The film industry in Japan began a decline in the early 1960s that was staved off by the occasional blockbuster hit; the long-running film series (for example, It's Tough To Be a Man [ Otoko wa tsurai yo , 1969–1995]); or the intervention of independent financing, such as that of the ATG. Nevertheless, by the middle of the 1970s, the Japanese cinema was a shell of its former self, more footage being devoted to the genre of the roman-poruno (romantic-pornography) than all other genres combined. In the late 1960s a group of younger filmmakers, such as Koji Wakamatsu (b. 1936), utilized the genre to inject the youthful politics of the New Wave into films like Violated Women in White ( Okasareta byakui , 1967) or Tenshi No Kokotsu ( Ecstasy of the Angels , 1972). Nagisa Oshima took the genre to its logical heights of hard-core pornography with Ai no Corrida ( In the Realm of the Senses , 1976), whose graphic imagery and challenging sexual politics netted the film worldwide acclaim and controversy. The rare breakout hit from the roman-poruno world and the occasional film by Kurosawa, Imamura, and Shinoda could hardly lay claim to being any further Golden Age or New Wave–like excitement, while only a small handful of new directors emerged in the 1970s and 1980s to launch the Japanese cinema into any new areas, to find new audiences, and to garner much new respect. The situation in the 1980s was so very dismal that critics have come to call this the "lost decade" of the Japanese cinema.
If Akira Kurosawa is generally credited with introducing Japanese cinema to the West with his Rashomon in 1951, perhaps Toshirô Mifune should be credited with making it welcome. He was to the Japanese cinema what Marlon Brando was to Hollywood in the postwar era, a dynamic force to be reckoned with, and it is perhaps this resemblance to Brando—in spirit and dynamism—that enabled films like Rashomon and Shichinin no samurai ( Seven Samurai , 1954) to win popular acclaim and Academy Awards ® .
Mifune is most associated with Kurosawa, though he was a favorite actor of other major Japanese filmmakers, especially Inakagi Hiroshi. Still, it is undeniable that the sixteen films he made with Kurosawa have entered the annals of world film history as an unmatched body of collaborative work. He rocketed to stardom in Kurosawa's Yoidore tenshi ( Drunken Angel ) in 1948 and then appeared in every Kurosawa film from 1949 through 1965, save for the subtle Ikiru ( To Live , 1952). While perhaps best remembered for the boisterous, youthful energy displayed in films like Nora inu ( Stray Dog , 1949), Rashomon , and Shichinin no samurai ( Seven Samurai , 1954), or the complete power and command he shows in films like Kakushi-toride no san-akunin ( The Hidden Fortress , 1958), Yojimbo ( Yojimbo the Bodyguard , 1961) and Sanjuro (1962), his range as an actor might be unsurpassed in the entire Japanese cinema. He could play a mature doctor as early in his career as 1949 with Shizukanaru ketto ( The Quiet Duel ) or as late in his relationship with Kurosawa as Akahige ( Red Beard ), released in 1965. He is desperately romantic and helpless in Donzoko ( The Lower Depths , 1957); aging, weak, and tortured in Ikimono no kiroku ( Record of a Living Being , 1955); a successful businessman who loses everything in Tengoku to jigoku ( High and Low , 1963); and as a tormented and remorseful man in the Hamlet-derived Warui Yatsu Hodo Yoku Nemuru ( The Bad Sleep Well , 1960), not to mention being acclaimed as one of the finest incarnations of Macbeth in Kumonosu jô ( Throne of Blood , 1957).
With appearances in Hollywood films like Grand Prix (1966) and Red Sun (1971), it seems that Hollywood was trying to create its first Japanese star since Sessue Hayakawa in the silent era. Mifune's poor English perhaps got in the way (his voice is dubbed in the Word War II epic Midway , 1976), but it is also likely that his portrayal of a taciturn warrior capable of incredible and explosive violence paved the way for another Asian star, Bruce Lee, to break through into the American market just a year or so later. Over the course of his fifty-year career, Mifune appeared in over 180 films, a testament to his neverending hard work and timeless appeal.
