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June 26, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A History of Japanese Film by Year:
1896-1909 - First Stirrings
1910-1919 - Development
1920-1929 - Art Films and Nihilistic Heroes
1930-1939 - Social Realism and Shoshimin-Eiga
1940-1949 - Censorship during War and Occupation
1950-1954 - Golden Age of the Classical Studio System
1955-1959 - Taiyozoku and other Youth Films
1960-1964 - The New Wave
1965-1969 - Independent Productions
1970-1974 - Sex and Violence
1975-1979 - Decline and Stagnation
1980-1989 - Disintegration of the Studio System
1990-1994 - The Rise of Indies
1995-1999 - Revival
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.]

June 20, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Miyazaki Hayao (born in 1941) is Japan's foremost animator who has achieved such great international fame that he needs no further introduction. With Takahata Isao he co-founded Studio Ghibli in 1984.
A History of Japanese Film by Year:
1896-1909 - First Stirrings
1910-1919 - Development
1920-1929 - Art Films and Nihilistic Heroes
1930-1939 - Social Realism and Shoshimin-Eiga
1940-1949 - Censorship during War and Occupation
1950-1954 - Golden Age of the Classical Studio System
1955-1959 - Taiyozoku and other Youth Films
1960-1964 - The New Wave
1965-1969 - Independent Productions
1970-1974 - Sex and Violence
1975-1979 - Decline and Stagnation
1980-1989 - Disintegration of the Studio System
1990-1994 - The Rise of Indies
1995-1999 - Revival
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.]

June 11, 2015

A History of Japanese Film by Year: Sex and Violence (1970-1974)

In the seventies, the disintegration of the studio system could no longer be halted. In 1971, 421 feature films were made, which seems a quite respectable number, until one realizes that half of these films were low-budget "pink" productions made outside the studio system. 

Here is an overview of what happened to the various studios during this decade:

Daiei goes bankrupt in 1971 (en passant the end of the five-company agreement). The union succeeds in reviving the company, by having Tokuma Yasuyoshi, the president of the publishing house Tokuma Shoten, take it over. Tokuma Shoten would remain the owner of Daiei until selling it to Kadokawa Shoten in 2002. However, in the years that Tokuma owns Daiei it only makes a small number of films. Daiei was in fact reduced to becoming a small independent producer, without its own studio lot. 

Nikkatsu also goes bankrupt, but is reestablished in 1971 by its union which even manages to buy back the production studio. The company however decides to make exclusively "roman porno" films, softcore films of a higher production quality than the ordinary "pink film."  During the seventies, this strategy is very successful and Nikkatsu even becomes the only studio where new talent is nurtured. "Pink movies" become a stepping stone for many young independent filmmakers. Interesting new directors are for example Kumashiro Tatsumi, Tanaka Noboru and Konuma Masaru. But Nikkatsu's move to porno also means that many actors leave the studio, such as Kobayashi Akira, Watari Tetsuya and Kaji Meiko who go to Toei, or Shishido Jo who moves to television. 

Shochiku survives the 1970s by depending on its cash cow, the Tora-san films, and an occasional more serious effort by Yamada Yoji. As these are all "Ofuna flavor" films, it can be said that Shochiku kept its authentic mix of comedy and melodrama intact. Besides that, the studio brought out some distinguished thrillers by director Nomura Yoshitaro, based on the popular novels of Matsumoto Seicho. 

Also Toei remains faithful to its original manner, even in these difficult years, although it switches from "ninkyo" (chivalrous) to "jitsuroku" (real account) in the yakuza genre. Besides these jitsuroku films, starring Sugawara Bunta, it leaned on the following pillars of violence and sex: (1) "pinky violence" series (action films with some nudity) such as the Sasori "female prisoner" series with Kaji Meiko or the "girl gang" series (Delinquent Girl Boss; Girl Boss Blues) with Ike Reiko; (2) "cult" films with lots of violence and sex by Ishii Teruo and Suzuki Noribumi, such as Ishii's "porno period film" "Bohachi" or Suzuki's "Sex and Fury;" (3) Noribumi Suzuki's more mainstream and in Japan very popular Torakku Yaro series about the adventures of a pair of truckers with Sugawara Bunta and Aikawa Kinya; (4) a sort of kungfu films with Sonny Chiba, such as The Streetfighter, which were very popular abroad; and (5) several violent period films made later in the decade by Fukasaku Kinji. For the rest, it concentrates on TV (such as the popular SF and tokusatsu superhero series Kamen Rider). 

