For most of the past year I’ve been on a big Japanese cinema kick, and that includes checking out a healthy dose of movies made there before the Second World War – a period much less well known than what was to come afterwards. Thanks to recent efforts by enterprising home video distributors like The Criterion Collection, it has become much easier to plumb what Dave Kehr has aptly described as the “oceanic depth and diversity” of this rich era in Japanese film history. Western cinephiles can now profitably study previously unknown directors like Hiroshi Shimizu (and directors known primarily for their more famous later movies like Mikio Naruse) alongside the great early work of Yasujiro Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi. Once again, I am by no means an expert when it comes to this period (and of course I’m at the mercy of what distributors have deemed worthy of making available with English subtitles) but here is a list of pre-war Japanese films that have, in one way or another, knocked my proverbial socks off.
A Page of Madness (Kinugasa, 1926)
Director Teinosuke Kinugasa was a member of a group of avant-garde Japanese artists known as Shinkankaku-ha (“the school of new perceptions”) and this experimental film, written in collaboration with future Nobel Prize winning author Yasunari Kawabata, is a good representation of their rebellion against realistic representation. Apparently not influenced by The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (which Kinugasa claimed not to have seen at the time), this nonetheless tells a similarly mind-bending story of subjectivity set within an insane asylum. Silent Japanese films have had an even smaller survival rate than their American and European counterparts, which makes a startling, non-commercial work of cinematic poetry like this all the more valuable.
I Was Born, But . . . (Ozu, 1932)
The silent era continued in Japan for many years after it ended in the United States. Therefore a lot of the best Japanese films of the 1930s were silents, including this powerful tragicomedy by the great Yasujiro Ozu. The pointed social satire shows how two young brothers lord it over the other neighborhood children but are humiliated when they discover their own father has to kowtow to his boss at work. Like a lot of early Ozu movies, this was loosely remade later in the director’s career – as the equally great Good Morning in 1959.
Apart from You (Naruse, 1933)
Mikio Naruse had perhaps the most dynamic visual style of any Japanese director of the pre-war era. The penchant he showed in his early films for frequent camera movement and rapid cutting is evident in Apart from You, a masterful silent melodrama about a boy being raised by a single mother who works as a geisha to support him. The boy’s anger and shame over his mother’s profession lead him into a life of delinquency until the mother’s friend, a younger geisha played by the lovely Sumiko Mizukubo (“the Sylvia Sydney of Japan”), takes him to visit her own impoverished family to illustrate that “everyone has her reasons.”
Our Neighbor, Miss Yae (Shimazu, 1934)
The one and only film I’ve been able to track down by the esteemed Yasujiro Shimazu is this delightful comedy/drama about the friendship between two neighboring families set in contemporary suburban Japan. The plot concerns a love triangle between a law student who “looks like Frederic March” and the two sisters next door, one of whom is newly separated from her husband. In a lot of ways, this feels like the most modern (and westernized) Japanese movie of its era – the characters play baseball, watch a Betty Boop cartoon and engage in hilarious, flirtatious banter. The exchanges between the law student and the younger sister in particular (the Miss Yae of the title) are highly memorable and infectiously fun.
A Story of Floating Weeds (Ozu, 1934)
A traveling kabuki troupe on the verge of packing it in passes through a town where the troupe’s leader had a love affair many years before. The reunion between the actor and his former lover – and their illegitimate teenaged son (who believes his father to be an “uncle”) – raises the ire of the actor’s current mistress, who jealously plots her revenge. An early masterpiece by Ozu that foreshadows many of the themes and visual motifs of his more famous later work.
Mr. Thank You (Shimizu, 1936)
Like Yasujiro Ozu, Hiroshi Shimizu was one of the top directors at Shochiku Studios in the 1930s – although his work was virtually unknown in the West until the 21st century. Mr. Thank You is an astonishing film about a bus driver known for his politeness who travels from town to town through rural Japan. It takes place virtually in real time and was shot on a real bus traveling through the countryside (no rear projection was used), which makes it an important stylistic precursor to both Italian Neorealism and the road movies of Abbas Kiarostami. Shimizu’s film is both universal (a bus journey as a metaphor for life – a series of sad, funny, ephemeral encounters between fellow travelers) and specifically rooted in Depression-era Japan (a woman sells her daughter into prostitution, a Korean laborer helps to build a road that she herself cannot afford to travel on by bus).