Rashomon (1951), Shichinin no samurai ( Seven Samurai , 1954), Miyamoto Musashi ( Samurai, Part I , 1954), Muhomatsu no issho ( The Rickshaw Man , 1958), Yojimbo ( Yojimbo the Bodyguard , 1961), Akahige ( Red Beard , 1965), Grand Prix (1966), Red Sun (1971), Midway (1976)
Galbraith, Stuart, IV. The Emperor and the Wolf: The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune . New York: Faber and Faber, 2002.
The social satires of Juzo Itami (1933–1997), the son of the pioneer filmmaker Mansaku Itami (1900–1946), stand alone as a directorial achievement in this lost decade. Certainly Tampopo ( Dandelion , 1985), Itami's breakthrough hit in world cinema (though the film was by no means a hit in Japan), is a worthy successor to the stylish delights of Ozu and Kurosawa, by way of the Hollywood Western. Yoshimitsu Morita's (b. 1950) Kazoku gêmu ( Family Game , 1983) similarly struck universal chords with its darkly comic examination of the pressures exerted on the middle-class family by the
notorious Japanese educational system. But such films were too few and far between. Only anime (Japanese animation) proved to have the sort of mainstream, blockbuster appeal on which the industry once routinely counted. With feature films, television series, and direct-to-video offerings, anime came to dominate the industry the way roman-poruno had a decade earlier. (The genre had turned to direct-to-video marketing by the late 1980s, and for better or for worse, little of it was made for the theatrical market.) Even after a mini-renaissance beginning in the mid-1990s, anime 's hold on the Japanese imagination remains unbreakable, with director Hayao Miyazaki continually breaking box-office records with films like Mononoke-hime ( Princess Mononoke , 1997), Sen to Chihiro no kamikakushi ( Spirited Away , 2001), and Hauru no ugoku shiro ( Howl's Moving Castle , 2004).
Live-action cinema began its slow reappearance with the emergence of a new generation of filmmakers—trained completely outside of the traditional assistant director system—supported by entirely different modes of production. Indeed, in large measure, renaissance Japanese cinema of the 1990s is a strictly independent movement. With backgrounds in television as performers or directors, in music-video production, in film school education, or in amateur filmmaking, members of this new generation, like its New Wave predecessors, rely largely on the youth audience to support its modest efforts. Some of these films have found their way into the international film festival/art cinema market, but without sacrificing the small, but devoted, domestic audience.
The cinema has largely resurrected itself on the strength of film genres with both domestic and global youth appeal. The horror film, in particular, brought to new heights of attention by the subtle and stylish works of Kiyoshi Kurosawa (b. 1955)—such as Kyua ( Cure , 1997), Karisuma ( Charisma , 1999), and Kairo ( Pulse , 2000)—was extended for the video-game generation with films like Ringu ( Ring , 1998), Ju-on: The Grudge (2000), Honogurai mizu no soko kara ( Dark Water , 2002), and numerous others. The Hollywood remakes of these films attest to their universal appeal and have garnered the Japanese originals perhaps even greater attention. Along with the horror film, the action film has taken pride of place in the commercial independent cinema, especially the outré films of Takashi Miike (b. 1960). While he has worked in many genres (including a horror-musical, Katakuri-ke no kôfuku [ The Happiness of the Katakuris , 2001]), his greatest cult success has been with a series of incredibly high energy, ultra-violent gangster films that begin where John Woo's Hong Kong films left off. Films like Gokudô sengokushi: Fudô ( Fudoh: The New Generation , 1996), Hyôryû-gai ( City of Lost Souls , 2000), and Koroshiya 1 ( Ichi the Killer , 2001) bear little resemblance to the yakuza films of Ken Takakura and Bunta Sugawara, and if they seem less specifically Japanese, it is partly because times have changed and Japan is, in every respect, imbricated at the highest levels in global popular culture. Indeed, it may be that the Japanese cinema has lost its particular "flavor" in the postmodern era, although the occasional throwback film like Hirokazu Koreeda's (b. 1962) Maboroshi no hikari ( Maborosi , 1995) or the increasingly important and impressive oeuvre of Takeshi Kitano (b. 1947), especially his Hana-bi (1997), continue to remind the world of the cultural traditions that underline one of the world's most unique and most successful filmmaking nations.
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