a giant female moth which then heads for Tokyo (and is destructive due to sheer size) in order to save the island culture. A cautionary tale about tampering with nature. Set the softer tone for the series in the sixties. With Frankie Sakai and Kagawa Kyoko. (Toho)

Manga artist Tezuka Osamu sets up Mushi Production as a competitor to Toei Animation. The company will mainly produce anime films for TV of Tezuka's manga, such as Astro Boy (starting on the small screen in 1963). Later also productions not based on work by Tezuka are made.

Shochiku stops making Nouvelle Vague films and returns to its staple, romantic films for women.

Seppuku ("Harakiri") by Kobayashi Masaki is a fierce indictment of the emptiness and hypocrisy of the samurai code (and, implicitly, twentieth century militarism). A former samurai (Nakadai Tatsuya) avenges the cruel death (seppuku with a bamboo sword) of his son-in-law. He succeeds but the reigning lord has the swordsman killed with a gun and has his acts erased from the clan's history, to preserve the facade of Bushido. The finest and most powerful film of this director, shot in a rigid composition (by Miyajima Yoshio) that seems to symbolize the inhumanity of the samurai code. Won the Jury Prize at the 1963 Cannes Film Festival. (Shochiku) (See my post about samurai movies)

Otoshiana ("Pitfall") by Teshigahara Hiroshi. Dense, mysterious and above all surrealistic drama of murder and intrigue. An impoverished miner traveling with his young son, is shocked to notice that a mysterious stranger dressed in white is stalking  him. They run away from the haunting vision, only to wander into an almost deserted town where only one woman lives. But the man in white appears again and now murders the miner. The son witnesses the act, but the woman is paid off to identify the victim and his murderer as two rival union leaders. Original scenario by Abe Kobo. (Teshigahara Productions)

Teshigahara Hiroshi (1927-2001) was the son of the founder and grand master of the Sogetsu school of ikebana and would succeed to his father's position in 1980. A graduate of the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music, he was a man with many artistic interests: painting, sculpture, garden design, the Noh theater, etc. He also was an avant-garde film maker, who made 21 films, most of them documentaries, but also eight feature films, mainly in the 1960s, four of which he based on scripts and novels by Abe Kobo.

Akitsu Onsen ("Akitsu Springs" aka "The Affair at Akitsu") by Yoshida Yoshishige is about a passionate, self-destructive romance between a man with tuberculosis and the innkeeper of an onsen hotel who nurses him back to health, set against the background of war-torn Japan. The film then spans a total of 17 years in which they continue their relationship. The characters of the spirited, selfless woman (Okada Mariko, the director's wife) and the cynical intellectual drawn to her beauty (Nagato Hiroyuki), can be seen as symbols for, respectively, hope and resignation. The male protagonist has been called emblematic of the 1930s generation which saw its dreams first shattered by the war and then by japan's failure to repudiate these years, instead opting for empty materialism. (Shochiku)

Tsubaki Sanjuro ("Sanjuro") by Kurosawa Akira. The same hero as in Kurosawa's previous film here acts as mentor to a group of nine idealistic young samurai trying to root out corruption in the clan administration. Most of the film is a lighthearted black comedy, but the final confrontation ends with an impossible "fountain of blood," which would become the start of over-the-top violence in genre films. From now on, the sluices of blood would be open. Together with YojimboTsubaki Sanjuro started the genre of "cruel period films" (zankoku jidaigeki). (Toho)

Hakai ("The Outcast" aka "The Broken Commandment") by Ichikawa Kon, based on a novel by Shimazaki Toson. Dark psychological drama about the internal struggle of a young man (Ichikawa Raizo), who is a member of Japan's outcast class, a fact he keeps secret. The denial of his heritage ultimately leads to dramatic consequences. (Daiei)

Sanma no Aji ("An Autumn Afternoon") becomes the last film by great director Ozu Yasujiro. A widower (Ryu Chishu) arranges the marriage of his daughter (Iwashita Shima) and is left with the realization that he is growing old. The greatest performance of Ryu Chishu's career, bringing out the loneliness of old age. The summing up of a great career, full of gently irony. Luminous color photography by Atsuta Yuharu. Ozu died of cancer on his 60th birthday. His grave at Engakuji in Kamakura bears no name - just the character mu ("nothingness"). (Shochiku)

Horoki ("A Wanderer's Notebook") by Naruse Mikio is based on the autobiographical novel of the same title by Hayashi Fumiko. A woman tries to become a writer, but has to cope with the fact that she has to support herself by various odd jobs. She has several affairs with a variety of men, most of whom only try to exploit her. (Toho)

Kawashima Yuzo makes two films this year. One is a bungei eiga called Gan no Tera ("The Temple of the Wild Geese"), based on the novelistic masterwork of Mizukami Tsutomu about the destructive love triangle between a lecherous priest, an ex-geisha and a novice. Set in a Kyoto temple and full of atmosphere. The other one is a dark satire, Shitoyakana kedamono ("Elegant Beast"). A family of four (parents and grown-up children) makes a living as fraudsters, turning to crime out of fear that the former years of poverty will return. The deceitful family is a symbol for Japan. Completely filmed inside the family's apartment, with many interesting camera angles (like Rear Window). With Wakao Ayako. The script was written by Shindo Kaneto. (both Nikkatsu)

In Shinobi no Mono ("A Band of Assassins") Yamamoto Satsuo sees feudal times through the eyes of rebels and peasants. Ishikawa Goemon, a young ninja (Ichikawa Raizo) becomes ensnared in a plot to kill the warlord Oda Nobunaga, the most feared man in all of Japan. Death lurks around every corner as enemy ninjas close in. Film started the 'ninja craze,' the last living ninja in fact served as consultant. (Daiei)

Yamamoto Satsuo (1910-1983) dropped out of Waseda University to join Shochiku; in 1935, he followed Naruse to PCL (later Toho). He was a member of the Communist party and a driving force behind the union during the 1948 Toho labor dispute, after which he was fired. As an independent director he then made many socially conscious, rebellious films.

Zatoichi Monogatari ("The Tale of Zatoichi") by Mizumi Kenji and with Katsu Shintaro. Zatoichi is a gambler and blind masseur (and therefore not a samurai or ronin but a yakuza) but also a sensational swordsman, who has a blade hidden in his bamboo cane - he was not allowed to carry one openly as he was a commoner. The first installment (of twenty-six) is rather gloomy, but as the series developed, touches of earthy humor were added to his image, and this became an extremely popular series. The six Zatoichi films that were directed by Misumi are among the best. (Daiei) (See my post about samurai movies)

Nippon Musekinin Jidai ("The Age of Irresponsibility in Japan"), played by the comedian Hitoshi Ueki, who also sings and dances his way through the cheerful and optimistic story. The hero is a shrewd opportunist, the opposite of the ideal of company loyalty. He doesn't care for rules and procedures, sets his own time, jumps the hierarchy and uses very unusual methods to be successful. He brazenly says what he thinks. A good way to let off steam in Japan's workaholic years - anyone really behaving like Ueki would have been out on the street in seconds. But as these films give a good picture of Japanese business culture, it is a pity they are completely unknown outside Japan. (Toho)

Chushingura ("The Loyal 47 Ronin") by Inagaki Hiroshi. A lavish screen adaptation of the classical story of the revenge of the Forty-seven ronin famous from the theater. As the Japanese knew this often repeated story by heart, Inagaki takes a certain familiarity with the story-line for granted, although he cuts none of the famous scenes. Gorgeous sets and scenery. The film pays much attention to the detailed political dealings between the very large group of characters, sometimes dropping the pace to a crawl, but ends with a riveting, climactic battle scene. One of the best adaptations among the countless ones made of this subject. (Toho)

