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I think I’m turning Japanese – Part 1
Friday October 14th 2005, 2:35 pm
Filed under: art,film,reviews
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“I’m turning Japanese
I think I’m turning Japanese
I really think so ”
– Dave Fenton of The Vapors

This post is entirely focused on Japanese cinema, a particular favorite of this Filmnerd. I came up with so many films I wanted to feature in this post that I decided to separate it into multiple parts.

Pretty much all of the very first cinematic media was produced by Europeans and Americans, but the Japanese were not far behind. In 1898 two cinematographers from the Lumiere Brothers’ production company traveled from France to Japan where they gathered footage for several documentary silent films which have been preserved to this day. What they also did on their trip, perhaps more importantly, was introduce this new technology to the Japanese photographic and theater performance communities who showed great interest. A number of Japanese companies and private citizens were among those who purchased ‘Cinematographs’ from the Lumieres and ‘Kinetoscopes’ from the Edison Company. These devices were the very first movie cameras.

Despite early adoption of the technology, the Japanese did not initially act as innovators in this new medium. Most of the earliest films from Japan are straight documentary, stationary camera, continuous-shot films. The earliest surviving example of this kind of work is ‘Game of Autumn Leaves’ which documents a Kabuki performance. It was made just before the turn of the century.

It was not long before the European and American cinema communities were establishing the cornerstone filmmaking techniques we take for granted today: the close-up, shot-reverse-shot sequences, montage editing, etc.. During this time the Japanese were making films that were strongly influenced by traditional theater styles like Kabuki, in which the camera was treated like a spectator looking at a stage, where all of the action unfolds under the auspices of the performers with few edits or changes in camera position.

Throughout the 20’s and 30’s Japanese filmmakers kept pace with their Western counterparts by introducing and employing many of the visual techniques pioneered by D.W. Griffith, Abel Gance, F.W. Murnau, Fritz Lang, Sergei Eisenstein, Alice Guy-Blaché, et al. However it is generally accepted that Japanese cinema did not really start to come into its own until the 40’s and 50’s, partially led by the young visionary Akira Kurosawa. The first four films I chose to review are all part of the earlier work of this great filmmaker….I will be writing about some of his later work in ‘Part 2’. The other 5 films I chose for this post are films from the same era and slightly later.


Sugata Sanshiro (Judo Story) Japan

[IMDB Link]
[Netflix Link]
This is Akira Kurosawa’s first feature film, released when he was 33 years old. The film shows signs of the age in which it was made….low budget, rough edits, stiff acting….but as a window into the early career of Mr. Kurosawa, who went on to be widely considered one of the greatest filmmakers ever, it is a gem. Japan was still at war with the US/Allies when this film was shot and released, and perhaps some of the tension and violence in the film was partly inspired by the wartime conditions in which the filmmakers were working. This film’s storyline is a standard martial arts tale….rival clans clashing to prove that their fighting technique is the best. But despite the ‘ordinary’ story and the somewhat subdued style (especially compared to Kurosawa’s later films) there is a beauty and subtlety that hints at the amazing work still to come from this cinematic master.

Nora inu (Stray Dog) Japan

[IMDB Link]
[Netflix Link]
‘Nora inu’ has quite a bit of location footage of post-war Tokyo c.1948, and considering the incredible destruction endured by this city during the last days of the war it is inspiring to see how vibrant and alive it is. It is also amazing to place the plot-line in context with the armistice that had recently been signed (the ‘Japanese Instrument of Surrender’) which effectively disarmed the country and disbanded its military. The story is about a police officer who’s gun is stolen by an unknown criminal who then uses it to commit a series of crimes. The officer (played by a young and beautiful Toshirô Mifune) is plagued by shame and fear as he goes in search of the criminal, and more importantly THE GUN. This is a rough and somewhat low-budget film, but the storytelling quality is amazing and you can see more of the early indications of the style and grace Mr. Kurosawa will bring to the medium during his career.

Rashômon Japan

[IMDB Link]
[Netflix Link]
The following year Toho Studios released this film, the iconic Rashômon. The device of telling the same story from several different perspectives has been used over and over again in many forms around the world….and this is the film that established that technique in cinema. In doing so it points out the subjective nature of storytelling and the affected properties of memory. Some of the photography is so modern that it’s hard to believe it was made in 1949-50, but that is not surprising considering who is behind the camera. This film won the 1951 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, and it was the first and only time Kurosawa’s work was recognized by the Academy with a ‘win’ (he received 2 other nominations in 1970 and 1985 and then a Lifetime Achievement Award in 1989). ‘Rashomon’ is probably not as universally likable as Kurosawa’s most famous films (‘Seven Samurai’, ‘Yojimbo’, ‘Ran’) but I still consider it to be an absolute must-see for all film fans.

