As “one of the oldest film markets in the world”, Japan’s cinematic story is a fascinating, always exciting, and often inspiring narrative to unpack. It is ripe with the expected markers that tend to be shared by cinema worldwide- the arrival of the Cinematograph, the shift from social commentary to propaganda during the World War, the usual struggle to overcome international pressures, the onset of television, and a decline in theater going. But peek behind the curtain of this shared narrative and the story of film in Japan is bursting with socio-political intrigue, history and unexpected twists that have allowed it to carve its own path in the midst of these things.
Two of the biggest characteristics that have defined Japanese Cinema are
a) history and
Finding It’s History and It’s Uniqueness
Japan’s history and its uniqueness are really two parts of the same coin that help to define its particular style of filmmaking. I don’t mean that in the way of uniformity. The richness of Japan’s cinematic landscape is diverse. I mean that in the way of distinctives, which have allowed Japan to constantly innovate, create, and recreate over the last 100 years. And there is little doubt that Japan’s history, and its awareness of this history, played a significant role in defining and shaping this trajectory.
Being Canadian, one of the unique facets of living in North America is that, given our more recent development, we lack the same history of those Countries and Nations and territories in the East (including Europe in the West). It wasn’t until the onset of the American Western that America was able to establish a recognizable history of its own, and in Canada it is even less established because our film industry carries far less of an international presence.
Japanese cinema, in contrast, grew out of its ability to tell the stories of its past, a genre of film called jidai-geki that focused mainly on the Edo Period. One of the ways this benefited Japanese film is that as the idea of moving pictures was coming into focus, Japan had a clear and given narrative/ethos to pull from in developing its early films.
As its film industry developed, it was able to then reimagine how these stories could be told and retold early on in the forms development, allowing it to forge its own path rather than being influenced from abroad. This also saw the quick adaptation from the Japanese historical drama to the modern drama as the Country began to learn how to apply film to Japan’s modern context. And while Japan would to explore these modern contexts over the 100 plus year development of its industry, the power of its formation as an independent and unique cinematic landscape would come from its ability to connect its present to its past.
Japan’s rich history is of course present in films about Samurai and conquest, and as well in the spiritual themes that are present in its heritage, but it might be most apparent in its indebtedness to its storytelling past. There has been much written about the Japanese Benshi, but one of the things that sets the Country’s early development apart is the use of these oral storytellers to enhance the experience of the silent film era. This gave their films a theatrical presence that connected the visual to their tradition and heritage.
More interesting yet though is how the Benshi contributed to the development of these early films.
In addition to the great influence that benshi had at the performance level, many famous benshi had strong input at the film making level. At cinemas managed by large film production and distribution companies, it was common for benshi to be shown film scripts before production began, and they often demanded a rewrite if they disagreed with any part. Thus, at this point in the development of cinema, it was the performance side that held greater influence than the production side. In order to maintain his or her position among great competition, each benshi developed an individual style.
As Japan developed a cinematic industry, with its first film company emerging in 1909, the rise of its own form of film criticism (The Pure Film Movement) in 1910 would eventually lead the industry away from the Benshi and towards more concrete developments of particular cinematic styles. But there is no question that the Benshi had a lasting effect on how Japanese film would develop, with many of the styles and genres retaining these influences, including the thriving of silent film well into the 1930’s (long after the West had abandoned them), such as An Inn in Tokyo (1935).
Film and Politics
Beyond this history though, Japan’s modern political landscape, wars, tragedies, and natural disasters continued to play a key role in how its film industry would develop and in the kind of styles and genres that would emerge. Reaching back to the arrival of the Lumiere Brothers Cinematograph in 1897, Japan’s conquest of Taiwan around the same time, along with its lengthy war with China and the American Occupation, all gave definition to its cultural development, be it an eventual focus on Empire and expansion, the tragic genocide of Beijing and the Chinese capital of Nanking (of which the harrowing City of Life and Death, 2009, captures in a powerful way), or its relationship to America.
Both expansion and the events of World War 2 (Chinese Genocide and American Occupation) gave clear definition to the films of the 1930’s and 1940’s, which is still recognized as a time of ongoing innovation and social development. Themes of Empire and propaganda films under Government control come to shape the landscape leading up to the war and through the war, while the shift from Empire into what is now considered Japan’s first Golden Age (1950’s-1960’s) under American control led to a whole new kind of filmmaking altogether.
“In the years following the war, U.S. General Douglas MacArthur was tasked with revising the Japanese constitution and demilitarizing the nation. Japan was ordered to abolish the Meiji Constitution, thus ending the Empire of Japan. On May 3, 1947, the country adopted the Constitution of Japan and formally became Japan.”
– Japans Influence on Cinema After WW2
American Occupation and The Japanese Identity
One of the key factors at play in the American Occupation following World War 2 was the SCAP (Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers), which oversaw the redevelopment of the film industry at this time (1945-1952). Most relevant is the fact that this was a foreign institution (the branch which oversaw the film industry was called the CIE: Civil Information Education Section), which affected the industry in two major ways- it paved the way for an influx of American films into the Japanese landscape, and worked to reshape the Japanese industry according to American idealism, making Japanese film accessible abroad. This would forever alter the Japanese landscape going forward.
“During the occupation, MacArthur sought a way to combat the propaganda of Japanese cinema. An enlightenment campaign was launched, in which Hollywood studios would screen American films throughout Japan. Over 600 films were distributed, each showcasing the American way of life. The goal was to introduce America as a political, social, and cultural model for the Japanese population.”
