Out of all the “new waves” that sprung up around the world in the wake of France’s revolutionary Nouvelle Vague in the 1960s, perhaps none was as explosive — politically, morally and aesthetically — and offered such a thorough repudiation of what had come before, as Japan’s Nuberu Bagu. While Nagisa Oshima and Shohei Imamura remain far and away the best-known directors associated with this movement, many other filmmakers have been unfairly lurking in their shadows for too long. I therefore limited myself to one title per director in this list of what I consider a dozen essential Japanese New Wave movies.
The Warped Ones (Kurahara, 1960)
There are a couple of Nagisa Oshima features from 1960 (Cruel Story of Youth, The Sun’s Burial) that might be considered superior to this film but Koreyoshi Kurahara’s tale of rebellious youth offers a better correlative to Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless in terms of form and content, and is therefore arguably the more logical starting point for a Japanese New Wave primer. The aptly-titled The Warped Ones is a fucked up movie that details the misadventures of two young thugs and their prostitute-girlfriend as they run wild through the streets of Tokyo, thieving, raping and listening to American jazz. The luscious black-and-white cinematography is amazing, at once stylized and conveying a tangible documentary-like sense of place, but the nihilistic characters (who are far more unlikable than any of their French New Wave counterparts and anticipate anti-heroes more associated with 1970s cinema) might make this a tough sell for some viewers.
Onibaba (Shindo, 1964)
This amazing tone poem of a horror flick tells the story of two women in 14th-century Japan — the wife and mother of a soldier deployed to fight in a civil war — who trap and kill wandering samurai and sell their clothes and weaponry to a black marketeer in order to survive. A deserter-friend of the soldier soon arrives bearing bad news but it’s not long before both wife and mother-in-law become romantically obsessed with him. In order to prevent the wife from meeting the young man in the middle of the night, the mother-in-law attempts to frighten her by pretending to be a demon. Written and directed by the great, underrated Kaneto Shindo, the mesmerizing Onibaba manages to be both genuinely frightening and genuinely erotic.
Woman in the Dunes (Teshigahara, 1964)
An entomologist from the big city travels to a rural seaside town looking to collect insects. A mysterious woman entraps him in a giant sandpit in her yard and forces him to perform the endless task of digging sand out of the pit, which solves a water supply problem for the local villagers. The captor and captive soon form a weird, erotic bond that eventually drags on for years. I’ve always felt there was something a bit too thesis-ridden about this premise (the bug expert who becomes like a trapped insect!) but there’s no denying the tactile, sensual pleasures of the lush images, which impressively manage to be sexy without the liberal use of nudity (unlike, say, Onibaba). For his effort, director Hiroshi Teshigahara was a deserving — and surprising — Best Director nominee at the 1966 Academy Awards.
A Fugitive from the Past (Uchida, 1965)
I am a sucker for the “police procedural” (from Fritz Lang’s M in 1931 to David Fincher’s Zodiac over 75 years later) and Tomu Uchida’s 1965 masterpiece A Fugitive from the Past is one of my very favorite examples of this subgenre. Uchida isn’t technically a New Waver — he was born in the late 19th century and began directing in the silent era — yet I’ve never seen a film from the 1960s made by anyone of his generation that feels as modern as this. Uchida uses a massive, chronologically-scrambled timeline to tell two gripping, interlocking stories of a prostitute and a police detective, both of whom spend many years looking for the title fugitive for different reasons: the former because he left her an obscenely large tip, the latter because he committed a triple homicide. This was shot in black-and-white CinemaScope with a lightweight 16mm camera — resulting in incredibly-staged set pieces, one of which involves hundreds of characters, that feel simultaneously epic and intimate. What arguably impresses the most, however, is the way the suspenseful narrative holds viewers in thrall for over three hours while also subtly explicating the Buddhist precept of karma. Routinely cited by Japanese critics as one of the best Japanese movies ever, A Fugitive from the Past is tragically unknown in the West.
Red Angel (Masumura, 1966)
One of the great things about the Japanese cinema of the 1960s is how its directors exercised “new freedoms” in tackling subject matter that would have been off-limits to previous generations. A prime example is Red Angel, a highly disturbing account of the Sino-Japanese war by the diverse and underrated director Yasuzo Masumura (whose comedy Giants and Toys is one of my favorite Japanese films of he 1950s). The story follows Sakura Nishi (Ayako Wakao), an attractive nurse who is sent to the front, where she is first raped by wounded soldiers before embarking on doomed affairs with an amputee patient and a morphine-addicted, impotent doctor. There is much pain and sorrow in this movie, which nonetheless provides a cathartic reckoning with one of the most harrowing chapters in Japan’s recent turbulent past.
Branded to Kill (Suzuki, 1967)
Seijun Suzuki is one of the boldest visual stylists the Japanese film industry has ever known. And, while this 1967 experimental/crime movie mind-fuck is regarded by many as his masterpiece, it’s better known today for the legend of how it was received upon its initial release (Suzuki was fired by longtime employer Nikkatsu on the grounds the movie was incomprehensible) than it is actually watched and appreciated. The plot has something to do with Goro Hanada, Japan’s No. 3 hitman (that’s right, this movie takes place in a world where hitmen are ranked like professional athletes), bungling his latest job, which makes him the next target of his employer. But you don’t watch Suzuki for the plot, you watch for the surrealism, the psychosexual undercurrents (Hanada, played by chipmunk-cheeked Jo Shishido, has a fetish for sniffing boiled rice) and the super-cool set-pieces (the film’s most famous scene sees a butterfly alighting on the barrel of Hanada’s gun). Suzuki was a master of using color symbolically and purposefully (check out Tokyo Drifter, which features an assassin-protagonist in a powder-blue suit) but Branded to Kill is equally remarkable for its expressive use of black-and-white.
