‘Post-war Japanese Films’

As a by-product pf the successful organisation of A Season of Contemporary Japanese Films for more than a decade, Japan Desk Scotland developed a good relationship with Film Studies, University of Glasgow, and assisted them for their ‘Undiscovered Post-war Japan: A Japanese Film Festival‘, with the selection of the films and the provision of Introduction and notes on the selected films.  The festival was held in September 2012 at the Gilmorehill Centre, with support from the Great Britain Sasakawa Foundation and The Japan Foundation.  A one-day symposium was also held.


The British public and academic scholars are familiar with some of the major works of Japanese films such as Tokyo Story released in 1953 (considered in the UK as one of the best films ever made) and the popular series of Godzilla films, the first of which was released in 1954. This festival is designed to make sense of these films in the context of other films, such as post-war Japanese documentary films and in relation to Japan’s historical context.

For example, the two films to be screened in this festival, Godzilla and Kurosawa’s less-known film, I Live in Fear, are said to be inspired by the same incident. A series of Hydrogen Bomb Test that were carried out on Bikini Athol in the Pacific Ocean from 1946 to 1958 and in March 1954 crews on a Japanese fishing boat, Lucky Dragon, suffered from radiation with one dying later. This not only triggered the first nation-wide campaign against nuclear weapons in Japan but can also be understood as the inspiration for these two films.

Moreover, with the recent accident in Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, these films, together with Shindo Kaneto’s Children of Hiroshima, would provide insights into people’s attitudes towards nuclear issues in post-war Japan. Further, Tsuchimoto Noriaki’s Minamata can be seen in relation to the series of post-war destruction of natural environment in Japan under the name of industrialisation, with the Fukushima accident as its latest. Even Sakuma Dam, which was commissioned by its main construction company, could be seen as part of post-war industrialisation and natural destruction.

Tuesday 4 September  

Children of Hiroshima (SHINDO Kaneto, 1952) 100 min

During post-war occupation of Japan by the Allied Powers strict censorship was imposed and no public discussion of the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was allowed. In 1952 when the occupation was over, Hiroshima-born SHINDO (1912-2012) made, whose original Japanese title, Genbaku no Ko, may be translated as ‘Children of the Atomic Bomb’. Inspired by an anthology of Hiroshima children’s recollections of their experiences, the film follows a journey of a female school teacher, a survivor herself, who visits Hiroshima for the first time since the end of the war. This is a fictional film, but as it was shot mostly in Hiroshima, it recorded the still visible legacy of the bomb. Music was written by IFUKUBE Akira (1914-2006), who also composed music for Godzilla.

I live in Fear (KUROSAWA Akira, 1955)   103 min

This may be one of the less-known films of KUROSAWA (1910-1998). An elderly self-made owner of a foundry (played by then 35-year-old MIFUNE Toshiro) is afraid of being contaminated and killed by radiation, following the death of a fishing boat crew member from it, and is convinced that the only safe place on earth is South America. He plans to emigrate to Brazil with his family. Other members of the family, however, make a case to the Family Court, asking that the father is declared mentally incompetent. If they succeed, the father would not be allowed to finance the planned emigration and the family members would continue the comfortable life that they are enjoying. To stay or not to stay is the question that tears the family apart. I live in fear can be seen as following the thematic and narrative concerns of OZU’s celebrated Tokyo Story but with the central figure of the father defined as a very different character.

Wednesday 5  September

Construction Record of Sakuma Dam: Part 1 (HANABUSA, 1955) 45 min

The Sakuma Dam is a hydroelectric dam on Tenryu River which is famous for its rapid stream that runs through narrow valleys. The dam was hastily constructed between 1953 and 1956, with 3.5 million workers employed in total, a testimony to the importance that energy has for Japan, a country with no oil resources. It should be noted that while this dam was being constructed, the development of nuclear power plants was also discussed by Japanese politicians. This documentary film was commissioned by the dam’s main constructor, recording the first stage of its development. At the very early stages works relied heavily on human labour to create new roads and bridges so that the heavy equipment and machinery (such as cranes and diggers) can be transported to the site. This required blasting which radically altered the landscape of the valleys in the process of creating the 150-metre-high and 290-metre long dam.

