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More than Kurosawa: A guide to Japan’s forgotten “golden age”

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Kurosawa may have endured longest, but there are a host of other master Japanese directors awaiting your discovery.

Although it may seem just another innocuous day in the story of film, September 10th 1951 marks one of the most important moments in world cinema. On that date, a then-unknown Japanese director called Akira Kurosawa scooped the coveted Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival for his movie Rashomon, changing the reputation of Japanese cinema forever. With the creative world focused squarely on him, a stunned Kurosawa hailed the win as “entirely unexpected” – Rashomon, a perspective-bending period drama, had only performed moderately well at the Japanese box office and was labelled a ‘confusing failure’ by domestic critics. The government had even wanted it replaced at Venice as they felt it wasn’t a prime example of the Japanese movie industry.

The enduring legacy is not that Kurosawa’s works are amongst the best of Japanese cinema, it is instead that Kurosawa’s works are Japanese cinema

Overnight, Kurosawa went from a somewhat respected director to an internationally acclaimed filmmaker. Despite being met with indifference within Japan, his western influenced style received adulation on foreign shores. Life magazine proclaimed in December 1951 that Kurosawa’s triumph marked the arrival of Japanese cinema on the global stage. Sadly, that premonition proved somewhat misguided. Whilst the reputation of Kurosawa has grown immeasurably since that famous night, the vast majority of Japanese films from that era have been forgotten by all but the most dedicated cinema aficionados. The enduring legacy is not that Kurosawa’s works are amongst the best of Japanese cinema, it is instead that Kurosawa’s works are Japanese cinema – an overbearing shadow that relegates other directors to the fringes of familiarity.

The true injustice of this is that Japan’s cinematic output in the 50s was not just the best of that decade, it was amongst the best of all time. Film historians rightly refer to it as Japan’s ‘golden age’, an exciting time where several directors elevated cinema to imaginative new heights. To appreciate the films of Japan throughout the 50s, it’s important to understand the climate in which they were made. Following defeat in World War II, Japan was viewed as a broken nation, wrestling with an identity crisis. American occupation was radically reforming the country whilst Japan’s heritage, ideology and traditional customs were suppressed and discouraged. The country had become a series of fractured groups, split along generational, political and philosophical lines. The notion of what it was to be Japanese was no longer an assured fact, but instead a series of blurred and contentious points.

Tokyo_Story_28

Two of the greatest directors of the age, Yasujiro Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi, attempted to show guidance to a Japanese public encouraged to reject any relics of the past. Having both been prominent in Japan since the 1920s, the pair found themselves initially dismissed by audiences as outdated and as symbols of ‘old Japan’. In 1954, Ozu released Tokyo Story, a profound and emotive tale of disconnection and regret between two generations of family members. Uniquely Japanese in its social customs and mannerisms, Tokyo Story was seen as a contemporary masterpiece and a subtle criticism of the emerging social trends under American occupation.

Directors such as Kon Ichikawa and Masaki Kobayashi produced several films that chastised Japan’s recent militant past

Mizoguchi similarly discovered a new energy and respect at the end of his career. Having endured the demoralising wartime propaganda era of Japanese moviemaking, he endeavoured to make the most challenging and expressive films of his career in the early 50s. Sansho the Bailiff, Ugetsu, The Life of Oharu and The Crucified Lovers all explored poignant social topics including the role of women in society, poverty and freedom through historical narratives. Passing away in 1956, Mizoguchi pricked the conscience of Japan in what proved to be the final chapter of his life.

Whilst Ozu and Mizoguchi criticised the society of emerging Japan, directors such as Kon Ichikawa and Masaki Kobayashi produced several films that chastised its recent militant past. Ichikawa’s The Burmese Harp and Fires on the Plain both deal with the emotional turmoil created by war. Rather than shy away from the sensitive subject, Ichikawa brutally forced the Japanese audience to question how their recent past came to be. Similarly, Kobayashi confronted Japan’s totalitarian history in his three-part epic The Human Condition.

