Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Japanese Directorial History Part V: Embracing Postmodernism (1980s Onwards)

The 1980s saw the momentum of the Japanese New Wave dissipate. Nagisa Oshima moved on to explore other areas, including the homosexual equivalents of many of his earlier themes in films like Taboo (2000), and Shohei Imamura even went on to win his second Palme d’Or at Cannes with 1997’s The Eel, but the directors no longer possessed the camaraderie of a cohesive movement. For fresh talents to rise up, new strategies had to be adopted. Within the postmodern milieu of the early 1990s, new talented directors found their own paths to artistic realization through such diverse methods as shock cinema, anime and television crossover.

One niche market that rose out of the 1980s and achieved wide-spread commercial success was anime. The unique style of Japanese animation frequently focused on science fiction themes like space travel and “mecha” (giant robots with human pilots), but quickly branched out to include genres like the school drama and samurai epics.

The concept found fertile ground on both TV and the big screen, where it held a special attraction for the male teen demographic. Anime also found an American audience with the international success of Akira (1987). While the film was fictional, it nevertheless revealed that the specter of the atomic bomb still haunted Japan and continued to capture the imaginations of popular culture. By the mid-1990s, anime had already developed a unique vernacular of conventions and stereotypes, with films only rarely subverting audience expectations. This was not the case, however, with Satoshi Kon, a director who brought provocative messages and unusually mature themes to the anime industry.

Perfect Blue (1997) takes an exhilarating but frightening look at a young girl’s pop music success and the dangerous byproducts of celebrity status. Tokyo Godfathers (2003) turns three homeless social-outsiders into unlikely heroes, in a sensitive retelling of the Nativity. The finely-crafted Millennium Actress (2001) follows an actress through her remarkable life and starring roles as she seeks an illusive love she met briefly as a child. This post-modern, nonlinear retrospective of Japanese political and cinematic history told through the eyes of a dying individual, encapsulated the ease (thanks to VHS and DVD) with which directors could mine the past for modern purposes.

Before the advent of home video technology, directors (and audiences) were restricted in their influences and their understanding of film history as a cultural lineage to only those films they saw in theaters. The 1990s saw the rise of a new generation of filmmakers who were familiar with Japanese films from before their births as well as international cinema not considered profitable enough for domestic theatrical screenings.

Next to anime, one of the most successful niche markets of the late 20th century was shock cinema. This trend in Japan (and Asia at large) is, in many ways, the logical successor of the envelope-pushing 1960s and 1970s. However, far from merely including controversial levels of sexual frankness and blood as a means of artistic expression, shock cinema fore-grounded controversy as its essential goal. Interpreting shock as anything from sudden movements and loud noises to eye-searing images of torture, mutilation and rape, the movement largely flaunted its disturbing taste and indigestible material.

By 1995 director Takashi Miike had already became an international icon for shock cinema, but with Audition (1999), he also gained critical success for his biting satire of reality television and his blend of Lynch’s style and Suzuki’s genre irreverence. He would become Japan’s most prolific contemporary director with a string of cult hits that included Dead or Alive (2000), Ichi the Killer (2001), The Happiness of the Katakuris (2001), Gozu (2003) and The Great Yokai War (2005).

Clearly directors in the 1990s had to concern themselves with television, whether they loved it (anime) or hated it (Audition). Thanks to cable and satellite, TV had become the most powerful media format in Japan. It is therefore not altogether surprising that one of Japan’s most recent directorial talents came from a television background.

“Beat” Takeshi Kitano started with a comic debut on TV’s “Rival: Big Laugh” in 1975, and by the late 1990s, he could be seen on as many as seven primetime shows per week. From 1990 to 1995, he was voted Japan’s most popular celebrity by NHK’s annual broadcasting poll [Abe, xiii]. With money to burn and a remarkable amount of energy, Kitano made deliberate, moody yakuza films like Violent Cop (1989), Sonatine (1993) and Fireworks (1997) that switch disconcertingly between slow meditation and blinding action.

Although Kitano often directed, produced (through his company, Office Kitano), starred, wrote, edited and provided artwork for his films, they never received much respect or attention within Japan, where he was still considered a TV star first and foremost. Internationally, Fireworks won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, and Kitano became highly admired in the West for his provocative stories of urban alienation and violent pursuits of redemption.


Modern television, shock cinema and anime might seem to have very few similarities with the films of Ozu and Mizoguchi, but Japanese directors throughout the last century have all shared the drive to perfect a personal and meaningful art form. Their history is a long chain of workings and reworkings of the filmic medium to suit new generations and individual visions. They have frequently resisted studios, fickle audiences and generic labeling.

