Sunday, April 26, 2015

Japanese Film by Year: Golden Age of the Classical Studio System (1950-1954)

The 1950s mark the peak of the Japanese film industry. Six companies - Shochiku, Toho, Shintoho, Daiei, Toei (from 1951) and Nikkatsu (from 1954) - release two films per week, 50 weeks a year. The annual production of Japanese films exceeded 500 works, and all studios enjoyed brisk business.

With TV yet to penetrate the market and undeveloped amusement facilities in the 1950s, film was the prime entertainment for the general public; thus, almost any film became a hit once it was released. In the second half of the 1950s, ticket sales and numbers of cinemas in Japan reached their peak. In 1958, more than a billion tickets were sold on a population of less than 100 million, indicating that on average each Japanese went to the movies more than ten times a year. Furthermore, between 1958 and 1961, the number of cinemas exceeded 7,000 facilities, and even small towns had two or three cinemas.

The great thing is that auteurist directors could ride this wave of cinematic popularity: Kurosawa, Ozu, Mizoguchi, Kinoshita, Naruse, etc., all were on the payroll of one of the big studios and were basically allowed to do their thing because of the prestige their presence gave to the studio. They could thus avail themselves of the superior technological and other means of the big studios, not to mention the access to great actors and actresses. And that is of course the real golden age: that so many memorable, artistic films were made by these auteurist directors in so brief a time span. 

We find the following division among the six studios (in alphabetical order):

Daiei: Founded during the war, Daiei excelled in adaptations of classic and contemporary literature, focusing on female protagonists; later it made also chanbara movies. Daiei was responsible for some of the first Japanese films to achieve widespread foreign distribution. Directors as Mizoguchi Kenji and Yoshimura Kozaburo realized subtle human dramas; Ichikawa Kon made satires on social and sexual mores. As many stars had left, Hasegawa Kazuo had become the company's pillar. New faces in the fifties were Kyo Machiko, Yamamoto Fujiko, Wakao Ayako, and Ichikawa Raizo.

Nikkatsu: The war had left Japan's oldest studio as only a theater owning company, but production was resumed in 1954. Nikkatsu soon opted for pictures aimed at a youthful audience, such as the violent and sexy Taiyozoku ("Sun Tribe") films, as well as romantic youth films with new young star Yoshinaga Sayuri,  and "mukokuseki" ("borderless") action thrillers. Nikkatsu was also based around a star system - all new faces, as it lacked established stars (Ishihara Yujiro, Kobayashi Akira, Shishido Jo). 

Shintoho: Started life in 1947 as an offshoot of Toho, as the name "New Toho" suggests. In its early period, the studio was able to do some prestige projects with Naruse and Gosho, but as it had no major talents under contract, it soon ran into difficulties. These were temporarily solved by switching to cheap thrillers, horror films and nationalistic war movies, but that move could not ultimately stem the decline. Its most distinctive director was Nakagawa Nobuo, who made surrealist ghost stories and is now considered as something of a "cult director."

Shochiku: Shochiku continued with its successful prewar formula: home dramas, comedies in the bittersweet "Ofuna flavor," and woman's pictures. The major director was Ozu Yasujiro; younger directors in the postwar period were Kinoshita Keishuke and Shibuya Minoru; lesser talents were Oba Hideo and Nakamura Noboru. 

Toei: Formed in 1951 through the merger of several smaller companies. Toei specialized in low-budget jidaigeki, although it also made some better genre films. Toei was based round a star system (Kataoka Chiezo, Tsukigata Ryunosuke, Ichikawa Utaemon, plus new faces as Nakamura Kinnosuke and Okawa Hashizo) and not directors. The studio produced enough films to fill a double bill each week. Its films - almost entirely unknown abroad - were bright family entertainments, a mix of action, nostalgia and humor. In fact, they were also a form of anachronism, harking nostalgically back to the earliest period of jidaigeki and its stories of "rewarding good and punishing evil" (kanzen choaku). The swordplay was more like a ballet, without a drop of blood, and very different from the quick action scenes in the second half of the 1920s and 1930s.

Toho: After the crisis in the late 1940s, Toho made a comeback by balancing prestige projects with more populist films. Prestige directors were Kurosawa with his serious period films and Naruse with his woman's films; among the latter group were comedies about white collar workers ("salaryman movies"), and - very famous abroad - the monster movies (kaiju eiga) such as Godzilla, mostly made by Kuosawa's friend Honda Ishiro. The company was organized in the American way around a production system. 

For all studios the norm was that directors, actors, actresses and all technical staff were employed for a fixed salary, like "salarymen." Japan has never known the extravagant salaries of Hollywood.


June: The Korean War begins.
July: Kinkaku-ji in Kyoto is burned to the ground by a 22-year-old novice monk.
September: A typhoon and tidal wave hit around Osaka Bay, killing 539 persons.

SCAP orders the studios to expel all "communists." Film makers who loose their job are Imai Tadashi, Gosho Heinosuke, Kamei Fumio and Yamamoto Satsuo. These directors set up independent production companies and make films about social issues. None of these companies lasts very long. But it shows that in all periods Japan had independent productions besides the large studios.

"Until the Day We Meet Again" (Mata au hi made) by Imai Tadashi is the first antiwar movie that is popular with a major public. It shows the effects of the war on the fate of two lovers who happen to meet in a bomb shelter in 1945. They will never meet again: she dies in an air raid, he in combat. There is a famous scene where they blow kisses at each other through a window pane. Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film of the Year. (Toho)

"Scandal" (Skyandaru) by Kurosawa Akira a lesser film, is a sharp protest against the scandal-mongering of the sensation press, which confused liberty with license. Rather sentimental second half, in which the lawyer assigned to assist against the press is playing both sides. The film features Yamaguchi Yoshiko (of Ri Koran fame) besides Kurosawa-stalwarts Mifune and Shimura. (Shochiku)

Rashomon by Kurosawa Akira, an innovative period drama, questions the nature of memory: four contradictory and incompatible eyewitness accounts of the same rape-murder incident show that the witnesses are only concerned with their own pride (or, in Japanese terms, "face"). The truth cannot be known as the film registers all four accounts in the same realistic way. This was contrary to what the public in Japan expected, as so far films had always told them what they should think and what reality they should believe in. Viewers were confused, but that was Kurosawa's intention, who, considering their passiveness during the war years, wanted the Japanese to become stronger individuals, persons who thought for themselves and formed their own opinion. The film ends with a humanistic message when the woodcutter, who was witness to the crime, decides to bring up a foundling baby as his own child. Despite being a "difficult" film, Rashomon was a financial success in Japan, being the fourth largest grosser of the fifty-two pictures released by Daiei in 1950. After winning the Golden Lion at the Venice Film festival the next year, Rashomon was brought out to great acclaim in the U.S. and other countries. (Daiei).

"The Munekata Sisters" (Munekata Shimai) by Ozu Yasujiro. Again the cultural conflict between tradition and modernity embodied in two sisters, the elder, married one is conservative and dressed in kimono (Tanaka Kinuyo), the younger, unmarried one is liberal and wears Western dress (Takamine Hideko). The younger sister encourages the elder one to reunite with a former suitor (Uehara Ken), although she herself is also in love with him. Finally, the elder one nobly gives up her love. Another contrast is between the modern scenes in Tokyo and Kobe and the traditional temples in Kyoto and Nara. Rare for Ozu, this is an adaptation of a novel (by Osaragi Jiro). It is unfortunately also a rather heavy-handed, schematic and overtly melodramatic story featuring an alcoholic husband who suddenly drops dead - causing the only woman's scream in all of Ozu. (Shintoho)

Mizoguchi Kenji makes "A Picture of Madame Yuki" (Yuki Fujin Ezu). Set in the resort of Atami, this film is about an affluent heiress (Kogure Michiyo), married to a vulgar, womanizing and spendthrift husband. She is in love with an earnest young scholar (Uehara Ken), but remains helplessly physically drawn to her brutish husband - it all ends in tragedy. Beautiful portrait of a proud and delicate woman threatened by the insensitivity around her. (Shintoho)


Shochiku reconstructs the war-damaged Kabukiza Theater.

Due to the forced merger of studios during the war, Japan's oldest film company, Nikkatsu, had lost its production arm to Daiei (including actors/actresses and technical staff) and was left with only its network of cinemas. It now has to start from scratch. Nikkatsu president Hori Kyusaku this year begins construction of a new production studio.

