What happened during the 1970s to the Japanese film industry? Independents letting their imagination run wild, studios producing more violent, realistic films… Here are some of the essentials you should watch;
THE WOLVES (1971) / IMDB:
• Why? Setting the tone an era: the step before Fukasaku’s violent yakuza films
Classic yakuza films are all about respecting the code of honor and its moral values. For example, to save its clan, a gangster can take the blame and spend years in prison, knowing it was the best option and that the clan will reward him later.
The Wolves depicts exactly the moment when the code of honor has lost its moral values, it follows a gangster (Tatsuya Nakadai) who realizes the hypocrisy of this world. Set in the early 20th century, everything is changing, and men are becoming wolves more than anything else – certainly not heroic knights anyway! That’s a melancholic film, with director Hideo Gosha describing lost yakuzas looking for some sort of meanings in an era that has nothing to offer.
THROW AWAY YOUR BOOKS… (1971) / IMDB:
• Why? Crazy & experimental type of film
Many major directors started to work as independent during the 60s, founding their own productions companies. It clearly paved the way for many other talented artists, it helped them to direct original, experimental films.
Among them, Shuji Terayama, who was a poet, writer… in other words, an artist with many different skills. And so, in 1971, he made this anarchist pop rock opera, mixing cultural & political references to offer an interesting portrait of what Tokyo/Japan looked like at the time: filled with (insane) creative people!
THE MAN WHO STOLE THE SUN (1979) / IMDB:
• Why? Ambitious low-key epic story about Japanese society
Japanese studios were still having financial difficulties during the 70s, some of them couldn’t keep up and decided to closed doors, like the Daiei. Some tried to produce big ambitious projects starring major stars, but it wasn’t always a success (The Homeless) because the audience stayed at home to watch big historical series.
And yet, coming from an independent filmmaker called Kazuhiko Hasegawa, there’s The Man Who Stole the Sun, an ambitious epic film about a teacher making a homemade A-bomb, and threatening the Japanese authorities. With a limited budget, the film manages to blend different genres together – action, thriller, romance… while telling a powerful and terrifying story, revealing the many flaws of society – the Emperor can never be wrong, the power of individualism & consumerism…
BABY CART AT THE RIVER STYX (1972) / IMDB:
• Why? Genre film with no limit
The samurai film was a dying genre at the time, after the colorful productions in the 50s, the black nihilist tales of the 60s, there wasn’t much more to tell, or to develop. And the audience was getting bored, it was time for something new, something different catching the “spirit of time”.
The Baby Cart films brought that little something. Especially the second episode. Because suddenly, the genre entered into a new era, where History, reality… were of no importance. Based on a popular manga, everything became possible. The film reflects that artistic liberty, it’s both entertaining and surprising. Bringing fresh ideas to the genre, for instance, a desert in Japan? Done. Crazy weapons? Done. All of that, with massive bloody fight scenes, and charismatic characters.
FEMALE CONVICT: 701 SCORPION (1972) / IMDB:
• Why? Women taking the power back!
One another strategy adopted by major studios to attract people back to theaters was to promote charming women as the lead roles. For example, Toei produced many pinky violence films, starring bad girls who don’t need men to survive, on the contrary. The formula was simple, nice looking actresses, a little bit of action, with fight scenes and violence.
Another idea was to produce women in prison films. The most notorious example being Sasori, with Meiko Kaji as the main character, a silent woman searching for revenge. The plot isn’t that extraordinary, but, what director Shunya Ito did with it, is quite astonishing. Visually inspiring, the film creates an iconic character, borrowing some elements from horror films or thrillers, it depicts the violent world of prison and takes a firm stand against the (Japanese) establishment. Stunning, to say the least.
THE ASSASSINATION OF RYOMA (1974) / IMDB:
• Why? Classic subject as seen by independents
Major studios stopped producing big scale historical epic, but there were still some independent filmmakers to make period films. Low budget ones, of course.
For instance, director Kazuo Kuroki had the idea to film the last few days of an important Japanese historical figure: revolutionary Ryoma Sakamoto, one of the men involved in end of the feudal regime. Unlike some of the previous studio projects on that subject, like The Ambitious, this version works like a documentary, shot with a handheld camera (16mm? great high contrast B&W!), it portrays the common man and not the legend – hence the title, with the character’s first name only. Showing his ironic contradictions (the gun, the British shoes) his lewd needs, the political context – might want to read that before watching it.
ICHIJO’S WET LUST (1972) (NSFW) / IMDB:
• Why? Arthouse pink films for (almost) everybody
To avoid bankruptcy, the Nikkatsu studios completely revamped their line-up in the early 1970s, deciding to produce pink films only – better known as “roman porno”, french makes it sound noble. The guidelines were simple, films have to include several sexy scenes, the rest is up to the directors!
Tatsumi Kumashiro rapidly emerged as one of the leading filmmakers of the genre, mostly because he took lots of creative liberties while directing, to tell stories about women’s condition – giving the audience lot more than what they paid for. With this film, he followed the everyday life of a stripper, between her job and her relationships with men, Kumashiro treated this character on a human level, with respect, developing an artistic feeling.
EXTREME PRIVATE EROS: LOVE SONG (1974) / IMDB:
• Why? Documentary, another way to express ideas
Since the mid-1960s, some independent filmmakers have decided to quit fiction to focus on what’s happening everyday in reality. Especially on sensitive subjects. Some choose to direct documentaries in order to raise awareness about important but somehow neglected issues.
Kazuo Hara is one of these socially-engaged documentarists. And at a time where women were becoming the main characters of movies, for better or worse, he went filming the daily life of a modern Japanese woman. One that is strong-willed, (sexually) liberated and doesn’t want to reproduce the old social model – being a happy married housewife raising kids. That documentary even features an incredible 10-min long home birth scene, definitely proving that things have changed for women in Japan.