16 Film Masterpieces From Postwar Japan

The American Cinematheque’s “Modern Masters of the Japanese Cinema,” a judicious selection of 16 highly varied and important pictures by Japan’s finest directors of the postwar era, will screen Sept. 6-10 at the Directors Guild of America’s two theaters. Some of the films are well-known, such as Teinosuke Kinugasa’s “Gate of Hell,” one of the most beautiful of all color films. All of them are familiar by name to aficionados, but rarely screened. Every one is outstanding, which makes it difficult to select which ones to see, especially when they’ve been scheduled back-to-back.

“The Bad Sleep Well” (1960). Sept. 6 at 7 p.m. This rarely revived Akira Kurosawa film, shot in striking, high-contrast black-and-white, suggests “Hamlet” set in a contemporary world of skyscrapers and sports cars. Kurosawa perceives in the world of high finance and corporate intrigue the material for a classic tragedy, as his deceptively diffident hero (a bespectacled Toshiro Mifune) plots revenge for his father’s death by marrying the daughter of the man responsible. In Kurosawa’s skilled hands, a lurid expose of corrupt government and high-level bribery becomes timeless, universal social criticism.

“Gate of Hell” (1953). Sept. 6 at 7:15 p.m. Kurosawa’s ground-breaking “Rashomon” (1950), Kenzo Mizoguchi’s exquisite ghost story “Ugetsu” (1953) and “Gate of Hell” were the first three Japanese films to have an international impact after World War II. Set in the 12th Century, “Gate of Hell” is a conventional story of star-crossed lovers, a samurai (veteran matinee idol Kazuo Hasegawa) and a married woman (Machiko Kyo), but its ravishing color is unforgettable. (Winner of both best foreign film and best costume Oscars.)


“Late Chrysanthemums” (1954). Sept. 6 at 9:15 p.m. If you missed the Little Tokyo Cinema’s revival of this major Mikio Naruse film a year ago, here’s another chance to see one of the greatest films of the postwar Japanese cinema. An eloquent testament to the nobility of the human spirit, it tells of the lives of a group of aging geishas, played by Isuzu Yamada, Haruko Sugimura and the late Kinuyo Tanaka; Yamada and Sugimura remain active to this day.

“Woman in the Dunes” (1964). Sept. 7 at 9:15 p.m. One of the most popular Japanese pictures of the ‘60s, this highly stylized (and darkly amusing) Hiroshi Teshigahara film is an eerie, erotic allegory about an entomologist (Eiji Okada) who becomes trapped in a sand dune by a striking-looking, insinuating woman (Kyoko Kishida).

“The Funeral” (1984). Sept. 7 at 7 p.m. This wise, compassionate and slyly amusing 1984 film marked the feature debut of Juzo Itami, the writer-director of the popular “Tampopo.” Spanning the three days it takes to prepare and stage a traditional funeral, “The Funeral” emerges as a warm, subtle and perceptive (and occasionally ribald) film that celebrates life, not death. Nobuko Miyamoto and Tsutomu Yamazaki star (and were reteamed for “Tampopo” and “A Taxing Woman”).

“Carmen Comes Home” (1951). Sept. 7 at 9:30 p.m. Since Hideko Takamine, one of the enduring stars of the Japanese cinema, has always been associated with serious drama, even as a teen-ager, it’s startling to see her in this racy Keisuke Kinoshita musical comedy as a country girl turned Tokyo singer-stripper who returns home with delusions of stardom and high art. Beneath the film’s very broad humor there’s a subtle commentary on the vulgarities of Westernization.

“The Human Condition, Parts 1 and 2" (1958-61). Sept. 8 at noon. Masaki Kobayashi’s near-10-hour trilogy is one of the monumental achievements in motion-picture history, and received its first local revival in 20 years only last June. It is stupendous not only as a kind of ultimate indictment of man’s inhumanity to man but is also one of the few reminders, made on a massive scale, of a defeated nation’s. Part 1, “No Greater Love,” finds Kobayashi struggling to get a handle on Jumpei Gomikawa’s six-volume best-seller, but he ultimately launches his hero (Tatsuya Nakadai) on a grim odyssey in which we perceive the tragedy of an entire nation. In Part 2, “Road to Eternity,” we see Nakadai’s naive pacifist and intellectual, an employee at a steel company in Japanese-occupied Manchuria, emerge from brutal basic training a man of strength and compassion whose intelligence and sanity mirror the madness all about him.

“Death by Hanging” (1968). Sept. 8 at 7:30 p.m. Quite possibly the most complex and challenging of all the films in the series, this Nagisa Oshima film is a prodigious, overpowering work rich with ideas and emotions. To say that “Death by Hanging” is anti-capital punishment drama is like describing “Hamlet” as a detective story. The picture becomes a surreal, often darkly comic parable of guilt and innocence, a specific protest of Japanese treatment of Koreans and a speculation upon the nature of the imagination.