Toho stops making its "salaryman" comedy series and fires all actors on its payroll. It even retires its ever favorite monster Gojira in 1975. In the second half of the seventies, Toho co-produces the successful series of adaptations made by Kadokawa Pictures of the thrillers of popular author Yokomizo Seishi. Toho also co-produces some of Kumai Kei's films with social criticism and - on a more conservative note - the old-fashioned literary adaptations with idol Yamaguchi Momoe of Nishikawa Katsumi (co-produced with talent agency Horipro). In this sense, the seventies saw the start of "idol eiga," films starring young "idols," who would bring in audiences solely based on their popularity, unrelated to the quality of the film. Toho also made some blockbusters, as the disaster film "Japan Sinks."

Not only the studio system, but also the attendant star system disintegrates in the 1970s. Actors and actresses (and the same goes for directors) are no longer in the fixed employment of studios, but are hired separately per film. Many stars set up their own production companies. The biggest problem is that there is no nurturing and training of new talent in the film world anymore. New actors come from TV or from the above mentioned world of "idols" (also called "tarentos," a Japanese term indicating teenage singers whose personality and career are created by the record companies and who - besides having a nice face - are usually singularly untalented). There also is a dearth of good technical staff due to lack of continuity. 

Happily, ATG continues going strong in the 1970s. Some of its most important New Wave films are made in the early seventies (Hana Susumu, Yoshida Yoshishige, Oshima Nagisa, Wakamatsu Koji, Terayama Shuji, etc.). Two new directors are Jissoji Akio and Kuroki Kazuo. Also established directors who have lost the support they had of the studios, such Ichikawa Kon and Masumura Yasuzo, make use of the services of ATG. Young film makers who boost their career by making films with ATG later in the seventies are Hasegawa Kazuhiko, Ishii Sogo, Omori Kazuki and Morita Yoshimitsu. In its heyday, ATG had ten theaters in Tokyo and Osaka where its films were shown, but this number would gradually start to decrease during the decade. 

A new film company is also set up in this decade: Kadokawa Pictures, established by publishing company Kadokawa Shoten in 1976. The new company will only produce popular blockbuster films, aiming at synergy benefits ("media mix") by creating adaptations of its popular novels. A good example is The Inugamis, directed by Ichikawa Kon and adopted from a Kadokawa Shoten published novel by Yokomizo Seishi. Due to an aggressive marketing campaign, the film ends as the second-largest earner of the year. Kadokawa would follow this strategy also for its other films: large-scale epics with sizable budgets and matching advertising campaigns (incl. TV), aimed at mass audiences and box-office success. In the seventies, it made especially thrillers, besides Yokomizo Seishi, based on novels by for example Morimura Seiichi and Hanmura Ryo. Not surprisingly, the critics were not always kind to these blown-up commercial vehicles, and the way they managed to attract a large public was rather tricky, i.e. by having other companies buy large amounts of tickets in advance to be used as give-aways (these would often end up for lower prices in "ticket shops"). It is a moot point whether these films and advertising tactics helped stem the tide of cinematic decay, or on the other hand accelerated it.

In short, film making had become more difficult than in the previous two decades. ATG films were essentially a low-budget affair, and a director like Kurosawa who made expensive films, was forced into silence. Kurosawa finally found financing abroad. Later in the seventies, also Oshima turned to foreign financiers. Because of lack of financing, Teshigahara and Suzuki didn't make feature films in the seventies and Imamura Shohei mostly turned to documentary. Except for a few new directors in "roman porno" and the above mentioned young ATG directors, there is little new talent. 

1970
The downward trend of cinema attendance that set in during the 1960s, continues, with 254,799,000 moviegoers this year. There are now 3,246 cinemas left. This year, 423 films are produced in Japan. The share of Japanese films in the total of films exhibited is 59.4%.

