Japan's filmmaking: the art TV failed to kill

After a prolonged drought, the Japanese cinema is beginning to show signs of a second blooming. An important cultural force from its inception, Japanese cinema reached its full flowering in the 1950s. Brilliant directors like Akira Kurosawa, Kenji Mizoguchi, and Yasujiro Ozu were winning international acclaim for their films of deep social significance and influence.

Within a few years, however, in the words of a leading industry critic, it went from being ''one of the world's most honest and aesthetically advanced cinemas'' to an ''undistinguished, pandering, money-grubbing industry.''

For much of the past two decades the major studios have been controlled by bankers and accountants. Alarmed at the radical changes in entertainment tastes which ravaged attendance figures, they were not willing to finance any production that might lose money.

Only a handful of rebels were able to resist the demand for films aimed at a public who wanted to be entertained rather than intellectually challenged. Now a modest revival appears under way, led by four directors who developed their art during the 1950s - Nagisa Oshima, Shohei Imamura, Masaki Kobayashi, and Kon Ichikawa.

Reviewing new films released by the four in May and June, a leading Tokyo newspaper was enthusiastic: ''This is a good year for Japanese film.''

When Inamura's ''The Ballad of Narayama,'' won the best film award at the Cannes Film Festival, it was the first important international success for Japan since Kurosawa more than two decades ago.

Donald Ritchie, American authority on Japanese film, wrote recently: ''A prerequisite for good cinema is an audience that is willing to view itself as it truly is. Conversely, bad cinema often results from the industry's attempts to show the audience what it wants to see.

''If Japan's cinema was distinguished, it was because the audience was distinguished. For a very long time - certainly from 1925 to around 1960 - the Japanese audience was content to view a faithful reflection of itself. In this it was almost unique.''

As late as 1959, Ritchie and Joseph Anderson, in their book ''The Japanese Film: Art and Industry,'' could still say ''one of the world's most vitally creative industries . . . has created some of the most beautiful and truthful films ever made.''

The postwar vacuum in Japanese life was reflected in a whole genre of neo-realist films, typified by Kurosawa's harsh exposures of -society's seamier side, and Mizoguchi's sympathetic study of the plight of women forced into prostitution.

Oshima, with his brooding psychological studies, and Imamura, with the cruelties involved in modernization as his theme, continued to challenge audiences through the 1960s.

For a long time such films could be made with studio backing. In the golden 1950s the industry was financially robust with over 500 movies being produced and a billion movie tickets sold each year. Managements could afford to indulge in controversial subjects of less-than-majority interest.

Japan's rapid economic success and the advent of television as the all-pervasive medium of influence (a leading magazine recently referred to the Japanese as a ''nation of TV freaks'') changed that.

One of the five major studios, Daiei, went bankrupt, a second, Nikkatsu, turned to pornography (one of the few fields where cinema could compete with television), producing over the past decade hundreds of look-alike ''roman poruno'' (romance, or soft-core, pornography) movies.

The remaining three companies - Shochiku, Toei, and Toho - survived by diversifying. When it comes to allocating funds, film production usually takes the back seat to real estate, transportation, and other leisure-industry developments. On the screen, Shochiku has made most of its money in recent years from animated cartoons.

Most directors knuckled under and stuck to the safe ''house style'' that tended to ape television's escapism. The result has been a constant stream of instantly forgettable sentimental family dramas, yakuza (mafia) films glorifying gangsters as latter-day Samurai, and teen-age exploitation movies like ''High Teen Boogie'' and ''Girl With a Machine Gun.'' (The former features three teen-age boy singers enjoying immense popularity on television, and the latter a babyfaced 15-year-old schoolgirl creating mayhem with a gun).

Shochiku has copied television, taking a popular soap opera of the 1960s and turning it into a movie series that has gone through 31 identical tear-jerking episodes. The popularity of its star, a warm-hearted but bumbling loser, strikes a responsive chord in the hearts of Japanese bewildered by the frightening pace of modern life.

Few directors have rebelled against this trend. One of the few choosing the uncertainties of independent production during this barren period is Oshima, who has been an anti-establishment figure from the start of his filmmaking career. He has matured from the days when he was a long-haired ''angry young man'' of the left, but has retained his role as a social philosopher more interested in a intellectual statement than in an emotionally moving image.

He has often been the nation's social conscience, exposing unfashionable issues such as racial discrimination against Japan's Korean minority, or the possible return of Japan to its bad old ways as an ''assailant.''

