a black and white picture f a scene from the movie Pornographers where the man is looking through a camera, close up to the face

Anthropology: The History of Japanese Cinema and its Ethnographic Aspects

Cinema can be a hobby, a family gathering event, or a first-date activity. In one way or another, it’s always part of our lives. Who doesn’t love watching movies anyway? Films are a way to transfer to another world, to another culture, to someone else’s view which is shared with the audience. It is an escape from when, where and “I”.  Most importantly, it is not necessarily a passive state of being or merely looking at the screen and eating popcorn. It’s like sharing someone else’s reality, and Japanese cinema offers one of the best experiences for its audience.

Films are one of the best ethnographic devices that can zoom into other cultures to show how they spend the day, what they eat or what they talk about. In this article, I will try to walk you through the different eras in Japanese cinema and we will be looking at the world through Japanese lenses.

The movies I will be talking about here have no claims for anthropological research or are not necessarily shot for ethnographic research goals. Yet, they investigate different layers of Japanese society both from national and universal aspects. From this standing point, the rich palette of Japanese cinema seems like an entrance to visual anthropology and a journey into the Japanese mindset.

Cinema and Visual Anthropology

First, I want to mention briefly what kind of films can be classified as anthropological cinema works. In “Film in Ethnographic Research,” Timothy Asch and Patsy Asch talk about a few categories that can be preserved in an ethnographic film archive:

1) Fictional films: All films as cultural products are anthropologically interesting. However, some cinematic works can have more research value. At that point, a gaze from outside can be more determinative. Nationally underrated directors might gain more value in the international domain. For instance, Japanese filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu is one of them.

2) Amateur footage: Missionaries, travellers or government officials’ amateur footage might have ethnographic value.

3) Documentary films: particularly ethnographic films inspiring for future research.

As it is seen here, the definition of ethnographic film can be wide-open, and this article concerns itself with fictional films and their value as cultural products. From now on, I will be discussing Japanese cinema, its basic genres as well as classical and new wave Japanese directors.

a colored picture of a kabuki actor in his red traditional Japanese dress dancing on the snow
A scene from Kon Ichikawa’s An Actor’s Revenge (1963)
Credit: filmfreakcentral.net

Early Years in Japanese Cinema

After Edison Kinetograph was introduced to Japan in 1896, cinema started to be part of Japanese life. The first Japanese films were in the fashion of kabuki theatre, which required singing and dancing as part of the performance. Actors either wore masks or applied heavy make-up, which prevented the actors from getting into the psychology of the characters.

More, dating back to the feudal Tokugawa Period (1603-1867), kabuki-theater had two important concepts. First, there was benshi, the actor who narrated the action. Secondly, onnagata/oyama was a female impersonator played only by men. For some time, benshi reserved himself an important role in films as a voice both for characters and a narrator.

Jidai-geki and Gedai Geki

In 1925, the kabuki-era came to an end. There were two major genres, which focused on certain themes. The first one was Jidai-geki, referring to period films that encompassed the beginning of the Meiji Restoration and the abolition of feudal Japan. Chanbara, or sword-fight film, belonged to this group. Chan-bara came from the swords-sound, and included choreographed fighting scenes of samurai and ronin.

Secondly, gendai-geki referred to the films of contemporary life. In this genre were shoshimin(lower middle-class comedy-drama) and the yakuza-eiga (gangster film). For shoshimin films, the most important filmmakers were Yasujiro Ozu and Mikio Naruse. The main concern of this genre was to show the lives of ordinary people in their daily routine. Thus, the movies progressed at a very slow pace.

a black and white picture of Yasujiro Ozu sitting behind the camera
Yasujiro Ozu
Credit: filminquiry.com

Filmmaker-based analysis

Yasujiro Ozu (1903–1963)

Ozu’s films are one of the last tastes of Japanese family life. As Japan made its way towards modernization, the concept of family life changed too. Ozu’s most well-known film, Tokyo Story (1953), raises this concern: the dissolution of family bonds. Family relationships, especially the one between father and daughter, and the growing gap between generations are the major themes in Ozu’s cinema. Late Spring, Equinox Flower, Early Autumn, and Early Spring are only some of them. As the titles suggest, his movies are about the circulation of life, of seasons, which mark certain periods of human life, mostly marriage in Ozu’s world.