Kato Tai made beautifully crafted genre films, based on scripts by Hasegawa Shin, such as Mabuta no Haha ("Long-Sought Mother") with Nakamura Kinnosuke. The protagonist has been abandoned by his mother as a child, but he grows up determined to reunite with her. Worried that she might be living in misery, he saves his money to help, only to find that she has married into wealth and status and has no intention of recognizing her son, who is a yakuza, an outcast of society. (Toei)

Kyupora no aru machi ("Foundry Town") was the debut of Urayama Kiriro. Set in Kawaguchi, an industrial town next to Tokyo, this simple story chronicles the lives of poor foundry workers and their families, and one girl's (Sayuri Yoshinaga) dreams of self-improvement and escape from her social prison by going on to higher education. Co-scripted by Imamura Shohei. Entered into the 1962 Cannes Film Festival. (Nikkatsu)

Nikui an-chikusho ("I Hate But Love") by Kurahara Kureyoshi, is an unorthodox romance with Ishihara Yujiro and Asaoka Ruriko. A celebrity is dissatisfied with his life controlled into the smallest details by his secretary/manager, and escapes from Tokyo to deliver a jeep to a remote mountain village. When the secretary - with whom he is in fact in love - follows him, they get busy dodging snooping reporters. (Nikkatsu)

The fad for modern yakuza movies starts around this time. Yakuza also figured prominently in period drama (the matatabi-mono about itinerant gamblers), but these yakuza movies have modern (post 1868) settings, a formalized Kabuki-like aesthetic intensified by use of color and very cruel killings. Their popularity lasts about ten years and traditional period drama (especially of the "soft" Toei type) vanished from cinemas; the only period drama that survived were the realistic, cruel films for which the tone had been set by Kurosawa in Yojimbo and Tsubaki Sanjuro (called zankoku jidaigeki). The film that starts the ninkyo eiga boom is Toei's Jinsei Gekijo: Hishakaku ("Theater of Life: Hishakaku") by director Sawashima Tadashi, based on a novel by Ozaki Koyo. The film features Tsuruta Koji and Takakura Ken and was a great box office success, with not only a story about a wandering gambler who because of "one night's lodging" gets involved in a vicious gang warfare, but also the love Hishakaku and a rival swordsman both develop for the geisha Otoyo. (Toei)

Daiei's superstar, ninaime Hasegawa Kazuo, retires after making his final film, An Actor's Revenge by Ichikawa Kon. It was the 300th film of the celebrated actor and a remake of an old favorite story (filmed in 1935 with Hasegawa by Kinoshita), but this time done as a breathtaking avant-garde experiment. The story is about a Kabuki onnagata (female impersonator) who plots revenge for the death of his father. He has discovered three ruthless merchants were responsible for driving his father to suicide and follows them with a mysterious bandit who befriends him (also played by Hasegawa). He succeeds in his revenge, even though that means the death of the innocent daughter of one of the merchants (Wakao Ayako), a woman who has fallen in love with him. Color and composition surprise throughout the film, which is full of visual fancy. In fact, it is as theatrical as the theater that forms its subject: mise-en-scène becomes a conduit for pure expression rather than a means to represent reality. Ichikawa's trademark irony makes that we see everything at an ironic distance.  (Daiei)

Taiheiyo Hitoribotchi ("Alone on the Pacific"), also by Ichikawa Kon, is based on the true story of a young man who crosses the Pacific alone in a small sailboat, realizing his dream by sailing from Osaka Bay to the Golden Gate Bridge. With Ishihara Yujiro. (Ishihara / Nikkatsu)

Bushido Zankoku Monogatari ("Bushido") by Imai Tadashi. A salary-man's fiancée attempts suicide, he remembers his gruesome family history, which sees his ancestors sacrificing themselves for the sake of their cruel lords, and realizes that he is about to repeat the same mistake. One of the first "cruel period films." Won the Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film festival. (Toei)

Tengoku to Jigoku ("High and Low"; lit. "Heaven and Hell") by Kurosawa Akira is a thriller in which a shoe magnate, Gondo (Mifune), is told that his son has been kidnapped. An outrageous ransom that will surely bankrupt the businessman is demanded. Then the son is discovered to be unhurt at home - by mistake the kidnapper has taken the son of the chauffeur. But the ransom remains the same and Gondo faces a moral dilemma: shall he still pay the bank-breaking ransom, even now that it does not concern his own son anymore? This first part is set in "Heaven," Gondo's huge mansion on a hill in Yokohama. The second half of the film is set in "Hell" (Yokohama's poor and wild downtown) and shows the police investigation, as is usual in Japan undertaken by a large group of detectives who work together as a team (the head detective is played by Nakadai Tatsuya). In the finale Gondo confronts the kidnapper (Yamazaki Tsutomu), who has been sentenced to death for killing two of his associates, in jail in a shattering scene. The motivation for the crime was envy - the kidnapper, a poor intern at a hospital, had to look up from his poor hovel at the Gondo mansion standing proudly on the hill top above the city. Loosely based on a novel by Ed McBain. (Toho)

Nippon Konchuki ("The Insect Woman") by Imamura Shohei. A ribald satire of Japanese society shows 45 years in the life of a poor but indomitable country girl (Hidari Sachiko). Forced into prostitution she finally becomes a madam herself pimping other women as a ring of call grils. Shows Imamura's trademark, a thoroughly amoral woman who endures in spite of poverty, rape, and exploitation. A joyous and life affirming film. Can also be read as a metaphor of postwar Japan that has prostituted its spirit for economic gain. Noteworthy is that this film was wholly shot on location, including the indoor scenes, as would also be the case with Imamura's next films. Entered into the 14th Berlin International Film Festival; Hidari Sachiko received a Silver Bear for Best Actress. (Nikkatsu)

Jusannin no Shikyaku ("Thirteen Assassins") by Kudo Eiichi. A feudal lord guilty of rape and murder cannot be officially indicted due to his ties with the house of the shogun. The council of ministers therefore decides to have him assassinated: a group of thirteen avengers (led by Kataoka Chiezo) is brought together to waylay him and his retinue in a mountain village... nobody will survive the ensuing carnage. The 2010 remake by Miike Takashi is a weak pastiche, go for the original which is very impressive, both thanks to the stark monochrome photography and the violent half-hour long slaughter with which the film ends. (Toei) (See my post about samurai movies)

Kudo Eiichi (1929-2000) was a genre director at Toei (he had been enticed to film making by his colleague Fukasaku Kinji) who in the 1960s made some of the best period films ever (including the above film). In contrast to 1950s Toei fare, these films were very violent and realistic. Kudo also made yakuza movies for Toei.

