Stop any Japanese youth on the street and ask him when was the last time he saw a Japanese movie, and he’ll probably utter, “I dunno.” To many of Japan’s youth, Japanese film is dasai, woefully uncool for a generation that only seems to flock to the latest Hollywood blockbuster or arty European flick.
Having seen few Japanese movies, however, they are sadly ignorant of their own film culture, of not only how profound an influence Japanese film has had on world cinema, but also how exciting and stunning it can be for even contemporary viewers.
That is why the 14-film Nippon Cinema Classics section of the Tokyo International Film Festival is such a valuable enterprise. Dedicated to showing with English subtitles lesser known or recently unearthed prewar masterpieces, the series is a unique opportunity for both Japanese and non-Japanese audiences to appreciate the foundations for more famous world masters like Kurosawa Akira, Ozu Yasujiro, and Mizoguchi Kenji.
The center of this year’s program are three period films that were recently discovered in the form of 9.5mm film prints. 9.5mm was a unique home movie format which, in Japan, was also used to sell regular feature films in shortened versions for family use. For a Japanese cinema that is tragically missing some of its greatest masterpieces, remaining 9.5mm prints have been a valuable way of recovering lost classics.
These must-see films are Chushingura (directed by Ikeda Tomiyasu), a version of the oft-filmed story starring Japan’s legendary first film star, Onoe Matsunosuke; the 1930 samurai detective film, The Casebook of Umon: His Third Achievement (“Umon torimonocho: sanban tegara,” dir: Tsuji Yoshiro), featuring the multi-talented Kataoka Chiezo; and the 1932 The Unrivalled Hero (“Kokushi muso”–also known as Peerless Patriot), directed by the prewar master, Itami Mansaku (father to Itami Juzo and father-in-law to Oe Kenzaburo), and a film long considered to be one of Japan’s great comedies.
Although not a Japanese film, another find is The Danger Line (“La Bataille,” dir: Edouard-Emile Violet), a 1923 French silent starring Hayakawa Sessue, the exotic Japanese matinee idol who, later known for The Bridge on the River Kwai, was the heart-throb of millions of Caucasian women in the silent era. (The Danger Line only has French and German subtitles).
The other ten films in the program offer something for everyone. Particularly noteworthy are three mid-thirties films from Shochiku, the studio home of Ozu that patented a unique mix of American-style comedy with Japanese urban lower middle class melodrama. Despite their differences, the mathematical precision of Shimizu Hiroshi’s A Hero of Tokyo (“Tokyo ni eiyu,” 1935), the humorous sentimentality of Gosho Heinosuke’s Woman of the Mist (“Oboroyo no onna,” 1936), and the social satire of Shibuya Minoru’s debut film, Don’t Tell Your Wife About It (“Okusama ni shirasubekarazu,” 1937), share the same Shochiku touch.
Traces of that style are also evident in two rarely shown films of Naruse Mikio, Avalanche (“Nadare,” 1937) and Travelling Actors (“Tabi yakusha,” 1940), made as he moved from Shochiku to Photo Chemical Laboratories (PCL) and then Toho. The former especially reveals an eagerness to experiment with film form that is less evident in his internationally renowned postwar work.
The more modern atmosphere of PCL and its successor, Toho, also enabled such cinematically bold portraits as Ino and Mon (“Ani imoto,” 1936), about the complex relationship between a brother and sister by the left-wing director Kimura Sotoji; Old Sweet Song (“Mukashi no uta,” 1939), a sketch of a woman too strong for her time by Ishida Tamizo, director of one of the best Japanese films of all time, Flowers Have Fallen (“Hana chirinu,” 1938–also known as Fallen Blossoms); and Toyoda Shiro’s The Bush Warbler (“Uguisu,” 1938), one of his many literary adaptations.
The showing of Rivals (“Enoken no ganbari senjutsu,” 1939) is one of the rare opportunities to view Japan’s great comic genius, Enomoto Ken’ichi (a.k.a. Enoken), on screen with English subtitles (albeit not in one of his best films). But it is a shame that A Comb of Oroku (“Oroku gushi,” 1935) by Ito Daisuke, the father of the modern samurai film, is the only Japanese film in the series that has not been subtitled. The omission is rather puzzling.
By Aaron Gerow
Originally appeared in The Daily Yomiuri, 12 September 1996, p. 10.
Copyright 1996: The Daily Yomiuri and Aaron Gerow