His first film in 1959, ''A Town of Love and Hope,'' displayed such a strong moral conscience that studio bosses feared it would turn off audiences and restricted its distribution to obscure houses. The public found out about it, however, and Oshima's success was assured.

The parting of the ways came when the director made ''Night and Fog in Japan, '' a savage attack on the inhuman doctrinaire rigidity of the Japan Communist Party. The intimidated studio simply refused to release it, and Oshima quit to found his own company.

Over the next few years he moved into the harrowing darkness of psychology, particularly the remoter reaches of human sexuality. This culminated in ''Ai No Corrida'' (''Realm of Senses'') in 1976, which has been seen in Japan only in a heavily censored, garbled version.

In the past few years the director has seemed more at home on daytime television offering advice to the lovelorn, or even appearing in TV commercials.

Now, he has returned with ''Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence,'' considered the first Japanese attempt to come to terms with the nation's image of savage brutality in World War II, in this case against allied prisoners of war.

Of the film, Oshima says: ''I wanted to attract a younger audience which knows little or nothing about the last (World War). But I also wanted to make a contribution toward breaking down the barriers preventing understanding between East and West.

''It's not just that I want young people in Japan to know more about the war, more especially, I wanted to remind the Japanese that they invaded other Asian countries and treated them very badly.''

The film is currently enjoying immense popularity with audiences composed mostly of the young Oshima wanted to reach - although there are some who think this is due more to the presence of pop star David Bowie than to the film's antiwar message.

Many critics have found it an extremely disappointing, flawed work. But they concur in accepting it as part of a trend toward more serious subjects. They see it as belonging to the old-style tradition of Japanese cinema, particularly in dealing with events of the 1930s and 1940s, a painful period in national history which many Japanese want to forget.

Apart from Oshima's work, there is also ''Tokyo Saiban'' (''Tokyo Trial'') by veteran director Masaki Kobayashi, which despite its gruelling length (41/2 hours) has been playing to packed houses throughout the nation for several months. No Japanese film has attracted this sort of support for years (only American movies, such as E.T., have produced such long lines outside theaters).

Dealing with the Tokyo war crimes trial that sent several top Japanese wartime leaders to the gallows, the film interweaves footage from the trial scenes with relevant scenes of Japanese troops on the march, but also (irrelevantly in the eyes of foreign critics) with scenes of the war in Europe, extermination of the Jews at Auschwitz, and even footage from the Vietnam war.

Kobayashi says his main aim was to highlight the horror of war and warn against the revival of nationalism in Japan and elsewhere. But for many Japanese the film also carries the message that their nation was wrongly judged the aggressor in World War II out of motives of allied vengeance and political expediency (in other words: Japan was put in the dock only because it lost).

The Oshima and Kobayashi films reflect divisions within the country over the war. Last year, for example, there were four major productions on the same theme. The two most successful were ''The Great Japanese Empire'' and ''Tower of the Lilies,'' which dealt almost exclusively with the suffering and heroism of the Japanese people under allied brutality, encouraging a ''victim complex.''

The other two, less successful, were ''Southern Cross,'' a joint Japan-Australia production, and ''The Unfinished Match,'' the result of cooperation with China. Both films made the point that no nation had a monopoly on suffering or heroism.

Such films are being cited as evidence that once again the Japanese movie industry is able to handle powerful social themes in a way that encourages public debate.

Most filmmakers, however, are looking to the past. Shohei Imamura's prize-winning film, ''The Ballad of Narayama,''in fact, reaches back to the 19th century to portray life among the mountain people. It is an unsparing account that includes the way poor agricultural communities used to abandon their elderly, useless members in the wilds to die.

The film is also giving many Japanese a chance to discover their ''roots'' that, obscured by the rapid urbanization of this country in the postwar era, lie deep in the countryside.

But since the late 1960s there have been few attempts to really come to grips with the dark side of this urban trend.

Young director Mitsuo Yanagimachi tried to fill the gap last year with his study of a truck-driver's drug addiction and the inability of his family, trapped in traditional social roles, to rescue him from this private hell.

Yanagimachi is one of a handful of new names eager to steer the cinema back toward its tradition of realism. But their main problem is acceptance, and - therefore - money.

Another rising director Kohei Oguri, however, has shown what can be achieved.

For his internationally acclaimed ''Muddy River,'' Oguri got financing from a sympathetic private businessman. He launched the film with small-scale screenings in village halls, moving to larger buildings as public interest grew.

Finally, the word filtered through to Toei, who arranged national distribution.

According to critic Donald Ritchie, in this encouragement of independent film production lies the best hope for a reflowering of the Japanese cinema in something like its old glory.

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