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Here are five mad masterpieces to convince you that Japanese film-making is among the most imaginative and ambitious of all the world’s cinema.
Pushing moral boundaries and aesthetic taste to their limits, towards the end of the 70s these five directors were determined to take a shot at the hypocrisy of the ruling class while entertaining the hell out of their audiences.
Already well-established as a master filmmaker, Nagisa Oshima found international notoriety with his candid take on an erotic true-life story from Japan’s past. Multi-media artist Shûji Terayama continued his cinematic exploration of his own background with the beguiling ‘Grass Labyrinth’.
The horror and satire genres were set new high bars by new-comers Nobuhiko Obayashi and Kazuhiko Hasegawa. And Seijun Suzuki, that untameable 60s’ legend, finally returned to limelight with his elegant but surreal period drama, ‘Zigeunerweisen’.
A girl like you can stab a man’s heart without a knife, huh?
One of the most notorious movies ever to emerge from Japan – indeed, the film footage had to be processed in France to bypass the censors – ‘In the Realm of the Senses’ is in fact a measured artistic exploration of its subject and themes.
Taking the true story of Sada Abe, a former prostitute in 30s’ Tokyo as its starting point, the film devotes itself to the physical love affair between her and the boss of the hotel where she worked as a maid.
Their erotic obsession with each other culminates in a sado-masochistic relationship that even death cannot entirely extinguish. It’s an engrossing study of lust, trust, and the strong relationship between sex and death.
Scenes of unsimulated sex got the film widely banned, while probably winning the film a larger audience in the long run. But really, such intimacy was necessary for the claustrophobic, candid atmosphere of the film. It’s art, okay?
She eats unmarried young girls. It is the only time she can wear her wedding gown…
Known to cult enthusiasts as one of the craziest movies ever made, ‘House’s’ blend of horror, fantasy and slapstick, with its ironic sugar-sweet tone, was unprecedented at the time and has rarely been outdone since.
A schoolgirl named Gorgeous decides to spend the summer with her aunt, having been heartbroken when her widowed father returned home with a new wife. Taking six of her best friends with her (each with equally descriptive nicknames) the holiday starts out all sunshine and smiles, but as soon as the girls reach their remote destination, they (or parts of them) start to disappear one by one.
The circumstances of each grisly death get weirder and weirder as a twisted logic emerges from the rickety old house that is devouring them. Obayashi, who had a background in commercials, designs every narrative shift to run like clockwork, while the special effects grow more and more bizarre – this is not your knives-and-ketchup US schlock horror, but a blend of animation, clever set design and camera tricks. In short: Disney gone very, very wrong.
A singular experience for horror fans and connoisseurs of cult weirdness alike.
Not released in Japan until 1983, ‘Grass Labyrinth’ was initially released in France as part of a portmanteau movie, with the other parts made by directors Walerian Borowczyk and Just Jaeckin. A strange combination, although all three are renowned for making ‘outrageous’ movies. Teryama’s strong sense of personal mythology seems out of place next to Jaeckin’s softcore titillation if not Borowczyk’s sexualized fairytales.
Seen by itself, ‘Grass Labyrinth’ feels like a return to the universe of the filmmaker’s earlier ‘Pastoral’ (1974), but in a condensed form that assumes a new legend: a young man searches the land for the lyrics to the lullaby his mother sang to him as a child.
An odyssey through the universe of Teryama’s familiar symbolic images, the material draws fresh strength from its tender premise. As ever, Teryama speaks about love, life, death, and sex in the violently ridiculous terms the topics deserve.
When you have an atomic bomb, you can do anything you want. The funny part is … I have no idea what I want…
Spectacular stunts and bewildering set design set Hasegawa’s satirical nuclear espionage flick apart from the less explosive Japanese comedies of the day.
The humour remains dry as a bone even as the plot escalates into the ridiculous: Kenji Sawada plays Makoto, a disaffected chemistry teacher whose scientific vigour extends to his home hobby – building an atomic bomb in his apartment (to the neglect and eventual destruction of his beloved pet cat).
We find ourselves alternately rooting for and terrified of the unlikely anti-hero Makoto as he attempts feats that would make James Bond wince in his ongoing efforts to blackmail the government into showing baseball games on TV without the pesky interference of commercial breaks. Fair enough.
You can’t go back now, can you?
Fans of Suzuki’s outlandish 1960s gangster flicks (the same ones that eventually got him blacklisted by the Japanese studios) may be surprised to find the great director in such mellow form, but this ghost-story-without-ghosts soon reveals itself to be as surreal and original as Suzuki’s earlier work – just in a more subtle way.
Yoshio Harada – who you may by now recognize from the films of Shûji Terayama – plays a philosophical drifter, who is rescued from accusations of an assault by a former colleague that he runs into by chance. Their friendship is reignited, but Harada’s colleague becomes bewildered by the drifter’s atypical behaviour, and their lives lead them in directions that they had not previously imagined.
Filmed with grace and suggestion, ‘Zigeunerweisen’ was Suzuki’s chance to prove to himself as not just a studio hack with ideas to burn, but a cinematic artist in the traditional sense.
These movies were the cornerstones of the eras ambitious, surreal cinema. Are there any others we’ve missed?
Let us know in the comments!