Films From the Golden Age of Japanese Cinema

Alan Westby, Librarian, Art, Music & Recreation Department,
Film posters from the golden age of Japanese cinema.
Film posters from the golden age of Japanese cinema

Among the many outstanding films available to patrons on Kanopy are several classics from the golden age of Japanese cinema, the 1950s.

One of the greatest films in the history of world cinema is Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai. This 1954 film marked the seventh teaming of director Kurosawa with actor Toshiro Mifune—the foremost Japanese actor of the 20th century—whose 100th birthday would have been this year,2020. One of the great actor/director collaborations, Mifune and Kurosawa had put the Japanese film industry on the world stage with Rashomon in 1950, thereby ushering in the decade which would come to be known as the golden age of Japanese cinema. Non-Japanese film buffs are sometimes put off watching Seven Samurai due to its lofty critical reputation, as well as its imposing running time. However, this endlessly-engaging epic of action and drama, comedy and tragedy, philosophy and pratfalls, is one of the quickest three-and-a-half hours in the history of film. If you are familiar with the story only through the American remake,The Magnificent Seven, 1960, give the original a look and you may find yourself interested in trying out other classics of the golden age of Japanese cinema available on Kanopy.

The film that put Japanese cinema on the world stage right at the start of the 1950s was Kurosawa's Rashomon. It was shown at the Venice Film Festival, where it won the Golden Lion award. The film's title became synonymous with the film's complex narrative structure: the story of a murder is related by four different, contradictory characters, including—through the use of a spirit medium—the murder victim himself. The term Rashomon effect is based on the narrative structure of this film. The unusual camera techniques employed in the film also distinguished it. Kurosawa commented, "Rashômon is a film where the camera has a starring role." Some of the jarring camera effects include long tracking shots through the forest and shooting directly into the sun. Rashomon was shot by Kazuo Miyagawa, who is known as "Japan's greatest cinematographer", and also was at the camera for two other films on this list: Kenji Mizoguchi's Ugetsu and Yasujirô Ozu's Floating Weeds.

The third Kurosawa masterpiece available on Kanopy is Ikiru. Inspired by Tolstoy's novella, The Death of Ivan Il'ich, the title Ikiru (生きる)—is the Japanese verb meaning "to live". As with Rashomon, Kurosawa employs an unusual narrative structure in this film. He tells the story of a bureaucratic clerk who learns he is dying from stomach cancer, in two parts: The first half follows the main character, Watanabe, as he searches for meaning in life after receiving a terminal diagnosis, and the second half at his wake, as family and co-workers, retrospectively attempt to understand Watanabe's seemingly strange during the last few days of his life. A moving and inspiring work, Kurosawa said of this film: "Sometimes I think of my death. I think of ceasing to be...and it is from these thoughts that Ikiru came."

Book cover for Ikiru / 生きる
Ikiru / 生きる
Akira Kurosawa

One more classic on Kanopy is Yasujirô Ozu's Tokyo Story (1953). While Akira Kurosawa's international success came early, director Ozu's fame did not spread widely outside of Japan until after his death in 1963. Starting in film a generation earlier than Kurosawa, Ozu is best-known for the stylistically conservative films of his late period. Nevertheless, within his career, he adapted to such technological innovations as the move from silent film to sound, and the move from monochrome to color. His early films include comedies and gangster films, but he is best known for the postwar 'Shomin-geki' films of his mature style—dramas about the lives of ordinary middle-class families. Ozu created a personal, austere cinematic language, filled with exquisite details, subtle observations, a delicate sense of frame composition, the use of a usually static camera set at the eye-level of a person seated on a tatami mat, dialogues spoken by characters framed in isolation looking at the camera, and the use of 'pillow-shots'—images without people, of objects, landscapes, buildings, or rooms, to connect scenes. Like most of his mature films, Tokyo Story is built from the simplest of plots, involving conflict between the pre-war and post-war generations—in this case, an older couple comes from the countryside to visit their children in Tokyo, who find them to be a burden. Moments of gentle observation and humor culminate into moments of overpowering, yet restrained emotion. Perhaps Ozu's best-known film, Tokyo Story often makes, and sometimes tops lists of the greatest films ever made.