In Yaju no Seishun ("Youth of the Beast") by Suzuki Seijun, Shishido Jo plays an ex-cop who takes on rival yakuza gangs to avenge the death of a friend. Lots of cartoonish violence, but also lots of laughs thanks to the absurdity and artifice. The film in which Suzuki Seijun found his own voice. (Nikkatsu)

Nakamura Noboru makes bungei eiga Koto ("Twin Sisters of Kyoto"), based on a novel by Kawabata Yasunari. Set in Kyoto, Chieko (Iwashita Shima) works in her parents' wholesale silk goods store. She was brought up to think her parents stole her as a baby and is shocked to learn - after a chance encounter with a girl who turns out to be her sister - that her real parents had abandoned her. The two sisters begin familiarizing with each other. Nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. (Shochiku)

Kanojo to kare("She and He") by Hani Susumu, with Hidari Sachiko and Okada Eiji.. About the problems and loniless of "apartment life," and the consequent desolation of human relations. This is contrasted with the closeness of the poor in a rag pickers slum. Entered into the 14th Berlin International Film Festival. (Eizo Sha / Iwanami Productions)

Hitoshi Ueki stars in another salaryman series, of which the first installment is Nippon Ichi no Iro Otoko ("The Most Sexy Man of Japan"). This is followed by such titles as "The Greatest Flatterer of Japan" (1965) and "The Greatest Pusher of Japan" (1966). Again, a spoof of the world of Japanese business in its days of high growth, that is not only fun, but in fact also quite educational. (Toho)

The Godzilla makers (diector Honda Ishiro and special effects or tokusatsu specialist Tsuburaya Eiji) make Matango ("Matango" aka "Curse of the Mushroom People") a bleak SF film about survivors from a shipwreck on an uninhabited island, where the only food are giant mushrooms. As is to be expected, those who partake of these weird fungi change themselves into monstrous mushrooms. Has become a cult film. (Toho)

The number of cinemas falls below 5,000 and attendance has dropped to 38% of the peak year 1958. This year is seen as a watershed, as TV grew exponentially through the Tokyo Olympic of this year. With a TV in most households, there was less incentive to visit the cinema. However, it was a year in which many fabulous films were made.

After stopping its New Wave films, Shochiku not only gradually looses the talents of Oshima, Shinoda and Yoshishige, also Kobayashi and Kinoshita leave the company (and Ozu has already died), so Shochiku is left with very little talent.

Suna no Onna ("Woman in the Dunes") by Teshigahara Hiroshi. Based on Abe Kobo's allegorical novel about a man (Okada Eiji) caught in a sand pit where he has to help a woman (Kishida Kyoko) shoveling sand for the rest of their lives, in order not to be buried under the shifting sands. Spectacular visuals, even though this is a black-and-white film. Teshigahara returns time and again to shots of the shifting sands, and the abstract compositions of sand and dunes become a fearful presence in themselves, the third protagonist of this claustrophobic film. The sand not only symbolizes the human condition (we are all Sisyphus), but the film also has a subtext about Japanese identity in the years of rapid economic growth. This landmark of art-house cinema won the Special Jury Prize at the 1964 Cannes Film Festival. Also Kinema Junpo Best Film of the year. Nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. (Teshigahara Productions)

Kaidan ("Kwaidan") by Kobayashi Masaki. Four ghost stories culled from the work of Lafcadio Hearn are brilliantly photographed: "Black Hair," "The Snow Princess," "Earless Hoichi" and "In a Cup of Tea." An aesthetic tour-de-force, very different from later J-Horror or any other pulpy entertainment due to its consciously slow pace and delving into the psyche of protagonists who venture into unknown territory. The obvious artificiality of the studio sets adds to the sense of dislocation. Impressive score by Takemitsu Toru, Japan's greatest 20th c. composer. Won the Jury Special Prize at the 1965 Cannes Film Festival. Nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. (Bungei / Toho / etc) (See my post about Japanese horror films)

Akai Satsui ("Intentions of Murder") by Imamura Shohei tells how a lazy but determined wife (Hidari Sachiko) gets her own way even after she is raped: she runs away with her attacker but he dies conveniently in the snow, after which she wins out over her husband and legitimizes her son (the fruit of the rape). Glorious black comedy about the tenacity and vitality of a women from the lower classes. (Nikkatsu)

Onibaba by Shindo Kaneto, set in a war-ridden medieval Japan, shows how a mother and (widowed) daughter-in-law survive by toppling samurai into a hole hidden by reeds and then selling their armor. When the daughter-in-law falls in love with a new man, the mother - afraid to loose her livelihood - tries to frighten her off by donning a hideous mask. What she doesn't know is that the previous owner has died of a terrible contagious disease... Very atmospheric and strangely erotic.  (Kindai Eiga Kyokai / Tokyo Eiga)

Kawaita Hana ("Pale Flower") by Shinoda Masahiro is a seminal nihilistic, hardboiled film about a misanthropic, world-weary yakuza gangster (Ikebe Ryo), just released from prison, who gets fatally involved with a young upper-class child-woman (Kaga Mariko) who seeks thrills by high stakes gambling and driving like mad in her sporty convertible. Powerful visuals. (Bungei Production etc) (See my post about yakuza movies)

The same year Shinoda also made Ansatsu ("Assassination"), a psychological study of an enigmatic sword master (Tanba Tetsuro) caught up in the complicated historical events leading to the Meiji restoration of 1868. The story is so complex, with a large cast, that it is very difficult to follow, but the swordplay is great. (Shochiku)

Nihon Dasshutsu ("Escape from Japan") by Yoshida Yoshishige is a violent and grim gangster story of a young man who with three friends plans a robbery. During the crime, a policeman is killed and the gang quickly disintegrates. The protagonist wants to escape to a foreign country, but is betrayed by a yakuza and ends up in prison. Nihilistic film close in spirit to Oshima, or to the work of French New Wave mentor Pierre Melville. The last film Yoshida made for Shochiku, as the final print was shortened against his wishes. (Shochiku) 

Nikutai no Mon ("Gate of Flesh") by Suzuki Seijun is a film about "pan-pan" girls living off their wits and their bodies among the rubble and black markets of postwar Tokyo. A band of hookers led by Maya (Nogawa Yumiko) occupy the basement of a bombed-out building, fighting for their turf. Rule No. 1: no sex without payment - those who transgress are in for sadistic torture. When ex-soldier (Shishido Jo) hides with the ladies after stabbing an American GI, Maya cannot contain her sexual desire for the hunkish fellow. The vitalistic, animalistic atmosphere is more of the sixties than the actual postwar years, and also makes for a rather chaotic story line. The documentary style also reminded me of the Jitsuroku yakuza films by Fukasaku Kinji of the 1970s.  (Nikkatsu)

Manji by Masumura Yasuzo is based on the eponymous novel by Tanizaki Junichiro. It is an erotic melodrama featuring Wakao Ayako and Kishida Kyoko as two women obsessively in love with each other. A story of uncontrolled passions and desires, but also of shrewd manipulation. Things finally get out of hand, especially when the two partners of the women (a fiance and a husband) also join in the foursome and the love affair culminates in a suicide pact. Excellent script by Shindo Kaneto. Remade several times (also as a "pink film") but this is by far the best version, truthful to the expert novel. (Daiei)

Hakujitsumu ("Daydream") by Takechi Tetsuji is a soft-porn film loosely based on a play by Tanizaki Junichiro. The film is set in a dentist's office and starts with unsubtle wet imagery of gurgling, drilling and fingers probing around in wide-open mouths. A young man (Ishihama Akira) and the beautiful patient (Michi Kanako) in the chair next to him are brought under sedation and loose themselves in wildly voluptuous fantasies that gradually turn more threatening when the dentist pursues the woman and ties her up, undresses her with the help of his scalpel, and then wraps her in electric wires for a game of shocks. And that is only the beginning. Hallucinatory, surreal romp that foreshadows the "pink films" of the 1970s, but then in a rather "arty" way. (Daisan Productions / Shochiku)

In fact, Hakujitsumu is often taken as the beginning of the phenomenon of "pink films" in Japan. During the sixties, the trend would remain largely underground, and there were few interesting films (unless one counts Wakamatsu Koji in), but it also could grow quickly, as many of the cinemas that were discarded by the shrinking big studios, started showing pink films, sometimes even on triple bills.

