By Ashley Choudry
One fact about film is that it isn’t just American, it isn’t just British, it’s a far-reaching industry with outlets all over the world. One such outlet, which has continued to grow exponentially over the last 60 years, is Japanese film. Having started producing films in 1897, the Japanese film industry is now the fourth largest in the world and has won more Oscars for ‘Best International Feature Film’ than any other Asian country. From starting out producing traditional black & white features, Japan has since become synonymous with one of the most popular film styles of the Twentieth Century so far, Anime (a type of animation often based off of Manga art).
From it’s conception, Japanese film has had a profound influence over Western Films.
From its conception, Japanese film has also had a profound influence over Western films (particularly Hollywood productions), as you will find out later in this blog. Whether we notice or not, Japanese film techniques are used in many American and even British films we watch every day, which is why it is time we learned more about their own films. In this blog, I will focus on two classical films and two more modern Anime films, to explore the development over a significant period of one of the world’s biggest film industries. Watching these films will help you to learn about and relate to Japanese culture and maybe even encourage you to discover a new language during your holidays.
We start with one of Japan’s most notable films, Tokyo Story (1953).
This undeniable classic was one of the first motion pictures to put Japanese film on the map. A realist piece on working class people, it is regarded as prominent director Yasujiro Ozu’s masterpiece. The Story itself concerns an ageing couple (Shukichi and Tomi Hirayama) returning to Toyko to see their grown-up children, having migrated away some decades prior. What follows, is a tale of two contrasting behaviours from the couple’s children and their daughter-in-law (married to Shukichi and Tomi’s son, whom had been presumed dead prior to the events of the film), the children who are rude and inattentive and the daughter-in-law who is kind and caring. The film chronicles the couple’s attempts to reconnect with their children and conveys strong themes from growing apart from your parents to the westernization of the traditional Japanese family. Overall, this film is a wistful but important and very relatable narrative which is a must watch for anyone who loves a classic, especially film students. After all, it wasn’t voted the best film of all time in a 2012 poll in Sight and Sound magazine (which can be found within the library’s journal collection and online) for no reason. We have it available on DVD in the Library , and you can watch the trailer below:
Our second classic Japanese film, is one that has had even more influence on Western cinema, Seven Samurai (1954).
The original inspiration for the American western (and remake of this film)The Magnificent Seven (1960), it became the 2nd highest grossing film in the industry at the time and thus cemented its place in history, as one of Japan’s greatest ever films in the eyes of the rest of the world. Much like it’s eventual remake, it centres on a mountain village continuously raided by bandits, once the villagers become tired of the pillaging they decide to hire seven samurai to protect their homes and people (after they had seen other villages succeed using the same method). The film’s story and even many of its scenes mirror The Magnificent Seven, but its influence goes far beyond the several films in that collection.
The samurai epic is famous for inspiring the now well-used ‘assembling a team’ trope, with more than a few popular movie franchises borrowing that and other elements of the film, including; The Lord of The Rings (2001-2003), The Matrix (1999-Present), The Avengers Films (2012-2019), Justice League (2017) and many more. Seven Samurai was nominated for two Oscars and three Baftas and is available to watch now on DVD or e-stream. Whether you love a good old classic western, samurai flick or action-comedy, it’s another great film with which to start your Japanese journey, watch the clip below to find out why;
Now we come to the first of our two more recent entries in Japanese cinema, both of which are popular Anime products. As I alluded to earlier, Anime is a hand-drawn and computer animation that originated in Japan and is often linked with Manga art. It has seen a gradual rise in popularity over the past three decades to become one of the most-watched types of animation in the industry (Over 60% of the world’s animated television shows are anime based).
One of the most popular examples of this is, Grave of the Fireflies (1988).
The second release by the renowned Studio Ghibli, it is ranked high among the greatest War films of all time. The notion that it is part non-fiction is undoubtedly a large part of the reason it stands so vastly recommended, for it is based on a short story by Akiyuki Nosaka on his experiences in World War II. It tells of two young siblings (brother and sister) who struggle to survive through the final months and immediate aftermath of World War Two in Japan. Although labelled as a war film, it focuses mainly on the devastating effects war can have on a country’s people. Make no mistake, it is a gruelling but powerful tale made all the more poignant by its origins, and even though there is little light until it’s end; I still implore you to give it a viewing. A last word of warning, even if it is an animated feature, it is by no means a film for children’s eyes! Teens and adults however can enjoy at their pleasure on DVD or e-stream anytime. Watch the trailer in the link below:
The second of our more modern Anime films also happens to be this month’s only recommendation from the 21st century (which is by no means a bad thing). Released in 2001, the Oscar and Saturn Award winning Spirited Away ushered in a new age of popularity for Japanese Anime features.
Directed by the revered Hayao Miyazaki – co-founder of Studio Ghibli and a pioneer in Anime and Manga Art – this film was named the fourth best of the 2tst Century in a list compiled by the BBC in 2016, and second best by the New York Times the following year. Spirited Away focuses on a 10-year-old girl named Chihiro, whom in the process of moving to a new home with her parents is transported into the spirit world and must fight to escape it’s grasp whilst trying to save her parents’ spirits (after they had committed something untoward in the eyes of the world’s inhabitants). Though the premise may sound simple enough, there are underlying themes of supernaturalism, western consumerism and environmentalism all represented within the story.
It no is surprise that this film is the only hand drawn & non-English language entry to win Best Animated Feature at the Oscars, as the film continues to be lauded for its incredible animation to this day. But the animation is far from its only selling point, with the story contrasting seamlessly between adventure & discovery to realistic and important issues; because of this the film has been compared to Alice in Wonderland and praised for its exploration on matters such as the effects of greediness. Overall it is a bustling sceptical of vibrant pictures and excellent representation of traditional Japanese culture, that it not to be missed by anyone. Suitable for those aged 9 and above, it is available on DVD in the Library’s film collection. Not invested enough yet? Watch the trailer by clicking the link below:
Start your Japanese journey now! In Japanese with English subtitles or simply with an English language dub, either way they are just as enjoyable.