In 1967, also ATG which until then had mainly been a distribution company, started seriously producing films. Their typical policy was to put up half the production budget in partnership with a director's own company, which put up the other half. The importance of ATG in sustaining the New Wave cannot be overestimated. Oshima's films from 1968 through 1972 were all ATG co-productions / distributions, while other crucial films of the movement, such as Shinoda's Double Suicide, Hani's Inferno of First Love and Yoshida's Eros + Massacre, were similarly ATG partnerships.
In the second half of the 1960s, the financial position of the studios had deteriorated so much, that they could not produce the films of their prestige directors any more. Typically, Kurosawa Akira made his last film with Toho in 1965 (already since 1960 he had been helping Toho by financing part of his expensive films with his own production company). Now, he had so much difficulty bringing the money for his next film together, that he had to remain idle until 1970.
Behind this all was also a change in the movie-going public. Married women (often living in the suburbs) preferred to watch their favorite home dramas on television. The same was true for the elderly who could also find their favorite, Toei-type friendly period drama on TV. Men above 30 were too busy to go to the cinema in this period of high economic growth. Young women favored romantic Western films and didn't want to go to cinemas where the public consisted mainly of men. So young unmarried men were the only category left as movie-goers of Japanese films. Their preference was for violent and generally anti-social films, which were not available on TV.
For this reason, genre films became more cruel and extreme, as is clear from the fad for ninkyo yakuza films, which was strongest in these years. Sex was also on the rise as a component, as is evident from the rise in "pink films," and also in the films of Wakamatsu Koji, although it must be said that for Wakamatsu sex was not about pleasure but rather a means of social criticism. His films were not typical "pink films," but underground films with a sexy touch that availed themselves of the eroduction distribution system.
There are now 4,649 cinemas in Japan and the number of films produced is 487 (66.7% of total films shown). The number of admissions has sunk to 372,676,000.
Etsuraku ("Pleasures of the Flesh") by Oshima Nagisa. A young man is blackmailed into keeping a suitcase full of embezzled money until the thief, a high-ranking government official, gets out of prison. He can't go to the police because the embezzler witnessed the young man commit a murder (he has killed the man who raped a girl he is in love with). The young man decides to spend the money on "pleasure" (he starts by hiring a call girl to live with him) and then commit suicide, as life is anyway empty. Parable of the nouveau-riche Japanese nation that lacks ideals. (Sozosha)
Yoshida Yoshishige, Mizu de kakareta monogatari ("A Story Written with Water"), is a family drama a la Ozu (Yoshida was the only New Wave director who greatly admired the Master), only much harsher and with the eroticism lacking in Ozu but always strong in Yoshida. Shizuka (Okada Mariko) and Denzo (Yamagata Isao) have had a long affair, which is also known to Shizuo, the son of Shizuka. He starts even doubting who his real father is and this doubt becomes acute when he is recommended to marry Yumiko (Asaoka Ruriko), the daughter of Denzo. To complicate things, Shizuo also harbors repressed incestuous desires for his mother, and these will surface with fatal consequences... Beautifully shot film, the first one Yoshida made with his own production company. (Chunichi Eigasha)
Utsukushisa to kanashimi to ("Beauty and Sadness" - the translation "With Beauty and Sorrow" one often sees is wrong) is a bungei film by Shinoda Masahiro based on Kawabata Yasunari's eponymous novel. A girl who is in love with her (female) painting teacher decides to destroy the middle-aged married man who once made the teacher pregnant and then left her. The girl seduces the man's son and causes him to die in a boating accident. (Shochiku)
Ibun Sarutobi Sasuke ("Samurai Spy"), also by Shinoda Masahiro, is a period film with a twist. It is about spies, counter-spies and double spies battling each other around the year 1600, when the Tokugawa regime was established, but on a deeper level it tells a story of disillusionment with politics. Ordinary men like Sarutobe, the low-level spy who is the protagonist, just want to live their life in peace. (Shochiku)
Kabe no naka no himegoto ("Secrets Behind the Wall") by Wakamatsu Koji. In a housing complex, a Communist party member with a keloid scar and his lover have sex in front of Stalin's picture. An introverted student practices voyeurism rather than studying and finally assaults his sister in the shower and then attacks and murders the neighboring housewife. Entered into the 15th Berlin International Film Festival, something which gave rise to much indignation in Japan, for it exposed the grimy underbelly of the country abroad, just after the prestigious Tokyo Olympics. The official channels had of course been by-passed, but rather by the German organizers than Wakamatsu, who initially was not even aware of the selection. But it meant that only two years after Wakamatsu had started on the lowest rung of the film world, he now was an international star. Also influential critics in Japan as Oshima Nagisa and Teruyama Shuji backed up Wakamatsu, and later ATG would become interested and even enable him to get to Cannes in 1971. (Wakamatsu Pro)
Wakamatsu Koji (1936-2012) was a maker of independent, self-produced and extremely low-budget underground films, walking a fine line between sexual exploitation and strong leftist political commentary. He came from a rural background and had been a construction worker after coming to Tokyo at age 17. His first contact with the film world was made when he worked for a local yakuza group in Shinjuku and had to act as scout to indicate that crews on location shoots had mob approval. Wakamatsu's films are outrageous in their sickening violence and excesses. But his artificial theatricality also creates distance and alienation (like Brecht or Godard), and provokes the viewers into questioning their own reaction to the onscreen violence. In his films of the sixties and early seventies, Wakamatsu often teemed up with far left screenwriter (and director in his own right) Adachi Masao.