Jissoji Akio directs Mujo ("This Transient Life"), a powerful, sensual treatment of incest and the first of a trilogy of films around Buddhist philosophy (with Mandala, 1971, and Uta, 1972). Jissoji looks at Buddhism in the same way Danish director Dreyer looked at Protestantism and his film is a study of the consequences of a single transgressive act, the incestuous relationship between a brother (who is studying Buddhist sculpture) and sister that results in pregnancy. The film sparked controversy, but also ticket sales, becoming ATG's biggest hit. It was also internationally hailed as a masterpiece, winning the 1970 Golden Leopard at the Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland. (ATG)

Jissoji Akio (1937-2006) first directed for television in the sixties, being involved in for example the popular Ultraman SF series for children. In the seventies he moved to arthouse cinema for ATG with Mujo and other impressive films. In the eighties he again worked mainly in television, but he returned to the big screen with a big budget horror film Teito Monogatari (1988). Later he made several interesting adaptations of the ero-guro stories of Edogawa Ranpo (Yaneura no sanposhaRanpo jigoku) as well as a film version of Kyogoku Natsuhiko's Ubume. An interesting cult director.

Yoshida Yoshishige directs part two of his trilogy of Japanese radicalism, Rengoku eroica ("Heroic Purgatory"). The wife of a scientist brings a confused girl home who starts treating the scientist and his wife as her parents. A mysterious man appears who claims to be her father, but the girl wants to have nothing to do with him. The appearance of the man arouses memories about his youth as a revolutionary in the minds of the scientist, obscured by dreamlike disruptions. The theme of incest is also addressed when the girl who masquerades as the scientist's daughter becomes his seducer. (ATG / Gendai Eigasha)

Imamura Shohei directs the feature-length documentary set in Japan's naval port with a large American base, Yokosuka, Nippon Sengoshi - Madamu Onboro no Seikatsu ("History of Postwar Japan as Told by a Bar Hostess"). Onboro-san, a bar hostess and a member of Japan's outcast group, sits together with Imamura in front of a projection screen, and is interviewed about her life story while watching various newsreels, starting with the end of the war. She thus provides an alternate voice to "official" history. Madame Onboro is one of Imamura's "earthy women," as she is very pragmatic and has made her own way through her own efforts. At the end of the film she boards a plane with her baby for the U.S. to marry a sailor half her age. She is also a-political: Imamura's demonstrates his own rather more critical stance about the course taken by Japan after the war by a clever selection of images which sometimes ironically undercut the words of the bar hostess. (Nihon Eiga Shinsha)

Oshima depicts the schism between concept and reality in Tokyo Senso Sengo Hiwa ("The Man Who Left His Will on Film"), a film about revolutionary activity, despair and frustration of the young. Student demonstrations in 1969 are filmed by other students, who see this as a way of participating. One of the filmers is thought to have committed suicide, but the film in his camera only contains nondescript street scenes. When one young man realizes that these scenes all relate to his own life, he commits the suicide ascribed to the filmer. (ATG / Sozosha)

Shinoda Masahiro directs Buraikan ("Buraikan" aka "The Scandalous Adventures of Buraikan"), about the mindless, pleasure-seeking world of the late Tokugawa period, making sure viewers see the parallel with their own times. Based on a script by Terayama Shuji (who in turn used a Kabuki play by Kawatake Mokuami), and with Nakadai Tatsuya and Iwashita Shima, this film offers a pulsating flow of vignettes from Japan during the Tenpo Reforms of 1842. A lazy fortune teller wants to become a famous kabuki actor and marry a prominent geisha, against the will of his imperious mother. Through this runs the story of an outlaw (Tanba Tetsuro) who opposes the political and social reforms undertaken at that time, which forbid all pleasure and ban the popular theater. But the film ends with the realization (typical of the seventies) that revolution is meaningless as one power will always be replaced by another. One of Shinoda's finest films. (Ninjin Club)

