The great downfall of Japanese cinema and the pitfalls of film history

Versão em português aqui

I was watching a couple of lesser known 90s Japanese classics this morning, Shniji Somai’s The Friends (1994) and Gakuryû “Sogo” Ishii’s Labyrinth of Dreams (1997) it got me to think about film history myths and the way canon building can help in the west.  A major false myth: the downfall of Japanese cinema around 1980. It more or less proposes the lack of new blood on Japanese cinema from this period until more or less large arrival of Takeshi Kitano in the mid-90s (with the talented and mostly very accessible Juzo Itami as the only name to break out all in the middle term) besides some smaller cult corners (anime, horror) that would blow up in the late 90s.  It also goes along with the near death of interest in most late work from veteran Japanese masters that were not named Akira Kurosawa, Shohei Imamura or Nagisa Oshima. How many cinephiles are aware Kaneto Shindo’s last movie is from 2010?  That Masahiro Shinoda was working as long as 2003 or Ichikawa by 2007?

Let me be very malicious here and point out that this fictional downfall happens in parallel with Western criticism increasing interest in Chinese cinema as if it was genuine hard for paying attention to more than one Eastern national cinema (and China actually included 3 to make matters harder).  Is that a fair assortment? Probably not fully, but it is hard to not be suspicious of the apparatus of festival curators, art film distributors (theatrical and home video), international film critics specialized in world cinema and even the academic publishing houses that cover the subject matter. Those places that define what is demeaned important and worth of consideration for “the canon” be it historical or contemporary. It is a cruel system, political and economic, with a lot of consequences like the near erasure of what used to be the most well explored national cinema outside of the US/west Europe axis. By the same observation, it wouldn’t be unfair to point out that American business interests in Japan played a major role in Japanese cinema post war discovery as the obvious high art of Mizoguchi or Kurosawa. Thinking about those matters and how to better trying to move beyond them seem essential for a serious cinephile engagement today, even more because while the internet has certainly made the circulation of less herald films easier, it has also limited how discourse is presented in a way that it exists beyond arrivistic and business like considerations (every film related narrative on the web is only allowed to breathe if its ready to be monetized in one sphere or another).

The notion of the downfall of Japanese cinema didn’t come out of thin air as the local film industry start to move into increasing crisis throughout the 70s and by the early 80s was in enough shambles that was certainly harder to have the same kind of system in place that helped the development of people like Shinoda or Kihachi Okamoto. It is certainly no accident that the major Japanese auteurs discovered in the 80s and 90s, Juzo Itami and Takeshi Kitano, were both very established actors by the time they made their jump into the director’s chair. Still very good work was being made. It took 14 years for western critics to discover Kiyoshi Kurosawa with 1997’s Cure, but his debut Kandagawa Wars (1983) is one of his best films and perhaps stronger critical support would’ve made the first act of his career play less like hit and miss apprentice work. Kurosawa was no mere apprentice, but just someone who was in constant fight with the lesser strata of Japanese film industry waiting for major opportunities.  I’m a firm believer than one of the few relevant contributions film criticism can have is trying to help nurture that kind of marginalized talent.

There’s no lack of strong Japanese movies made during 1976-1995, let’s think of The Man Who Stole the Sun (Kazuhiko Hasegawa, 1979), Muddy River (Kohei Oguri, 1981), Bu Su (Jun Ichikawa, 1987) or March Comes in Like a Lion (Hitoshi Yazaki, 1991) that remain relative unknown outside some cult corners because they failed to have the stamp of major auteurs or critical supporting systems. But things look different when we ask for those that are close to local cinema, when the great Japanese critic Tadao Sato, someone who makes no secret of his love for “classical Japanese cinema” contribute a list of 300 greatest Japanese films in 1995 he still found room for 70 titles from the then past 20 years. It is worth point out that I write none of these words with the superior perspective of a great specialist, but as someone who is trying to study that period, something that might’ve been far more advanced if I hadn’t been told in my youth that it was a major desert.

Going back to my morning viewings, I think it is particularly depressing the film history erasure of the generation of Japanese filmmakers who started filming between the late 70s and early 80s like the aforementioned Somai and Ishii or yet Nobuhiko Ôbayashi and Mitsuo Yanagimachi. This post new wave generation that was long ago demeaned internationally as “unimportant” despite often major acclaim at home. Ôbayashi seems to finally start to build a certain critical cult after a long period of having his entire career eclipsed by his not that characteristic debut Hausu, an experiment in surreal horror imagery that has long been a favorite in certain cycles. I remain always impressed by the relative neglect of Ishii and Yanagimachi who I’d argue have every bit as strong, provocative and formally accomplished as any previous Japanese master. Both artists are very confrontational, Ishii started his career as a literal punk filmmaker and Yanagimachi first two movies are twin works about biker gangs and a radicalized teenage right wing terrorist and both have a similar taste for a depiction of alienation from Japanese society through strong visual rhymes and punishing location work. The threat of danger is always there, today’s Ishii starts from what could be an erotic thriller premise, a woman attracted to a man she thinks might be a serial killer, into an exploration through image terms of allure of violence imagined in black and white tableaux that deal with long inaction blocks, strong ellipsis and use of moving buses that is charged with eroticism and menace, as a pure description of attraction to increasing threat, a death’s climax as few filmed. By the same account there is very few Japanese films as great or as apocalyptical as Yanagimachi’s masterpiece Fire Festival (1985), which comes from the same suspicions about the Japanese economic miracle that was often in the subtext of New Wave films, but from a more violent, satirical perspective with the beauty of nature allowed to slowly give away to blood. 

I’d say there’s no Japanese films that express their society attraction towards anarchy quite like Ishii’s  and none that exposes the reactionary revolt of thei marginalized quite like Yanagimachi’s.  In a perfect world, all those filmmakers would be sitting in the same table as a Shimizu or Shinoda (if not Ozu or Imamura, but they all should to, the pantheon has room to all), one should just start to think more beyond the system that decides what is essential and what is not, something worth ponder about that period of Japanese films, but many other developments in cinema today.  

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