Over 100 years, Japanese cinema has been growing, evolving and spreading its influence to the rest of the world. Japanese film has gone through many phases, from the “golden age” of the 1950s, through heavily war-influenced flicks and all the way up to anime—and beyond. Take a seat and enjoy as I take us through some of the most influential and important classic Japanese movies, from the 1920s all the way to the modern era. Basically, these are the kinds of films that would certainly appear on your syllabus if you were taking a college course on classic Japanese film. Along the way, you’ll also learn about some of the most important directors in Japanese film history. As this article will be too long if I were to list out all the influential classical Japanese films, I have chosen 5 which ultimately laid the foundation for Japanese cinematography.
1. “A Page of Madness” (1926)
Directed by: Teinosuke Kinugasa
The low-budget silent film “A Page of Madness” takes an uncomfortably close look at madness.
When his wife is imprisoned in a mental institution, a man takes a job as a janitor at her asylum with the hopes of breaking her out. But his every attempt to “free” her from her confinement is thwarted, eventually leading him down his own path to insanity.
This surreal, experimental film marks the true start of the age of movies in Japan. Although cinema was introduced in Japan in 1896, early movies were limited in scope and length and were seen as not much more than a curiosity. It wasn’t until the 1920s that Japanese films really took off, and “A Page of Madness” is an excellent example of this experimental stage in Japanese film history.
Teinosuke Kinugasa pioneered some early advances in movie storytelling, like showing the events from the point of view of the main character. He uses close, claustrophobic shots of the mental institute (which is really more like a prison) and various film effects to really get you into the man’s head.
The result is unsettling and haunting, exploring the fine line between madness and sanity.
2. “The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums” (1939)
Directed by: Kenji Mizoguchi
Once Japan got past its experimental stage, movies turned toward realism. One of the most well-known movies of the era, “The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums,” focuses its attention on kabuki, a traditional Japanese form of theatre that uses exaggerated dancing, makeup, music and gestures to tell stories.
In this film, we watch the adopted son of a famous kabuki actor try to make a name for himself. As he struggles with his acting and home life, the actor turns to his brother’s nurse for comfort. Their affair leads to the nurse losing her job and her standing in society, but she seems happy to support her lover as he continues his path to stardom.
The movie heavily features a theme that was very important for the director, Kenji Mizoguchi: the role of women in society. When Mizoguchi was a child, his teenage sister was forced to become a geisha, an experience that influenced many of his works. The film takes a critical look at the way women in Japanese society were expected to sacrifice their own lives and ambitions for men.
Although the director is better known for his later films like “Ugetsu” and “Sansho the Bailiff,” “The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums” marks the beginning of his rise to mastery, and beautifully represents movies of that time period.
3. “Late Spring” (1949)
Directed by: Yasujiro Ozu
The legendary Yasujiro Ozu was one of Japan’s most beloved directors, and his works lifted movies from the realm of realism and sculpted them smoothly into a form of art.
“Late Spring” shines a spotlight on women and their place in Japanese society as caretakers and wives. In the movie, the 27-year-old daughter of an old man is torn between her familial duties to take care of her father, and his (and society’s) pressure for her to marry. It’s a melancholy story of love, family and searching for a balance between personal desire and society’s expectations.
Ozu was an expert at really turning his movies into artworks through careful composition, framing and camera angles. In “Late Spring,” he employs a lot of the stylistic choices that he later becomes known for, including his disjointed method of storytelling. The movie completely omits crucial moments, leaving the viewer to fill in the gaps, while placing a huge importance on seemingly insignificant events.
This gives the movie a dreamy quality, like you’re floating through the characters’ lives, rather than watching a story.
4. “Rashomon” (1950)
Directed by: Akira Kurosawa
The renowned director Akira Kurosawa made movies all the way from the 1940s until his final film in 1993. And while many are masterpieces in their own way, any list of classic Japanese cinema would be incomplete without a mention of “Rashomon.”
The movie certainly put Kurosawa on the map as a director, but it also introduced the West to Japanese films in earnest, becoming the first Japanese movie to be picked up by a major studio for release in North America. To this day, it’s considered by many critics to be one of the best movies ever made.
“Rashomon” loosely draws inspiration (and its name) from two short stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa. The movie opens with a crime in a forest: A female noble is assaulted, and her samurai husband is murdered. From there, we see the events of the crime as they happened from the point of view of the violated woman, a woodcutter, a bandit and even the ghost of the samurai.
Yet even though all four characters witnessed the crime, none of their stories match up. On top of that, each claims responsibility for the crimes. “Rashomon” shows how fallible our memories are and how personal biases cloud our experiences.
What actually happened in that forest? Who’s the real culprit? Someone among the witnesses must be lying… right? After the credits roll you may end up with more questions than answers.
5. “Tokyo Story” (1953)
Directed by: Yasujiro Ozu
Coming only four years after “Late Spring,” “Tokyo Story” is conventionally held to be Ozu’s best work. Whereas “Late Spring” depicts the love and care of a young woman for her aging father, “Tokyo Story” instead explores the lack of this sense of familial responsibility.
The film introduces two elderly parents who decide to pay their adult children a visit. As they travel from offspring to offspring, they’re met with reluctance, instead of the love and deference they expected. Their hosts—with the exception of one daughter—are just too busy to entertain these geezers who suddenly appeared in their lives!
It’s only after the elderly couple head home that their children realize how important it is to spend more time with your family. But at that point, it may just be too little, too late.
Ozu’s style really shines in this movie. He cuts out and rearranges key moments, abruptly switches cameras from the main story to follow character movements through rooms and employs the “tatami-shot,” a low, from-the-floor-up camera angle that literally places the viewer on the floor next to the actors.
Ozu’s opinions on familial duties are pretty clear from this film. He, himself, never married and spent his whole life caring for his mother. “Tokyo Story” will remind you that, no matter how swamped with work and life you might be, you should never be too busy for your family.