Another new company making preparations for starting production is Toei. Toei is established officially this year, on the basis of Toyoko Eiga (est. 1938) and others. Like Toho and its Hankyu link, this studio was also backed by railroad money, from the Tokyu Corporation. Okawa Hiroshi was appointed president. Toei planned to concentrate on period drama as soon as the U.S. Occupation would end and the company was fortunate enough to be able to attract a number of stars from the age of silent period drama: Kataoka Chiezo, Ichikawa Utaemon, and Tsukigata Ryunosuke. The Toei Studios Kyoto are set up in Uzumasa (converting the Toyoko Studio, which in its turn went back to studios owned by Daiei and Shinko Cinema, and finally to Ban-Tsuma's Production Uzumasa Studio of 1926).

Rashomon wins first prize at the Venice Film Festival, the first time that a Japanese film breaks through internationally. The film had been invited by the festival without the knowledge of Kurosawa, and no Japanese were present. Also Daiei president Nagata was surprised (he had had no confidence in this difficult movie), but he smelled money and would in the following years consciously make films aimed at foreign film festivals, trying to repeat the success of Rashomon; also other studios would follow suit. The film also meant the breakthrough of the actor Mifune Toshiro.

"Carmen Comes Home" (Karumen kokyo ni kaeru) by Kinoshita Keisuke is Japan's first feature-length color movie, made with Japanese Fuji color film. Funny musical comedy in which a self-made woman, a striptease artist (Takamine Hideko), visits the village of her childhood. The baffled countryfolk shun her until she and her friend Akemi put on a benefit performance, after which they are able to leave the town as heroines. Kinoshita, by the way, was one of the few postwar directors like Ozu and Kurosawa who wrote almost all his own scripts - even without a co-writer. And like these two directors, he, too, had his own cinematic "family" to work with. (Shochiku)

Ichikawa Kon had made his first film in 1945; "The Lovers" (Koibito) was his eleventh. The day before her wedding, a young woman goes out one last time with a former boyfriend. (Shintoho)

Ichikawa Kon (1915-2008) would become one of the most prolific and varied of Japanese masters, often basing his films on literary novels. The excellent scripts of his early films were written by his wife, Wada Natto.

"Ginza Cosmetics" (Ginza Gesho), by Naruse Mikio, depicts a few days in the life of a Ginza bar hostess, and is a sort of precursor to his later (and better) When A Woman Ascends the Stairs. About the hardships facing a bar hostess and the strength of character of the protagonist. It also shows one of Naruse's trapped characters, as the hostess is unable to escape from her hard life by catching a suitable husband. (Shintoho)

"The Idiot"
(Hakuchi) by Kurosawa Akira. Kurosawa was a great Dostoevsky fan and based his film on the classical masterpiece. He transposed the story to Hokkaido and to postwar-Japan. War trauma plays an important role: 'the idiot' here is a former soldier suffering from epileptic seizures caused by wartime experiences; all the other characters are also victims of the war. This melodrama of jealousy and resentment, in which 'the idiot' tries to help a young man ruined by the war and a woman hounded by a wealthy but cruel suitor, has been considered a lesser Kurosawa film by Western critics; however, in Japan it has been consistently popular. Hara Setsuko is unexpectedly a stunning femme fatale and there are elegant patternings and great snowscapes. (Shochiku)

"Miss Oyu"
(Oyu-sama) by Mizoguchi Kenji was loosely based on the novel Ashikari by Tanizaki Junichiro. Shinnosuke is planning to marry the young Shizu, but loses his heart to her elder sister, Oyu (Tanaka Kinuyo). Oyu, however, is a young widow, who for traditional reasons cannot remarry. Oyu then convinces Shinnosuke and Shizu to marry so that she can remain close to Shinnosuke. (Daiei)

Imai Tadashi, one of the film makers who had lost their jobs in the red purge and set up independent production companies, makes "And Yet We Live" (Dokkoi Ikiteru), a work that chronicled the life of the urban poor, influenced by Italian Neo-Realism as De Sica's Bicycle Thieves. More than in his previous films, Imai here insists upon political action and social change.

"The Lady from Musashino"
(Musashino Fujin), another movie Mizoguchi Kenji made this year, was based on a novel by Oka Shohei. Michiko (Tanaka Kinuyo) is a disillusioned young wife, trapped in a loveless marriage to her translator husband (Mori Masayuki), living in the western Tokyo suburbs; she eventually becomes entangled in a destructive affair with her cousin, who is too weak to support her love. (Toho)

"Early Summer"
(Bakushu) by Ozu Yasujiro. Chronicles three generations of the Kamakura-based Mamiya family, which is seeking a promising match for the eldest daughter, Noriko (Hara Setsuko). But Noriko has firm ideas about how and to whom she will give herself and surprises her family when she abruptly opts for a childhood friend, a poor doctor going to be posted in far-off northern Japan - she does this at the suggestion of his mother. Noriko fulfills her family's wishes, but also tears them apart. After she moves away the family lacks her contribution to the household income and has to split up. The grandparents, relieved that Noriko has been taken care of, move to the countryside of Nara, resigned to their own fate. Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film of the Year. (Shochiku)

"Repast" (Meshi) by Naruse Mikio is a nuanced psychological masterpiece on the home life of a childless couple, a low-salaried clerk (Uehara Ken) and his wife (Hara Setsuko) living in Osaka. The wife begins to realize that all those years with the same man have given her no feeling of self-realization and she starts weighing her options - which are however rather meager. She returns to her family in Tokyo, seeking a job, but in the end resigns herself to going back to her husband. This is the first of six films that Naruse in the coming decade will base on the novels of Hayashi Fumiko. (Toho)

Ninaime Hasegawa Kazuo starts playing Zenigata Heiji, an okappi or sort of Edo-period policeman, in a popular series for Daiei that will run for ten years.

Nikkatsu finishes building the Chofu Studio in Tokyo as the largest modern film studio in the Asia Pacific Region.

With the departure of the Occupation authorities, censorship of the film world ends. It is replaced by Eirin, a voluntary body, which gives film makers great freedom to depict social, political and personal matters. Although the studios eschewed explicit sex or violence in the early and mid-fifties, Japanese films could now be much franker than Hollywood products.

With the end of the Occupation, the theme of revenge is immediately restored to period drama and sword-fighting scenes proliferate. A typical example is Jirocho Sankokushi ("Jirocho: The Record of the Three Provinces") by Makino Masahiro, the first of eleven films about this famous "Robin Hood"-type yakuza boss, all made between 1952 and 1955. (Toho)

Toei starts its massive production of period dramas with films as Mito Komon Manyuki ("Mito Komon's Pleasure Trip", with Ichikawa Utaemon), Tange Sazen ("Sazen Tange", with Bando Tsumasaburo) and Akojo ("Ako Castle", with Kataoka Chiezo), the first version since the end of the war of the Chushingura legend.

Hiroshima-born director Shindo Kaneto treats another taboo subject in "Children of the Atomic Bomb" (Genbaku no ko) - films about the atomic bombings had been forbidden by the American Occupation authorities, but with the conclusion of the peace treaty of 1952 this ban was lifted. A schoolteacher (Otowa Nobuko) returns six years after the war to Hiroshima which at that time is mainly a shanty-town standing in the rubble (the well-known Peace Memorial Hall is under construction). She observes the after-effects of the A-bomb (which has killed her own parents) and the endurance of the survivors when visiting her former pupils. Their suffering is augmented by the prejudice they have to face in society. The blast of the bomb is shown by Shindo through Eisenstein-like cutting. This docu-drama slice-of-life film did endeavor to show the Japanese the situation in Hiroshima, which was not widely known at the time. "Victimization complex" is a term often wrongly used for this and other films as Tower of Lilies, Twenty-four Eyes and Black Rain - for these films just show ordinary people, who had no influence at all on such a weighty matter as war, struggling to get on with their ordinary lives (victimization complexes are more something for politicians to deal with). Note that the realistic yakuza film Battles Without Honor and Humanity, made by Fukasaku Kinji 20 years later, is set in Hiroshima in this same period. (Kindai Eiga Kyokai).