Dodeskaden is the first film Kurosawa Akira makes since Red Beard in 1965; it is also his first color film. Based on a novel by Yamamoto Shugoro, the film focuses on the lives of a group of people who live on a rubbish dump. A mentally challenged boy runs around fanatically playing that he is both a tram and its driver ("dodeskaden" is an onomatopoeia for the sound the tram makes). The film - which was unlike anything Kurosawa had made before and may have disappointed fans who were hoping for another Yojimbo - was a financial failure which sent Kurosawa into such a deep depression that he tried to commit suicide in 1971. It would be another five years before he could make his next film, and that would be in the Soviet Union. Dodesukaden was the only film made by an independent producer set up by Kurosawa with three other directors, Kinoshita Keisuke, Kobayashi Masaki and Ichikawa Kon (Yonki no Kai). Nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. (Yonki no Kai)

Kazoku ("Where Spring Comes Late," lit. "The Family") by Yamada Yoji is one of the best non-Tora-san films of this prolific director. It is a road movie of how a family consisting of husband (Igawa Hisashi), wife (Baisho Chieko), a boy, a baby girl and the husband's father (Ryu Chishu) moves from the southern island of Kyushu to work on a livestock farm in northern Hokkaido. It is the year of the Osaka Expo, which is also visited by the family (although they can't actually enter because of the endless lines waiting at the gates). It is interesting to see Japan in its energetic period of high growth. The film was made on location and contrasts the beautiful but severe nature of Hokkaido with the grimy mine where the husband used to work, or the chemical complex they visit on the way where his brother is employed, as well as with the hectic atmosphere of the big cities Osaka and Tokyo the family passes through. It has its sentimental moments when the baby girl dies on the way through neglect (the family had carried it to the Expo without resting) and when Grandpa closes his eyes for good just after settling down in Hokkaido, but is basically a life affirming film. Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film of the Year. (Shochiku)

Hasebe Yasuharu opens the genre of "pinky violence" (films combining eroticism with action-packed stories) with a youth film, Nora Neko: Onna Bancho ("Stray Cat Rock: Delinquent Girl Boss"), about a gang of young women. The film was meant as a vehicle for popular singer Wada Akiko, but she was put in the shadow by her charismatic co-star Kaji Meiko. Wada plays a biker who comes to the assistance of Kaji and her girl gang, when these are pursued by a male gang in league with a sinister rightist owning a private army (like Mishima Yukio). The film has its exploitative moments, but also presents the theme of female empowerment. A dynamic movie with freewheeling camerawork by director Hasebe, that spawned four sequels. (Hori Production / Nikkatsu)

Zatoichi to Yojinbo ("Zatoichi meets Yojimbo") by Okamoto Kihachi is one of the most interesting entries in the long Zatochi series. It shows a conflict between two great sword fighters (Yojinbo is of course the hero of Kurosawa's eponymous film) and also the clash of two great egos, Katsu Shintaro and Mifune Toshiro. Of course, it ends in a sort of draw. It is one of the last films in the long series (a total of 25 films), as the collaboration of Katsu Productions with tottering Daiei was coming to an end. In the mid-seventies, Zatoichi would move to the small screen for a five year - 100 episode run. The popular character of the blind gambler / swordsman would then be revived by Katsu Shintaro in 1989 and by Kitano Takeshi in 2003. (Katsu Productions / Daiei)

1971
Nikkatsu launches its "Roman Porno" series with Danchizuma: Hirusagari no joji ("Apartment Wife: Affair In the Afternoon"), directed by Nishimura Shogoro and starring Shirakawa Kazuko. The film becomes a hit, inspiring twenty sequels within seven years, and establishes Shirakawa as Nikkatsu's first "Queen." Nikkatsu would focus on these higher-quality pink films, making them for the next 17 years at an average rate of three per month, taking the market away from lower quality pink productions. Nikkatsu gave its directors a great deal of artistic freedom in creating their films, as long as they met the "minimum quota" of four nude scenes per hour. The series was not only popular with audiences, but also with critics: in the seventies, Roman Porno films would appear with some regularity on the lists of Best Films of Kinema Junpo. The boom ended in the mid-1980s, when the VCR killed the theatrical pornographic film. (Nikkatsu)