The Only Son (Ozu, 1936)
My favorite pre-war Ozu film is also his first sound movie, an exceedingly poignant story of the relationship between a single mother who slaves away in a silk factory to give her son the best possible education only to be disappointed when he doesn’t grow up to fulfill her lofty expectations. Exquisite direction, including a signature use of cutaways to seemingly random exteriors, nuanced performances and a simple, unsentimental plot combine for a unique and deeply moving experience.
Osaka Elegy (Mizoguchi, 1936)
Kenji Mizoguchi is my favorite Japanese director and Osaka Elegy is a good early example of his genius. It tells the story of a female switchboard operator who is forced into a life of prostitution in order to pay off the debts of her father. Ironically, she is ostracized by her family for becoming a “fallen woman” even though the sole aim of her self-sacrifice was to save them. Mizoguchi combines immaculately choreographed long takes with a characteristic empathy for the plight of his heroine, which is seen as inextricably bound to the strict and hypocritical social codes of the time.
Sisters of the Gion (Mizoguchi, 1936)
Kenji Mizoguchi’s second movie of 1936 also tells what might be termed a prototypical feminist story of oppression although the focus here is on a pair of women, geishas eking out a living in the red light district of Kyoto. The older of the two “sisters” supports a broke boyfriend while the younger hatches a scheme to lift them up into a more comfortable existence, a plan that results in tragedy. Clocking in at a mere 69 minutes, this jewel of a film features excellent performances and an unforgettably despairing ending.
Humanity and Paper Balloons (Yamanaka, 1937)
Sadao Yamanaka is considered a major figure in Japanese movies of the early sound era. He died tragically before reaching his thirtieth birthday and only three of the twenty-plus films he directed in his brief, prolific career survive today. This is cause for bitter regret because Humanity and Paper Balloons is probably my favorite Japanese movie of the entire pre-war era, a film I would rank ahead of the greatest early work of the more well-known directors on this list. Set in the Tokugawa era, this story of a kidnap and ransom plot across class lines is a jidai-geki (period piece) that feels like a gendai-geki (contemporary story). Indeed, it’s fascinating to see such an unromanticized view of the samurai class, which went against cinematic trends of the pre-war years. This flawlessly directed portrait of 18th century village life is alternately tragic and funny and brimming with unforgettable characters.
The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums (Mizoguchi, 1939)
The first major masterpiece of Kenji Mizoguchi’s career is this towering period drama about the taboo relationship between a wealthy young actor and his family’s wet nurse. The formal precision of Mizoguchi’s exquisitely calibrated camera movements, combined with his signature use of long takes and long shots (there are literally no close-ups in the movie), is perfectly suited to his twin themes of doomed love and female sacrifice. This may have been a routine melodrama in the hands of any other director but Mizoguchi, the consummate perfectionist, knew that his rigorous visual style would touch and elevate the viewer. The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums ranks alongside of Mizoguchi’s best post-war films (The Life of Oharu, Ugetsu and Sansho the Bailiff) as one of the greatest achievements in cinema.
The Ornamental Hairpin (Shimizu, 1941)
Hiroshi Shimizu’s film about a disparate group of vacationers staying at a hot springs resort for the summer starts off as a comedy and then wondrously, imperceptibly morphs into a poignant drama. The great Chishu Ryu (best known for his work with Ozu) plays a soldier who badly injures his foot when he steps on a hairpin in the communal bath. He later discovers that it was left behind by a beautiful young woman played by Kinuya Tanaka (best known for her work with Mizoguchi). When she returns to the resort to apologize, all of the guests speculate that love must be in the cards. But Shimizu, a master of subtlety, decides to steer the material in a more interesting direction. Released less than four months before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, The Ornamental Hairpin contains fleeting references to to the war and the fact that Tanaka’s character is a geisha, lending touches of gravitas to another deceptively light Shimizu masterwork.