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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.]