Being an American Geek, I know the ins and outs of American pop culture like I know the ins and outs of the back of Luke Skywalker’s prosthetic hand. Which is fine, except that most of the time I’m ignoring gigantic chunks of culture from other countries. In lieu of taking the time to delve into the cinematic worlds of countries like, say, France, Russia, and Japan, I have developed a sort of pop culture shorthand -- a series of associations that might impress at pub trivia but certainly wouldn’t knock anybody out here at Network Awesome. France has Godard. Russia, whose manifold contributions to cinema I have managed to boil down to one film, I associate with Battleship Potemkin. Japan’s is Kurosawa (and you know I first heard about him from the Barenaked Ladies1. Shameful). One and done. And that sucks! Because obviously France and Russia and Japan, not to mention the rest of Europe, India, and, you know what, pretty much everywhere else in the world, have made game-changing contributions to film that are just as worthy of my time and obsession as anything Hollywood (which was pretty much founded by immigrants in the first place) has pumped out.
Sure, I know about the French New Wave (Nouvelle Vague if you’re nasty) but the Japanese New Wave? Forget about it! Well, it’s a thing. And if Yoshishige Yoshida’s Woman of the Lake (no relation to King Arthur, as far as I could tell -- my Eurocentrism is acting up again) is any indication, it’s a great thing. Unfortunately, I’m not the only one from the U.S.A. who is basically unfamiliar with the movement. Criterion needs to step their game up: Despite the Japanese New Wave being rightfully revered in Europe and presumably the rest of the film world, here many of the best known films from the Japanese New Wave are still only available as expensive imports. Once again, though, The Internet comes to the rescue!
Here’s what we’ve been able to piece together: The Japanese New Wave came about at that same tumultuous decade as the French New Wave, the 1960s. It’s easy to draw parallels between the two movements (the Japanese New Wave a.k.a. “nuberu bagu” did borrow a name from it, after all) but that would be reductive. As scholar David Desser pointed out in his 1988 study of 60s Japanese film, Eros Plus Massacre (Named after the Yoshida film of the same name), understanding these films requires (or, at the very least, is largely aided by) some knowledge of the political and social climates of the country. OK, maybe we don’t need a scholar to point that out, but it can’t hurt. So, here we go.
Japan in the 60s was in a period of economic flourish and political unrest. The conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) was in the first decade of their fifty-plus year reign. In 1960, an agreement called The Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security (informally known as Ampo) was reached between the United States and Japan and was met with increasingly violent protest, especially from student communities. The corporation was king. The New Wave filmmakers responded with avant-garde films celebrating rebellious youth, outcast heroes, sexual awakening, and challenging the old guard. Here, Desser nails the filmmakers’ motives more eloquently than I ever could:
The New Wave filmmakers responded to their situation as post-war, post-humanist, alienated artists by attempting a thematic and technical assault on previous film practice in an attempt to reveal and overthrow the retrograde tendencies of Japanese culture. They sought themes and techniques which would uncover and condemn the materialistic, anti-individualistic, corrupt, hypocritical values becoming more and more firmly entrenched as the ‘60s wore on2.
Prominent Japanese New Wave directors included Nagisa Oshima, Masahiro Shinoda, Shohei Imamura, and the man at the helm of today’s film, “among the preeminent masters of the modern Japanese art film,” according to the Harvard Film Archive3, Yoshishige (a.k.a. Kiju) Yoshida. Many directors from the movement had their own niche -- a particular theme they revisited in most of their films, for example. Yoshida was no different. His recurring theme? Distressed, unfulfilled women -- a challenge on the traditional role of the woman in Japanese (and, unfortunately, many other cultures’) melodrama as victims and objects of desire4. Desser calls them “feminisuto” films.
These films inevitably starred Yoshida’s beautiful wife and creative partner, prominent Japanese actress and producer Mariko Okada (with whom he founded their production company, Gendai Eigasha) as a woman on a strange, erotic journey (No Rochelle, Rochelle) of self-discovery. In 1966’s Woman of the Lake, an adaptation of Nobel Prize-winning novelist Kawabata Yasunari’s novel, Okada plays the wife of a wealthy, loveless businessman who gets tangled up in a web of intrigue involving an affair with her interior designer, a set of nude photo negatives, and a man who can only be described as a stalker (though he is portrayed a little more delicately than that.) Apparently, the film is not particularly notable among Yoshida’s work, though it is beautifully shot and acted and seems as appropriate an introduction to the art-house stylings of the Japanese New Wave as anything else.
Yoshida and Okada’s work continued to challenge the societal and political conservatism in Japan. It reached what many consider its apex in in 1969 with the couples’ Eros + Massacre, a groundbreaking exploration of the history of radical Japan filtered through the biography of anarchist Sakae Osugi. They have continued to make challenging and rewarding films, even as recently as 2002 screening their Women in the Mirror at the Cannes Film Festival.
Slowly but surely, the Japanese New Wave looks to be getting the respect it deserves from American cinephiles. Organizations like the Harvard Film Archive are running film series of the masters. The Criterion Collection does offer some Japanese New Wave titles after all, including the important work of Seijun Suzuki5. Good! It’s clear that this movement is an integral chapter in the history of film; one that’s worth absolute immersion. Kurosawa’s great, obviously, but I have to flesh out my Western-centric cultural shorthands! Maybe you do too. These films are a great place to start.
1 “Like Kurosawa I make mad films, OK I don’t make films, but if I did they’d have a samurai.” - Barenaked Ladies, One Week
2Desser, David. Eros plus massacre : an introduction to the Japanese new wave cinema. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988.