Japanese film owns a rich and varied tradition, but most of this vast body of work remains undiscovered by American moviegoers. For many self-identified western cinephiles, Japanese film begins and ends with the work of the late Japanese film director, Akira Kurosawa.
To be sure, many of Kurosawa’s movies are wonderfully accessible, meaning both that they enjoy broad U.S. distribution and that western audiences will find them easy to like. Popular Kurosawa titles include the perspectivist classic, Rashomon, the King Lear-inspired Ran, and Seven Samurai, a rousing inspiration to scruffy underdog mercenaries everywhere.
These Kurosawa staples are a great place to get started, but there is no reason to stop there. The Criterion Collection and other film distributors recently have begun expanding the range of classic Japanese films available on DVD in the United States, making it easier to check out not only some of Kurosawa’s deeper cuts, but also the work of other Japanese master filmmakers such as Yasujiro Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi.
The Hidden Fortress (1958, dir. A. Kurosawa) is a farcical flick, set in feudal Japan, that features a pair of bumbling protagonists who famously inspired George Lucas to create the bickering droid duo of C-3PO and R2-D2.*
Late Spring (1949, dir. Y. Ozu) offers a powerful rebuttal to the conventional wisdom that the films of Yasujiro Ozu are “too Japanese” to be enjoyed by Americans. Yasujiro, a self-taught auteur, developed filmic conventions that allowed him to highlight themes that remained important to him throughout his career. His treatment of family, cultural transformation, dignity and loss will resonate deeply for anyone who pays attention. Be sure to watch the DVD extras, too (always!).
Ugetsu (1953, dir. K. Mizoguchi) is different from, and possibly better than, any ghost story movie you have seen before. As in many great Japanese films, comedy and tragedy flash artfully upon the screen in an intimate dance, and it feels true. The hand of cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa is in evidence throughout the film. He choreographed key scenes so they would roll out in meticulous, roving, long takes evocative of medieval Japanese scrolls.
*Off-Topic Fun Fact: In Spanish-speaking countries, R2-D2 goes by the name, Arturito (which is phonetically similar).