Cinema of Japan  

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Related: anime - ero guro nansensu - Japanese erotic films - Japanese horror - Japanese New Wave

Directors: Juzo Itami - Takashi Miike - Akira Kurosawa - Koji Wakamatsu - Ryu Murakami - Hayao Miyazaki

Titles: Woman in the Dunes (1964) - Blind Beast (1969) - Akira (1988) - Tampopo (1985) - Tetsuo (1988) - Tokyo Decadence (1992) - Audition (1999) - After Life (1998) - Spirited Away (2001) - Howl's Moving Castle (2004)


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The cinema of Japan has a history that spans more than 100 years. Japan has one of the oldest and largest film industries in the world; as of 2010, it was the fourth largest by number of feature films produced. In a Sight & Sound list of the best films produced in Asia, Japanese works made up eight of the top 12, with Tokyo Story (1953) ranked number one. Japan has won the Academy Award for the Best Foreign Language Film four times, once again more than any other Asian country.




The Silent Era

The first films produced in Japan were Bake Jizo (Jizo the Spook) and Shinin no sosei (Resurrection of a Corpse), both from 1898. The short Geisha no teodori (芸者の手踊り) was the first documentary, made in June 1899.

Japan's first star was Matsunosuke Onoe, a kabuki actor who appeared in over 1,000 films, mostly shorts, between 1909 and 1926. He and director Shozo Makino helped to popularize the jidaigeki genre.

The first female Japanese performer to appear in a film professionally was the dancer/actress Tokuko Nagai Takagi, who appeared in four shorts for the American-based Thanhouser Company between 1911 and 1914.

Some of the most discussed silent films from Japan are those of Kenji Mizoguchi, whose later works (e.g., The Life of Oharu) are still highly regarded today.

Most Japanese cinema theatres at the time employed benshi, narrators whose dramatic readings accompanied the film and its musical score which, like in the West, was often performed live.

The 1923 earthquake, the Allied bombing of Tokyo during World War II, as well as the natural effects of time and Japan's humidity on the then more fragile filmstock have all resulted in a great dearth of surviving films from this period.

A study of the gendaigeki (contemporary/modern film drama) and writing for film in Japan in the 1910s to early 1920s, with select translations of scripts (complete as well as excerpts) is available in "Writing in Light: The Silent Scenario and the Japanese Pure Film Movement" (Joanne Bernardi, Wayne State University Press, 2001).

The 1930s

Unlike Hollywood, silent films were still being produced in Japan well into the 1930s. Notable talkies of this period include Kenji Mizoguchi's Sisters of the Gion (Gion no shimai, 1936), Osaka Elegy (1936) and The Story of the Late Chrysanthemums (1939), along with Sadao Yamanaka's Humanity and Paper Balloons (1937) and Mikio Naruse's Wife! Be Like A Rose! (Tsuma Yo Bara No Yoni, 1935), which was one of the first Japanese films to gain a theatrical release in the U.S. However, with increasing censorship, the left-leaning tendency films of directors such as Daisuke Ito also began to come under attack.

The 1940s

Akira Kurosawa made his feature film debut with Sugata Sanshiro in 1943. With the SCAP occupation following the end of WWII, Japan was exposed to over a decade's worth of American animation that had been banned under the war-time government.

The 1950s

The 1950s were the zenith of Japanese cinema, and three of its films (Rashomon, Seven Samurai, and Tokyo Story) made the Sight & Sound's 2002 Critics and Directors Poll for the best films of all time.<ref></ref> The decade started with Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon (1950), which won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film and marked the entrance of Japanese cinema onto the world stage. It was also the breakout role for legendary star Toshiro Mifune.<ref>Template:Cite book, p.127.</ref> 1952 and 1953 saw another Kurosawa film, Ikiru, as well as Yasujiro Ozu's Tokyo Story.

The year 1954 saw two of Japan's most influential films released. The first was the Kurosawa epic Seven Samurai, about a band of hired samurai who protect a helpless village from a rapacious gang of thieves, which was remade in the West as The Magnificent Seven.

That same year Ishirō Honda released the anti-nuclear horror film Gojira, which was translated in the West as Godzilla. Though it was severely edited for its Western release, Godzilla became an international icon of Japan and spawned an entire industry of Kaiju films. In 1955, Hiroshi Inagaki won an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film for Part I of his Samurai Trilogy.

Kon Ichikawa directed two anti-war dramas: The Burmese Harp (1956), and Fires On The Plain (1959), along with Enjo (1958), which was adapted from Yukio Mishima's novel Temple Of The Golden Pavilion.

Masaki Kobayashi made two of the three films which would collectively become known as the The Human Condition Trilogy: No Greater Love (1958), and The Road To Eternity (1959). The trilogy was completed in 1961, with A Soldier's Prayer.

Kenji Mizoguchi directed The Life of Oharu (1952), Ugetsu (1953) and Sansho the Bailiff (1954). He won the Silver Bear at the Venice Film Festival for Ugetsu.

Mikio Naruse made Repast (1950), Late Chrysanthemums (1954), The Sound of the Mountain (1954) and Floating Clouds (1955).

Yasujiro Ozu directed Good Morning (1959) and Floating Weeds (1958), which was adapted from his earlier silent A Story of Floating Weeds (1934), and was shot by Rashomon/Sansho the Bailiff cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa.

The 1960s

Akira Kurosawa directed the 1961 classic Yojimbo, which is considered a huge influence on the Western. Yasujiro Ozu made his final film, An Autumn Afternoon, in 1962. Mikio Naruse directed the widescreen melodrama When a Woman Ascends the Stairs in 1960; his final film was Scattered Clouds, the second of two films he completed in 1967.