Sho o suteyo machi e deyo ("Throw Away Your Books, Rally in the Streets") is the first feature-length film made by avant-garde poet and dramatist Terayama Shuji (1935-1982), one of the most provocative creative artists to come out of Japan. The youth culture film shows the disintegration of a family as a metaphor for Japan's descent into materialism. The protagonist is a young man who in contrast to his family members who have resigned themselves to their downward spiral, is determined to achieve something in life. But the result is that he grows increasingly disillusioned. Won the grand prize at the San Remo Film Festival. (ATG / Jinriki Hikokisha)

Oshima directs Gishiki ("The Ceremony"), summarizing Japan's postwar history in the depiction of a provincial family of status and their marriages and funerals, all "ceremonies." It is a masterful film, one of Oshima's best: while all characters are fully rounded, each of them also personifies a certain facet of Japanese society. The film is also more melodramatic than usual for Oshima. The complex family relationships are observed through the eyes of a son born in Manchuria and returned home after the war. The family is dominated by an authoritarian grandfather, bringing up the theme of lingering vestiges of patriarchy in the modern family, of the nation's imperialist and militarist traditions, and of the disillusionment of the younger generation, who have no new ideals or beliefs with which to resist the old order. Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film of the Year. (ATG / Sozosha)

Tsuchimoto Noriaki shakes the world with a documentary dedicated to the Minamata mercury poisoning incident, Minamata: Kanja-san to sono sekai ("Minamata: The Victims and Their World"). The documentary was screened at various film festivals and won numerous awards. (Higashi Productions)

1972
Kumashiro Tatsumi's Ichijo Sayuri: Nureta yokujo ("Sayuri Ichijo - Following Desire" aka "Ichijo's Wet Lust") on the anarchistic life of a stripper wins critical acclaim: it won the Kinema Junpo Awards for Best Director, Best Screenplay and Best Actress. Ichijo Sayuri was a very popular real-life stripper and she appears here in a fictionalized account of her life. She is a vigorous woman, who gives a brilliant and humorous performance in this - her only - film. In the story, she is in competition with a younger stripper called Harumi (Shirakawa Kazuko), both trying to outdo the other by the extremity of their strip acts. The police several times raid the show (as happened in real life). The women bear the brunt while their (male) managers are allowed to go free. But this is basically a film full of fun, in racy Osaka dialect. Both strippers are a far cry from the idealized passive woman of Japanese culture: they are lively, talkative, aggressive, manipulative, and always full of humor and humanity - something unusual for the genre. (Nikkatsu)

Kumashiro Tatsumi (1927-1995) was with Tanaka Noboru the most important director of Nikkatsu's Roman Porno. He made films full of life and freedom, focusing on strong, active women, but also often marked by nihilism. His style was one of gritty realism.

In the same year another Nikkatsu film, Yamaguchi Seiichiro's Koi no Karyudo ("Love Hunter") with Tanaka Mari, managed to be banned for obscenity, and its director was arrested. This was the last time a film was prosecuted for obscenity in Japan, and in 1978 the trial ended in a declaration of "not obscene."

Tenshi no kokotsu ("The Ecstasy of Angels") by Wakamatsu Koji. A militant revolutionary group is torn apart by dissent as its members descend into paranoia and sexual decadence. As usual, Wakamatsu combines sexploitation with radical politics. Here, he anticipated the future real-life attacks by the extreme left, making this ATG's most controversial film. (ATG / Wakamatsu Production)

Shinobugawa ("The Long Darkness") by Kumai Kei. A delicate study of the relationship between two disillusioned young people (played by Kato Go and Kurihara Komaki), coming to terms with a traumatic past, whose mutual affection gives them the strength to face the vicissitudes of life. Great shots of the decaying lumberyards in Tokyo's Fukagawa. The use of black and white saves the story from sentimentality. Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film of the Year. (Haiyuza)

Kumai Kei (1930-2007) was an auteurist director with a slender but intelligent output in which he often asked attention for social problems. His camera work is characterized by restraint, and that same quality is apparent in his use of black and white in some of his films of the seventies, when color was the norm.

