Ten Gems Of Old Japanese Cinema (1950s-1960s)

The bygone eras hold such overfilling wonders that in time, we develop nothing short of an addiction to classic cinema. The treasury of Japanese films is one such enclave, tucked neatly, which leaves an aftertaste of mystery, contentment and artistic pleasure. Emotions as familiar and events as ordinary are presented in an entirely new glamour, oriental history revisited and resurfaced in light of modernity and territories are ventured through the lens of existentialism, absurdity, symbolism and individualism.

10. She Was Like a Wild Chrysanthemum (1955)

Keisuke Kinoshita’s film is a sentimental ode to Masao’s ephemeral love, which blossomed and withered, was admired and then trampled on, like a wildflower. His cloudy reflections are visualized in diffusing vignettes of iris frames, leaving us to wonder just how much of it is imaginative. His memory lane, that he revisits while passing by on a boat, is laden with bucolic charm, focusing the simplicity and purity that reigned their young hearts. Tamiko was like a chrysanthemum that grew in the wild, apart and distinct from their family’s station; she hardly blended in the decorous society, with a hue as vivid as that of the flower. The film explores leitmotifs of being fettered to conventions, lack of independence, transience and mortality on the individual scale that points to the contemporary state of affairs in Japan.

Credit: Shochiku Films

09. Emotion (1966)

A psychedelic mélange of jump cuts, repeated stills and hit and miss clips, Emotion plays with moods, unconnected and surreal, to an end that is more impressionable than consequential. The taste of Emotion is vinous, the screen being dipped in absinthe, so that the inexplicability of the events in the film becomes all the more nonplussing. Inspired by the ongoing new wave movements, it makes abundant experiments in mirage-like effects, fragmentary visions and diluting nous, to construct an exotic esoterica that sprouts quaint aestheticism. One of the film’s most captivating images is a white bust of a maiden being left in the middle of the forest, and blood-red tears oozing out of her eyes after being abandoned. The scene, raw and bizarre, is deeply reminiscent of surrealist Rene Magritte’s painting Memory, where the wound carries mixed undercurrents of love and injury, passion and danger- themes that cognate with the film.

Credit: The Criterion Collection

08. When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (1960)

Keiko’s (Hideko Takamine) ritualistic ascension of the stairs in the bar at Ginza heralds her routine chores as bar hostess. It is rather a steep journey on the social ladder, but it is one which she makes on her own, in the midst of sliding doors, shifting lights and among the fading and reappearing faces. She counts her steps, one at a time, holding her breath and reflecting on her prospects and possibilities to balance funds to sustain her family, especially her debt-ridden brother (her moniker “Mama” by those who respect her reinforces her role as Madonna/redeemer) and potential investment in a bar of her own. Marriage, as a staircase to fiscal survival, is stripped off its glamour, though its anthem is almost venerated in Mama’s fragmental recalls of her late husband. Mikio Naruse’s ideal realism holds timeless appeal, for all its all-too-human relevance of working class women weighing the scales to take a chance to stand up on her own feet. It is a society skating on the brink of tradition and modernity, between challenges to rebuild amid ashes and smoke while preserving conventions; of minds torn between sentiment and indifference, hovering along pragmatic lines while also relying on hearsays and fortune-tellers.

Credit: Toho

07. Tokyo Story (1953)

The tiptoeing rhyme of Tokyo Story recites the haiku of life, in three stages, whilst exploring the polarization of human attachment and distancing the self from feelings. Time seems to pass tediously for an old couple, their small talks and breaks in conversation bespeak the stillness and lack of action in their life. They live their days musing, mostly about their progeny, while the latter could hardly seem to acknowledge them as someone their own, let alone spare more than a minute or two for them. Their formality and over-exchange of civilities is a sign of estrangement, while it is a widowed daughter-in-law who empathizes with them the most. The mood remains nostalgic, without ever being maudlin, and while it moves us deeply, it maintains that sobriety, that sheer objectivity that characterizes life itself. There are stolen glimpses of industrial and natural milieu, of waning rustic charm (embodied by the aging populace) paving the way for rapid urbanization (the posterity). The message of empathy or the lack of it thereof is brush-stroked with creditable sleekness as the continuity of life after a ceremonial hiatus, born more out of duty than emotion.

Credit: Shochiku Films

06. Ugetsu Monogatari (1953)

Kenji Mizoguchi’s adaptation of Tales of Moonlight and Rain animates life and nature as depicted in ukiyo-e (Japanese woodblock art- the likes of Yoshitoshi and Kawase Hasui), with erratic sunlit hues and nightfall shades and a sprinkle of kabuki dramatics. It plunges deep into the poetry of rural heart, capturing landscapes submerged in meshes of mist, fields of towering reeds, ramshackle huts and courtly mansions, with the graceful surge and watery refinement of scroll paintings. Investigating the problems of convention and obligation, sacrifice and ambition, hierarchy of cultural systems, the film raises a social banner (like most of Mizoguchi’s films) that comments on the plight of women and marginalized classes, who are on the front lines of tribal conflicts. Threads of enchantment are embedded into this dismal realism, yet never dissolving the two, so that each effect remains impactful.

Credit: Daiei Film

05. The Burmese Harp (1956)

Kon Ichikawa’s war epic stirs up doldrums out of the loams of Burma rusted with the carnage of soldiers who are made one in death and song. Its air is hymn-infested, undulating like the wide plains; the war anthems palliated with the wistful symphony of a Burmese harp. Mizushima’s chords coalesce with the choruses of his comrades; they sing of humanity in refrains that are uplifting and melancholic, fervent yet stinging, rippled with bygone woes and more promising times. Their harmony is broken after Mizushima’s setback on his singular errand and his companions could only chant without music- the music that pledged to preserve the martyrs, a music that longs for its homeland but is fated to resonate forever in Burma, long after the company had sailed back to Japan.