Midareru ("Yearning") by Naruse Mikio is a skillful psychological portrayal of a childless widow who manages the store left by her husband in a provincial town. Her brother-in-law is in love with her, but she keeps refusing him. Then she finally gives in, only to push him away again, in favor of her husband's memory. The jilted lover is so despondent that he commits suicide. Again with Takamine Hideko. (Toho)

Koge ("The Scent of Incense") by Kinoshita Keisuke, in two parts, based on a novel by Ariyoshi Sawako, tells the story of the bitter relations between a mother and daughter in the geisha world. With Okada Mariko, Otowa Nobuko, Tanaka Kinuyo, Sugimura Haruko and Kato Go. One of Kinoshita's last films. (Shochiku)

Kudo Eiichi directs Dai Satsujin ("The Great Melee" aka "The Great Killing"), a cruel period drama resembling a modern yakuza movie. A group of four men and one woman who have become the victim of the machinations of an abusive lord, plot the assassination of the petty tyrant. But the lord has a strong swordsman as his keeper and most of them bite the dust before reaching their target... An allegory for the increasingly violent struggles of the student protest of the day, which shows how also period drama was influenced by the air of dissent of the 1960s and became critical of hierarchy and power. (Toei)

Sanbiki no samurai ("Three Outlaw Samurai") by Gosha Hideo is a well-crafted genre film, a spin-off from a popular TV series. Tamba Tetsuro plays a wandering ronin (in the vein of Kurosawa's Tsubaki Sanjuro) who gets involved with a group of peasants, kidnappers of the daughter of the magistrate, who has imposed cruelly high taxes on the population. (Samurai Productions)

Gosha Hideo (1929-1992) started with a career as TV director and after switching to the cinema with the above production, he would continue making films with strong swordplay elements until the late 1970s. In the 80s he switched from machismo to romanticism, when he started making large-scale films about strong women, often geisha, often based on the novels of Miyao Tomiko. He also made the first film in the popular series about yakuza wives, Gokudo no Onnatachi.

Nemuri Kyoshiro: Sappocho ("Sleepy Eyes of Death: The Chinese Jade") is the first installment of a series of 12 eccentric chambara films (running till 1969). Daiei-star Ichikawa Raizo plays an utterly nihilistic sword hero, half-Japanese half-Portuguese, "the son of a Portuguese priest who assaulted his Japanese mother during Black Mass." Total pulp, sexy and very politically incorrect - in each installment Nemuri Kyoshiro demonstrates his skill in stripping women of their clothes with one swipe of his mighty weapon. Trashy, but also delightful - and Ichikawa Raizo possesses lots of charisma. (Daiei) (See my post about samurai movies)

Nihon Kyokyakuden ("An Account of the Chivalrous Commoners of Japan") by Makino Masahiro, with Takakura Ken as protagonist. The first installment of Toei's popular series about 'chivalrous yakuza,' unfortunately rather unknown in the West where the more violent jitsuroku yakuza films of the seventies have swept all that went before away. These older films are not so much about what we would call 'yakuza,' as about groups ("kumi") of organized workers in various industries, as transport, lumber, market stalls, etc. Competition has been harmoniously regulated by agreements among the different groups. Then one group embraces a harsh form of capitalism and breaks the agreements, acting violently towards the others. Typically, they wear Western dress against the traditional Japanese garb of the others; they also fight with guns against the swords of the conservatives. Takakura Ken plays the defender of the conservative group, trying to keep the peace as long as humanly possible, but after several murders (often of his elderly boss), he explodes in a violent rage and all alone exterminates the enemy group. These films defended conservative values against modern ones and advocated chivalry (keeping to the rules of giri and ninjo) in an age of unbridled capitalism. For that reason they were popular both among right-leaning young office workers and leftist students. Together with the Abashiri Bangaichi and Showa Zankyokuden series (starting the next year), these films made Takakura Ken (1931-2014) into a super star. (Toei) (See my post about yakuza movies)
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.]

May 10, 2015

A History of Japanese Film by Year: Taiyozoku and Other Youth Films (1955-1959)

The late fifties see the first stirrings of a new cinema, very different from the classical, sentimental realistic films made previously. A new generation of directors (most of them born in the late 1920s and early 1930s) is more confrontational and outspoken. It starts in 1956 when the worldwide youth rebellion reaches Japan in the novels of Ishihara Shintaro. After the first one of these (Taiyo no Kisetsu or "Season of the Sun," about rich kids making mischief on the beaches south of Tokyo) the movement is called Taiyozoku, or "Sun Tribe." Aimed against Japan's gerontocracy, it was not a leftist movement, but rather a generational conflict. The Taiyozoku films were made by the reborn Nikkatsu and featured a new star in Ishihara's younger brother, Yujiro, "the Japanese James Dean." Prominent directors were Nakahira Ko and Kurahara Kureyoshi. The amorality of the first Taiyozoku films with a liberal dose of sex and violence, was however considered as shocking and a public outcry soon stifled the excesses of the movement. But also directors working at other studios independently followed this rebellious trend, such as Ichikawa Kon (Shokei no heya, 1956) and Masumura Yasuzo (Kuchizuke, 1957) at Daiei and Kobayashi Masaki (Black River, 1957) at Shochiku. 

At the end of the fifties and beginning of the sixties, the youth films then flow naturally into the New Wave, which also started with films about youth, such as the early films by Oshima Nagisa. Shochiku became the studio that gave him and other New Wave directors as Shinoda Masahiro and Yoshida Yoshishige a chance (the reason was that Kido Shiro, Shochiku's president, felt the need for something to appeal to the younger generation like other studios did - Shochiku only had women's films and sentimental realist films and was loosing the competition). Nikkatsu from its side produced Imamura Shohei's early New Wave films. The greatest difference between the New Wave and the Taiyozoku films is the strong leftist political engagement of several of the New Wave directors, especially Oshima. 

Yasumura Yasuzo, in the early fifties an assistant director at Daiei, receives an Italian scholarship to study for two years at the Centro Sperimentale in Rome, a precious chance at a time still little foreign travel was possible. After his return he calls for a new Japanese cinema that turns its back on the sentimental realism then prevalent in Japan and replaces it with non-sentimental films full of speed and energy. He also puts it into practice in the films he starts making as director from 1957 on (Kuchizuke, 1957; Kyojin to Gangu, 1958); others who film in a similar style independent from him are - besides Taiyozoku director Nakahara Ko (Kurutta Kajitsu, 1956) - Imamura Shohei (Endless Desire, 1958), Okamoto Kihachi (Deperado Ourpost, 1959) and even Sawashima Tadashi at Toei (Hibari Torimonocho: Kanzashi Koban, 1958). The "toughness" typical of these directors is also characteristic of young actors as Ishihara Yujiro (in his Nikkatsu action films) or Nakamura Kinnosuke and Okawa Hashizo (in their period films for Toei). This new, energetic cinema of the younger generation would eventually wipe away the sentimental realism of the older directors - and ironically, this would happen via Shochiku and its Japanese New Wave, the bastion of that humanistic style.

In this same period the classical directors continued making excellent films within the studio system, which was still going strong. That studio system reached its apex as regards box office income, and number of films and cinemas. In fact, the industry starts suffering from overproduction and excess competition. Western audiences only saw the prestigious art films by Mizoguchi and Kurosawa, but below that was in fact a high-volume, low-budget production system dominated by stars and genres. 