Shindo Kaneto (1912-2012) had a distinguished career of six decades in cinema, not only as an accomplished director of 46 films, but also as masterful writer of 230 screenplays for directors as Mizoguchi, Kinoshita, Imai, Ichikawa and especially Yoshimura Kozaburo. Starting in the social-realist vein in the early 1950s, he made his best films in the 1960s, when he focused on aestheticism, art and portraits of artists. His masterworks are two visually opulent stories of the supernatural, Onibaba (1964) and Kuroneko (1968), as well as The Naked Island, a film about the harsh life on a small island in the Inland Sea without dialogue. He is also known for the documentary he made about his mentor, Mizoguchi Kenji. Shindo was married to the versatile actress Otowa Nobuko, who appeared in his films until her death.

The above film had been sponsored by the Japan Teacher's Union, but they were dissatisfied with Shindo's self-critical film, and commissioned another one. That was Sekigawa Hideo's Hiroshima, which delivered the goods in showing that only the Americans were to blame - some scenes of this film were used (without giving credit) in Resnais' Hiroshima, mon amour. (East West)

Ikiru by Kurosawa Akira wins the Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film of the Year. It is Kurosawa's clearest and most compassionate statement of his existential humanism, in a story about a dying bureaucrat, Watanabe, who bypasses red tape in order to help others and give his life meaning, even by doing a small good. Before that, he had been so immersed in his narrow, daily routine, that he never learned to live. Arguably Kurosawa's greatest achievement, quiet and contemplative. The first half of the film gives us Watanabe's inner state in a straightforward plot, the second half fragments the story into flashbacks as the various colleagues at the funeral of Watanabe review his struggle through their eyes - failing to give him any credit for his effort to build a playground in a small wasteland in a poor section of the town. Shimura Takeshi delivers a great performance as Watanabe - his large pleading eyes and hangdog face are unforgettable. Won the Special Prize at the Berlin International Film Festival of 1954. (Toho)

 "The Life of Oharu" (Saikaku Ichidai Onna) by Mizoguchi Kenji was loosely based on a classical novel by 17th c. author Iharu Saikaku. The atypical period film chronicles the inexorable decline of a court lady (Tanaka Kinuyo) who falls in love with a man below her station (the man is dutifully executed for his trespass) and finally ends up as a cheap harlot, via being the concubine of a lord (solely to produce a baby), a geisha, and the wife of a fan maker. Finally, Oharu becomes a Buddhist nun. Imbued with a sad beauty. Mizoguchi received international renown for his cinematic techniques. Venice Film Festival International prize. (Shintoho)

"The Flavor of Green Tea over Rice" (Ochazuke no Aji) by Ozu Yasujiro. Crisis in the life of a middle-aged, childless couple. Takeo (Kogure Michiyo) is bored by her dull husband, a quiet company executive (Saburi Shin), and - inspired by a rebellious niece who refuses an arranged marriage - runs off to a spa with her friends. But after this unsettling experience - and when a foreign assignment threatens to take her husband away - , she comes to a new appreciation of him and his relaxed and simple mode of life - while they share a meal of simply green tea over rice. (Shochiku)

Okasan ("Mother") by Naruse Mikio was one of the most successful of postwar shoshimin-eiga. A daughter witnesses her widowed mother (with three children), a tenacious, aging woman, struggling to keep the dry-cleaning business left by her husband going and avoid poverty. Melodramas about maternal love and sacrifice, so-called "haha-mono," were popular since the early fifties (Daiei made scores of sodden sentimental ones with actress Mimasu Aiko, "the mother of Japan" - these films about mothers suffering for the sake of their offspring apparently took their cue from Henry King's Stella Dallas, but it is also an age-old Japanese theme). (Shintoho)

Inazuma ("Lightning"), also by Naruse Mikio. Based on a novel by Hayashi Fumiko and featuring the director's frequent muse, Takamine Hideko. In contrast to the previous film, this is a story about a weak-willed mother with four children by different fathers. The youngest, unmarried daughter tries to break away from the sordidness around her, but in the end cannot help being kind to her pathetic mother. In Naruse's films the inner conflicts of the characters are subtly indicated by the absence of prolonged eye contact or by glances filled with a hidden flash of disgust. (Daiei)

Karumen Junjosu ("Carmen's Pure Love") by Kinoshita Keisuke was a sequel to his first Carmen-film. Uneducated women working as strippers protest against Japan's postwar rearmament. If anything is to be done, one must do it oneself - but the idiocy of the modern world is not helpful. (Shochiku)

Genji Monogatari ("The Story of Genji") by Yoshimura Kozaburo was entered in the 1952 Cannes Film Festival. This first film version of Japan's great 11th c. classical novel was made to celebrate the tenth anniversary of Daiei. The shining prince was played by Hasegawa Kazuo. Praised for its careful recreation of period and careful delineation of character. Quite popular (Daiei's top grossing picture of the year) as many teachers took their class to see the film as a cultural experience. (Daiei)

The Five-Company Agreement (Gosha Kyotei) is signed between Shochiku, Toho, Daiei, Shintoho, and Toei to prevent actors, directors and technical staff to be hired away by other studios. It made ordinary "company employees" of the actors and directors - only a few, who were famous enough, could get away from this by setting up their own production companies (Katsu Shintaro, Ishihara Yujiro, Mifune Toshiro, all in the sixties). Executed mainly under the leadership of Daiei's president Nagata Masaichi, the agreement was initially directed against Nikkatsu, which was trying to get back its former staff from Daiei. In 1956, however, Nikkatsu  also joined the agreement, which would be in force during the whole 1960s, until it naturally expired with Daiei's demise in 1971.

Daiei produces Teinosuke Kinugasa's Jigokumon ("Gate of Hell"), the first color film from Japan to be shown abroad, earning both an honorary Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film and best costume design, as well as the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival. Made with Eastmancolor as that was thought to have fresher colors than Japanese color film - the film indeed revels in color. Daiei's president Nagata hit the jackpot with this sumptuous production, in which he copied several elements from Rashomon: the period setting (12th c.); the "gate" in the title of the film; an original story by Akutagawa Ryunosuke; and Kyo Machiko as the female lead. But without being outright bad, the film strikes us now as a somehow empty display, as arty kitsch, with none of the depth of Rashomon (although that is of course a very high standard indeed). A samurai (Hasegawa Kazuo) has fallen in love with a palace lady (Kyo Machiko) and, although she is already married, keeps stalking her. Finally, she pretends to agree with a plan by her insistent lover: at night he will creep into her house to kill her husband - but she changes places with her husband and silently offers herself up for his life. (Daiei)

Tokyo Monogatari ("Tokyo Story") by Ozu Yasujiro. An elderly couple (Ryu Chishu, Higashiyama Chieko) from Onomichi visits their preoccupied children in Tokyo, but they are clearly a burden and packed off to Atami. Back home, the mother dies, and now it is the turn of the children to visit the town where they were born. The only child genuinely affectionate is the widowed daughter-in-law (Hara Setsuko); she is also the only one who understands the feelings of the widowed father. She offers to stay with him now that he is alone, but he refuses - he accepts life as it comes. Although Tokyo Story is now considered as one of the best films ever made, Ozu as a director was late in breaking through outside Japan. Only when it was shown in New York in 1972 (at the publication of Paul Schrader’s Transcendental Style in FilmTokyo Monogatari won the hearts of viewers. Instrumental in the breakthrough of Ozu was the unflagging advocacy by Donald Richie, whose detailed study on Ozu was published in 1974, finally convincing critics that this quiet filmmaker was one of cinema’s finest artists. (Shochiku)

Ugetsu Monogatari ("Ugetsu") by Mizoguchi Kenji, derived from stories by Ueda Akinari and Maupassant. One of the most perfect movies in the history of Japanese cinema, an exquisite blending of the otherworldly and the real. At a time of civil war, a potter (Mori Masayuki) leaves wife and child behind to go to the city to sell his wares. There he falls in love with a beautiful, mysterious woman (Kyo Machiko) who later turns out to be the ghost of a princess. She had never tasted love in her life and therefore must now seduce and destroy men. When at long last he manages to free himself from this beautiful, but malevolent spirit, the potter returns home where he finds his wife (Tanaka Kinuyo) waiting for him. The next morning he discovers she has been dead for some time - she is also a ghost. The difference is that she has become a benevolent spirit who watches over her husband and her son. Mizoguchi was often considered as "old-fashioned" by Japanese critics, but earned high praise in France, because his moving-camera, long-shot technique exemplified the aesthetic that the young Cahiers du cinéma critics were championing (and which they also found in films by, for example, Jean Renoir and Max Ophüls) - Godard called him “the greatest of Japanese filmmakers, or quite simply one of the greatest of filmmakers.” (Daiei)

