Nikkatsu: the Classics and the Revolution - upcoming events
100 Years: Nikkatsu and Universal
As the 21st century moves on, we are increasingly marking the centennials of the formative events and births in cinema history. Some are of master filmmakers; but a century ago the essential industrial structures and systems of ‘classic’ cinema were also falling into place. And as well as the workflows of the movie business, the first household names in film production were also beginning to appear. Hollywood’s Universal Studios and Japan’s Nikkatsu both came into being in 1912. Although both are the oldest surviving ‘major’ studios in their respective national filmmaking industries, both have been through many of changes of ownership, business models and not a few brushes with bankruptcy. And whilst no two film national cinemas could be more different than those of Hollywood and Japan, Universal and Nikkatsu have taken oddly similar journeys. For the remainder of 2012 and into 2013 we’ll selectively and all-too-briefly survey the best and the typical of both studios.
Nikkatsu: the Classics and the Revolution
Nikkatsu’s story has been a stop-start, coming and going one throughout Japanese screen history. Formed in September 1912 as Nippon Katsudō Shashin (quickly shortened to Nikkatsu), it was an amalgamation of a handful of small producers and cinema chains that arose when Japanese cinema was little more than filmed theatre. By the late 1910s and ‘20s, it was the prestige home of the first great stars and the first master makers of historical martial arts dramas, like Makino Shozo and Ito Daisuke. In the late 1920s it was where two Japanese cinema greats, Mizoguchi Kenji and Yamanaka Sadao, served their apprenticeships. Like all Japanese studios, the ‘30s saw it turn to nationalist propaganda epics. However its war effort gained the studio no favours when, in 1941, government wartime film policy and film industry power play forcibly nationalised its production division – the first of Nikkatsu’s enforced hiatuses from film production.
Revival in 1951, under new boss Hori Kyusaku, led to its first international art cinema success with The Harp of Burma; made by one of the rising young directors Hori had poached from rival studios – Ichikawa Kon. But it was domestic smash hit successes in the late 1950s that took Nikkatsu and Japanese cinema in a whole new direction. Adaptations of and borrowings from writer Ishihara Shintaro racy youth novels, beginning with 1956’s Season of the Sun, not only initiated the Japanese New Wave. It transformed the studio’s business model and artistic legacy.
Nikkatsu continued to serve other demographics, including family audiences. It was also the home of the searing political art cinema of one Japan’s most internationally respected directors of the 1960s, Imamura Shōei. But from the late 1950s until the mid ’70s Nikkatsu was defined by its key house genres: its ‘Sun Tribe’, ‘Speed Tribe’ and ‘Jazzbo’ youth movies, its Yakuza bullet ballets, its erotic fables and trashy exploitation flicks. They needed to stay in their genre box, use their stars as the fans expected – most famously, its ‘Diamond Line’ of young leading men. They needed to make money. They needed to be true to studio’s oddly sincere motto, 'We make fun films’. Otherwise, the aspiring newcomers and crafty veteran hacks of the studio’s directing roister (Nakahira Kō, Kurahara Koreyoshi – and the director who eventually went too far, even for Nikkatsu, Suzuki Seijin) could experiment as they wished. Coarse, excessive, alienated, sometimes surreal and often crypto-political, they served the sub-cultural margins and lowest common denominators of Japanese audience taste – but did so with maximum style and subtext. The best analogy would be with Hollywood studio ‘B’ noir and horror production units of the late 1940s; similarly, these genres proved to be creative free-trade zones for its filmmakers.
Nikkatsu thus, accidentally became the one of the main sites where all the messy, alienated feelings of Japanese pop cultural and intellectual life in the 1960s were vented: militant generational resentment, anti-American, anti- and/or hyper-consumerism, pacifism. But Nikkatsu’s revolt through style could only last as long as the ’60 lasted. Television took its toll in the 1970s and Nikkatsu retreated to serving the only demographic TV couldn’t service: soft porn. Yet even here, in its ‘Roman Porno’ slate, there was latitude to experiment, with some of its more baroque titles crossing over into art house and critical success. Bankruptcy was inevitable by the early 1990s; more surprising was the revival of the Nikkatsu brand by new owners in the 2000s, and its re-emergence as a studio supporting some of Japan’s wildest contemporary filmmaking spirits, such Sono Shion.
Our celebration of this unique studio screens in two parts. Nikkatsu’s Classics is a sample of the studio’s pre-late 1950 classics (regrettably from the limited number of pre-1940 titles that have survived), including masterpieces by Ito, Mizoguchi and Ichikawa. Then Nikkatsu’s Revolt selects just a few of the wildest genre films and most inspired directing from the late 1950s until the mid-‘70s.
Presented with the support of The Japan Foundation, with the assistance of the Embassy of Japan, the National Film Center (Tokyo) and the Nikkatsu Corporation.
With thanks to: Tochigi Akira (National Film Center); Kubota Yuri; Takako Hirayama (Nikkatsu Corporation); Konomi Matsufumi, David Freeman (Japan Foundation); Sumie Davies (Embassy of Japan); Michael Koller, Michelle Carey (Melbourne Cinematheque Inc.); Nashen Moodley, Jenny Neighbour (Sydney Film Festival).
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