This is a difficult one to tackle. So many Japanese films are about historical subjects, and samurai warriors. In recent years, the animation film industry has been turned on its head by developments from Japan, and a lot of their domestic films are becoming similar in style and content, to American Cinema. The horror film is still widely produced and admired there, and the films are good enough to attract remakes on the other side of the Pacific. It is the home of one of my favourite directors, Akira Kurosawa, as well as one of my favourite actors, Takeshi Kitano. As a result, my research for this small list of recommendations has taken twice as long as usual, and I have tried to avoid the obvious, and frequently seen films, as well as some of the older classics. With some reservations at not being able to suggest a much longer list, here are my five recommendations, from the land of the rising sun.
Onibaba. This is a film from 1964, and is in black and white. I first saw this as a teenager, and recall being somewhat frightened by it, and also left with a sense of unease, yet the impression that I had watched something timeless. Set during the wars of 14th century Japan, this is filmed almost completely in an area of swampy marshland, and amid huge banks of swaying reeds. Left behind by a man’s call to war, his mother and his wife are left to fend for themselves, as best they can. They do this by enticing passing samurai into their small hut, where they kill them, and sell their valuable armour and weapons, to buy food. One day, a handsome young soldier arrives with news, and the whole dynamic changes, as the lonely young wife becomes attracted to him. This is a film that has stayed with me for more than 45 years. Haunting and memorable, and one of the early films to show violence and sex, in a more graphic way. I unhesitatingly recommend it. Here is the trailer, with subtitles, in luxurious black and white.
Princess Mononoke. If you were expecting this grumpy old codger to avoid the Anime films, you would be wrong. This is an epic, overwhelming film, from one of the great Anime film-makers, Hayou Miyazaki. This is far from being a cartoon for the diversion of youngsters, more a sweeping tale on many levels, that just happens to be animated. Dealing with environmental issues, legends, monsters, and fantasy, it is all held together by a surprisingly good plot and script. The pace does not slacken, and the imagery is spellbinding. Please avoid the dubbed version at all costs. Even with Hollywood A-list actors voicing the roles, it just doesn’t work. In the original Japanese, with very good subtitles, it holds a gravitas and dignity that lifts it far beyond its cartoon roots. You can be grown up, be a fan of Cinema, and still get to watch an animation. Believe me, it is excellent. This is the Japanese trailer, without benefit of subtitles. You will still get the idea.
Ran. There had to be a Kurosawa (or two), and this is one of them. Based on Shakespeare’s ‘King Lear’, this 1985 film is made on the grand scale, with a host of extras, huge sets, and eye-popping visuals. Placing the story in war-torn feudal Japan, the King leaves his kingdom to be divided between his three sons, only to find that two of them have conspired to betray the other, as well as their father. Don’t be concerned that you might find the plot dull, and the numerous characters hard to keep track of. This film is all about the viewing experience. Swirling legions of colourful soldiers, burning castles in the mist, and a story rich in betrayal, and redemption, it is simply magnificent. This short trailer will give you a sense of the epic work.
Rashomon. My other choice, from the huge catalogue of Mr. Kurosawa. This is an earlier work, from 1950, and was awarded an Oscar two years later. Filmed in black and white, and starring Kurosawa’s frequent collaborator, Toshiro Mifune, this is set even earlier, in the 11th Century, at a time of both plague, and Civil War. Today, the story seems simple, dealing with a rape and murder, and three alternative views of the event, seen in flashback, as told by different characters. At the time of this film’s release, such a plot construction was unknown, and it received immense critical acclaim. Most stories of this nature filmed since, certainly owe their origins to this startling original. With twists and turns, tension, action, and brilliant direction at all times, this film is rightly considered for inclusion in the ‘Masters of Cinema’ DVD series. This is the trailer.
Zatoichi. The fable of a legendary blind swordsman, many different versions have been filmed in Japan. This is the 2003 film, directed by Takeshi Kitano, who also stars in the lead role. I cannot think of any reasons to dislike this film, as it has something for everyone. Samurai warriors, Geisha dancers, (who are not all what they might seem) as well as some very eccentric characters, a smattering of comedy and slapstick, and not least the wry acting, and witty portrayal of Zatoichi, by Kitano himself. It works on any level you can imagine, as he deals with some nasty gangs running a protection racket, and some murdering bandits into the bargain. A feel-good film with a legendary ending; just don’t turn off before the credits! Here is a short clip, featuring Takeshi Kitano.
There is my selection from Japan. Just to prove that it is not all horror, or ‘Seven Samurai’, I have tried to make it as varied as possible. Of course, there are many fine dramas that I have had to leave out, as well as many other monumental epics. Once you have sampled some of these, I hope that you will go on to explore many more.