Gunki hatameku moto ni ("Under the Flag of the Rising Sun") by Fukasaku Kinji is a powerful anti-war, anti-authority tale about one man's fate on the front lines of World War II, and his widow's attempts to find out how and why he met his death by firing squad in New Guinea in the last days of the war (and clear his name so that she can get a pension). Everyone she approaches tells a different story, not because the truth cannot be known as in Rashomon, but out of hypocrisy. Fukasaku mingles fictional narrative with documentary-type film fragments of bloody combat, starved corpses, and the cruel ruin and waste that attend battle. (Shinsei Eigasha)

Tabi no omosa ("Journey into Solitude") by Saito Koichi is the story of a sixteen year-old girl (Takahashi Yoko) who is unsatisfied with her life and suddenly leaves her mother (Kishida Kyoko) to start hiking the 88-temple pilgrimage of Shikoku. The girl (who is never named in the film) meets all kinds of people and her various experiences make her pilgrimage a sort of voyage of self-discovery. (Shochiku)

Saito Koichi (1929-2009), a movie stills photographer turned director, broke through with a series of movies about young people searching for their identity in the countryside. Saito made his best films in the 1970s, when his success allowed him to continue filming while many of his colleagues were forced into silence.

Furusato ("Home from the Sea") by Yamada Yoji is a drama about life in the island communities of the Inland Sea. A couple (Igawa Hisashi and Baisho Chieko) makes their living by transporting rocks to construction sites with their old boat, but their chosen lifestyle becomes increasingly difficult to maintain. They have to decide whether once more to repair their tottering boat or give up altogether and move to Onomichi for an industrial job. Ryu Chishu again plays the grandfather. A strong depiction of atmosphere and environment; the love of the couple for their leisurely island country overwhelmed by modernization is impressive. (Shochiku)

This year, Yamada Yoji also makes one of the best Tora-san films (the 9th installment of 48), Otoko wa tsuraiyo - Shibamata bojo ("It's Tough to be a Man - Tora-san's Dear Old Home"), with former Nikkatsu youth-film star Yoshinaga Sayuri as "madonna." She plays Utako, a girl whom itinerant peddler Tora-san (Atsumi Kiyoshi) meets on a beach in Fukui, where she is holidaying with her friends. Utako is unhappily bound to her divorced and aging father, a writer, and secretly longs to marry a potter in the faraway countryside, but as usual Tora-san mistakenly believes she is in love with him. This leads to various complications with his family when she comes to visit them in Shibamata. A very funny comedy that deserves to be better known outside Japan, just like the other Tora-san films (see my post about Atsumi Kiyoshi and the Tora-san films). (Shochiku)

Ito Shunya makes Joshu Nana-maru-ichi-go / Sasori ("Female Convict 701: Scorpion") featuring Kaji Meiko as a violent female convict - an example of Toei's "pinky violence." After being cruelly set up by Sugimi, a crooked detective who also happens to be her boyfriend, and stabbing him on the steps of the police headquarters, Matsushima Nami ends up in a woman's prison run by sadistic guards. But Sugimi is still alive and sets up a scheme to have Nami killed in prison as she knows to much about his sinister deals. Little does he realize how great Nami's thirst for revenge is... Scorpion would become a series of four and also several remakes would be attempted. (Toei)

Kozure Okami: Ko wo kashi udekashi tsukamatsuru ("Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance") by Misumi Kenji is a delightful zankoku jidaigeki: it tells the story of Ogami Itto, a wandering assassin for hire who is accompanied by his young son Daigoro sitting in a baby cart that has been rigged to conceal various weapons. Based on a popular manga. Energetic and fun genre movie, the first in a series of six. (Katsu Production / Toho)

1973
The extremely violent Jinginaki tatakai ("Battles Without Honor and Humanity") by Fukasaku Kinji, with Sugawara Bunta, becomes a box office hit. This first jitsuroku yakuza film gave the death blow to the popularity of ninkyo films, replacing them by gloomy violent films of gangster battles. The film chronicles the tribulations of Hirono Shozo (Bunta Sugawara), an ex-soldier and street thug in post-war Hiroshima and neighboring Kure. Cruel film full of ferocious fights, filmed with a hand-held camera. First in a series of five, made by Fukasaku in just two years. Won the 1974 Kinema Junpo Awards for Best Film, Best Actor (Sugawara) and Best Screenplay. (Toei)