Ikiru Japan

[IMDB Link]
[Netflix Link]
One of the better-known titles from Mr. Kurosawa, this is among my very favorite films. It stars Takashi Shimura who will be recognizable to many as the samurai leader from ‘Seven Samurai’ and many other Japanese films from the 40’s through the 70’s. This film paints a picture of a sensitive and sad older man who is stuck in a frustrating bureaucratic job. When he is unexpectedly diagnosed with a terminal illness he begins a journey that leads him to places that few films in the history of cinema have had the subtlety and courage to go. In ‘Ikiru’ you can see how Kurosawa is starting to look at his photography in the context of Japanese art history. In one scene in particular he uses snow to evoke the somber antique silk paintings of Hokkaido….it is Kurosawa recognizing the history of his culture’s aesthetic and consciously integrating it into this modern kind of storytelling.

[OK….so the rest of these are not Kurosawa]

Godzilla Japan

[IMDB Link]
[Netflix Link]
Arguably the greatest movie monster of all time, ‘Gojira’ (as he is usually called in Japan) has gone on to star in dozens of movies, TV shows, and video games….not to mention a kick-ass song by Blue Oyster Cult. From the golden-age classics like ‘Godzilla Vs. Monster Zero’, ‘Son of Godzilla’, and ‘Destroy All Monsters’ to the modern ‘Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla’ films, this radioactive beast has destroyed all of Japan many times over….yet he is among the most recognized and beloved characters in all of Japanese culture. Much has been said about the Japanese fascination with and glorification of large-scale urban destruction in their popular cinema….this is the first major film to explore that mythology. The original 1954 release is hard to find in the US. The standard ‘Godzilla’ DVD at Netflix and most corner rental stores is a highly modified 1956 version of the film that is intercut extensively with newer scenes starring Raymond Burr and other American actors. These scenes were not directed by the original writer/director Ishirô Honda, and they stand out like a sore thumb. Still, this is a classic regardless of any cinematic butchery that may have occurred along the way. Before screening make sure to stock up on popcorn and beer.

Samurai Trilogy: Japan
Musashi Miyamoto (1954)
    [IMDB Link]    [Netflix Link]
Duel at Ichijoji Temple (1955)    [IMDB Link]    [Netflix Link]
Duel at Ganryu Island (1956)    [IMDB Link]    [Netflix Link]
This is some seriously good stuff. Ambitiously directed by Hiroshi Inagaki, these films form an epic tale on a similar scale as ‘Ben-Hur’, ‘Spartacus’ and ‘Gone With the Wind’. This is the story of how a young and impudent orphan named Takezo becomes a good and honorable samurai. The lore of Japanese history is strongly woven into these films, but you can also see how Mr. Inagaki references the American westerns of the time. Although this story is divided into 3 separate films I recommend watching them close together, like 3 nights in a row. Or all in one session if you like that sort of thing. Toshirô Mifune took on the monumental task of the leading role in these films, and he is amazing as always.

Ohayô (Good Morning) Japan

[IMDB Link]
[Netflix Link]
This film is just about what you would expect from a 45 year old Japanese comedy….it is ultra-cute and probably not the least bit funny to most ‘modern’ Americans. The gags seemed to be isolated to fart jokes….and then there was the kid who kept shitting himself….but despite the scatological humor the film was otherwise quite reserved. ‘Good Morning’ was directed by the venerable Yasujiro Ozu, and it was his fascination with Japanese suburban life in the 50’s that made this film so interesting to me. I really enjoyed the colorful sets and costumes, which were exaggerated by the over-saturated look of the transfer print. The story ties together a group of families in a neighborhood setting. There are a bunch of gossiping housewives who scandalize amongst themselves in a way that comes off as blatantly sexist stereotyping. The husbands are reserved salarymen, and the kids are all boys. There is an extreme status-consciousness amongst the characters that is based on consumerism (ie. who buys the new washing machine, etc.), and the film centers around two of the boys who take a vow of silence in protest of their parents’ reluctance to buy a TV set. This film might not be of much interest to anyone except a true Nipponophile, but I loved it.

