I absolutely love Japanese Cinema, I believe it is one of the more prestigious film industries in the world. It appears no matter where you look, you will always find a scene or even an entire narrative that was first done in Japan. After visiting Tokyo last year and witnessing the influential power of film and animation for myself, I wanted to know about the ups and downs of the cinematic powerhouse we know. This all starts with the conclusion of a war that destroyed an empire.
After it’s defeat in WWII and the legacy of having to carry the memory of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan was placed under many reforms by the Allies and was under occupation by the United States. The previous Japanese government had a lot of authority over the Japanese film industry with the passing of the Film Law in 1939. This allowed the government to make the types of films they wanted, propaganda and documentary films (also called culture films) were amongst some of the heavily promoted materials. But now General Douglas MacArthur had occupied Japan, the Film Law still existed but now applied to the occupants. This meant instead of Japanese patriotism and nationalism being promoted, films were rapidly produced having directors forcefully criticise the Japanese war effort and promote democracy.
American films and animations were also allowed back into the country with the goal of having a dominating presence in Japanese Cinema, but it didn’t go according to plan as many Japanese directors took this opportunity to experiment with new techniques and styles, harking discretely back to prewar cinema. Four men stood out from the rest, Masaki Kobayashi, Kenji Mizoguchi, Yasujirō Ozu and most notably Akira Kurosawa, unbeknown to them, they would become the faces of Japanese cinema for years to come.
Kurosawa started to turn the cogs with his 1950 film Rashomon. Before Rashomon Japanese cinema had never expanded beyond its own borders, like a locked away part of the world. This was however until an Italian university professor Giuliana Stramigioli, who had also been importing Italian films into Japan, saw Rashomon and recommended it to the Venice Film Festival where it won the Golden Lion Prize. Kurosawa had no idea that his film had been shown overseas and suddenly everyone wanted a bigger taste of Japanese cinema. In 1954, worldwide audiences would get their second tasting when Kurosawa would make Seven Samurai, a film that would make the success of Rashomon seem minuscule in comparison. The floodgates had been opened both ways and there would soon be just as many Japanese films exported as there would be films imported from the rest of the world.
Inside Japan, the American occupation had come to an end in 1952. This was a miraculous breath of air for all of Japan, especially the film industry. Now filmmakers could make the films they wanted and not ones restricted by law. Films studios decided to become genre identifiable after the occupation had ended. Instead of diversifying their options, studios stuck with a genre that would become synonymous with brand recognition. This was done with the goal of retaining audiences. Daiei, who produced Rashomon was certainly the more progressive in film technology as they were the first studio to consistently use colour. For the rest of the world, it was Toho’s science fiction works that next broke the mold with the worldwide wonder Godzilla. Rather surprisingly, Godzilla was negatively received in Japan as the filmmakers were accused of exploiting the tragedies that occurred in Hiroshima and Nagasaki with some even comparing it to “something you’d spit up”. But it wasn’t until the film was heavily praised in the U.S that it started to grow on the Japanese people and has now become a cultural icon and an important cinematic achievement for the Japanese film industry.
Japan had one of the most prosperous golden age in cinema in terms of input and output with a dominating exploration into radiation present in most films. Horror has stricken the island, so maybe a psychological reason to Japanese cinema’s golden age was admiration from the rest of the world. An admiration that gave us some of the most important films in cinema’s history. However, Japan didn’t stop there.
The demand for film in Japan had reached an all-time high, so much so that cinema chains has completely altered the viewing experience of watching a film. Whereas now we see one film and that’s it, Japanese cinemas would show films in a double-bill type format. You would have the main feature film, but before that, you would have an accompanying “program pictures”, short B-movies that served the same purpose as supporting acts do at concerts. Demand was high for these types of films and some would even grow into popular film series.
This was the norm for Japanese cinema and as a result of this, the 60’s became one of the most financially successful periods of cinema, 535 Japanese films were released in 1960 alone on the back of over one billion cinema tickets sold in 1958. Two stories were being told in the studio, one of profit and one of criticism. Much like France and Britain, new wave had hit Japan.
