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What is Japanese Cinema?

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Well when you really get right down to it, Japanese Cinema is the film industry of Japan.  It's one of the oldest and largest since it's been around for more than 100 years.


 It all got started when the first foreign cameraman came to Japan in 1897.

Japanese Cinema In The Silent Era


Thomas Edison's kinetoscope first appeared in Japan in 1896, and then a year later was when some businessmen brought the Vitascope and the Lumiere Brothers' Cinematograph to Japan and made the first successful Japanese film showing the different sights around Tokyo.

But moving pictures was nothing new to the Japanese because they already had things like the magic lantern.

The first movies were based on Kabuki plays and other forms of traditional Japanese theater.  As such they started to hire the same benshi storytellers from the Kabuki plays to narrate the silent movies and eventually they started to do it with music just like in America.

Naturally, the benshi would eventually be without a job once the movies began making sound on their own in the 1930s.

Shozo Makino got started in 1908 with the movie Honnoji Gassen, and went on to be considered the pioneering director of Japan.  The star in his films was former kabuki actor Matsunosuke Onoe, who became the first film star in Japan by appearing in over 1,000 films from 1909 - 1926.

1909 was also the year that the Yoshizawa Shoten company built the first Japanese film production studio in Tokyo.

Early film magazines started up the movement of critiquing Japanese films in the 1910s.  Known as the Pure Film Movement, they did not like that they were using kabuki elements like benshi in the films instead of more cinematic techniques.

Eventually, some of these critics went on to become directors themselves and started making films that used cinematic techniques only.

Japanese Cinema In The 1920s


These new studios that started up in 1920 greatly helped out the cause for films to be reformed, resulting in Japanese films getting popular against foreign films with the inclusion of actors and movie stars by the mid - 1920s.

But while they did fine during the silent era, the costs to convert to sound caused a lot of these studios to have to shut down.

Tendency films started getting made by the end of the 1920s because of the rise of the left - wing political movement, but this movement was crushed in the 1930s because of censorship laws that resulted in a lot of the members being arrested.

Naturally, a lot of these early films were destroyed by the Great Kanto Quake and the fire bombing of Tokyo during WWII (Is it just me, of does that sound very familiar?).

Japanese Cinema In The 1930s


Japan was still making silent films by the late 1930s, 1938 - ish to be more accurate.  While Japanese films with sound did get started in the 1920s, it wasn't until 1930 when the first feature length Japanese talkie would be made.

The film critics started to split into two camps.  The "impressionist" critics were dominant, but there were also leftist critics who used ideological criticisms of films.

The government got involved in the film industry in 1939 when they passed the Film Law to give themselves more authority over the film industry.  This resulted in propaganda films and documentary films where realism was highly favored.

Japanese Cinema In The 1940s


The government used the cinema industry as a propaganda tool for showing that the Japanese empire was invincible during WWII since the industry was suffering because of the weak economy and high unemployment at the time (This is also sounding very familiar!).

An actress named Yoshiko Yamaguchi became very popular during this time by starring in these war time films using her Chinese name Li Xianglan to play the roles of Chinese women.  It wasn't until after the war that she started using her official Japanese name.

The Japanese film industry was controlled by a foreign power for the first time after Japan got it's ass handed to them in the war and was occupied by foreign powers in 1945.  This resulted in everything having to be done in English and being subjected to foreign censorship laws (Yep, sounding very familiar also!).

They even went back to some of the old movies and applied the censorship laws to them as well.  However the ban that was placed on American animation by the war time government was lifted, allowing the Japanese to finally enjoy over a decade's worth of American animation (So that's why this is sounding so familiar!).

When the responsibility of the war reached the film industry, the voices of those who were speaking out against the war were finally being heard and led to the directors of the war propaganda films being exiled.  But this was later lifted after they got lazy with it.

Because the censorship laws made it almost impossible to make historical drama films, a lot of the actors that normally make historical drama films ended up making appearances in contemporary drama films.  And the Mainichi Film Award was created in 1946.

Japanese Cinema In The 1950s


Ah, the golden age of Japanese films.  The movies of this decade are regarded as some of the top 10 best films ever made.  This is the decade in which the Japanese films made their debut and impact on the world stage and won several awards in foreign countries.