Takechi Tetsuji, the maker of Daydreams, the first mainstream "pink film" in Japan, shocks with another work, Kuroi yuki ("Black Snow"). It is the story of a young man who, after spying on his mother embracing an African American serviceman, finds himself impotent unless fondling a loaded gun. Finally, he murders the GI before running amok; he is then shot by U.S. soldiers. After the release of this film, Takechi was arrested on indecency charges. The trial became a public battle over censorship between Japan's intellectuals and the government. Oshima Nagisa, Suzuki Seijin, Abe Kobo and Mishima Yukio all stood on the side of Takechi. Takechi won the lawsuit, enabling the wave of softcore pink films which came to dominate the cinema during the latter 1960s and 1970s. (Daisan Pro)
Shunpuden ("Story of a Prostitute") by Suzuki Seijun charts the experiences of Japanese "comfort women" in wartime China. A disillusioned woman (Nogawa Yumiko) becomes a volunteer prostitute for the Japanese troops in Manchuria. After she and a soldier fall in love, they make a futile escape into the desert, only to die in a sandstorm. The second adaptation of a novel by Tamura Taijiro (the first one was Akatsuki no Dasso, "Escape at Dawn" by Taniguchi Senkichi from 1950, a much softer version as it had been censored). (Nikkatsu)
Irezumi ichidai ("Tattooed Life") by Suzuki Seijun is a generic ninkyo yakuza story set in the Taisho period, given depth by the detailed recreation of the specific milieu. A yakuza boss is coerced to kill a rival gang leader, after which he has to flee with his artistic younger brother while his own gang turns on him. They start working in a mine, but are recognized as yakuza because of their tattoos. When the younger brother is killed, the older brother has to avenge him, showing he can't escape from his "tattooed life." (Nikkatsu)
Tokyo Orinpikku ("Tokyo Olympiad") by Ichikawa Kon is a revolutionary sports documentary that concentrates on the human, rather than the athletic or nationalistic aspects of the games. Criticized in Japan because it didn't give enough attention to the successes of the Japanese athletes. (Organizing Committee for the XVIII Olympiad)
Akahige ("Red Beard") by Kurosawa Akira explores the relation between an elder, autocratic doctor (Mifune Toshiro) called "Red Beard" who runs a public clinic giving free care to the poor and a young, ambitious doctor (Kayama Yuzo) who has studied modern Dutch medicine in Nagasaki. The young intern first is arrogant and rebellious, proud of his bookish knowledge, but gradually comes to understand how difficult the work is that Red Beard is humbly performing among the poor. A celebration of human goodness, altruism and compassion. Excellent characterization and perfectionism into the smallest details of the mise-en-scene, but also a rather long, talky and static period film (with no swordplay). Stark, austere scenes show the grim atmosphere in the clinic. The last Kurosawa film in which Mifune Toshiro appears. Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film of the Year and Moscow Film Festival Soviet Film-makers' Association Prize. (Toho)
Heitai Yakuza ("The Hoodlum Soldier") by Masumura Yasuzo is film about life in the barracks among Japanese infantry and artillery men stationed in Manchuria, where everyday forms a repetition of the previous one, and loyalty to the group, duty and hierarchy are of utmost importance. But the two main characters are different from their colleagues: a disillusioned, pacifist sergeant (Tamura Takahiko) and a recruit with a yakuza background (Katsu Shintaro), the hoodlum soldier of the title. These two become buddies through their shared hatred of the army. In the end they try to desert by stealing a train. Filled with torture and horseplay, this film is so cynical about national ideas that there was talk of not releasing it abroad. But in Japan it was very popular and fathered a chain of seven sequels (1965-1972). (Daiei)
Samurai ("Samurai Assassin") by Okamoto Kihachi is about a ronin (Mifune Toshiro) who in the last years of the shogunate falls in with a group of assassins plotting to kill a counselor of the shogunate. What Mifune's character doesn't realize is that this man is also his very own father. Great cinematography and a climactic battle taking place in a blinding snowstorm. Mifune is the opposite from his trickster character in Yojinbo: here he is a psychologically scarred man, who is cruelly manipulated by a wily schemer. (Mifune Productions / Toho)
Uchida Tomu directs Kiga Kaikyo ("Hunger Straits" aka "Fugitive from the Past"), a dark and powerful police procedural crime film, that is also a critique of Japanese society. Interlocking stories of two persons, a prostitute and a police detective, searching for the same fugitive. Shot in great black-and-white CinemaScope. Based on a novel by Mizukami Tsutomu. (Toei)
Kedamono no Ken ("Sword of the Beast") is the second period film by Gosha Hideo. Low-level swordsman Gennosuke is on the run after taking part in a plot to kill one of his clan's ministers. His comrades have turned on him, and he is so shaken by their betrayal that he bitterly decides to live as a ronin. Next he encounters a motley group who are illegally mining the shogun's gold, and, with the aid of another swordsman, gets a chance to recover his honor. (Shochiku)
Abashiri Bangaichi ("Abashiri Prison") by Ishii Teruo with Takakura Ken is an entertaining ninkyo yakuza potboiler, the start of a new series after becoming a huge box office hit. Ishii Teruo helmed the first ten films of the series, after which other directors took over for another eight films. Instrumental in making a great star of Takakura Ken as a basically good-hearted yakuza. This first film contains a breath-taking escape sequence, in which Takakura Ken flees handcuffed to another convict in a railway handcar hurtling down a steep mountain in the desolate snow country of Hokkaido. (Toei) (See my post about yakuza movies)
Ishii Teruo (1924-2005) was director of SF children's films at Shintoho before moving to Toei where he worked as a prolific director of well-regarded thrillers. From the late 1960s on, he also directed various notorious exploitation films full of stylish savagery which established his name as a cult director.
