One of the most perplexing aspects of Japanese cinema is the contradiction between repressed formality and lurid subversiveness. Where else, apart from in Japan, would you find titles such as Eros In Hell, Shogun’s Joy of Torture and Beautiful Teacher in Torture Hell? The stereotype of the stoic, dull and excessively polite Japanese salary-man who keeps schoolgirls panties in his briefcase to sniff on the train ride home from the office perhaps embodies this bizarre contradiction perfectly.
Beyond the absurdly perverse, Japan has produced some of the most controversial and provocative films of any national cinema by challenging this apparent hypocrisy and fully embracing the range of human desires, conflicts and tragedies that exist beneath the orderly social exterior.
Japanese cinema has come far from its formal, theatrical origins and offers a diversity of films from the seriously dramatic to the spectacularly extreme. It is, as a national cinema, less concerned by realism than the West and therefore has a more fluid form and expressive style which explains the output of exploitation titles popular in the seventies and still going strong with titles such as Tokyo Gore Police.
Japanese cinema was once synonymous with formal dramas, samurai films and Yakuza films and while these genres have been important in defining the national identity of Japanese film the contribution to contemporary cinema, especially animation in terms of style and output, should not be underestimated. Japanese filmmakers continue to produce some of the most provocative and daring films of any country. Here are ten I have selected.
1. Kotoko (2011)
Shinya Tsukamoto has forged a career as a maverick and auteur with his signature body horror, kinetic visual style and themes of transformation and alienation. While cult cyber-punk debut Tetsuo remains his most infamous work he has, since Gemini in 1999, between producing more thematically dense but equally provocative works.
Kotoko is about one woman’s rapid mental decline and inability to cope with everyday life and maternal responsibility. As a result of this she risks losing her child. She also reluctantly becomes involved with a loner (played by the director) whom she stabs with forks and beats sadistically in between screaming and slashing her wrists.
This is not light-hearted stuff. It is a film that juxtaposes the horrific with moments of serene calm and beauty. The protagonist, superbly played by singer Cocco, sings to herself, dances in the rain and is completely trapped in her own world and it is how the director portrays this that makes the film so challenging, disturbing and effective.
As the viewer, you feel like you are trapped inside it with her and it is not a nice place to be. There is a sequence towards the end featuring her son that is extremely graphic and difficult to watch. The handheld camerawork is at times nauseatingly disorientating but essential within the context and sound design and colour are used strikingly with touches of the directors trademark surrealism.
2. Suicide Club (2001)
The opening sequence of Shion Sono’s film has rapidly become one of the most infamous in Asian cinema. Fifty-four high school girls in uniforms join hands and gleefully hurl themselves in the path of a speeding train resulting in torrents of blood (which is strangely orange in colour) spilling over commuters, splashing the camera and gushing over the platform all set to what sounds like Irish folk music.
The film shocks so early and bizarrely that everything that happens after is somehow less memorable. That said, it remains a provocative piece of filmmaking. The issues addressed within the film are disaffected youth and the influence of popular culture (music, the internet) upon their lives.
As the police, led by detective Kuroda, try to figure out the meanings behind the spate of suicides a girl directs them to a mysterious website where red and white dots appear before the suicides to signify how many males and females will die and sports bags filled with rolls of flesh are found at the locations.
Perhaps more disturbing than the gore on show are the attitudes of the students towards life and death and the triviality with which they treat it. Yet the notion that some teenagers will kill themselves because a pop song told them to or simply to feel something intense and real in their otherwise meaningless lives is not that far-fetched.
There’s a particularly grisly autopsy scene made up of mangled school girl body parts and a sequence where the androgynous and frankly psychotic leader of the club, Genesis, repeatedly stamps on animals trapped inside white sheets before bursting into song as a girl is raped.
3. Cruel Story of Youth (1960)
Nagisa Oshima is one of the most frequently referenced directors in Japanese cinema for his gritty, social critiques of the lives of ordinary people in post-war Japan. In Cruel Story of Youth he explores how the lives of young people are marginalised and affected by social issues and political unrest.
With the studio, Shochiku, under increasing pressure to produce less traditional films (notably melodramas and films about the middle class) to fit the changing social mood and audience, Oshima’s brand of ‘youth’ cinema proved a revolutionary hit. The protagonists, Makoto and Kiyoshi, are drop-outs. She is an attractive good girl gone bad and he is a street-wise hustler. Together they hustle rich older men and live life on the edge of respectable society.
Youth in Oshima’s films are not glamorised but rather shown as a force that cannot be ignored. Like Rebel Without A Cause, to which this film has been compared, it represents a society in flux and a generation who do not fit in or accept their parents ways of living their lives. Sex is taken forcibly, women are slapped around into submission, cigarettes burn, faces are filmed in sweaty close ups and neon lights glow. It is a seedy vision that’s power lies in its unflinching depiction of hopelessness.
4. In The Realm of the Senses (1976)
Based on an infamous murder case in which a prostitute, Abe Sada, was arrested and found with the severed penis of her lover. In order to produce a film with strong nudity and sexual content, director Nagisa Oshima had the print processed in France in order to avoid strict Japanese censorship. However, the film is less pornographic and more a tale of overwhelming passion and sadomasochism that envelops the two lovers.
The symbol of an empowered, if corrupted, woman is uncommon within the patriarchal social system of Japan which only serves to make this film all the more unique. Sada may start out as an employee of low status but she quickly becomes, through her sexuality, a predator who wears the symbolic red of seduction and blood and wields the phallic knife. She wants to literally consume and possess her lover.
There are numerous daring and unsettling sequences, some of which depict sexual fantasies, but the film culminates with the severing of the penis which it is most infamous for. Overall, the film is a fascinating meditation on the nature of sexual relationships, dominance and subservience and essential viewing for anyone with a serious interest in Japanese cinema and one of its most important directors.
5. Battle Royale (2000)
Banned in several countries upon release in 2000, veteran Kinji Fukasawa’s violent teen satire proved that the director of cult Yakuza flicks had not lost his taste for subversion or rebellion. Pitting a class of high school students against each other in a fight to the death, the polarising film proved to be the stuff of cult classics for some and the distasteful and irresponsible glorification of violence for others. The use of fifteen year old characters and actors of a similar age was arguably the main point of contention.
The timing of the film, coming shortly after Columbine, couldn’t have been much worse and it was not officially released in either America or Canada for eleven years. Japanese authorities blamed the film, and popular culture in general, for an increase in youth related crime.
The film has a streak of very black humour running through it and some of the scenes of violence, while undeniably shocking, are also very funny. At the heart of the film is a drama about being young and dealing with friendships, attractions, parents and fears of growing up. These themes are present in the film although explored more fully in the novel. It is the action that takes centre stage in Fukasawa’s films and he keeps the film crackling with energy, angst and fear.