There is a tendency to view Japanese New Wave as a mere carbon copy of the New Wave started by the French, however, the cinematic movement had started from within the studio’s itself with the status quo coming into question from young, unknown filmmakers. The filmmakers accused the studio system of pandering to US audiences and only promoting films that would be interpreted as having subjects and styles that would attract western audiences. As a result of this, filmmakers who spurred the movement on like Shōhei Imamura and Nagisa Oshima moved on from the studio system and began their own independent studios. The films themselves had the desire to show a broken society that blurred the line between works of fiction and documentary. Indeed, many choices made their intentions clear, in Susumu Hani’s 1961 film Bad Boys, a film he had made from his own experiences in a youth detention center, he cast the same youths he had seen to give the film authenticity.
The movement caused very little harm to the status quo as the studio was already dealing with another problem, one that had the potential to draw audiences away from the cinemas. The old battle between film and TV has begun. In the 1960’s TV had skyrocketed, in the early 50’s only 866 TV sets existed in the whole of Japan, but by the 60’s that number had increased to two million and it’s kept growing throughout the years, and by 1963 the viewership of TV had reached to 65% nationwide. What caused this massive spike? The answer, the Olympics. A massive societal clean-up had already been underway prior to the event, the country was forced to modernize and by the time the Olympics had come around, practically every household in Japan had a television.
Audiences preferred the feel-good comfort of home which forced the film industry to economize and tailor to the preferences of the TV market. Tōei studios were amongst the first to make such changes as they had changed their marketing strategy from being known for making Jidaigeki (period dramas) to modern Yakuza films (crime).
This was a battle that the Japanese film we’re losing, both inside and outside, filmmakers were not happy with such sudden changes to studio preferences which reduced the film output which then resulted in a massive drop in Japan’s box office market share. The country was leaning towards a paid subscription for their television which overtook box office admissions around 1966. The film industry, however, would not give up and the fight to claw back box office admissions were taken to the extreme.
TV was booming, and Japan has become the worlds largest provider of televisions, it’s amazing how much expansion can happen in twenty years. Cinema was suffering, some of the biggest film studios such as Toho and Shochiku were in financial trouble, and as a result the industry grounded to a halt, there was little to no growth neutering new filmmakers and less financial backing went into innovative films. The industry fought back in a number of ways to attract attention away from TV viewership, films now showed an increasing amount of sexual and violent content which would not be allowed on TV.
Nikkatsu took it one step further and ventured into the sexploitation market creating a number of softcore pornographic films, more commonly known in Japan as Roman Porno films. The success of these films is still debatable as on the one hand, they provided a gateway for young independent filmmakers to work under the big studios. On the other, the creativity that these young filmmakers were wanting to explode onto the scene fell under strict guidelines. They were allowed to be expressive, but the guidelines stated that a quota of four nude or sex scenes per hour.
Cinema’s were going for a more exclusive business model and with such came a big rise in ticket prices. If anything, this made the convenience of Television all the more convenient especially for the youth demographic, the stories that were being told in Japanese films at the time were either unrelatable or unseeable because of their graphic content. The only films that the youth audience were interested in and would be allowed to see were foreign features and revenue for overseas films overtook revenue from home-grown films.
It wasn’t until 1975 when original content in Japan got more exciting to audiences. Jaws had just been released and was conquering box office records all over the world. The Japanese film studios were scrambling to imitate “The Jaws Effect”. Toho employed an unknown director Nobuhiko Obayashi to make a film that was like Jaws, what resulted was the 1977 horror film House. The screenplay had been on hold for two years as no director at Toho wanted to direct it, seeing the film as a career killer. The few critics who saw the film hounded it, but it achieved cult film status from young adults as the paranormal elements of the film appeal to their imaginative minds after all the surreal ideas came from Obayashi’s daughter.
Young people picking up cameras was a growing trend after the release of House, traditionalism would be put on hold to make way for modernism which would be led by independent filmmakers. This independent movement sparked even more trouble with the big film studio’s who were scrambling around to make the benefits of their financial backings sound appealing. Bankruptcy was starting to become a predictable reality.
Thank you so much for your patience, I am making more of an effort to dedicate more time to completing these posts. Next time we are taking a look at a film industry that is currently the second largest film industry in the world today, yet the majority will have never even seen a film from this country…