Essential Japanese New Wave Films

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“As Touch of Evil is to classical film noir, so Vengeance Is Mine is to the Japanese New Wave,” Slant Magazine’s Clayton Dillard wrote of Shôhei Imamura’s 1979 film, which arrived on Blu-ray from Criterion this week. “Each film retrospectively serves as the apotheosis for the style or movement, encapsulating many of the aims and concerns of films from the previous two decades into a singular, reflexive work.”

Catch-all terms like “New Wave” can be confusing, but in this case I’m referring to the cinematic movement in Japan during the late 1950s and into the ’70s. Comparisons to the familiar French New Wave period, which developed during the same time, are inevitable. And many Japanese New Wave filmmakers were influenced by directors such as François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard. But as author and editor David Desser wrote in his indispensable book Eros Plus Massacre (borrowing its title from the canon):

To see the Japanese New Wave as an imitation of the French New Wave fails to see the Japanese context out of which the movement arose. While the Japanese New Wave did draw benefits from the French New Wave, mainly in the form of a handy journalistic label which could be applied to it (the “nuberu bagu” from the Japanese pronunciation of the French term), it nevertheless possesses a high degree of integrity and specificity.

Here are a few essential titles that explore key themes from the Japanese New Wave movement.

Funeral Parade of Roses

Art house cinema meets quasi-documentary meets exploitation freak-out in Toshio Matsumoto’s utterly Oedipal film Funeral Parade of Roses. The word “roses” here refers to the transgender and drag characters who populate the film’s main setting: Tokyo’s underground nightclubs. Frenetic editing, breakneck montages, on-screen text, and other effects call back to Matsumoto’s early experimental film career. It’s said that Stanley Kubrick modeled Malcolm McDowell’s Alex and his droogs after Funeral’s youth gangs. “I wanted to make a kind of experimental, dramatic film that had not existed before, I was provocatively raiding the fiction film world as a guerrilla,” Matsumoto stated in an interview for the Yamagata Film Festival. “Thus in this project, my creative intent was to disturb the perceptual schema of a dualistic world dividing fact from fiction, men from women, objective from subjective, mental from physical, candidness from masquerade, and tragedy from comedy.”

Woman in the Dunes

Woman in the Dunes is a modern version of the myth of Sisyphus, the man condemned by the gods to spend eternity rolling a boulder to the top of a hill, only to see it roll back down,” Roger Ebert wrote in his 1998 review of Hiroshi Teshigahara’s award-winning adaptation of Kobe Abe’s novel. Trading rock for sand, Teshigahara depicts the complicated relationship between an entomologist and a widow who are forced to live in the bottom of a sandpit where they routinely shovel sand to stay alive. Ebert concluded: “Unlike some parables that are powerful the first time but merely pious when revisited, Woman in the Dunes retains its power because it is a perfect union of subject, style and idea. A man and a woman share a common task. They cannot escape it. On them depends the community—and, by extension, the world.”

In the Realm of the Senses

“Nothing interests me quite as much as approaching the various forms that love can take with people who can only be saved by that love,” Nagisa Ôshima expressed in a 1978 interview. Based on the real-life, oft-mythologized story of Sada Abe, who murdered her lover, In the Realm of the Senses depicts love and sexual obsession as both redemptive and combustive. Ôshima’s film features several scenes of unsimulated sex between actors. The director brazenly addressed cultural and political contradictions in postwar Japanese society throughout his career. But Senses‘ historical realism, and the censorship war that surrounded its release, keep modern audiences coming back to his scandalous milestone.

This Transient Life

Famed production company the Art Theatre Guild (ATG) was the backbone of the Japanese New Wave, releasing films rejected by major studios, attracting independent-minded filmmakers who created innovative, controversial works. Akio Jissoji was one such director, previously known for his television output. His career did a complete turnaround when he directed 1970’s This Transient Life, his feature film debut, exploring the incestuous relationship between a brother and sister at a Kyoto country estate. Shunning his father’s desire to carry on the family trading business, young Masao prefers to spend his days studying Buddhist statues and hanging out with prostitutes. A sexual relationship develops with his sister Yuri, who has been searching for a husband. Jissoji’s unchained camera captures the ensuing complications that develop, evoking Buddhist concepts of consciousness, time, and death.