More on film: Hollywood’s relationship with world cinema is hypocritical

the human condition

The 50s saw not only a renaissance for established greats following Japan’s wartime censorship, it was also a time when new directors established their own identity and rules. Young Japanese directors were keen to communicate using unique and controversial methods, upsetting social conventions. In 1950, Kaneto Shindo – director of Onibaba and Kuroneko – attempted to break the stranglehold of large studios like Shochiku and Toho by forming his own independent company. Shindo’s used his new-found directorial freedom to make a series of provocative and confrontational films including Children of Hiroshima, an examination of the lives of Hiroshima citizens in the aftermath of the atomic bomb, and Lucky Dragon No. 5, a harrowing tale of Japanese fisherman caught in the nuclear fallout of an atomic test.

Kaneto Shindo, Shohei Imamura and Ko Nakahira displayed a radicalism that arguably pre-dated the French New Wave

Shindo proved to be a precursor to the emerging Japanese New Wave. Although the movement is primarily associated with the 60s films of directors like Nagisa Oshima and Yasuzo Masumura, the roots can be found in the late 50s. Shohei Imamura launched a campaign against the artificialness of mainstream Japanese cinema with his 1958 film Stolen Desire, a movie that stirred controversy with its frank depiction of sex and nonconformist lifestyles. Ko Nakahira demonstrated how cutting edge Japanese cinema had become with his 1956 movie Crazed Fruits, a story of lust, family, envy and violence. Its use of dynamic jump cuts, freeform camerawork and extreme close ups were innovative not just in Japan but throughout the world, a radicalism that arguably pre-dated the French New Wave.

Ishirō Honda’s monster 1954 epic Godzilla catapulted Japanese sci-fi into the western consciousness with its unique visual style and distinct special effects. The green monster enjoys iconic status throughout the world, however Godzilla was simply one of a host of ground-breaking films to emerge in Japan in the 50s. Others include Teruo Ishii’s Super Giant (one of cinema’s earliest superhero franchises) and Taiji Yabushita’s 1958 classic The Tale of the White Serpent (Japan’s first anime film, cited as a direct inspiration by Hayao Miyazaki). Honda himself continued to revolutionise the sci-fi field, becoming a celebrated developer of the ‘Kaiju’ (strange creature) genre that would inspire western monster movies for decades to come.

the tale of the white serpent

Japan’s golden period also saw it produce some of its most lavish and complex ‘Jidai-Geki’ (period drama) to date. American censorship prohibited movies that were deemed to promote Japan’s cultural identity as unique (and therefore superior), but when restrictions were fully lifted at the end of 1952, numerous filmmakers created period dramas that attempted to define the roots of their culture and establish their place in Japan’s post-war society. Kunio Watanabe’s retelling of The Loyal 47 Ronin depicted the Japanese trait of group desires superseding individual needs, whilst Teinosuke Kinugasa’s Gate of Hell explored the themes of self-sacrifice and honour, scooping a Palme d’Or and Academy Award in the process.

Some films were technologically innovative, some were stylistically liberating and all were examples of cinema with a soul and a voice

Meanwhile, Yuzo Kawashima’s much-praised Sun in the Last Days of the Shogunate investigated the topics of corruption and greed in the Shogunate era (issues which plagued Japanese society at the end of the American occupation). Of all the Jidai-Geki produced at this time though, Kurosawa’s 1954 epic Seven Samurai is unquestionably the most famous and universally celebrated. The 207-minute masterpiece analyses human rationale, group mentality, behavioural instinct and social hierarchy. It is a compelling piece of cinema that comes as close to perfection as physically possible, cementing Kurosawa’s legendary auteur status. Still, Kurosawa was not the only leading light in Japanese cinema.

Mizoguchi, Ozu, Honda, Shindo and a host of other directors created an atmosphere of cinematic excellence, producing a utopia of movie magic. This generation embraced change and strived to create contemporary art with a 16mm lens. Some films were technologically innovative, some were stylistically liberating and all were sublime examples of cinema with a soul and a voice. Alongside Kurosawa, their individual talents deserve to be remembered and celebrated as a defining moment in movie history. Japan was lucky enough to foster a glut of talent in this ‘golden age’ and it is important for all movie fans that such a sparkling legacy of films is enjoyed both now and in the future. In the words of Kurosawa: “In any country, in any film industry, only the work of a dedicated few is responsible for whatever enduring value that country’s film art may have”.

 

More on foreign film: Why is world cinema so foreign to UK audiences?

 

Featured image: Daiei Film

Inset images: Shochiku; Shochiku; Toei Animation

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