Overall, his movies, as examples of shoshimin, deal with the daily concerns of ordinary people, going to their jobs, coming back, having tea, and enjoying a piece of cake. It is simple but poetic as well. Low height static cameras are Ozu’s favourite to capture people in their daily rush. Most of the time, he places the camera in some corner and lets it do its job, recording the footsteps of the household members, running from one room to another with a range of emotions. If Ozu’s cinema appeals to you, you can check Woojeong Joo’s Cinema of Ozu Yasujiro: Histories of the Everyday.

Mikio Naruse (1905–1969)

Mikio Naruse is another Japanese filmmaker in the tradition of shōshimin. His short-scale film, Flunky, Work Hard!, and his other feature-length films such as Floating Clouds, and Late Chrysanthemums are some of his noted films which got Criterion treatment as well.

Kenji Mizoguichi (1898 –1956)

Mizoguichi is seen as one of the founders of Japanese cinema, whose movies focus on various themes and problems of society, such as the interwar period and male suppression. He is especially famous for the extended long take and use of a static camera.

Among his masterpieces we can count Ugetsu and Sansho the Bailiff, which focus on feudal Japan, the clash of class struggles, poverty, as well as the effect of war on Japan. Additionally, Mizoguichi’s cinema is considered a feminist one, since he is highly critical of misogynism. In his films, women suffer more, but they also act more reasonably than men, much more rational, more capable of surviving, almost compensating for the mistakes of men. This is something we come across in Japanese new wave director Imamura’s films as well, such as The Insect Woman. 

Lastly, if you have an interest in geisha movies, you can check Kenji Mizoguichi’s movies. The Street of Shame, Sisters of Gion, A Geisha, Osaka Elegy, and  Women of Night focus on geisha life and multilateral Japanese society.

Akira Kurasawa (1910-1998)

One of the most classical Japanese directors is without any doubt Akira Kurasawa. Only after Kurasawa’s Rashomon (1950) won the Golden Lion at the Venice International Film Festival in 1951,  Western gazes turned to Japanese cinema. This movie was a turning point for Japan in earning international recognition. Kurasawa shot films which could fall into the category of jidai-geki (e.g. Seven Samurai) and gedai-geki (e.g. Ikiru).

Masaki Kobayashi (1916-1996)

Kobayashi’s 9-and-a-half-hour epic trilogy The Human Condition, focuses on the wartime period in Japan and the character Kaji. As a pacifist, Kaji tries to survive in an oppressive political system. The Criterion collection phrases the main dilemma of the trilogy perfectly: “Constantly trying to rise above a corrupt system, Kaji time and again finds his morals to be an impediment rather than an advantage. A raw indictment of Japan’s wartime mentality as well as a personal existential tragedy, Kobayashi’s riveting, gorgeously filmed epic is novelistic cinema at its best.” In short,  Japanese cinema employs the theme of wartime mentality very frequently and investigates its impact on Japanese society.

Additionally, other than the trilogy, Kwaidan and Harakiri are other significant films by Kobayashi. The first one is a ghost story and a relatively long movie.  As for the jidai-geki film Harakiri,  it is about the samurai moral codes, set in the atmosphere of feudal Japan.

a colored picture of a scene from the yakuza movie called Tokyo Drifter, where two man are shooting and one woman is shot, lying on the floor
A scene from Tokyo Drifter
Credit: reddit.com

Japanese New Wave / nuberu bagu

To start with, the monopolization of power, the heavy impact of urbanization, giant corporations, and the disfiguration of the cities via pollution dragged Japan into a social collapse. The family structure changed drastically. As a result, there was a tendency towards aggression, violence and more sexual expressions. The new context of Japan found embodiment in Japanese New Wave films, starting from the mid-1950s and 1960s. The genre pink eiga emerged. Yakuza movies and horror movies got more wild and distinct. Lastly, among the well-known Japanese New Wave directors we can count Nagisa Oshima, Seijun Suzuki, Hiroshi Teshigahara, Kaneto Shindo, and Shonhei Imamura.

Genre-based analysis

Japanese gangster movies / the yakuza-eiga

In the 1960s, TV was introduced to Japan, which caused a decline in the cinema audience. Consequently, the film studios were in financial trouble. Some had to go bankrupt, while some started to produce films in the exploitation genres. One of these genres was the yakuza-eiga. 

