Movies are a reflection of culture. Be it comedy, survival or everyday angst, Americans find touchstones among the moving pictures we see. Yet looking beyond our own theaters can provide a glimpse of what is special to cultures on other parts of our planet.
From Sept. 23-26, the Japan Foundation, the Consulate-General of Japan at Denver and the International Film Series will team up to showcase four films culled from the vault of Nikkatsu Studios, a venerable Japanese film company celebrating 100 years in the business. From early silent films to big-budget productions and soul-searching indie flicks, Nikkatsu could be described as Japan’s version of Universal Studios.
The films are Tange Sazen and the Pot Worth a Million Ryo (1935), Suzaki Paradise Red Light (1956), Megane (Glasses) (2007) and One Million Yen Girl (2008).
“Films are a big part of Japanese culture nowadays,” says Hiromoto Oyama, deputy consul at the Consulate-General of Japan at Denver. “One of our missions here is to promote a good understanding of Japanese culture among the local community. So this presents [an opportunity] to show what Japan is like, what the Japanese people and Japanese society is like.”
Choosing four films from a catalogue of more than 1,000 titles is a daunting task. The Japan Foundation made selections that not only reflect the mindset of a film institution such as Nikkatsu, but also serve as snapshots into a transitioning country. Each film is subtitled, so local audiences can follow the dialogue.
An amalgam of Nippon Katsudo Shashin, meaning the Japan Cinematograph Company, the Nikkatsu Corporation has paralleled the ups and downs of the entire country over the past century. Through growth, stagnation, rebirth and survival, Nikkatsu has in its own way chronicled the opening of Japan to the West and the history of this densely populated island nation.
“Movies really became part of popular entertainment in the late 1910s and 1920s. Once they picked up [the technology], Japanese loved the movies,” says Faye Yuan Kleeman, graduate director of the Japanese program in the Department of Asian Languages and Civilizations at CU-Boulder, who studies post-war Japanese film.
Before the 20th century, Japan lived under a heavy curtain of isolation, insulated from outside influences. As the influence of western nations crept into the country, Japanese culture was forced to adapt to new technologies. Despite trepidation, Japan proved adept at adopting new technology and foreign customs and making them their own, Kleeman says. Influenced by American movie stars and their characters’ lexicon, the Japanese began to make movies a facet of everyday life.
By the 1930s, the Japanese film industry was producing prolifically. Nikkatsu became known for making fun, popular pictures, as seen in Tange Sazen and the Pot Worth a Million Ryo. The 1935 release features a folk hero akin to the Lone Ranger. As a one-eyed protector of innocents, the wandering samurai appeared often in prewar entertainment in Japan, Kleeman says.
“It is a comedy,” Kleeman says of Tange Sazen and the Pot Worth a Million Ryo. “Samurai comedy is relatively rare, as they usually are portrayed dealing with serious issues. It kind of shows Nikkatsu’s lighthearted entertainment bent before the war roiled the country.”
After World War II, the U.S. forces occupying Japan exercised prior restraint on the studio, not allowing nationalistic features or films glorifying the military or emperor, Kleeman says. After the Americans left, the company, along with the rest of the country, emerged with a new vigor for movie-making. Japanese studios exploded with pent-up creativity and emotion, leading the movie industry into a fresh era.
“People refer to the late ’50s through the ’60s as the golden age of Nikkatsu. They produced some very hard-core social commentary type of movies,” Kleeman says.
Suzaki Paradise Red Light is emblematic of the free expression revival after a devastating war and restrictive American occupation, Kleeman says. The 1956 film, about a couple trying to make their way in life on the seedier outskirts of Tokyo, provides a snapshot of the dawn of Japanese growth into an economic superpower.
“You see a lot of issues of economic survival, the shifting of white collar to labor, and the difficulties of making a living,” Kleeman says.
Wounded by television, by the late-’70s Nikkatsu was making ends meet with a genre known as Roman Porn, a mash-up of soft-core pornography and romance. Despite audience interest, by the 1990s not even these “pink films” could stem the losses. Nikkatsu chose bankruptcy in 1993.
Today film is a global industry. Hollywood’s reach extends to almost every corner of the world, and blockbusters open in the United States and in Japanese theaters on the same day. Despite this, domestic filmmaking in Japan has continued to thrive, producing features that reflect the mood and atmosphere of the country. Remarkably, Nikkatsu has made a Lazarus-like return to the business, shifting its aim to bring more of these views into focus.
The final two Nikkatsu movies at IFS reflect the new direction of storytelling, and do so in a way that peeks into the feelings of a country where devastating natural disasters and decades of cutthroat competition have left a new generation questioning their place in life.
Megane (Glasses) and One Million Yen Girl are two contemporary Japanese films directed by women that try to deconstruct the framework of human relations. Even though they were released before last year’s tsunami forced citizens to question their own priorities, they echo sentiments percolating among the younger generations.
“I feel like these two films are for young people; they are all about escape,” Kleeman says. “I think the new generation has really begun to question the whole value system, which is what I would call the post-war economic miracle value system. It’s about being tired of the economic miracle and breaking away.”