An Introduction to Japanese Cinema: Visionary Directors Who Were Ahead of Their Time
Every once in a while, creative people come along and change a medium, breaking standards and pushing art to a new level. Often, these mavericks are misunderstood or under-appreciated during their time. Many films that came out of Japan in the mid-20th century introduced concepts and techniques that have been inspirational for film directors for decades, and today, we will be looking at a handful of Japanese directors who arguably molded and set the standard for Japanese cinema as a whole. Their technique, vision, and influence still have resounding effects to this day and have laid the groundwork upon which many Western films have been built. Read on if you have always been curious about where to start with Japanese cinema!
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What Makes Japanese Cinema Special?
Japanese cinema has a long and rich history of more than 120 years and is one of the oldest and biggest film industries in the world. Accurately defining Japanese cinema as a whole goes well beyond the scope of this article, but suffice it to say, there are certain key elements that lend to its unique flavor.
Junko Takekawa, the Senior Arts Programme Officer at the Japan Foundation (a Japanese institution focused on international cultural exchange), conducted an interview in 2016 on the topic of Japanese cinema. She noted that the allure of Japanese Cinema to Western audiences may come from a style of storytelling that commonly contrasts that of Hollywood, along with a lack of dramatic or climactic endings. Japanese films tend to be smaller in scale, giving them a more realistic feeling. Due to this, it is easier to connect with the characters and their struggles, making Japanese cinema enjoyable to a wide audience, even those who are not deeply familiar with Japanese culture.
Furthermore, Western viewers who are curious about Japan may find that Japanese cinema is a window into a different world, a world where even everyday situations are new and intriguing. To highlight this window into another world, we will be taking a look at three classic directors and one more recent one, all of whom were ahead of their time in terms of scope, technique, and influence.
Akira Kurosawa: Influenced by the West and Influencer of the West
A legendary director and writer with a knack for emulating Western cinema, Akira Kurosawa produced a huge number of films throughout a career spanning almost 60 years (1936–1993). His films drew inspiration from a variety of sources, both Japanese and Western, and his own work became the inspiration for many famous directors in Hollywood.
Although Kurosawa's films have Japanese settings and characters, his strong Western influences are apparent in his style of storytelling which includes universally-relatable characters and themes that aren't so different from those found in classic works of Western literature. Obvious examples of his Western influences can be found in his film noir-inspired detective drama “Stray Dog” or in one of his later works “Throne of Blood,” which is considered by some to be the best film adaptation of Shakespeare's “Macbeth” (but with a Japanese twist, of course).
It can be argued that Kurosawa's knack for blending East and West developed during World War II when outside media was forbidden. This restriction led him to draw from more Japanese sources for inspiration. Kabuki and Noh, traditional forms of Japanese theatre, became a huge influence on Kurosawa at this time and were direct sources that he drew from when producing "The Men Who Tread On the Tiger's Tail" and the aforementioned Japanese version of Macbeth.
Kurosawa was so good at what he did that Hollywood soon caught on and began to look at Kurosawa’s work for inspiration. Some famous examples include “The Hidden Fortress,” which was cited by George Lucas as a major inspiration for Star Wars, or "Seven Samurai" (one of Kurosawa’s most famous films), which was adapted for American audiences in the form of “The Magnificent Seven,” a cowboy Western.
Perhaps we can say that when it comes to Kurosawa, inspiration comes full circle. He is responsible in large part for exposing Western audiences to Japanese cinema by making it more digestible with his somewhat Western style of storytelling. Indeed, in the West, Kurosawa's name is nearly synonymous with samurai films thanks to the success of his many samurai-themed dramas such as "Rashomon" and "The Hidden Fortress."
Yasujiro Ozu: The Most "Japanese" Director
It is possible to argue that Ozu is the most “Japanese” director of all time. He even came up with a new kind of unique camera angle called the “tatami shot” and has the honor of having one of his films, “Tokyo Story,” being accredited by some as the best film of all time! But what made Ozu so special and ahead of the curve?
Ozu was an innovator throughout his career (1929–1963), but he was also known for making films “only Japanese people would understand.” Film studios complained that his slice-of-life drama about the everyday goings-on in Japanese society would never capture the imagination of Western audiences. Oh, how wrong they were.
For anyone curious about Japan, Ozu created a “window into another world,” and placed his viewer literally at eye level with his characters by using his notorious tatami shot technique. For those unfamiliar with "tatami," they are bamboo mats found in traditional Japanese homes. The idea behind the tatami shot was to station the camera at approximately the same level as someone sitting on these mats. The effect was that the audience felt as though they were right there with the characters, resulting in a more intimate viewing experience.
In addition, he broke many hard rules of traditional Hollywood cinema and proved that there are multiple ways to tell a story on screen. His unique cuts and scene transitions were things no one else was doing at the time.
