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Throw Away Your Books: Japanese Cinema

Ugetsu Monogatari
Ugetsu Monogatari
(Kenji Mizoguchi, 1953)

Let's Go Into The Streets

In the early '80s, when I first started watching films "seriously" (i.e. with a consciousness of their status as art), French and Italian films were at the forefront for me. But Japanese films were there also. They seemed to be as deep and/or raucous and/or imaginative as their continental cousins.

I still feel that way today about Japan as a cinema-producing country. And there seems to be great Japanese films from every decade, not only from one or two of them (whereas Italian cinema, for example, deteriorated in the '80s and '90s).

With this piece, I just want to run through some of these titles, in tribute.

Throw Away Your Books, Let's Go Into The Streets is a film made by Shuji Terayama in 1971. I've seen it only once, in about 1983, but I can still feel its exuberance and revolt. I like those words "throw away your books" as a moral, and the Japanese cinema, maybe more than any other, has consistently lived them out: so many iconoclastic directors, so many unique films, so little dependence on conventions and prescriptions.

The Human Condition

Like any good student of the cinema (and the university I went to was the "university of cinema", natch), my entry point into Japanese film was via some of the big, fat, humanist, arthouse pictures: The Burmese Harp (Kon Ichikawa, 1956), The Human Condition (Masaki Kobayashi, 1959-61), Ikiru (Akira Kurosawa, 1952). The first two of these (or four, let's say, for the Kobayashi is a trilogy of films) are war films, a genre not exactly prevalent in Japanese cinema. They are investigative and pacifistic films. A late incarnation of the genre is the animation Tombstone for Fireflies (Isao Takahata, 1988), surely one of the great war films ever. Ikiru looks at inner disturbance, not outer. As in that other classic from that time, Tokyo Story (Yasujiro Ozu, 1953), we see ordinary people in extraordinary situations, the existential urgency rendered with great feeling by the directors. But this is where any comparison of Kurosawa with Ozu must stop, of course - Ozu's touch is infinitely lighter (see below). Take Kurosawa's Dersu Uzala (1975) for example - quite a moving humanist tale, but also somewhat lumbering and uninspiring.

The Seven Samurai

When discovering the cinema of any country, it is impossible to ignore its great auteurs. In those formative years of mine, 1982-83, when the Valhalla Cinema in Richmond would be playing art doubles (Fellini, Bergman, Godard, Fassbinder et al) practically every night (I kid you not!), and SBS-TV would also be full of great riches, I saw a number of Akira Kurosawa films: Rashomon (1950), The Seven Samurai (1954), Yojimbo (1961), Sanjuro (1962) and several others. Can anyone deny that these are wonderfully entertaining and quite cutting films? And that Toshiro Mifune is obviously a cinema icon? I've barely revisited these films since first seeing them - I've never felt that I would get anything more out of them. I feel the opposite about another of Japan's great auteurs, Kenji Mizoguchi. I've seen a few of his films over the years (Osaka Elegy [1936], Utamaro and his Five Women [1946], Ugetsu Monogatari [1953]), but feel as if I haven't discovered him at all as yet. His films rarely screen, and yet the estimation of him (by serious critics) is very high.

An Autumn Afternoon

At least Yasujiro Ozu's films have been quite available. Though one must be very quick to catch them. They are like the wind. (The wind of life: Ozu is the cinema's great exponent of the sigh.) Watching a film like Tokyo Story, it is hard to believe a director can have that much humility and compassion. (Next to Ozu, Rohmer comes across as a game-player, and someone like Solondz a total fake.) And his films are not "all the same", as they are caricatured. That's like saying "all Asians look the same". Why don't people criticise Scorsese, for example, for this? Late Spring (1949), The Flavour of Green Tea Over Rice (1952), Early Spring (1956) and An Autumn Afternoon (1963) are all fine, detailed and at times profound observational melodramas. Well, melodramas of the everyday, let's say. Toshiro Mifune may be one of the cinema's great icons, but Chishu Ryu is surely another. Side note: Mikio Naruse also made family-life studies in the '50s, but I haven't seen a single of his films, they being even harder to access than Mizoguchi's.

The Insect Woman

Around the time of Ozu's death (1963), Japanese cinema began to change. Films such as The Insect Woman (Shohei Imamura, 1963), An Actor's Revenge (Kon Ichikawa, 1963) and Woman of the Dunes (Hiroshi Teshigahara, 1964) were made. These are dark and deep works, full of cruelty and difficult relationships, with ambitiously-designed female characters in them (or "female" in the case of the Ichikawa).

Death by Hanging

But it was the "New Wave" who heralded in the modern Japanese cinema, in the late '60s, with Nagisa Oshima at the forefront. He made a variety of films: the youthful Three Ressurected Drunkards (1968), the political Death by Hanging (1968), the sexual In the Realm of the Senses (1976). The aforementioned Shuji Terayama followed suit, with Throw Away Your Books, Let's Go Into The Streets and The Fruits of Passion (1981). The careers of both these directors seemed to slide away in the '80s, but Terayama made some wonderful video "letters" in the late '80s, whilst Oshima has a new film (his first for a decade or so) doing the rounds of this year's festivals.

This Window is Yours

Juzo Itami came to the forefront of commercial Japanese cinema in the '80s. His film Tampopo (1986) is an entertaining "noodle-romance", with many wonderful set pieces involving food in it. It's a satire, but it contains the kernel of something I find miraculous in Japanese cinema of recent times: a sweetness, tenderness, lightness. In both the characters and their interactions, and in the film's "touch" itself. Three films spring to mind here: the anime Kiki's Delivery Service (Hayao Miyazaki, 1989), the tragedy A Scene at the Sea (Takeshi Kitano, 1991) and the teen film This Window is Yours (Tomoyuki Furumaya, 1993). These films touch me very deeply.


Of course, Takeshi Kitano has a different side to him too - there is unspeakable violence in his films. Hana-bi (1997) is full of death. But it is also very tender. It is practically an experimental film, with that wild juxtapositioning. And I love this about the Japanese cinema too - this sharpness of form, this capacity to startle. Kenji Onishi is one of Japan's underground filmmakers currently, and his Squareworld (1996) is certainly quite startling. It uses Bresson/Akerman-like formal qualities, but really stretching the time and space of them. At the other extreme, the time-lapse experimental short, Twilights (Tengai Amano, 1994), is an exhilarating cinematic experience.

After Life

Japanese cinema is well and truly alive at the moment. Intriguing animes like The Ghost in the Shell (Mamoru Oshii, 1995) are being made; Imamura has kicked in with the well-crafted The Eel (1996); and an interesting talent such as Hirokazu Kore-eda is around (Maborosi [1995] and After Life [1998]).

Bill Mousoulis June 2000
This review first appeared in Senses of Cinema, No.7, June 2000.