“Late Spring” (1949). Sept. 8 at 9:45 p.m. In its serene, contemplative way, this superb Yasujiro Ozu film records a dowdy but overly girlish unmarried woman in her 30s (Setsuko Hara) who learns to accept change, and the quietly brave resignation of her father (Chishu Ryu, who is featured in “Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams”), who loses her to a life of her own. Ryu’s wisely prodding sister is played by Haruko Sugimura.

“The Human Condition, Part 3" (1961). Sept. 9 at noon. In the conclusion of Masaki Kobayashi’s awesome trilogy, “A Soldier’s Prayer,” his hero has moved beyond both resolute idealism--as a resilient soldier and leader of men--to an individual brought to the level of an animal in the struggle for survival, before being transformed into a Christ-like martyr. The trilogy’s tendency toward the melodramatic and didactic is offset by Kobayashi’s depth of passion and breadth of vision, yielding finally the catharsis of tragedy.

“Utamaro and His Five Women” (1946). Sept. 8 at 4 p.m. In this exquisite film, which begins on a deceptively light note, director Kenzo Mizoguchi gives us a glimpse of the great artist’s tempestuous life amid a lively, emotion-charged world of courtesans. Mizoguchi, however, is not as interested in the Utamaro’s love life as he is with the artist’s concern for the women who adored him and their vicissitudes. The film unfolds as a series of sketches, culminating in a tragic vignette featuring the incomparable Kinuyo Tanaka that is a precursor to her subsequent great performances for Mizoguchi.

“Pigs and Battleships” (1961). Sept. 9 at 6:15 p.m. Set in rowdy Yokosuka, site of a U.S. naval base, this early Shohei Imamura film tells of the impact of the stream of American military men upon the city and its people, an appealing young couple (Hiroyuki Nagato, Jitsuko Yoshimura) in particular. The plot becomes complicated with underworld intrigue, but Imamura makes his point clearly: The American presence represents an insidious form of cultural imperialism. This energetic entertainment juxtaposes raucous comedy with dark despair within an overall satirical tone.

“Kwaidan” (1964). Sept. 9 at 8:30 p.m. Masaki Kobayashi’s quartet of tales of the supernatural from Lafcadio Hearn takes us into a strange and incredibly beautiful world where the line between fantasy and reality blurs. Like a series of ancient scrolls come to life, this film, which has the most breathtaking color since “Gate of Hell,” has countless scenes of poetic perfection. Foremost are are a pageant-like medieval sea battle that takes place against a painted sky of swirling red and yellow and an ancient noble court that magically transforms into a dark and desolate graveyard.

“Chushingura” (1962). Sept. 10 at 6:30 p.m. This 39th (!) screen version of the samurai legend “The Loyal 47 Ronin” was directed by robust period specialist Hiroshi Inagaki to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the founding of the Toho Co. It is not as subtle as Mizoguchi’s wartime version, but it is a powerful drama about the consequences of an idealistic young lord’s refusal to engage in palace intrigue. A classic tale of sacrificial revenge, it depicts the emphasis on ritual and ceremony and the importance of a code of honor; to find a parallel in English literature you would have to go back to Arthurian myth and romance.

“Double Suicide” (1969). Sept. 10 at 7:30 p.m. In this dazzling and audacious experiment in adapting an ancient theatrical form to the screen, director Masahiro Shinoda has taken a 300-year-old Bunraku puppet play about star-crossed lovers, cast it with live actors, but retained the stylized settings and the black-clad puppeteers to underline a favorite Japanese theme, the implacability of tragic fate. It also protests the code of seppuku (hara-kiri). The film’s black-and-white high-intensity contrast gives the film the look of Japanese woodcuts. Kichiemon Nakamura and Shima Awashita star.

“The Harp of Burma” (1956). Sept. 10 at 9:30 p.m. One of the great anti-war films--and one of the few to evoke a genuine sense of spiritual awakening--it was directed by Kon Ichikawa, who recently remade it. It is set in the final days of World War II in Burma, where a young Japanese soldier (Shoji Yasui) has embraced Buddhism and become dedicated to burying the dead instead of returning home. A haunting, elegaic reverie of a movie; its opening battle scenes recalling John Ford’s cavalry Westerns. With Rentaro Mikuni as the soldier’s understanding captain.

“An Inn at Osaka” (1954). Sept. 10 at 9:45 p.m. Through a newly arrived young businessman (Shuji Sano) from Tokyo, we come to know everyone at a charming traditional-style Japanese inn. This inviting setting is disarming, because the film’s bitterly realistic theme is the overwhelming importance of money in simple day-to-day survival. Everyone in the film is struggling in varying degrees, and director Heinosuke Gosho charges his drama with an unnerving sense of life’s precariousness. Yet Gosho is also a man of compassion and humor, a filmmaker expert at expressing the complexity and intensity of emotions. This extraordinary film is also marked by one of Nobuko Otowa’s finest performances as a perceptive, fatalistic geisha heading toward alcoholism.