Showa Zankyoden ("An Account of the Last Knights of the Showa Era") by Saeki Kiyoshi, with Takakura Ken and Ikebe Ryo as his older ally who aids him in the final melee with the large gang. This series saw nine entries between 1965 to 1972. The main difference with the Nihon Kyokyakuden series is that the stories are set in the more modern Showa-period in which chivalry was an even rarer item and that Ikebe Ryo always is killed in the ultra-violent finale. (Toei) (See my post about yakuza movies)
Nihon Ichi no Goma-suri Otoko ("The Greatest Flatterer in Japan") stars Ueki Hitoshi, who again provides a guide for "proper" salaryman conduct. He adroitly uses flattery to get a promotion, without being in any way obsequious like "salarymen" from the past - he in fact adroitly "uses" his superiors. (Toho)
Via Daikaiju Gamera ("Gamera"), made by Yuasa Noriaki, also Daiei jumps on the monster movie bandwagon. Gamera is a flying, fire-breathing giant turtle. In a riff on the first Godzilla film, he has been awakened by the crash of a Russian bomber in the Antarctic, that was carrying nuclear bombs. A Japanese scientist (Funakoshi Eiji) has to save the world. Last kaiju film in black and white. Gamera became an icon in its own right and like Godzilla still continues to haunt cinemas. (Daiei)
In many films made this year sex is the central theme. Erogotoshotachi - Jinruigaku Nyumon ("The Pornographers: Introduction to Anthropology") by Imamura Shohei is a dark satire about a man (Ozawa Shoichi) who makes 8-millimeter porno shorts, as an aid to repressed society, as he says, but also to augment the income of his widowed landlady and her family. He shares his landlady's bed (played by Sakamoto Sumiko, she imagines that he is her dead husband, although she also believes the man is now reincarnated as a carp in the fish-tank in the living room), and things are further complicated by a son with Oedipal feelings and an impudent adolescent daughter whom the pornographer himself lusts after. On top of that, the pornographer has to battle both the police and the local yakuza. In the end he drifts out to sea in a small skiff with a sex doll as his only companion. Full of subversive humor, although the treatment of taboos as voyeurism and incest sparked controversy when the film was released. As is usual for him, Imamura refrains from easy moralizing and just runs the wry story in front of our eyes so that we can make our own conclusions. Based on a novel by Nosaka Akiyuki. (Imamura Productions / Nikkatsu)
Onna no Mizuumi ("Lake of Women") by Yoshida Yoshishige. A married woman (Okada Mariko) has an affair. Her lover takes nude pictures of her and these end up in the possession of a man who starts blackmailing the couple. A critique of the subjugation of women as possessions and sexual objects. As usual in the films of Yoshida, the narrative is fractured and sometimes obscure. An expressionist tour-de-force. Loosely based on the novel The Lake by Kawabata Yasunari. (Gendai Eigasha)
Taiji ga mitsuryo suru toki ("The Embryo Hunts in Secret") by Wakamatsu Koji is a disturbing and claustrophobic film about a male boss who captures a female employee in his apartment and then proceeds to abuse and torture her. He also confesses that he had an oedipal relationship with his mother who hanged herself, and that his wife has cheated on him and left him. He alternatively abuses and caresses his victim, at one moment crying for his mother in a fetal position. At the end, the woman breaks free and kills her captor. The static location (entirely filmed in Wakamatsu's own apartment) is enlivened by dramatic framing and editing and innovative camera angles. (Wakamatsu Pro) (Also see my post about Japanese Cult Films)
Shokei no Shima ("Punishment Island" aka "Captive's sland") by Shinoda Masahiro tells the story of a man's vengeful search for the guard who tormented him during the war, when he was a prisoner in a reformatory on a small island. Flashbacks show the incredible cruelty he endured, as a sort of microcosm of the war. The torturer (a former Kempeitai officer) stands for the patriarchal and authoritarian system of old Japan. He is now only a shell of his former self. The man seeking revenge has him cut off his thumb as penance and then hurls that into the sea. A film that deals with the legacy of militarist tyranny both in political and in psychological terms. (Nissei Theatre)
