Some recent critical work has come to question the perhaps too easy and quick assignation of the term "New Wave" ( Nuberu bagu , nouvelle vague ) to a group of filmmakers who directed their first efforts at Shochiku Studios around 1960, in particular Nagisa Oshima (b. 1932), Masahiro Shinoda (b. 1931), and Yoshishige Yoshida (b. 1933). With some stylistic and thematic similarities to the French and Polish New Waves of this period, such a comparison made sense, if only from the
perspective of public relations and pop journalism. Still, by adding in the contemporaneous efforts by the likes of Shohei Imamura (b. 1926) and Susumu Hani (b. 1928), one can safely claim a historical moment of a clear confluence of interests revolving around the political alignment of Japan with the United States; the alienated state of postwar youth; continued discrimination against Koreans, burakumin (untouchables), and the working poor; women's liberation; and the freeing of film form from the Classical and Postwar masters. And while it has been common to claim this New Wave as cresting in 1960, greater historical distance may reveal that a more interesting and truer "wave" of radical filmmaking came about at the end of the decade, not at its beginning.
The very success of the mainstream Japanese cinema of the 1950s enabled studios like Shochiku, especially, but also Nikkatsu, to allow a greater sense of directorial freedom of expression and the breakdown of classic genres. This was exacerbated when the industry began a steep decline after 1963 due, mostly, to the introduction of television. This new medium rather quickly took away one of the industry's stalwart audiences: middle-class women. One way to try and hold on to their remaining audience was the turn to younger directors and their favored theme of youth. With films like Seishun Zankoku Monogatari ( Cruel Story of Youth , 1960), Furyo Shonen ( Bad Boys , 1961), and Buta To Gunkan ( Pigs and Battleships , 1961), among others, something like a new wave appeared. Alienated youngsters rebelling from middle-class society or unable to enter into the promise of economically resurgent Japan, and a film style characterized by neo-documentary techniques, hand-held camerawork, a rejection of the pictorial tradition, all sifted, many times, through a darkly comic lens, certainly marked a break even from those 1950s youth films that are the clear predecessors of the 1960s new wave. But as the decade wore on and the industry could no longer support the radical efforts of younger filmmakers, and as mainstream audiences continued to desert the Japanese cinema, the industry had reached a crisis by the late 1960s. The Art Theatre Guild (ATG) came to the rescue of many of the new wave filmmakers, introducing new production and distribution patterns into the Japanese cinema. It must be beyond coincidental that the best films of Hani, Shinoda, Yoshida, and even Oshima were made at the ATG, and that even most of their subsequent films take a backseat to the truly original works made there.
The ATG began in the early 1960s primarily as an exhibitor of foreign films—though it did produce Otoshiana ( The Pitfall ) in 1962, the first film of acclaimed independent filmmaker Hiroshi Teshigahara (1927–2001). The distribution and exhibition by the ATG of Oshima's Ninja bugei-cho ( Band of Ninja ) in 1967, produced by Oshima's own Sozosha Corporation, was something of a surprise hit. Oshima used no live action film footage, but "animated" actual manga (comic books/graphic novels) panels by enlarging, shrinking, and superimposing or merely through fast editing of stills. The fact that the audience was that greeted this film enthusiastically was largely young should have been a wake-up call to film producers everywhere, but the ATG was the first to heed it. At this same time, the already well-established Shohei Imamura co-produced Ningen Johatsu ( A Man Vanishes , 1967) with the ATG. The film was a modest success—again with a young, restless audience very much ready to embrace underground art, theater, and cinema. By 1968 the ATG would provide that in abundance. Films like Oshima's Koshikei ( Death by Hanging , 1968) and Gishiki ( The Ceremony , 1971) hit at the heart of Japan's social and familial institutions; his Shinjuku dorobo nikki ( Diary of a Shinjuku Thief , 1968) captured the Japanese 1960s as no other film; and Shinoda's Shinju ten no amijima ( Double Suicide , 1969) and Toshio Matsumoto's (b. 1932) Bara no soretsu ( Funeral Procession of Roses , 1969) and Shura ( Pandemonium , 1971) combined the most traditional of Japanese arts—Bunraku and calligraphy, among others—with a decidedly Modernist approach to film.
The importance of the New Wave in the 1960s should not diminish the significance of more mainstream genres, in particular the male-oriented films directed at young and working-class men. If women had abandoned the cinema in favor of television and the overall more home-centered lifestyle mandated in economically successful Japan, filmmakers turned to the samurai film in increasing numbers. Under the impetus of director Kenji Misumi (1921–1975) and star Raizo Ichikawa (1931–1969), a new youth orientation was introduced into the already nihilistic tale of a possessed ronin in Daibosatsu Toge ( Satan's Sword , 1960) and two sequels (1960, 1961). This same story would be stylishly engaged later in the decade by Tatsuya Nakadai under the sure-handed direction of Kihachi Okamoto (1923–2005) in a version known as Dai-bosatsu tôge ( The Sword of Doom , 1966). Akira Kurosawa contributed to this newly anarchic and violent tendency of the genre turn with Yojimbo ( Yojimbô the Bodyguard , 1961) and Sanjuro (1962), with Toshiro Mifune (1920–1997) as the samurai-with-no-name. The star, Shintaro Katsu (1931–1997), would similarly bring a new dimension to the samurai film, appearing in over twenty films in the decade as the wandering, blind, masseur-master swordsman, Zatoichi. This new-style samurai film prospered into the early 1970s, but by then overexposure on television, the aging of the samurai stars, and the continued decline of the mainstream film industry put a halt to the routine production of these often startlingly original, beautifully realized, artistically surprising genre entries.
Coincident with the new-style samurai film was another male-oriented genre, often filled with more graphic violence than the samurai film. (Though few films can top the Kozure Okami series [ Lone Wolf and Cub , 1970–1972] for sheer swordplay mayhem.) Known as the yakuza (gangster) genre film, it became the staple of Toei Pictures, formed in 1951. A complex morality, sometimes seen as conservative—feudalistic notions of duty, honor, and loyalty predominate—merges with a truly nihilistic flavor, as all values except male bonding and camaraderie are called into question by the time of the (inevitable) violent showdown. The superstar Ken Takakura (b. 1931) is a key figure in the genre, especially with his eighteen-part Abashiri Bangaichi (Abashiri prison series, 1965–1972), as is Bunta Sugawara (b. 1931), especially as guided by the wily veteran director Kinji Fukasaku (1930–2003) in the multi-part Battles without Honor and Humanity series ( Jingi naki tatkai , 1973–1974). By the middle of the 1970s, overproduction, aging stars, and declining production values, as well as yakuza series on television, sheathed the sword of the gangster as it had the samurai earlier.