Although the first home-grown movies appeared in Japan before the end of the last century, it wasn't until after World War I that they became something more than adaptations of stage plays and kabuki. The Nikkatsu and Shochiku film companies started at this time. From about 1920, Japanese film was divided into two main categories: Jidai-geki, or period films and Gendai-geki, or films with modern settings. The jidai-geki usually centered around a lone swordsman, who struggled to reconcile the conflict between his obligations (giri), and his true feelings (ninjo). This theme later became central to the gangster, or yakuza genre, originated by the Toei comapny in the 1960's. Gendai-geki reflected social changes of the day and individual director's views on life and society.
From Kurosawa Akira....
... to just plain Akira.
Censorship by the increasingly militaristic government continued through the 1930's and World War II, although its guidelines were largely ignored. The US occupation temporarily banned pre-1945 films and clamped down on the sword-wielding jidai-geki. But after control of the movie industry was handed over to the independent Motion Picture Code Committee in 1949, they soon came back in force.
By 1953, the industry was controlled by 6 big film companies and had entered its Golden Age. The best works of Kurosawa Akira, Ozu Yasujiro and Mizoguchi Kenji from this period remain among the greatest ever made. A huge number of films were made about the war - about life in the military and about the effects of the war on life at home. The first color feature appeared in 1951. The Toho company's Godzilla roared onto the screen for the first time in 1954, starting a flood of monster movies that continues to this day. 1955's novel Season of the Sun by present-day Governer of Tokyo Ishihara Shintaro launched a series of movies about the new generation of post-war teeenage hedonism. By the end of the 1950's, the number of movie theaters reached its peak of almost 7,500.
By 1969, television sets were in just about every home in Japan and movie theater attendances were at a third of their peak level. Half of the country's theaters closed during the 1960's. This decade also saw the arrival of a new wave of directors, chief among them being Oshima Nagisa. Among other themes, they questioned prejudice in Japan against minorities. Meanwhile the major studios continued to churn out films in assembly-line fashion. The studios concentrated on different genres. Shochiku, for example, made 'women's melodramas' and family dramas. From 1969, they turned out the Tora-san series, the most successful movies series in history. The Toei studio nurtured the yakuza genre, making stars of actors Takakura Ken and Tsuruta Koji.
During the economic bubble years of the 1980's, Japanese money was put into Hollywood movies and Sony bought Columbia Pictures in 1989. At home, the industry was enjoying something of a revival, although many of the most famous films of the time were at least partly financed by foreign money. Among the most successful films were the comedies of Itami Juzo, Tampopo (1985) and A Taxing Woman (Marusa No Onna, 1988); Oshima's Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983) and Kurosawa's The Shadow Warrior (Kagemusha, 1980) and Ran (1985), which won an Oscar for costume design. The late 80's also saw a breakthrough for animated movies. Otomo Katsuhiro's Akira (1988), with its spectacular and nihilistic view of a post-apocalyptic Neo-Tokyo, was a hit worldwide. Miyazaki Hayao's works such as Princess Mononoke (Mononoke Hime, 1997) rival those of the Disney studios in terms of universal appeal, storytelling and breathtaking artwork and always beat them at the local box office. With Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi (Spirited Away) in 2002, he even won a coveted Oscar, a ground-breaking achievement for anime that showed that they are taken seriously even outside Japan.
Although the end of the 20th century saw the movie industry dominated by Hollywood blockbusters, it also saw the arrival of a new directorial master. With the death of Kurosawa in 1999, Kitano Takeshi (right) became the leading Japanese director on the world stage. His works have continued the trend started by Kurosawa in the 1950's, picking up prizes at the European festivals. While better known in Japan as a cynical TV comedian and entertainer, Kitano has become the darling of the international movie world and led the Japanese movie industry into the new millenium. In 2000, he made Brother, his first movie to appeal more to a western audience.
1999 saw Oshima's long-awaited comeback with the well-received film Gohatto (though the director fellinto ill health soon afterwards) and also the period-film When the Rain Lifts (Ame Agaru), with a script by the late Kurosawa Akira and directed by his longtime assistant Koizumi Takashi. Director Yamada Yoji, the man behind the Tora-san series, had great success with his first samurai movies after the actor who played Tora-san (Atsumi Kiyoshi) died in 1996. He won multiple awards with The Twilight Samurai (Tasogare Seibei, 2002) and The Hidden Blade (Kakushi-ken: Oni no Tsume, 2004). But he has kept his light touch, working as a writer on the long-running Tsuribaka Nisshi series.
The new century has seen another new boom for Japanese cinema - Hollywood remakes of Japanese horror movies. The local industry has been turning out spooky flicks mainly for the summer market for years. But in 1998, The Ring (Ringu) really caught the public imagination. It also caught the eye of folks in Tinseltown, and was re-made in 2002. Nakata Hideo, director of the original and its Japanese sequel, even managed to make the leap Stateside to direct The Ring 2. Shimizu Takashi went the same route, taking the helm for the US versions of his 2003 Juon (The Grudge) movies.
For those of you who haven't been to a Japanese movie theater, the steep ticket price (¥1,800 on average) may come as a shock. But advance tickets (mae-uri ken) are available, usually at a ¥2-300 discount. They are available from special 'playguide' shops or from any ticket outlet, such as PIA or Ticket Saison. Besides the discount, they also make good collector's items or souvenirs as they are designed with the movie's artwork, unlike the plain ticket stubs issued at the theater. Most cinemas also have big discounts for Ladies' Day (usually Wednesdays) and Movie Day (1st of the month).