Rikugun Nakano Gakko ("The Nakano Army School"), about a top secret spy school at the start of the Sino-Japanese war, is another movie by Masumura Yasuzo that is critical of Japan's military past. Ichikawa Raizo plays a young lieutenant who undergoes grueling and bizarre training and in the end has to make a difficult choice between personal life and duty. (Daiei)
Shiroi kyoto ("The White Tower") by Yamamoto Satsuo, and based on a novel by Yamasaki Toyoko, contrasts the life of two doctors, former classmates and now both assistant professors at Naniwa University Hospital in Osaka. The brilliant and ambitious surgeon Zaizen Goro stops at nothing to rise to an important position, while the friendly Satomi Shuji is content to be busy with his patients and his research. Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film of the Year and Silver Prize at the 5th Moscow International Film Festival (Daiei)
Tanin no Kao ("The Face of Another") by Teshigahara Hiroshi is one of the director's films based on the avant-garde novels of Abe Kobo. Nakadai Tatsuya plays an engineer whose face is severely burnt in a work-related accident and is fitted with a lifelike mask (but different from his original face). The scientist who has developed the mask cautions him that it may change his behavior and personality and even make him loose his sense of morality. To test the mask, the man proceeds to seduce his estranged wife (Kyo Machiko), which is surprisingly easy - and indeed, she confesses she knew all along who he was. A film of pure, surreal claustrophobia and a meditation on what a "face" is, in a country where Face is very important. (Teshigahara Productions / Tokyo Eiga)
Tokyo Nagaremono ("Tokyo Drifter") by Suzuki Seijun, with Watari Tetsuya. Suzuki transforms a conventional yakuza potboiler into a frenzied fantasia with eye-popping visuals, lurid colors, and weird camera angles, in this film in which a reformed yakuza hitman is unable to enjoy his new life as he has to keep on the run from his old rivals who are still eager to assassinate him. Both a satire on yakuza ideals as well as a revolt against the dumb genre films the intelligent and artistic director was forced to make. Suzuki reaches new heights of surrealism with lurid color schemes: a psychedelically yellow bar, or the final scene filmed on a white stage, with Watari Tetsuya dressed in white but his opponents in black. (Nikkatsu) (Also see my post about Japanese Cult Films)
Daibosatsutoge ("The Sword of Doom") by Okamoto Kihachi. Based on the novel by Nakazato Kaizan, which was filmed several times, Nakadai Tatsuya plays a sociopath samurai who is drunken with killing and goes completely berserk. The abrupt ending (originally a continuation was planned) in fact fits very well. An extremely violent film. (Takarazuka Eiga / Toho)
Tange Sazen: Hien aigiri ("The Secret of the Urn") by Gosha Hideo features a wonderful performance by Nakamura Kinnosuke as the one-eyed, one-armed samurai Tange Sazen. A light-hearted but entertaining remake of Yamanaka's film of 1935. (Toei)
Kutsukake Tokijiro ("Tokijiro of Kutsukake") by Kato Tai is a fine genre film, a matatabi jidaigeki from the years that even Toei had turned violent, with an intense performance by Nakamura Kinnosuke as the hero Tokijiro and as a bonus an early Atsumi Kiyoshi (of later Tora-san fame). Based on a story by Hasegawa Shin (adapted for the screen more than seven times!), about a wandering gambler who has to kill an to him unknown man as an obligation to a gang. In recompense, he takes on the responsibility of caring for the slain man's sick wife and child. (Toei)
Daiei also tries out another special effects series, Daimajin, made by Yasuda Kimiyoshi. It is about an ancient statue in the form of a giant haniwa warrior who comes to the rescue of a village oppressed by an evil tyrant. This franchise was less successful and stopped after the third film. (Daiei)
Novelist, playwright, dandy and morbid prankster Mishima Yukio makes the short film Yukoku ("Patriotism"), based on his own eponymous short story, in which he rehearses his suicide of four years later. Mishima plays a lieutenant who has taken part in the 2.26 failed coup attempt of 1936 and decides to commit seppuku together with his wife (played by Tsuruoka Yoshiko). They make passionate love (Mishima from his earliest work has linked eroticism with death) and then commit suicide to the tones of Liebestod from Wagner's Tristan and Isolde. There is no dialogue in the 30 min film (only intertitles), which is shot in a static way.
Katsu Shintaro, the star of the Zatoichi and Akumyo series, leaves the payroll of Daiei and sets up his own production company. This year, Daiei tumbles into the red.