This year there are 5,184 cinemas in Japan and 423 films are made (65.8% of the total), for an audience of 868,912,000.

Ukigumo ("Floating Clouds") by Naruse Mikio, his most popular but also rather melodramatic film. Set in a post-war devastated Tokyo and a society that is in dissolution and shows the tenacity of an ill-fated woman (Takamine Hideko) in love with a worthless married man (Mori Masayuki) she met in S.E. Asia during the war. She accepts every sort of humiliation at his hands - even when he takes up with another mistress, or leaves her simply behind without saying anything when he has a job transfer. To survive, she has to turn to prostitution - at all stages of her life she is manipulated be men. She keeps following her lover, all the way to the remote island of Yakushima (the edge of postwar Japan), where she finally dies. In the chilling last scene, he carefully puts lipstick on her dead lips. Based on a novel by Hayashi Fumiko. Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film of the Year. (Toho)

Another film about a similar subject, but treated with light humor, is Meoto Zenzai ("Marital Relations") by Toyoda Shiro, with Morishige Hisaya and Awashima Chikage. It is a wry comedy about the relation between a weak man, a charming no-good, and the geisha who loves him. Based on a novel set in downtown Osaka by Oda Sakunosuke. (Toho)

Ikimono no Kiroku ("Record of a Living Being") by Kurosawa Akira. Mifune plays a stubborn, elderly industrialist who is so obsessed by fear of atomic extinction that he wants to save himself and his family by moving to Brazil (which he for some mysterious reason thinks will be safe). After he burns down his foundry to force them to leave, the family has him declared insane - which he then indeed becomes. Film that shows the anxieties of the age about nuclear warfare, but in a rather didactic way. Entered in the 1956 Cannes Film festival. (Toho)

Nogiku no Gotoku Kimi Ariki ("She Was Like a Wild Chrysanthemum") by Kinoshita Keisuke is a beautiful and nostalgic love story. An old man (Ryu Chishu) come across a field of wild chrysanthemums, and thinks back to when he was fifteen. At that time he grew up with his girl cousin whom he would have married, but family and other pressures got in the way. Filmed in the style of Meiji daguerreotypes. Won the 1955 Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film. (Shochiku)

Mizoguchi Kenji makes two somewhat unusual spectacle films, which are not really his element. Yokihi ("The Princess Yang Kwei-fei") is his first color film, the famous story about the concubine of an 8th c. Chinese emperor. In Mizoguchi's version, Yang Kwei-fei sacrifices her own life to save the emperor. She loves him so much that she even lives on after her execution, speaking to him in her loving ghostly voice. Shot on location in Hong Kong as Nagata of Daiei was aiming at the S.E. Asian market. Beautiful photography by Sugiyama Kohei who also filmed Gate of HellShin Heike Monogatari ("New Tales of the Taira Clan") is a period film about the conflict between a decadent court and the rising warrior class at the end of the 12th c., after a popular novel by Yoshikawa Eiji. With Ichikawa Raizo. Colorful but static. (Daiei)

Chiyari Fuji ("A Bloody Spear at Mt. Fuji") by old hand Uchida Tomu is a masterful period film, part humorous road movie, part violent chanbara. The extremely bloody climax in which the servant (Kataoka Chiezo) avenges his master anticipated the violence in yakuza movies from the 1960s. One of the best films to come out of Toei in the fifties. Interestingly, Uchida worked in a much tougher style than the usual friendly, family-type jidaigeki made by his studio. (Toei) (See my post about samurai movies)

Takekurabe ("Growing Up") by Gosho Heinosuke is a melancholic film about the Meiji-period, based on a story by Higuchi Ichiyo. The protagonist is a trusting little girl who does not yet know that, upon growing up, she is destined to be a prostitute. (Shintoho)

Toei surpasses Shochiku as the studio with the highest sales figures. Produces a big Chushingura spectacle film to celebrate its fifth anniversary.

Nikkatsu has problems with the competitive environment and tries to reinvent itself by creating the Taiyozoku ("Sun Tribe")-genre about Japan's dissatisfied youth in rebellion against the elder generation (taking its cue from the worldwide youth revolution). These films were filled with violence and sexual promiscuity.

Shintoho is also in difficulty and names former benshi Okura Mitsugi as its new director. Under his leadership the company turns away from art films and sinks deep into exploitation cinema and unsavory war films.

Inagaki's Miyamoto Musashi wins a Special/Honorary Award at the 1955 Academy Awards for outstanding foreign language film.

Ichikawa Kon's Shokei no Heya ("Punishment Room") is one of the first films about the youth revolt of the mid-fifties, based on a novel by Ishihara Shintaro, the spokesman of the discontented generation. A cruel and cheeky young rebel plans to steal the ticket money of a dance party he is organizing, while taking advantage of his family, abusing his girlfriend and cheating on his friends. But when he enlists the help of a gang, things get out of hand and he receives his deserved, but very violent comeuppance in "the punishment room." (Daiei)

A film along the same lines (and based on a book by the same novelist) is the sensual Kurutta Kajitsu ("Crazed Fruit") by Nakahira Ko. This the classical Taiyozoku (Sun Tribe) film. Two brothers with too much idle testosterone compete for the favors of the same young woman during a seaside summer of boating and drinking. The younger brother (Tsugawa Masahiko) steals the girl (Kitahara Mie), the elder brother (Ishihara Yujiro) takes revenge by steering his motor boat right over their small skiff. A lurid portrayal of the postwar sexual revolution and pampered, aimless, and casually self-destructive youth. The rebellious Taiyozoku films were made within the studio system and public outrage soon led to an informal agreement to cease production of the genre. Despite the freshness of this debut film, Nakahiro Ko (1926-1978) was later mainly assigned to direct action thrillers by Nikkatsu and had difficulty to fulfill his early promise; there are however also more personal films in his later oeuvre. (Nikkatsu)

Mahiru no Ankoku ("Darkness at Noon") by Imai Tadashi wins Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film of the Year. A film that criticizes an actual murder trial that was still in progress - and reaches the verdict of "not guilty" for a group of young men framed for a crime they didn't commit - quite a few years before the courts finally did. (Gendai Productions)

Kobayashi Masaki makes Kabe Atsuki Heya ("The Thick-Walled Room"), after a script by Abe Kobo, and based on diaries of "war criminals." The film asserts that most of the imprisoned were innocent and that the real war criminals went scot-free. This was the first film in which Kobayashi Masaki (1916-1996) who had started as director in 1952, found is own style. Kobayashi was a strong social critic, who made films of high moral integrity, often critiques of arbitrary use of power. (Shinei / Shochiku)

The same year Kobayashi also makes Anata Kaimasu ("I Will Buy You"), a pitiless take on Japan's bribery-fueled professional baseball industry. (Shochiku)

Kawashima Yuzo makes Suzaki paradaisu: Akashingo (Suzaki Paradise: Red Signal), a satire set in Tokyo's seamy milieu of bars and brothels. A young couple has fled to Tokyo to marry. Looking for income and a roof above their head, they end up in the Suzaki brothel area - the woman only works in a bar at the entrance to the district, but even that makes her man madly jealous. (Nikkatsu)

Kawashima Yuzo (1918-1963) deserves to better known outside Japan - he made quirky, satirical, and very original films. Kawashima graduated from Meiji University and joined Shochiku in 1938, where he became the assistant of Kinoshita Keisuke; after the war he made a number of comedies, But he only came into his own after his move to Nikkatsu in 1955. He made in total 51 films until his early death in 1953. Kawashima was the mentor of Imamura Shohei.

