From all-male casts to violent sexualised films: an overview of Japanese cinema

A still from Unforgiven, a Japanese remake of the Clint Eastwood film, which is being screened at the Opening Night Gala of the Pan Asia Film Festival 2014

A still from Unforgiven, a Japanese remake of the Clint Eastwood film, which was screened at the Opening Night Gala of the Pan Asia Film Festival 2014

From all-male casts to violent sexualised films: an overview of Japanese cinema

26 February 2014

By Jennifer Coates

Japanese cinema is now just over a century old, film technology having arrived in Japan not long after its simultaneous development in France and North America. Footage from Thomas Edison’s Kinetoscope was shown in Japan in 1896; the following year the first Japanese film was produced, showing scenes of Tokyo. The style of these early productions was quite different to those we can see today.

As was common in traditional Japanese theatre, male actors played both male and female roles in early Japanese cinema, and the camera tended to maintain the static position of the theatre audience member rather than the active ‘eye’ of the camera with which we are now familiar.

Narrators known as ‘benshi’ recited the storylines of pre-sound era films, becoming celebrities in their own right and exerting a stranglehold over the industry for its first decades. The benshi popularised domestic cinema in Japan, as the number of domestic productions exceeded the number of films imported to Japan for the first time in 1924; however they also threatened its development, resisting the introduction of sound until relatively late given the nation’s early uptake of film technologies

The Japanese cinema continued to adapt and increase in popularity until the Film Law of 1939 and its subsequent amendments brought the cinema under the control of the wartime Government. Heavily censored and suffering from shortages of materials and manpower, progress continued at an abated pace until the end of World War II, when a defeated Japan was occupied by Allied forces. The Allied administration was well aware of the potential uses of cinema in the democratisation of post-war Japan, and supported new film productions and the re-establishment of pre-war film studios, though scripts and finished films were subject to Allied inspection and censorship until the end of the occupation in 1952.

The decade of the 1950s was the golden age of the newly independent Japanese cinema, with production at over 500 films per year from 1955 and cinema attendance surpassing one billion in 1957. Film imports were capped, meaning that the majority of films viewed by this new mass audience were Japanese. The 1950s also saw the dominance of Japanese cinema at European film festivals as Japanese cinema began to achieve global as well as domestic impact following Kurosawa Akira’s landmark win at the 1950 Venice film festival with Rashōmon.

Japanese cinema also had a sizable presence at the North American box office due to the collaboration of Tōhō and United American Pictures studios in bringing Japanese films to the Tōhō-owned cinemas across the USA.

Films such as Kurosawa Akira’s 1961 hit Yōjimbō (released in the USA as The Bodyguard) grabbed newspaper column inches as well as American audiences. The Japanese studio system of this period was structured in a similar manner to Hollywood, which experienced a ‘golden age’ during the same era.

The ‘big six’ major studios, Shōchiku, Tōhō, Shin- Tōhō, Daiei, Tōei and Nikkatsu, operated as vertically integrated systems, showing the first run, or ‘road show’ of their films in specially designated studio-owned cinemas across Japan.

The major studios held directors and actors to exclusionary contracts which often required that they undertake in-house training and refrain from working with other studios. A star system similar to the Hollywood model was built around these studios, and open competitions were held in the late 1940s and early 1950s to search for new talent.

The film and gossip magazines of the era covered the search for ‘New Faces’ in great detail, publishing the specifics of the actors selected at casting events and charting their rise to stardom. New talent was often sourced from the popular theatres, review shows and opera houses of the major cities, and so fresh faces brought their own fan bases to the studios which hired them.

By the mid-1960s however, the introduction of television and a mass mobilisation to suburban-style living caused a decline in cinema-going which continues into the present day.

The housewife-centred entertainment available on television changed the cinema audience demographic, and with it, film content. A sharp decrease in middle-aged female audiences brought about a shift towards the violent and highly sexualized themes designed to appeal to younger student and ‘salaryman’ audiences. The gangster genre known as yakuza film dominated the mainstream cinemas of the 1960s and early 1970s, while new theatres sprang up around the ‘pink’ soft-pornography genre (also known as ‘roman porno’) and the avant-garde productions of independent studios such as the Art Theatre Guild.

At the same time, a new generation of young filmmakers were inspired by the changes in filmmaking occurring in France within the nouvelle vague movement, and in Italy under Italian neo-realism. As student protests raged in Europe and in Japan, the new directors of the 1960s such as Ōshima Nagisa and Imamura Shōhei left the studios in which they had trained, to instead make independent films critical of the post-war Japanese government in theme and experimental in style. Films such as Ōshima’s In the Realm of the Senses (1976) achieved international recognition and forced the Japanese Government to engage with global issues of film censorship.

The violent sexualization of both mainstream and avant-garde productions in the 1970s became the predominant image of Japanese cinema overseas, as distribution companies emphasized the excessive elements of Asian cinema in a bid to challenge and shock audiences. This marketing strategy achieved great success in the 1990s and early 2000s, allowing distributors of Japanese cinema overseas to target both art-house and fanboy audience demographics. Following the acquisition of front runner distributor Tartan Asia Extreme by the Palisades Media Asset Fund in 2008, recent global film festivals have begun to combat the dominant image of Japanese cinema by screening the thoughtful social commentary films of directors such as Koreeda Hirokazu.

At the same time, the optimistic narratives of popular anime such as Studio Ghibli productions have found mainstream audiences through a partnership with Disney and an association with producer John Lasseter and the Hollywood stars who lend their voices to dubbed releases.

A new generation of global viewers are growing up with televised anime productions which are not explicitly marketed as Japanese, such as the popular Pokemon franchise. In this climate, the face of Japanese cinema at home and abroad is undergoing another aesthetic shift, which is reflected and impacted by programmes such as Asia House’s Pan-Asia Film Festival.

Briton Jennifer Coates has just completed a PhD in Japanese Cinema at SOAS, University of London, and will take up a post-doctoral position at the University of Kyoto in April.