First off, a lot of the war films that were previously banned were finally allowed to be mass produced.  This included a lot of movies depicting emperors, which was previously considered unthinkable because the emperor is supposed to be sacred.

The popularity of a lot of the studios led to diversity in the distribution of the films after the American occupation was over.  This led to the rise of four great directors who each had their own way of addressing the war and the American occupation.

Japanese movies started being made in color, and the first American film was shot entirely in Japan in 1951.  1953 was when the first color Japanese film was released outside of Japan and won several awards, including the Palme d'Or which was never won by a Japanese film before.

The Blue Ribbon Awards were established in 1950, and Tadashi Imai was the first winner for Best Film.

Japanese Cinema In The 1960s


The film industry hit it's peak in the 1960s.  Most of the films were b - movies, which were films that took four weeks to make.  (I've been hearing about these from anime characters, but now I know what a b - movie is.)

The 1960s is when a lot of the classics were made because the film industry was very active during this period.  This made the 1960s the peak years of the Japanese New Wave movement.  Starting in the 1950s and continuing through to the 1970s, this was a movement that was focused on making documentaries.

Teshigahara and Masaki Kobayashi both won the special jury prize at the Cannes Film Festival and were also nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards.  Teshigahara was also nominated for Best Director.

Noboru Nakamura was also nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards, and competed for the Golden Bear at the 17th Berlin International Film Festival.  But Tadashi Imai actually won the Golden Bear at the 13th Berlin International Film Festival.

Japanese Cinema In The 1970s


Because of the rise of TV, the film industry started losing a huge portion of their audience in the 1970s (Where have I heard this before I wonder?).  Starting in the 1960s and through to the 1980s with the peak happening in the 1970s, the film audience dropped from 1.2 million to .2 million.

This made the film industry have to fight back by making movies that could never be shown on TV, such as including a lot of sex and a lot of violence.  This is also the period of when a lot of movies that would star idols as actors would start getting made because of their popularity bringing crowds back to the theaters.

This also led to a lot of experimental films such as the movie Coup d'Etat, which got wide critical acclaim throughout Japan.  This also led to the movie In The Realm of the Senses, a film that was so sexually explicit that it was never shown uncut in Japan.

The Yellow Handkerchief was another film that was very notable during this period as it won the first Japan Academy Prize for Best Film in 1978.  Two other films, Dodes'ka-den and Sandanken No. 8, were also notable for winning Academy Award nominations for Best Foreign Language Film.

Japanese Cinema In The 1980s


The 80s was when the big movie studios went downhill fast, with Toho, Shochiku, Nikkatsu, and Toei (Why do I get the feeling this is starting to lead somewhere?) just barely hanging on.


Some of the older generation of film directors managed to make a comeback during this period.  Akira Kurosawa was one such director as he made the movies Kagemusha in 1980 and Ran in 1985, the former of which won the Palme d'Or at the 1980s Cannes Film Festival.

Seijun Suzuki also made a comeback with the movie Zigeunerweisen in 1980.  Shohei Imamura made the movie The Ballad of Narayama, which also won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 1983.  And Yoshishige Yoshida made his first movie since he made Coup d'Etat in 1973 in 1986 called A Promise.

Juzo Itami was one of the new directors of the 1980s.  He made his first movie The Funeral in 1984, and he won critical and box office success with his movie Tampopo in 1985.

Another new director was Shinji Imai who normally makes kids movies for the Typhoon Club, but won critical acclaim for the Roman porno Love Hotel.  Kiyoshi Kurosawa also got started in the 1980s, but would not get recognition until the mid - 1990s.

This was also the decade of when anime would begin gaining popularity with animated movies based on anime and manga coming out every summer and winter (Now we're talking!).

Mamoru Oshii's landmark hit Angel's Egg came out in 1985, and Hayao Miyazaki brought out his hit movie based on the manga Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind in 1984.  Katsuhiro Otomo also made his hit manga Akira into a feature film in 1988.