Oshima makes Nihon Shunka-ko ("A Treatise on Japanese Bawdy Song"), an embittered portrait of a youth culture whose visions of sex and rebellion are nothing more than dreams. Four provincial students are in Tokyo for final exams and wander the city dreaming of sexual exploits, but their songs of protest and revolution and fantasies of love and sex lead nowhere. An ambiguous film that has been compared to Godard's La Chinoise. (Sozosha)
Another film by the same director is Muri Shinju Nihon no Natsu ("Japanese Summer: Double Suicide"), Oshima's most pulpy film. A man who is looking for someone to kill him and a woman seeking someone to make love to her find themselves stuck in a hideaway of revolutionaries (or gangsters), while an American sharpshooter is on the loose killing whoever comes his way. Ends in a big final gundown. But there are also absurd dialogues and Oshima's "brand" images of sex, death and the flag. (Sozosha)
Honoo to Onna ("Impasse") by Yoshida Yoshishige charts the gradual disintegration of a marriage due to the husband's sterility. The wife resorts to artificial insemination, but then seeks to exclude the husband from the upbringing of "her" child. The son later tries to find his biological father... (Gendai Eigasha / Shochiku)
Joen ("The Affair"), also by Yoshida Yoshishige, is about a young woman, married without love, who is haunted by the idea of her mother who had a passionate life with many lovers. She feels sexually repressed and guilty for the death of her mother. Liberation is only possible after she sleeps with one of her mother's lovers, a blue collar laborer. After a novel by Tachihara Masaaki. (Gendai Eigasha)
Wakamatsu Koji directs Okasareta hakui ("Violated Angels"), a sado-masochistic movie in which a young man (Kara Juro) breaks into a nurses' dormitory and proceeds to murder them one by one. The nurses are strangely passive. While going about his killing spree, he has recollections of the various problems he has had with women. The mostly improvised low-budget film was shot in just three days. A disturbing film, criticized for its anti-feminist and misogynistic sadism. (Wakamatsu Pro)
Koroshi no rakuin ("Branded to Kill") by Suzuki Seijun, with Shishido Jo. Again a film full of great visuals in this wild ride through the bypaths and alleys of the yakuza genre. Shishido plays a yakuza assassin who is vying for the place of No. 1 killer, but who is also despised by his sex-starved wife and who needs to sniff boiled rice as a turn-on. A butterfly who lands on his gun just as he is about to pull the trigger, makes him miss his target and instead kill an innocent bystander. A brilliant, modernist masterpiece. (Nikkatsu) (See my post about yakuza movies)
Imamura Shohei directs the documentary Ningen Johatsu ("A Man Vanishes"), in which a woman's private life is investigated through a hidden camera. (ATG / Imamura Productions)
Midaregumo ("Scattered Clouds") is the last film by Mikio Naruse, made two years before his death. Tsukasa Yoko plays a widow who falls in love with the driver (Kayama Yuzo) who accidentally killed her husband. She gives a beautifully restrained performance which indeed symbolizes the end of an era. (Toho)
Masumura Yasuzo makes Hanaoka Seishu no tsuma ("The Doctor's Wife") based on the eponymous novel by Ariyoshi Sawako about the first doctor in the world to operate a patient under a general anesthetic in 1804 (played by Ichikawa Raizo), with techniques going back to both Dutch and Chinese medicine. The main character is the doctor's wife (Wakao Ayako), who - in fierce competition with her mother-in-law - offers to test the powder that is used as anesthetic and as result goes blind. (Daiei)
Kenju wa ore no pasupooto ("A Colt is my Passport") by Nomura Takashi. Shishido Jo plays a hitman who on behalf of one gang, kills the boss of another gang. But when both gangs make up their differences and start a partnership, Shishido and his faithful driver are outlawed and hunted by both gangs. Escape is difficult, a last stand the only alternative - and the ending a surprise. A delicious noir film, set in Yokohama. (Nikkatsu)
The Japanese Art Theater (ATG) begins production of successful low-cost, experimental films.
As the New Left becomes more active, there is an increase in the number of independent productions of social documentaries.
Suzuki Seijun is fired by Nikkatsu's Hori Kyusaku after making the "incomprehensible" Koroshi no Rakuin, a move seen by Suzuki's many fans as a scapegoating of the studio's own flagging fortune. Suzuki becomes a cause celebre when he decides to take his former employers to court, a case that was finally concluded in 1971 with a settlement for Suzuki. But the long conflict had muddied his name and none of the major studios would have him. During a period of ten years Suzuki can make nothing else but commercials and TV dramas.