Biruma no Tategoto ("The Burmese Harp") by Ichikawa Kon is an antiwar film with a religious and humanistic theme: a Japanese soldier in Birma, called Mizushima, known for his harp playing in what is a sort of musical unit, steals away when the war ends and becomes a Buddhist monk to bury the war dead. Shows the contrast between the humanist captain of Mizushima's "singing company," who survive the war, and an inflexible captain who refuses surrender and is exterminated by the British with all his men. Does not shy away to show the horrors of war in the piles of corpses, and above all depicts war as a severe violation of the human spirit. Based on a novel by Takeyama Michio written to help his countrymen overcome the wounds of the war. San Giorgio Prize at the Venice Film Festival. Nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Ichikawa remade his own film in 1985, but this older version is better. (Nikkatsu)

Akasen Chitai ("The Red-light District" aka "Street of Shame") by Mizoguchi Kenji is a sober tale of a brothel called "Dreamland" in Tokyo's Yoshiwara red-light district, full of women whose dreams are constantly being shattered by the socioeconomic realities surrounding them in a male-oriented world. The film became Mizoguchi's swan song (he died this year at age 58 of leukemia); it contains excellent character portrayals, of the cynical hooker Mickey or the aging Yumeko who is shattered when her son rejects her. Made while the National Diet of Japan was debating an anti-prostitution law (which was finally passed shortly after the film’s release). Akasen Chitai takes an equivocal position: in the society of that time, there is no work for the women outside of prostitution; moreover, marriage is presented as a form of slavery. Fine performances by Kyo Machiko, Wakao Ayako, and Kogure Michiko. Awarded with a Special Mention at the 17th Venice Film Festival. (Daiei)

Nagareru ("Flowing") by Naruse Mikio. The decline of the geisha world observed by a maid. A proud middle-aged geisha (Yamada Isuzu) fights to uphold professional values against the pressure to decline into prostitution. Shows the increasing modern uncertainty threatening a centuries-old way of life. (Toho)

Soshun ("Early Spring") by Ozu Yasujiro. A young salaryman, dissatisfied with career and marriage, begins a flirtatious affair with a co-worker. His wife quarrels with him, but later follows him on a transfer to the countryside, where they can make a new start together. Like Ozu's next film, Tokyo Twilight, rather self-consciously youth-oriented and more melodramatic than usual for Ozu, showing that even Shochiku was forced to update the "Ofuna flavor" in a time of youth culture. (Shochiku)

Toho makes Hesokuri Shacho ("The Boss and the Slush Fund"), the first installment of their long-running (until 1970) "Company President" series with popular comedy actor Morishige Hisaya. Morishige plays a lovable president, afraid of his wife, and more interested in "after five entertainment" than business - he always gets entangled with geisha and bar girls. Besides Kurosawa's samurai films and Honda's monster films, these light and bright "salaryman" films, filled with warm human feelings, formed the third pillar under Toho.

Talking about monster films, this year Honda Ishiro adds another radiation-infused giant to his monster stable: Sora no daikaiju Radon ("Rodan" - for some reason, in English the Japanese name Radon becomes Rodan), a giant pterodactyl whose wings create destructive winds. (Toho)

Toei makes the first widescreen film in color. Its period drama spectaculars remain invariably popular, and its box office successes put Toei on a par with the older, long established studios.

Ishikawa Yujiro's Arashi wo yobu otoko ("Man Who Causes a Storm") becomes a great hit. A violent young man just released from jail aspires to be a drummer and works his way up by playing in a hip Ginza club, hoping to receive the approval of his mother. Ishihara Yujiro (1934-1987) becomes wildly popular as a James Dean-type of rebellious youth, both a teen idol and an action star. He turned away from his Taiyozoku character and worked on a more lovable image. (Nikkatsu)

Ore wa matteru ze ("I Am Waiting") by Kurahara Koreyoshi also stars Ishihara Yujiro, this time as a restaurant manager and former boxer who saves a beautiful, suicidal club hostess trying to escape the clutches of her gangster employer. This was the first film of Kurahara Koreyoshi (1927-2002), who became Nikkatsu's best known director of action thrillers, often with a noir tone.   (Nikkatsu)

Kobayashi Masaki makes Kuroi Kawa ("Black River"), an exposé of the rampant corruption on and around U.S. military bases in Japan. The villain is not the U.S., but Japan which permits lawlessness to go unpunished. A clear precursor to New Wave masterpiece Pigs and Battleships of 1961 by Imamura Shohei. The film starts Watanabe Fumio, who would go on to become a central actor in Oshima's cinema. (Shochiku)

Masumura Yasuzo, who had studied at the Centro Sperimentale in Rome in the early fifties, makes his first film, Kuchizuke ("Kisses"), a youth film admired for the high pace and restless, mobile camera work. Kinichi and Akiko meet when they visit their respective fathers in prison and spend a day on the beach. But they both need money to get their fathers out of jail... The angry young man gives vent to his frustrations through exaggerated actions, rather than through languishing melancholically as in older films. Masumura Yasuzo (1924-1986) would become one of the most important directors of the sixties, standing close to the New Wave, making satirical and bleak accounts of Japanese society. After his return from Rome he called for the destruction of mainstream Japanese cinema, as it suppressed individual personality by submitting all characters to a collective self. (Daiei)

Bakumatsu Taiyoden ("Sun Legend of the Shogunate's Last Days aka The Shinagawa Path") by Kawashima Yuzo is an irreverent take on the last days of the shogunate ("bakumatsu"). Set in a brothel where reformers gather around the time of the Meiji restoration. With Frankie Sakai, Ishihara Yujiro and Minamida Yoko. (Nikkatsu)

Kome ("The Rice People") by Imai Tadashi. A group of struggling rice farmers attempt to fend off government bureaucrats and predatory corporate interests. The best film about peasant life since Tsuchi from 1939. Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film of the Year. Also an acclaimed entry at the Cannes Film Festival. (Toei)

In the same year, Imai also made Junai Monogatari ("A Story of Pure Love"). Won the Silver Bear for Best Director at the 8th Berlin International Film Festival. The love of this young couple may be pure, but society around them is not, as they are stigmatized as delinquents. While battling against society, the boy struggles to keep on the straight path, while the young woman - who also is a victim of the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima - is slowly dying of anemia. (Toei)

Kumonosujo ("Throne of Blood") by Kurosawa Akira. Shakespeare's Macbeth transported to medieval Japan and the slopes of Mt Fuji and brought to the screen with interesting elements from the Noh theater. Very stylized cinematic technique. Strong performances by Mifune as the hardened, animalistic warrior and Yamada Isuzu as his ruthless wife. Set in an unforgettable ghostly, fog-enshrouded landscape. Arguably, the best Shakespeare adaptation ever made. (Toho)

Donzoko ("The Lower Depths") by the same director transposes a play by Maxim Gorky to late feudal Japan, the whole staged in a single interior. Set among a collection of derelicts and their miserly landlords. Mifune plays a gambler in love with the landlady's daughter (Kagawa Kyoko); as she has an eye on him herself (played by Yamada Isuzu), she enacts revenge by killing her husband and shifting the blame on Mifune. In the end, she descends into madness, while the derelicts she used to treat cruelly stand by, openly laughing at her plight. A very dark film, faithful to Gorky's original. The same play had been filmed in 1937 by Jean Renoir. (Toho)

Tokyo Boshoku ("Twilight in Tokyo") by Ozu Yasujiro. Another family in dissolution, this time with for Ozu rare, piercing melodrama and psychological problems, including an unwanted pregnancy, an abortion and a suicide. Contrast between the youth-centered plot line and the emphasis placed on the role of the old. The melodramatic materials and sphere of crisis that hangs over the film clash with Ozu's penchant for suggestion and abstract structure. (Shochiku)

Yukiguni ("Snow Country") by Toyoda Shiro, after the famous novel by Kawabata Yasunari. The best of several screen versions of this book, in feeling and atmosphere close to the spirit of the novel, despite some changes and added incidents. With Ikebe Ryo and Kishi Keiko. (Toho)

Shintoho makes one of its most well-known nationalistic effusions, Meiji Tenno to Nichiro Daisenso ("The Meiji Emperor and the Japan-China War"), in which Arashi Kanjuro plays the Meiji Emperor as the ultimate, warm-hearted patriarch. Before the end of WWII it had been unthinkable to bring recent members of the imperial house to the screen.