In an era when Japanese cinema was producing period dramas to whet the appetites of foreign film festival viewers, Ozu chose a different path in creating slow-paced stories that transcend cultural differences. In his masterpiece “Tokyo Story,” (1953) an elderly couple goes to visit their children in Tokyo who are too caught up in their own lives to properly entertain their parents. There are a few moments throughout the film that are sure to give you pause such as when the father comments on how “the days will get very long living alone.” There are a number of haunting one-liners like this in Tokyo Story, such as when the youngest daughter comments that “Life is disappointing, isn’t it?” to which her sister-in-law replies, “Yes, it’s full of disappointment.” These kinds of emotions are often pondered by Japanese thinkers with the concept of "wabi-sabi," which is sometimes translated as "the transience of life." Whether it is the fleeting beauty of cherry blossoms or families growing apart, Ozu captures this concept perfectly in Tokyo Story and solidifies his reputation as the "most Japanese director."
There are no real dramatic outbursts in the film, but its dialogue and plot convey a quiet sadness. Ozu makes great use of the narrative device "ellipsis," choosing to not have the film dwell on dramatic events, but rather the results of such events, giving it a very “life goes on” feeling and showing us an anti-Hollywood style that somehow remains captivating.
Ozu's films range from sad to lighthearted but always maintain a universal relatability. Even today, Ozu’s work remains a source of inspiration for aspiring storytellers.
Kenji Mizoguchi: Giving Women the Spotlight
Mizoguchi had a reputation of being a feminist director during his career from 1923 to 1956, and after watching any of his films it's not hard to see why. This reputation was well-established even before women’s suffrage was fully realized in Japan (it was not until 1947 that universal suffrage was truly established) and was very progressive for the time. The exact reasons for his feminist views have been speculated by many, but some argue that it was due to the hardships of his childhood and the gratitude he felt toward his sister, who was forced to become a geisha in order to support his struggling family. Whatever the reason, Mizoguchi's films gave women a voice well and were well ahead of the curve.
An example is Mizoguchi’s 1936 film “Sisters of the Gion,” which portrays the lives of two geisha named Omocha and Umekichi. The story follows the hardships that they encounter in their profession and their ultimate downfall after daring to try to oppose the system they find themselves in. One cannot help but feel sympathy for the sisters throughout the film, which ultimately ends in sorrow for the two. Omocha, whose name somewhat symbolically translates into “Toy," curses the very existence of the geisha and the sexual subjugation involved. The tragic ending largely confirms Omocha's jaded view of the role of the geisha in a male-dominated society.
While other films from the same era focused on male protagonists or made silver screen adaptations of Kabuki plays, Mizoguchi chose to turn his lens to women and their woes in society. Keiko McDonald (an American scholar and professor of Japanese film) describes Mizoguchi’s perennial female protagonists as “women in trouble” who even in victory are still left defeated in a world dominated by men and wealth. McDonald further elaborates by stating “Even in revolt, she is a fighter by way of endurance. ... Japanese audiences are entirely, traditionally familiar with the terms of her conflict between conformity and rebellion, dutiful obligations ... and personal inclinations.”
Satoshi Kon: When Anime Inspires Hollywood
The work of Satoshi Kon, whose career lasted from 1984 to 2010, is much more recent than that of our previous three directors. Tragically, due to his untimely death, we will never see the full spectrum of Kon’s artistic talent, but the films he left us with are thought-provoking, inspiring, and a testament as to why anime should be considered “cinema.” To any naysayers of feature-length anime productions, show them the work of Satoshi Kon and watch as they become too immersed to even consider a rebuttal.
Kon’s main narrative focus is on dream worlds and surrealism. He focuses on the ways in which animation can break the rules of reality, while still generally adhering to traditional film techniques in terms of cuts, pacing, and the use of “camera” angles. Whether it is in his stalker drama “Perfect Blue” (1997) or in the surrealist masterpiece “Paprika” (2006), Kon painted worlds that push the imagination to its limit. One can easily see just how impactful Kon’s vision was when comparing the aforementioned films of “Perfect Blue” and “Paprika” to Hollywood blockbusters, which drew a lot of inspiration from the plots of these films and even copied a few sequences frame for frame in the case of the film “Requiem For a Dream.” In fact, director Darren Aronofsky specifically bought the remake rights to “Perfect Blue” in order to emulate the bathtub scene in "Requiem For a Dream". In his film "Black Swan," too, certain scenes are very reminiscent of “Perfect Blue” and the overarching theme of multiple personalities and losing one's grip on reality is undeniably lifted from Kon's work.
In addition, “Paprika” (2006) was a huge influence on the hit Hollywood film “Inception,” both in terms of plot and imagery. Both stories are focused on mind-bending realities and dream worlds. Specific reference can be seen in the warped twisting hallway from Paprika that found its way into Inception’s iconic spinning hallway action sequence. Another example is a scene in which Paprika’s protagonist touches seemingly empty space only to have it shatter like glass. Inception mimics this scene all the way down to the red clothing worn by the characters. Some call it “ripping off,” while others refer to it as “homage” but in any case, Satoshi Kon inspired Western cinema with anime in ways few others in the medium can claim to have done.
There are, of course, many more incredible and influential Japanese directors, but if you are unsure where to start, the four auteurs mentioned above are sure to provide you with hours of Japanese cinema proven to have touched the hearts and minds of creatives around the world.
If you are keen to go further down the rabbit hole of Japanese cinema related content, please take a look at the following articles before you go: 11 Places in Japan Featured in Studio Ghibli Films and 15 Places in Japan That Look Like the Set From an Anime or a Movie.
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The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.