While I have thoroughly enjoyed going back in time and studying some of the most memorable films and events that have shaped the industry as part of our ‘Cinematic History’ series, there were just too many of them to fit within the central thread of this topic. This is why we’ve decided to take a look at some of the countries whose contributions to the world of film are simply inestimable yet didn’t fully make it into previous discussions.

We begin with a two-article trip down memory lane in Japan. After the celebrated arrival of that train in La Ciotat station, film made its way to Asia in 1896. The first public film exhibition in Asia took place on 7th July at Watson’s Hotel in Bombay, India. Its arrival helped shape the identity and culture of people in the region. The art of cinema didn’t take long to reach Japan after that in 1897, initially through Thomas Edison’s kinetoscope, followed by the Vitascope and the Lumière Brothers’ Cinematograph—with the help of local businessmen such as Inabata Katsutaro.


Not long afterwards, the Japanese began exploring the wondrous potential of the silver screen. Ghost films were among the first to emerge—’Jizo the Spook’ and ‘Resurrection of a Corpse’ by Shirō Asano worth noting here, as well as the first documentary, ‘Geisha No Teodori’, which came out in June 1899.

Theatres hired benshi to sit next to their screens and narrate the silent films on display. These performers were basically descendants of the kōdan storytellers and other practitioners of oral storytelling in Japanese history. The benshi amplified the cinematic experiences of the early 20th century, and it helped develop the new art medium into a financial powerhouse. In 1907, Shōzō Makino made his debut with ‘Honnōji Gassen’, etching himself into the annals of history as the pioneer of Japanese cinema.

The first film production studio was opened in Tokyo in 1909, named Yoshizawa Shōten. Critics were quick to emerge, as well, publishing movie analyses in publications such as ‘Katsudō Shashinkai’. The industry’s growth was unstoppable, quickly demanding reform by the Roaring ‘20s. More studios were established—Shochiku and Taikatsu among them, marking the rise of luminaries such as Kenji Mizoguchi, Masao Inoue, and Thomas Kurihara. Needless to say, the Japanese were on a roll.


‘A Page of Madness’, 1926

I’m not the only one who thinks that the opening sequence from Teinosuke Kinguasa’s film deserves its spotlight as a defining moment in Japanese cinema. Sure, it shows us a car arriving under a heavy torrential rain and a figure getting out. Nothing exceptional here, at first sight, since we never learn who that person is. But it is the technique that is noteworthy, particularly for the silent film era. The rhythmic montage of rain, tires, stairs, a telephone pole, lightning, and windows are all combined through cuts and double exposure and upside-down imaging. Its partial motivation is that this is a mental hospital, as the film begins, and the next hundred shots serve to draw the viewer into the delusions of a dancing inmate.

It combines the wild body movements with extrasensory incantations of music into a climactic frenzy of shots of only one frame each. Its French impressionism influence is clear, but Japanese critics were quick to praise it as surpassing even the best of contemporary European cinema—though some did complain about other melodramatic elements of the film. Surprisingly, Kinugasa didn’t take the movie with him when he travelled to Europe in 1928. It was thought lost until the director found two print copies in rice cans, lost in his old house, much later in 1971. It was nothing short of a miracle that it survived.


‘I Was Born, But…’, 1932

Filmmaker and author Mark Cousins once said that Yasujiro Ozu was ‘cinema’s great master of resignation’, which makes ‘I Was Born, But…’ such a surprise since it’s full of joy and playfulness. Then again, Ozu was only 29 when he made this silent film. It was his 23rd, and he had yet to discover the artistic sadness that would become his signature style. Harold Lloyd’s American comedy influence can be observed here.

The movie show at the boss’s house is a particularly delightful scene, as the sons go from the shock of viewing their father as he debases himself in an amateur movie to understanding that there is a hierarchy to this world, and that not everybody gets to be at the top. The film’s overall subject is suburban Japan and the family of a salaryman—each superbly played by Tatsuo Saito, Hideo Sugawara, and Tomio Aoki. The freshness of its theme is the main appeal, along with the exquisite acting, making ‘I Was Born, But…’ the first of Ozu’s surviving films that goes on to define him as one of cinema’s greatest filmmakers.


‘Takadanobaba Duel’, 1937

A strong example of the virtuoso flourishes of pre-war Japanese cinema comes with Yasubei’s run towards the duel in Masahiro Makino and Hiroshi Inagaki’s splendid film. Yasubei is a masterless samurai who enjoys drinking and fighting perhaps a little too much. He’s beyond tipsy upon his return home when he finds a letter from his uncle Kayono, who has written in hopes of receiving his assistance in a duel against eighteen men.

Usually, a dash such as Yasubei’s would be delivered in a few simple shots or through parallel editing, at most. But the Japanese filmmakers chose to showcase their directorial skills through what David Bordwell calls ‘flourishes’, snippets of stylistic excess that can offer viewing pleasure on top of the narrative progress. This samurai’s run to the duel is one of the better examples, with a camera looking up at a raised road that shows him and his neighbours running in a string of pans. Thirty-five pans, all from the same camera position. It may seem that Yasubei is running over the same road but in slight differences, combined with the increased tempo in cutting to deliver the urgency of his sprint. Mr Inagaki, in particular, was clearly a master of montage.