Chikyu Boeigun ("The Mysterians") is the first colorful space opera made by Honda Ishiro and his team, including tokusatsu specialist Tsuburaya Eiji. Many would follow until the end of the sixties, often bringing on Godzilla-like monsters. The present film is a rip-off of Wells' The War of the Worlds and is filled with the hoariest cliches of pulp science-fiction. Special effects movies, often aimed at children, remained a strong seller for Toho.  (Toho)

Kyojin to Gangu ("Giants and Toys") by Masumura Yasuzo is a satirical comedy on the advertising racket and the commercial excesses of corporate culture. A shrewd advertising director of a candy company turns a loudmouthed, young female taxi driver with bad teeth (!) into an unlikely star to advertise their new line of caramels. Again a film full of vitality and exaggerated actions. Already in the previous year, after his return from study in Italy, Masumura had called for a new Japanese cinema, that would turn away from the sentimental realism of the classical directors and instead consist of non-sentimental films full of speed and energy. (Daiei)

Hateshinaki Yokubo ("Endless Desire") by Imamura Shohei, his third film, introduces one of this director's ruthlessly determined women. A motley collection of people plan to dig up a cache of morphine buried during the war, but the site is now taken up by a butcher shop. (Nikkatsu)

Imamura Shohei (1926-2006) would be one of the major directors of the sixties, closely allied to the Japanese New Wave, but different in his search for the essence of Japaneseness, with a special interest in the lower strata of society and the "lower half of the body." He first was an assistant director of Ozu at Shochiku (whose style he detested), but soon went his own way.

Ichikawa Kon films Mishima Yukio's novel The Temple of the Golden Pavilion as Enjo ("Conflagration"), with Ichikawa Raizo as the inarticulate novice who deliberately burns down the national treasure building, the thing he most loved. The film starts with his arrest and then fills in his background and motivation (mostly related to the corruption and hypocrisy of Buddhism and society - it is harrowing how much damage one psyche can sustain in just a short lifetime) by a complex system of flashbacks. Shows the ambivalence felt by the young towards Japan's cultural heritage. This is possibly Ichikawa's finest picture. Beautiful black-and-white widescreen photography by Miyagawa Kazuo (Ishikawa's first CinemaScope film). (Daiei)

Higanbana ("Equinox Flower") by Ozu Yasujiro is this director's first color film. A daughter (Arima Taeko) wants to make her own choice of marriage partner; the despotic father (Saburi Shin) opposes, but the mother sympathizes and the father is finally won over. Shows how later in his career Ozu became increasingly sympathetic with the younger generation. Also, with its satire, pure comedy and deep irony a much lighter work than Ozu's previous films. With one of the best later roles by Tanaka Kinuyo, while also typical Japanese kimono beauty Yamamoto Fujiko makes an appearance. Based on a novel by Satomi Ton. (Shochiku)

Narayamabushi-ko ("The Ballad of Narayama") by Kinoshita Keisuke, based on a novel by Fukazawa Shichiro. Pseudo folktale, employing kabuki and bunraku stage techniques. In the remote mountains, certain poor villages have the custom to abandon the elderly on a mountaintop in order to ensure that the younger generation has enough to eat. Orin (Tanaka Kinuyo) arranges a marriage for her son and is then stoically resigned to her fate, although other old folks put up a struggle against their exile. Stylishly filmed on cunningly designed studio sets, this was Kinoshita's first widescreen effort. Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film of the Year. In 1983 Imamura Shohei filmed the same novel in a very different way. (Shochiku)

Yoru no Tsuzumi ("Night Drum") by Imai Tadashi. Set in 18th-century Japan (and based on a puppet play by Chikamatsu Monzaemon), the adultery of a samurai wife (Arima Ineko) with a drum teacher and its tragic consequences condemns the family as the source of an oppressive system that dictates the details of life so rigidly that there is no room for individual discretion. The law demands that both the adulterous wife and her lover are executed. The husband who blames himself for the wife's straying, then discovers that he has lost the only happiness he had. Arguably Imai's best film, a highlight of the 1958 Brussel's film festival. (Shochiku)

Kakushi Toride no San Akunin ("The Hidden Fortress") by Kurosawa Akira is a pure entertainment period film set during the sixteenth century civil wars. Two clownish peasants help a young princess and her loyal retainer travel incognito through a war-torn area. Great fun. Kurosawa's pioneering film in the widescreen format that he uses to great advantage and his greatest box office success of the fifties. A primary influence on George Lucas’ Star Wars. Berlin Film Festival Director's Prize. (Toho)

Inagaki makes Muhomatsu no Isho ("Rickshaw Man"), a remake in color of his 1943 film of the same title. Mifune Toshiro plays the rickshaw man who becomes a surrogate father to the child of a recently widowed woman played by Takamine Hideko. This film won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival of 1958. It is a sentimental favorite in Japan. (Toho)

At Toei Sawashima Tadashi makes an interesting period film with popular singer Misora Hibari: Hibari torimonochi: Kanzashi koban ("Detective Hibari: Case of the Golden Hairpins"), a comedy with dance and song which plays like a Hollywood musical, especially since the music is modern and western (the tap dance in Kitano's Zatoichi of 2003 was nothing new!).

Matsumoto Seicho was a popular thriller writer who in the late 1950s shot to fame with his "social mystery novels." This year, two of his novels are filmed. Nomura Yoshitaro makes Harikomi ("The Stake-out"), about two detectives who watch the house of a banker whose wife (Takemine Hideko) was the former lover of a murder-suspect, in the hope that the criminal will contact her. Strong portrayal of the endless hours spent staking out the house, the intense summer heat, and the beautiful woman under the detectives' gaze. (Shochiku).  Ten to Sen ("Points and Lines"), made by Kobayashi Tsuneo, is a "railway mystery" (another invention of Matsumoto Seicho, a subgenre making use of tricks with the train schedule, something only possible in Japan where trains run exactly on time) with a social dimension. That the suicide of a young couple on a secluded beach in Kyushu is not what it seems, comes to light thanks to the painstakingly gathering of evidence by two police officers. But their task is not easy, for the murderer has created an alibi by an ingenious use of the timetable. (Toei)

Toho starts another long "business" series called "Ekimae" or "In front of the station" with Morishige Hisaya and Frankie Sakai, about various businesses set up on the prime location "in front of the station." The first installment, Ekimae Ryokan ("The Inn in Front of the Station") was based on a novel by Ibuse Masuji, but after that new stories were freely developed around a consumer loan company, a bento shop, a spa, a Chinese restaurant, etc.

