The Oxford History of World Cinema

By Geoffrey Nowell-Smith | Go to book overview

The Modernization of Japanese Film


From the mid- 1930s, when sound film began to replace silent cinema in Japan, the Japanese studios modelled themselves on the Hollywood system. This was true not only of the institutions, but also of the form of the films produced, which were based around the unfolding of a narrative where all techniques were in the service of telling a story and eliciting particular emotions. This system dominated Japanese film production in the postwar period, but it was not monolithic or indestructible. Mizoguchi's films can be seen as deviations, and Kuro sawa 's Rashomon ( Daiei, 1950) provided a decisive break. It did not simply portray the 'truth' of the narrative, but, by presenting multiple, conflicting views of the same event, made many interpretations possible and demanded active reading by the audience. Rashomon was the first film to introduce the concept of the modern into Japanese cinema.

Modernization first appeared in a change in the subjectmatter tackled by film-makers. For example, Nikkatsu's Taiyo no kisetsu ( "Season of the sun", Takumi Furukawa, 1956), adapted from the novel of Shintaro Ishihara, approached the subject of the anger of modern youth by directly depicting the rebellion of juveniles against the older generation. The film was not innovative in terms of film form, but by using the classical narrative mode drew attention to the challenge to tradition represented by new morals and behaviour. In the same year, Nikkatsu adapted Ishihara's new novel Kurutta kajitsu ( "Crazed fruit", Ko Nak ahira , 1956). This represented an attempt to establish the 'angry youth' film as a genre, after the model of Nicholas Ray 's Rebel without a Cause and Ingmar Bergman's Summer with Monika. There was a bourgeois idealism inherent in the literature of Ishihara which was mirrored in these adaptations of his work. The films lacked any dimension of class-consciousness but represented rebellious youth in an imaginary world. This tendency towards a lack of realism of setting was to constitute an important element of Nikkatsu's youth films and action films for years to come.

In the 1950s, then, Nikkatsu tried to modernize Japanese cinema by establishing a new genre, aimed at and focusing on the younger generation. However, despite the popular success of many of these films the genre rarely produced anything other than standardized B movies of little lasting interest. This had much to do with the restrictions placed on film-makers by the studios. The genre did not attract eminent established directors, nor produce artists of its own. The one exception was Seijun Suzuki, who began his directing career making action films for Nikkatsu. He made a series of these films between 1956 and 1963 which were classed as B movies, but which stood out from those made by other genre specialists of the time. He ornamented the stereotyped story-lines of the genre with deliberately artificial images, and he pushed the most standard action film beyond the ordinary through the use of attractive shot composition and unique mise-en-scène. After 1964, promoted from low-budget B films, he turned his hand to adapting literature for the screen, but he continued to develop the style he had established on his action movies. Gradually Suzuki decreased the importance of a rational and logical story in his films. For example, in the gangster filḿ Koroshi no rakuin ( "The brand of killing", Nikkatsu, 1967), the plot, which generic conventions dictate should be clear, was transformed into a labyrinth. The increasing complexity and difficulty of his films finally led to his dismissal from Nikkatsu in 1968.

While Nikkatsu's youth films were set in imaginary bourgeois circumstances, Shohei Imamura, working in the same company, developed a very different milieu for his films. After working as the assistant director to Yasujiro Ozu at Shochiku, Imamura moved to Nikkatsu to work with Yuzo Kawashima. Since his début film in 1958 Imamura's concern had been with the world left behind by the development of Japanese bourgeois society, and the energetic people living in that world. His films were fundamentally different from the Nikkatsu action films, as they were not dependent on the method of realism. They included caricature-like depictions of strange people, blended with ethnographic and sociological concerns, and humour inherited from Kawashima. Many of his films from this period bore more resemblance to films made by independent companies than the output of a major studio like Nikkatsu. After Nippon konchuki ('Insect woman', Nikkatsu, 1963) Imamura's concerns gravitated towards issues of sex, and his films examined the sexual impulse that he believed existed at the root of all people.