Koshikei ("Death by Hanging") by Oshima is an avant-garde anti-establishment film. Based on the real story of a Korean high school student who raped and killed two girls and was five years later hanged for his crime. Focuses on the problems of Koreans in Japan as well as on the subject of the death penalty. The botched hanging leaves its Korean victim an amnesiac. The first ATG production. Also Oshima's next film, Kaettekita Yopparai ("Three Resurrected Drunkards") is about Koreans in Japan, but this time with a lighter touch, a fable about the construction of artificial ethnic identity. (ATG / Sozosha)
Hatsukoi: Jigokuhen ("Nanami: The Inferno of First Love") by Hani Susumu. A teenage boy goes to a love hotel with a nude model. As he is shy, they start talking about their pasts. The boy is an orphan with a miserable childhood who is now caught in a dead-end job. The girl, after coming to Tokyo, could find no other work than that of a nude model (in fact S&M photo shoots). When the boy later comes to girl's house for a date, the gangsters who are exploiting her chase him away, right under a passing car, while she waits in vain for him in a nearby hotel. A bleak but seminal film, based on a script by Terayama Shuji. Shinjuku's nightspots are fascinatingly displayed and Hani is at his most documentary-like. Entered into the 18th Berlin International Film Festival (ATG / Hani Productions)
Kamigami no Fukaki Yokubo ("The Profound Desire of the Gods") by Imamura Shohei is a masterpiece set on the outlying tropical island of Kuragejima, recounted from a cultural anthropological viewpoint. It took 18 months to make the film which chronicles the clash between the animist (and sometimes rather bizarre) traditions of the islanders and modern materialism. An engineer has come from Tokyo to do advance research for the digging of a well for a local sugar mill. He becomes increasingly confused by the local customs, religious beliefs and incestuous relationships on the primitive island. A woman who acts as the local shaman priestess is loved by her own brother, but also makes sexual advances to the engineer. The brother has to dig a pit and remove a large rock to atone for certain transgressions, such as fishing with dynamite. To the same family belongs a mentally challenged young woman, who is abused by the patriarch, her grandfather, who is at the same time her father. The patriarch wants the engineer to marry this woman. Finally, the brother and sister lovers try to escape by sea, but the islanders give chase and are out to punish them; the demented girl is set up as the new priestess. The engineer returns to Tokyo; when years later he again visits the island it has been modernized and there is now a railway - but an apparition of the demented girl dances in front of the locomotive on the railway tracks. This costly film failed at the box office and led to Imamura's retreat into smaller, documentary-like films for the next decade. Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film of the Year. (Nikkatsu)
Yabu no naka no kuroneko ("Kuroneko") by Shindo Kaneto brings on the same sort of ghostly women as did Mizoguchi's Ugetsu. A mother and her daughter-in-law have been murdered by enemy troops in a period of civil unrest and after that their burned-out house is haunted by a black cat. Several passersby have been bewitched and killed. When the son and husband, a fierce young samurai, returns from the war, the governor assigns him the duty to quell what is evidently a ghost. He encounters the two women in an eerily beautiful scene... but will he be able to exorcise their wrath? Extremely stylized and beautifully filmed in black and white. (Toho) (Also see my post about Japanese horror films)
In Nikudan ("Human Bullet") Okamoto Kihachi examines the psychology of young kamikaze pilots at the end of WWII. Toho had asked him to make Nippon no ichiban nagai hi ("Japan's Longest Day") the previous year, about the difficult decision of Japan's surrender, but as he felt he had not been able to express his own ideas about the war sufficiently, he made Nikudan as an independent. It is a forceful black comedy that highlights the total absurdity of war. (ATG)
Fukasaku Kinji makes Kurotokage ("Black Lizard"), a campy cult film based on an "Ero-Guro Nansensu" detective novel by Edogawa Rampo and its theatrical adaptation by Mishima Yukio, who himself played an interesting cameo as the statue of a Greek wrestler. A famous female thief, the Black Lizard (played by drag queen Maruyama Akihiro) kidnaps the daughter of a jeweler in order to obtain a famous diamond. Detective Akechi Kogoro (Kimura Isao) follows the trail all the way to the lair of the thief on a remote island, where she keeps an eerie collection of human dolls. (Shochiku) (Also see my post about Japanese Cult Films)
Fukasaku Kinji (1930-2003) started as director of B-films at Toei, where he mainly made gritty yakuza films, the best ones with Tsuruta Koji. As these were produced at Toei's Tokyo studios, they were more realistic and modern than the ninkyo yakuza films Toei made at its Kyoto studios. Fukasaku's greatest success came with the series Battles Without Honor and Humanity which started in 1973, ultra-violent, documentary-style (often filmed with a hand-held camera) films set in post-war Hiroshima. In 1970, Fukasaku was recruited to direct the Japanese portion of the US-Japan war film, Tora! Tora! Tora!, after Akira Kurosawa pulled out. In the 1980s and 1990s he made several cult films, ending with the shocking Battle Royale in 2000.
Yamashita Kosaku directs Socho Tobaku ("Big-Time Gambling Boss"), usually considered as one of the best ninkyo yakuza movies ever made. Tsuruta Koji delivers a powerful performance as the unwilling executioner of four people he had no intention of harming, purely our of obeisance to the gang code, among them his close friend (Wakayama Tomisaburo) - who accepts his death with a smile. Finally Tsuruta goes after the human slime (with the same dirty upper lip as Hitler) whose machinations have caused all this havoc. Asked if he has forgotten the way of ninkyo, he replies: "I am just a low-down killer," and plunges in his knife. This is part four of the ten part Bakuto series. (Toei)
Hibotan Bakuto ("Red Peony Gambler") is the start of a highly popular series, with actress Fuji Junko in the main role of the knife-wielding female yakuza Oryu, a wandering gambler. Although some installments also figure Takakura Ken, Tsuruta Koji or Wakayama Tomisaburo, the top attraction is the alluring Fuji Junko who wears an immaculate kimono and has perfectly polite manners, but who also possesses nerves of steel and can kill in the blink of an eye. There would be eight installments until 1971. The best of these is the fourth installment, made in 1969, called Hibotan Bakuto: Hanafuda Shobu ("Red Peony Gambler: Flower Cards Match") by director Kato Tai and with Takakura Ken and Wakayama Tomisaburo. (Toei) (See my post about yakuza movies)
Ichikawa Raizo, who had become the sole remaining star actor at Daiei, dies of an illness. He was only 37. He made a total of 158 films during his short life.
