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24 Reasons Why the “Golden Age” of Japanese Film Really WAS Golden (Part II)

Updated on November 22, 2014

(This is the second part of a five-part series. Part I is here.)

The great Takashi Shimura in Kurosawa's Ikiru (1952)
The great Takashi Shimura in Kurosawa's Ikiru (1952)

5. Ikiru [To Live] (Dir: Akira Kurosawa, 1952)

Kurosawa biographer Stuart Galbraith IV has written of this film: “The effect Ikiru can have on audiences is almost religious. Is it possible to watch Ikiru and not have it change you?” Well, probably not, for it is one of the two best Japanese movies ever made on the subject of death (the other being Tokyo Story, see below). An uncredited rewrite of Tolstoy’s great short story The Death of Ivan Ilyich, the plot is about a useless bureaucrat named Watanabe (Takashi Shimura) who discovers to his horror not only that he’s dying of cancer, but that he’s been spiritually and mentally dead for decades. The director rescues the movie from the bathos that so often sinks dramas about terminal illness by not hesitating to make fun of his hero. As his autobiography makes clear, Kurosawa hated bureaucrats, and so was perfectly willing to let Watanabe pass through hell before permitting him one last, noble deed. The film is full of great tragicomic set pieces, like the scene in which Watanabe tries to communicate his anguish to a young female co-worker (Miki Odagiri) in a restaurant while a teenage girl’s lively birthday party is going on in the background, or the climactic wake sequence, in which Watanabe’s colleagues drunkenly promise to follow his heroic example… promises completely forgotten in the sober dawn of the following day.

Kinuyo Tanaka as the title character in Mizoguchi's The Life of Oharu (1952)
Kinuyo Tanaka as the title character in Mizoguchi's The Life of Oharu (1952)

6. The Life of Oharu (Saikaku ichidai onna) (Dir: Kenji Mizoguchi, 1952)

Very few major film artists have produced their finest films at the tail end of a long career. The most inspiring example of such a director would have to be Kenji Mizoguchi. Mizoguchi, who died in 1956 at age 58, began an amazing four-year streak of masterpieces with this 1952 period film. The story, adapted from a tale by 17th Century writer Iharu Saikaku, is a grim chronicle of incredible degradation: by slow degrees, Oharu (Kinuyo Tanaka) descends from elegant court lady to decrepit old hooker. The causes of the heroine’s misery are, as usual with Mizoguchi, incorrigible male chauvinism and rotten luck. (The few good men she falls for have a nasty habit of getting themselves killed.) With marvelously fluid camerawork by Japan’s best cinematographer, Kazuo Miyagawa, the film’s cool, distancing style owes much to the influence of the great German director F.W. Murnau. The movie is thus paradoxical: though its content is depressing, its tone is imperturbably calm, almost serene. Many directors have attempted the theme of redemption, but the final scene of The Life of Oharu is one of the few instances in which a filmmaker completely pulled it off.

Chishu Ryu and Setsuko Hara in Ozu's classic Tokyo Story (1953)
Chishu Ryu and Setsuko Hara in Ozu's classic Tokyo Story (1953)

7. Tokyo Story (Tokyo monogatari) (Dir: Yasujiro Ozu, 1953)

The year 1953 represents to Japanese films what 1939 does to Hollywood: the artistic peak of a great national cinema, to be recalled nostalgically ever after. And the highest achievement of that year is Ozu’s Tokyo Story, the director’s most profound exploration of his obsessive subject – the family. This is one of only three Japanese movies – the other two, Rashomon (see Part I) and Seven Samurai (see Part III), are both by Kurosawa – that belong to world cinema more than to their native country. The deceptively casual plot focuses on an elderly provincial couple (Chishu Ryu and Chieko Higashiyama) who visit their children in the city (Sô Yamamura and Haruko Sugimura) and discover they are merely a burden to them. Only their widowed daughter-in-law Noriko (Setsuko Hara) is gracious and kind. This is that rare film that steadily grows in depth and meaning while we’re watching it, accumulating by the final scenes an exceptional dramatic power. The late Roger Ebert wrote that, in his long experience as a critic, Tokyo Story made audiences cry more than any other movie. I can readily believe that: the penultimate scene, in which the old father finally acknowledges Noriko’s kindness, always turns this viewer to jelly. Strangely, it was only when I began to read about Ozu’s work in film books that I realized how bizarrely abstract his visual style is. Ozu’s secret – the art by which he combined an almost Bach-like rigidity of form with warm, rich and accessible human content – died with him.

Ghost love is tough: Masayuki Mori and Machiko Kyô in Mizoguchi's Ugetsu (1953)
Ghost love is tough: Masayuki Mori and Machiko Kyô in Mizoguchi's Ugetsu (1953)

8. Ugetsu (Ugetsu monogatari) (Dir: Kenji Mizoguchi, 1953)

This film, Mizoguchi’s most famous, is Japanese Cinema’s most celebrated ghost story… but it’s also so much more than that. Drawn equally from Japanese author Akinari Ueda and French writer Guy de Maupassant, the narrative, its supernatural theme aside, serves as a savage critique of feudal Japan and a devastating indictment of war… and of the male vanity that makes war possible. More than in any other of his movies, Mizoguchi demonstrates here his genius for creating magical, haunting images out of practically nothing. In one famous scene, the main characters, sailing in a boat over a lake towards a nearby town, emerge slowly out of the fog like phantoms. The image is one of the simplest yet most effective evocations I’ve seen on film of the world of dreams. The director obtains masterful performances from Kinuyo Tanaka, Masayuki Mori, Machiko Kyô (as a beautiful ghost) and Eitarô Ozawa. But the best acting here may well be that of Mitsuko Mito as the embittered wife of a childlike man who yearns to be a war hero and, as in a fable, fulfills his wish. The memorable final scene is both beautifully serene and indescribably creepy.

Keiji Sada and Yûko Mochizuki in Kinoshita's A Japanese Tragedy (1953)
Keiji Sada and Yûko Mochizuki in Kinoshita's A Japanese Tragedy (1953)

9. A Japanese Tragedy (Nihon no higeki) (Dir: Keisuke Kinoshita, 1953)

Some directors are versatile just to show us how clever they are. Keisuke Kinoshita was versatile because he had too much to say as an artist to confine himself within only one genre or style. Just two years after filming his classic 1951 comedy Carmen Comes Home (see Part I), he created this somber drama about a mother, Haruko (Yûko Mochizuki), who sacrifices everything for her son (Masami Taura) and daughter (Yôko Katsuragi)… and who is then rejected by them. (Did it ever not suck to be a Japanese woman?) Kinoshita presents this tale as symptomatic of the corruption of postwar Japan, and includes newsreel footage to make his point. However, he never makes the mistake of portraying the mother as a saint; she’s actually a weak, fallible creature that any normal child might well be ashamed of. And these two children, bitter survivors of the recent war, are anything but normal. They look and act like aliens out of Village of the Damned: cold, empty, heartless. The narrative suffers from some structural problems, such as a subplot involving the daughter and a married teacher that draws attention away from the main theme. But Kinoshita, by the end of the picture, gets it together for a climax as shocking and inevitable as any classic tragedy.

(Continued in Part III)


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