Gion Bayashi ("Gion festival Music") by Mizoguchi Kenji. Post-war variation on Sisters of the Gion made seventeen years earlier, again with a traditional elderly geisha (Kogure Michiyo) and this time, not her real younger sister, but her maiko apprentice (Wakao Ayako). But as times are different, the resistance against traditional customs of the younger geisha is actually transformed into something humorous (she bites a client who wants to force her to have sex with him in his face, so that he ends up in hospital), although also the dark side of the trade is shown, as the elder geisha is forced to sell her body to a powerful client on penalty of being exorcised from the profession. (Daiei)

Nihon no Higeki ("A Japanese Tragedy") by Kinoshita Keisuke. Sentimental tragedy criticizing the egoism of the younger generation. A mother has made every possible sacrifice to bring up her ungrateful son and daughter, but they reject her, searching for their own material comforts. The mother is unable to provide for herself and finally commits suicide. But life continues and this, too, is just an incident in an eternal flow. The personal tragedy is linked to the larger flow of events by mixing in newsreels and newspaper headlines from the postwar years. (Shochiku)

Entotsu no Mieru Basho ("Where Chimneys Are Seen") by Gosho Heinosuke is entered into the 3rd Berlin International Film festival. The lives of four ordinary people living in an industrial-residential area of Tokyo, centering around the anecdote of an unwelcome baby. Shows the charms of everyday life. The chimneys of the tile look different depending on the viewpoint of the observer, and so it is also with life - it is as each person happens to see it. With Tanaka Kinuyo, Takamine Hideko, Uekara Ken, etc. (Shintoho)

Tsuma ("Wife") is another film about marriage by Naruse Mikio. A wife (Takamine Mieko) finds out that her husband (Uehara Ken), a white-collar office worker, is cheating on her. To avoid the stigma of a broken marriage, she desperately decides to do everything necessary to  retain him. Based on a story by Hayashi Fumiko. (Toho)

Ani Imoto ("Older Brother, Younger Sister") by Naruse Mikio. Siblings grow up and grow apart. A sister who has gone to work in Tokyo returns home pregnant. Her rowdy brother scolds her and beats up her boyfriend. The marriage prospects of another sister are ruined by this scandal. The Tokyo sister is discarded by her family and finally becomes a streetwalker. (Daiei)

Toyoda Shiro makes the bungei film Gan ("The Wild Geese"), an adaptation from a famous novel by Mori Ogai. Otama (Takamine Hideko) out of economic necessity becomes the mistress of a wealthy widower to help support her poor family. But then she meets Okada, a medical student she feels instantly attracted to, and she has to decide whether to follow her heart or do her duty to her family. (Daiei)

Nostalgic war films also start being made. An example is Taiheiyo no washi ("Eagle of the Pacific") by Honda Ishiro (of later Godzilla fame), insisting that war is somehow heroic. The insistence on warm comradeship ("male bonding"), like in the war films of the late 1930s and early 1940s, probably also helped make these films popular in the postwar age where everyone had to fend for himself. (Toho)

On a quite different note, Imai Tadashi makes an antiwar movie about a group of high-school girls who tragically perish in the battle for Okinawa: Himeyuri no To ("The Tower of Lilies") - the film was very popular in Japan. The major blame for the tragedy was put on traditional Japanese fatalism -  the girls had been trained to die in case of an American attack, so that is what they did. The film was named after the monument erected to commemorate this historical incident. (Toei)

Nigorie ("An Inlet of Muddy Water"), also by Imai Tadashi, wins Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film of the Year. Based on three stories by Higuchi Ichiyo about Meiji-period women and their dreary lot. One is cruelly abused in an arranged marriage; another, a prostitute, is thwarted in her efforts to gain respectable employment; and yet another is a young servant whose rich employers make her life hell. (Bungakuza)

The love drama ("surechigai") Kimi no Na wa ("What is Your Name?") by Oba Hideo established a famous box office record. It also demonstrated the enduring popularity of sentimental love stories centering on the ninaime lead (Sada Keiji) and the sorrowful heroine (Kishi Keiko). (Shochiku)

Koibumi ("Love Letters") by Tanaka Kinuyo. Tanaka Kinuyo was not only the most famous Japanese actress of her time, in the fifties and early sixties she was also active as one of the first woman directors of the country, making six films in all. This was the first one, based on a script by Kinoshita Keisuke, about a man (Mori Masayuki) who after the war gets by through writing love letters for other people. His personal principles are tested when he again meets his former girlfriend, a woman with a dark past (Kuga Yoshiko). (Shintoho)

Nikkatsu starts production again. The studio attempts to find an audience with high-quality literary adaptations.

Shichinin no Samurai ("Seven Samurai") by Kurosawa Akira, the best samurai film ever made, a thrilling three hour epic. In this seamless fusion of philosophy and entertainment, seven ragged samurai set out to protect a poor farming village from bandit raids in exchange for nothing but room and board. They win after breathtaking battle scenes in rain and mud (though three of their number are killed), but realize that the real winners are only the peasants who don't need them anymore and want them to leave so that they can go on with their normal lives - leaving the samurai to wonder about the purpose in life. Daily life, in this case the round of the seasons with its agricultural activities, is more important than winning a war, than friendship, than even love. Won the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival of 1954. (Toho)

Mizoguchi Kenji makes Sansho Dayu ("Sansho the Bailiff"), an expression of human resilience in the face of evil. An eleven-century family is broken up by politics - the father, a governor who disobeyed the ruling feudal lord, dies in exile. The wife and her two children are left to fend for themselves and eventually fall prey to slave traders. The son is finally reunited with the mother through the self-sacrifice of his sister. Based on a short story by Mori Ogai, which itself goes back to a medieval legend. One of cinema's greatest masterpieces, with gorgeous photography and elegant camerawork. As is his wont, Mizoguchi keeps his camera distant and his takes long, resulting in a contemplative style. Venice Film Festival San Marco Silver Lion. (Daiei)

Mizoguchi also makes Chikamatsu Monogatari ("A Story from Chikamatsu aka Crucified Lovers"), based on Chikamatsu Monzaemon's 17th c. play "The Almanac Maker's Tale". Strongly anti-feudal film, about a merchant class woman who is unjustly accused of adultery with a servant. They flee, are caught and executed - at which time they realize that their shared experience has now made them fall in love. (Daiei)

Yama no Oto ("Sound of the Mountain") by Naruse Mikio, after the novel by Kawabata Yasunari. The heroine of this film (Hara Setsuko), a young bride, finds relief from marital distress when her husband slights her for another woman, in the friendship with her father-in-law (Yamamura So). The youthful enthusiasms of the wife are crushed by the unfeeling husband and only the aging father-in-law is moved by her sadness. (Toho)

Naruse also directs Bangiku ("Last Chrysanthemums"), about the loneliness and disillusion of three aging geisha, struggling to retain their dignity in a cold and unfeeling world, a subject Naruse had already touched on in Apart from You (1933). Naruse again demonstrates his deep understanding of female psychology in these sharp portraits of women who are experienced, proud and disillusioned. Permeated with a general feeling of regret and sadness. Based on three short stories by Hayashi Fumiko. (Toho)

Onna no Sono ("The Garden of Women") by Kinoshita Keisuke describes the struggle against the feudal structure at a women's college. A pupil is driven to suicide by the discriminatory treatment she receives from her teacher. (Shochiku)

Nijushi no Hitomi ("Twenty-four Eyes") by the same director is a pacifist film, a chronicle of a teacher's dedication to her students, her profession and her values, which she tries to maintain in the face of an increasingly aggressive militaristic government. Shot on location on the island of Shodoshima in the Inland Sea. Like the films of Ozu, Naruse and Gosho, this is a film free from tight plot and contrived story, reflecting life with great fidelity - something typical for the best Japanese films of this period. As life progresses, we see how ideals are inevitably shattered and compromised. Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film of the Year. (Shochiku)