Kiriro Urayama directed realistic films with a social message at Nikkatsu. He had been the assistant director to Imamura before making his first film in 1962, and he went on to work mostly in the youth film genre. However, films like Kyupora no aru machi ('The street with the cupola', Nikkatsu, 1962) and Hiko shojo ("The bad girl', Nikkatsu, 1963) were different from the stereotyped Nikkatsu films of the genre, as they contained political elements. By the late 1960s, both Imamura and Urayama had developed a metaphysical quality in their films. Urayama's last film at Nikkatsu, Watashi ga suteta onna ('The girl I abandoned', 1969) concentrated on the subjective experiences of a man


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The Oxford History of World Cinema
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Acknowledgements vii
  • Contributors ix
  • Contents xi
  • Special Features xv
  • List of Colour Illustrations xvii
  • General Introduction xix
  • 1 - Silent Cinema 1895-1930 1
  • Origins and Survival 6
  • Early Cinema 13
  • Transitional Cinema 23
  • The Hollywood Studio System 43
  • The World-Wide Spread of Cinema 53
  • The First World War and the Crisis in Europe 62
  • Tricks and Animation 71
  • Comedy 78
  • Documentary 86
  • Cinema and the Avant-Garde 95
  • Serials 105
  • French Silent Cinema 112
  • Italy- Spectacle and Melodrama 123
  • British Cinema from Hepworth to Hitchcock 130
  • Germany- The Weimar Years 136
  • The Scandinavian Style 151
  • Pre-Revolutionary Russia 159
  • The Soviet Union and the Russian émigrés 162
  • Yiddish Cinema in Europe 174
  • Japan- Before the Great Kanto Earthquake 177
  • Music and the Silent Film 183
  • The Heyday of the Silents 192
  • 2 - Sound Cinema 1930-1960 205
  • The Introduction of Sound 211
  • Hollywood- The Triumph of the Studio System 220
  • Censorship and Self-Regulation 235
  • The Sound of Music 248
  • Technology and Innovation 259
  • Animation 267
  • Cinema and Genre 276
  • The Western 286
  • The Musical 294
  • Crime Movies 304
  • The Fantastic 312
  • Documentary 322
  • Socialism, Fascism, and Democracy 333
  • The Popular Art of French Cinema 344
  • Italy from Fascism to Neo-Realism 353
  • Britain at the End of Empire 361
  • Germany- Nazism and after 374
  • East Central Europe before the Second World War 383
  • Soviet Film under Stalin 389
  • Indian Cinema- Origins to Independence 398
  • China before 1949 409
  • The Classical Cinema in Japan 413
  • The Emergence of Australian Film 422
  • Cinema in Latin America 427
  • After the War 436
  • Transformation of the Hollywood System 443
  • Independents and Mavericks 451
  • 3 - The Modern Cinema 1960-1995 461
  • Television and the Film Industry 466
  • The New Hollywood 475
  • New Technologies 483
  • Sex and Sensation 490
  • The Black Presence in American Cinema 497
  • Exploitation and the Mainstream 509
  • Dreams and Nightmares in the Hollywood Blockbuster 516
  • Cinéma-Vérité and the New Documentary 527
  • Avant-Garde Film- The Second Wave 537
  • Animation in the Post-Industrial Era 551
  • Modern Film Music 558
  • Art Cinema 567
  • New Directions in French Cinema 576
  • Italy- Auteurs and after 586
  • Spain after Franco 596
  • British Cinema- The Search for Identity 604
  • The New German Cinema 614
  • East Germany- The Defa Story 627
  • Changing States in East Central Europe 632
  • Russia after the Thaw 640
  • Cinema in the Soviet Republics 651
  • Turkish Cinema 656
  • The Arab World 661
  • The Cinemas of Sub-Saharan Africa 667
  • Iranian Cinema 672
  • India- Filming the Nation 678
  • Indonesian Cinema 690
  • China after the Revolution 693
  • Popular Cinema in Hong Kong 704
  • Taiwanese New Cinema 711
  • The Modernization of Japanese Film 714
  • New Australian Cinema 722
  • New Zealand Cinema 731
  • Canadian Cinema/Cinéma Canadien 731
  • New Cinemas in Latin America 740
  • New Concepts of Cinema 750
  • The Resurgence of Cinema 759
  • Index 785
  • List of Picture Sources 823


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