Book cover for Tokyo Story / 東京物語
Tokyo Story / 東京物語
Yasujirô Ozu

If you want to further explore Ozu's universe, Kanopy also has the director's Floating Weeds, his 1959 color remake of his silent, 1934 film, A Story of Floating Weeds. Again, as in Tokyo Story, Ozu mines profound depths of emotion, observation, and everyday life through a simple story: An acting troupe visits a small town, where the elderly leader visits an old girlfriend.

Book cover for Floating Weeds / 浮草
Floating Weeds / 浮草
Yasujirô Ozu

Another great film on Kanopy is Kenji Mizoguchi's Ugetsu. Including Yasujirô Ozu and Akira Kurosawa, the third of the three great directors of the golden age of Japanese cinema is Kenji Mizoguchi. Mizoguchi is perhaps best known for depicting the difficult plight of women under Japanese feudalism. Though the story of Ugetsu focuses most on the men, two of Japan's greatest actresses—both closely associated with Mizoguchi's work—have lead roles in the film: Machiko Kyô and Kinuyo Tanaka. The full Japanese title of the film is Ugetsu Monogatari, which can be translated as "Tales of the Moon in the Rain". Part historical drama, part fable, part ghost story, Ugetsu follows the fates of two men who leave their wives during wartime, blinded by greed and ambition, and the consequences of their actions on the families they leave behind. A notorious perfectionist, objects in Mizoguchi's historical dramas were often actually from the time period in which the film took place, borrowed from museums. One of Mizoguchi's mottos was, "one-scene, one-shot", which resulted in his signature long take approach to filming. In Ugetsu, Mizoguchi's long takes and floating camera—in one case seamlessly connecting two scenes with the same two characters, locked in an embrace, in separate locations—reflects both the spirit world partly depicted in the film and the long, unraveling format of a traditional Japanese scroll. Acclaimed as one of the most visually beautiful films ever made, Ugetsu won the Silver Lion award at the 1953 Venice Film Festival and was one of the films that helped put Japanese cinema on the world stage.

Book cover for Ugetsu / 雨月物語
Ugetsu / 雨月物語
Kenji Mizoguchi

An interesting curiosity of Japanese cinema available for our patrons is Kazuo Mori's The Blind Menace - Shiranui kengyô. The star of the film, Shintarô Katsu, became legendary in the next decade for his portrayal of the blind swordsman, Zatôichi. Running from 1962 to 1989, the Zatôichi was one of the longest-running and most popular series in film history. Though both characters are blind, and several of the mannerisms that were to become famous in the later series are already present in The Blind Menace, the cynical, scheming social climber Katsu plays in this earlier film is the opposite of the amiable, self-sacrificing, yet lethal Zatôichi. Kazuo Mori also directed an entry in the Zatoichi series.

Book cover for The Blind Menace / 不知火検校
The Blind Menace / 不知火検校
Kazuo Mori

Fires on the Plain, Kon Ichikawa's brutal and searing 1959 film depicting a Japanese soldier's survival in the Philippines during the latter days of World War II. And Kunio Watanabe's 1958 version of the Chushingura, The Loyal 47 Ronin (忠臣蔵). One of the most filmed stories in Japanese cinema, Mizoguchi also made a four-hour version of this story as a wartime propaganda effort in 1941.

Book cover for Fires on the Plain / 野火
Fires on the Plain / 野火
Kon Ichikawa

Book cover for The Loyal 47 Ronin: Chushingura / 忠臣蔵
The Loyal 47 Ronin: Chushingura / 忠臣蔵
Kunio Watanabe

Also of interest to fans of Japanese cinema are two Raizô Ichikawa ninja films from the 1960s. Known as the "James Dean of Japan", the charismatic actor Raizô died at the age of 37, with over 150 film credits to his name. The two Raizô films available to our patrons are from two of his most popular series: Shinobi no mono (忍びの者 - Ninja or Band of Assassins; 1962), and Sleepy Eyes of Death: The Chinese Jade (1963), in which he plays a half-Japanese rônin.

Book cover for Shinobi no mono / 忍びの者
Shinobi no mono / 忍びの者
Raizô Ichikawa

Asian Pacific Heritage month is a great time to visit Japanese cinema or revisit some of these classics available on Kanopy.