Old Japanese Movies

Wednesday, March 16 by Stephen Lloyd

American cinema was largely dominated by outwardly escapist film noir and musicals for much of the first half of the twentieth century, with a few exceptions, unlike old Japanese movies. Japanese cinema of this era combines the majesty of live theater with strong emotional and cultural insights.

  1. "Seven Samurai" This old Japanese movie is arguably the most famous by the most famous Japanese director Akira Kurosawa. The bulk of this 1954 movie is a calm before the storm scenario as a poor village hires seven ronin (unemployed samurai) to help defend them from a bandit gang. The famous western movie "The Magnificent Seven" is based on this movie.
  2. "Tokyo Story" While Kurosawa is known for epic productions, Yasujiro Ozu is known for quieter, character-driven films. This old Japanese movie from 1953 tells the story of a generational clash between aging parents and their modern adult children. The movie is a expert commentary on the cultural changes in Japan after World War II. 
  3. "The Hidden Fortress" This old Japanese movie from 1958 showcases the lighter side of Kurosawa. Two greedy peasants who have an oft-comical relationship agree to escort a man and a woman across enemy territory. They don't know that the man and the woman are a princess and her general. The peasants were inspiration for R2-D2 and C-3PO in the Star Wars films.
  4. "Rashomon" This old Japanese movie from 1950 recalls a murder from different points of view. People connected to the crime meet each other by chance, taking shelter from the rain in an abandoned gate-house. The storytelling style here is a precursor to movies like "Pulp Fiction" and "Ocean's Eleven."
  5. "Sansho The Bailiff" This old Japanese movie from 1954 has gorgeously clear cinematography for its time. It shows the emotional and physical cost to a family of an exiled governor in medieval Japan. Unable to join him, his children grow up under an oppressive regime. The movie shows the highs and lows of human behavior. 
  6. "Yojimbo" This 1961 old Japanese movie by Kurosawa is about a scruffy nineteenth century samurai whose best days are behind him. He wanders into a town divided by gang violence. The samurai resolves to craftily pit the gangs against each other for his own ends. But he is also capable of kindness, making him a great anti-hero. This movie was inspiration for Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns
  7. "The Burmese Harp" A rare reflective movie about Japan's role in World War II, this 1956 old Japanese movie is about a soldier and musician who is unable to convince his fellow soldiers to surrender in Burma to save their lives. Upon traveling through the country and seeing so much death he resolves to live his life as a Buddhist monk. This movie is also a good look at Burmese culture. 
  8. "Woman In The Dunes" This old Japanese movie from 1964 has an odd plot about an entomologist who finds himself forced to live with a women living in the midst of constantly shifting sand dunes. Their relationship becomes erotic and strange. The movie's strengths are its depictions of the sand dunes as nearly another character.
  9. "A Page of Madness" This silent old Japanese movie from 1926 is as experimental as German expressionist films of the same era. A man takes a job as a janitor in an insane asylum because his wife is an inmate. This movie is dominated by surreal, ghostlike images, perfectly depicting madness. There are no worded intertitles because a narrator would be present at the theater in the '20s in Japan.
  10. "Ugetsu" Taking place during a civil war of the 1600s, this old Japanese movie from 1953 is about two sets of competing, ambitious husbands and wives who get separated and go through hardships to achieve their goals. The movie has great costumes and an over-the-top theatrical style of acting that brings to mind "Gone With the Wind."