The first color anime feature film is made: Hakujaden ("The Tale of the White Serpent"), based on a Chinese folktale. The film was produced by Toei Animation (set up by Toei and other shareholders in 1956, after buying up Japan Animated Films), which over the years would create a large number of anime TV series and theatrical features and would be instrumental in creating the boom of the genre. Moreover, many important anime directors, as Miyazaki Hayao and Takahata Isao, received their training in this company.

Ningen no Joken ("The Human Condition") by Kobayashi Masaki. The longest film ever made in Japan, in three parts and six installments (a total of 579 minutes). Part I ("No Greater Love") and II ("Road to Eternity") were made this year; part III ("A Soldier's Prayer") followed in 1961. The best film about the war to come out of Japan. A pacifist (Nakadai Tatsuya) is sent to supervise a mine in Japanese controlled Manchuria, where he tries to alleviate the brutal treatment of the POW laborers, incurring the wrath of his superiors who horribly mistreat him. In Part II he is sent to a basic training camp where his pacifist views only bring him beatings and torture. But he has to learn to kill - reluctantly - on the battlefield in order to survive. In the final part after Japan's surrender the protagonist gives himself up to the Russian troops, hoping to be treated in a human way. He is imprisoned under miserable circumstances in a Siberian POW camp and eventually dies in the snow. The film shows a synthesis of the tateyaku and ninaime roles, as the love for his wife (Aratama Michiyo) is central to the life of the hero. This was implicitly a critique of the war ideology, where private love was looked down upon and women were seen as birthing machines for more soldiers. Characteristically, here the marriage is childless. Ningen no Joken set postwar attendance records when it was shown in Germany, although - due to its outspokenness about Japan's colonial exploitation of Manchuria - the Japanese government was initially none too happy at its going abroad. Also received several prizes at the 21st Venice International Film Festival. (Shochiku)

Ai to Kibo no Machi ("A Town of Love and Hope" aka "The Boy Who Sold His Pigeon") by Japanese New Wave director Oshima Nagisa. The second title was the one Oshima selected, the first and sentimental one the title the studio forced on him (and now sounds rather ironical). A slum youth over and again sells a homing pigeon (he needs money for the family as his widowed mother is ill) and thereby happens to become friends with a rich girl. The boy's teacher befriends the rich girl's brother, who is the successor in an important electronics company. She tries to help the boy get a job there, but this is spoiled when his pigeon scam comes out. In the end the rich girl asks her brother to shoot the pigeon and that is the end of the film. Oshima makes clear that "love" is not sufficient to bridge the gulf between the rich and the poor. Sato Tadao calls the dove "symbol of the sentimental humanism of films of the past." Kido Shiro of Shochiku disliked the film (he had hoped for a youthful update of the sentimental realism Shochiku was known for, but got something very different) and gave it only restricted distribution, but it received favorable reviews.  Oshima Nagisa (1932-2013) was the most politically provocative director of the Japanese New Wave, who produced subversive analyses of Japanese society, while also employing a formally innovative style. He also received much international acclaim.  (Shochiku)

Kagi ("Odd Obsession aka The Key") by Ichikawa Kon, was based on the eponymous novel by Tanizaki Junichiro. An elderly man (Nakamura Ganjiro) decides to spice up the ailing marriage to his much younger wife (Kyo Machiko) with a series of voyeuristic intrigues - with fatal results. Ichikawa rather changes Tanizaki's story (including the finale), turning it into a delicious satire of bourgeois respectability and desire for status and wealth. Luminous photography by Miyagawa Kazuo and great performances by Nakamura and Kyo as the kinky couple. Interesting is also a young Nakadai Tatsuya as the fiance of the daughter (and simultaneously the wife's lover).  Won the Jury Prize at the 1960 Cannes Film Festival. (Daiei)

Nobi ("Fires on the Plain") by Ichikawa Kon is an antiwar film about a platoon of starving Japanese soldiers lost in the Philippines at the end of World War II. Funakoshi Eiji gives a wonderful performance as the single survivor who finally finds out what has sustained his fellow soldiers: the consumption of human flesh. When his deep, haunted eyes meet the camera, they show a terrible desperation. Vividly shows the dehumanization and degradation war inevitably leads to - this in sharp contrast to the "National Policy Films" of 1937-45 and the contemporary nostalgic war films of Shintoho c.s. which stressed the camaraderie and unity of purpose of the soldiers. Here, they cannibalize each other. A true vision of hell. Based on the well-known novel by Oka Shohei. (Daiei)

In a lighter vein, Dokuritsu Gurentai ("Desperado Outpost") by Okamoto Kihachi is a sardonic film, part war film (M.A.S.H., ten years early), part American Western-parody (in the Wild West of Manchuria), part thriller. This great energetic action comedy was very popular and became a series. (Toho)

Okamoto Kihachi (1924-2005) was a specialist in action cinema, who learned his craft under Makino Masahiro; especially the films he made in the 1960s transcend genre and demonstrate that he was closely allied to the New Wave.

Kiku to Isamu ("Kiku and Isamu") by Imai Tadashi was a film about mixed-blood children (their fathers are black American GIs), a little publicized legacy of the Occupation.  Imai is unsparing in his depiction of Japanese racism. Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film of the Year. (Daito Eiga)

Ohayo by Ozu Yasujiro. Remake in color and sound of I Was Born, But..., centering around the father's refusal to buy his two young sons a television. The boys boycott the adult world by refusing to greet the neighbors, and a neighborhood quarrel ensues; finally, Pa has to give in. Wonderful odd comedy with weird gags, such as a game among the boys of farting on command (with as result that one boy shits in his pants). (Shochiku)

Ukigusa ("Floating Weeds") by Ozu Yasujiro. Another remake, of the 1934 A Story of Floating Weeds. With Nakamura Ganjiro and Kyo Machiko as the theatrical couple, and Sugimura Haruko as the former mistress. Set in a port town instead the mountain location of the older version. Beautifully photographed by Daiei cameraman Miyagawa. Still, the 1934 film has a tightness that makes it slightly preferable. Some touches in the new film show the greater sexual freedom of the late fifties. (Daiei)

Nikkatsu creates another hit series for young cinema-goers with Guitar wo motta wataridori ("The Rambling Guitarist"), a vehicle for star Kobayashi Akira as a wandering street musician. The films are known as "no-nationality action" and are rooted in no specific place and time, so not necessarily linked to Japan. Inspired by B-movie Westerns, these flicks are just cheerful punch-ups and shoot-outs with flimsy stories of goodies against baddies and fights to set captured girls free. But like the Yujiro movies, they became a trend. (Nikkatsu)

Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan ("The Yotsuya Ghost Story on the Tokaido") by Nakagawa Nobuo. Disfigured by the poison her husband gave her, a samurai wife kills her infant and herself and becomes a vengeful spirit. One of many adaptations of the popular Kabuki play. Nakagawa Nobuo (1905-1984) was the Roger Corman of Japan - his fame rests on the horror films he made in the late fifties and sixties for Shintoho, with grand guignol sequences but no psychological depth. (Shintoho)

Nihon Tanjo ("The Three Treasures") was an Inagaki Hiroshi widescreen spectacular with stories taken from Japanese mythology in the Kojiki. Special effects (such as an eight-headed dragon) were by the Godzilla staff; Hara Setsuko played the Sun Goddess and Mifune her unruly brother Susanoo, who slayed the dragon. A grand spectacle intended to draw more viewers to the cinema - but not a great film. (Toho)
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.]