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  • Writer's pictureStone Bridge Press

The classic works of Japanese cinema and their visionary directors: a guide

Japanese Cinema by Peter Cowie cover art
Japanese Cinema by Peter Cowie cover art

Peter Cowie has spent his life writing about cinema, and in particular about the prodigious talents that emerged during the 1950s and 1960s such as Ingmar Bergman and Akira Kurosawa.

His more than thirty books include studies of the work of John Ford, Francis Ford Coppola, and the iconic actress Louise Brooks. He was international publisher of the trade paper, Variety, for more than twelve years, and he is also known for his numerous commentaries and video essays for the Criterion Collection in New York.

In his latest book, Japanese Cinema: A Personal Journey, Peter Cowie takes us through one of the world’s greatest national cinemas, beginning with the classic directors who came to the fore in the postwar period.

The book traces the common themes explored by these directors as well as the impact of important historical and cultural issues, including World War 2, the representation of women, and the revolutionary spirit of the 1960s. 

Finally, Peter Cowie surveys the state of contemporary Japanese film and some of its greatest living practitioners bringing a lifetime’s commitment to film to bear on the human relationships so well explored by these Japanese auteurs.

Japanese Cinema: A Personal Journey by Peter Cowie is available in both print and digital everywhere now. Order your copy here.

Read a sample of Japanese Cinema below.



Japanese cinema reflects many elements of a nation that has developed rapidly during the past one hundred and fifty years while still demonstrating a remarkable degree of continuity with its past. Many of these aspects are different to those treated in Western cinema. Food, for example, with its exquisite visual design and its small but nourishing portions. Drink, without which the films of Ozu and other directors would be acutely diminished! Attire, with the traditional kimono, clogs, and headgear. Combat, realized according to a strictly coded protocol with fists or swords. Religion, whether Shinto or Buddhist, affecting rich and poor alike, from the humblest family shrine to the most grandiose of temples. And above all the sense of nature infiltrating everyday life, whether in forest foothills or a secluded garden in the city center.

Intrigued by this blend of formal beauty and often violent passion, I began to embrace Japanese cinema in the early 1960s. Auteur theory was being promulgated in the pages of magazines like Cahiers du Cinéma, Film Quarterly, Sight and Sound, and Movie. Kurosawa, Ozu, and Mizoguchi seemed ideal examples of the theory in action. Only on closer inspection, however, did I realize that because so many Japanese films prior to 1945 had been lost or destroyed, it was foolhardy to judge these directors according to the limitations of the politique des auteurs. Not every work by the giants of Japanese cinema can be classified as a masterpiece; nor, indeed, can each of their films be instantly recognized as bearing a distinctive signature. Both Ozu and Mizoguchi buckled down to the studio system in the 1920s and 1930s, each directing, respectively, thirty-nine and seventy features during those two decades. Like Michael Curtiz, Clarence Brown, or John Ford in Hollywood, they often were obliged to direct the projects assigned to them.

Thanks to the imaginative programming of John Gillett at London’s National Film Theatre at the turn of the 1960s, I discovered classics of Japanese cinema such as Kinugasa’s Crossroads, made in 1928 and startling in its use of a subjective camera and hallucinatory flashbacks. At that time, Japanese cinema was, in the eyes of Western critics and film buffs, synonymous with Akira Kurosawa. His robust characters and forceful narrative style endeared him to the French, the British, and the American art-house domains, in much the same way as the novels of Yukio Mishima attracted readers and reviewers alike in the West.