The Film Shortage of 1941

On 16th August 1941, the Japanese Empire was already at war with China and almost totally reliant on foreign film stock. Ryuzo Kawamo, chief of Section Five within the Information Bureau, told the major studio heads that the government did not have a single foot of film left to give to the private industry. While it served more as a threat rather than a directive, the government did decide to take advantage of its authority mainly under the Film Law of 1939 in a bid to establish state control over raw materials. The move meant to force a reorganization of the film industry and to bring it under the government’s unflinching domination.

By September, the bureaucrats and the filmmakers hashed out an agreement to set limits on the number and length of films that could be made. It also reduced the number of fiction-film-oriented studios from ten to a mere three, and the number of other producers from hundreds to an even more dismal one. In the government’s opinion, the agreement served to make the Japanese film industry more efficient, at the time notorious for its inefficiencies and over-production habits. It ended up transforming the entire production process and ushering the golden age of Japanese cinema in the ‘50s.


‘A Hen in the Wind’, 1948

It’s one of the lesser known oeuvres of Yasujiro Ozu, but it is crucial to his overall body of work, which is more variegated than one might think. While it does hold a trove of slow and harmonious films, there are some remarkably livelier works of silent film in Ozu’s portfolio. Unsurprisingly, the Japanese master is generally and superficially associated with his later, refined style, despite his earlier works being full of unexpected moments of cinematic art.

While it’s obviously an ‘Occupation’ film, ‘A Hen in the Wind’ does not glorify the concept of patriotic reconstruction, choosing to focus on a human-scale compromise instead. In ‘A Hen in the Wind’, a wife resorts to prostitution to cover her son’s hospital bill while waiting for the husband to return from war. When he comes back and learns about her shameful methods, he cannot forgive the woman and pushes her down the stairs. After lying immobile and crooked for a while, she slowly manages to climb back up. Only then is he willing to consider reconciliation.


‘Life of Oharu’, 1952

Kenji Mizoguchi’s mid-century film art reaches a superior level of mastery. The elaborately detailed narrative voyage of an arresting heroine is lifted in a special moment that reveals the Japanese director’s long-take technique and the enormous amount of talent combined with practice required to deliver such a scene. In it, only a few steps superbly link past and present in muted sunlight.

Late in the story, Oharu, the film’s principal character, has been reduced to playing the samisen and begging after many difficult and otherwise twisting events in her life. We see her sitting in front of a gate, and she gets up. She’s reacting to something, moving left to right as she climbs a small slope. We’re then transported into her point of view and see what Oharu saw—her son. It’s only a glimpse of him before the camera returns to track with her back to her spot by the gate. The sequence lasts about five minutes, and it contains only nine shots, of which the last is decidedly beautiful with the quiet and unexpected materialization of her past within her present. It is almost magical and raised to perfection through Mizoguchi’s stellar command of camera movement and fixed composition.


‘Ikiru’, 1952

After winning the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and thus making history with ‘Rashomon’, Akira Kurosawa went on to deliver ‘Ikiru’ that same year—a film that provides the best evidence of the Japanese director’s ability to communicate challenging ideas through daring, large-scale structures of narrative and image.

While there are plenty of scenes that illustrate his brilliant vision and craftsmanship, what truly stands out is the audacity of their overall design. Much like ‘High and Low’, ‘Ikiru’ is divided into two parts of unequal length, at first focusing on a man who acts on previously suppressed humanist impulses before abruptly renouncing them as the story is taken over by a new and much larger set of characters. The first segment of ‘Ikiru’ follows Kanji Watanabe, a man who discovers that he will die of cancer. It ends with him choosing to fight alongside people who are demanding the realization of a socially useful act—transforming a patch of wasteland into a playground. This is what he hopes will give his life meaning. The second delivers the varied responses to his successful campaign after his death.

The final scenes suggest that his impact was minimal despite his good intentions. It is the culture that demands more radical changes. Its problems cannot be solved by liberal reforms and the virtues of a few decent individuals.


‘Tokyo Story’, 1953

We’ve just passed the middle of the 20th century. The Second World War has ended, and Japan has already been making an impressive comeback, from a cultural point of view. Its participation in the global conflict would take years to slither into the background, though it would never be forgotten. Alas, from that darkness came the golden era of Japanese cinema, and there are few films that better encompass its ingeniousness and grandeur than Yasujiro Ozu’s ‘Tokyo Story’.

Oddly enough, one scene stands out among the others. It is a small yet critical moment, superbly understated and yet emotionally startling. The mother has been sitting outdoors with her husband. She hesitates for barely a second as she rises to her feet. That is all—there is no camera movement, no cut to a close-up, no reaction shot whatsoever. Tomi, the mother, is perfectly fine, as is her husband. They’ve only been talking for a while, and they’ve just gotten up. Only, one of them did it slightly easier than the other.


In life, a passing moment has the power to foretell major changes for a family. Still, with so much flowing around us, it is difficult to observe the fleeting details, to truly feel what it means. The art of Ozu’s cinema offers the extraordinary alertness and brilliance needed to see such things. He takes stuff out, rather than put stuff in. He helps us notice the precious elements by removing the distractions.

I can think of no better defining moment that truly encapsulates the artistry of mid-century Japanese cinema. Ozu’s beautiful minimalism stays with us as Tomi’s knees bend, and our hearts fall.