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A Post-War Japanese Cinema Primer

As longtime readers of this blog know, I think Japan has had one of the three consistently strongest national cinemas in the world (along with France and the United States) from the silent era through the present day. I already posted a Pre-War Japanese cinema primer last year. For my money, the richest period in Japanese film history is the Post-War era, a period lasting from the mid-1940s through the late 1950s; this was a golden age when the major Japanese studios (Toho, Shochiku, Daiei, etc.) rebuilt themselves during a time of nationwide economic resurgence. This was also when the best directors who had started working before and during the war (Yasujiro Ozu, Kenji Mizoguchi, Akira Kurosawa, etc.), diverse filmmakers whom nonetheless could be said to work in a “classical style” that was informed by the censorship requirements of the occupational Allied powers, directed their very best films. Beginning in the 1960s, there would be a New Wave of Japanese cinema (as their would be in so many countries all over the world), spearheaded by Nagisa Oshima, Shohei Imamura and others, that explicitly turned its back on the work of these old masters, making them seem old-fashioned. Yet the Japanese cinema of the 1950s would influence, and continues to influence, so much of the great world cinema that has followed, especially outside of Japan. My two favorite contemporary directors, for instance (Taiwan’s Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Iran’s Abbas Kiarostami), have both dedicated films to Ozu in the 21st century and the influence of Mizoguchi and Kurosawa has been at least as pervasive.

Here are a baker’s dozen of my favorite Japanese films of the Post-War period. I’m once again limiting myself to no more than two films per director. Otherwise, most of the slots would be taken up by Ozu and Mizoguchi.

Late Spring (Ozu, 1949)

Yasujiro Ozu kickstarted his great late period with this terrific drama about a young woman named Noriko (Setsuko Hara, playing the first of three Norikos for Ozu) who lives with her widower father (Chishu Ryu) and is reluctant to get married for fear of leaving him alone. Not only is this the first of the loose “Noriko trilogy” (even though Hara’s characters are different in each film), it also laid down the template that all of Ozu’s subsequent films would follow until his death in 1963: the themes of intergenerational conflict, familial love, loss and regret, wedded to a precise visual style favoring static, low angle compositions and long shots. The depth of feeling that arises from this marriage of form and content is simply unparalleled in cinema.

Ikiru (Kurosawa, 1952)

I’ve never entirely warmed up to Akira Kurosawa. Most fans of Japanese cinema would put his 1951 breakthrough Rashomon on any short list of essential Japanese films from this period but I’ve always found there to be something facile and overly sentimental about its treatment of the “relativity of truth.” Nonetheless, I was fairly blown away by the complexity and power of his 1952 Ikiru after recently re-watching it. A government bureaucrat (Takashi Shimura) realizes he’s dying of cancer and spends his final months on earth struggling against the odds to build a public playground. Most of the second half of the film’s unusual two part structure is taken up by a flash-forward sequence to the bureaucrat’s funeral where his co-workers debate, and ultimately misunderstand, the meaning of their colleague’s accomplishment. A genuinely poignant reminder that it’s not what one thinks or says but what one does that matters most in life.

The Life of Oharu (Mizoguchi, 1952)

Kenji Mizoguchi’s exquisitely brutal ode to female suffering in 17th century Japan tells the story of the title character, a high-society woman (played by the director’s favorite actress Kinuyo Tanaka) who is exiled from the imperial court at Kyoto after falling in love with a samurai below her station. Eventually, she ends up a pathetic, middle-aged prostitute. Mizoguchi’s clear-eyed view of life as a never-ending series of tragic events is ruthlessly unsentimental but leavened by the occasional humorous touch. I don’t believe any male director understood women as well as Mizoguchi and the character of Oharu is his most sublime creation. Made in the director’s trademark rigorous style, this implicit critique of patriarchal Japan is one of the quintessential Japanese movies.

