November 29, 2023

In 2018 Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Shoplifters won the Palme d’Or at Cannes. The award itself was less of a surprise than the fact Shoplifters was the first of Kore-edo’s films to win it, given how long he had been the most respected Japanese filmmaker alive. And although it has been more than twenty years since Palme last appeared in a Japanese film – Shomei Imamura Eel, in 1997 — Japan had long established itself at Cannes as the Asian country to beat. Imamura Ballad of Narayam won the Palme in 1983, Akira Kurosawa Kagemusha in 1980 and Teinosuke Kinugasa’s The Gate of Hell in 1954, when Western cinephiles were just beginning to appreciate Japanese cinema.

Why has this award proven to be so enduring? That’s one of the questions explored in “The Essential Japanese Cinema,” a video essay from The Cinema Cartography. Narrator Luiza Liz Bond emphasized the “heightened aesthetic sensibility” of Japanese filmmakers exhibited in Ozu’s “tender observation Tokyo StoryKurosawa’s Poetic Rhapsody Dreamsa harrowing female gaze Videophobia.” But equally rich and even more varied examples can be found in lesser-known films from Japan, such as Shūji Terayama’s committed experimental drama Drop your books, gather in the streetsKaizō Hayashi’s oneiric silent film pastiche Sleep like a dreamand Gakuryū Ishii’s gently psychedelic and sci-fi coming-of-age story August in the water.

The video organizes these films and many others under the rubric of philosophical concepts drawn from Japanese culture. These include bushidothey recognized the samurai code of the West through the pictures of Akira Kurosawa and Masaki Kobayashi; wabi-sabian ideal of beauty centered on imperfect things; mono doesn’t realize, sensitivity to the transient and ephemeral; and guro, which pushes the unrest to its outer limits. Their heightened aesthetic sense “gives Japanese filmmakers the ability to tune into grotesque and horror,” notes Bond. They understand that we all enjoy beauty, but to enhance this process, it is necessary to appreciate ugliness. Beauty and ugliness are not opposites, but different aspects of the same thing.”

Of course, one need not be familiar with these ideas to enjoy Japanese cinema. Hiroshi Teshigahara’s texturally intense erotica Woman in the Dunesjunkyard body horror Shinya Tsukamoto Tetsuo: Iron Manthe relentlessly bizarre ingenuity of Nobuhiko Obayashi House: these can only be delivered by filmmakers who first understand that they are working in a medium of visceral power. Even the work of Yasujirō Ozu, known for his steadfast restraint, resonates with us more deeply than ever six decades after his death. “It’s impossible to talk about the sublime without talking about his depiction of human frailty,” says Bond. “Ozu is never too sentimental, never too ornate. If only more modern filmmakers, from Japan or elsewhere, looked up to his example?

Related Content:

How did Akira Kurosawa make such powerful and enduring films? The wealth of video essays shattered his cinematic genius

How one simple cut reveals the cinematic genius of Yasujirō Ozu

Hayao Miyazaki Meets Akira Kurosawa: Watch the Titans of Japanese Cinema in Conversation (1993)

How master Japanese animator Satoshi Kon pushed the boundaries of anime creation: A video essay

Wabi-Sabi: A short film about the beauty of traditional Japan

Page of Madness: A Masterpiece of the Lost Avant-Garde of Early Japanese Cinema (1926)

based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcastson cities, language and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books about cities, book The Stateless City: A Walking Tour of 21st Century Los Angeles and video series City in cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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