Nanami: The Inferno of First Love (Hani, 1968)
Imagine that Jean-Luc Godard went to Japan and made a soft-core porn movie in the late 1960s and you’ll have some idea of what maverick independent director Susumu Hani’s best-known movie is like. Shun (Akio Takahashi), a man who was sexually abused as a child, meets and falls in love with a nude model and prostitute, the title character (Kuniko Ishii), in a series of loosely linked vignettes. Their story is told through freewheeling handheld camerawork and an aggressively non-linear editing scheme that recall the “distancing devices” of Bertolt Brecht while evoking some of the early classics of the French New Wave. But Susumi’s avant-garde sensibility is ultimately put to the service of a uniquely Japanese portrait of postwar despair, one that brims with psychological and sociological insights.
Profound Desires of the Gods (Imamura, 1968)
Shohei Imamura is my personal favorite filmmaker to emerge from Japan’s New Wave era. He started off as an assistant to Yasujiro Ozu before carving out his own path as a writer/director in the early 60s with a series of distinctive films, alternately funny and tragic, that chronicle the frustrated lives of Japan’s contemporary working class. Profound Desires of the Gods was an epic super-production (the shooting alone lasted 18 months) that ambitiously attempted to allegorize the clash between Japan’s most ancient traditions and the influence of the modern (i.e., “western”) world. Kariya (Kazuo Kitamura) is an engineer from Tokyo tasked with digging a well for a sugar mill on a remote island whose inhabitants have had little exposure to outside influences. Upon arrival, Kariya is ensnared in the lives of the backwards and inbred Futori family, an experience that will change his life forever. Neglected upon its initial release, this indescribably beautiful 3-hour extravaganza, which juxtaposes humans and animals in a way that would make Terrence Malick envious, has been deservedly reappraised since the UK label Eureka/Masters of Cinema released a perfect Blu-ray edition in 2011.
Boy (Oshima, 1969)
Nagisa Oshima is primarily known in the west today for having directed the features In the Realm of the Senses (1976) and Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983), the former a scandalous arthouse hit featuring unsimulated sex and the latter a World War II P.O.W. camp drama starring David Bowie. But these international co-productions followed many groundbreaking films in the 1960s that captured Japan’s postwar malaise with a sometimes shocking ferocity. My favorite Oshima film is 1969’s Boy, based on the true story of a Japanese family who intentionally got into roadside accidents in order to shake down money from their “culprits.” Oshima’s style here is fascinatingly matter-of-fact while also sticking closest to the experiences of the older of the family’s two young sons. The end result is a film that achieves a tone of unparalleled compassion precisely because it doesn’t seem to be trying very hard.
Double Suicide (Shinoda, 1969)
Director Masahiro Shinoda’s great achievement in his justly celebrated Double Suicide was to take ideas familiar from other recent New Wave films focused on contemporary subjects and apply them to an 18th century period piece. The story concerns a married paper merchant and his ill-fated love affair with a courtesan, the kind of subject that Mizoguchi would have tackled, but it’s the modernist and self-reflexive execution that puts this into a class of its own. Double Suicide transitions between the “invisible style” associated with Hollywood storytelling and daring reminders that we are watching a movie (most obvious through the use of “stage hands” who manipulate sets and props but also through the dual performance of Shima Iwashita as both the courtesan and the wife). The end result is a bunraku puppet play in which the puppets have been replaced by live actors and the end result is as emotionally engaging as it is intellectually stimulating.
Eros Plus Massacre (Yoshida, 1969)
Although the English-language title might sound like the trashiest kind of exploitation movie, this seminal work of 1960s countercultural filmmaking is anything but. Yoshishige Yoshida’s masterwork deftly intertwines two timelines: in the 1920s, radical anarchist Sakae Osugi (Toshiyuki Hosokawa) preaches “free love” (i.e., polygamy and the importance of financial independence for both men and women), while ironically being married to a journalist, Itsuko Masaoka (Yûko Kusunoki), who supports him financially. Meanwhile, in the 1960s, a promiscuous female college student drifts through a series of casual affairs and occasionally reads and talks about Osugi and Masaoka (who were, in fact, real people). Over the course of its three-hour-plus running time, the intercutting of these stories — based on fascinating thematic parallels — achieves an awesome Griffithian velocity, although Alain Resnais might be the best point of reference: Yoshida’s complex editing patterns fragment time and space in an almost-Cubist manner and the black-and-white cinematography is frequently dazzling in its Marienbad-like brightness.
Funeral Parade of Roses (Matsumoto, 1969)
This is one of the weirdest movies I’ve ever seen, maybe the weirdest, and therefore a fitting note on which to end this list of essential Japanese New Wave films. Toshio Matsumoto’s astonishing surrealist masterpiece offers a portrait of several Tokyo subcultures (primarily the drag queen scene but also that of dopers and avant-garde filmmakers). One story thread involves Eddie, a young queen who, in a bizarre inversion of the Oedipus myth, kills his mother with a butcher knife in order to “be” with his father. Later, this same character puts out his own eyes with the same knife. As brutal and disturbing as all of this is, Matsumoto’s form is just as violent as his content: from this film, Kubrick stole several visual and aural ideas for A Clockwork Orange, including long takes seen in fast-motion accompanied by pop versions of classical music, and montages that are so rapid-fire they can only have a subliminal effect on the viewer. But while Kubrick took Matsumoto’s innovations and wedded them to commercial storytelling, they deserve to be seen here in their undiluted, experimental form. As one character says in the middle of the film: “All definitions of cinema have been erased. All doors are now open.” He’s not kidding.