Kurosawa’s Rashomon had won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 1951, and in subsequent years Mizo­guchi’s masterpieces, The Life of O’Haru, Ugetsu, Sansho the Bailiff, and Princess Yang Kwei-fei, had all graced the Mostra. Kurosawa himself returned in 1954 with Seven Samurai, while Kinugasa’s Gate of Hell, shot in gorgeous Eastmancolor, was screened at Cannes, winning the Grand Prix and later the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. Few Westerners, however, had noted the opening of Yasujiro Ozu’s Flavor of Green Tea over Rice in 1952, or even the masterly Tokyo Story in 1953. Ozu’s star would rise during the late 1960s, by virtue of Donald Richie’s persuasive writing about his work. As late as 1964, when I published Peter Graham’s A Dictionary of the Cinema, I was shocked to sit next to Leslie Halliwell at a press lunch in London and hear him ask me, as he flicked through the book, “Ozu? That sounds like an anagram!” Halliwell was then the powerful film programmer for ITV in Britain, and author of The Filmgoer’s Companion.

“Madame” Kawakita, as she was known throughout the film world, had met her husband Nagamasa Kawakita in 1928, soon after he had founded the distribution company Towa Trading. When Japan began to present its films to the West in the early 1950s, Kashiko Kawakita became an ambassador for directors and producers alike. Hastening through the streets of Cannes in her kimono, offering a benign smile and bow to all her acquaintances en route, she kept up to the minute with developments at the festival. She it was who signaled to me that Kurosawa’s Kagemusha had shared the Palme d’Or in 1979 with Volker Schlöndorff’s The Tin Drum, her hands excitedly beating at an imaginary drum as she sought the title of the German film. She looked kindly on my annual book, International Film Guide, and helped us expand the Japanese section by introducing me to studio executives as well as to younger directors like Nagisa Oshima.

Around 1970, one could fly Japan Air Lines from London to New York. My small publishing company had found an excellent distributor in New Jersey, and so I would cross the Atlantic once or twice a year for meetings. Even at the back of the plane, a journey with JAL seemed a kind of guest immersion in Japanese lifestyle: the female flight attendants in kimono, the gracious service, the Japanese food—and sake!

In 1978 I visited Japan for the first time, commissioned by the Sunday Times of London to seek out and interview young directors. It was a turbulent period. As I landed at Narita Airport, opened that spring in the teeth of violent opposition from students, local rice farmers, and other dissident groups, five thousand masked demonstrators were being held at bay by ten thousand police. Nagisa Oshima, the most gifted director to emerge during the previous decade, was being tried for obscenity because a publisher had released risqué stills from The Empire of the Senses. Nikkatsu, the once highly respected production studio, was being acquitted of pornography charges. 

Madame Kawakita’s daughter Kazuko, who had married Hayao Shibata, one of the country’s few distributors of foreign art-house fare, chaperoned me during that first visit. By day she and my guide led me to the avant-garde filmmaker and dramatist Shuji Terayama, in his minuscule studio and stage in Roppongi; by night she introduced me to the neon jungle of Shinjuku, where in each tiny bar we visited there stood a bottle of whisky labeled “Shibata.” Kazuko’s mother embodied all that was traditional and even glamorous in the Japanese woman. Her daughter, by comparison, represented the liberated female of the 1970s—jeans and a sweatshirt, prominent glasses, and casually curled hair. Fluent in foreign languages, Kazuko Shibata introduced her country, her culture, and the young filmmakers of the period to numerous critics and scholars from Europe and the US.

Only in the wake of this maiden visit to Japan did I recognize how subtle was the portrayal of women in the work of Mizoguchi and Naruse. Like Ingmar Bergman in Sweden, and George Cukor in Hollywood, both these directors evinced a profound comprehension of the female psyche.

Donald Richie was one of my early correspondents for the annual International Film Guide, which I launched through the Tantivy Press in 1963. He mentioned that he was preparing a book on Kurosawa, and I immediately offered to publish it at Tantivy. The financial terms I could offer were pitiful, and I was chastened but not surprised when Donald entrusted his magnum opus to the University of California Press. When, after many years, we finally met in the lobby of the International House in Roppongi, I found Donald to be a soft-spoken nonconformist who could talk on any subject, but notably classical music, literature, and of course film. He immediately converted me to the delights of grilled eel and Korean cuisine. Concerning my own plans for writing about Kurosawa, he could not have been more supportive, furnishing me with recommendations here, there, and everywhere in Tokyo. He also agreed to write the introduction, doing so right on time and without trotting out any comments he’d already made about the master with whom he drank so much whiskey in the 1950s and ’60s.