Tokyo Story (Ozu, 1953)

Yasujiro Ozu’s masterpiece is this formally minimalist work (the camera moves only twice in the entire film) that chronicles the largely unspoken conflict between an elderly married couple and their adult children. Like a Japanese version of Make Way for Tomorrow, the children (with the crucial exception of a stepdaughter played by Setsuko Hara) are largely neglectful of their parents. Ozu, however, refuses to judge his characters, instead infusing the entire film with the Zen-like concept of “mono no aware,” the notion that sadness cannot be avoided in life. This beautiful and essential film is one of my top ten “desert island” movies.

Ugetsu (Mizoguchi, 1953)

Kenji Mizoguchi’s best-loved film is this unique ghost story/war movie/melodrama hybrid. In feudal wartime Japan, two men (a potter and a farmer) move from their home village to a city, hoping to become war profiteers, but tragically opt to leave their wives behind; as the men become wildly successful, one of the wives is murdered and the other is forced into a life of prostitution. The homecoming finale, which sees the protagonists as “sadder but wiser men,” is shattering. Mizoguchi’s ravishingly photographed fable of greed and ambition uses light, shadow and fog (not to mention those legendary crane shots) to perfectly complement his view of the world as a place of impossible moral choices.

Gojira (Honda, 1954)

I know next to nothing about Japanese monster movies but, knowing of their importance in post-war Japan, I decided to watch the original Gojira (Godzilla in the English speaking world) solely for the purpose of completing this list. To my surprise, I found it to be an uncommonly effective, well-made and thoughtful horror movie where the fire-breathing title monster clearly functions as a dark allegory for the nuclear destruction of Japan from a decade earlier. Not nearly as corny as the endless parodies might lead you to believe (the black and white cinematography is crisp and inventive and the special effects are quite good), this is also interesting from the human angle: a love triangle involving a beautiful woman, a naval officer and an eye-patch wearing mad scientist. Boo-yah!

Seven Samurai (Kurosawa, 1954)

Akira Kurosawa’s best film and arguably the greatest action movie ever made. A village of poor farmers learn they are about to be raided by bandits on account of their soon-to-arrive barley crop. They hire seven samurai to help them defend the village from attack, with nothing to offer in return but food and board. The first half of this massively influential three and a half hour chambara extravaganza is devoted to setting up the conflict and introducing the seven samurai as distinct and memorable personalities (with Takashi Shimura and Toshiro Mifune deserving special honors for carving out indelible archetypal characters). Then, when the epic, rain and mud-soaked battle finally does arrive, it is impossible not to care deeply about the human cost of the outcome. Seven Samurai is to the samurai picture what The Searchers is to the western: the best film of its kind.

Twenty-Four Eyes (Kinoshita, 1954)

The great Hideko Takamine stars as Miss Oishi, a rural schoolteacher who, as was apparently customary at the time, teaches the same twelve students (the twenty-four “eyes” of the title) from elementary school through high school and thus forms poignant lifelong bonds with them. Sentimental without being melodramatic, Keisuke Kinoshita’s film begins with the teacher’s first assignment in the late 1920s and ends with her as a war widow about twenty years later. In between, he depicts Miss Oishi as a paragon of virtue, both compassionate and dedicated to her job, which stands in ironic counterpoint to the offscreen, subtextual horrors of the Second World War. The whole enterprise is deeply moving thanks to Takamine’s radiant performance, Kinoshita’s graceful direction and the recurring use of the Scottish folk tune “Annie Laurie” on the soundtrack.

Floating Clouds (Naruse, 1955)

Mikio Naruse has long been considered one of Japan’s greatest directors by Japanese critics. Yet in spite of a prolific body of work (his career began in the silent era and stretched all the way to the late 1960s) he’s never been as well known in the west as his contemporaries. Floating Clouds is my favorite of the Naruse films I’ve seen, a heartbreaking story of a doomed love affair. Yukiko (Hideko Takamine), an employee of Japan’s forest service, meets and falls in love with a co-worker, Kengo (Masayuki Mori), while stationed in French Indochina during WWII. After the war, they meet up again in Japan where an obsessed Yukiko attempts to resume the affair in the face of some very bastard-like behavior from her indifferent former lover. Naruse’s trademark ability to extend sympathy to all of his characters – in a scenario where people can’t resist making terrible decisions – left me with a feeling of sadness I’ve never quite shaken.

