It is arguable that the Japanese cinema of the 1950s is one of the high water marks in the history of world cinema, where Japan achieved a major international presence in film festivals and in art cinemas and solidified a mass audience at home that led to one of the most prolific periods of film production in the world. This Golden Age began innocently enough as, under US Occupation mandate, the Japanese cinema began producing films favoring democracy and women's liberation while rejecting feudalism and militarism. Under such circumstances, the production of jidai-geki took a back seat to films examining postwar realities, though Mizoguchi's take on the famous woodblock ( ukiyo-e ) artist Utamaro, with his Utamaro o meguru gonin no onna ( Utamaro and His Five Women , 1946), managed a deft combination of period exoticism and women's liberation. Akira Kurosawa (1910–1998) examined social problems in films like Shizukanaru ketto ( The Quiet Duel , 1949), Yoidore tenshi ( Drunken Angel , 1948), and Nora inu ( Stray Dog , 1949), while Ozu continued to refine his perspective on the Japanese family in the process of solidifying an increasingly unique and challenging film style in his postwar masterpieces Akibiyori ( Late Autumn , 1949), Bakushû ( Early Summer , 1951), and Tokyo monogatari ( Tokyo Story , 1953). Indeed, one reason for the Golden Age of the 1950s was the manner in which 1930s masters like Mizoguchi, Ozu, Naruse, and Gosho were joined by the growing ranks of a new generation of filmmakers led by Kurosawa and supported by the likes of Kon Ichikawa (b. 1915), Keisuke Kinoshita (1912–1998), and Masaki Kobayashi (1916–1996), among others.
A stellar lineup of movie stars began appearing in such genres as the woman's film, especially variations such as the haha-mono (mother stories), out of which Kinoshita's masterpiece Nihon no higeki ( A Japanese Tragedy , 1953) emerged, and the bar-hostess film, which eventually led to Naruse's sublime Onna ga kaidan wo agaru toki ( When a Woman Ascends the Stairs , 1960). Musicals reappeared in various forms, led by the extraordinary enka (folk) singer Hibari Misora (1937–1989), who appeared in over one hundred films in the 1950s. Tough-guy action stars in the mode of Elvis Presley, like Yûjirô Ishihara (1934–1987) and Akira Kobayashi (b. 1937), gave Nikkatsu a unique form with their action films. Toho Studios struck gold with the atom-bomb allegories in the form of the kaiju-eiga (monster movie), creating, literally, the biggest star of the decade with Gojira ( Godzilla , 1954)—followed by sequels and fellow giant monsters galore. Daiei Studios succeeded in its own way by making films with great domestic box-office appeal while also producing films rather specifically geared for overseas appeal at film festivals and art houses.
Kurosawa's Rashomon (1951), a puzzling film that Toho Studios showed little interest in producing, was made at Daiei to minor recognition at home. But its success at the Venice International Film Festival in 1951 (where it was awarded the Golden Lion) and its Academy Award ® for Best Foreign Film more than made up for any domestic disappointment. The film brought Kurosawa instant acclaim, Daiei a great deal of prestige, and the Japanese cinema the kind of worldwide recognition it had long desired. Daiei embarked on a campaign of producing films with an eye toward film festivals and art theater distribution and met with a good deal of success with Mizoguchi's Ugetsu (1953) and Kinugasa's Jigokumon ( Gate of Hell , 1953). This penchant for producing period films for the export market had the unfortunate consequence of keeping many of Japan's gendaimono from receiving the kind of institutional support required to break out of the domestic market. Thus, Ozu and Naruse, for instance, were little known abroad compared to Kurosawa and Mizoguchi. Nevertheless, with Daiei leading the way, other studios, too, jumped on the jidai-geki bandwagon so that Kurosawa's Shichinin no samurai ( Seven Samurai , 1954) and Inagaki's Samurai trilogy (1954–1956) received both international distribution and prize-winning acclaim. These period films may have functioned to help redeem Japan's image from that of an imperialist power that had waged a bloody and frightful war against its Asian neighbors and against Western powers like the United States and Great Britain. Set in the past, the films clearly removed themselves from the recently completed war and presented images of an exotic culture—colorful costumes, mysterious and beautiful women, elegant interiors decorated with painted screens, and graceful Zen gardens. Yet films like Rashomon , Ugetsu , and Gate of Hell in fact clearly speak to the disaster of the Pacific War—the ruination of Japan's cities; the effects on innocent civilians, especially women; and the trauma of loss and defeat.
