Meiko Kaji in Sasori
The stylish Meiko Kaji in the Sasori series (Toei)

The Japanese New Wave Film Rebellion

Japanese New Wave cinema of the 60s and 70s was a rebellion against established styles of filmmaking. Major Japanese film studios began to promote young assistant directors to helm their own features- about young people and aimed at the youth market. These directors would deliver a kick of creative revitalisation into Japanese cinema. They would tackle challenging themes- sexuality, political radicalism, social inequality- all against the background of Japan’s postwar identity struggle. 

No more heroes anymore:

In many of these seishun eiga (青春映画 youth films), the main characters are often youths who are up against a powerful and corrupt adversary. Sometimes this adversary is an individual or a gang, other times it is society itself. The circumstances in these films often reflect real issues and happenings from the time they were made. A good example of this is Kinji Fukasaku’s Blackmail Is My Life (恐喝こそわが人生, 1968), where a fashionably dressed gang of blackmailers come up against government corruption. Each member of the gang is an outsider, from main character Murata (Hiroki Matsukata) who grew up on the streets, to the half black half Japanese Zero (Akira Jo). What starts out as a humorous film about a group of young people conning dodgy executives for fun turns into an increasingly serious film, illustrating how the odds are stacked against the less fortunate. 

The gang explain the rules in the opening credits of Blackmail Is My Life (1968).

A difficult ladder to climb:

Although Japan went through an amazingly fast economic recovery in the 1960’s, not everyone benefitted. Many films, especially independent ones, portray the expanding socioeconomic gaps that arose. A further example by the same director is the powerful film Rage: If you were young (君が若者なら, 1970). This tells of three childhood friends, who are getting by as labourers and truck drivers. They are treated as expendable by their bosses and find it difficult to make enough to survive. However, their dream is to buy a truck, so they can become their own bosses. The hopelessness of the main characters’ struggle is emphasised to the viewer, yet the three men refuse to give up.

Action and panache!

Tokyo Drifter
An example of a vivid stylised gunfight from Tokyo Drifter (1966)

In the 60s, Japan’s oldest studio Nikkatsu specialised in stylish and dramatic action films featuring sharp-suited actors from their star line-up. These were influenced by everything from Spaghetti Westerns to Jean Luc Goddard.

One such film is Hasebe’s Black Tight Killers (俺にさわると危ないぜ, 1966). This action movie thriller follows handsome Nikkatsu star Akira Kobayashi through a series of intriguing and brightly coloured set pieces as he tries to save his kidnapped girlfriend. The James Bond influence is very apparent here, as is the influence of Western music and fashions- the titular go-go dancers being a prime example. The recently deceased Seijun Suzuki’s well known Tokyo Drifter (東京流れ者, 1966) is a highly stylised Yakuza film with a Spaghetti Western twist and a riot of colour. 

Searching for Identity:

Japanese New Wave The Face of Another
Tatsuya Nakadai in The Face of Another (1966).

Japan’s search for a new identity out of the ashes of World War 2 is also a noticeable theme in films of this period. One is Hiroshi Teshigahara’s hauntingly excellent The Face of Another (他人の顔, 1966). The sharp black and white visuals and minimalistic set design strengthens the film’s commentary on the isolation created by society and how people are judged by their appearances.

There were also many films that depicted life outside mainstream society. Both Shohei Imamura’s films from the 1960s and his documentaries in the 1970s deal with the working classes and social outcasts.  A great example being the self-explanatory History Of Postwar Japan As Told By A Bar Hostess (にっぽん戦後史- マダムおんぼろの生活, 1970).

Sex sells:

Japanese New Wave Reiko Ike
Reiko Ike in Sukeban Blues: Queen Bee’s Counterattack (1971).

In the early 1970s, cinema audiences for Japanese films declined due to the increase in television ownership and an influx of American productions being shown on cinema screens. In response to this, the major studios ramped up sexual and violent content in their releases to attract audiences.

One major studio, Nikkatsu, began to solely produce adult films, termed roman-poruno (ロマンポルノ). Toei also did this with several different series of ‘pinky-violence’ sexploitation films. Studio-bound directors had more freedom with their films, but they had to contain a minimum of four sex or nude scenes per hour. One director, Norifumi Suzuki, used this formula to deliver arty melanges of sex and violence with sharp cinematography and an abundance of flashy style. Others, like Tatsumi Kumashiro, used the restrictions of the roman poruno genre to explore the lives of sex workers and the treatment of women in modern society.

As Japan’s cash-strapped studios made directors churn out films on increasingly low budgets, directors were forced to become more resourceful and creative. Director Norifumi Suzuki said that the costume budget on his films was very tight (video interview (NSFW)). In fact, most of the outfits that the characters wore came out of the actors’ own wardrobes. Thus, actresses like Miki Sugimoto and Reiko Ike (who played the bad girl characters of his Sukeban films) brought their own sense of style to the screen.

Reiko Ike’s gang squares off against rivals in Norifumi Suzuki’s Sukeban Blues: Queen Bee’s Counterattack (1971).

Revenge films:

In the 1970s, revenge films were a very important component of violent films. One icon of these extreme films is Meiko Kaji- who starred in the Lady Snowblood series and the Sasori films. An enka singer and an actress, she had an uncluttered, smart style, often favouring simple cuts- monochrome polo necks and bell-bottomed jeans. Her most iconic outfit is the stylish long black coat and wide brimmed felt hat that her character wears when she takes revenge in the Sasori films. Her style is such a memorable image of cult cinema, that directors like Quentin Tarantino and Sion Sono have paid homage to it. One can see how these Japanese New Wave films from the 1960s and 70s continue to influence films to this day.   

*A shorter edit of this article originally appeared under the longer title of ‘Japanese Fashion in Film: 1960s and 70s – The New Wave’ (credited under RetroRobin’s real name) in AJET Connect magazine’s April 2015 issue as the third part of a 4-part series on fashion in 20th century Japanese cinema.

Recommended reading

If you wish to read more on the Japanese New Wave, I highly recommend:

Desjardin’s Outlaw Masters of Japanese film – an indispensable coffee table book of detailed interviews with actors and directors who shaped Japanese cinema in the 1960s and 1970s. Contains some nice screenshots and photos to boot.

Schilling’s No Borders, no limits: Nikkatsu Action cinema – A great overview of the history of the Nikkatsu film studios.

Post Author: RetroRobin

Into The Retroscope's founder. RetroRobin enjoys pecking out the forgotten classics and little knowns of yesteryear- specialising in cult Japanese films, 1960s Bollywood cabaret songs, British thrillers and old school adventure games.

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