The Samurai Trilogy (Inagaki, 1954-1956)

Not a single film but, as with the Lord of the Rings movies, a trilogy released over a three year period (1954’s Musashi Miyamoto, 1955’s Duel at Ichijoji Temple and 1956’s Duel at Ganryu Island) that it is meaningless to see as anything less than a unified whole. Toshiro Mifune, whose very image is synonymous with the samurai warrior the way John Wayne’s is with the cowboy, authoritatively embodies the legendary real life samurai Musashi Miyamoto. Over the course of these three beautiful Technicolor films, he starts out as a young punk in 17th century Japan who runs afoul of the law, which leads him on a journey of self-discovery whereupon he masters the samurai code. Along the way he also romances a couple of babes, helps oppressed villagers and defeats his arch nemesis in a spectacularly photographed duel on a beach at sunset.

Crazed Fruit (Nakahira, 1956)

Crazed Fruit is the single most important precursor to the Japanese New Wave of the 1960s and was not coincidentally produced by Nikkatsu, the studio that would soon produce the most important early films of Shohei Imamura and Seijun Suzuki. The plot concerns two brothers, young, wealthy and unemployed, who fall for the same beautiful woman, who in turn is married to an older American man. The emotional powder keg lit by this love triangle leads to an unforgettably explosive finale. This portrait of modern, disaffected youth is light years away from anything else that had been seen in Japanese cinema up to that point and, although rooted in Japan’s very specific post-war climate, feels closer in spirit to a Hollywood film like Rebel Without a Cause.

Giants and Toys (Masamura, 1958)

Yasuzo Masamura’s colorful, delightfully Tashlin-esque pop satire takes aim at the newly cutthroat corporate climate of Japan’s post-war economic boom years. The subject is the rivalry between three caramel corporations; Nishi, the protagonist, is an ad exec at one company who attempts to obtain inside information from his girlfriend and an old college buddy, each of whom works for the other two companies. Masamura’s ‘Scope compositions, pop art colors and space age props are the perfect window dressing for a social satire that feels not only prescient but prophetic.

Fires on the Plain (Ichikawa, 1959)

Kon Ichikawa is responsible for a number of bona fide classics of Japanese cinema yet he remains much less highly regarded than many of his contemporaries. This is perhaps because, like a John Huston or William Wyler, he is more craftsman than artist – with few stylistic or thematic traits to unify his diverse body of work. Most cinephiles would include his sentimental 1956 anti-war drama The Burmese Harp on a list of essential post-war Japanese films but I prefer his more ferocious and unpleasant war film Fires on the Plain from three years later. In the waning days of WWII, a starving, demoralized soldier named Tamura wanders through the jungle, cut off from his command, struggling to survive while still maintaining a shred of humanity. I often say that the only true “anti-war films” are those told from the losing side. Fires on the Plain is one of the best and bleakest movies of this kind. Beware of the monkey meat!

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About michaelgloversmith

Filmmaker, author and Film Studies instructor. View all posts by michaelgloversmith

11 responses to “A Post-War Japanese Cinema Primer

  • david

    MIke,I want to share this BRILLIANT piece but there is no way I can find a social share button,this is the only thing I do not like your blog.

    I agree with you,post-war period is definitely the golden era of Jap Cinema,all great directors are all at their peaks,Seven Samurai,Tokyo Story and Floating Clouds are all considered to be some of the best films ever,and all of them are my faves from these 3 directors.

    Did you write anything about The Searchers? I did not appreciate it when I first saw it?maybe I need a re-watch? Also,since you have mentioned “desert island” movies,I’d like to see your top 10 list.

