About Japanese Cinema: The cinema of Japan has a history that spans more than 100 years. Japan has one of the oldest and largest film industries in the world – as of 2010 the fourth largest by number of feature films produced. In 2011 Japan produced 411 feature films that earned 54.9% of a box office total of US$2.338 billion. Movies have been produced in Japan since 1897, when the first foreign cameramen arrived. In a ranking of the best films produced in Asia by Sight & Sound, Japan made up eight of the top twelve, with Tokyo Story ranked number one. Japan has won the Academy Award for the Best Foreign Language Film four times, again more than any other country in Asia.
1950s: 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. The period after the American Occupation led to a rise in diversity in movie distribution thanks to the increased output and popularity of the film studios of Toho, Daiei, Shochiku, Nikkatsu, and Toei.
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 Toshiro 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. The same year, Ishiro 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: The number of films produced, and the cinema audience reached a peak in the 1960s. Most films were shown in double bills, with one half of the bill being a “program picture” or B-movie. A typical program picture was shot in four weeks. The demand for these program pictures in quantity meant the growth of film series such as The Hoodlum Soldier or Akumyo.
The huge level of activity of 1960s Japanese cinema also resulted in many classics. Akira Kurosawa directed the 1961 classic Yojimbo. 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).
The 1960s were the peak years of the Japanese New Wave movement, which began in the 1950s and continued through the early 1970s. 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 Kanojo to kare 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.
Contemporary Cinema (2000s): The number of movies being shown in Japan steadily increased, with about 821 films released in 2006. Movies based on Japanese television series were especially popular during this period. Anime films now accounted for 60 percent of Japanese film production. The 1990s and 2000s are considered to be “Japanese Cinema’s Second Golden Age”, due to the immense popularity of anime, both within Japan and overseas.
Takeshi Kitano appeared in Battle Royale and directed and starred in Dolls and Zatoichi. Several horror films, Kairo, Dark Water, Yogen, the Grudge series and One Missed Call 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. Female film director Naomi Kawase’s film The Mourning Forest won the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival in 2007. Yoji Yamada, director of the Otoko wa Tsurai yo series, made a trilogy of acclaimed revisionist samurai films, 2002’s Twilight Samurai, followed by The Hidden Blade in 2004 and Love and Honor in 2006.
In anime, Hayao Miyazaki directed Spirited Away in 2001, breaking Japanese box office records and winning several awards, followed by Howl’s Moving Castle and Ponyo in 2004 and 2008 respectively. In 2004, Mamoru Oshii released the anime movie Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence which received critical praise around the world. His 2008 film The Sky Crawlers was met with similarly positive international reception. Satoshi Kon also released three quieter, but nonetheless highly successful films: Millennium Actress, Tokyo Godfathers, and Paprika. Katsuhiro Otomo released Steamboy, his first animated project since the 1995 short film compilation Memories, in 2004. 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.
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.
Post 2010, four films have so far received international recognition by being selected to compete in major film festivals: Caterpillar by Koji Wakamatsu was in competition for the Golden Bear at the 60th Berlin International Film Festival and won the Silver Bear for Best Actress, Outrage by Takeshi Kitano was In Competition for the Palme d'Or at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival,Himizu, by Sion Sono was in competition for the Golden Lion at the 68th Venice International Film Festival.
In 2011, Takashi Miike’s Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai was In Competition for the Palme d'Or at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival, the first 3D film ever to screen In Competition at Cannes. The film was co-produced by British independent producer Jeremy Thomas, who had successfully broken Japanese titles such as Nagisa Oshima’s Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence and Taboo, Takeshi Kitano’s Brother, and Miike’s 13 Assassins onto the international stage as producer.
Notable Japanese Directors:
- Nagisa Ôshima
- Yasujirô Ozu
- Mikio Naruse
- Akira Kurosawa
- Hiroshi Teshigahara
- Masaki Kobayashi
- Susumu Hani
- Kenji Mizoguchi
- Kon Ichikawa
- Kaneto Shindô
- Jûzô Itami
- Kôhei Oguri
- Yasuzô Masumura
- Hirokazu Koreeda
- Mitsuo Yanagimachi
- Yoshishige Yoshida
- Shûji Terayama
- Shôhei Imamura
- Masahiro Shinoda
- Shinsuke Ogawa