Japanese Film History

However, the United States is not alone in the rich history when it comes to film. The 1950s were the Golden Age of Japanese cinema. Three Japanese films from this decade (Rashomon, Seven Samurai and Tokyo Story) made the Sight & Sound’s 2002 Critics and Directors Poll for the best films of all time

This era after the American Occupation period also lead to a rise in diversity in movie distribution thanks to the increased output and popularity of the film studios of Toei, Toho, Shochiku, Nikkatsu, and Daiei.

The decade started with Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950), which won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film and the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and marked the entrance of Japanese cinema onto the world stage. It was also the breakout role for legendary star Toshirō Mifune.

In 1953 Entotsu no mieru basho by Heinosuke Gosho was in competition at the 3rd Berlin International Film Festival. The first Japanese film in color was Carmen Comes Home directed by Keisuke Kinoshita and released in 1951.

There was also a black and white version of this film available. Gate of Hell, a 1953 film by Teinosuke Kinugasa, was the first movie that filmed using Eastmancolor film, Gate of Hell was both Daiei’s first color film and the first Japanese color movie to be released outside of Japan, receiving an Oscar in 1954 for Best Costume Design by Sanzo Wada and an Honorary Award for Best Foreign Language Film.

It also won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, the first Japanese film to achieve that honour.

The year 1954 saw two of Japan’s most influential films released. The first was the Kurosawa epic Seven Samurai, about a band of hired samurai who protect a helpless village from a rapacious gang of thieves, which was remade in the West as The Magnificent Seven.

The same year, Ishirō Honda released the anti-nuclear horror film Gojira, which was translated in the West as Godzilla. Though it was severely edited for its Western release, Godzilla became an international icon of Japan and spawned an entire industry of Kaiju films.

Also in 1954, both another Kurosawa film, Ikiru, and Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story were in competition at the 4th Berlin International Film Festival.

In 1955, Hiroshi Inagaki won an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film for Part I of his Samurai trilogy and in 1958 won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival for Rickshaw Man.

Kon Ichikawa directed two anti-war dramas: The Burmese Harp (1956), which was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards, and Fires On The Plain (1959), along with Enjo (1958), which was adapted from Yukio Mishima’s novel Temple Of The Golden Pavilion.

Masaki Kobayashi made two of the three films which would collectively become known as The Human Condition Trilogy: No Greater Love (1958), and The Road To Eternity (1959). The trilogy was completed in 1961, with A Soldier’s Prayer.

Kenji Mizoguchi directed The Life of Oharu (1952), Ugetsu (1953) and Sansho the Bailiff (1954). He won the Silver Bear at the Venice Film Festival for Ugetsu. Mikio Naruse made Repast (1950), Late Chrysanthemums (1954), The Sound of the Mountain (1954) and Floating Clouds (1955).

Yasujiro Ozu directed Good Morning (1959) and Floating Weeds (1958), which was adapted from his earlier silent A Story of Floating Weeds (1934), and was shot by Rashomon/Sansho the Bailiff cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa.

The Blue Ribbon Awards were established in 1950. The first winner for Best Film was Until We Meet Again by Tadashi Imai.

1960s
Production in the Japanese film industry reached its quantitative peak in the 1960s, with 547 movies being produced. It can also be regarded as the peak years of the Japanese New Wave movement, which began in the 1950s and continued through the early 1970s.

Akira Kurosawa directed the 1961 classic Yojimbo, which many believe was at least partially inspired by John Ford Westerns and film noir classics; Yojimbo in turn influenced Westerns that followed, especially Sergio Leone’s Man with No Name trilogy.

Yasujiro Ozu made his final film, An Autumn Afternoon, in 1962. Mikio Naruse directed the wide screen melodrama When a Woman Ascends the Stairs in 1960; his final film was 1967’s Scattered Clouds.

Kon Ichikawa captured the watershed 1964 Olympics in his three-hour documentary Tokyo Olympiad (1965). Seijun Suzuki was fired by Nikkatsu for “making films that don’t make any sense and don’t make any money” after his surrealist yakuza flick Branded to Kill (1967).

Nagisa Oshima, Kaneto Shindo, Masahiro Shinoda, Susumu Hani and Shohei Imamura emerged as major filmmakers during the decade. Oshima’s Cruel Story of Youth, Night and Fog in Japan and Death By Hanging, along with Shindo’s Onibaba, Hani’s She And He and Imamura’s The Insect Woman, became some of the better-known examples of Japanese New Wave filmmaking.

Documentary played a crucial role in the New Wave, as directors such as Hani, Kazuo Kuroki, Toshio Matsumoto, and Hiroshi Teshigahara moved from documentary into fiction film, while feature filmmakers like Oshima and Imamura also made documentaries.