For maintaining their artistic integrity, history (and film scholars) will remember them. Glorified combinations of financial and critical success have been rare, but it is impossible to see these directors as failures: they managed to bring so many masterpieces to the screen under varied and difficult conditions. It is impossible to predict what will come next in the development of Japanese film, but certainly there are still unexplored artistic regions to map and willing talents yet to be discovered.


Mad Dog said...

A nice overview of the output from Japan, I have to say. I've been a bit squeamish about checking out Audition. Is it really good enough to seek out, even with all the probable terrible gore? I heard about a nipple-slicing scene in Ichi the Killer and was never able to get the balls to check that out, either. Oddly enough, Ichi the Killer got an anime prequel. If you like the abrupt departure that Satoshi Kon has from his anime peers, you should check out more from the director Masaaki Yuasa, the guy that did Cat Soup. He has a few more titles under his belt now, with the movie Mind Game and the anime TV series Kemonozume. Mind Game is a movie about a guy that gets killed in a rather embarrassing and obscene way and all the metaphysical/philosophical stuff that occurs from it. I haven't seen it myself since I keep crossing my fingers for an American release, but fansubs are rampant on the Internet, and the illustrious Yoko Kanno even drops in for a track on the soundtrack. Kemonozume I've actually seen some of. It seems to be about two groups in modern Tokyo: man-eating monsters that can take the guise of humans and the monster hunters that oppose them. There seems to be a new type of monster that doesn't revert back to its monster form once killed and the hunters are getting all up in a tizzy about it. And then, of course, the heir to the mantle of leading the hunters finds a way to fall in love with one of the enemy, causing an appropriately Romeo and Juliet-type of reaction from their compatriots. Both of them have a much sketchier look than Cat Soup, and Kemonozume still has the spirit of experimentation that the director had in Cat Soup. The simple (sometimes even ugly) designs mean that more time can be put into animating them, so there's some scenes of fluid animation (one involving a pissed off monkey and a peach) that are able to both impress and amuse. I haven't finished it yet (I left it on the computer at home) so I can't vouch for how it turns out, but the two or three episodes I saw so far were rather solid. It seems that Masaaki Yuasa also has a talent for traditional direction as well, since the romantic scenes between the two leads feel remarkably natural and touching (not to mention the show's probable late-night timeslot means it can get a lot closer to showing sex than most other TV anime). I really wish there was more of a movement towards original animated feature films in Japan, though. Most feature films I seem to get wind of are adaptations of TV series (I think there's been a Pokemon/Detective Conan/One Piece/Doraemon movie every year since each series' premiere). If it's not an adaptation, it's a Ghibli film, and what is that studio going to do once Miyazaki kicks the bucket (more likely than retirement, at this point)? They've had a few features helmed by different directors, but nothing major. The last major departure from the Miyazaki/Takahata schedule of releases was Tales from Earthsea which got panned. Then the other type of animated movie that seems to get released over there are big animated epics like our summer blockbuster movies. The most recent of these being GONZO's (a studio known first and foremost for their abundant use of 3D CG) first feature film, Origin, which by all accounts is beautiful, preachy and vapid. Even Kon's off day (Tokyo Godfathers, IMO) is better than some of this stuff coming out. A glimmer on the horizon of animated movies not fitting any of these categories is the omnibus Genius Party, with contributors consisting of the freshest and most respected minds in the animation biz (Cowboy Bebop's Shinichiro Watanabe included) coming up with basically whatever they want. It comes out this year in Japan, but the first American showing isn't scheduled until 2008. I'm mostly interested in this to see if Watanabe can recover from the half-great/half-boring mish-mash that was Samurai Champloo and remind me why he's responsible for some of the best anime in the past decade (let's not forget Macross Plus). If you do a search for Genius Party, though, you can find their bilingual homepage and peruse some of the other directors attached to the project, some of which look very intriguing. Satoshi Kon alone can't save anime from its own conventions, after all.

FilmWalrus said...

Lots to respond to.

Worth checking out in my opinion as it is one of the more famous, thoughtful and coherent Miike films. I am not generally a big fan of him. The gore is easily within your tolerance (I would guess) although there are a couple nasty moments.

Masaaki Yuasa:
I look forward to any of his works. You know how much I fell in love with "Cat Soup."

Oshii live-action trilogy:
You mentioned these earlier in the JDH series and I've also had lots of requests to watch them from my friend Dan. I think we are watching the first one tonight (4/4/07). I will have to discuss them with you either by posting a review or chatting on AIM/phone.