Yoshida Yoshishige directs Erosu purasu gyakusatsu ("Eros + Massacre") is an avant-garde masterpiece examining sexual and political liberation. On the one hand the complex film follows the life of anarchist Osugi Sakae and his relationship with three women in the 1920s (including feminist Ito Noe, played by Okada Mariko), on the other hand as a sort of mirror it also shows how two radical students, who are both documentary film makers, in the film's present time are researching Osugi's theories (Osugi was an early advocate of free love, abolition of private property and women's liberation). (Gendai Eigasha / Bungakuza / ATG)
In the late 1960s the youth movements undergo a transformation throughout the world and in Shinjuku Dorobo Nikki ("Diary of a Shinjuku Thief") Oshima Nagisa depicts Shinjuku, the center of that transformation in Tokyo. The film has a documentary feel and tells the story of a young book thief who is caught by a store clerk. The two finally become lovers and start committing thefts together. Suggests a link between crime, sexual liberation and political change. Also mimics the artifice of Godard, the director to whom Oshima was closest in style and themes. (Sozosha / Kinokuniya)
Shonen ("Boy"), also by Oshima, is again based on a real incident: a couple has trained their small child to run in front of passing cars and pretend to be injured. They then demand financial compensation from the frightened drivers. The father, an army veteran who claims he is unable to work because of his wounds, first forced his wife to perform the dangerous scam, but when she was unable to do so any longer, the choice fell on the boy. The dysfunctional family has to keep moving around Japan as they can't perform the same scam twice in the same city. The chaotic family life and forced scams which lead to bruises take their toll on the traumatized boy, who once tries to run away. The final scene plays out in snowy Hokkaido (all outside scenes are shot on location) where the scam causes a fatal accident and ends with the arrest of the couple. (ATG / Sozosha)
In Shinju Ten no Amijima ("Double Suicide") Shinoda Masahiro mixes classical kabuki with avant-garde dramaturgy. Based on the puppet play by Chikamatsu Monzaemon from 1720. The austerely monochrome film is as unreal and stagy as possible. We see puppeteers (kuroko) move among the actors, as if manipulating them like puppets (symbolizing that the characters in the film are not free); walls and floors are covered with images from woodblock prints. Iwashita Shima plays both the wife of paper merchant Kohei, as the courtesan with whom he falls in love, as if to show that a man always pursues the same type of woman. Sex was allowed in Edo, just as in 19th c. France, but love was a no-go area as it meant the break-up of the family and social disgrace. Jihei therefore is torn between giri (the rules of society) and ninjo (his passion), which the film shows as mutually exclusive. Finally the two lovers conclude a double suicide pact to escape the rigid rules of society. Their last lovemaking takes suitably place in a graveyard. Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film of the Year. (ATG / Hyogensha) (Also see my post about Japanese Cult Films)
Bara no Soretsu ("Funeral Parade of Roses") by Matsumoto Toshio is a wildly experimental and truly Nouvelle Vague film about transvestites in Tokyo's Shinjuku ward. The story is about a club "madame" who is upstaged by one of her own transvestite employees. Avant-garde editing makes violence cartoonish, irrelevant images are cut into the movie at important moments and on screen the protagonists are even interviewed about their role in the film! The main role of Eddie is played by Peter, a transvestite actor, who also played the jester in Kurosawa's Ran. (ATG / Matsumoto Production Company)
Yuke yuke nidome no shojo ("Go, Go, Second Time Virgin") by Wakamatsu Koji is about the strange friendship between a girl, who has been violated by a gang of four boys on the flat roof of an apartment building and the teenager who happened to be a passive witness. They talk about the various forms of sexual abuse they both have suffered. The girl repeatedly asks the boy to kill her, but he refuses. When the gang returns for more of the same, the boy attacks them and kills them all. As he still refuses to kill the girl, they finally both jump to their deaths from the rooftop. (Wakamatsu Pro)
Shojo geba geba ("Violent Virgin") by Wakamatsu Koji is one of the more unusual entries in this director's repertoire. A gang of three men and three women bring a couple (Hoshi and Hanako) into a barren landscape (Wakamatsu filmed this at the foot of Mt. Fuji). It appears that Hanako was the girl of the gang's boss, but she eloped with Hoshi. They have been caught and now are going to be punished. They are both stripped naked and while Hanako is tied to a cross, Hoshi is told he will be "boss" for the day and all the female members make love to him before he will be killed. But Hoshi manages to strangle the first woman and escapes naked into the dunes, but that is not the end yet... the film gets only more bizarre. With its games centering on sex and power, the film is a kind of study of behavior in social groups; it can also be said to address the thin wall between man and beast. (Wakamatsu Pro)