She and He

Susumu Hani’s work was invaluable in the development of the Japanese New Wave movement and independent cinema as a whole. Hani did it all: introducing non-actors into his works, employing a vérité style, and confronting frank themes. But as MoMA underlined in an ATG retrospective screening series last year, “Hani’s work is unjustly neglected today.” In the feminist She and He, a restless woman “finds herself strangely drawn to a rag-picker who lives down below in a tin shack with a blind child and a dog, and the sheltering comforts of her middle-class existence inexorably fall away.” In an interview published in Donald Richie’s The Japan Journals, Hani stated:

I do not admire people, though I admire many persons. But I don’t like what society does to persons. It perverts them. Yet, I don’t want to attack society. I am not that kind of person. What I would like to do is ignore it. Or better, show something else. This is what I have done in my pictures, including the animal ones.

Crazed Fruit

The Village Voice said of Kô Nakahira’s Crazed Fruit:

The defining film of the post-war “sun tribe” ( taiyozoku) generation of cynical, decadent, narcissistic teens [for more on that visit this Criterion essay]. Tame and even clichéd today, Ko Nakahira’s sexy time capsule, all but forgotten even in Japan, parallels the stateside snowballing of youth culture (James Dean had died less than a year before), but for all of its scandalous transgressions (including boozing, strip poker, gang bangs, and finally, homicide) the movie reflects more precisely the post–WW I, Lost Generation culture moment of movies like The Last Flight.

Branded to Kill

Seijun Suzuki’s ultra cool yakuza pop-noir’s dizzying use of effects and overlays is mesmerizing, putting a poetic spin on the crime genre. The 91-year-old director made his last movie in 2007—so basically we should all be ashamed of ourselves.

The Pornographers

Shôhei Imamura, one of the most notable names to emerge from the New Wave movement, obsessed over Japanese society’s forgotten and undesirables. In The Pornographers, he focuses on a lusty and unscrupulous amateur pornographer. Family problems with his wife, mistress, and step-daughter overwhelm Ogata while he tries to avert the attention of the local yakuza. By throwing his already overcomplicated bourgeois life into a tailspin, Ogata chooses to become a lowlife, a privileged decision that is simultaneously attractive and repellent to Imamura.

Ecstasy of the Angels

“A militant revolutionary group is torn apart by betrayal as its members descend into paranoia and sexual decadence. Wakamatsu marries sexploitation with radical politics and anticipated the real-life bombing of the extreme left, making this ATG’s most controversial film,” writes Japan Society about Kōji Wakamatsu’s 1972 political-minded pinku eiga film (an adult-oriented cycle of softcore and exploitation works). Wakamatsu started in the genre hoping to eschew government watchdogs (and perhaps provoke them), eventually forming his own company where he freely stretched the limits of sex, violence, and political debate.

Throw Away Your Books, Rally in the Streets

At turns psychedelic (Masayoshi Sukita’s lurid color palette is disorienting) and proto-punk (boasting a noise-heavy soundtrack that feels ahead of its time), Terayama’s film doesn’t neatly fit into any one category. Anticipating, although not wholly subscribing to the ideology that would define the stylistic movements he experimented in, Terayama’s film reveals a series of possible outcomes that will probably never come to fruition. Following a young man’s rejection of his family’s material obsession, Throw Away Your Books suggests that the only answer to greed and the mundane is an assault on normality.

The Warped Ones

Koreyoshi Kurahara’s hyper-kinetic The Warped Ones was a stylistic departure for the young filmmaker who previously collaborated with Nikkatsu Studios on film noirs like I Am Waiting and Intimidation. Jazz-obsessed, beatnik terror takes over in 1960’s The Warped ones—perhaps the raucous sibling of Godard’s Breathless, which was released the same year. The film is ultimately a rage-fueled response to the stuffy postwar middle class.