The Roman Porno film Yojohan fusuma no urabari ("The World of Geisha") by Kumashiro Tatsumi, starring Miyashita Junko, is included by Kinema Junpo in their list for best ten films of the year of 1973. It  has been called a masterful film, rich in emotion, anarchy and nihilism. The story, set in 1918, focuses on tensions among the inhabitants of a geisha house and especially on the fact that one geisha falls in love with a customer, thereby breaking house rule No. 1. The lead male character in the film, who has been raised in a brothel and is accustomed to the company of prostitutes, is a typical ninaime character: irresponsible and only dedicated to sensual pleasure - but this makes him also sympathetic. The film is more stylish than Kumashiro's usual work, playing games with linear storytelling. Based on an "underground" erotic novel by Nagai Kafu. (Nikkatsu)

Yoshida Yoshishige directs part three of his trilogy of Japanese radicalism, Kaigenrei ("Coup d'Etat" aka "Martial Law"). The film is an account of the failed militarist coup of February 26, 1936, and has also been described as a freestyle biopic of Kita Ikki, the ultra-nationalist intellectual whose ideas inspired the coup (and who also featured prominently in Suzuki Seijun's Elegy to Violence of 1966). The film's experimental cinematography brought it wide critical acclaim. (ATG / Gendai Eigasha)

Tsugaru jongarabushi ("Tsugaru Folk Song") by Saito Koichi. A gangster and his girlfriend hide out in a fishing village (the girl's hometown) to elude pursuing gangsters. Bored at first, the protagonist is gradually drawn into the community around him, discovering a new home, despite the bleakness of the surroundings. Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film of the Year. (ATG / Saito Koichi Production)

Matatabi ("The Wanderers") by Ichikawa Kon. A bitter satire about homeless, wandering toseinin, itinerant gamblers, wearing blue capes and flat-topped sedge hats. Sometimes these were free spirits, young men who adapted the code of yakuza behavior so that they could be assured of free lodging in any town where there was a yakuza organization. But in this bleak film they meet only death and in the end the yakuza code compels one of them to kill his own father. (ATG)

Shura Yuki Hime ("Lady Snowblood"), based on a manga, is an over-the-top violent movie about a woman who takes vengeance on three men who raped her mother and killed her father and brother. With Kaji Meiko in the title role; directed by Fujita Toshiya. Cartoonish but effective story - Yuki hides her blade in the stem of her umbrella a la Zatoichi - although the "fountains of blood" are rather too unrealistic. Was a major influence on Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill films. There was one sequel. (Toho)

Karayuki-san ("Karayuki-san, the Making of a Prostitute") by Imamura Shohei is a fine documentary about a Japanese woman (again from Japan's outcast class) sent to Malaysia in her youth and forced to become a prostitute. She choose not to return to Japan after the war, and is now, in her mid-seventies, the widow of an Indian shopkeeper. Like Madame Onboro (in Imamura's documentary from 1970), she remains cheerful, never complaining about what must have been a harrowing life.

1974
Terayama Shuji directs Den'en ni Shisu ("Pastoral Hide and Seek"), a beautiful avant-garde film of erotic folklore. Set in the remote Shimokita Peninsula of Aomori Prefecture, around Mt. Osore which in legend marks the entrance to hell, the film tells about an adolescent boy trying to escape his overprotective mother and the traditional values of the superstitious countryside. It also pays attention to budding eroticism - the teenager is in love with the married woman next door - and to his brush with the frightening world outside in the form of a visiting circus. Entered into the 1975 Cannes Film Festival. (ATG / Terayama Productions) (See my post about Japanese Cult Films)

Independent film maker Kuroki Kazuo produces Ryoma ansatsu ("The Assassination of Ryoma"), a film that shows us the last three days in the life of Sakamoto Ryoma (1836-1867), an imperial loyalist who is a popular historical figure in Japan (here played by Harada Yoshio) - bringing the legend to a human level by stressing the hero's fearfulness and ordinariness, and inviting a comparison with the director's own time. Shot like a documentary with a hand-held camera. (ATG / Eiga Dojinsha)

