8 Classic Japanese Films…That Aren’t About Samurai

Quick, name a Japanese film. “The Seven Samurai,” you say? OK, name another. “Yojimbo?” Uh, huh, fine, let’s try one more time, just give me another. “The Hidden Fortress.” Great, but it really is curious to me that you can’t seem to think of anything other than Kurosawa samurai films. I know Quentin Tarantino and George Lucas interviews make up a substantial/total portion of what you know about Japanese cinema, but –

What?

“My Neighbor Totoro?”

…quiet, I’m trying to make a point here.

But seriously, besides samurai films (chanbara), anime, and the Kurosawa name, it seems like very little of Japanese film culture has made a crossover to America. Sure, J-horror was in vogue for Hollywood remakes for a while, but how many people even bothered to actually go see the originals? Unlike the case with our European cousins, Japanese filmmakers haven’t found a prominent niche Stateside even for the most popular and acclaimed films from their history.

So, I present just a smattering for your consideration – a selection of classic Japanese films that I’ve caught up with recently to prove that there’s something more to their national cinema than ronin and cartoon cats. Although before you ask – there’s still at least a 75-25 chance that Toshiro Mifune will be in anything you see. No matter what.

1. Sansho the Bailiff (1954)

Much of Kenji Mizoguchi’s work is still unavailable in the West, but from 1952 to 1954 he went on a three-film tear that brought him major international acclaim and made his one of the few household Japanese names among American critics. Historical women’s weepy “The Life of Oharu” and eerie ghost tale “Ugetsu” are certainly masterpieces in their own right, but “Sansho the Bailiff” achieves a kind of sublime sadness that Ford Madox Ford would envy. Though it takes place in the same general time period as all those samurai flicks, “Sansho” isn’t concerned with warriors and battle – rather it follows the redemptive path of a young man after he and his sister are kidnapped, separated from their mother and sold into slavery. The fact that the film is named for its primary antagonist is a warning that a cloud of evil and suffering hangs over this film – so it is a miracle when, even amidst the grief, Mizoguchi finds a ray of hope for humanity in a mother’s love.

2. Kwaidan (1964)

Although its segments vary in quality and amount of biwa music (possibly related, inversely), Masaki Kobayashi’s ghost story anthology is consistent in its striking visuals. From a long-haired winter spirit eerily gliding through a room like Belle in Jean Cocteau’s “Beauty and the Beast” (only sans dolly), to the scene above, in which a young musician/monk is covered head-to-toe in written prayers to ward off angry ghosts, Kobayashi’s imagery has a way of insinuating itself into your subconscious. It’s all oddly familiar, as if you’d seen it before in a dream.

3. Pitfall (1962)

While Hiroshi Teshigahara’s later “Woman in the Dunes” is a more polished and thus jstifiably more acclaimed work, I found my thoughts kept going back to “Pitfall,” a bizarre genre-bending vision of the fruitless search for life’s meaning. A migrant worker and his young son wander into a seemingly empty village, pursued by a mysterious figure in white; what happens next is difficult to describe and would not do justice to the film’s perverse pleasure in confusion and frustration – both the protagonist’s and yours. Another ghost story of sorts, “Pitfall” finds its horror more in existentialism than outright scares.

4. Fires on the Plain (1959)

But if we’re going to talk about fear and horror, nothing on this list could top the revolting, all-too-human terrors of “Fires on the Plain.” Kon Ichikawa’s stomach-curdling war film follows a Japanese soldier in the Philippines in the last days of WWII, turned out of the hospital and marching across the island in search of escape or rescue, all while coughing up blood and slowly descending into starvation. Ichikawa’s earlier “The Burmese Harp” (1956) took a far more optimistic view toward the war’s aftermath, suggesting that it was possible yet for the Japanese to find redemption for the vast destruction of the war through spirituality, community and selflessness. “Fires” is the drastically pessimistic alternative, implying that it is perhaps only in death that mankind can escape the barbarism of our own primal instincts.

5. The Pornographers (1966)

The most puzzling experiences I’ve had with Japanese cinema are usually more related to comedy than drama: there is something about humor that often just don’t translate from one culture to another. So I have to say that I’m not sure I have a clue what Shohei Imamura’s dark satire is really all about. Subuyan Ogata peddles in cheap, hastily made adult films, unbeknownst to the family he’s lodging with – a middle-aged woman that Subuyan courts for her money while secretly harboring feelings for her rebellious teenaged daughter. It’ll pretty much affirm every bizarre, perplexing sexual stereotype you have of the Japanese, but “The Pornographers” has some pretty unforgettable elements, including a dead husband reincarnated as a goldfish, a mental hospital freak-out for the ages, and a desperate loner goofily drifting out to sea in a floating shack.

