The world of Japanese cinema is a weird and wonderful place, where the simplest dramas to the most outrageous exploitation have as good a chance of being made as each other, with either coming to life through a shoe-string budget, blockbuster bucks and every variation between.
But no matter if the film is baffling or poignant, the directors have that very Japanese culture of work ingrained into them and take their occupation very seriously, often racking up filmographies that would make Western film directors blush with embarrassment at their feeble attempts at quantity. Yes, sometimes this has a detrimental effect on the finished products, but often not, and come what may an experience the likes of which you’ve never encountered could be just around every corner.
Not only are there too many films from Japan for me to pick my favourites, but too many from singular directors, so instead of picking films for those unfamiliar with the varied pools of Japanese cinema to go check out, I’ll be picking out directors for you to investigate.
Those with a love for Japanese cinema already may feel the need to vilify me for not including such giants in the industry as Ozu, Myazaki and Otomo, but in my defence, I’m not a huge fan of domestic dramas and I haven’t included animation directors, so go easy.
Hiroshi Inagaki: Beginning his directorial career in 1928, at the sprightly age of twenty-two, after learning the trade through the acting side, Hiroshi Inagaki made films regularly until around 1970, through which time he finished an impressive seventy-six productions. Generally concentrating on historical pieces, his style was eventually deemed too aged and expensive, whereupon he was ignored to the point that he developed a drinking problem and died embittered. He’s now considered one of the greats, but it’s a sad story nonetheless.
If you watch no other Hiroshi Inagaki films, at least check out the incredible ‘Samurai’ series, otherwise known as Musashi Miyamoto, Duel at Ichijoji Temple and Duel at Ganryu Island. A trilogy before the term existed in film, the Samurai Trilogy starred the legendary Toshiro Mifune and chronicled the life of the even more legendary historical figure, pioneering swordsman, Musashi Miyamoto. It’s epic filmmaking of the old school, informative and very entertaining.
Akira Kurosawa: The God Father of Japanese cinema, one of the all-time greatest and most influential filmmakers, Akira Kurosawa has a name that most have heard of, one way or another, and so needs little introduction. But suffice to say, believe the hype. He started out in 1941, made films until 1993 but, like Inagaki, became somewhat outmoded, eventually only making a film for every half decade, subsequently inspiring so many directors that his mark on cinema as a whole is right up there with Hitchcock.
Kurosawa made films in many genres, from Shakespearian epics to (then) contemporary crime movies, but it’s hard not to recommend the action-orientated films that first made his name in the west. So if you haven’t seen them already go watch Seven Samurai and Yojimbo, then try and figure out how many times you’ve seen the same stories in other films/books/comics/TV shows.
Yoji Yamada: Another old boy, Yoji Yamada started directing in 1961 and is still making films to this day, and films as fresh looking and relevant as any young filmmaker could hope to achieve. So far he has directed seventy-seven films, but even more impressively has written a staggering one-hundred and ten. He is also the creator of the ‘Tora-San’ series, one of the longest running film series’ of all time, all of which he wrote, forty-six of which he directed.
Many of Yoji Yamada’s films are steeped heavily in Japanese culture, so easier to get on with are his most recent efforts, which, though being set in feudal times, pack such emotional resonance and beauty that you’ll be transfixed and almost instinctively become aware of the cultural rules that govern the characters. The triple hitter of The Twilight Samurai, The Hidden Blade and Love and Honour should steer you right.
Takeshi Kitano: Also known as ‘Beat’ Takeshi, you could be forgiven for thinking that Takeshi Kitano has been dragging his feet a bit when it comes to quantity of directorial output. His seventeen titles (to date) compared to the other directors on the list seems kinda measly, but when you also take into account that Kitano has also tried his hand at, and been a successful stand-up, actor, screenwriter, TV host, racing pundit, newspaper columnist, novelist, painter, editor, choreographer and producer, it all mounts up to one hardworking fella.
Takeshi Kitano got many people of my generation into the hard edged and brutal violence of Japanese films with his early crime dramas such as Violent Cop and Sonatine, but he’s a varied filmmaker and if you’re in the mood to laugh and cry then seek out Hana-bi and my personal favourite Japanese film, Kikujiro, but if you want balls-out entertainment then watch his re-birth of Zatoichi (a long running Japanese film series about a blind swordsman).
Takashi Miike: Last on the list, but certainly not least, is the irrepressible Takashi Miike. Known by extreme film fans the world over but only making films since 1991, Miike has somehow managed to direct a phenomenal eighty-seven films and counting. Some are straight to video, some are made for TV and some are grand in scale. He’s not fussy about what the films are about or even who they’re aimed at, he’ll make it and he’ll make it quick. The only thing that all his productions have in common is that they’re in some way bat-shit crazy and not for the faint of heart.
You have to enjoy weirdness to enjoy all but a few of Takashi Miike’s films, and even within those boundaries there are many, many levels of strangeness. Miike is one of the forefathers of contemporary torture porn, so if that’s your bag you can’t go far wrong with Audition. If you like musicals (albeit those with a murderous and surreal edge) The Happiness of the Katakuris is for you. You like Lynchian surrealism? Even you will be freaked out by Gozu and Visitor Q. Family based superhero films? Yup he’s done that too, see the Zebraman series… The list goes on and on, but if you just want to start in the shallow end of the pool, and go with his more commercially accessible outings, perhaps you’ll enjoy Sukiyaki Western Django or 13 Assassins, but perhaps not.
So there you have it, my guide to getting started in the world of Japanese cinema. Unlike some of the other Asian territories, Japan has a film history as rich as Hollywood, and even more varied, so once you get into that world there are numerous places to travel to. Some you’ll adore and some you’ll hate but you won’t know until you try, and afterwards I guarantee you’re mind will be broader for the experience.