Inagaki makes Miyamoto Musashi ("Samurai") the first (but self-contained) part of a trilogy based on the popular novel by Yoshikawa Eiji. Mifune Toshiro plays the iconic title character (although he was in fact too old to play a teenage boy in the first part). Followed by Part II in 1955 ("Duel at Ichijoji Temple") and Part III in 1956 ("Duel on Ganryu Island"). Takezo is a farmer's son, a good-for-nothing who dreams of becoming a samurai in early 17th century Japan. Under the guidance of a Buddhist priest, and through the love of a pure woman, we see him evolve from a wild animal, a teenager filled with rage and violence, into the adult Miyamoto Musashi, a man who through study of the Way of the Warrior has achieved a deeper understanding of himself. This trilogy is arguably the most popular samurai movie outside Japan, but it is a pure genre film, an entertainment, not comparable to Kurasawa's Seven Samurai with its philosophic depth. Academy Award for the best foreign-language film of 1955. (Toho)

Toho makes the first of its many monster movies (kaiju eiga) with Gojira ("Godzilla"), helmed by Honda Ishiro. This first film is obviously by far the best of the series, not only because it has the advantage of a great actor, Shimura Takashi, but also because the story was inspired by realistic fear for the nuclear tests ongoing in the Pacific. A giant reptile, brought back to life by underwater nuclear testing, comes on land in Japan and goes on a rampage in Tokyo. An eccentric scientist does his best to destroy the beast with a new invention. The fact that it is in black-and-white makes it more convincing and even helps us accept the fact that the monster is a man in a rubber suit, stomping on mock-up buildings. The special effects were by Tsuburaya Eiji. The film became a huge international success, despite being heavily mutilated in its initial English release, and formed the beginning of a monster franchise that would run for many decades (and still has not died out). Godzilla would be joined by Rodan, the flying monster, by Mothra, and by King Ghidorah. He even became nationalistically Japanese when in the 1960s he fought against the "American monster" King Kong. The most popular entertainment ever to come out of Japan.
[Reference works used: Currents In Japanese Cinema by Tadao Sato (Tokyo, 1987); The Japanese Film: Art and Industry by Joseph L. Anderson and Donald Richie (reprint Tokyo, 1983); A Hundred Years of Japanese Film by Donald Richie (Tokyo, 2001); Japanese Film Directors by Audrie Bock (Tokyo, 1985); A Critical Handbook of Japanese Film Directors by Alexander Jacoby (Berkeley, 2008); A New History of Japanese Cinema by Isolde Standish (New York, 2005); The Japanese Period Film by S.A. Thornton (Jefferson & London, 2008); Eros plus Massacre, An Introduction to the Japanese New Wave Cinema by David Desser (Bloomington and Indianopolis, 1988); Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema by David Bordwell (Princeton University Press: Princeton, 1988); Kurosawa: Film Studies and Japanese Cinema by Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto (Duke University Press: Durham, 2000); The Waves at Genji's Door by Joan Mellen (Pantheon Books: New York, 1976); Japanese Classical Theatre in Film by Keiko I. Macdonald (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1994); From Book to Screen by Keiko I. Macdonald (M.E. Sharpe: New York and London, 2000); Reading a Japanese Film by Keiko I. Macdonald (University of Hawai'i Press: Honolulu, 2006); Behind the Pink Curtain, A Complete History of Japanese Sex Cinema, by Jasper Sharp (Fab Press: Godalming, 2008); Contemporary Japanese Film by Mark Schilling (Weatherhill: New York and Tokyo, 1999); The Midnight Eye Guide to New Japanese Film by Tom Mes and Jasper Sharp (Stone Bridge Press: Berkeley, 2005); Kitano Takeshi by Aaron Gerow (British Film Institute: London, 2007); Iron Man: the Cinema of Shinya Tsukamoto by Tom Mes (Fab Press: Godalming, 2005); Agitator: The Cinema of Takashi Miike by Jasper Sharp (Fab Press: Godalming, 2003); Nihon Eigashi by Sato Tadao (Iwanami Shoten: Tokyo, 2008, 4 vols.); Nihon Eigashi 110-nen by Yomota Inuhiko (Shueisha; Tokyo, 2014). All images are linked from Wikipedia.]
History of Japanese Film by Year

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Japanese Film by Year: Censorship during War and Occupation (1940-1949)

In 1937, the war in China started, followed by the war with the U.S. and its allies in 1941. 1945 brought the Occupation to a devastated country, with shortages of food and other necessities, and severe chaos including gangsterism and a thriving black market. It was not until the end of the 1940s that the Japanese could feel that peace and normality had finally returned to society.

The films of this period were all made under more or less strict censorship, first by the Japanese government, later by the U.S. Occupation authorities (S.C.A.P.). The Japanese government encouraged "national polity" pictures that eulogized "essential Japaneseness," in these years found in the patriarchal family system and in the code of loyalty. Also sacrifice for the state and the greater well of society was an important theme. Decadent "Western" feelings such as love were frowned upon. The Americans, on the other hand, forbade these "feudal" ideas in 1945 and instead encouraged the production of films propagating democracy and individualism - and containing kissing scenes. By outlawing the theme of revenge and swordplay in film, the Occupation authorities also de facto forbade period drama, which only came back (with a vengeance) after the San Francisco Treaty had been concluded in 1951. 

Due the adverse circumstances and the lack of film stock and equipment, considerably fewer films were made in these years. This decade was also rather poor in great films, due to the war and various forms of censorship - a huge difference compared to the golden decades before and after the 1940s. Also the early postwar period produced no great films, we have to wait until 1948 and 1949 for new talent to ripen (Kurosawa), or older talent to find a new groove (Ozu). Many films reflect the harsh realities of postwar life, and although this was an independent phenomenon, it is the same type of transformation that occurred in Italy where neo-realism was born. 

The war in China continues. In September, Japanese invasion in French Indo-China.
Throughout the year: Celebration of the Year 2600 in the mythical Japanese imperial counting system.

Despite the war, the cinema remains popular. There are more than 2,300 theaters which sell more than 400 million tickets this year.

Toyoda Shiro, the director of literary films, evades the war as subject and makes "Spring on Leper's Island" (Kojima no haru), about a woman doctor's devotion to her leper patients on an isolated island. A cry for humanism in an age marching to the tune of militarism. Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film of the Year.

That was not true of Yoshimura Kozaburo, who made "The Story of Tank Commander Nishizumi" (Nishizumi Senshacho-den), although it must be said that also this film contains some dim humanistic elements. Heart-throb Uehara Ken played the tank commander.

"Fighting Soldiers" (Tatakau Heitai) by Kamei Fumio, a documentary maker, was a film depicting the tragic side of the war. When the censors belatedly noticed its antiwar ideas, Kamei was arrested and forbidden to make any more films.

"The Woman of Osaka" (Naniwa Onna) by Mizoguchi Kenji depicts rivalries in the Osaka Bunraku puppet theater world, a safe topic.

Gosho Heinosuke protested in another way to the war, by turning all military scripts submitted to him into simple love stories. An example from this year is "Wooden Head" (Mokuseki), a psychological study of an unmarried woman doctor who adopts an illegitimate child to keep the father's name clear.

Japanese cinema also expanded to the occupied territories in Asia. One example is the Manchurian Motion Picture Association, which had been set up in 1938 under sponsorship of the army. This year it made its most popular film, "China Night" (Shina no Yoru), about the love between a Chinese war orphan (played by Yamaguchi Yoshiko, also known at that time as Ri Koran, as she had adopted a Chinese name for propaganda reasons) and a Japanese naval officer (Hasegawa Kazuo).

[Genroku Chushingura]

The war in China continues.
December: Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

All American and European films (except German ones) are banned.

Ozu Yasujiro makes "Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family" (Todake no Kyodai), about a widow and her youngest daughter who have lost their home and move in with successive family members, causing many tensions. The spirit of the times can be seen obliquely in the idea that it is the death of the patriarch (and his authority), occurring at the beginning of the film, that is the origin of all these problems. For the rest the film is filled with small daily activities, like all Ozu films. It was also made with an almost silent-film technique. Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film of the Year.

Yamamoto Kajiro makes "Horse" (Uma), a portrayal of country life, part of it directed by his assistant, Kurosawa Akira. A colt raised by a poor farm girl in the end becomes an army horse, but the tacked on message (necessary to get permission to make the film) does not destroy this poetical work, which is almost a documentary about horse breeding.

