In 2018, Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Shoplifters won the Palme d’Or at Cannes. The award itself came as less of a surprise than did the fact that Shoplifters was the first of Kore-eda’s films to win it, given how long he’d been the most widely acclaimed Japanese filmmaker alive. And though it had been more than twenty years since the Palme last went to a Japanese movie — Shomei Imamura’s The Eel, in 1997 — Japan had long since established itself at Cannes as the Asian country to beat. Imamura’s The Ballad of Narayama had won the Palme in 1983, Akira Kurosawa’s Kagemusha in 1980, and Teinosuke Kinugasa’s Gate of Hell in 1954, when Western cinephiles were only just starting to appreciate Japanese cinema.
Why has that appreciation proven so enduring? This is one question investigated by “The Essential Japanese Cinema,” a video essay from The Cinema Cartography. Narrator Luiza Liz Bond emphasized the “heightened aesthetic sensibility” of Japanese filmmakers, on display in “the tender observation of Ozu’s Tokyo Story, the poetic rhapsody of Kurosawa’s Dreams, the harrowing feminine gaze of Videophobia.” But one can find examples just as rich and even more various in lesser-known films from Japan such as Shūji Terayama’s engagé experimental drama Throw Away Your Books, Rally in the Streets, Kaizō Hayashi’s oneiric silent-film pastiche To Sleep as to Dream, and Gakuryū Ishii’s subtly psychedelic and science-fictional coming-of-age tale August in the Water.
The video organizes these films and many others under a rubric of philosophical concepts drawn from Japanese culture. These include bushidō, the code of the samurai Westerners came to know through the pictures of Akira Kurosawa and Masaki Kobayashi; wabi-sabi, an ideal of beauty centered on imperfect things; mono no aware, a sensitivity to the transient and the ephemeral; and guro, which pushes the unsettling to its outer limits. Their heightened aesthetic sensibility “grants Japanese filmmakers the ability to be fine-tuned to the grotesque and the gruesome,” Bond notes. They understand that we all enjoy beauty, but an appreciation of ugliness is necessary to magnify this process. The beauty and the ugly are not opposites, but different aspects of the same thing.”
Of course, one need not be familiar with these ideas in order to enjoy Japanese cinema. The texture-intensive eroticism of Hiroshi Teshigahara’s Woman in the Dunes, the junkyard body horror of Shinya Tsukamoto’s Tetsuo: The Iron Man, the relentlessly bizarre inventiveness of Nobuhiko Obayashi’s House: these could only be delivered by filmmakers who understand first that they work in a medium of visceral power. Even the work of Yasujirō Ozu, famed for its imperturbable restraint, resonates more deeply than ever with us six decades after his death. “It is impossible to speak of the sublime without speaking of his portrayal of human fragility,” says Bond. “Ozu is never too sentimental, never too ornamental.” Would that more modern-day filmmakers, from Japan or anywhere else, looked to his example.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.