By displacing the recent war onto the more distant past, the films could be made palatable to both domestic and international audiences. But no displacement, no tricks, no hidden meanings were required to appreciate the obvious artistry on view. Drawing on pictorial traditions as venerable as sumi-e (black and white ink brush painting), yamato-e (landscape painting in the Japanese style), and emaki-mono (narrative picture scrolls), the Japanese cinema was characterized by a pictorial elegance not seen anywhere else in the world. A propensity for long takes and long shots gave many of the films a stately, leisurely, contemplative pacing that appealed to many young film critics and filmmakers. The creation of mood, of tone, was similarly a unique property of the Japanese cinema. Combined with many theatrical elements, the films presented themselves as the product of a culture that seemed far from the one that waged fierce war on the world. The stylistic experiments of Kurosawa (one of the rare directors who were as comfortable with dynamic montage as he was with long takes) and Ozu (a filmmaker virtually unique, but not sui generis , with his graphic matches, narrative ellipses, dramatic deemphases, and singular thematic concern) grew out of a prolific, varied, and exciting cinematic period. One might argue that it was precisely this combination of art film acclaim and domestic box-office appeal that defines this period as not only a Golden Age of Japanese cinema, but a Golden Age of world-class filmmaking.
Akira Kurosawa was a child when the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 leveled the sprawling city of Tokyo. Thus, Kurosawa grew up in a new, modern Tokyo, but one that never lost sight of its past. This struggle between the modern and the traditional is one of the hallmarks of his films—both in terms of the director's veering between period films and modern stories and the way he highlights the need for certain traditional values within modern society; at the same time he brings a distinctly modern perspective to the venerable period film.
It would be hard to imagine the modern American cinema without Kurosawa's palpable influence, whether in the action staging of Sam Peckinpah, Walter Hill, and Martin Scorsese or the distinctive editing patterns that so clearly set off the films of Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, and Steven Spielberg. And this is no less true of his influence on internationally acclaimed directors ranging from Italy's Western auteur, Sergio Leone, to Hong Kong's master of balletic violence, John Woo. The strategic use of slow motion, the transformation of Sergei Eisenstein's handling of crowd scenes, the use of jumpcuts on movement, the intermixing of long takes and montage, have all entered the lexicon of the modern action cinema.
It is likely that Shichinin no samurai ( Seven Samurai , 1954) is the single most remade and reworked film in all of world cinema, from Hollywood to Bollywood; Rashomon (1951) is as responsible for the modernist move in world cinema as Bergman's Sjunde inseglet, Det ( Seventh Seal , 1957), Fellini's La Strada (1956), or Antonioni's L'Avventura ( The Adventure , 1960); and Yojimbo ( Yojimbo the Bodyguard , 1961) may fairly be said to have relaunched the Western in the 1960s. Similarly, Kurosawa's Shakespearean adaptations— Kumonosu jô ( Throne of Blood , 1957), Warui Yatsu Hodo Yoku Nemuru ( The Bad Sleep Well , 1960), and Ran (1985)—are generally acknowledged as among the finest filmic transformations of the Bard's classics, Macbeth , Hamlet , and King Lear , respectively.
Within the strictly Japanese context, Kurosawa has been one of the few filmmakers willing to tackle an issue generally suppressed in Japanese public art—the atomic bomb. Handled typically by allegory (e.g., Godzilla , 1954) or via the fantastic world of anime, the Bomb has been largely taboo in Japanese cinema. Yet in the middle of his career, with Ikimono no kiroku ( Record of a Living Being , 1955), and near the end, with Hachigatsu no kyôshikyoku ( Rhapsody in August , 1991), Japan's best-known filmmaker squarely confronted Japan's most traumatic experience. Kurosawa's willingness to confront tradition, criticize modernization, and tackle taboo subjects made him the leading filmmaker of his generation, and his unequaled command of cinematic language made him one of the most influential filmmakers in the history of the cinema.
Sugata Sanshiro ( Judo Saga , 1943), Waga seishun ni kuinashi ( No Regrets for Our Youth , 1946), Nora inu ( Stray Dog , 1949), Rashomon (1951), Ikiru ( To Live , 1952), Shichinin no samurai ( Seven Samurai , 1954), Kumonosu jô ( Throne of Blood , 1957), Yojimbo ( Yojimbo the Bodyguard , 1961), Tengoku to jigoku ( High and Low , 1963), Akahige ( Red Beard , 1965), Kagemusha ( Kagemusha the Shadow Warrior , 1980), Ran (1985), Madadayo (1993)
Galbraith, Stuart, IV. The Emperor and the Wolf: The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune . New York: Faber and Faber, 2002.
Kurosawa, Akira. Something Like an Autobiography . Translated by Audie Bock. New York: Knopf, 1982.
Prince, Stephen. The Warrior's Camera: The Cinema of Akira Kurosawa . Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991.
Richie, Donald. The Films of Akira Kurosawa . 3rd ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973.