Mizoguchi Kenji makes "The Loyal 47 Ronin" (Genroku Chushingura), a two-part version of the popular kabuki classic glorifying feudal loyalty and self-sacrifice. The film shows its wartime origin in its sober and grave dignity - the final vendetta in the snow is left out. The military had demanded this film from Shochiku because the studio had failed to make a sufficient number of national policy films. Mizoguchi volunteered to save Shochiku. This film was made in what Darcell William Davis in Picturing Japaneseness calls "the monumental style," "an aspiration to reclaim the cinema for Japan and transform Japanese tradition from a cultural legacy into a sacrament."

"Ornamental Hairpin" (Kanzashi) by Shimizu Hiroshi depicts several holidaymakers in a hot spring hotel, including a wounded soldier and a geisha. The poetic film seems like a holiday from the war and is more about delineation of character than plot. It is a bittersweet tale with great performances by Tanaka Kinuyo and Ryu Chishu, sensitively suggesting unspoken emotions.

At Toho, Naruse Mikio makes "Hideko, The Bus Conductor" (Hideko no Shasho-san), based on a short story by Ibuse Masuji, and starring the young Takamine Hideko. Hideko works as conductor for a company in the countryside (Yamanashi), where the number of passengers is dwindling. She asks a visiting author to write commentaries on local sites so that she can recite these to the passengers during the trip through the countryside. Not only a wonderfully peaceful and pleasant film made in the war years, but also a remarkable story about a young woman coming out as a professional. And, as in some films from the 1930s, for example Arigato-san, great location shots through the windows of the bus.

January – Japan declares war on the Dutch.
February – Japan demands the surrender of Singapore.
April – Doolittle Raid, the first bombing raid on the Japanese home islands
June – Battle of Midway - just 6 months after Pearl Harbor, this is the turning point in the Pacific War, giving the advantage to the U.S.
November – Naval Battle of Guadalcanal results in a strategic victory for the U.S.

The ten film companies then operating are reorganized under government control. The original idea was to form two companies (by merging all the others into Shochiku and Toho), but Nagata Masaichi, then an executive of Shinko Kinema, pushed hard for three companies, the third one consisting of Shinko Kinema, Daito Eiga and the production arm of Nikkatsu (the Nikkatsu theaters prefer to remain independent and will in 1951 make a fresh start with film production under the Nikkatsu name). This third company - in fact a new one - is called Daiei and the first president is the novelist and playwright Kikuchi Kan; Nagata becomes one of its executives. The new company's studios were located in Chofu (Tokyo) and Uzumasa (Kyoto).

"The War at Sea from Hawaii to Malaya" (Hawai-Marei Oki Kaisen) was a popular war film, which also netted the Kinema Junpo Award. In this Toho production, director Yamamoto Kajiro makes heroes of the pilots who attacked Pearl Harbor in a film released on the first anniversary of the attack. Responsible for the special effects with miniatures was Tsuburaya Eiji, of later Godzilla fame. They were so realistic that the Occupation authorities later thought the film contained parts of actual newsreels. By the way, the enemy in this and most other war films remains vague and is never clearly shown (here he is only represented by planes and warships): while other countries at war used the cinema as a tool to arouse hostility and hatred by depicting the enemy as cruel and inhuman, in Japan the enemy was elided and the emphasis is wholly on the Japanese effort itself. That does not absolve The War at Sea from Hawaii to Malaya from being a false piece of propaganda. Film critic Sato Tadao relates how he was inspired by this film to join a training school for air cadets, but found daily life very different from the warm comradeship depicted in the film: the recruits were continually subjected to brutal beatings and other forms of cruelty, just for the personal gratification of the NCOs.

But not all was war, even in this year. Ozu Yasujiro makes "There Was a Father" (Chichi Ariki), one of the best films to come out of these dark years. It is about the deep relation between a school teacher and his son. When the boy grows up, he is drafted, but the teacher has the pleasure of seeing him married to the daughter of his best friend. A perfect film with a superb performance by Ryu Chishu as the father. Although the emphasis was on obligations to family and society, the tone was far removed from the usual wartime propaganda.

[Sugata Sanshiro]

The Pacific War continues.

Two more excellent films were made in the next year. Kurosawa Akira directs his debut film, Sugata Sanshiro, about a Meiji-period judo champion (Fujita Susumu) who learns from his sensei (Okochi Denjiro) that spiritual discipline is more important than simple prowess. Story based on a novel that in turn borrowed the idea from Yoshikawa Eiji's novel Miyamoto Musashi. The authorities liked it, because it showed Japan's valorous ways - but the film in fact strongly emphasized the individuality of its hero. Superbly made film, especially considering the wartime conditions and the fact that this was Kurosawa's first. Kurosawa worked at Toho, where he would remain until the mid-sixties.

Another fine and moving film was "The Life of Matsu the Untamed" (Muhomatsu no Issho) by Inagaki Hiroshi, a humanistic film about the relations of a rickshaw driver with a widow and her young son, also set in the Meiji-period. It will be remade by Inagaki in 1958, but this version is generally thought to be superior, especially as period drama star Bando Tsumasaburo gave the best performance of his career - as a tateyaku actor, he played the rickshaw man with a pride not inferior to that of a samurai.

Kinoshita Keisuke (1912-1998) directs his first film, "The Blossoming Port" (Hanasaku Minato), a film in a light satiric vein about the virtues of islanders who make honest men of swindlers. Kinoshita would become one of the most popular and prolific of post-war directors, known for his devotion to a sentimental ideal of purity and beauty, a director also who was not bound by genre.

The Pacific War continues with loss after loss for Japan.

In this dark year, the subject matter of all films is the war effort. A good example is  "The Most Beautiful" (Ichiban Utsukushiku) by Kurosawa Akira, a semi-documentary on women working in a vital war industry, optical instruments. Shows the fanatical dedication of one young women who strives to make as many instruments as the male workers. Interestingly, the film strongly resembles Communist propaganda from the S.U. or the P.R.C., showing that propaganda is propaganda, wherever it comes from. Kurosawa had fond memories of the making of this film, perhaps he met his wife on the set in the person of the main actress, Yaguchi Yoko.

Kinoshita Keisuke makes "Army" (Rikugun), about a family with a strong military tradition; the son is initially weak but grows stronger when he is in adolescence and the film concludes with his joining the army: the last, long shot shows his tearful mother following the parade as he goes off to the front. Not surprisingly, the film was decried by the military censor as being insufficiently ideological.

[Tora no O wo Fumu Otokotachi]

March - Major bombings of Tokyo, Nagoya and Osaka
March - U.S. forces win the Battle of Iwo Jima.
April - The Japanese battleship Yamato is sunk.
May - Second major bombing of Tokyo; bombing of Yokohama.
July - Allies issue Potsdam Declaration; Japan refuses to agree to its terms.
August 6 - Atomic bombing of Hiroshima.
August 8 - Soviet Union declares war on Japan.
August 9 - Atomic bombing of Nagasaki.
August 15 - Emperor Hirohito declares Japan's acceptance of the Potsdam Declaration.
August 30 - Douglas MacArthur arrives in Japan.
September 2 - Japanese officials sign instrument of surrender on the deck of the USS Missouri.
October - Office of the Supreme Commander Allied Powers is established at the Dai-Ichi Seimei Building in Tokyo.

Lack of equipment results in the film industry becoming forced inactive - in this last war year only 26 feature films are made. Two of these were by Kurosawa Akira: Sugata Sanshiro II, a rather jingoistic and worthless sequel to his excellent 1943 movie, and the much better "The Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail" (Tora no O wo Fumu Otokotachi), a free film adaptation of the Kabuki play Kanjincho, which in turn was based on the Noh play Ataka (Kurosawa disliked the Kabuki but was fond of the Noh theater and incorporated several Noh elements in this and other films). The famous story is about a loyal retainer who does the unthinkable: at a checkpoint he beats his lord in order to hide their identities. Kurosawa added a character not in the original: a porter, played by the popular comedian Enoken. His total misunderstanding of the principles motivating the behavior of the samurai slyly undermines the feudal ideology of the play. In other words, this is a rather strongly anti-feudal film - something the Occupation authorities didn't get, for they banned it. It was only shown in 1953.