Yakuza films are journeys into Japan’s underworld of criminals. In a way, the samurai were replaced by yakuza gangsters. Seijun Suzuki, the Japanese New Wave director, shot movies in the yakuza genre, such as Tokyo Drifter and Branded to Kill. In addition, a more contemporary figure in yakuza filmmaking is Takeshi Kitano, both director and actor. Hana-Bi (1997) is one of the most important films in this genre, famous for sudden, unexpected movements or attack scenes during the movie, and, of course, Takesho Kitano with his black glasses he barely takes off.

Lastly, another contemporary figure is Sion Sono, known for his subversive movies. Sono’s Why don’t you play in hell?(2013)  is a very modern version of a yakuza film and could also fall into the category of pink film.

Japanese Pink Cinema

Pink Film or pink eiga is used for Japanese pornographic films with theatrical aspects. Beginning in the 1960s and 1970s, small independent studios like Nikkatsu, Toei Company, Shintoho Eiga produced films which included nudity, violence, sexuality and sadomasochism. This movement could be aligned with exploitation or sexploitation films. Koji Wakamatsu, Tatsumi Kumashiro, Noribumi Suzuki are prominent filmmakers of this genre.

Mostly sadist in its nature, pink films are described as a “highly disturbing focus on sexual violence, predominantly against women, and its production of intensely gendered theaterspaces were equally confused and contradictory responses to this experience, formulations of both imagined resistance and vigorous collaboration in the construction of this new Japan” in Alexander Zahlten’s The End of Japanese Cinema.

a black and white picture of a scene from Onibaba, where a woman, wearing a samurai mask standing among the bushes,opening her arms widely
Shindo’s Onibaba
Credit: uturistika.org

Japanese horror

Japanese horror movies employ folkloric elements and supernatural beings such as yokai (ghosts), poltergeists, which make them valuable as cultural products, displaying the ritualized fears of a country. Kobayashi’s Kwaidan, Shindo’s Onibaba (1964) and Kurenoko(1968) as ghost stories are quite impressive works that reflect the Japanese psyche.

To start with, Kobayashi bases his movie Kwaidan on a book called Kwaidan: Studies and Stories of Strange Things, which has several Japanese ghost stories. Though, the first kaidan stories date back to the Edo and Meiji Periods.  Kaidan consists of two words, kai and dan, which mean strange and narrative/ story, respectively. Kobayashi crafts an amazing cinematic work out of these stories, setting them in a surreal atmosphere.

As for Shindo’s Kurenoko and Onibaba, they play with Japanese folkloric elements. In particular, the second one combines Japanese folklore with vampirism and Japanese vengeful ghosts (onryō).

The Kaiju-eiga / giant-monster

Kaiju is a sub-genre of J-Horror, which employs grotesque creatures and monsters in disfigured forms. Godzilla (1954), King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962), Three-Headed Monster (1965), and Destroy All Monsters (1968) are some kaiju films that come in reference to nuclear weapons and atomic bombs. To put it differently, these films are the voices of a nation’s fear that has come alive in the body of a monster.

For the ones interested, Colette Balmain’s Introduction to Japanese Horror Film covers classics of Japanese horror movies, cultural mythology, the impact of J-Horror on American cinema.

a black and white picture of a couple standing under an umbrella, looking at the photo of the vanished man
A Man Vanishes

Japanese ethnographic filmmaking

“For me, the idea for the film lies in its attitude to human beings. In my case, this attitude is one of obsession…. In my work, people take centre stage. I am much more interested in mankind than I am in other filmmakers.” Shohei Imamura

The Japanese director who gets much closer to ethnographic film shooting is probably Imamura Shohei, who has been attracted to working-class people, prostitutes or any marginalized groups of society and their human natures. The Pornographers (1966), subtitled as Introduction to Anthropology, proves his interest in anthropology while the film circulates around a low-budget porno filmmaker. Through the voyeurism of this filmmaker, The Pornographers digs deep to see what lies below the surface of Japanese society.

Furthermore, in “In Search of the Unreturned Soldiers”, which has two versions for Malaysia and Thailand, Imamura travels to foreign countries to interview the Japanese soldiers and their experiences. Additionally, the 1967 production A Man Vanishes composes the documentary and fiction together as it traces a young salesman who disappears suddenly via his fiancé left behind.

