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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.]