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Good Japanese Movies (1980-85): Inspired By…

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GJ Cole itcherTwenty years into its renaissance, Japanese cinema retained the energy of its new wave forefathers and had the craft skills to match. With yakuza flicks and girl gang ‘pink films’ starting to feel tiring, the filmmakers looked elsewhere for inspiration. From novels and manga to real-life figures and movements, these five movies took the baton from their peers and ran with it. ~ GJ Cole

Literary Pursuits

The seventies brought a handful of animated manga adaptations (along with a few astonishing live-action versions), but anime didn’t truly blossom until the 1980s, when movies such as ‘Akira’ (1988) would bring the genre to the world’s attention.

‘Urusei Yatsura’ was one such adaptation. Through a TV series and a couple of movies it explored a science-fiction universe in comic parody of the culture and customs of Japanese life.

Japanese culture was put under further scrutiny by the US-Japanese production of ‘Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters’, which poetically evoked the life of counter-culture writer Yukio Mishima, It was particularly inspired by his symbolic death.

‘Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence’ was another western-oriented work, taking Laurens van der Post’s novel as inspiration for a thoughtful critique of Japanese mores and tradition. And ‘Carnival of Night’ fed from the music and energy of the punk scene to create a scathing review of contemporary Japan.

Finally, Shûji Terayama’s ‘Farewell to the Ark’ took a small section of the magic-realist novel ‘100 Years of Solitude’ as the starting point for an irreverently nostalgic look at Japan’s passing traditions. It proved to be the swansong of the multi-media artist’s great career.


Inspired Japanese Movie Recommendations

‘Yami no kânibaru’ / ‘Carnival of Night’ (Masashi Yamamoto, 1982)

Is there really any movie that can “change your life” by seeing it? Well, I don’t know. Maybe not…

The most punk Japanese movie of all time? Coming to blow away any perceived dominance of symbolic indulgence, sexploitation and glamorized violence, ‘Carnival of Night’ was a gritty, wild, frank, and scuzzy poke in the eye to those few viewers with the stomach to watch it.

Kumi is the singer of a punk band more angry, desperate and out of control than their dope-tamed fans (their opening song, in fact by real-life post-punks A-Musik, instantly seduces any viewer with a passing interest in rock). Populated by nihilists, would-be terrorists, and psychotic bullies, Kumi organizes daycare for her son in the same tone that she arranges to borrow a gun from a local low-life.

A series of violently shocking sequences follow, all shot in gloomy 16mm black and white (after deceptively colourful opening scenes). For those who saw it on its release or soon after, it became a defining cultural experience: a rare incidence of a true punk flick declaring its own relevance on the same terms as the studio pictures and independent art-house fare it faced up against.

‘SenjŌ no MerĪ Kurisumasu’ / ‘Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence’ (Nagisa Oshima, 1983)

They were a nation of anxious people… and they could do nothing individually. So they went mad… en masse…

Oshima’s first English-language movie is an adaptation of Laurens van der Post’s ‘The Seed and the Sower’ (1963), based on the novelist’s own experiences of life in a Japanese prisoner war camp.

Measured, taut, and sensual, the movie sets itself apart with two peculiar acts of casting. The first is David Bowie’s bold, inspiring stance as an insolent New Zealander who draws special attention from the camp’s commandant.

The other is the appearance of “Beat” Takeshi Kitano, a well known stand-up comedian who would later establish himself as a true auteur of Japanese cinema. Japanese audiences reportedly laughed every time he came on-screen in the movie; there was tenderness and humour alongside the cruelty of his role as Sergeant Hara, but it was hardly intended as a comic turn.

For audiences unfamiliar with Kitano’s comic persona, Oshima’s sensitive treatment of the pride, honour, human spirit and homoerotic undertones make for a timeless classic that speaks specifically about the Japanese condition of the day while making broader connections with the capability of cruelty and of tenderness in every human heart.

‘Urusei Yatsura OnrĪ YŪ’ / ‘Urusei Yatsura: Only You’ (Mamoru Oshii, 1983)

Oh no. Th… that’s the Oni-girl, the one on the top of the Anti-Wedding Group Blacklist…

A colourful cult kids animation about a boy betrothed since childhood to an alien beauty. Eleven years later she turns up in her wedding gown, by which point he’s already forgotten about her and is stepping out with another alien beauty.

Intergalactic chases, false-starts and mixed-identities make for a fun ride, whatever your age.

What’s refreshing is that although it’s a kids romance film, all of the characters are horrible and selfish. Especially the sex-crazed ‘hero’ who believes that if he marries the alien Princess he can start a harem. The two lead females are hyper-neurotic, violent and quite possibly sociopathic (one keeps her man in order by dispensing lightning bolts at him, the other has kidnapped a thousand handsome men and frozen them so their love can’t expire).

Delicate adult attention spans may strain at nearly two hours of colourful fluff, but if it catches your juvenile imagination. There’s plenty of cruelty to keep you hooked.

‘Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters’ (Paul Schrader, 1985)

Creating something beautiful and becoming beautiful oneself are indistinguishable…

Written and directed by a team of Americans (Schrader is best known as the screenwriter of ‘Taxi Driver’), this highly-conceptualized biopic of one of Japan’s most notorious cultural figures benefits from their perspective of an outsider (just fifteen years after Mishima’s failed coup and ritual suicide, Japanese audiences were not ready to face the movie).

Beginning on the day of Mishima’s death, the ‘Four Chapters’ tells the story through a thematic structure that takes dramatic adaptations of parts of Mishima’s novels to expand the complex political and personal motivations behind his spectacular demise.

A little dry at times, it’s essential viewing for those with an interest in Mishima or in Japanese culture in general – and others not yet hooked by the subject might well be guided to a new path of investigation by this bizarre and romantic life story .

‘Saraba hakobune’ / ‘Farewell to the Ark’ (Shûji Terayama, 1984)

People are born half dead, it takes them a whole life to die completely…

Loosely adapted from Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s ‘100 Years of Solitude’, ‘Farewell to the Ark’ was Teryama’s final film.

The filmmakers personal lexicon of symbolic imagery remains at the forefront of this tale of two cousins whose mutual lust is perpetually thwarted by her chastity belt. Strange goings-on in their village are used as metaphors for the inexorable passing of time and the modernisation of Japan, and the text inspires some remarkably fresh images, proving that if Teryama’s films were often repetitive, they never got stale.

As ever, the histrionic score is provided by the remarkable J.A. Seazer – one of Teryama’s key collaborators over his sadly brief career. He wrote over a dozen plays and short stories, directed over twenty short and feature-length films, and created a huge oeuvre of experimental photography and collage works.


Return to the Source

Rich cultural worlds are explored, not uncritically, in this selection of adaptations, off-shoots and tributes.

If you like what you find, I highly recommend searching further: the photography of Teryama, the recordings of ‘Carnival of Night’s’ A-Musik, and the novels of Yukio Mishima are all excellent paths into the curious and daring world of the Japanese avant-garde.

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