The Ballad of Narayama by Imamura

a colored picture of a film affiche on which there is an old lady sitting on the snow on a mountain left alone to die

Lastly, in 1983 Palm d’Or winner Imamura’s The Ballad of Narayama focuses on the Japanese tradition of ubasute, which means abandoning an old woman or old parents. It is a mythical practise which requires old people after a certain age to leave home and go to the mountains to die because they aren’t any use to the family anymore. Imamura adapts this myth through his visual casting of the story. To give voice to Imamura one more time:

“I love all the characters in my films, even the loutish and frivolous ones. I want every one of my shots to express this love. I’m interested in people, strong, greedy, humorous, deceitful people who are very human in their qualities and their failings.”

Japanese Major Film Studios

Nikkatsu Studio:

Nikkatsu is Japan’s oldest major movie studio, founded in 1912. Seijun Suzuki, Shohei Imamura, Toshio Masuda, and Takashi Nomura are some directors who worked for Nikkatsu, producing yakuza films, comedy and drama. In 1970, Nikkatsu entered into the business of pink films, which it called Pink Roman.

Shochiku Studio:

Shochiku is Japan’s second-oldest motion picture company, which produced Japanese New Wave Films with outstanding directors like Nagisa Ōshima, Masahiro Shinoda and Yoshishige Yoshida during the 1950s to 1960s.

Art Theatre Guild (ATG):

ATG is a film production company in Japan founded in 1961 and especially well-known for its Japanese New Wave films. First, it became part of the market as a distributer of foreign films in Japan. Later, with the decline of the major Japanese film studios in the 1960s, it turned its face to an “art house” cinema. In the following years, the company moved into distributing Japanese works rejected by the major studios. Some of the important movies ATG produced are Shōhei Imamura’s A Man Vanishes (1967), Nagisa Oshima’s Death by Hanging (1968), Toshio Matsumoto’s masterpiece Funeral Parade of Roses (1969), and Akio Jissoji’s Mujo (1970).

Studio Ghibli:

In 1985, Hayao Miyazaki, Toshio Suzuki and Isao Takahata founded a Japanese animation film studio in Tokyo. My Neighbour Totoro, Howl’s Moving Castle, Whisper in the Heart, Kiki’s Delivery Service, and  Spirited Away are some of the most noted Ghibli studio films. There is also a Ghibli museum designed by Miyazaki.

If you are looking for more information about Ghibli but also want to watch a movie rather than read something, The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness (2013) is a documentary film about Studio Ghibli by Mami Sunada. You can make a virtual visit to the studio and see how they work and Hayao Miyazaki cooking ramen.

a colored picture of a woman on her knees, stabbing the sword into the stomach of man
Lady Snowblood
Credit: filmcomment.com

Just for fun: Did you know?

  • Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill was an adaptation of Lady Snowblood, a 1973 production of a Japanese jidaigeki film directed by Toshiya Fujita.
  • Satoru Kobayashi’s Flesh Market (Nikutai no Ichiba, 1962), is the first true pink film.
  • Ring and Ju-On: The Grudge are American adaptations of Japanese horror.
  • The Ballad of Narayama has two versions. One of them was shot by Keisuke Kinoshita in 1958, which was shot more in the character of kabuki-theater. The second one, as mentioned, belongs to Shohei Imamura.
a black and white picture of men climbing a hill in a desolated place against a cloudy sky
The Human Condition (1959)
Credit: reddit.com

Significance of Japanese Cinema in Cultural Anthropology

To conclude, starting with kabuki-theater-inspired films, through new wave, yakuza genre and pink film production, Japanese cinema changed its skin constantly to demonstrate the socio-political impacts on society. First, the classical Japanese directors reflected on family life. Later, when the effects of technocratization and industrialization increased, new genres emerged as a response to environmental and sociopolitical changes. Also, directors like Imamura recorded the marginalized groups of society in a more anthropological approach.

Last but not least, horror movies embedded mythological and folkloric elements. As a result, they personalized the Japanese movies in national terms even more. Even though not all movies mentioned in the article have any claim to be an ethnographic work, all of them are cultural products that speak of the changes Japan has been going through.

Works Cited:

Hockings, Paul, eds. Principles of Visual Anthropology. New York: Mouton de Gruyter, 2003.

Zahlten, Alexander. The End of Japanese Cinema: Industrial Genres, National Times and Media Ecologies. London: Duke University Press, 2017.

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