    • michaelgloversmith

      Thanks!

      The Searchers is my favorite American film ever. You can read some of my thoughts on it here: John Ford and the Cinematic Meal

      I will also be writing more about it when I post my “top 100 films of all time” list in a few weeks. I should add that even though I think it’s Ford’s best movie, it isn’t necessarily the most accessible. You might want to check out some of his other masterpieces next (How Green Was My Valley, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The Quiet Man) and then work your way back to it. Peter Bogdanovich’s documentary Directed By John Ford is also a good way to start learning how to appreciate Ford.

    • michaelgloversmith

      Oh, and thanks for the suggestion about the Social Network Share Buttons. I just figured out how to add them to this site so feel free to use them. I’m not the most technologically inclined person, so running this site has been a real learning experience for me.

      My “desert island list” will be posted in 20 days.

      • david

        You are welcome,Mike.I see this post already got some shares on social network,well done!

        I’m expecting the 2 lists you mentioned.

  • Bherz

    As usual I’m now faced with too little time. I’ve heard you stress the wonderfulness of Tokyo Story a few times now, I’ve got to see it soon. Gojira also sounds weirdly great. I found myself watching a couple Bruce Lee movies recently and enjoyed the simplicity of the narrative – fight + love story, totally over the top; not great movies but a little break from the complexity.

    • michaelgloversmith

      Bruce Lee was an incredible martial artist and a very charismatic screen presence. I like a couple of his movies but he certainly never starred in one that was worthy of his talents. You should check out the original 36th Chamber of Shaolin (with Gordon Liu). That’s the best martial arts movie I’ve ever seen.

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  • Rebeka Nekolova

    Ugetsu (Mizoguchi, 1953):
    The most memorable aspect about Ugetsu is the way the film doesn’t sugar coat any struggle that the characters go through. Each character has an extreme situation that they are battling through constantly throughout the film, and each character hits rock bottom at some point. The various locations throughout the film looked run down/poverty stricken, such as Genjuro/Tobei’s village, the trading market, and the various towns that are shown. The only location that appeared nice was the manor(which ended up not existing). The way the film reflects the struggles of Genjuro, Tobei, their wives and the average working person is clear to see just through the location setting. While the film is admirable in its cinematography, the heart of the film lies within the theme(s). Mizoguchi’s Buddhist views are presented throughout the entire film, but the one that stuck out to me the most was at the very end when Genjuro is relieved and humbled to be back with his family in their small hut. Starting from the middle of the film, Genjuro falls into the hands of temptation and materialism by staying with Lady Wakasa at her manor. Once Genjuro realizes who she really is, he immediately wants to be back with his family. This is a turning point for his character, and also a representation of a Buddhist view, by Genjruo realizing that all the temptation and materialism he acquired so easily aren’t the things that are truly important, and don’t define who you are. It’s clear to see that’s how Genjuro felt in the end once he is back with his wife and son, happy just to be surrounded by people whom he loves.

    • michaelgloversmith

      Thanks for the response, Beka. Genjuro’s wife, Miyagi, is of course dead at the end of the film but she is with him “in spirit.” And, yes, he is happy: though, as I said elsewhere on this blog, his experiences have made him a sadder but wiser man.

  • Seb from Atlantic Canada

    Thank you for the list Michael. Now I want to revisit Tokyo Story and Late Spring and discover some of the ones I haven’t seen that are on this list, in particular 24 Eyes and Crazed Fruit.

    I have a question for you that you might be able to help me with, since you seem to know Japanese cinema very well: my father has been trying to find the title of a Japanese film that he saw when he was an adolescent growing up in rural Peru in the 1950s, and all he remembers is the following plot: a group of students form a (musical) band, and they are drafted into the military and killed in battle, one by one, throughout the duration of the war (I’m assuming WW2), until at the end of the film the last one dies. Does that ring any bells?

    Thanks again Michael.

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