For some reason, I’ve been watching a ton of Japanese cinema. There’s something about the Zen aesthetic of wabi-sabi and the almost Mondrian-like geometry of rice paper screens that I just can’t get enough lately. Here are the most sublime treasures I’ve stumbled upon:
1. Street of Shame (1956)
This is the last film of Kenji Mizoguchi, considered one of the three greatest Japanese filmmakers along with Akira Kurosawa and Yasujiro Ozu. It focuses on a theme Mizoguchi covered often, perhaps even obsessively: prostitution. Specifically, the exploitation of women by men and the tragic destiny this leads to. This feminist theme, in a culture that was fairly macho and even militaristic, marks much of Mizoguchi’s work both before and after the war. Biographically, it’s interesting to note that Mizoguchi’s sister was essentially sold into the geisha business by their family. He was also apparently once slashed with a knife by a prostitute himself. While his ghost story Ugetsu is probably his best-regarded work, I like this final6 film for its brutal frankness about brothel life.
2. Good Morning (1959)
Yasujiro Ozu, considered “the most Japanese of Japanese directors,” is probably best known in the West for 1953’s Tokyo Story, which recently came in number three on the once-a-decade Sight & Sound poll of the greatest films of all time, behind new winner Vertigo and former champion Citizen Kane. But I prefer Ohayo aka Good Morning, one of the master’s last films, which is not only in color but is a comedy, perhaps the very lightest work in Ozu’s oeuvre. But that lightness does nothing to outshine the great humanity of Ozu’s characters...even the two little boys who have an ongoing farting contest.
3. Pom Poko (1994)
Okay, so you’ve seen Princess Mononoke. Bizarre, kinetic, mythic, beautiful. Spirited Away? Even weirder. But I don’t think either of them can prepare you for the culture shock of this earlier Miyazaki anime. To understand a single damn thing that’s going on, you have to realize that the tanuki, or raccoon-dog, is endowed in Japanese folklore with magical powers including a giant scrotum and the ability to shapeshift. That still doesn’t explain everything about this great fantasy film, but in between the laughter and confusion it has a familiar Miyazaki theme: the encroachment of human civilization (in this case, housing developers) on the natural world. It’s like Watership Down on mushrooms, except more lighthearted. Highly recommended.
I wish I had the space here to write about some more of these awesome films I’m been watching from the Land of the Rising Sun, but it’ll have to wait until next time. Time to go watch another DVD!
A born writer, Angelita Williams loves to write short stories. Her second passion is education, a topic that she covers incessantly as a freelance blogger. Though she has an allegiance to online education, she's dedicated to depicting all forms of education equally, and she writes impartially about college courses online and offline. Angelita can be found at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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