Under the American Occupation, and in the period following the American Occupation, Japan saw a period of real innovation and creativity, both in the development of studios and in the rise of influential Directors. Leading the way during this time was Japan’s most popular and well known Director, Kurosawa, who navigated the international relationship with great success, or Kenji Mizoguchi, who made the impressive and influential Ugetsu (1953), and the monumental effort that is Tokyo Story (1953), Directed by Yasujirō Ozu. This era also included the first color film (Carmen Comes Home, 1951), and at its peak the Human Condition Trilogy.
“Rashomon showcased Kurosawa’s skill as a director. He had embraced Western filmmaking, the works of Shakespeare, and American pulp novels. By combining those elements with traditional Eastern culture, Kurosawa’s films would break away from the traditional Japanese style of directors like Ozu and Mizoguchi. His work would find an international audience, cementing him as a legendary director.”
The epic Seven Samurai (1954), one of the first films to really establish and navigate this American-Japanese distinctive with immense success, is a key example of a film that protects Japanese identity but was made with American influences and equally for American audiences. It’s success, and its notoriety comes from Japan’s ability to navigate this terrain well.
Since American Occupation was interested in demilitarization, the outflow of this directive (the flip side of of the censorship that defined Japan’s propaganda films) was an increased focus on social concern (such as we saw with the Leftist influences in the 1930’s in shomin-geki films, films about the common people) and a critique of Empire (and the Emperor).
“By displacing the recent war onto the more distant past, the films could be made palatable to both domestic and international audiences. But no displacement, no tricks, no hidden meanings were required to appreciate the obvious artistry on view.”(http://www.filmreference.com/encyclopedia/Independent-Film-Road-Movies/Japan-THE-SECOND-GOLDEN-AGE.html#ixzz6Iw0zcGjD)
What is important to note here, and which plays into the uniqueness and history of Japanese Cinema, is that not unlike its ability to navigate previous periods of censorship, war, and natural disaster (including the great earthquake and Bombing of Tokyo that destroyed a good chunk of Japan’s early film), Japan’s response to the developments of its more modern age, whether tragic or prosperous, led to both a decisive and intentional incorporation of these events into their ethos through the art of cinema, along with a return again and again to their lengthy history and roots and values. When you look at international influence in other Countries, it often represents a serious point of struggle and contention. To see it in Japan is to encounter a sense of confidence that works to retain their identity over and against it, and often alongside it.
Consider the tragedy of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It is through cinema that this event became a means of introspection and identity (Godzilla, 1954), going on to inspire an entire genre of film that is distinctly and recognizably Japanese. Or consider the later emergence of Anime in the 2000’s, reaching back to films like the incredible Millennium Actress (2001) and establishing the famous Studio Ghibli. Following a series of challenging events through the 1970’s and beyond (all of which gave their own distinctive voice to Japanese cinema), not the least of which was the economic crash (the demise of the Bubble Economy), the Aum Shinrikyo massacre, and the great Kubo earthquake, Anime (along with an increased focus on Indie films thanks to the development of the Japan Film Commission Promotion Council) took the Country by storm, using the newly developed multiplexes to stake their claim as a key part of the Japanese ethos, representing over 60 percent of Japanese film development in 2000 and beyond. Interestingly, one of the key embraces of the Anime industry was being distinctly cultural but also internationally accessible, a distinctive of Japanese cinema and a mark of its strength of identity.
Japanese Identity and the Future
With the modern success of a Director like Hirokazu Kore-eda, who made the popular Shoplifters (2018), and powerful and emotional films like I Wish (2011) and Like Father, Like Son (2013), and the success of my personal favorite more recent Japanese film by Yojiro Takita, Departures (2009), it is clear that Japan has had a lengthy and complicated history that has seen it develop to where it is today, one that pushes and pulls the industry through the last 120 years of cinematic development, but one that also reaches much beyond this into a long and illustrious past that gave Japanese film its identity and ethos. This helped give Japanese film that ability to retain a sense of inventiveness and creativity that was distinctly and uniquely Japanese, even when things threatened their identity.
Consider that even before the moving picture arrived in Japan, their familiarity with the idea of cinema had already found its expression in gentō (utsushi-e), the magic lantern, a form of visual storytelling that directly impacted and informed how Japan entered the cinematic age with connective purpose. Or the oral, storytelling traditions that gave Japanese film its spiritual core with a key embrace of spirit, ghosts and eternal themes, all of which were evident since Shozo Makino pioneered Japanese film in 1908. You can see Japan’s mark on cinema in its early and revolutionary embrace of woman actresses (Harumi Hanayagi, the first woman actress, in the Glow of Life (1918), and in the development of cinematic forms and filming styles like the initial adoption and development of the close up and cut back (see the Captain’s Daughter). Heck, there is even an argument that can be made that An Inn in Tokyo (1935) paved the way and jump started the neo-realism movement in Europe (and the New Waves). The fact that this was also still a silent film is kind of astonishing.
What stands out about Japan is its ability to survive and to thrive, most importantly within the pressures of international influence. This is an impressive feat that has seen Japan develop parallel to the United States rather than within or beneath its wide spread influence, rewarding the world with a rich cultural footprint and impressive slate of films that is able to reveal and develop the narrative of its national story and its people for their Country and for the world.
Here is a link to the films that I watched on my Film Travels (ranked, rated and reviewed):
What Is Japanese Cinema: A History by YOMOTA INUHIKO
A New History of Japanese Cinema: A Century of Narrative Film by Isolde Standish