Technicolor arrived in Japan in the 1960s. Kon Ichikawa captured the watershed 1964 Olympics in his three-hour documentary Tokyo Olympiad (1965). Seijun Suzuki was fired by Nikkatsu for "making films that don't make any sense and don't make any money" after his surrealist yakuza flick Branded to Kill (1967).

Nagisa Oshima, Kaneto Shindo, Susumu Hani and Shohei Imamura emerged as major filmmakers during the decade. Oshima's Cruel Story of Youth, Night and Fog in Japan and Death By Hanging became three of the better-known examples of Japanese New Wave filmmaking, alongside Shindo's Onibaba, Hani's She And He and Imamura's The Insect Woman.

Hiroshi Teshigahara's Woman in the Dunes (1964) won the Special Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival, and was nominated for Best Director and Best Foreign Language Film Oscars. Masaki Kobayashi's Kwaidan (1965) also picked up the Special Jury Prize at Cannes.

The 1970s

Nagisa Oshima directed In the Realm of the Senses (1976), a World War II period piece about Sada Abe. Staunchly anti-censorship, he insisted that the film would contain hardcore pornographic material; as a result the exposed film had to be shipped to France for processing, and an uncut version of the film has still, to this day, never been shown in Japan. However, the pink film industry became the stepping stone for young independent filmmakers of Japan.

Yoji Yamada introduced the commercially successful Tora-San series, while also directing other films, notably the popular The Yellow Handkerchief.

Kinji Fukasaku completed the epic Battles Without Honor and Humanity series of yakuza films.

New wave filmmakers Susumu Hani and Shohei Imamura retreated to documentary work, though Imamura made a dramatic return to feature filmmaking with Vengeance Is Mine (1979).

The 1980s

Hayao Miyazaki adapted his manga Nausicaä of the Valley of Wind into a feature film in 1984. Katsuhiro Otomo followed suit with his Akira in 1988. New anime movies were run every summer and winter with characters from popular TV anime.

Shohei Imamura won the Golden Palm at Cannes for The Ballad of Narayama (1983).

Akira Kurosawa directed Kagemusha (1980) and Ran (1985). Likewise, Seijun Suzuki made a comeback, beginning with Zigeunerweisen in 1980.

Kiyoshi Kurosawa (no relation to Akira Kurosawa) debuted, initially with pink films and genre horror, though growing beyond this (and generating international attention) beginning in the mid 1990s.

The 1990s

Shohei Imamura again won the Golden Palm (shared with Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami), this time for The Eel (1997), joining Alf Sjöberg, Francis Ford Coppola and Bille August as only the fourth two-time recipient.

Takeshi Kitano emerged as a significant filmmaker with works such as Sonatine (1993), Kids Return (1996) and Hana-bi (1997), which was given the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival.

Takashi Miike launched a prolific career, making up to 50 films in a decade, building up an impressive portfolio with titles such as, Audition (1999), Dead or Alive (1999) and The Bird People in China (1998).

Former documentary filmmaker Hirokazu Koreeda launched an acclaimed feature career with Maborosi (1996) and After Life (1999).

Hayao Miyazaki directed two mammoth box office and critical successes, Porco Rosso (1992) which beat E.T. (1982) as the highest-grossing film in Japan, and Princess Mononoke (1997) which also claimed the top box office spot until Titanic (1997) beat it.

In addition, several new anime directors rose to widespread recognition, bringing with them newfound notions of anime as not only entertainment, but modern art:

  • Mamoru Oshii released the internationally-acclaimed philosophical sci-fi action film Ghost in the Shell in 1996, based on the manga by Masamune Shirow. The film garnered great success and recognition in theatrical releases worldwide, and Oshii and later went on to direct several live action films.
  • Satoshi Kon directed the award-winning psychological thriller Perfect Blue, based on a novel by Toshiki Sato. The film was theatrically released to decent commercial and considerable critical success in America and several other countries around the world.
  • Hideaki Anno also gained considerable recognition after the release of his hugely successful (and controversial) psychological sci-fi epic Neon Genesis Evangelion, which started as a TV series in 1995 and concluded with the theatrical release of The End of Evangelion, the series' postmodern, apocalyptic conclusion, in 1997. (The film was not released internationally until the early 2000's, and then in straight-to-DVD format.) Evangelion is widely considered to be one of the most influential anime of all time.

2000 and after

Battle Royale was released, based on a popular novel by the same name. It gained cult film status in Japan and in Britain. Hayao Miyazaki came out of retirement to direct Spirited Away (2001), breaking Japanese box office records and winning the U.S. Academy Award for Best Animated Feature. In 2002, Dolls was released, followed by a high-budget remake, Zatoichi in 2003, both directed and written by Takeshi Kitano. The J-Horror films Ringu, Kairo, Dark Water, Yogen, and the Grudge series were remade in English and met with commercial success. In 2004, Godzilla: Final Wars, directed by Ryuhei Kitamura, was released to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Godzilla. In 2005, director Seijun Suzuki made his 56th film, Princess Raccoon. Hirokazu Koreeda claimed film festival awards around the world with two of his films Distance and Nobody Knows. In 2004, Mamoru Oshii released Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence (known in Japan simply as "Innocence",) which, like the first film, received noteworthy critical praise around the world. Satoshi Kon also released three quieter, but nonetheless highly successful films in 2001, 2003 and 2006 respectively: Millenium Actress, Tokyo Godfathers, and Paprika.

Japanese films

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