Essential Japanese Cinema: A Journey Through 50 of Japan’s Beautiful, Often Bizarre Films

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.

Relat­ed con­tent:

How Did Aki­ra Kuro­sawa Make Such Pow­er­ful & Endur­ing Films? A Wealth of Video Essays Break Down His Cin­e­mat­ic Genius

How One Sim­ple Cut Reveals the Cin­e­mat­ic Genius of Yasu­jirō Ozu

Hayao Miyaza­ki Meets Aki­ra Kuro­sawa: Watch the Titans of Japan­ese Film in Con­ver­sa­tion (1993)

How Mas­ter Japan­ese Ani­ma­tor Satoshi Kon Pushed the Bound­aries of Mak­ing Ani­me: A Video Essay

Wabi-Sabi: A Short Film on the Beau­ty of Tra­di­tion­al Japan

A Page of Mad­ness: The Lost Avant Garde Mas­ter­piece from Ear­ly Japan­ese Cin­e­ma (1926)

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.

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  • Phil E. Balla says:

    Have great grat­i­tude for this video (and tex­tu­al) sum­ma­ry of Japan­ese film.

    Imag­ine this video as a start­ing off point for a col­lege course — with each week not only anoth­er film (or more than one), but also cor­re­spond­ing nov­el or oth­er arts from Japan­ese life.

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