Tokusatsu, Jidaigeki and Shomin-Geki: Genres That Influenced: Postwar Japanese Cinema
Japanese cinema dates back over a hundred years. The Lumière brothers first introduced cinematography to the Japanese in 1897, marking the beginning of film making in Japan. Even though the concept of cinema was new to the Japanese culture, some people were curious and imported the first moving-picture camera into the country which was a Gaumont camera that was used to film fashionable geishas in the traditional restaurants of Shimbashi.
In World War 2, the Japanese government had great influence in Japanese cinema. The Japanese Home Ministry had total control over all domestic affairs, which also included Japanese cinema, and demanded Japanese filmmakers to produce a lot of propaganda and promotional documentaries to show the glory and power of the Empire of Japan. The film directors were given instructions not to ridicule the military or demoralize the nation as they were told not to exaggerate the brutality of war with excessive realistic depictions. Any films that would offend the nation would be cut or banned.
The attack on Pearl Harbor, on December 7, 1941 provoked the USA to join fight in WWII and would ultimately end with the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August of 1945. This tragic event led to the Empire of Japan’s surrender to the United States on September 2, 1945.
After the war, U.S. General Douglas MacArthur was given the mission to revise the Japanese constitution and demilitarizing the nation, this event was known as the American Occupation of Japan. This has led Japan to brought an end to the Meiji Constitution and the Empire of Japan. During the occupation, MacArthur found a way to go against the propaganda of Japanese cinema. An enlightenment campaign was created which allowed Hollywood studios to screen American films throughout Japan. There were over 600 films distributed, each showing the American way of life. The goal was to present American ideals such as politics, social, and culture to the Japanese.
The post-war Japan period brought a great impact to Japanese culture and tradition and it is being reflected upon in the genres of kaiju, jidaigeki, and shomin geki. The Kaiju genre inspired the that represents the fear of the nuclear bomb and the power of the west, Godzilla. Jidaigeki had ways to reflect the social classes during the American Occupation through the film Seven Samurai. And lastly shomin-geki film like Tokyo Story, allow Japanese audience to look back at how Japanese tradition and culture is viewed between different generations.
In 1954, there were nuclear tests in the Pacific which caused radioactive storms in Japan. One of the well known stories was a Japanese fishing vessel that fell victim to nuclear fallout. Citizens in the post-war Japan was struggling with the effects and fear of the atomic bombs and nuclear testing. This inspired a studio called Toho to create the biggest film star in Japan that embraces the metaphor of nuclear bombs, the studio would create the very first kaiju film Gojira or today known as Godzilla. The Kaiju genre is a subgenre of tokusatsu that is referred to Japanese films which feature giant monsters or robots.
The film portrayed Gozilla as the monster created by nuclear mutation by the explosions of nuclear warfare and has been viewed as a visual film graphic representation of the United States by reminding the Japanese the fear and negative perception of America and nuclear weapons.
The first film shows godzilla terrorizing small seaside towns. Later on, he storms Tokyo destroying not just citizens but the modern infrastructure that supports them—bridges, power lines, and, perhaps most famously, trains. Gozilla’s action in this film takes back to the destruction of the nuclear bomb which a Newscasters describes on the destruction as a ‘sea of flames,’ recalling Hiroshima and Nagasaki directly. But the one scene that clearly reflects this was when Godzilla breath his first flames onto the civilians of Tokyo, as the special effects shows their body being wiped away by a disintegrated blast. One scene focuses on a tearful woman, clutching her two children, as she tells them that they’ll be seeing their father, who presumably died. After Godzilla leaves Tokyo, the film shows the horrific aftermath of this event. There were bodies carried away on stretchers, wreckage-lined streets but worst was a 4 year-old boy who died from fatal radiation poisoning caused by Godzilla.
But as the franshcies produces sequels, Godzilla changed into a less destructive and more heroic character as the films started to become aimed towards younger audiences. This was because in 1963, the Limited Test Ban Treaty was signed to prohibit nuclear weapons tests in the atmosphere, in outer space, and under water. This caused Godzilla’s original function as a warning against nuclear testing to become irrelevant. Due to this treaty, subsequent films began to depict Godzilla as a hero rather than a warning and tragic reminder of the nuclear past. According to Chon Noriega’s article “Godzilla and the Japanese Nightmare: When ‘Them!” Is U.S.’ he explains that the genre now focused on the role of a child guiding the monster to project Japan from another monster, which reflects the changes in post war Japan. The family, after the occupation, began to restabilize in the mid-sixties when Japan’s economic success began to ease the social anxieties. The truth Godzilla reflects became history rather than lived experience.
Godzilla was the first tokusatsu film that reflects damage brought about by nuclear weapons and the Japanese best understand the true horror that nuclear weapons bring, which is experienced it first hand through the terror of the monster Godzilla is. But Godzilla changed and became the hero figure and culture of Japan which he attracts younger audience, as he pulled away from the more frightening image he once represented, to inspire kids who wants to be a hero and to show growth that Japan experienced after the war.
