“I make movies that make no sense and make no money.” – Seijun Suzuki
Quite parallel to the significant shift in the understanding of cinema that was happening in France, the Japanese New Wave began in the late 1950s and continued into the ’70s. A reaction to the social and psychological unrest after WW-II, Japanese filmmakers began changing the language of cinema with unconventional editing and rebelled against censorship by presenting sexual violence, radicalism, youth culture and delinquency.
One of the leading figures of the Japanese New Wave, director Seijun Suzuki said, “When I shoot a film, I often look at pictures, drawings and paintings. Not just pop art, but Japanese pictures as well. The reason is because I want to see the form of these pictures, especially in their depiction of women. I don’t really understand why it’s called pop art in my case. Maybe the result of this way of working turns out to be pop art, but I don’t intend to make it that. It just turns out to be like pop art.”
He added, “The best thing for a movie is to have a lot of people come to see it when it’s released. But back then my films weren’t so successful. Now, thirty years later, a lot of young people come to see my films. So either my films were too early or your generation came too late. Either way, the success is coming too late.”
We take a look at some of the best films from this revolutionary movement in the history of cinema, the Japanese New Wave.
10 best films of the Japanese New Wave:
10. Death by Hanging (Nagisa Ōshima – 1968)
Although Ōshima’s most popular work is probably the 1976 film In the Realm of the Senses, Death by Hanging is the film that undoubtedly deserves to be on this list for its radical translation of Brechtian techniques to the cinematic medium. The film questions grand philosophical problems like ethics, justice and consciousness while indulging in political commentary about the persecution of ethnic Koreans in Japan.
Ōshima reflected, “I found, several years after directing my first films, that I was very attracted to these two topics, sex and crime. Subsequently, my films have addressed them in a very analytic way. Today, I’m at a stage where I simply like to project the naked reality of sex and crime before the spectator’s eyes.”
9. Branded to Kill (Seijun Suzuki – 1967)
One of the most iconic films of the Japanese New Wave movement, Suzuki’s Branded to Kill is an easily accessible and insanely fun film that challenges the viewer as well. It follows the story of a contract killer who falls in love with one of his clients. After a successful attempt at the mission he is hired for, he is hunted by the current ‘Number One’ killer who aids his descent into insanity.
“No-name directors like me had zero time,” Suzuki said. “So I had no choice but to stay up all night and never go home…The studio came to me with a script and asked me to make it. But whatever I cooked up after that was up to me.”
He added, “It’s not really the genre I’m interested in, but the character of the yakuza. They wander between life and death. As a character, they are more interesting than normal people.”
8. Pigs and Battleships (Shōhei Imamura – 1961)
Based on the novel by Kazu Otsuka, Pigs and Battleships examines the mutually exploitative relationship that exists between the U.S. military and the lower rungs of Japanese society. An irreverent look at postwar, occupied Japan, Imamura challenges the conventions of cinema of his time while questioning the idea of national identity.
Imamura revealed, “When I was younger I was angered about the comments of the big-guy filmmakers. I tried to rebel, but they just laughed at me. Unfortunately I couldn’t really argue because they didn’t treat me as an equal and so their statements hurt me very much.”
Adding, “It is a lot easier to be obedient and stay with the establishment, but this is not my way of life. I always try to change society completely with my films. Of course, filmmaking is not like catch. You can throw the ball but there is no guarantee that it will be caught.”
7. Nanami, The Inferno of First Love (Susumu Hani – 1968)
Considered by many film scholars as Hani’s greatest achievement, First Love is one of the definitive works of the Japanese New Wave. The film explores the complexities of adolescence as well as our destructive Freudian drives through the story of two young people getting to know each other, eventually branching off into important sub-themes.
The filmmaker said, “When I made [First Love] I never thought it would be such an expression of my own self, but now I see it almost as a direct confession. It really surprises me, since I don’t like confessions. It happened as if against my will.”
6. Throw Away Your Books, Rally in the Streets (Shūji Terayama – 1971)
Avant-garde poet, dramatist, writer and director Shūji Terayama’s magnum opus, this 1971 masterpiece is probably the most experimental film on this list. A narrative which is devoid of formal structure, Throw Away Your Books, Rally in the Streets critiques the pursuit of affluence in modern society through vignettes of the life of a young man who transitions from ambition to disillusionment.
