Sunday, April 1, 2007

Japanese Directorial History Part III: Extolling Social and Political Statements (WWII Onwards)

Throughout the 1930s a repressive atmosphere of conservatism and nationalism prevented the film community from actively critiquing the contemporary social and political situation. Theater attendance was severely reduced by the war, and the major studios (Toho, Shochiku, Daiei and Nikkatsu) found success only with escapist entertainment and period pieces that emphasized national pride. There was little room for directors with dissident social or political notions.

After WWII, the US occupation laid down nearly equally repressive rules on the studios and increased the power of trade unions. Topics that were censored included critique of Allied countries and the constitution, militarism, communism, anarchism, the atomic bombs, censorship (ironically) and references to relationships between American soldiers and Japanese women. In response, a large number of directors left the studios to pursue independent production (some even founded the rival studio Shintoho, meaning literally “new Toho”), where they could be more free from government censorship and reprisal.

Kenji Mizoguchi’s feminism is only the most obvious early example of a newfound social awareness amongst important directors and their films. Although initially suppressed, the dropping of the atom bomb and its aftermath became an indelible preoccupation of Japanese culture. By 1950, “hibakusha” cinema (literally, “survival cinema”) came to define the films that tackled the event and its aftermath. Far from the angry, bitter or vengeful response expected by the West, these films are often characterized by a Japanese quality called “mono no aware” or the awareness of the transience of all things. The films were often sad and sympathetic, but rarely accusatory. A less sophisticated and heavily coded alternative treatment can be found in the successful Godzilla monster-movie series of the early 1950s.

1963’s Mantango: Attack of the Mushroom People, like Godzilla, is also highly allegorical. A band of marooned sailors find themselves transforming after contact with mushrooms (read: mushroom cloud), complete with peeling skin, oozing sores and swelling tumors. The film ends with the harsh indictment that despite Tokyo being outwardly aglow with neon lights, inside it is as dead as “the mushroom people.” While the film was still heavily coded and makes plenty of concessions to entertain general audiences, it shows a willingness to wrestle with a cultural subconscious. Later works, culminating in Shohei Imamura’s Black Rain (1989), struggled to deal with the fallout in either a more political or more humanistic ways.

In the immediate post-war period, ruminations on the strictly military consequences of the war were actually far rarer than critiques in other areas, partially due to censorship. Even Akira Kurosawa, later famous in the West for his samurai films, found his first critical successes in the late 1940s and early 1950s with thoughtful dramas that confronted serious social issues. His Stray Dog (1949) presents a prescient advocacy of gun control. Ikiru (1953) confronts inefficiency and corruption in the Japanese bureaucracy. Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1951) even questions the nature of objective reality.

While tackling such issues, Kurosawa also managed to make bold breaks from established narrative methods. Stray Dog incorporates elements of film noir and thrillers, unusual in Japan at the time. Halfway through Ikiru, Kurosawa makes a jarring switch in both time and viewpoint, killing off the main character in the process. Most influential, however, was Rashomon, which tells the same story four times, each from a different subjective perspective that biases a tale of rape and murder in the favor of the current narrator. It became an international success after playing in the Venice Film Festival, opening up the export market for future Japanese films.

Despite the success of such challenging material, the studios regained their foothold in the late 1950s. By 1959 independent production had been entirely eliminated within Japan. Although ticket sales temporarily peaked, studio dominance would not last long, as a new and rebellious generation of filmmakers was soon vying for attention. In 1960, rising director Nagisa Oshima would leave Shochiku after they refused to release his radical, post-anarchic Night and Fog in Japan. Shohei Imamura would leave Nikkatsu the following year after his dark brand of nihilism was rejected by the studio. Oshima’s brutally sexual Cruel Story of Youth (1960) foreshadowed what was to come, ushering in a new era of challenging material, namely: sex and violence.


Mad Dog said...

I still think Ikiru's my favorite Kurosawa film. I can't get my dad to appreciate his non-samurai epic stuff, though. He dislikes Rashomon and I think the only reason he doesn't lay into Ikiru is because he already paid $40 for it. I really can't seem to interest him in Asian cinema that isn't full of period stuff. While we both liked Kagemusha, I found it was for the opposite reasons my dad did. He liked the battle scenes that I thought were interminably long and pointless (especially the end where it just stares at dead bodies for a few minutes). I mean, I really had no clue what was going on when it came to the war stuff in that movie. I far preferred the half of the movie that dealt with the guy having to be the emperor. And I still really wanna see High and Low and Stray Dog. If only Criterion Collection movies were more abundant and cheap. Aside from Chasing goddamn Amy.

FilmWalrus said...

I fully agree that "Ikiru" is Kurosawa's best and probably his most personal. "Kagemashu" is good but I agree that the last third was sort of mindnumbing and unremarkable. I still have a high regard for "Rashomon" (it probably hold the #2 spot) but I haven't seen it in many years.

Definitely check out the Kurosawa noirs you mentioned. They have a special appeal to me due to my noir love, but they are all mildly flawed by excessive length and questionable pacing.

Mad Dog said...

I've found that Kurosawa can make any movie feel three hours long, regardless of length. That's just how long his movies feel.

Patti said...

Hey Brian, you should totally watch Rashomon with me when I get back to the continent. (Oddly, my Cultural Diversity in the Media professor just mentioned the movie in our last class.)