Places, Images, Times & Transformations

Three Masters of Japanese Cinema

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After almost a decade "away," Japanese cinema is in the international limelight again. Recent triumphs at Cannes, Venice, Berlin and other festivals have brought a number of Japanese directors old and new to the attention of viewers around the world.

Four examples stand out. Imamura Shōhei's Eel (Unagi) won the Palme d'or for best picture at Cannes in 1997 (The film shared that honor with Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami's Taste of Cherries). Imamura, now in his seventies, has a lifetime of fine films to his credit. Among them, The Ballad of Narayama (Narayamabushikō), also the winner of the Grand Prize at 1983 Cannes. Eel continues the director's longstanding commitment to fiercely candid social critique.

The 1997 Cannes jury also awarded its best first feature Camera d'Or to Suzaku (Moe no Suzaku, 1997) by twenty-eight year old Kawase Naomi. Her work gives promise of a refreshingly innovative approach to the dissolution of a rural family in Japan today. Since then this woman director on the rise has explored issues related to Japanese family life in a number of feature-length films.

The coveted Golden Lion at the 1997 Venice Festival went to Fire Works (Hana-bi) by the enormously popular, multi-talented Kitano ("Beat") Takeshi. He has been active in filmmaking for a number of years. His works are what one critic has called, "innovative, blackly humorous explorations of society's fringes."

Suō Masayuki's Shall We Dance? is still fresh in memory as an international hit in 1996. No wonder it went on to win the National Board of Review Award as the best foreign picture of 1997.

Miyazaki Hayao's animation Spirited Away (Sen to Chihiro no kamikakushi, 2002) made history by earning the all-time highest gross in Japanese cinema. It also won the award for Best Director at the 2002 Berlin Film Festival and more recently won a 2003 Oscar in the Best Animation category.

It is no disrespect to the achievements of Miyazaki and his peers today to say that their successes owe much to their predecessors of half a century ago. Three of those old masters are especially relevant to an educated understanding of today's young masters of Japanese cinema. They are Mizoguchi Kenji (1898-1956), Ozu Yasujirō (1903-63) and Kurosawa Akira (1910-98).

Questions of artistic inheritance can be set aside here in favor of another aspect of continuity too often overlooked: the role those old masters played in building today's vast international audience for Japanese cinema. Most critics agree that Mizoguchi, Ozu, and Kurosawa all did their best work in the 1950s, a decade universally acknowledged as a Golden Age of Japanese Cinema. Fascinating questions flow from that confluence of masterworks. How, for example, did the best of those pictures alert international audiences to the rich heritage of the nation's cinema? How did that generation of directors help elevate Japanese cinema to such a high level of artistry? How did each old master's international career take shape?

These questions have been mulled over by critic after critic in book after book over the years. Some of the best have appeared in English. All, in general, agree that Kurosawa's Rashōmon Ugetsu (1953) and Ozu's Tokyo Story (Tokyo monogatari, 1953) can serve as touchstones of Japanese cinematic art in the 1950s. They also agree that the international audience drawn to these masterworks got more than a superficial exposure to "exotic" Japanese culture--they gained a deeper understanding of the art of cinema itself.

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