Godzilla (HONDA Ishiro, 1954) 93 min

The monster Godzilla, gojira in Japanese, a word that combines gorilla and kujira (whale), is introduced in this celebrated film directed by HONDA (1911-1993) as a possible surviving Jurassic dinosaur which has lived at the bottom of the sea for centuries but has lost its peaceful living environment due to the repeated H-Bomb tests carried out in the Pacific Ocean. It is referred to by a scholar of prehistoric life in the film as a living creature which has survived radiation. At the time of its first release, such portrayal may have brought back to the memory of members of the audience the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the tests at Bikini Athol and the related incidents. Equally probable is that Godzilla’s sustained and spectacular attack on Tokyo from the sea could be associated with the extensive destructive bombings of Tokyo and other major cities in March 1945. This film could not have been made without special effects, which were provided by the legendary TSUBURAYA Eiji (1901-1970).

Thursday 6 September

On the Road: A Document (TSUCHIMOTO Noriaki, 1964) 42 min

The Tokyo of 1963 is documented in this film by TSUCHIMOTO (1928-2008), who started his career with Iwanami Films by focusing on the work and life of a taxi driver, who was acted by an actor.   The camera follows the taxi as it navigates through roads congested with lots of trucks but only a limited number of privately-owned cars as he narrowly escapes a collision with a lorry, gets fined for speeding, bypasses a half-finished motorway (motorways and bullet trains came to existence with the 1964 Tokyo Olympics) and moves slowly among pedestrians spreading across the road in residential areas.  The film also captures quiet roads in the early morning, the driver’s young family with his wife acted by an actress, as well as a map of Tokyo with pins indicating the sites of traffic accidents.  The film was originally commissioned by the Tokyo Metropolitan Police to highlight road safety policy, but TSUCHIMOTO portrays the experience of the road and driving through the points of view of drivers and pedestrians.

Tokyo Story (OZU Yasujiro, 1953) 135 min

There is abundant critical recognition and extensive academic scholarship bot on OZU (1903-1963) and his Tokyo Story widely recognised as one of the best films ever made. Nevertheless, his films stimulate speculation regarding aesthetic and thematic trends of his films. Why is it that his films have similar story lines? This film follows a journey of an elderly couple from their home in Onomichi, Hiroshima Prefecture, to Tokyo to see their grown-up children, but similar story lines were used in his other films, such as the 1936 The Only Son.  Why did he use the characteristic low-angle shots?  Why did he not pan his camera?  Why did he carefully position actors in relation to others and the background, especially their postures and eyes?

Friday 7 September

Minamata: The Victims and their World (TSUCHIMOTO Noriaki, 1971) 120 min

Minamata in Kumamoto Prefecture, Kyushu, the southern island, faces the Shiranui Sea. A large industrial complex in the city produced nitrogen fertilizers (the Shin Nihon Chisso Fertilizer), with inorganic mercury compounds as catalyst used in the process. A disease, later known as ‘Minamata Disease’, began to appear in the 1950s that caused severe intoxication of the central neuron system attributed to methyl mercury compounds in fish and selfish.  TSUCHIMOTO documents the victims’ life and their struggle against the factory which refused to accept responsibility, against the government which was slow to react and against the wide-spread prejudices that excluded them from society. The victims and their supporters used a traditional banner with a single Japanese word, en/urami, or grudge.

Fugitive from the Past (UCHIDA Tomu, 1964) 183 min

The film starts in 1947 in the Tsugaru Straits between Hokkaido, the northern island, and Honshu, the main island, when two seemingly unrelated incidents happened: a murder, robbery and arson of a pawnshop in Hokkaido; and a shipwreck of a ferry connecting the two islands due to a typhoon. A detective (BAN Junzaburo) thought that those involved in the pawnshop incident had escaped to the main island during busy rescue operations for the shipwreck victims. UCHIDA (1898-1970) follows the detective’s chase of one of the suspects (MIKUNI Rentaro) exploring the characters of MIKUNI and of a prostitute who helps and is helped by him. This is not a detective story but a story of a detective and those escaping from the past. The Japanese original title, Kiga Kaikyo, may be translated as ‘Hunger Straits’. TAKAKURA Ken appears as a detective interrogating MIKUNI.

Saturday  8 September

Symposium on Japanese cinema

Session 1
YOSHIMI Shunya (University of Tokyo) on ‘Atoms for Dream: Holding the American Umbrella in the Atomic Driving Rain’
Alastair Phillips (University of Warwick) as a discussant

Session 2
Julian Ross (University of Leeds), ‘Site and specificity in Japanese Expanded Cinema: Intermedia and its developments in the late 1960s’
Oliver Dew (Birkbeck College), ‘The expanded Archive’
Andrew Dorman (University of St Andrews), ‘Japan’s Dream of Japan: Peripheral Culture and Post-War Modernisation in Japanese “Island Films”’
FUJIKI Hideaki (Nagoya University) as a discussant