Terayama’s works were performed only sporadically in the United States, notably Off Broadway. On one such visit to New York in 1970, he told The New York Times, “My mother has come from Tokyo to visit me and she has been asking all these structured questions. She wants information like who I work for and how much money I’m making. I cannot give her such information; I can only, tell her about feelings.”
5. Pale Flower (Masahiro Shinoda – 1964)
Thematically influenced by Baudelaire’s formative work Les Fleurs du mal, Masahiro Shinoda’s film noir follows the story of a Yakuza hitman who is recently released from prison. He enters a mutually destructive relationship with a mysterious young woman after meeting her at a gambling parlour. The film casts a shadow of nihilism over the traditional conceptions of morality and social structure.
“During the war, I lived in the spirit that I would die for the emperor because the emperor was a go,” Shinoda said. “When after the war, when it was announced the emperor was no longer a god, he was just a human being, it was a great shock to me and I felt that all the gods who had lived in Japan had all become mortal rather than being gods. Of course, this threw me into great despair. But then it led me to have a curiosity about dealing with this type of theme afterwards — that perhaps people become gods, gods may crash down and become people.”
4. The Naked Island (Kaneto Shindo – 1960)
Notable for having almost no dialogue, Shindo’s 1960 masterpiece paints a compelling portrait of the inhabitants of a tiny island who must repeatedly carry the water for their plants and themselves in a row boat from a neighbouring island in order to survive. Quite similar to Aleksandr Dovzhenko’s 1930 film Earth (which we covered in our feature of the best Soviet films), Shindo uses the visual power of cinema to show us the tragedy of the human condition.
Shindo explained, “The reason [why so many Japanese directors explored the conflict between civilisation and a primitive life] is that, since the latter half of the nineteenth century, we have been witnessing the weakening of the human mind. I think this is a universal problem. Consequently, modern men, and I for one, are in the process of reevaluating primitive man’s energy and identity. This is a very central question.”
3. Funeral Parade of Roses (Toshio Matsumoto – 1969)
Considered to be a gay adaptation of the ancient Greek myth of Oedipus Rex and a direct influence on Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, Matsumoto’s masterpiece takes us to the underground gay culture of 1960s Tokyo. The film presents a radical revision of the Greek legend by showing the story of a young transvestite who kills his mother and sleeps with his father.
In an interview with Sato Yo, Matsumoto explained his intellectual formation as “a kind of postmodern critique of the metaphysics of presence since Plato: in place of absolute principles and an idealism that insisted on clear hierarchies in art, [he] rejected the privileging of original over copy, principle over consequence.”
2. Eros Plus Massacre (Yoshishige Yoshida – 1969)
Yoshida’s 1969 masterpiece is probably the most representative film from the Japanese New Wave. It recounts the final days of prominent feminist Noe Ito (beautifully portrayed by Mariko Okada) and her lover, the firebrand anarchist Sakae Osugu, who are mercilessly assassinated by military authorities in 1923. The film is not just a biopic but a direct challenge to the expectations we have of cinema and to the dreams of a revolution.
Yoshida said, “In comparison to the earlier periods, now I had more freedom in choosing the subject matter for my films. For this reason I was able to hone in on the theme of man’s concrete situation, and specifically, I wanted to interrogate his subconscious. Thus, sex. It was in this way that I made Eros plus Massacre, the first film for which I did not secure a distributor in advance – in fact, I still have not found one in Japan. In exchange, I had the most complete freedom.”
1. Woman in the Dunes (Hiroshi Teshigahara – 1964)
Teshigahara’s magnum opus is not only the most iconic film from the Japanese New Wave movement but is probably among the best Japanese films of all time. Based on the tour de force novel by Japanese writer (and inventor) Kobo Abe, Woman in the Dunes follows an amateur entomologist who leaves Tokyo to study an unclassified species of beetle found in a vast desert.
However, things take an unexpected turn when he misses his bus and is forced to stay in a village with a young widow. Teshigahara launches a scathing examination of human perversions, the desire to escape from society and the existential framework of human relations. The film was nominated for two Academy Awards and won the Special Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival.
In an interview with Joan Mellen, Teshigahara commented on the voyeurism of the villagers who force the couple to have public sex, seeing this as a “universal” human instinct. He laughingly recalled an incident from World War II when he observed “an old country fellow peeking at two lovers through the hole in a shoji screen.”