Japan 359 Medals
Handing out the medals is not going to be easy given the amazing history of Japanese cinema. With so many great auteurs throughout its history it would be best to start at the beginning with the work of Kenji Mizoguchi. Japans first real auteur, he fully embraced silent cinema, unfortunately not much of his work during the period in the early 1920s exists today, a consequence of natural disasters and the aftermath of World War II. When war came to Japan, the government took an increasing interest in the power of cinema as a tool of propaganda. This stifled the industrys previous displays of creativity and instead films focused on the supposed 'invincibility' of the great empire of Japan. However, it was during this period that two directors of great importance would emerge. Akira Kurosawa made his first feature film: Sanshiro Sugata and Yasujiro Ozu directed the forever adored, Late Spring. In the 1950s these directors truly embraced cinema and became the cinematic legends they are known as today. Their influence extends beyond Japanese cinema and into cinema as a whole, with many regarding them as two of the greatest ever directors. In the 1960s, a new wave of cinema emerged, continuing to help Japan garner many international awards. In the 1970s when the battle with television commenced, directors aimed to titillate its audiences with increasing levels of violence and sex on screen to make sure they would seek out the cinema for excitement, rather than stay at home. Known as Pink films, films such as, In the Realm of The Senses, (a take on the tale of Abe Sada) had scenes of a highly sexual nature intertwined with violence. Yakuza films also increased in popularity. Incorporating more modern factual elements to their story, they ignored the previous Yakuza tales which revolved around a samurai like code of honour, instead embracing them as ruthless gangsters. In the 1980s the genre of Anime began to make waves in Japan. Having been exposed to many American cartoons after the war, the now famous Hayao Miyazaki, began to work in the 1960s as an animator. It wasnt until 1985 however, that the now infamous Ghibli studios, opened its doors and began a production line of anime films which are continuously lauded for appearance, story and quality. In the 1990s, the trend of anime films continued, along with the re-introduction to violence. Takashi Miikes over the top extremist view of bloodshed, made its mark both in Japan and across the globe, preceding him however was the incredibly interesting personality of Takeshi Kitano. Originally a comedian, he began to make much more serious films which had art house sensibilities meshed with violence, often in the Gangster/Yakuza mould. Studio Ghibli, Miike and Kitano are all prominent Japanese filmmakers today and with talent such as this, Japanese cinema continues to impress domestically and internationally. Bronze Godzilla (Ishiro Honda, 1954) The Bronze medal position could have been filled by any number of films, I strongly considered a Takeshi Kitano film for the podium, Ugetsu by Mizoguchi maybe. But I felt I had to choose a film which related to Japans most horrific moment in history, the nuclear bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Which then led to a choice between Black Rain, by Shohei Imamura, Barefoot Gen, by Keiji Nakazawa or Godzilla. As you can see by the picture, I went with the allegorical story of the giant mutated lizard known in Japan as Gojira. Probably the most iconic figure in Japanese cinema, Godzilla may be a man in a suit for the majority of the film, but it is his allegorical role which marks him out as a figure of great historical importance. When Japanese boats start disappearing out at sea, with no clear explanation, scientists eventually come face to face with the thirty storey monster that would come to be known as Godzilla to western audiences. The aftermath of destruction following his arrival in Japan is full of fire, ruined buildings, children becoming orphans and a mass loss of its civilians. It is extremely reminiscent of the nuclear repercussions brought on Japan in World War II. And although the film has aged quite badly, never truly being seen as a great artistic film, its subtext is extremely strong. In recent times we have seen Godzilla re-appropriated as an anti-hero, saving Tokyo from other similar monsters, turning a national disaster, into an uprising of a creature who eventually turns into the guardian of Tokyo. With the films allegorical context being so prominent, Americas attempt at a remake fell short of the mark, with another new Godzilla film on the horizon in Hollywood, it will be interesting to see if, like Cloverfield, they utilise the images of 9/11 as their equivalent to Hiroshima. Silver Ikiru (Akira Kurosawa, 1952)
I may have picked Ikiru, but much like Ozu, such is the quality of Kurosawas filmography, I easily could have picked any number of films. Overall, this would probably be the closest time gap/points gap between Gold and Silver, with Ozu and Kurosawa, high quality films are a constant. Anyway, why Ikiru? I chose Ikiru because of its character driven nature. I have an adoration of Kurosawa's examination of what it means to be living, when suddenly you find out you are going to die. In Ikiru, a successful but unfulfilled bureaucrat, Mr Watanabe, is told he has stomach cancer and is going to die sooner, rather than later. Having worked for the majority of his life, in an office where his only real role is to put a stamp of approval on citizens complaints, he has the realisation that he hasnt actually lived. While trying to find meaning in his life, he decides that before he dies he wants to achieve one meaningful act. Through his job, he discovers a squalid piece of land garnering complaints from locals, with many campaigning a childrens playground should be built on the land. Choosing this as his act, the film is framed in flashbacks from his wake, as we see his endeavors flourish until the films most famous shot; one which radiates an array of emotions for anyone thats seen the film. Kurosawas exploration into the frailty of life is touching in so many ways, a masterful elegiac film, with carpe diem at its foundations. Mr Watanabe may have been diagnosed with stomach cancer, but he represents all of us. Life is frail, it comes to end, but Kurosawa, reminds us that great things can be achieved in our lives. It may be emotionally draining and incredibly moving, but it should also be seen as inspirational. As a character were saddened by his death but inspired by his act; Ikiru is translated as 'To Live' and that is the beautiful message left by Mr Watanabe. Gold Tokyo Story (Yasujiro Ozu, 1953) It was difficult to pick one particular Ozu film, so I had to go with the one I feel the most affinity with. My first experience with Ozu was sombre, I was aware of his significance in the realm of cinema, but I was not prepared for how masterful a poet he was with a camera. The smallest of events have great significance to him and he treats each with respect and time. These characteristics are on show in Tokyo Story, often seen as his masterpiece (he has a lot of them), it tells the story of an elderly Japanese couple who go to visit their self-obsessed children and grandchildren. It is simplistic as they come, a story about ordinary life and ordinary people. Ozu, however, makes it feel so much more than that. When they arrive at their childrens homes, their offspring have little time for them, the hustle and bustle of Tokyo clearly invading their personal lives, which is in stark contrast to the calming life in the country that the parents lead. The only person who pays any attention to them, is the widow of their son. Welcoming and attentive to both of them, she clearly shows an consideration and adoration for her parents in law. When their mother falls ill on her way home from the visit, the family dynamic comes into play again and the examination by Ozu, although subtle, speaks volumes. Ozus camerawork is gentle and non-judgemental; never arching over its characters, it seems to remain in a low position without ever really moving. A technique which makes the film seem almost documentary like, it takes us away from the machine of the camera and into a false reality, as if we are peering through a window on family life. It may seem slow, but it needs to be, its an examination of life and in life there are no quick cuts, screen wipes, dissolves or flash-forwards; just life.