Moju ("Blind Beast") by Masumura Yasuzo, with Funakoshi Eiji and Midori Mako. A blind sculptor kidnaps a young fashion model and keeps her in his Dali-esque cavernous studio decorated with female body parts executed in plaster. It is his dream to sculpt the perfect female form. Their strange sado-masochistic relationship reminds one of (the later) In the Realm of the Senses. Visually inventive, this is a tale of madness and obsession after an original story by Edogawa Ranpo. A true classic of erotic horror. (Daiei) (Also see my post about Japanese Cult Films)
Kyofu kikei ningen ("Horrors of Malformed Men") by Ishii Teruo. In Japan a controversial film, as it depicts people with physical deformations, played by Butoh actors (including Butoh founder Hijikata Tatsumi). A mad scientist, living on a private island, turns normal humans through surgery into monstrosities. Properly surrealistic, combining exploitation, perverse family relationships and experimental performance art into one bizarre and sadistic whole. There is however little real horror and the weak ending is a disappointment. Based on two novels by Edogawa Ranpo. (Toei) (Also see my post about Japanese Cult Films)
Akage ("Red Lion") by Okamoto Kihachi. Mifune (sporting a gorgeous red lion mane wig) plays a peasant who dreams of glory as a warrior during the chaotic period at the end of the Shogunate. He is manipulated and cheated on all sides, but what strikes the viewer is the enormous energy Mifune puts in his role. (Mifune Productions / Toho)
Goyokin by Gosha Hideo. Nakadai Tatsuya and Tanba Tetsuro face off when a clan on the snowy Japan Sea coast wants to steal the shogun's gold (mined at Sado Island and passing by this coast on transport ships) and exterminate a whole village that is witness to the crime - a crime that has already been committed before. Bushido is exposed as a hollow platitude used to cover up the criminal acts of despicable men. The film also shows the sympathy for the underdog which is a recurrent feature in Gosha's work. Great scenes in snowy landscapes and a riveting climax with eerily masked villagers dancing around a bonfire to the tune of huge taiko drums. (Fuji TV / Tokyo Eiga) (See my post on samurai movies)
Hitokiri ("Tenchu!"), also by Gosha, feautures Katsu Shintaro as a mad-dog ronin in desperate financial straights. The anti-hero sacrifices his life to get revenge on the man who betrayed him. Also with Nakadai Tatsuya, Ishihara Yujiro, and Mishima Yukio (who is again allowed to practice seppuku). (Fuji TV / Katsu Production)
Furin kazan ("Samurai banners") by Inagaki Hiroshi, based on a novel by Inoue Yasushi and script by Hashimoto Shinobu. One of the last great samurai epics made in Japan. Mifune Toshiro gives one of his greatest performances as the ruthlessly ambitious Yamamoto Kansuke, a strategist who systematically plots his way up the ladder, eventually becoming the trusted vassal of warlord Takeda Shingen (Nakamura Kinnosuke). The long film pays a lot of attention to the portrayal of military conquest and protocol and can become a bit tedious. (Mifune Productions / Toho)
Otoko wa tsurai yo ("It's Tough being a Man") by Yamada Yoji is the first installment in the Tora-san series about a tekiya, a small-time yakuza who peddles articles at temple and shrine festivals. Tora-san travels around the country with his suitcase filled with cheap stuff, dressed in geta, a brown, checked jacket and a haramaki (a knitted stomach band). Although he is rather excitable, he also has a big heart. He is yasashii (soft, friendly) and always wants to help others, but as he is a bad listener and too hasty, so unfortunately he only makes situations worse. In the course of the long series Tora-san became nothing less than a national hero. In this first installment Tora-san returns home after many years' absence. He attends his sister's wedding, falls in love with the priest's daughter (who is engaged to another man), and causes overall embarrassment, before again setting out on his travels. Otoko wa Tsurai yo was the only consistently successful series during the decades of decline of the Japanese film industry and it has been said that the popularity of this series alone served to keep Shochiku afloat in the harsh seventies and eighties. (Shochiku)
Yamada Yoji (born 1931) graduated from Tokyo University and entered Shochiku in 1954, where he first worked as a scriptwriter and assistant director under Nomura Yoshitaro. He directed his first film in 1961. Although he is best known for the long Tora-san series, for which he also wrote the screenplays, in addition he made many other, more serious films and received important awards. Also the Tora-san films can on a higher level be viewed as clever pastiches of a variety of film styles. On top of that, Yamada's inspiration never flags, which can't be said of most other series. With his focus always on the small tribulations of ordinary people, Yamada Yoji became the only standard bearer of the "Ofuna Flavor" of Shochiku and a beacon of normality in a cynical age of sex and violence.
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.]