Credit: Nikkatsu Corporation

04. Onibaba (1964)

Locked away in the tempestuous rural outskirts, Onibaba opens in an endless expanse of outgrown reeds spiraling in madness, like blades or tentacles, to an ominous beat, where a woman and her daughter-in law are constrained by poverty and wars to kill for a living. Their faces seem phantasmal, grown animalistic, with bloodied hands and hard-boiled minds to the point that they fail to react to the news of Kichi’s death. Death comes knocking on the old woman’s door in the form of an armored soldier, donning the hannya mask (traditionally used in Noh theatre), clinging behind her as a disquieting shadow of her crimes, until she leads him to the same infernal pitfall where she dumped their corpses. She takes possession of the unsettling mask, revealing a mutilated human face behind what seemed to be a seamy apparition, to put on the persona herself and keep her straying daughter-in-law under her control. Karma is spelled out when the cursed mask would not come off, now become a symbiotic extension, her entrenched identity, driving her to a devilish dance of convulsion, until smashed to pieces and peeled off her face, when she loses her self along with it. The deft use of lighting, mutating dark and light, the incessant drumbeats admixed with war cries send shock waves that are bound to petrify our lineaments, much like them. As a cinematic retelling of folklore, Onibaba gifts cinematographic magic with its grotesque horror and eerie acoustics.

Credit: Toho

03. Woman in the Dunes (1964)

Breathlessly atmospheric in its haunting appeal, the cosmos of The Woman in the dunes is a floating dystopia, an infinite sea of sands, where time and direction seem to lose all dimension. A peripatetic entomologist finds himself lured and detained in into a chasm, the domestic terrain of a mystery woman, the captor as much a captive, to share in this otherworldly isolation. His Tantalus-like attempts to elope resemble those of an insect writhing inside its microcosmic cage; his inner metamorphosis is explored through gradual disintegration of his old self, of days lived out shoveling its grains and in her embraces. The film’s visual eloquence stands out like a hallucinatory blur experienced in burning languor. The musical score enriches its uncanny charm, piercing through memory like an alarm, ricocheting throughout the creased topography like seismic waves. It’s a vision intensely beautiful, granular like our perception of it, almost as if we, too, were vying for freedom and meaning amid this Camusian turbulence, to drown in its amorphousness, its lyrical existentialism.

Credit: Toho

02. Kwaidan (1965)

Based on the collection of stories by Lafcadio Hearn, Kwaidan features storybook folklore with lusciously daubed settings and power-driven expressionism. There is little suspense, or even mystery, in the slow-moving tales; its magic is experienced primarily in its painterly luminescence, its mystical transcendence, the lifelike antiquity and open-ended psychological thrill. More precisely, it explores the Freudian conception of strangeness residing in the familiar (the notion of the uncanny psychically and etymologically connected to the word ‘house’), or in Lacanian context, where the lines between good and bad, pleasure and displeasure become ostensibly blurred, just like the fluid strata vaguely separating the four subplots. Whether it is the house that takes up a spectral existence of its own, the strange woman of the snow or the battle of Heike and Genji amid Hokusai’s waves, Kwaidan recreates the preternatural with beguiling thespian grandeur. Here time is only a biwa, with dislodged domains clashing together and the explicable and inexplicable are simply no different at all.

Credit: Toho

01. Rashomon (1950)

In Rashomon, we are confronted with a philosophical inquiry, the dilemma of justice, the challenge of conflicting stances and human (ir)reliability. Addressing the investigation of murder and rape, the film ricochets into a series of flashbacks as recounted by the bandit, the knight, his lady and a stealthy eyewitness, the woodcutter. Each flashback is authentically played, in order we assess their veracity with an unbiased eye, while making and unmaking, in the midst of infinite possibilities. The overlaps and disjunctions, gaps and omissions, foibles and fallibilities that combine fact and fabrication probe deeper into the human question. Omnipresent tension lurks the horizon from the open court (a free space for judgement) to the canopied trees piercing the sunlight in the impenetrable backwoods (an arena shrouded by ambiguities). Indirectly, the drama might allude, in general, to the nations in World War II vying for conquest and in particular, those individual soldiers who were pitted to kill or be killed.

Credit: Daiei Film

Honourable Mentions:

Seven Samurai (1954)

Harakiri (1962)

The Life of Oharu (1952)

Throne of Blood (1957)

Musashino Fijin (1951)

Floating Weeds (1959)

Late Spring (1949)

The Ballad of Narayama (1958)

Children of Hiroshima (1952)

Fires on the Plain (1959)

The Flavour of green tea over rice (1952)

Yearning (1964)


Srimayee Ganguly

One Comment

  1. “Art is immortal in terms of time and place”, once someone said. Perhaps it was someone who was famous and influential or perhaps it was our own internal voice. Art always reflected our deepest consciousness in forms of existentialism, absurdity, symbolism and individualism as Ms. Ganguly eloquently worded. These ten immortal art reviewed by Ms. Ganguly certainly transcended time and place. Ms. Ganguly’s analysis on these ten stories are as deep and universal as those analyses presented by then critics. Yet at the same time it gives fresh new perspectives on them. It is as rewarding as the immortal art itself !

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