The Golden Age of Japanese Cinema: Kurosawa, Ozu, Mizoguchi & Beyond

Oliv­er Her­manus’ lat­est film Liv­ing trans­plants the sto­ry of Aki­ra Kuro­sawa’s Ikiru to post­war Lon­don. Apart from its own con­sid­er­able mer­its, it has giv­en view­ers across the world rea­son to revis­it the 1952 orig­i­nal, a stand­out work even in a gold­en decade of Japan­ese cin­e­ma — the decade The Cin­e­ma Car­tog­ra­phy co-cre­ator Lewis Bond (pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured here for oth­er explo­rations of Japan­ese cin­e­ma and ani­ma­tion) explains in the video above. In the nine­teen-fifties, “con­cen­trat­ed with­in a sin­gle coun­try were some of the great­est film­mak­ers to ever live, simul­ta­ne­ous­ly pro­duc­ing their great­est works. The result was a com­plete decen­tral­iza­tion of clas­sic cin­e­ma as the world was exposed to its new troupe of mas­ters.”

After World War II, the Japan­ese peo­ple were “left with the real­i­ty that they were an eth­ni­cal­ly homo­ge­neous and cul­tur­al­ly uni­fied unit that did not fit in with the new, demo­c­ra­t­ic world.” The Amer­i­can mil­i­tary occu­pa­tion “took con­trol of the entire Japan­ese film indus­try from 1945 until 1952,” forcibly remov­ing any image, theme, or line of dia­logue thought liable stoke recidi­vist pop­u­lar sen­ti­ment. With not just war movies but “feu­dal” peri­od pieces off the table, the only viable genre was what schol­ars have since labeled shominge­ki, the real­is­tic cin­e­ma of com­mon peo­ple in ordi­nary sit­u­a­tions. Even there, the cen­sors had their scis­sors out: on their orders, Masahi­ro Maki­no had to elim­i­nate a shot of the poten­tial­ly nation­al­ist sym­bol of Mount Fuji; Yasu­jirō Ozu had to cut a line from Late Spring about Tokyo being full of bomb sites.

These rules loos­ened toward the end of the occu­pa­tion. By 1951, Kuro­sawa could make a dar­ing his­tor­i­cal pic­ture like Rashomon, and even have it (with­out his con­sent) go on to screen at the Venice Film Fes­ti­val and win a Gold­en Lion, then an Acad­e­my Award. The West had acquired a taste for Japan­ese movies, and the Japan­ese film indus­try was only too hap­py to cater to it. The coun­try’s five major stu­dios “hired the best artists of the time and gave them the finan­cial back­ing and cre­ative free­dom that they need­ed. The result was that the stu­dios made a lot of mon­ey, the film­mak­ers cre­at­ed an abun­dance of mas­ter­pieces, and the gold­en age of Japan­ese cin­e­ma meant that peo­ple filled the the­aters.”

The nine­teen-fifties brought world­wide acclaim to a Mount Rush­more of Japan­ese auteurs. Kuro­sawa, who revived the samu­rai film, “did for cin­e­ma as a whole was what most film­mak­ers hope, at some point, to do”: bridg­ing “the gap between one’s artistry and main­stream appeal.” Uget­su direc­tor Ken­ji Mizoguchi looked on all real­i­ty — and espe­cial­ly women — with a tran­scen­den­tal gaze. “Although not as grandiose as Kuro­sawa, nor as spir­i­tu­al as Mizoguchi, Ozu epit­o­mizes a sen­ti­men­tal­i­ty that, per­haps, has not been as well achieved by any oth­er film­mak­er to this day.” Mikio Naruse, Masa­ki Kobayashi, Teinosuke Kin­u­gasa, Hiroshi Ina­ga­ki: one could enjoy a rich cin­e­mat­ic life with only the works of Japan­ese film­mak­ers of the fifties. It shows us “the pin­na­cle of what cin­e­ma can achieve, and the stan­dard we should con­tin­ue to strive for,” as Bond’s puts it in his clos­ing line, speak­ing over a shot from Ikiru.

Relat­ed con­tent:

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

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

The Aes­thet­ic of Ani­me: A New Video Essay Explores a Rich Tra­di­tion of Japan­ese Ani­ma­tion

How One Sim­ple Cut Reveals the Cin­e­mat­ic Genius of Yasu­jirō Ozu

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

Wes Ander­son & Yasu­jirō Ozu: New Video Essay Reveals the Unex­pect­ed Par­al­lels Between Two Great Film­mak­ers

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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  • King says:

    “left with the real­i­ty that they were an eth­ni­cal­ly homo­ge­neous and cul­tur­al­ly uni­fied unit that did not fit in with the new, demo­c­ra­t­ic world.” is such an overused fal­la­cy, that it is gen­uine­ly painful to con­tin­ue read­ing at this point. The myth of homo­gene­ity is one that was per­pet­u­at­ed by those in pow­er of the Mei­ji restora­tion pri­or to the post war peri­od, and lat­er empha­sized by the nihon­jon­ron move­ment in said post war peri­od. It should be argued instead, that these films are not unique because the auteurs are part of a ‘unique­ly unique race’ as the nation­al­is­tic myth would have the world believe. Rather the auteurs are superb crafts­man, capa­ble of cap­tur­ing the raw­ness of human emo­tion through their expe­ri­ences that any­one across the world can recog­nise and relate to.

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