Japanese Cinema In The 1990s


The 90s is when the decline of movie studios because of recessions finally started to turn around, as demonstrated with the start of the Japanese multiplex.

Takeshi Kitano won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival with his movies Sonatine, Kids Return, and Hana - bi.  Shohei Imamura became the fifth director to win the Golden Palm a second time, this time with his movie The Eel.

The movie Cure gave director Kiyoshi Kurosawa international recognition.  The movies Audition, Dead or Alive (Why does this sound so familiar I wonder?), and The Bird People in China started Takashi Miike's career.

Hirokazu Koreeda, who used to make documentary films, started an acclaimed career with the movies Maborosi and After Life.

And now for the best part!  Hayao Miyazaki made two big hit anime movies.  Porco Rosso kicked E.T.'s ass and Princess Mononoke kept the number one spot up until Titanic stole it.

And he wasn't the only director to show off what anime is made of!  Mamoru Oshii brought us the internationally acclaimed Ghost in the Shell, the award winning Perfect Blue was brought to us by Satoshi Kon, and Hideaki Anno brought huge recognition to anime with The End of Evangelion.

Japanese Cinema In The 2000s


The 2000s was considered Japanese cinema's second golden age, and it was mainly thanks to the rise of anime.  There were 821 movies that came out in 2006, and over 60% of those were anime films.

Shunji Iwai directed a movie called All About Lily Chou - Chou, which was honored at the Berlin Film Festival, Yokohama Film Festival, and the Shanghai Film Festival in 2001.

Takeshi Kitano directed and starred in Dolls and Zatoichi, and appeared in Battle Royale (Sounds very familiar!).  Some of the commercial successes were the horror movies Kairo, Dark Water, Yogen, the Grudge series, and One Missed Call.

Ryuhei Kitamure celebrated the 50th anniversary of Godzilla in 2004 with the release of Godzilla: Final Wars.  Seijun Suzuki made his 56th movie in 2005, Princess Raccoon.  Distance and Nobody Knows, two movies made by Hirokazu Koreeda, won film festival awards around the world.

The Mourning, directed by Naomi Kawase, won the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival in 2007.  And the trilogy of acclaimed samurai films Twilight Samurai in 2002, The Hidden Blade in 2004, and Love and Honor in 2006 were made by Yoji Yamada.

Hayao Miyazaki killed the box office records and won several awards, including the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature in 2003 when he brought us Spirited Away in 2001, Howl's Moving Castle in 2004, and Ponyo in 2008.

Mamoru Oshii received critical praise from around the world when he brought us Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence in 2004, and got similar recognition in 2008 with his movie The Sky Crawlers.

Satoshi Kon brought us Millennium Actress, Tokyo Godfathers, and Paprika, three quieter releases that were still highly successful.  Katsuhiro Otomo brought us his first movie since his 1995 hit Memories, Steamboy in 2004.

American director Michael Arias won international acclaim when he collaborated with Studio 4C to bring us Tekkon Kinkreet in 2008.

And Hideaki Anno formed studio Kara and brought back his still popular Evangelion series by giving us an alternate retelling of the story in a series of new movies known as The Rebuild of Evangelion.

The Japan Commission Production Council was established in February of 2000.  The Japanese Foundation for the Promotion of the Arts presented their laws to the House of Representatives on November 16 of 2001.

The laws, which were passed on November 30 and went into effect on December 7, were to make it so that governments must help preserve film media.

12 more policies were also proposed at the Agency of Cultural Affairs in 2003 that would allow movies to be promoted and shown at the Film Center of the National Museum of Modern Art.

Japanese Cinema Today


And that brings us up to the present day.  While there are still a number of Japanese movies coming out, anime and anime based live action movies still make up a large portion of the movies being made.

And while I do approach anime based Hollywood live action movies with a grain of salt like I'm sure most of you guys do, I've still found a very good use for even the terrible ones.  Check out the video above!

Image of what is Kabuki
What is Kabuki?

But I'm sure they'll eventually get it right as long as they never give up and keep trying.  And yes I know I'm a little too easy on Hollywood compared to what I should be.  This is why I can hardly wait to see where anime movies and anime based live action movies will be in the future.

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