On October 12, 1960, Nagisa Oshima’s film Night and Fog in Japan was pulled from theaters after three days — a move that wasn’t exactly shocking. Set at a wedding, the formally daring film — it unfolds over a total of 43 shots — uses the setting to stage an incendiary debate through layers of flashbacks, regarding the failures of the old and the new left across post-war Japan. The bold politics of the film, which directly referenced the then current protests surrounding the renewal of the Japan-US Mutual Security Pact, better known as Anpo, proved to be too explosive. Oshima would soon leave the studio where he had worked for six years and go independent.
Oshima is the central figure of what is called the Japanese New Wave — a tag, for what it’s worth, he would later claim he “detested.” But like most movements, the parameters of it are harder to define. There is a political element to much of the work, some more buried than others, and a dark pessimism expressed in shifting identities and sexuality shaped by Japan’s continued connection to the United States. Some claim the movement began with Oshima’s second film, Cruel Story of Youth (1959), while others cite different launching points, such as Kon Ichikawa’s Punishment Room (1956). The name “New Wave” is frequently attributed to films reaching all the way to the mid-1970s, but it could also have ended earlier: Oshima himself, in his documentary 100 Years of Japanese Cinema (1995), claimed it ended with the censorship of Night and Fog in Japan.
A series at the Japan Society opening on April 5 called The Other Japanese New Wave: Radical Films from 1958-61, complicates the definition even further. Curated by Go Hirasawa, it pulls from the fringes of the movement’s inception, putting together a mix of studio films, documentaries, and experimental work, much of them not well known in the United States. While broadening connections between works associated with the movement, the series also, through a great density of voices, blurs any preconceived perceptions of the movement’s unified vision.
What’s clear is that the Anpo protests, along with particular political tragedies including the assassination of the Social Democratic Party of Japan leader Asanuma Inejiro in 1960, and the “Kyoto Emperor Incident,” where eight students at Kyoto University were expelled for protesting the Emperor—fueled much of what the young generation of filmmakers were making. The earliest films in the program are documentaries, including the experimental Conversation Between Nail and Socks (1958), made by Katsumi Hirano and Hiroo Ko, and Shinkichi Noda’s more straight-forward Forgotten Land (1958). Toshio Matsumoto’s Anpo Joyaku (1959), with its bold pronouncements — “Anpo began with knocking farmers on the heads with batons,” the narrator says — and jarring visuals, including an ending which mixes footage of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki with the sound of babies crying, is closer to a political rallying cry.
Outside of Oshima and some of these earlier documentaries, much of the work made at the beginning of the Japanese New Wave is political only at its outer edges and bounces around genre frameworks. Two of the best films in the series come from Kiju Yoshida, who would go on to make some of the defining films to come from Japan later in the 1960s, such as Eros + Massacre (1969). His first pair of works, Good-for-Nothing and Blood is Dry (both made in 1960), are bitter swipes at the Westernization of Japan. The first takes on the indignities of class politics through a spoiled rich kid who terrorizes the secretary at his father’s office, while the second is a bilious satire about the advertising industry’s appropriation of a botched suicide for profit. Like many of the films from this period, both were made for a studio — Shochiku, the same studio Oshima left in 1960 — and you can feel the films pushing against the obvious constraints. “At this time Japanese cinema, above all that of the major studios, was a predominantly industrial, commercial cinema, against which we fought violently,” Yoshida said in an interview with Cahiers du Cinéma in 1970. There is a spike of vitriol in his early work that seems distinct to Japan of that period, and in direct reaction to the post-war humanism seen in the films of Akira Kurosawa and “golden age” masters such as Yasujirō Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi.
Further pushing the boundaries of the studio system was Koreyoshi Kurahara’s The Warped Ones (1960), a frantic film about aimless, unhinged kids on the margins of society. Made for the Nikkatsu studio, where he would work until 1967, and indebted to the genre of sleazy, youth-focused taiyozoku-eiga (sun tribe films) that became popular in Japan in the mid-to-late 1950s, it’s a film of unbridled, manic energy. The camera moves along the crowded streets and within speeding cars with Akira, the main character, as he enacts his revenge on a couple who previously helped put him in jail. At times, it feels like the camera can’t even keep up with his unhinged behavior.
The Warped Ones is one of the most freewheeling films of the period and also one of the most disturbing. An under acknowledged part of the early Japanese New Wave, and one of the reasons some of these films are difficult to watch today, is their treatment of sexual violence. Rape is a dominant feature of many of these films, and when it’s not present there is some other sort of physical violence against women. There is certainly a criticism of masculinity and what filmmakers saw as the moral degradation invading the country conveyed, but these critiques tend to work against some of the better films. A case in point is Tsutomu Tamura’s The Samurai Vagabonds (1960), set in a small mining town that feels like a prison camp. The film concerns a twisted triangle of doomed love and hate and contains one of the bleakest endings ever printed on celluloid, where a man and woman are beat to death in a rock quarry while most of the town watches from a distance.
It might be better to view this early period of the Japanese New Wave as a battering ram that broke through the rigid barriers of the studio system, a raw, fevered reaction to the culture at large. For this reason, much of the films work at a screaming pitch, with little room for nuance. Many of these directors would go on to make more accomplished, interesting films: Tamura, for example, would go on to write the screenplays for much of Oshima’s best work, and Toshio Matsumoto would make the transgressive Funeral Parade of Roses (1969) before shifting toward video art. And much of these films would be made for independent companies where the makers had more control. They all emerged from a single howl, running on the fumes of political unrest. Where they ended up was more diverse and, ultimately, more shocking.
The Other Japanese New Wave: Radical Films from 1958-61 runs at the Japan Society (333 East 47th Street, Midtown, Manhattan) from April 5 through 27.