Kaidan Japan

[IMDB Link]
[Netflix Link]
This film contains some of the most stunning photography I have ever seen in a Japanese film. It is made up of four distinct episodes, each of them based on a classic ghost story. The use of large and elaborate soundstage ‘environments’ gives the film a storybook quality, and some of the expressionistic touches added to the sky, trees, and other parts of the sets are really breathtaking. I found all 4 of the stories to be amazing, but ‘Hoichi the Earless’ still gives me the chilly-chills just thinking about it. This film is generally considered to be the crowning achievement of the career of the great filmmaker Masaki Kobayashi.

Onibaba Japan

[IMDB Link]
[Netflix Link]
Kaneto Shindô is the only filmmaker who’s work is reviewed in this post that is still alive today. He even directed a film two years ago at the age of 91 (‘Fukuro’ – 2003). ‘Onibaba’ is from a much earlier time in his career and is probably his most famous film. He both wrote and directed this story about a war-fractured family in 14th century rural Japan. The frequent long shots of tall waving grass were hypnotic and seemed to communicate the constant turmoil of the world the characters occupied. Also, and I am not sure how much controversy this might have caused at the time, the two main actresses spend a good deal of screen time topless in keeping with the simple rural authenticity of the setting. This film features an arresting use of high-contrast black and white cinematography, particularly in some pretty frightening nighttime scenes.


This post will continue in ‘I think I’m turning Japanese – Part 2’ which will have reviews of Japanese films from the 1960’s through today.

6 Comments so far
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excellent! Kurosawa is one of my all time favorite moviemakers of all time. I just rented Ran the other night, and it made me want to go out and buy a bigger TV. But the way he integrates colors into his plots was a stroke of genius, as was just about everything about the man. thank you for the other recommendations. just added them to my shortlist of ‘must rent’!

Comment by hyperlexic 10.17.05 @ 10:47 am

Agreed. I can say without hesitation that Kurosawa is my favorite filmmaker….which is not to say that I also think he’s the ‘best’ filmmaker, but for me personally his films feel familiar and inspiring in a way that no other artist can touch.

A number of Kurosawa’s earlier and lesser-known films have been recently acquired by Netflix. If you are a subscriber I highly reccomend queueing any Kurosawa you have not seen. If not, hopefully other rental outfits have done the same. I am considering a Part 3 or 4 of this post that would list and briefly review all 31 of the feature films he directed in his career.

Comment by The Filmnerd 10.17.05 @ 12:30 pm

I’d be interested in reading your views on the cohen brothers, namely Barton Fink and The Big Lebowski.

Comment by hyperlexic 10.17.05 @ 4:49 pm

i would love a roadmap to Kurosawa. Imagine you are at the beginning of your Kurosawa journey and along comes a wise (yet nerdy) film guru. And he mapped out the way – what would it look like.

I too would love to hear your views on the brothers cohen –

“Mark it zero dude”

Comment by andrei hedstrom 10.17.05 @ 7:41 pm

Seeing as I have taken on the responsibilities of the resident filmnerd here I must respectfully point out that their name is spelled ‘Coen’. 😉 I am a big fan, and I also think that their best work may still be ahead of them. Perhaps at some point a few of their films could be part of an ‘American Masters’ post or something like that. Could be a good subject….after all and despite everything, if filmmaking was an olympic event, the Americans would probably dominate.

Comment by The Filmnerd 10.17.05 @ 9:47 pm

I’m sure it’s been said before; the iconic 11th century “Gate” in Rashomon is almost a character in itself. Images of it resonate long after viewing this film, leading us into the wilderness of the human ego and a film that is disturbing as stunningly poetic. Kazuo Miyagawa’s cinematography is breathtaking on a grand scale. With his success, some in Japan accused Kurosawa of making a film that appealed to western “oriental exoticism”, but time seems to have dispelled that notion. This is a distilled masterwork of light and shadow.

In regard to Kurosawa movies, I would also add Sanjuro (1962) to a list that would be strictly Kurosawa. His distinctive vision in Sanjuro is a perfect example of his ability to induce almost immediate immersion into his subject matter. It is a story woven so well that one begins to feel as if experiencing the movie from within…. This is just one of the many facets of Kurosawa’s genius, not to mention the deft handling of the movies’ comic line – Toshiro Mifune is a joy and this movie has fine performances all around. This is a dusky gem that deserves repeated viewings.

Comment by tao 11.05.05 @ 9:59 pm

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