• James Kunovski

Post-War Identity in Japanese Cinema

Through the post-Second World War work of Akira Kurosawa and Yasujirō Ozu, the Golden Age of Japanese cinema holds a mirror to the nation's tumultuous identity, social culture and history. These include Kurosawa’s reflection of Japanese values in Seven Samurai (1954), Ikiru (1952), and Ozu’s in Tokyo Story (1953). Released in 1953 and twenty years later in the United States because it was deemed “too Japanese”, Yasujirō Ozu’s Tokyo Story was rated the best film of all time by a 2012 Sight and Sound Poll. A dramatic portrayal of family relations, the story is set in a delicate time for the country and serves as an allegory to the tormented post-war national identity and the demise of its traditional culture. It takes place shortly after the 1948 Civil Code which enforced the country’s rapid westernisation. That code set out to embrace capitalism and modern family ethics. Japan has changed significantly since the 1950s, and we are granted a snapshot of a pivotal era in their modern history. The westernisation of Japan was a difficult process that provoked strong resistance. Ozu responds to the horrors of World War II. He “attempted to reconcile those horrors with a return to normality.” The film is evidently slow paced. There is a lack of movement and excitement to modern-day life despite the Tokyo setting, a busy, if not the busiest city. Ozu is fixated on the generational clash between elderly parents and their middle-aged children. What might seem like familial tension serves as a collective image of Japan. The elderly parents reflect a more traditional sensibility. Their children, on the other hand, resemble the tortured youth of a modern society. They hold steady jobs and live in their country’s capital yet are miserable. This is stated most significantly in an exchange between grandmother and grandson. The message is communicated visually. The grandson who, like his parents, refuses to spend time with his elders stays silent when the grandmother asks him what he wants to be when he grows up. It induces a cloud of uncertainty over Japan’s future. The children abandon their parents to a resort. A timeless message given Japan’s skewed ageing population.

The growing presence of western fashion and technology is often indicated, but the film remains an important exhibition of preserved culture. Traditional greetings, interactions, and reconciliation are present throughout. Ozu diverts away from a predetermined cinematic style. He regularly breaks the 180-degree rule and the camera moves only once in the entire film. Even the eye-level cinematography is reflective of Japanese culture; it's the way you would view someone if you were sitting on a chabudai. By doing so, we are directly invited into a Japanese home to witness their lifestyle and behaviour.

Tokyo Story surprisingly relays hope for Japan’s future. Ozu beckons promise by building a successful relationship between the widowed daughter-in-law and the elderly couple. Although she lost her husband in the war, she inhibits a sense of reserved happiness and aspiration. Is Ozu stating that despite wartime horrors there is still optimism for those who experienced it? Another titan of classic Japanese cinema, Akira Kurosawa remains one of the country’s most prolific directors. His bona fide masterwork, Seven Samurai (1954) upholds a strong connection to principal values and homages historic culture. The critically lauded epic tells the story of a vulnerable village that hires seven samurais to help defend them against a gang of bandits. “What follows is pure cinematic dynamite.”

Released a year after Tokyo Story, also during that challenging and uncertain reconstruction period, it provided an image of national pride and a beacon for an at-risk culture. The samurais are patriotic; in their white kimonos they often appear angelic. The film ensures Japanese dignity in the face of an enemy. Roger Ebert claimed in his review that the violence and action are not the plot’s pivotal points. Instead, it is focused on duty and social roles; a societal construct that the civil code could not diminish. Perhaps Kurosawa doesn't perpetuate the negative aspects of social revolt in the same way Ozu might. He allows viewers the opportunity to investigate the comparisons between Sengoku Japan and their current era. Whether or not they find substance is up to their discretion. After all, it was Kurosawa himself who highlighted that the individual should be the instrument of society. Like Ozu, Kurosawa was also fascinated by family life. His contemporary-set Ikiru (1952) details a dying man’s struggle to find meaning in his bureaucratic and cold life. It shares similar meaning, and context with Tokyo Story. It documents damaged familial relationships in a reformed post-war society; mostly concerned with the source of these issues. By focusing on Japan’s ‘moral decline’ due to the upheaval of consumerism and bureaucracy, it bluntly critiques foraying American culture, especially after the reinstallation of political bureaucracy by the U.S. State Department. The Japanese may have a word for death by overwork - karōshi, but by investigating the source of their woes, Kurosawa shows that a bureaucratic’s life can seemingly be pointless; overshadowing relationships and shrouded by a parade of meaningless paperwork.

Though this piece intends to highlight only a small snippet of Japanese cinema’s link to national identity, the country’s rich cinematic history, as a whole, carries strong regard for mirroring its society within context. Whether it be through customs or principal values, these themes are always apparent in the works of Ozu and Kurosawa and are worth investigating. Decades after their release, these films are still discussed in the broader vision of global filmmaking, something, like the themes above, which bears contemplating.


Selected Works Ikiru, 1952, dir. Akira Kurosawa Seven Samurai, 1954, dir. Akira Kurosawa Tokyo Story, 1953, dir. Yasujirō Ozu Further Viewing Early Summer, 1951, dir. Yasujirō Ozu For an attentive eye to the small moments that make life. Grave of the Fireflies, 1988, dir. Isao Takahata For its honest, brutal realism as it pertains to the Second World War. Late Spring, 1949, dir. Yasujirō Ozu For a poignant letter to intergenerational relations. One Wonderful Sunday, 1947, dir. Akira Kurosawa For resilience and hope in a new post-war reality. The Bad Sleep Well, 1960, dir. Akira Kurosawa For a timeless indictment of bureaucratic structure and its effect on the living. Women of the Night, 1948, dir. Kenji Mizoguchi For a female perspective and moral decline during the Second World War.