Mad Dog and I were carrying on one of our tangential movie emails and he happened to pass along this question: what would you put in a Contemporary Japanese Cinema curriculum given 12 weeks and only 1 film per week. It seemed like a fun topic worth some real thought.
My first and most fundamental problem is that I’m just not nearly an expert on
And even considering that my viewing experience may be above-average (still nothing compared to people like Donald Richie or David Bordwell), there are still huge gaps in my education. I still haven’t seen two of
So let’s move on to how I defined the project. I interpreted “contemporary” to mean 1987+, semi-arbitrarily. I didn’t include anything really recent (last five years), because I’ve seen very little of it, have been won over by even less and had no time to seriously ponder almost any.
The list is presented chronologically as 14 films (drop two as you see fit) with each followed by a list of potential discussion topics to guide the classroom lectures. I’ve tried to balance variety, influence and quality. Alternatives are listed in parentheses at the end of each film.
Most of my readers already know I’m a bit of an auteur-theory holdover and so I tried to hit a breadth of great directors without any repeats. If you’re of like mind or just wish to go deeper into the topic of Japanese directors, try my Japanese Directorial History series.
The directors that appear on this list include: Kazuo Hara, Shinya Tsukamoto, Isao Takahata, Takeshi Kitano, Shohei Imamura, Hideo Nakata, Nagisa Oshima, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Shunji Awai, Satoshi Kon, Takashi Miike, Tetsuya Nakashima, Mamoru Oshii and Hirokazu Koreeda. Directors that could just as easily have been included are Juzo Itami, Sogo Ishii, Kenji Fukasaku and Hayao Miyazaki.
Contemporary Japanese Film (1987+)
1) The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On (1987) – Documentary filmmaking and objectivity, post-war reintegration, Japanese politics, dual monarchy and democracy, individual expression and freedom of speech, social etiquette.
2) Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989) – Punk movement and music scene, cyberpunk era, Japanese economic boom and social repercussions, technology dependence and fetishism, independent film movement (alt. Electric Dragon 80000 V).
3) Only Yesterday (1991) – Urbanization, widening country/city disconnect, passage into adulthood, memory, role of women, history of anime, unreliable narrators (alt. Spirited Away).
4) Sonatine (1993) – Yakuza, crime and modern crime films, glamorized violence, cult of personality (Beat Takeshi), pace shifting, Japanese comedy and dark humor (alt. Fireworks).
5) The Eel (1997) – Japanese justice system, post-prison experience, working class experience, human-animal relations, sexual projection, late-life romance, community spirit, remnants of the New Wave.
6) Ring (1998) – J-horror, urban mythology, guilt psychology, branding and franchising, marketing national identity, remakes and transnational cross-fertilization, viral marketing and trailer design, orientalism and the commoditization of exoticism (alt. Ju-on).
7) Taboo (1999) – The samurai genre, codes of honor, male bonding, homosexuality and gender politics, taboos and social discourse, narration and limited omniscience.
8) Charisma (2000) – Ambiguity, surrealism, environmentalism, role of science and religion in society, mid-life crisis, depression, specters of the atom bomb, apocalyptic nihilism.
9) All About Lily Chou-Chou (2001) – Student experience, school and parental pressures, coming-of-age genre, digital filmmaking, millennial malaise, prostitution, fan obsession, otaku subculture, internet message boards texting and changing modern communication, teen crime, epidemic suicide (alt. The Family Game or Suicide Club).
10) Millennium Actress (2001) – Japanese history, history of Japanese theater and cinema, memory vs. history, modernizing mythology and folklore, genre and meaning, romance, progressive anime.
11) Gozu (2003) – Shock cinema, extremism, surrealism and symbolism, trends in modern art films, death culture, media controversy (alt. Audition).
12) Kamikaze Girls (2004) – Aestheticism, buddy films, fads materialism and commercialization, cultural re-appropriation, Lolita fashion and subculture, neo-feminism, post-modernism (alt. Survive Style 5+).
13) Ghost in the Shell 2 (2004) – Post-cyberpunk era, technological society and singularity, science fiction as reality, identity, philosophy as entertainment.
14) Nobody Knows (2004) – Poverty and lower-class life, single-parent families, marginalized communities, early childhood and development, maternity, abandonment, urban survival, hyperrealism.
Now all things considered, what I’m more interested in is older Japanese films, specifically the period from the end of WWII through the Japanese New Wave of the 1960’s. So I’ve presented a second curriculum to feature films leading up to 1967. This one was much tougher to narrow down, but I’ve made the discussion topics more precise.
Directors included are: Teinosuke Kinugasa, Kenji Mizoguchi, Yasujiro Ozu, Akira Kurosawa, Ishiro Honda, Kon Ichikawa, Nagisa Oshima, Mikio Naruse, Yasuzo Masumura, Hiroshi Teshigahara, Shohei Imamura and Seijun Suzuki. It’s kind of like getting to assemble my Japanese director dream team!
Post-War to Japanese New Wave Film (<1967)
1) A Page of Madness (1926) – Emergence of auteur cinema and expressionism.
2) The 47 Ronin (1941) – The samurai genre, defining Japanese history and exploring formalism (alt. Ugetsu)
3) Late Spring (1949) – Domestic middle-class life, changing family structures and mono no aware (alt.
4) Rashomon (1950) – Literary traditions, narrative experimentation and subjectivity (alt. Harikari)
5) Godzilla (1954) – Post-WWII life, anxiety and dealing with the atom bomb
6) Fires on the Plain (1959) – WWII, spirituality and humanism
7) Night and Fog in Japan (1960) – The student movement, disillusionment and the Japanese New Wave (alt. Cruel Story of Youth or A False Student)
8) When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (1960) – Feminism, prostitution and changing social mores (alt. Floating Clouds or The Insect Woman)
9) Black Test Car (1962) – The economic miracle and the rise of corporate culture (alt. Giants & Toys)
10) Woman in the Dunes (1964) – Existentialism and the backlash against the bourgeoisie (alt. The Face of Another)
11) The Pornographers (1966) – Shock cinema, sex and rise of the porn industry (alt. In the Realm of the Senses)
12) Branded to Kill (1967) – Yakuza, crime and the reign of genre cinema
So what about the two decades between 1967 and 1987? It has its share of masterpieces, too, (“Tampopo” (1985) is a particular favorite), but they didn’t come at the same rate. I’ve definitely seen less from Japan in the 1970’s and 1980’s than in other time periods, so that biases me, but it’s undeniable that the industry was going through major shifts that slowed artistic output. Pink films (essential softcore porn, but often an interesting hybrid) were ascendant while the New Wave auteurs slipped out the limelight. It took a generation whose early films were crafted in the 1980’s before Japanese cinema could once again claim a major stake on the international scene.
And for sake of anyone curious as to what a real curriculum looks like, I’m including the list of films I watched in my History of East Asian Cinema class (as best as I can remember) taught by the great Prof. David Scott Diffrient. It covers films from
I was taking this class around the same time I started writing the Film Walrus, so I wrote about many of them in short reaction essays. The links are to way back in my early archives.
Contemporary East Asian Film by Scott Diffrient, 2006/2007:
Black Rain (1989)
Ju Dou (1990)
Farewell, My Concubine (1993)
The Wedding Banquet (1993)
Vive l’Amour (1994)
Good Men, Good Women (1995)
God of Cookery (1996)
Princess Mononoke (1997)
Turning Gate (2002)
Three… Extremes (2004)