Saturday, November 10, 2012

Nikkatsu 100: A Century of Japanese Cinema


The letter “Katsu (活)” means “kinetic” as in Kinematograph and was the recurring Kanji character in vocabulary of Japanese cinema culture. As Katsudo-shasin (活動写真) is the almost literal translation of Kinematograph, many film studios had the letter “Katsu(活)” in their brand name. Tenkatsu (天活) was one of the earliest cinema studios, Tennnenn-shoku Katsudo-shasin Kabusikikaisha (天然色活動写真株式会社, 1914 - 1919), specialized in hand-painted color features. Kokusai-Katsuei (国際活映, 1919 - 1925), dubbed as Kokkatsu (国活), inherited Tenkatsu in 1919, while Taisho-Katsuei (大正活映, 1920 - 1927) or Tai-Katsu (大活) was another studio with artistic flavor. While these studios were all short-lived, spanning less than a decade, one company with “Katsu (活)” in its name was still (though barely) alive. Nikkatsu (日活), originally named Nihon-Katsudo-Shasin-Kabusikikaisha (日本活動写真株式会社), is the hallmark of Japanese cinema along with Shochiku and Toho studios. It was formed in 1912, merging four major studios at the time. Up until seventies, Nikkatsu was the most influential, certainly popular, though not always profitable, film studio in Japan. Its filmography represents the best and worst of Japanese cinema. As “Katsu” means “kinetic”, Nikkatsu was perpetually in motion, from breathtaking chases in “Chuji Tabinikki” to almost absurd gun-slinging in “Kenju-burai-cho” series, from Matsugoro Onoe in “Goketsu Jiraiya” to Yujiro Ishihara in “Crazed Fruits”. On the occasion of the centennial celebration, the National Film Center in Tokyo is running the Nikkatsu retrospective in this fall. 

Here is the partial list of the Nikkatsu films shown in the retrospective.

Goketsu Jiraiya (豪傑児来也, 1921) Starring Matsugoro Onoe, you can watch the clip here

Chuji Tabinikki (忠治旅日記, 1927) The masterpiece by Daisuke Ito

Furusato (ふるさと, 1930) The early talkie by Kenji Mizoguchi

Kouchiyama Soushun (河内山宗俊, 1936) One of the only three surviving Sadao Yamanaka’s films, starring young Setsuko Hara

Ketto Takadano baba (血煙高田の馬場,1937) Entertaining piece by Masahiro Makino, You can watch the clip here

Gonin no Sekko-hei (A Pay by the Wayside, 五人の斥候兵,1938) Surprisingly humane war drama by Tomosaka Tasaka

Tsuchi (Earth, 土, 1939) Tomu Uchida’s masterpiece

Keisatsu Nikki (警察日記, 1955) Comeback from the war years

Bakumatsu Taiyo-den (Sun in the Last Days of the Shogunate, 幕末太陽傳, 1957) Yuzo Kawashima’s incredibly nihilistic comedy

Guitar wo motta Wataridori (The Rambling Guitarist, ギターを持った渡り鳥1959) Still the best “Nikkatsu Action” film

Rokudenasi Kagyo (Sea Fighters, ろくでなし稼業,1961) Seminal “Nikkatsu Action”, starring Jo Shishido,

Aoi Sanmyaku (Green Mountains, 青い山脈,1963) Remake of the film of the same title (1949)

Akai Satsui (Intentions of Murder, 赤い殺意, 1964) Imamura’s dark realism

Watashi ga Suteta Onna (The Girl I Abandoned, 私が棄てた女,1969) The end of the era

Shinayaka na Kemono-tachi (Sensuous Beasts, しなやかな獣たち1972, Nikkatsu “Roman Porno”) Debut for Naomi Tani

Onna Jigoku, Mori wa Nureta (Woods Were Wet, 女地獄・森は濡れた1973, Nikkatsu “Roman Porno”) The controversial work banned by the bad timing.

There is virtually very little chance to catch such early silents as Tokkyu Sanbyaku Mairu (Express 300 Miles, 特急三百哩, 1928), Ai no Machi (The Town of Love, 愛の町,1928) or early Imamura “Nusumareta Yakujo (Stolen Desire, 盗まれた欲情,1958)”, not to mention a group of Nikkatsu Roman Porno. This will be one of the best retrospective in years to come.

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