While Donald’s heart resided with the humanist work of Ozu, and his mind with Kurosawa and his passionate interest in the fate of the individual, his richest and most resonant work was The Inland Sea, a discursive, impressionistic travel book about that host of islands to the west of Osaka and the south of Hiroshima, an area little visited in 1971 when Donald made the rounds by bus and ferry. It reminded me that all too many Japanese films are set in the big cities. Donald gave proper attention to works like Crazed Fruit (set on the coast of Kamakura) and to directors now out of the critical limelight, such as Susumu Hani and Shohei Imamura.

I glimpsed the structure of Japanese life and society even more from watching films than from visiting the country. Whether it be a period samurai jidaigeki, or a family drama by Ozu, or even Still Walking, Hirokazu Kore-eda’s intimate tribute to his mother, the Japanese film obeys a formal, hierarchical structure. To some extent it reflects the interior design of the Japanese house—rectilinear rooms, one leading off or into another, with glimpses of a garden beyond. In British cinema, the class system often dictates the shape of the story, while in Japan social comportment, rather than class, governs even the most placid of narratives. This applies too, I believe, to the four enduring forms in Japanese theater: Noh, kabuki, kyogen, and bunraku.

This was a society if not ordered, then certainly influenced, by ritual, from the bowing and clapping at a Shinto shrine to the obligatory smile that masks a Japanese person’s disappointment at missing a subway train or hearing that a relative has cancer. The films of Ozu and Mizoguchi present this side of Japanese culture. Chishu Ryu, for example, as Ozu’s stoic father figure, restrains his emotions in everyday life and work. His is a smile to be seen at every level of Japanese society, and a smile that assumes many forms, from the serene to the grimacing, from the reverent to the apologetic. Kurosawa learned to react against this ingratiating gesture, and his characters present a severe, even threatening face to the world about them.

When Oharu and her parents are exiled from Kyoto in Mizoguchi’s The Life of Oharu, a guard calls them to halt at the city’s border. “Relatives may go no further,” he says sternly. “Bid them farewell here.” Overwhelmed by grief, retainers and family turn toward each other and bow profoundly. Is their emotion any less powerful because they do not hug or even shake hands, as is the occidental wont? Certainly not, merely more controlled.


The majority of critical discussions around Ozu and Mizo­guchi have been based on the tip of the iceberg, so to speak—a cluster of great works made since World War II. In this book, therefore, I have decided to focus on the films that I find the most indicative of certain themes in Japanese cinema, rather than attempt an assessment of the complete career of individual directors. I don’t pretend to offer anything like a comprehensive history of Japanese cinema. That has already been done brilliantly by Tadao Sato, and in English by Donald Richie and Joseph Anderson. Instead, I have concentrated on evoking those films that have meant much to me, and on those directors whose approach to the medium has been innovative and exciting. This has led to many sins of omission. No consideration, for example, of the ferocious work of Seijun Suzuki; or the highly regarded detective stories of Kiyoshi Kurosawa; or the excellent productions of Kaneto Shindo; or the solid achievements of Shohei Imamura, who won two Palmes d’Or at the Cannes Festival; or indeed the diverse and diverting movies by Takeshi Kitano, who was awarded the Golden Lion at Venice for Hana-bi in 1997. No room for the “pink films” that now have a following among aficionados of erotic cinema. Nor for the Nikkatsu noir productions of the late 1950s and early 1960s.


Japanese Cinema: A Personal Journey by Peter Cowie is available in both print and digital everywhere now. Order your copy here.



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