After Japan's defeat, motion picture companies are placed under the Occupation forces, which prohibit films with themes of revenge (including all chanbara films) or antidemocratic principles - so censorship continues, albeit of a different kind. Film makers were pushed to create works in which democracy and individual freedom are promoted.

Many prewar and wartime films were deliberately destroyed by the Occupation authorities, further reducing an archive already meager due to natural disasters, inflammable nitrate stock and indifference.

Many theaters have been destroyed during the war and a rebuilding boom starts, bringing the number from 845 operating theaters in October of this year to more than 1,130 at the beginning of 1946. Still, that is less than half of the number of theaters of 1940. Due to the occupation, foreign (American) films become more dominant than they had ever been before, but they are still decades from being greater in numbers or receipts than Japanese films.

[Waga Seishun ni Kui Nashi]

January 1: Emperor Showa renounces his divinity.
May: International Military Tribunal for the Far East convenes.
August: Serial killer Kodaira
Yoshio, who murdered at least 8 people in the Tokyo and Tochigi areas between 1932 and 1946, is arrested.
November 3: Constitution of Japan promulgated.
December 21: The Nankai earthquake strikes Wakayama Prefecture, killing 1,443.

Sword fighting scenes are banned, so the stars of period drama are forced to don modern garb and appear as gangsters with pistols instead of brandishing swords. The Occupation does, however, encourage kissing scenes. The first kiss ever in Japanese cinema was shown on June 23, 1946 simultaneously in two otherwise unremarkable films; Daiei and Shochiku shared the honors. One of these kisses took place behind an umbrella because the Japanese were still shy about it.

Another banned theme is the suffering inflicted by the atomic bomb explosions.

Half the theaters in the major cities have been destroyed, but the studios are intact so production can start again.

Due to the strong leftist atmosphere in the early postwar years, labor disputes occur in almost every motion picture company. The strongest (Communist-inspired) union exists at Toho - it even obtains the right to participate in film planning and almost gets the studio under its management.

Ten star actors and actresses at Toho (including Okochi Denjiro, Hasegawa Kazuo, Fujita Susumu, Irie Takako and Hara Setsuko) oppose this state of affairs and break away to form a new company, Shintoho ("New Toho"). Shintoho officially starts in 1948 and would remain in existence until 1961. In its initial period, it focused on artistic films (it produced for example Kurosawa's Stray Dog in 1949, The Life of Oharu by Mizoguchi in 1952, Mother by Naruse in 1952 and Growing Up by Gosho in 1955, before degrading into exploitation cinema). There existed no animosity between the old and the new Toho, as Toho theaters distributed Shintoho films, and later several of those who had left returned to the Toho fold.

This exit of stars from Toho did give a chance to young talent, of whom the major one was Mifune Toshiro (1920-1997), who would play the main character in Kurosawa's Drunken Angel and Stray Dog.

"No Regrets for Our Youth" (Waga Seishun ni Kui Nashi) is a sharp examination of academic freedom by Kurosawa Akira. A university professor (Okochi Denjiro) is suspected of liberal views and one of his students (Fujita Susumu) - who is married to the professor's daughter (Hara Setsuko) - is arrested as a spy and executed. The daughter then makes a strongly individual choice by going to work on the farm of her husband's parents and enduring the worst of wartime suspicion (the villagers hate her as the wife of a traitor). After the war, she stays on in the village as she has learned to love the rural life and "has no regrets for her youth." This is one of Kurosawa's best films and the only one that features a woman as protagonist. It is a strong feminist statement, something pushed by the Occupation authorities as at this time Japanese women for the first time received the right to vote. In the following year, also Mizoguchi and Kinugasa made feminist films.

"Utamaro and his Five Women" (Utamaro wo Meguru Gonin no Onna) was the first postwar film of Mizoguchi Kenji, based on the life of the famous woodcut artist. Mizoguchi himself pleaded the case of this film with the Occupation censorship, presenting Utamaro as a sort of "pre-Occupation democrat" and the film as a plea for female emancipation. In reality, the film is more a meditation on the role of the artist in society.

"Morning for the Osone Family" (Osone-ke no ashita) by Kinoshita Keisuke shows a Japanese family examining itself on the morning after the great defeat in the war. Peace brings new hope to the family whose sons were involved both in war and anti-war efforts. Prominent is also a militarist uncle who is involved in shady deals. Sometimes a mouthpiece for political ideas, but deeply felt and beautifully acted. Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film of the Year.

February: Hachiko Line derailment causes 184 fatalities.
September: A violent typhoon causes 1,930 fatalities in the northern Kanto area.

Toho continues under control of the labor union. Works of "democratic enlightenment" are made.

Nagata Masaichi (1906-1985) becomes president of Daiei, a position in which he remains until 1974.

This year, two films are based on the life of Japan's first modern stage actress (and one of Japan's first emancipated women) Matsui Sumako, who committed suicide in 1918 because of social pressure. She was the first major star in the Shingeki theater movement and played the role of Nora in Ibsen's A Doll's House. Mizoguchi Kenji makes "The Love of Sumako, the Actress" (Joyu Sumako no Koi), and Kinugasa Teinosuke "Actress" (Joyu). Kinugasa's version is generally considered better.

Ozu Yasujiro makes his first postwar film, "Social Record of a Tenement House" (Nagaya Shinshiroku), about a boy, Kohei, who has been separated from his father and is picked up by the poor inhabitants of a tenement house. He is taken care of by the widow Otane (Iida Choko), who first finds him bothersome, but gradually grows to love him. When the father finally appears and takes the boy with him, she decides to adopt a war orphan. The film shows the ninjo, the warm human feelings of the lower classes, like several of Ozu's "social realistic" prewar films did. The message is that in the difficult time after the war, when everyone only cares for himself, such feelings are all the more important.

Kurosawa Akira makes "One Wonderful Sunday" (Subarashiki Nichiyobi), a sunny, sentimental comedy about a young couple in Tokyo who have a great date together without any money to spend. In the finale the boy tries to conduct Schubert's Unfinished Symphony in an empty bandstand (in Hibiya Park) and she, at least, believes in him... One of Kurosawa's weaker films, perhaps because he was by exception not involved in the writing of the script (which was based on a 1926 film by D.W. Griffith, Isn't Life Wonderful?). Different from the headstrong characters in other Kurosawa films, here the two protagonists are rather passive and indecisive.

Yoshimura Kozaburo makes "The Ball at the Anjo House" (Anjo-ke no butaikai), about the decline of the prewar aristocracy - an intelligent analysis of social change in Japan, where masters and servants are now equal. The story was indebted to Anton Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard. The father, who has to sell the family mansion, is on the verge of suicide, but his optimistic daughter (played by Hara Setsuko) shows him how to begin again. At the end of the film, they dance the tango together. Yoshimura, who worked at Shochiku, has been compared to Mizoguchi for his sympathetic portrayal of female characters. Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film of the Year.

[Yoidore tenshi]

January: International telephone service between the United States and Japan is established.
June: 1948 Fukui earthquake causes
3,769 fatalities.
November: International Military Tribunal for the Far East hands down death sentences for 7 war criminals and imprisonment for 18 others.

The conflict at Toho continues with a strike and occupation of the studios. The police and even the U.S. army are used to disperse the strikers. The union is defeated and its leaders are driven from Toho.

Several films made this year depict the harsh realities of postwar Japan.

"Drunken Angel" (Yoidore Tenshi) by Kurosawa Akira is a drama about an alcoholic doctor (the angel of the title, played by Shimura Takashi) and a death-obsessed gangster with TB (Mifune Toshiro) he tries to save. The film is set in the ruins of Tokyo at a very symbolical swamp and is seen as a brilliant evocation of the immediate postwar years in Japan, which were chaotic, poor and full of corruption due to the black market and gangsterism. Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film of the Year. The film strikes us now as rather self-conscious (with a much too overt symbolism), static and one-dimensional.

"Women of the Night" (Yoru no Onnatachi) by Mizoguchi Kenji. Story about an Osaka streetwalker (again with Tanaka Kinuyo), a realistic film, made on location, that shocked the nation. Reduced to poverty after the war, many women were forced into prostitution ("panpan girls"). Contains many superb scenes as well as a message of sympathy for the panpan girls. Helped to bring about a ban on street prostitution (although only in the late 1950s).