6. Tokyo Drifter (1966)

Imagine if Andy Warhol tried to make a James Bond film and you’re in the ballpark of Seijun Suzuki’s wild, outrageously absurd “Tokyo Drifter.” Bored with the B-material crime flicks he kept getting assigned by his studio, Suzuki started stripping down the genre to its bare bone elements, spending as little screen time as possible actually advancing the plot so he could focus on ridiculous out-of-place musical numbers, maddeningly incomplete but hilarious action sequences, and eye-popping set designs like the one above. The story makes juuuuuust enough sense to glide right over its narrative elisions (a luxury Suzuki completely abandoned with his next film, “Branded to Kill,” which finally got him fired from the studio for “incomprehensibility”), allowing the viewer to just revel in the film’s pop art delights.

7. Floating Weeds (1959)

On the complete opposite end of the spectrum from Suzuki’s erratic jump cuts and fever-dream art direction is Ozu, one of the most soothing and peaceful of all the world’s directors. “Floating Weeds,” its title taken from a colloquialism for itinerant acting troupes, follows just one such group as it finds itself stuck in a rural village. The ensemble’s leader is familiar with the place, having had an affair many years ago with a local woman and even fathering a son by her. The domestic drama that unfolds between this man, his latest mistress (another, jealous actor) and his unwitting son is as quiet, restrained and authentic as only Ozu could be.

8. High and Low (1963)

All right, so I still can’t even completely avoid mentioning Kurosawa. But AK’s contemporary crime thriller, adapted from a pulpy Ed McBain novel, is perhaps not as well known as his chanbara. “High and Low” is essentially divided into two parts: the first taking place in the hilltop residence of profitable businessman Kingo Gondo (yes, Toshiro Mifune) as he and the police deal with the kidnapping and ransom of their chauffeur’s young son; the second following the police’s attempts to find the criminal in the city slums. The procedural second half can’t match the tight-knit suspense and moral conflict of the first (which is so sparse and sharp it would make an excellent play), but at least features some woozy, unsettling visuals in the seedy bars and crackhouses that make up the city’s underbelly.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “8 Classic Japanese Films…That Aren’t About Samurai

  1. LR

    Ethan! It’s Leon ’12, by the way, ex-Northie and your old bumbling teammate from our senior year intramural softball team. I can’t remember the name but I recall Butterfield picking it…but we were definitely a force to be reckoned with when we had B. Smith and B. Kim, Simon and all the others out in the field.

    Anyways, I’m glad to see you’re still practicing your craft even after your tenure at The Amherst Student. I’ve recently been watching quite a few of these old Japanese classics (although most have been about samurai – Seven Samurai, Ran, Yojimbo, the more recent 13 Assassins, etc.) and stumbled across this blog while searching for more “classic Japanese films”.

    You can imagine my surprise when, struck by the quality of the writing and the fact that this blog seems to be updated regularly (unlike so many others that are started then quickly abandoned), I clicked on the “About” tab and saw your name and alma mater. It’s a bit odd how something as expansive as the internet with its thousands of pages of search results can lead someone back to an old acquaintance seemingly at random.

    Through information gleaned from that same tab…Congratulations on your upcoming enrollment at the Tisch School of Arts and it’s good to hear that Apprentice Critic Elaine is also doing well pursuing her masters across the pond at St. Andrews.

    I’ll definitely be bookmarking this blog and checking back in when I can. Clicking around your site, I notice that you’ve been running this blog since we were both still students and there’s something poignant about the fact that I’m just discovering it now almost a full year after our graduation. Kudos to you for keeping it alive for so long; it’s a testament to your respect for cinema.

    Getting back to movies though, I have to tell you that the elegiac Ikiru (1952), directed by Akira Kurosawa, happens to be one of my favorite movies and not just among those produced in Japan. I recommend it if you haven’t seen it (you probably have). There’s an optimism to it that isn’t found in a similar movie that comes to mind – Wild Strawberries (1957), directed by Ingmar Bergman although they’re both great as far as I’m concerned. As you can tell my knowledge of Japanese film is heavily Kurosawa based but that’s what your list is here to remedy, after all.

    Speaking of “My Neighbor Totoro”, I recently saw the heartwarming “From Up on Poppy Hill” also by Studio Ghibli and enjoyed it.

    Until next time, then.

    Oh and if you’re still working at the Amherst Center for Russian Culture and happen to see that crazy old coot Rabinowitz, tell him I say “hey”.

  2. Hey Leon! That’s crazy that you just wound up here by coincidence. It’s encouraging to know that there really are people arriving at my blog for the writing, not necessarily just because they know me.

    A confession: “Ikiru” is my favorite Kurosawa film, I’m fully on board with you there. I would’ve included it here but I’d just watched “High and Low” more recently and wanted to get some thoughts out. If you’re a fan of “Ikiru” and Bergman, I’d heartily recommend you watch some Ozu – it’s really hard to describe how pleasant and optimistic his films are without undermining their brilliance and authenticity.

    I’ve heard some good things about “Poppy Hill” – I’m a big Studio Ghibli fan, so I’ll have to check it out once it’s streaming or on video.

    Glad to hear from you – hope you keep checking in here!

  3. michael siletti

    Looking for the movie about a crime that was witnessed by a crowd in the same place and the same time and everyone who witnessed it told a different story in court.

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