Japanese cinematography, which Westerners may perceive as an unvarying combination of anime and Kurosawa, as a matter of fact, abounds with diversity and undiscovered flavours. The OYAKATA Master has selected 7 classical productions which will help you – albeit to a small extent – discover the richness of Japanese cinema.

Japanese cinematography – full of variety and understatements

Despite the huge diversity in the Japanese cinema, critics identify some common features which distinguish its productions from Western films. It is, above all, the unique, very reserved emotionality. The thrift of facial expressions and gestures makes Asian works – although more difficult in reception – characterised by a unique atmosphere of tension, mystery and incomprehension. The cinematography of Japan is identified as calm and sentimental, though it does not lack the feeling of horror and brutality.

Freshness and originality of Japanese films have always been a great source of inspiration for creators all over the world, and many of the productions have become the prototypes for iconic Western productions. To understand and appreciate the pictures of the Cherry Blossom Land one should start discovering it with some iconic classics, which influenced not only the further development of the native cinematography but also the history of the global movie making industry.

1. “The Tokyo Story” – extraordinary film haiku

Yasujiro Ozu is considered to be the most “Japanese” of all Japanese directors. It was him who introduced Japanese films on screens all over the world, getting great recognition in his home country at the same time. His most outstanding work – “The Tokyo Story” (Yasujiro Ozu, 1953) – is the universal story about generation gaps and the conflict between tradition and modernity. An elderly couple journeys to Tokyo to visit their adult children they haven’t seen for a long time. Although the picture does not lack tragic reflective themes, the plot is not its main value. It is determined by the care taken in its implementation, the unique rhythm of the story, as well as Ozu’s characteristic operation of the camera. “The Tokyo Story”, likewise the other works by the Japanese master, is characterized by low shots, which show a simple, Japanese everyday life “from the floor level” In Ozu’s frames, the everydayness gains an extraordinary poetic dimension, which is why his works are often compared to Japanese haiku poetry.

2. “Seven Samurai” and chambara – Japanese historic cinema

“Seven Samurai” (Akira Kurosawa, 1954) is claimed by many critics to be one of the most important films in the history of cinematography. In the film, Kurosawa, being undoubtedly the most famous Japanese director, tells the story of seven masterless samurai, who are hired by Japanese farmers to protect their village from bandits. The Kurosawa’s work is a classic example of a historic chambara film, the purpose of which is, above all, to provide entertainment typical for adventure or action films. Chambara is an oriental equivalent of westerns and the so-called swashbuckling films. What is the best evidence of the influence the Japanese film-makers have on Hollywood productions is the fact that the Kurosawa’s film became a prototype for “The Magnificent Seven” – one of the western classics of all times!

3. “The Woman in the Dunes” – Kafka in the Cherry Blossom Land

The film by another Japanese classical film-maker – Hiroshi Teshigahara – is the adaptation of the unusual novel by Kōbō Abe, whose creations are compared to the works of Kafka and Western existentialists. “The Woman in the Dunes” (Hiroshi Teshigahara, 1964) tells the story of a teacher who ends up in a small Japanese village where he stays in a house hidden among sandy dunes. The absurd story of a girl struggling with sand burying the village, into which the protagonist is pulled, becomes a pretext for reflection on the difficult subject of puberty and the fight against one’s own selfishness for the common good.

4. “Godzilla: King of the Monsters” – the classic Japanese fantasy films

The richness of the Japanese cinema was the source of inspiration not only for the creators of easy westerns, but also the producers of blood-curdling horror and science fiction films. It is Japan that is home to one of the most frightening monsters of the cinema. “Godzilla: King of the Monsters” (Ishirô Honda, 1954) is the story of a beast, which starts to attack humanity after being woken up by a powerful explosion. The film, created in a country which was the only one in the world to experience a nuclear weapon attack, was considered a violent manifesto warning of the consequences of further nuclear tests. At the same time, as one of the first kaijū films – catastrophic-fantastic productions about “strange beasts” – it became a huge, commercial hit.

5. “The Ring” – in the circle of Japanese horror films

The history of the mysterious video cassette does not need to be presented to anyone. A film adaptation of the novel by Kōji Suzuki is one of the most famous Japanese films and the most profitable horror film in the history of Japanese cinematography. For twenty years, since its premiere, “The Ring” (Hideo Nakata, 1998) and the mystery of a lethal cassette have inspired an American re-make, a continuation of both the original and western versions of the film, as well as games and comics. Although the hype concerning the production has already tired western audience a little bit, Nakata’s work still remains one of the most popular Japanese films, which could not have been missing from the OYAKATA Master’s list.

6. “Akira” and Japanese animations

The list of Japanese classics could not lack iconic anime films either. One of the best known titles, which would certainly be mentioned by every lover of the genre, is “Akira” (Katsuhiro Otomo, 1988). The film adaptation of the popular manga was done by the author of the comic book himself, which is why the production fully preserves its original atmosphere. The film takes its viewers to 2019. One of the members of a motorcycle gang undergoes mysterious experiments. As a result, he gains superhuman powers and learns about the existence of Akira, the legendary hero. Otomo’s iconic animation, full of blood and brutal battle scenes, is certainly not an animated fairy tale for children. Demanding and challenging, the work rewards sophisticated Japanese anime fans with its refined image, which, despite the time that has passed, equals the quality of contemporary productions.

7. “Departures” – Oscar-winning story about life and death

And finally, something more contemporary. “Departures” (Yôjirô Takita, 2008) is a beautiful, almost fairy tale-like story about life and death, represented in the life of a cellist who, forced to change his occupation, takes up a job in a funeral home. Although, the relatively young production cannot be considered as classic, the film perfectly complements our list. It is the evidence of the diversity of Japanese cinema, which can be proud of not only classical Samurai films, gloomy horror films and cult anime, but also profound, poignant dramas. What’s more, having been awarded with the Oscar for the best foreign language picture, it bespeaks the international level and universal dimensions of the Japanese cinematography.

Japanese film has more than one name

The Magnificent Seven of the Japanese cinema – gathered for you by the OYAKATA Master – are just a small part of the wealth of the cinematography of Japan. However, the ranking shows the diversity of Japanese film art and proves that it cannot be packed into one drawer with the inscription “Japanese Cinema”. Among the Master’s proposals, there is something for the lovers of samurai adventures, bloody horrors and sentimental dramas. And you, which variety of the Japanese cinema do you appreciate the most?

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