"Children of the Beehive" (Hachi no Su no Kodomotachi) by Shimizu Hiroshi. About gangs of homeless and parentless children who wander the streets after the war, this film has been called a masterpiece of neo-realism. Shimizu here turns the poetic films about children he made in the late 1930s on their head.

"A Hen in the Wind" (Kaze no Naka no Mendori) by Ozu Yasujiro. Melodrama about a woman, Tokiko (Tanaka Kinuyo), waiting for her husband to come home from the war. When her child falls ill, she is forced to prostitute herself to pay the medical bill. The husband initially reacts with anger and violence to her confession, but later learns to accept her act as necessary. In fact, Tokiko's act symbolizes Japan's loss of purity due to the war, her husband's violent reaction the ingrained brutality of militarism. The film's lesson is more soberly realistic than of other postwar films: the couple decides to forget past mistakes and face the future with "impure" but realistic hope. A human-scale compromise typical of Ozu.

"Blue Mountains" (Aoi Sanmyaku) by Imai Tadashi stressed that young people should be allowed to make their own choices in this drama about young love and parental authority. The love between students in a co-educational school overcomes the conservative attitudes of the adults.

Imai Tadashi (1912-1991) was highly acclaimed by critics in Japan - in the 1950s, he won more Kinema Junpo awards for his films than Ozu and Kurosawa combined. He was a polemical film maker, who leaned strongly towards the left and who addressed social problems. His work shows some stylistic unevenness but he was always a sincere humanist. Despite his high status in Japan, he is almost unknown abroad.


January – Horyuji fire in Ikaruga, Nara Prefecture.
July - Shimoyama incident (disappearance and death of the first president of Japanese National Railways).
July - Mitaka incident (an unmanned train drives into Mitaka Station killing six people and injuring 20.
August - Matsukawa derailment (a Tohoku Main Line passenger train derails and overturns between Kanayagawa and Matsukawa stations in Fukushima, killing three crew members). The above 3 incidents have been called "JNR's Three Big Mysteries."
October: Yukawa
Hideki becomes the first Japanese winner of a Nobel Prize.

Due to the Toho strike, director Yamamoto Kajiro sets up the Film Art Association (Eiga Geijutsu Kyokai) with Kurosawa as one of the founding members, to make it possible for Toho staff to continue making films outside the troubled studio. The Association existed for 3 years and produced 15 films, always in cooperation with other studios, such as Shochiku, Daiei and Shintoho. It produced all of Kurosawa's films in this period.

Kurosawa Akira makes "Stray Dog" (Nora Inu) about a young policeman (Mifune Toshiro) whose pistol is stolen and used to kill someone. He goes nearly crazy getting it back, running all around Tokyo. His supervisor (Shimura Takeshi) lends moral support. The film shows that in a more individualistic society, one must bear the consequences of one's actions. The last part is an almost documentary-like chase film, in which hunter and hunted (who are both ex-soldiers) more and more come to resemble each other. With its visual innovation and themes of obsession, doppelganger and postwar chaos, this is one of the greatest films Kurosawa ever made.

This year, Kurosawa also makes "The Quiet Duel" (Shizukanaru Ketto), about a doctor who gets syphilis from a scalpel cut and then decides to give up his fiancee and dedicate his life to medicine. This is lesser Kurosawa (partly also because of changes in the script enforced by the American censor, which made the moral conflict in the film too simplistic), but the first scene in the field hospital during the war is great.

Mizoguchi Kenji makes "My Love Burns" (Waga Koi wa Moenu), about a fighter for women's rights. More radical in its conclusion than any Hollywood film then and since has dared to be.

Shimizu Hiroshi makes "Mr. Shosuke Ohara" (Ohara Shosuke-san), one of his masterpieces. Okochi Denjiro plays a landowner who looses all his money through "sleeping in the morning, drinking sake in the morning and taking a bath in the morning" - plus being too good for this world as he can refuse no requests for financial help. Okochi gives a splendid tateyaku performance, in which his character never looses his composure and conceals his tragedy with rich humor.

Kinoshita Keisuke makes three interesting films: "A Toast to the Young Miss" (Ojosan Kanpai) shows how love crosses class barriers. A refined, rich girl (Hara Setsuko) forgives a young entrepreneur who is making love to her his boorish manners by appreciating his frankness. "The Yotsuya Ghost Story," in two parts (Yotsuya Kaidan) is Kinoshita's take on a famous story of the revenge by the spirit of a scorned wife. Kinoshita concentrates on human relations and foregoes the grotesque horror effects common to other versions of this tale. In "The Broken Drum" ( Yabure-daiko) Bando Tsumasaburo plays a blustering father who tries to rule his family along authoritarian lines. He fails and has to give in to the young and modern individuals of his family.

Ozu makes "Late Spring" (Banshun), a masterpiece on the peaceful life of a middle-class family. The most ordinary things happen in a moving way in this unforgettable film, the greatest film of the whole decade. A daughter (Hara Setsuko) lives with her widowed father (Ryu Chishu). He wants her to get married and have a life of her own, she wants to stay at home and look after her father. In the end, the father pushes her into marriage by pretending he himself is getting married again. After she has married, he sits alone in the now empty house, feeling sad. Accepting life's changes as they come - to live in harmony with both the self and the world - is also a form of transcendence. Interesting is, that the wedding ceremony - which in a Hollywood film would have formed the grand finale - is entirely left out, we do not even see the face of the groom. Set in a quiet residential area of Kamakura, this film made audiences feel that peace indeed had come to Japan. The film's iconography of "Japaneseness" (Zen gardens, Noh Drama, the tea ceremony) is meant to underline that Japanese tradition can be reconciled with the liberalism of the Occupation era. The film also shows the liberal view of family relations and marriage that had been introduced - marriage is for love and happiness, not for the perpetuation of the family. The only outrageous thing for us is the old-fashioned view that Noriko must marry since she is getting in her "late spring," but that would also change in Ozu's last film. Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film of the Year.

As is well known, Ozu always worked with the same crew and often the same cast. From this film on until his last one in 1962, his staff basically stayed the same. It consisted for example of co-scriptwriter Noda Koga and cameraman Atsuta Yuharu. His actors were often Hara Setsuko, Ryu Chishu and Sugimura Haruko.

[Reference works used: Currents In Japanese Cinema by Tadao Sato (Tokyo, 1987); The Japanese Film: Art and Industry by Joseph L. Anderson and Donald Richie (reprint Tokyo, 1983); A Hundred Years of Japanese Film by Donald Richie (Tokyo, 2001); Japanese Film Directors by Audrie Bock (Tokyo, 1985); A Critical Handbook of Japanese Film Directors by Alexander Jacoby (Berkeley, 2008); A New History of Japanese Cinema by Isolde Standish (New York, 2005); The Japanese Period Film by S.A. Thornton (Jefferson & London, 2008); Eros plus Massacre, An Introduction to the Japanese New Wave Cinema by David Desser (Bloomington and Indianopolis, 1988); Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema by David Bordwell (Princeton University Press: Princeton, 1988); Kurosawa: Film Studies and Japanese Cinema by Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto (Duke University Press: Durham, 2000); The Waves at Genji's Door by Joan Mellen (Pantheon Books: New York, 1976); Japanese Classical Theatre in Film by Keiko I. Macdonald (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1994); From Book to Screen by Keiko I. Macdonald (M.E. Sharpe: New York and London, 2000); Reading a Japanese Film by Keiko I. Macdonald (University of Hawai'i Press: Honolulu, 2006); Behind the Pink Curtain, A Complete History of Japanese Sex Cinema, by Jasper Sharp (Fab Press: Godalming, 2008); Contemporary Japanese Film by Mark Schilling (Weatherhill: New York and Tokyo, 1999); The Midnight Eye Guide to New Japanese Film by Tom Mes and Jasper Sharp (Stone Bridge Press: Berkeley, 2005); Kitano Takeshi by Aaron Gerow (British Film Institute: London, 2007); Iron Man: the Cinema of Shinya Tsukamoto by Tom Mes (Fab Press: Godalming, 2005); Agitator: The Cinema of Takashi Miike by Jasper Sharp (Fab Press: Godalming, 2003); Nihon Eigashi by Sato Tadao (Iwanami Shoten: Tokyo, 2008, 4 vols.); Nihon Eigashi 110-nen by Yomota Inuhiko (Shueisha; Tokyo, 2014). All images are linked from Wikipedia.]
History of Japanese Film by Year