This is the story of a lost chapter in Japanese film history. It is a missing reel of cutting-room-floor footage that needs to be edited back in before the Big Picture, the dai eiga, nears true completion.
You might already know some of the story.
From the postwar years on, Japan produced some truly amazing films and filmmakers. The works of Akira Kurosawa, Yasujiro Ozu, Kenji Mizoguchi, Kon Ichikawa, and Nagisa Oshima, for starters. Acclaimed. Award winning. Ever present. The Western perception of Japanese cinema has been dominated by them for decades now. And not without good reason.
Yet during the same period, let’s say from 1950-1976, during which the big guns created their signature works, Japan’s popular cinema was also at its peak. During the late fifties and sixties especially, impressive moviemaking machinery was in place: a star system, a studio system, and an audience that supported Japanese films by demanding a host of new double- and triple–features every week.
A new generation of young filmmakers had to be ushered in to grind ‘em out. The rules were simple. Keep it cheap. Do it on time. Above all, make it entertaining.
Although these limitations were non-negotiable, the artists and journeymen who agreed to them were granted an enormous amount of creative freedom. As director Norifumi Suzuki (who helmed the almost unbelievably blasphemous School of the Holy Beast) has said in interviews, the only taboo that could not be transgressed was the Emperor. But aside from that, and a strict no-show stance on hardcore sexual imagery, the B- and C-class filmmakers could get away with anything.
Filmmakers like Norifumi Suzuki and screenwriters like Takeshi Kimura (aka Kaoru Mabuchi) sized up the situation and ran with the ball. They were progressive, free-thinking individuals who had endured the war, the subsequent American occupation, and were now working in a highly competitive and commercial mass medium.
Film studios, forever besieged with labor issues, had long held considerable attachments to the right wing and organized crime. The people who actually directed and wrote these films were frequently far more left of center. Yet these institutions and individuals needed each other. And out of the friction came both conflict and creativity.
Flickers from the late sixties and earlier seventies: yakuza movies, porno flicks, karate killers. This was the era of true Japanese exploitation films, primarily intended to rope in blue-collar types and young men who had migrated to the big city to take part in the economic miracle. The target audience got what it wanted in spades: criminals, monsters, escapism, shivers, sex and violence.
These movies, once considered so disposable by the parent studios that film prints and negatives were frequently destroyed soon after release, were often nothing less than the manifestos of the people who made them. Kinji Fukasaku’s yakuza films spoke as eloquently on the turmoil of postwar Japan as any history professor could. Shunya Ito’s Female Convict Scorpion series was a scathing critique of Japanese imperialism and patriarchy. Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster was a reaction to a horrific series of industrial pollution accidents. You didn’t even have to dig very deep to get the message. These “trash films” proudly wore their subtext on their sleeves.
And they looked great. Although frequently made on the quick and cheap, consummate professionals handled the raw materials all down the line. Japanese aesthetics of composition and design made their genre films truly special. During this quarter-century streak of Japanese film, no one consistently made more handsome pop films, save perhaps for the Italians (God bless them).
But it is not like many outside of Japan knew about any of this when it was happening.
Japanese studios, either out of sheer laziness or by assuming that there was no audience for these films abroad, did amazingly little to promote their titles overseas. And the ones that did make it to foreign screens? They were marketed to children, drive-ins, grindhouse theaters, and other channels of distribution either beneath the contempt, or simply the radar, of both the general public and “Japanese film experts.”
The people who did follow the trail saw enough to form lasting cults around. By the seventies, Japanese monsters and Sonny “The Street Fighter” Chiba could claim loyal acolytes world-wide.
During this same era in Japan, the tide went out for the film industry. Domestically produced movies had lost the lion’s share of their audience to TV shows and Hollywood blockbusters. The postwar generation of filmmakers had lost their playground. They moved to television, retired, or expired. By proxy, Japanese films became cult films in Japan too.
Cut to now.
A new Japanese New Wave is currently piquing the world’s interest. Filmmakers like Takashi Miike (Dead or Alive), Kiyoshi Kurosawa (Cure), Kaizo Hayashi (The Most Terrible Time in My Life), and Hideo Nakata (The Ring) have taken film festivals and international audiences by storm. They seem to have sprung from nowhere. People reach for comparisons, points of origin, and find a black hole.
The truth is that these new superstars of Japanese film sprang from the soil of the previous generation. Hideo Nakata first became a director at Nikkatsu studios during their notorious roman porno heyday. Kaizo Hayashi quotes freely from old yakuza films and ninja movies.
The old timers showed these future directors that there was nothing wrong with making genre films. Even the time-honored dance of time and money could give one immense artistic room to maneuver. And maybe most importantly, all of Japanese film, from A to Z, deserved to be on equal historical footing.
Take Takashi Miike. He began his film career as an assistant director to Shohei Imamura, yet he claims the work of Yukio Noda as a major inspiration.
Shohei Imamura? Sure. The Cannes-winning director of Insect Woman and The Pornographers. But who the heck is Yukio Noda? Answer: turn to page 51 of this book, for a write-up of his Golgo 13 movie starring Sonny Chiba, which can be found on US home video without too much difficulty.
The films obtained for review in this book were found any way we got them. Mostly this meant video. English-dubbed, raw Japanese, PAL/NTSC transfers, crappy Hong Kong VCDs, you name it. Several titles were procured by trading with a Japanese pen pal in exchange for contraband tapes of House Party 2 and 3 (perhaps he’s writing Kid ‘N Play Scope). We even hopped on a plane and went to Japan a couple of times. If we listed a movie as being “available” that means that you can get it on the internet, or bug your local video stores, or gray-market dealers, and probably come up with a copy.
If we wrote up a certain title, that means it gave us some thrills and some laughs and inspired us enough to generate a missive. This is not a book with a ratings system meant to divide things up into “authoritative” piles of Good and Bad. And to be honest, when it comes to these kinds of movies, there isn’t a heck of a lot that we don’t like.
After all, this book is subtitled The Japanese Cult Film Companion. We’re not trying to be an encyclopedia, Psychopathia Sexualis, or the phone book. We just want to take you off the beaten path of Kurosawa, Ozu, and Oshima for a bit and show you where the wild things are. Which means our first stop is Tokyo and the Shinjuku Showakan, the greatest movie theater in the world.
And immediately following the short subject: the main feature, an alternate history of Japanese film, a cult movie, proudly presented...in TokyoScope.
Sacramento—San Francisco—Japan, 2001