Jidaigeki is a genre of film that is set during the Edo period (1603-1868) or earlier. This genre covers samurai films and the term chanbara, the Japanese onomatopoeia for the clashing of swords. Like the medieval knights in Europe, samurai were the warrior class of lower nobility in feudal Japan obliged to serve the superior lord.
One of the classic Jidaigeki films is called Seven Samurai directed by Akira Kurosawa. The film takes place in 1587, which was a time when feudalism in Japan was at its peak. The story revolves around a poor farming village. With the absent protection of the strong feudal warlord’s samurai, the village is repeatedly raided by a band of outlaws who aim to steal the crops after the farms harvest. The farmers were desperate for protection from the bandits and recruited seven rogue samurai’s, called “ronins”.
Kurosawa puts in a much greater sense of realism in developing the samurai, with his characters presenting a much more complex emotions and individualism. He selects samurai who have been abandoned from feudal service but choose to defend farmers and work as a team despite their lack of an overlord. This could be the same for Japanese society and government after the Occupation, with the supreme lord, that being the Emperor, gone, and everyone became ronin. The lack of autocracy of the Meiji system had brought people in Japan the spirit of cooperation to be dedicated to moving towards success for the nation, but instead of achieving this success through force of arms, it was done through national teamwork economically.
The director utilizes the story of the film to explore the question of the possibility of class cooperation and harmony at a pivotal period in Japanese history and by implication asking what that meant for Japanese in the early 1950s, a similar period of social upheaval.The risks shown in the film are not only survival, but also social. These risks have to do with the historical era in which the film is set and the postwar era of 1950s Japan. The audience could see this film as an effort to address pressing questions around the nature of Japanese identity, culture, class structure and nationhood that Kurosawa and all Japanese people faced in the rise of the Pacific war, foreign occupation and the change of Japan.
Japanese society and its culture is reflected upon one of the core genres of Japanese cinema which called Shomin-geki. This genre is a slice of life that focuses on the daily lives of the Japanese lower middle class and family.
Japan in the 1950s was a post-war period of social unrest and uncertainties. The pain and traumas brought by wars drove people to re-inspect their lives and families. Film director Ozu Yasujiro, embraced the shomin-geki genre and gave the audience an opportunity to reflect on their own life and through the characters on the big screen.
Tokyo Story was considered Ozu’s masterpiece and one of the greatest films ever made. Ozu’s film follows an aging parental couple who travel to visit their married son and daughter in Tokyo. Unfortunately, their self-absorbed children are too busy in their own lives and shuttle their parents around. The only person who remains devoted to them is their widowed daughter-in-law who never remarried.
The film targeted the discussion of human relations and brought a plot line in which a Japanese family is stuck in a dilemma between modernity and understanding issues between generations. The film depicts the sad inevitability that children develop a degree of selfishness in order to become independent from their parents. The film also depicts the cultural representations and historical uniqueness through Ozu’s film techniques.
Directing this film, Ozu was known for his mastermind in camera angle manipulation. One of the unique camera techniques would be how he would always place his camera 3-feet above the ground which would be the eye level of a Japanese person seated on a tatami mat. This was used to increase the sensation of the audience being within the space of the film and therefore makes them far more receptive to the characters.
This camera technique was centered around Japanese traditions during the 1950’s, when Japan underwent a period when modernity and tradition intersect. Sitting on a tatami mat is a traditional way of sitting and part of the Japanese etiquette.
The connection of this camera technique to the Japanese culture is that the camera not only the traditional way of sitting but also the position from which one partakes of the tea ceremony. The use of low angle has the effect of looking upon which characters may be seen to the best advantage. In Japanese tradition, low posture is considered a form of respect, this posture also reflects the respect for one’s elders and parents. By using such a modest camera angle Ozu illustrates the traditional values that Tokyo Story depicts as fading away.
Also, the peaceful illusion shown in the film could be seen as a disguise of the character’s true feelings. For instance, the old couples nod and say “yes” to nearly everything. They would not complain about the annoying neighbors during their stay in Atami. The mother swallows all of her pain and physical discomfort simply by the fact that she does not want to create an additional burden for her family. In reality, Japan has a social tendency that people are more likely to repress their genuine feelings as their culture embraces collectivism and social harmony. Hence, the citizens place a lot of emphasis on not creating extra burden and trouble on others in order to achieve unity within the society. It can be seen that the efforts that Japanese people put upon the integration of their values with those in workplaces, schools or families through minimized complaints, conversations, and emotional expression.
In conclusion, these genres inspired films that have instances where postwar Japan are reflected. The genre of tokusatsu gave creation to Godzilla, which gave a visual symbolic representation of a Japanesse’s point of view during the bombing and also the countries instincts to the common threat which is the western. Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, jidaigeki film, reflects the unification of classes after the post war which brought growth and prosperity. And lastly Ozu utilize the shomin-geki genre to view the traditional life and culture between different generations through Tokyo Story.
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