Japanese movies have a long and decorated history, stretching back to before the 1930s when silent films were most common. Multiple genres have developed from the early film productions in Japan, which were largely based on traditional period and stage plays. The advent of anime, horror, monster films, and jidaigeki period films have all made profound impacts of the cinema in both Japan and the western world.
The earliest films produced in Japan were Bake Jizo and Shinin no sosei, both produced and directed in 1898. The earliest films in Japan’s history were largely period pieces and film adaptations of kabuki theater, and as such kabuki actor, Matsunosuke Onoe, became the first true movie star with more than 1,000 films to his credit between 1909 and 1926 during the silent era.
Female performers were not allowed in film until 1911 when Tokuko Nagai Takagi first appeared in a series of four short films. Kenji Mizoguchi started his career during this silent film era and later went on to become one of nation’s most prolific directors. Many of these early films have been lost however due to a combination of World War II, the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake, and the ravages of time on filmstock.
While silent films continued into the mid-1930s, the first talkies were produced in this period including Mizoguchi’s Sisters of the Gion in 1936, and The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums as well as Yamanaka’s Humanity and Paper Balloons in 1937. Also during this period however, censorship became a reality with multiple directors such as Daisuke Ito whose political leanings grew increasingly problematic in a nationalistic atmosphere.
The 1940s found Japan at the height of war and most of its films during the time period until 1945 reflected this. While many Jidaigeki, including Akira Kurosawa’s first film, Sugata Sanshiro in 1943, continued to be produced, modern topics were largely considered out of bounds and military productions were ramped up to reflect the national mood.
Following the end of World War II however, and with the Allied occupation, a number of films that had been released during the 1930s and 40s became available in Japan greatly influencing many of the nations directors and animators. Also during this time, another of the country’s early masters rose to prominence in Yasujiro Ozu whose Late Spring was a huge success in 1949.
During the 1950s, Japanese Cinema exploded with a new rush of emerging talent and films that are still today considered among the best in film history. To start the decade, Akira Kurosawa’s [[Rashomon] won over a number of critics and audiences and went on to win the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Toshiro Mifune, one of Japan’s biggest film stars of all time was introduced in Kurosawa’s period piece and the two would work together many times in the future including on Seven Samurai, another all time top film and one that introduced a whole host of new cinematic techniques to the field, including various shot lengths, and cutting techniques.
Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story was released in 1953 to grat acclaim and the first Japanese color film, Gate of Hell was released in the same year under the direction of Teinosuke Kinugasa. In the same year (1954) that Seven Samurai saw its initial release, Ishiro Honda released Gojira (Godzilla), a post-nuclear commentary that went over very well overseas. The film was highly edited though when it was released in America largely due to its thematic content, but still went on to become a major icon of Japan’s Kaiju film genre, spawning countless monster flicks to follow. Other major film releases of the 1950s included:
During the 1960s, Akira Kurosawa once again started the decade with an iconic, influential film in Yojimbo, released in 1961. The film, hailed as the precursor to the Spaghetti Western was a major success both in Japan and abroad. Other major films released early include Ozu’s final film, An Autumn Afternoon, released in 1962 and Naruse’s When a Woman Ascends the Stairs in 1960.
The first Technicolor films in Japan were released in the 1960s as well with Kon Ichikawa’s Tokyo Olympiad, a celebrated documentary of the 1964 Olympics. Another prominent name arose in this period with Seijun Suzuku, who was actually fired from his post with Nikkatsu for making Branded to Kill in 1967. Japanese films continued to gain international attention as well with films like Woman in the Dunes winning the Special Jury Prize in Cannes in 1964 and Kwaidan following in the next year with the same honor.
During the 1970s, new genres and styles of Japanese film were developed along with a number of collaborative projects with other directors from abroad. The rise of the Pink film industry also marked the 1970s with Nagisa Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses released in 1976. The film contained a number of pornographic scenes and was never shown in Japan in its uncut form.
Other directors such as Yoji Yamada rose to prominence with his Tora-San series, while Kinji Fukasaku created and completed his Battles Without Honor and Humanity series. Shohei Imamura returned to feature films in 1979 with Vengeance is Mine and Akira Kurosawa took dramatic shifts in his work with films like Dursu Uzala – a Russian/Japanese collaboration.
While anime had been building in popularity and films were released in the 1950s and 1960s, the breakthrough of films such as Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind from Hayao Miyazaki made headways for major productions and big budgets in Japanese animation during the 1980s. Other well known feature directors returned to form in the decade, with Shohei Imamura making The Ballad of Narayama and winning the Golden Palm at Cannes in 1983. Akira Kurosawa made his first color films in the 1980s with Kagemusha and Ran, both with the backing and support of American producers and fellow directors who had long since cited him as a major source of inspiration in their works.
During the 1990s, a wide array of new directors and genres found their way into the Japanese mainstream. Directors such as Takeshi Kitano appeared and made films such as Sonatine in 1993 and Hana-bi in 1997 which won the Golden Lion in Venice. Takashi Miike began his career in the 1990s as well with the first in his Dead or Alive series in 1999 and Audition in late 1998. His career has been incredibly prolific since, making more than 50 films in the 11 years since he first debuted.
Hayao Miyazaki continued his string of successes in the 1990s with films like Porco Rosso and Princess Mononoke and many other animated feature directors became successful including the likes of Mamoru Oshii with Ghost in the Shell, Satoshi Kon with Perfect Blue and the film adaptations of Hideaki Anno’s Neon Genesis Evangelion series.
In recent years, Japanese film has continued its trend towards a mixture of classic jidaigeki, genre bending conceptual films, art-house dramas, and big budget animation. Notable films in the 2000s thus far include: