The Review/Short Read/

The “Big Five” of Japanese Cinema

An introduction to the directors who shaped the image of their nation’s cinema in the West

by James Quandt
Jun 26, 2018

Over its nearly three decades of existence, TIFF Cinematheque has produced numerous retrospectives, publications, and international tours dedicated to Japanese cinema, from the silent era to the contemporary period. Below, in the first of several forthcoming pieces related to our vast survey series Summer in Japan, we offer a brief introduction to the five most famous Japanese filmmakers, whose work helped shape the image of their nation’s cinema in the West.

Seven Samurai

Akira Kurosawa

The first Japanese director to make a major breakthrough in the west, Akira Kurosawa stands as one of the most internationally influential directors in the history of cinema, introducing or popularizing many editing and narrative techniques that would inspire (or be copied by) such filmmakers as Sergio Leone, Sam Peckinpah, George Lucas, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, and Walter Hill. Stalking mean streets both medieval (the jidai-geki epic Seven Samurai) and modern (the contemporary crime thrillers Stray Dog and High and Low), Kurosawa is best-known for his muscular action films, but he proved equally adept at humanist pathos (the heart-tugging drama Ikiru) — not to mention the fact that he also originated a term for the relativity of truth (Rashomon) which long ago slipped the culturally specific bounds of its derivation to become common international currency.

Tokyo Story

Yasujiro Ozu

Famously anointed by Paul Schrader as one third of a transcendental trio of filmmakers (along with Robert Bresson and Carl Dreyer), Yasujiro Ozu gained international fame based on a half dozen of his (mostly late) films: muted, minimalist home dramas that were esteemed for their “eternal verities” about family, death, transience and tradition, for their poignancy, Zen serenity and quiet sense of resignation, and for their delicacy, restraint, and formal rigour. While it’s pointless to deny these qualities in Ozu’s work, or to contend that these late films are anything but sublime — particularly the towering duo of Late Spring and Tokyo Story, the first of the director’s works to achieve recognition in the West — this reading ignores or suppresses much of what actually comprises Ozu’s universe. As films like The Flavour of Green Tea Over Rice, Late Autumn and Equinox Flower demonstrate, humour was as native to Ozu’s cinema as was heartbreak, particularly in the director’s sly critiques of patriarchal presumption and male arrogance. Nevertheless, it is hardly inaccurate to think of Ozu as one of the cinema’s true poets of transience: on the evidence of An Autumn Afternoon, which joins Bresson’s L’Argent and Dreyer’s Gertrud as one of the greatest of all final films, it’s hard to believe that Ozu did not have his sights set on the everlasting.

The Life of Oharu

Kenji Mizoguchi

“Like Bach, Titian, and Shakespeare, he is the greatest in his art,” French critic Jean Douchet once said of Kenji Mizoguchi, and like those mighty predecessors, the director’s oeuvre is imposing in its immensity, reach, accomplishment and influence: Godard, Pasolini, Fassbinder, Straub-Huillet and Tarkovsky are just a few of the filmmakers who have been influenced by Mizoguchi, and when his works reached the West he promptly became one of the cornerstones of the emerging politique des auteurs propagated by Cahiers du Cinéma. Such classics as Ugetsu, Sansho the Bailiff, The Crucified Lovers, and The Life of Oharu are unequalled for their visual richness and emotional force, as well as for the ways in which they develop and extend their maker’s core thematic concerns: the interplay of art and life, distance and identification, the transience of life, the vanity of human ambition, transcendence through love after death, and, most insistently, the historical subjugation of women in Japan.

An Actor’s Revenge

Kon Ichikawa

Though Kon Ichikawa has long recognized as one of the most significant and prolific artists of Japanese cinema, the sheer breadth and eclecticism of his work has made him quite hard to “pin down” in contrast to the relative consistency and uniformity of his great contemporaries. Ichikawa is an artist with an astounding command of many genres, forms and tones, from ferociously humanist war films to sophisticated social satires, formalist documentaries to extravagant period pieces. His celebrated adaptations of famous Japanese novels such as Enjo and The Makioka Sisters earned him a reputation as a “deadpan sophisticate” (as per Pauline Kael) with an elegant compositional style, venomous wit, and narrative daring, but he is also a crafty master of populist entertainments — and, with the truly outrageous widescreen epic An Actor’s Revenge, he proved himself an audacious master of gender- (and genre-)bending spectacle, mixing self-regarding visual and aural jokes with hall-of-mirrors narrative tricks, cross-dressing seductions, swordfights, and lassoing contests, all staged on blazingly stylized sets and accompanied by bursts of cocktail jazz.

Floating Clouds

Mikio Naruse

Long overshadowed by his more renowned contemporaries Kurosawa, Ozu and Mizoguchi, Mikio Naruse has finally begun to receive overdue acclaim in the West. One cause of this neglect was surely the fact that Naruse bore such strong similarities to at least two members of that triumvirate. Like Ozu, he established a set of themes and variations which he returned to again and again, thematic markers that are reflected (again like Ozu!) in the sometimes bewildering similarity of his titles and his repeated use of certain actors, most notably Kinuyo Tanaka, Setsuko Hara, and Hideko Takamine (the latter of whom starred in two of his signature works, Floating Clouds and When a Woman Ascends the Stairs). Further, because so many of Naruse’s films centre on women trapped in some way, they have often been compared to Mizoguchi’s — a comparison that is telling but ultimately beside the point, so far away from Mizoguchi’s universe of cosmic suffering, remorse and catharsis is Naruse’s world of tragically aware but persevering victims, his unsentimental, even mordant tone, and his stylistic transparency. Ultimately, it was Kurosawa (who told associates that Naruse was his favourite director) who most precisely discerned the invisible artistry, the hidden complexity of Naruse’s style, when he compared his cinema to “a deep river with a quiet surface disguising a fast-raging current underneath.”

Banner image at top (clockwise from top left): Kon Ichikawa's The Makioka Sisters, Yasujiro Ozu's Late Autumn, Kenji Mizoguchi's Ugetsu, Mikio Naruse's When a Woman Ascends the Stairs, Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon