Movies and Film: Benching the Benshi: Japan's Illustrious Century

Benching the Benshi: Japan's Illustrious Century

Japanese film before Akira Kurosawa is one of the great but generally neglected treasures of world cinema. Though the country's directors followed theatrical conventions up through the early 1920s (including the use of the benshi, or narrator, the dominance of the costume drama, and the employment of male cross-dressers to play female roles), there are numerous masterpieces from the silent and early sound eras that are well worth seeing. Major studios opened in Japan from the century's first decade onward, including Nikkatsu in Kyoto and Schochiku in Tokyo, and minor, independent production companies flourished, often under the leadership of a single inspired director (Shozo Makino's Makino Films is the most familiar example). With more and more of the nation's cinematic legacy being remastered and released on video and DVD, there's a virtual undiscovered country of early Japanese film out there for you to explore.

Filmophile's Lexicon

The benshi, important figures in early Japanese cinema, were responsible for narrating the story line of silent films and explaining individual scenes for their audiences.

Short Cuts

One of Shozo Makino's most important discoveries was the acting talents of Matsunosuke Onoe, one of Japan's silent superstars; the two collaborated on dozens of films a year for upwards of a decade.

Filmophile's Lexicon

Gendaigeki were modern drama films set in Japan's larger cities, especially Tokyo and Kyoto, in the present.

Jidaigeki is the term for period drama set in the Japanese past but always very much concerned with the present.

Second Take

Though superstar Matsunosuke Onoe may have made more than 1,000 movies in his career, only three survive: Loyal 47 Ronin (1910), Goketsujiraiya (1921), and Bangoro Shibukawa (1922).

The producer-director Shozo Makino is sometimes dubbed the "father of Japanese film"; he was responsible for creating the "period film" genre almost singlehandedly.

The 1928 True Record of the 47 Ronin remains a true world classic, influencing the historical epics of Akira Kurosawa and many others, and Raiden (also 1928) still dazzles with its camerawork and inventive editing.

The first wave of cinematic realism in Japanese film was largely the responsibility of Yasujiro Ozu, whose focus on everyday life and middle-class folks made the phrase "Ozu Art" synonymous with an artistic appreciation of the mundane human dramas that could make great pictures. In acclaimed films such as Dreams of Youth (1928), I Was Born, But … (1932), Until the Day We Meet Again (1932), and A Story of Floating Weeds (1934), Ozu established a strain of realism for Japanese cinema that rivals France's poetic realism in its humanity. A later film, Tokyo Story (1953), garnered international awards and recognition for the elder filmmaker, who continued working until shortly before his death in 1963.

Other important figures in the silent and early sound eras include the reformer Norimasa Kaeriyama, who sought (with little success) to eliminate the traditional role of the benshi and made important innovations in location selection and camera work; Daisuke Ito, whose original approach to the jidaigeki film brought an avant-garde sensibility to this most tradition-bound of Japanese genres (see, for example, A Diary of Chuji's Travels, 1927); Kiyohiko Ushihara, whose spectacular epic Shingun (Marching On, 1930, recently made available on video) combined a rich historical sensibility with a flair for the mundane comedy of everyday human situations; Kenji Mizoguchi, whose extraordinarily diverse career began with Western-influenced "New School" comedies, melodramas, thrillers, detective stories, and so-called "tendency films" in the 1920s (for example, In the Ruins [Haikyo no naka, 1923], Nihonbashi [1929], and Tokyo March [Tokyo koshinkyoku, 1929]) but also included historical dramas in the '50s like New Tales of the Taira Clan (1955) and the acknowledged masterpiece The Life of Oharu (1952); and Teinosuke Kinugasa, whose 1928 Crossroads (Jujiro) was one of the first Japanese films to achieve any distribution in Europe.

Perhaps the most important thing to remember about pre-World War II Japanese cinema as opposed to that of other nations is its relative narrative simplicity. While most European national cinemas were led (often unwillingly, it's true) by an experimental avant-garde during the '20s and '30s, Japan's directors drew on the artistic resources inherent in basic, everyday human dramas to create an enduring cinematic legacy of unparalleled humanity and lyricism.

Japan's Modern Masters

The great towering figure in Japanese cinema during the past five decades has been Akira Kurosawa, whom you'll read about in more detail in the next section. Like Bergman for Scandinavian film, Kurosawa's long career and deep-seated influence on his nation's film history threatens to obscure other directors who have often worked in his shadow.

We've given you a list here of seven of the most prominent post-1950 Japanese directors and included a short filmography for each. A few weekends taking in just a handful of these works will allow you to enjoy a wider variety of Japanese sound film than the average Akiraphile.

Second Take

Don't let American Kurosawaphilia blind you to the work of Nagisa Oshima, whom many film buffs regard as a vastly superior artist to Akira Kurosawa!

  • Tadashi Imai: And Yet We Live (1951); Bushido: Samurai Saga (1963); Takiji Kobayashi (1975); War and Youth (1991).
  • Kon Ichikawa: The Burmese Harp (1956); Fires on the Plain (1959); My Enemy the Sea (1963); The Wanderers (1973); 47 Ronin (1994).
  • Nagisa Oshima: A Town of Love and Hope (1959); A Cruel Story of Youth (1960); Death By Hanging (1968); In the Realm of the Senses (1976); Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1982); Max, Mon Amour (1987).
  • Masaki Kobayashi: The Human Condition (trilogy, 1959-61); Harakiri (1962); Kwaidan (1964); Glowing Autumn (1979); The Empty Table (1985).
  • Shiro Toyoda: Whisper of Spring (1952); Marital Relations (1955); Evening Calm (1957); Madame Aki (1963); Illusion of Blood (1965); Portrait of Hell (1969).
  • Mikio Naruse: Sound of the Mountain (1954); Floating Clouds (1955); Untamed (1957); When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (1960); The Wiser Age (1962); Moment of Terror (1966).
  • Juzo Itami: The Funeral (1984); Tampopo (1986); The Gangster's Moll (1992).
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Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Movies and Film © 2001 by Mark Winokur and Bruce Holsinger. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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