Talking About the Movies: Japanese Cinema Surfaces
By Frank Beaver
This column concludes a three-part series celebrating important developments in national cinemas during the 1950s. The decade saw new social consciousness in Britain's "angry young man" and "kitchen-sink realism" movements. In France, directors began to revitalize that country's film output with a diverse group of works that collectively signaled a "nouvelle vague" or new wave of cinematic creativity.
The 1950s also brought to public awareness a cache of Japanese films, some new but many older works which because of World War II had not been widely distributed outside of Japan. The impetus came after Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon (1950) received the 1951 Venice Film Festival top award. This provocative motion picture excited filmgoers and it prompted critics and film historians to seek out other Japanese works that had been made earlier. They discovered a group of directors with unique cinematic styles and culturally significant thematic interests. Most notable in this group were Yasujiro Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi. With Kurosawa, they would be recognized as the early greats of Japanese film.
Yasujiro Ozu's films revealed a keen interest in family relationships and social conventions within Japan's lower middle-class. His early classic I Was Born But…. (1932) told a satiric tale of two young boys whose office-clerk father relocates his family after receiving a promotion. The two sons observe their father's "upward bound," sometimes embarrassing social behavior with quiet, unmoralizing disbelief. Ozu's camera assumed the position of a distant observer, with scenes often filmed in long-shot and played out without edits. The technique offered the viewer an opportunity for contemplation and reflection in a study of human resignation.
Ozu's later films continued the exploration of Japanese families resigned to change in their everyday lives. My favorite is Late Spring (1949), a lovely, gently toned account of a father-daughter relationship where the two, entirely happy and devoted to one another, give in to the expectation that the young woman marry, move away and begin her own family. This and Ozu's other films of familial transition recalled the Japanese belief in mono non aware, a willingness to accept as part of life's progress the inevitable changes that must come in time to one and all. In the film's long, contemplative final shot, the father is shown, alone, in his favorite armchair, peeling an apple. Life will go on.
Kenji Mizoguchi's early classic was The Sisters of Gion (1936). It had as its protagonists two young geisha living in Kyoto. Each character was drawn to represent opposing values within an evolving Japanese culture. The more traditional ‘sister' remains loyal to her patron even after he falls on hard times and is unable to provide financial support. The other geisha deems this attitude foolish and outdated; she sees their profession as one for self-advancement. The conflict between selfless concern and personal ambition is presented by Mizoguchi without decisive resolution. As in Ozu's films, long camera runs and minimal editing convey the story with quiet, non-judgmental observation.
Mizoguchi's other great film Ugetsu (1953) again showed his interest in the position of women in Japanese society, past and present. The story, set in the sixteenth century, centered on the fates of two adventuresome peasants and their abandoned wives. A painter-turned-filmmaker, Mizoguchi imbued Ugetsu with highly stylized, atmospheric imagery that moved the story into the realms of lyricism and spirituality. The mise-en-scene is often formally composed, and setting, costumes, and characters are enhanced by beautiful theatrical lighting. These qualities were greatly admired because of their compatability with Japan's unique artistic and theatrical traditions such as Noh theater.
Rashomon (1950) was Akira Kurosawa's twelfth film and, many argue, his greatest. Its genre was Japanese jidai-geki or "period film," a form of storytelling favored at one time or another by most of Japan's great directors. In a fractured narrative set in medieval times, Rashomon's plot involves a rape and a murder (or is it a suicide?) that occurs in the shadowy glade of a forest. The four characters who are privy to the crime give in courtroom-like testimony their versions of what happened and how. Each—a merchant, his wife, her rapist (a bandit), and a woodcutter who observes from the woods—provides an account that contradicts the others. Each interpretation is personally nuanced and face-saving.
Rashomon's intrigue resided in its philosophical inquiry into the complex nature of human character and the ambiguities of truth and "knowability" in retracing human experience. Like Citizen Kane a decade earlier, Kurosawa's film raised more questions than it answered; also, as with Kane, Rashomon's brilliance was as much a result of its ingenious structure as its narrative intrigue. Kurosawa's career continued for more than thirty years during which time he created a three-decade long outpouring of period and modern masterpieces that established him as Japan's most revered director.
Other younger Japanese film artists (Ichikawa, Kobayashi, Teshigahara, Oshima, Toyoda) emerged in the 1950s as well. Some of them produced films of social protest while others studied individual character. Together they elevated a national cinema that can now be cherished for its unique philosophical, stylistic, and thematic contributions to motion picture expression.
Film historian and critic Frank Beaver is professor of film and video studies and professor of communication.