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This is an attempt to provide a basic pathway through Japanese moviemaking through the 1960s for film buffs who are primarily knowledgable in “Western” cinema. For those not in the know, Japanese cinema in 1960s was probably the single most creative and prolific decade in any national cinema, ever, as virtually every major Japanese director who worked with sound (save Mizoguchi) left at least one film in the period. My focus will be on the artists who would make up the Art Theater Guild, or be associated with it in time, since this was the field that really defined the decade.

Using the Art Theater Guild as a guide allows us to focus on a certain spectrum of directors known as the “Japanese New Wave,” focusing primarily on Imamura Shôhei, Ôshima Nagisa, Yoshida Kijû, and a few others. The title was given to them by the JPN press from the period, in reference to the French New Wave and the fact that everything cinema is inherently French. Never mind that these directors are reacting to domestic crises, learned about Godard after they became big names, and generally point to Polish cinema over the French as a greater influence. But whatever! What’s important to remember about the “New Wave” directors is that they emphasize a decisive break with pre-60s cinema.

I aim to identify major trends in new filmmaking techniques, with a secondary emphasis on new social and cultural critique. I will use two or three films for each section, with a (general) total of 15 or so. It is, of course, almost impossible to separate social commentary from the technical innovations, and many of the films might be difficult to understand, since they rely upon specific components of Japanese history or mythology that will go over the head of someone who hasn’t taken a JPN history class. But we’ll try, ok?

Finally, this list assumes the reader’s entire knowledge of Japanese cinema is limited to the following three films:

  • 羅生門 (Rashômon) 1950, dir. Kurosawa Akira
  • 七人の侍 (Seven Samurai) 1953, dir. Kurosawa Akira
  • 東京物語 (Tôkyô Story) 1953, dir. Ozu Yasujirô

So let’s begin!

1. Introductions to the Decade: where they were coming from

  • 二十四の瞳 (Twenty-Four Eyes) 1954, dir. Kinoshita Keisuke
  • 狂った果実 (Crazed Fruit) 1956, dir. Nakahira Kô
  • 秋刀魚の味 (An Autumn Afternoon) 1962, dir. Ozu Yasujirô

These films provide a context for what comes in the 1960s films, in terms of what directors liked, and reacted against. Twenty Four Eyes is an example of what Ôshima Nagisa considered a prime 1950s film, where the form and technique of the film carried a sense of rebellion against the dominant cultural systems of conformity, something of a last hurrah before Kinoshita would surrender to the whims of the market. Crazed Fruit is the first Sun Tribe film, an entire genre focused on angry, carefree, and rebellious youth that would provide a thematic foundation for the directors to come. Finally, An Autumn Afternoon represents all that the 1960s directors wanted to move past - slow, rigid, fixated on an outdated image of the past. Most 60s directors criticize post-WWII Ozu, and this film is Ozu’s technique at its most refined - which, for them, was Ozu at his worst.

2. The Decade Begins - rebel youth and the shock on society

  • 狂熱の季節 (The Warped Ones/Season of Heat) 1960, dir. Kurahara Koreyoshi
  • 青春残酷物語 (Cruel Story of Youth) 1960, dir. Ôshima Nagisa
  • 豚と軍艦 (Pigs & Battleships) 1961, dir. Imamura Shôhei

These films are examples of some of the subject matter and stylizations of rebel youth films, and are wild and crazy in different ways to match. The Warped Ones continues the wild and rebellious nature of the Sun Tribe genre, with a cinematic technique to match, whereas Cruel Story of Youth and Pigs & Battleships slow it down (but only a little!) and branch out into new fields, leading to later evolutions in the decade. Cruel Story of Youth adds a political element to the genre, incorporating the massive 1960s anti-government riots as a factor, while Pigs & Battleships presents restless youth within the context of the American military and cultural presence in Japan. Both films carry a degree of new documentary techniques soon to become prominent in films throughout. And so…

3. New Cinematic Techniques - documentary and the avant-garde

  • エロ事師たちより 人類学入門 (The Pornographers) 1966, dir. Imamura Shôhei
  • 白昼の通り魔 (Violence at Noon) 1966, dir. Ôshima Nagisa
  • 他人の顔 (The Face of Another) 1966, dir. Teshigahara Hiroshi

These titles incorporate techniques of wartime documentary films to express a more true-to-life image of contemporary Japan, and a new avant-garde art movement where the “real” is distorted and refigured onscreen to reach inside the individuals depicted. The Pornographers is probably the best example of a real documentary-styled film, where the subject matter (voyeurism and the human body as sex object) re-appear in the filming itself (the full JPN title is “The Pornographers: An Introduction to Anthropology.” Violence at Noon is advertised in the States as having “2000 cuts” which is not radical on its own - except for how those cuts are used, to emphasize emotional beats & interior space rather than physical movement. Finally, the Face of Another makes an abstraction out of Tokyo to represent the abstraction of the main character himself, and his strange doctor.

A quick sidenote:

  • Matsumoto Toshio is an experimental filmmaker working with everyone involved here, whose short films probably represent the most radical elements of an “avant-garde documentary” which the other films here vacillate between. His short films from the period are available to view, free, here - but no English subtitles. Good luck!

