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HIS 372 / 572,
THE HISTORY OF EARLY MODERN JAPAN


FILMS DEALING WITH
TRADITIONAL JAPAN

Many of the following comments have been adapted from Lisa's Japanese Movie List

Names of directors and production dates are noted in parentheses following each summary description

Double Suicide (Shinju-Ten No Amijima) Shinoda, a 'new wave' director, films the story with the form of a bunraku (puppet theater) play. The actors are live but are seemingly controlled by the kuroko (bunraku puppet-masters dressed in black). Based on Chikamatsu Monzaemon's puppet play "Love Suicide at Amijima". (Shinoda Masahiro, 1969)

The 47 Ronin (Genroku Chushingura) Part I & Part II The early 18th-century story of The Loyal 47 Ronin, a popular Japanese tale based on an actual historical incident, has spawned countless dozens of film versions, including Hiroshi Inagaki's 1962 spectacular Chushingura. Mizoguchi's two-part extravaganza -- "more mediative and less action-oriented" (David Owens) -- ranks amongst the finest screen adaptations of the legendary tale, notwithstanding Kurosawa's assertion that "Mizoguchi was no good at samurai." When 47 samurai are left masterless ronin by an injustice which forces their lord to commit harakiri in disgrace, they plot elaborate and bloody revenge, knowing full well that they will all ultimately share their master's fate. Largely dispensing with swordplay, Mizoguchi orchestrates a brilliant, stately pageant of ritual and ceremony, elaborate period reconstruction, geometrical composition, and lavish camera movement. The result is "in many respects Mizoguchi's most ambitious film. . .[and] one of the few Japanese films which reflects to any serious extent the mood and rhythm of the classical No" (NoŽl Burch). "Mizoguchi consistently avoids the large gestures and obvious action scenes and invests the story with a subdued, elegiac feeling for both the dead and the living. Stylistically, it is one of his most extraordinary achievements" (John Gillett). "For admirers of Japanese cinema, The 47 Ronin is . . . essential" (Village Voice). The film was originally commissioned by Japan's military government to illustrate "true devotion to the cause" and was the most expensive Japanese production of the war period. (Mizoguchi Kenji, 1941/42)

The Hidden Fortress (Kakuchi Toride no San-Akunin) Two bumbling vagabonds are dragooned by superman general Toshiro Mifune into aiding his rescue of a fugitive princess and her family's hidden gold. Probably Kurosawa's most dazzling exercise in pure filmmaking (it was his first use of widescreen), and one of Mifune's most exciting vehicles (he did all his own stunts), this richly comic fairy tale for adults is pure entertainment from the masters and acknowledged as the source for Star Wars. "Grand, bold moviemaking."-Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun Times. "Easily surpasses Lucas' trilogy in resource and derring-do."-Carrie Rickey, Boston Herald. (Kurosawa Akira, 1958)

Kagemusha (The Shadow Warrior) D: Akira Kurosawa. A 16th century thief is spared execution if he will pose as a secretly deceased warlord whose throne is coveted by others. Grand combination of humanism and spectacle from a great filmmaker. (Kurosawa Akira, 1980)

The Life of Oharu (Saikaku Ichidai Onna) Mizoguchi considered The Life of Oharu to be his masterpiece, and it was the film that first (and belatedly) established his international reputation (it won an International Prize at Venice in 1952, the first of a string of mature Mizoguchi masterpieces -- including Ugetsu [1953] and Sansho the Bailiff [1954] -- which astonished viewers and won major awards in the West in the mid-1950s). Mizoguchi diva Kinuyo Tanaka -- "giving one of the greatest of screen performances" (Bloomsbury) -- stars in the title role as a beautiful court lady gradually reduced by circumstances to prostitution and beggary. Adapted from a classic picaresque novel by Ihara Saikaku, the drama unfolds in a painstakingly recreated 17th-century Kyoto; the film's exquisite compositions and breathtaking sequence shots display the director's talents at their very finest. Most critics place Oharu with Ugetsu at the pinnacle of Mizoguchi's artistry; Godard claims to have viewed it over a dozen times, and Joan Mellen has hailed it as "perhaps the finest film made in any country about the oppression of women." "Truly transcendent. . . The Genroku period background is evoked in images of staggering beauty and camera movements of truly epic sweep. Mizoguchi's sympathy for the plight of women in feudal society is here given its most perfect and profound expression" (Tom Luddy). The Life of Oharu "should further enhance Mizoguchi's reputation as the cinema's greatest ever director of women, and as one of the most meticulous craftsmen of the period film" (Time Out). (Mizoguchi Kenji, 1952)

Ran A rousing Japanese version of Shakespear's King Lear set in the end of the sixteenth century; an Academy Award winner for Best Foreign Film (Kurosawa Akira, 1985)

Rashomon Several versions of the same incident are recounted at a trial for murder; a classic movie refilmed as "The Outrage" starring Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. ((Kurosawa Akira, 1951)

Throne of Blood An adaptation of Shakespear's Macbeth set in the Period of the Warring States. (Kurosawa Akira)

Ugetsu A tale of mystery set in the sixteenth century; the film that won Mizoguchi his first international film award. (Mizoguchi Kenji, 1953)

Utamaro and His Five Women The story of the great woodblock print artist and the women who inspired his greatest prints. (Mizoguchi Kenji, 1946)

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This site has been prepared by Lee A. Makela (l.makela@csuohio.edu) for the use of students at Cleveland State University, Cleveland, Ohio, USA, who are enrolled in HIS 372/572, The History of Early Modern Japan during the Spring Semester of the 2007 - 2008 Academic Year; please contact him with any comments.  
 Last revised: January 15, 2008