Kuroki Kazuo (1930-2006) was a belated contributor to the New Wave, who made very individualistic and imaginative films. He first worked in documentary, before moving to feature films in the late sixties. Ryoma ansatsu is considered as his best work. In other films, Kuroki often touched on the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Sandakan Hachiban Shokan: Bokyo ("Sandakan No. 8") by Kumai Kei. A women journalist (Kurihara Komaki) interviews an elderly woman (Tanaka Kinuyo, who won Best Actress for her performance at Berlin) who was forced into foreign prostitution, the fate of many poor Japanese women who were trafficked to East and South-East Asia in the first half of the 20th century. They were called "Karayuki-san," a phenomenon for which Imamura Shohei had also asked attention in his documentary from the previous year, as he would do again in his feature Zegen. Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film of the Year. (Haiyuza Film Production Company / O&R Productions)

Hana to hebi ("Flower and Snake") by Konuma Masaru is the first "roman porno" film starring the popular Tani Naomi, after an SM novel by Dan Oniroku, Japan's best known author of such fiction. A company president is rebuffed by his wife and hires his manager - whom he caught in the possession of bondage photos - to make his wife "sexually submissive." Visually a lush film, although viewers will be offended by the spectacle of women being twisted and stretched in every way imaginable. The bondage extravaganza was remade in 2004 by Ishii Takashi.  (Nikkatsu)

Suna no utsuwa ("Castle of Sand") by Nomura Yoshitaro, after a novel by Matsumoto Seicho (in a heavily abridged English version translated as Inspector Imanishi Investigates). In Japan this film was acclaimed as Nomura's masterpiece, but in fact his earlier thrillers, as Stakeout (1958) and Zero Focus (1961) are much more intelligent. Suna no utsuwa is a rather conventional police procedural flawed by a laborious flashback denouement. The only interesting thing is that it touches on the ostracism of sufferers of leprosy in Japan at that time. (Shochiku)

Izu no odoriko ("The Izu Dancer"), by Nishikawa Katsumi (a director who specialized in rather superficial remakes of classics), was purely a star vehicle for teenage idol Yamaguchi Momoe, a prettily photographed story of passion without sexuality or depth. Forgettable, but I mention it here because such films were popular at the time. (Toho)

Another superficial but sensational phenomenon were disaster movies (popular like in Hollywood), of which the most famous example is Nihon chinbotsu ("Japan Sinks" aka "Tidal Wave"), based on an SF novel by Komatsu Sakyo about ominous happenings in the Japan Trench. Roger Ebert called it "a wretched failure, a feeble attempt to paste together inept special effects." I could not agree more, but it caused a sensation in Japan and spawned a lot of later disaster movies. (Toho)

Gekitistu! Satsujinken ("The Streetfighter") is a popular cult film, especially outside Japan, starring Sonny Chiba. These Japanese kungfu films, containing lots of gratuitous violence, were one of Toei's franchises in the 1970s. It became one of the grindhouse films liked by Quentin Tarantino, who also cast Sonny Chiba in Kill Bill. (Toei)

Gokushiteki erosu - Renka 1974 ("Extreme Private Eros - Love Song 1974") by Hara Kazuo is an excruciatingly private and masochistic documentary, in which the filmer documents the break-up of his relation with a woman called Miyuki, who first moves to Okinawa (where she meets various bar girls and also has a relation with an African-American soldier) and later joins a women's commune. (Shisso Production)
A History of Japanese Film by Year:
1896-1909 - First Stirrings
1910-1919 - Development
1920-1929 - Art Films and Nihilistic Heroes
1930-1939 - Social Realism and Shoshimin-Eiga
1940-1949 - Censorship during War and Occupation
1950-1954 - Golden Age of the Classical Studio System
1955-1959 - Taiyozoku and other Youth Films
1960-1964 - The New Wave
1965-1969 - Independent Productions
1970-1974 - Sex and Violence
1975-1979 - Decline and Stagnation
1980-1989 - Disintegration of the Studio System
1990-1994 - The Rise of Indies
1995-1999 - Revival
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.]