4. The Changes in the Era - in politics and subject matter

  • 肉体の門 (Gate of Flesh) 1964, dir. Suzuki Seijun
  • 拳銃は俺のパスポート (A Colt is My Passport) 1967, dir. Nomura Takashi
  • 樹氷のよろめき (Affair in the Snow) 1968, dir. Yoshida Kijû
  • 行け行け二度目の処女 (Go, Go, Two-Time Virgin!) 1969, dir. Wakamatsu Kôji

This is, admittedly, the hardest section to properly describe, because it’s about how much of the previous sections are applied to Japanese society at the time, and how the radical (largely) left-wing filmmakers of the time are attempting to comment on uncertain politics, and an uncertain future for the country. Gate of Flesh is the first Japanese film in theaters to show nudity, and deals with the still-pertinent issue of the American occupation in Japan - and has some absolutely wild, crazy sets. A Colt is My Passport is a personal favorite, and a view into gangster films that shows how playing it straight was taken to extremes. Affair in the Snow is all about a man attempting to claim a woman as his own, and her success in subverting him piece by piece - with some great hand-held cinematography. Finally, Two-Time Virgin, an example from the massive pink film genre (softcore porn, which originates in this decade) and the equally massive Wakamatsu filmography, also shows how current events become incorporated into the film, and how color is played with in a film.

5. Politics and Cinema Together - the movement to its extremes

  • 人間蒸発 (A Man Vanishes) 1967, Imamura Shôhei
  • 死刑 (Death by Hanging) 1968, dir. Ôshima Nagisa
  • エロス+虐殺 (Eros Plus Massacre) 1969, dir. Yoshida Kijû

The 1960s in Japan was a period of radical art movements, all of which would reach their peak and peter out around 1970 (which is a whole separate post I think) and so I think it’s appropriate to look at these three films, and how they show the documentary and avant-garde techniques applied to the politics of the era.

A Man Vanishes continues Imamura’s anthropological streak, where the societal pressures that would cause someone to disappear become connected to the pressures on narrative, in this documentary-turned-something else. Death by Hanging tackles both the issue of the death penalty in Japan, and the post-war Korean minority, where the Koreans’ oppressed representation in society is subverted, reinforced, and liberated even as the oppressors achieve a “victory” of sorts through their system. Finally, Eros Plus Massacre reinvents both 1960s radical politics alongside feminist liberation using the camera - the filmstrip - as a means to analyze the past (in the story of a 1920s anarchist and his three lovers) and apply it to the present.

These three films push the techniques, and the societal criticisms, to their limits, and while the “1960s films” period would continue into 1971-2, these three represent a healthy selection of what the period’s technical, structural, and thematic content constitutes.

For More Information

On the art movements of the period: I highly recommend the NYC MoMA exhibition Tokyo 1955-1970, as it covers virtually every major presence in the period, including many designers and writers who would work with these directors. If you can’t make it to NYC, the accompanying book should be a great help, and I don’t see why any decent university or public library wouldn’t try to acquire it.

On the cinematic techniques of the filmmakers: there is a PhD thesis from Brown University, written by Yuriko Furuhata, which delves into the meanings behind documentary and avant-garde, and applies it to some of the filmmakers here, and it’s what I based a lot of this on. She has a book coming out soon, so check that out too. I can’t find a link to it anymore, so I send you to her website instead.

If you live in or near NYC: related to the above MoMA exhibition is a selection of Art Theater Guild films screenings, which covers the 1960s through the 1980s. Many of the films listed above, and many many others will be screened, most not available on DVD in English, so it’s a treasure trove of films from the period.

If you are a stupid academic like me: I would recommend two Josai University Review of Japanese Culture and Society books, Expo ‘70 and Japanese Art and Decentering Theory, both of which cover 1960s art movements and the theory surrounding them. The former covers art movements in general and is closer to the MoMA exhibition above, while the latter book covers Japanese film in general and is useful for any film scholars who want to see a different tradition of hardcore film theory (because, ya know, it’s not only white dudes watching movies!)

I would like to end with some limitations with this survey:

  1. with few exceptions, all the films here are available on DVD with English subtitles, either in the US or the UK. Several others (such as Yoshida Kijû and Wakamatsu Kôji) exist in bootleg copies or on torrents, and I’m sure most people reading this have no problem with torrenting, but the world doesn’t always operate that way. Thus, because Hani Susumu is impossible to find outside of festivals and retrospectives, he is out, even though he was just as prolific as many of the other directors. This is also why Yoshida Kijû is less represented, as all his films are only available in English as bootlegs, while Ôshima and Imamura have healthy presences in both Masters of Cinema and Criterion.
  2. What this also means is that, while I can explore Tsutaya to my heart’s content and attempt to understand films without subtitles, many readers here aren’t going to find the really obscure stuff easily. But since these are in fact the most readily available films (online and on DVD) it’s the best place to start. 
  3. I have not seen Funeral Parade of Roses, Profound Desire of the Gods, or Onibaba, and these are the major films I have not included where I feel the list suffers for their omission. I am also somewhat lacking in general knowledge on samurai films, having only seen one or two, so I can’t really cover that area, unfortunately. I am also not very well read on Shinoda Masahiro, and was not a big fan of what I saw (Double Suicide) and have left him out.

if you have any thoughts or suggestions, please let me know! like I said in the title, this is a working guide, so it can always use improvements. And if you like what you see, and want to know where else to go from here, let me know! I’m happy to help any way I can.

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