When Studios Start the New Wave

Japanese New Wave films differ from French or even American New Wave cinema because the studios started the wave. Even so, the Japanese New Wave wasn’t the first time the establishment overturned Japan’s film industry.

Inspiration can come from anywhere, and inspired films come from everywhere. Even so, studios are usually the on creativity sapping, play-it-safe side of the filmmaking equation, not the starting point of ground breaking film movements. But that’s not the case with the Japanese New Wave.

Not to make overly broad statements about Japanese film, but there’s a history of the Japanese film industry rapidly “modernizing” at various times. (Read modernizing as periodic westernizing.) During the silent era the existing Japanese film industry forced the Pure Film Movement. This movement removed the influence of traditional Japanese theater on the films of the 1910s and 1920s.

Later, in the 1950s, New Wave movements which dispensed with major studios or classical film craft were gaining momentum in Western Europe. In Japan the studios motivated directors to take up the conventions of these films. The result was an explosion of films which often revolved around crime and featured previously taboo themes in Japanese film. The movement dominated the industry from the 1960s to about 1980.

At these junctures in Japanese film history it’s hard to square originality with the intense Western influence, and it’s even harder to know how to feel about the great films on either side of such a huge cultural shift. Akira Kurosawa’s brilliant Ikiru (1952), exemplifies the sentimental view taken toward bureaucrats in Post-War Japan a decade before the Japanese New Wave became the standard. There is distinctly less moralizing in New Wave films. Nevertheless, the global perspective is overwhelmingly complicated in this movement.

Kurosawa saw his career decline during this period. Even his classic samurai period dramas don’t take the sort of taboo approach of, say, In the Realm of the Senses (1976). In the Realm of the Senses is a period drama, albeit set in the 1930s, and a late New Wave film. It features graphic sex scenes and realistic violence which earned an NC-17 rating upon releases America. In short there was a cultural movement that Japanese film studios didn’t take lightly which produced a host of films that make for some heavy viewing.

In the Realm of the Senses (1976) is an extremely graphic revenge story by any standards.

Essential Viewing

Studios Start a Movement

The Naked Island (1960)

The Warped Ones (1960)

Intimidation (1960)

Naked Youth (1960)

Pigs and Battleships (1961)

The Crest of a Wave

Gate of Flesh (1964)

Intentions of Murder (1964)

In the Realm of the Senses (1976)

Kanto Wanderer (1963)

Insect Woman (1963)

Black Sun (1964)

Profound Desires of the Gods (1968)

Dive Deep

Underworld Beauty (1958)

Crazed Fruit (1956)

Toshio Matsumoto: Experimental Film Works (1961-1987)

Branded To Kill (1967)

Poster for Underworld Beauty (1958)

Impressions of Intimidation

I’ll get the clichés right out of the way, Intimidation is like the Japanese Double Indemnity (1944), which is to say not really like Double Indemnity at all but stick with me. In New Wave cinemas writ large it’s what goes around comes around. Like in the 1940s Americans were making all these pulpy crime films that were well received in Europe, but that gritty style was abandoned in the prosperity of the 1950s in America. The rest of the world began riffing on the idea of a gritty underbelly of, well, everything!

So in Intimidation we have a bank manager on his way up, in Double Indemnity we have an insurance salesman. Intimidation has an unlikely bank teller pulling all the strings, Double Indemnity has a femme fatale housewife. Intimidation has a train, Double Indemnity has a—well it’s worth watching both anyway. —Peter

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