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A Brief Overview of the Japanese New Wave Movement

A Brief Overview of the Japanese New Wave Movement | Woman in the Dunes (1964) by Hiroshi Teshigahara

Japanese New Wave was a loosely defined period of filmmaking (1950 —1970) during which aesthetically raw and expressive films featured confrontational social criticisms and innovative approaches to film structure. They often often took a transgressive form, particularly in respect to the oppressive traditions of the conservative Japanese patriarchal society of the time. Indeed, the themes of female emancipation, rape, homosexuality, social escapism, and rebellious lifestyles present in these films all reflected the attitudes of an alienated youth from such a society.

While often mistaken for a derivative of 1950s French New Wave, Japanese New Wave already had a foundation in place for the origin of radically different films by the time Jean Luc Godard’s Breathless was released in 1960. The broad range of films that emerged out of the movement implies a lengthy analysis for a comprehensive understanding. Thus, the following will only serve as a brief introduction to it. With that caveat out of the way, here are some handpicked keystone examples of the movement.

Woman in the Dunes (1964) by Hiroshi Teshigahara

Best described as the Magnus Opus of Hiroshi Teshigahara (1927 – 2001), Woman in the Dunes is the manifestation of a strong, idiosyncratic vision grafted on to celluloid film. The film is an allegorical drama about an entomologist who has strayed into the desert in search of insects. After missing the last bus back to the city, he stays at a village nearby, waking up to find out that there is no escape. This film features dreamy visual sequences and a surrealist personification of sand. By lacing it with an element of authoritarianism, the sand figuratively traps the main character with a woman in a valley surrounded by large dunes. With an extraordinary score by legendary composer Toru Takemitsu (1930 – 1996), this erotically charged film ensnares the mind of the viewer, filling every crevice with intrigue, awe and unresolvable suspicion as to the true nature of his imprisonment.

The Man Who Left His Will on Film (1970) by Nagisa Oshima

Any list of films of Japanese New Wave would be incomplete without a film or two by director Nagisa Oshima (1932 – 2013), given that his directorial origins coincide with that of the movement. While its almost impossible to choose one single Oshima film that was representative of what he brought to New Wave, The Man Who Left His Will on Film is a sufficient watch for an initial impression of his style. The narrative in this film takes the viewer through a metaphysical labyrinth; the events shown to the viewer are brought into question as the film develops, demanding that the viewer be an active participant in the film rather than a passive recipient. Mainly the film revolves around a revolutionary student group and a stolen camera, however, given the elliptical nature of the narrative it proves to be a difficult task to give a broader description of the plot without spoiling something.

Eros + Massacre (1969) by Yoshishige Yoshida

Regarding subject matter, Eros + Massacre is probably one of the densest to come out of Japan during this period. Directed by Yoshishige Yoshida (1933 – current), the film is an obscure biographical depiction of the lives of the radical feminist Noe Ito, and anarchist Sakae Osugi as well as his many lovers all intermixed with the life of Noe Ito’s daughter years later. The highly original narrative present in this film makes it a complicated watch, yet its highly politicized subject matter and innovative cinematography render it one of the most exemplary films of the Japanese New Wave. While being entirely in Japanese, this film gives rise to a unique and highly engaging conception of cinematic aesthetics, which enables the film to be watched without the use of subtitles while still maintaining the viewer’s intrigue. Utilizing extremely bright exposure and unprecedented framing of actors, Yoshida creates a visual atmosphere unique to himself, an idiosyncrasy which is to some viewers refreshing, to others deviant and unprofessional.

The films of the Japanese New Wave movement rocked the traditional society with their aggressive and blunt approach to social criticism, though they didn’t stop there. The incredible inventiveness of the Japanese directors from this time also shook the world of film inspiring many contemporary directors. To get an honest feel for the movement the three films mentioned here don't suffice but instead serve as guides to points of entry, depending on what a viewer prioritizes in a film.

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