Shinsuke Ogawa and Noriaki Tsuchimoto became the most important documentarists: “two figures [that] tower over the landscape of Japanese documentary.

Teshigahara’s Woman in the Dunes (1964) won the Special Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival, and was nominated for Best Director and Best Foreign Language Film Oscars.

Masaki Kobayashi’s Kwaidan (1965) also picked up the Special Jury Prize at Cannes and received a nomination for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards.

Bushido, Samurai Saga by Tadashi Imai won the Golden Bear at the 13th Berlin International Film Festival. Immortal Love by Keisuke Kinoshita and Twin Sisters of Kyoto and Portrait of Chieko, both by Noboru Nakamura, also received nominations for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards.

Lost Spring, also by Nakamura, was in competition for the Golden Bear at the 17th Berlin International Film Festival.

1970s
Nagisa Oshima directed In the Realm of the Senses (1976), a film detailing a crime of passion involving Sada Abe set in the 1930s. Controversial for its explicit sexual content, it has never been seen uncensored in Japan.

However, the pink film industry became the stepping stone for young independent filmmakers of Japan.

Toshiya Fujita made the revenge film Lady Snowblood in 1973. It would go on to become a popular cult film in the West. In the same year, Yoshishige Yoshida made the film Coup d’État, a portrait of Ikki Kita, the leader of the Japanese coup of February 1936.

Its experimental cinematography and mise-en-scène, as well as its avant-garde score by Ichiyanagi Sei, garnered it wide critical acclaim within Japan.

In 1976 the Hochi Film Award was created. The first winner for Best Film was The Inugamis by Kon Ichikawa.

Kinji Fukasaku completed the epic Battles Without Honor and Humanity series of yakuza films. Yoji Yamada introduced the commercially successful Tora-San series, while also directing other films, notably the popular The Yellow Handkerchief, which won the first Japan Academy Prize for Best Film in 1978.

New wave filmmakers Susumu Hani and Shohei Imamura retreated to documentary work, though Imamura made a dramatic return to feature filmmaking with Vengeance Is Mine (1979).

Dodes’ka-den by Akira Kurosawa and Sandakan No. 8 by Kei Kumai were nominated to the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.

1980s
During the 1980s, anime gained in popularity, with new animated movies released every summer and winter, often based upon popular television anime.

Mamoru Oshii released his landmark Angel’s Egg in 1983. Hayao Miyazaki adapted his manga series Nausicaä of the Valley of Wind into a feature film of the same name in 1984. Katsuhiro Otomo followed suit with Akira in 1988.

Akira Kurosawa directed Kagemusha (1980), which won the Palme d’Or at the 1980 Cannes Film Festival, and Ran (1985). Likewise, Seijun Suzuki made a comeback, beginning with Zigeunerweisen in 1980. Shohei Imamura won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival for The Ballad of Narayama (1983).

Yoshishige Yoshida made A Promise (1986), his first film since 1973’s Coup d’État. It centered upon generational conflict during the height of Japan’s economic boom, and nostalgia for traditional ways of life; the work received more international recognition than Yoshida’s previous films, and was selected to be screened in the Un Certain Regard section at Cannes.

Juzo Itami directed his first film, Ososhiki (The Funeral), in 1984. He achieved both critical and box office success with his quirky “Japanese Noodle Western” comedy Tampopo in 1985, which remains popular.

Kiyoshi Kurosawa, who would generate international attention beginning in the mid-1990s, also made his initial debut in the 1980s with pink films and genre horror.

The availability of home video made possible the creation of a direct-to-video film industry, called V-Cinema.

1990s
Because of economic recessions, the number of movie theaters in Japan had been steadily decreasing since the 1960s. The 1990s saw the reversal of this trend and the introduction of the Multiplex in Japan.

Takeshi Kitano emerged as a significant filmmaker with works such as Sonatine (1993), Kids Return (1996) and Hana-bi (1997), which was given the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival.

Shohei Imamura again won the Golden Palm (shared with Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami), this time for The Eel (1997). He became the fourth two-time recipient, joining Alf Sjöberg, Francis Ford Coppola and Bille August.

Kiyoshi Kurosawa gained international recognition following the release of Kyua (1997). Takashi Miike launched a prolific career, making up to 50 films in a decade, building up an impressive portfolio with titles such as, Audition (1999), Dead or Alive (1999) and The Bird People in China (1998).

Former documentary filmmaker Hirokazu Koreeda launched an acclaimed feature career with Maborosi (1996) and After Life (1999).

