Few countries boast a history of film-making like Japan. Dating back to the end of the 19th century, the Japanese film industry reached new heights after the Second World War, as films like Akira Kurosawa’s “Rashomon” and Kenji Mizoguchi’s “Ugetsu” were released internationally with widespread critical acclaim. Since then, Japan has continued to establish its cinematic presence in the West. Japanese films won four Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film and four Palme D’ors at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival—the most of any Asian country in either category. Having lived in Japan before, I’ve continued to return to its rich tapestry of filmmaking to satisfy momentary blips of nostalgia and to immerse myself in the history and distinctive style of a place dear to my heart.
During this tumultuous period, I’ve turned to Kanopy–a movie streaming service free to Wesleyan students–for cinematic relief. Kanopy offers a catalog of classic and indie movies, often supplied by Criterion Collection, a repository for landmarks of cinematic history. With global cinema at your fingertips, it’s easy to fall down the rabbit hole and binge a multitude of things, from Federico Fellini to Agnès Varda to Charlie Chaplin. Thanks to Kanopy, I’ve found myself drawn again to Japanese cinema, fascinated by the thematic breadth, filmmaking quality, and unique style of Japanese movies. So, I offer four gems from Kanopy’s collection, films you can enjoy while you avoid attending your Zoom lecture.
“High and Low,” dir. Akira Kurosawa (1963)
Akira Kurosawa belongs in the esteemed class of directors above all else. His cultural influence is beyond reproach, so much so that CNN awarded him the title “Asian of the Century” in the arts in 1999. (I assure you this title is more outdated than Kurosawa’s filmography.) Kanopy happens to offer most of Kurosawa’s filmography, with the notable exception of his later masterpiece “Ran.” It’s really hard to go wrong with any of his films, but I’ll pick just one for the purpose of this exercise. “High and Low,” made a decade after he first achieved international success, offers suspenseful drama that keeps you engaged until the film’s end. The film stars Toshiro Mifune–longtime Kurosawa collaborator and all around legend–as a wealthy executive, Kingo Gondo. Gondo becomes the victim of extortion and faces a moral quandary: protect his fortune or save the life of his chauffeur’s son, who also happens to his own son’s best friend. Empathy plays a central role throughout the film as Kurosawa binds us in Gondo’s intractable dilemma, forcing one to scrutinize their own moral standing throughout. Underlying the plot, Kurosawa also weaves in a discussion of class considerations and social ills, revealing the societal fractures of a post-war Japan undergoing dramatic economic upheaval. Mifune puts in another spellbinding performance, expertly portraying a man compelled to reconcile his competing roles as a ruthless businessman. Though Kurosawa is perhaps most famous for his period dramas, such as the “Seven Samurai” and “Rashomon,” “High and Low” demonstrates the maturity and extraordinary capabilities of one of cinema’s goliaths.
“Tampopo,” dir. Juzo Itami (1985)
“Tampopo” is probably the most intimate love song to food in the history of cinema. The movie follows Tampopo, a single mother who owns a struggling ramen shop, and her quest to create the perfect bowl of noodles with the help of a pair of truck drivers, Goro and Gun, who moonlight as culinary enthusiasts. A series of vignettes depicting random people engaging in delectable adventures is interspersed throughout the movie. Itami has no issues making his love for food increasingly palpable, so much so that I felt tempted to hit the pause button and go on an edible endeavor of my own: to try out a new recipe, to toy with something I regularly cook, or to experiment with ways to make a Nutella sandwich slightly tastier. Yet this grand love letter to food is not only entertaining but powerfully resonating; we see and cheer on the titular character as she endures toil and overcomes frequent failures. “Tampopo” is a testament to the benefits of the most fundamental and decent human qualities: working hard, working with others, and never giving up. If that’s not convincing enough, I guarantee you this movie will make you hungry.
“Sansho the Bailiff,” dir. Kenji Mizoguchi (1954)
“Sansho the Bailiff” takes place in feudal Japan and follows Anju and Zushio, the children of a former provincial governor removed for defying orders (though the film implies that his actions were taken to protect his subjects from further hardship). Forced into exile with his mother and sister, Zushio’s parting memory of his father is a lesson: Treat others mercifully. It’s rare that a movie is named after a villain. And in the case of “Sansho the Bailiff,” it’s the boogeyman. Sansho kidnaps the story’s two main protagonists, separates them from their mother, and forces them into slavery. Yet the titular character also acts as the lynchpin for the film’s moral structure. Because of Sansho’s wicked ways, Anju and Zushio are forced to scrutinize their father’s parting message and continue to uphold virtue in the face of moral depravity. Kenji Mizoguchi’s masterpiece is a constant battle between the forces of evil and compassion. It pits the downtrodden reality of Anju and Zushio with the slivers of hope that allow them to endure. Above all, it is an exercise in the power of mercy–the guiding principle that the virtuous governor leaves us with at the outset of the film. The score provides an ethereal beauty that guides us through Mizoguchi’s imperfect and majestic world. “Sansho” might really be as close as it gets to a perfect movie.
“Tokyo Drifter” dir. Seijun Suzuki (1966)
If you ever have a spare 83 minutes and have nothing to do, I’d suggest turning on Kanopy and exploring the complex, colorful, and consistently stylish world of “Tokyo Drifter.” The film begins with a complicated real estate scam that draws in colorful characters of Tokyo’s yakuza underworld. The coolest of them all—the protagonist, Tetsu “the Phoenix”—serves as the right-hand man of a former yakuza boss. Tetsu draws the ire of his more vicious and less charismatic contemporaries, who follow him as he detaches from his former master and becomes a lone wanderer. The film constantly challenges his preconceived notions of life in organized crime and charters him on a path that cements his newfound status as a “drifter.” This movie is replete with eccentric structural oddities: some planned jump cuts here and there and green screen quality that would make any film student scream. But these idiosyncrasies give the film its emotional flavor; long takes of the Tetsu’s face brooding, interspersion of the Tetsu’s love interest singing a repertoire of chilling ballads in a sprawling cafe, and a hyper stylized Tokyo taking on a role itself in the film. Take a spin into Japan’s yakuza’s past with Tetsu’s steely glare and his bright baby blue suit.
There’s certainly a lot of movies that I’m missing here. Kanopy also holds a collection of works by Yasujiro Ozu, including the universally praised “Tokyo Story.” I would also feel remiss if I did not mention Paul Schrader’s “Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters.” Yet these omissions are a testament to Japan’s extensive filmography–a collection that we are lucky to be able to explore for free at our fingertips.
Tobias Wertime can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.