Hayao Miyazaki directed two mammoth box office and critical successes, Porco Rosso (1992) – which beat E.T. (1982) as the highest-grossing film in Japan – and Princess Mononoke (1997), which also claimed the top box office spot until Titanic (1997).

Several new anime directors rose to widespread recognition, bringing with them notions of anime as not only entertainment, but modern art. Mamoru Oshii released the internationally-acclaimed philosophical science fiction action film Ghost in the Shell, based on the manga by Masamune Shirow, in 1996.

The film garnered great success and recognition in theatrical releases worldwide, and eight years later Oshii directed a sequel. Satoshi Kon directed the award-winning psychological thriller Perfect Blue, based on a novel by Toshiki Satō.

The film was theatrically released to decent commercial and considerable critical success in America and several other countries around the world.

Hideaki Anno also gained considerable recognition after the release of his successful and controversial psychological science fiction epic Neon Genesis Evangelion, which started as a TV series in 1995 and concluded with the theatrical release of The End of Evangelion, the series’ postmodern, apocalyptic conclusion, in 1997.

The film was not released internationally until the early 2000s, and then in straight-to-DVD format. Evangelion is widely considered to be one of the most influential anime of all time.

2000s
The 2000s have been the most productive period for Japanese cinema since 1955. In 2000 Battle Royale was released, based on a popular novel by the same name.

In 2002, Dolls was released, followed by a high-budget remake, Zatoichi in 2003, both directed and written by Takeshi Kitano. The J-Horror films Ringu, Kairo, Dark Water, Yogen, the Grudge series and One Missed Call were remade in English and met with commercial success.

In 2004, Godzilla: Final Wars, directed by Ryuhei Kitamura, was released to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Godzilla.

In 2005, director Seijun Suzuki made his 56th film, Princess Raccoon. Hirokazu Koreeda claimed film festival awards around the world with two of his films Distance and Nobody Knows. Takashi Miike’s prolific career continued.

Yoji Yamada, long time director of the popular Otoko wa Tsurai yo comedy series, emerged in the 2000s with a trilogy of acclaimed revisionist samurai films, beginning with 2002’s Twilight Samurai, followed by The Hidden Blade in 2004 and Love and Honor in 2006.

The number of movies being shown in Japan has steadily been increasing, with about 821 films released in 2006. Movies based on Japanese television series were especially popular during this period.

In anime, Hayao Miyazaki came out of retirement to direct Spirited Away in 2001, breaking Japanese box office records and winning the U.S. Academy Award for Best Animated Feature.

The film also won the Golden Bear at the 52nd Berlin International Film Festival. Miyazaki’s subsequent films, Howl’s Moving Castle and Ponyo, were released in 2004 and 2008 respectively.

In 2004, Mamoru Oshii released the anime movie Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence (known in Japan simply as “Innocence”), which, like the first film, received critical praise around the world.

it was the sixth-ever animated film to be included in the Cannes Film Festival, and one of only two to become a finalist for the Palme D’Or award. His 2008 film The Sky Crawlers was met with similarly positive international reception.

Satoshi Kon also released three quieter, but nonetheless highly successful films in 2001, 2003 and 2006 respectively: Millennium Actress, Tokyo Godfathers, and Paprika.

Katsuhiro Otomo released Steamboy, his first animated project since the 1995 short film compilation Memories, in 2004, with subsequent theatrical releases internationally. In collaboration with Studio 4C, American director Michael Arias released Tekkon Kinkreet in 2008, to international acclaim.

After several years of directing primarily lower-key live-action films, Hideaki Anno formed his own production studio and revisited his still-popular Evangelion franchise with the Rebuild of Evangelion tetralogy, a new series of films providing an alternate retelling of the original story.

The first film, Evangelion: 1.0 You Are (Not) Alone released to considerable success in September 2007; after several delays in production, the second film, Evangelion: 2.0 You Can (Not) Advance was released in June 2009.

Anime films now account for 60 percent of Japanese film production. The 1990s and 2000s is considered to be “Japanese Cinema’s Second Golden Age”  due to the immense popularity of anime, both within Japan and overseas.

In February 2000, the Japan Film Commission Promotion Council was established. On November 16, 2001, the Japanese Foundation for the Promotion of the Arts laws were presented to the House of Representatives.

These laws were intended to promote the production of media arts, including film scenery, and stipulate that the government – on both the national and local levels – must lend aid in order to preserve film media.

The laws were passed on November 30 and came into effect on December 7. In 2003, at a gathering for the Agency of Cultural Affairs, twelve policies were proposed in a written report to allow public-made films to be promoted and shown at the Film Center of the National Museum of Modern Art.

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