Asian Cinema 101

Good morning, class.  

Get your reading glasses out, because we're heading to Japan. 

The first question an aspiring cinephile asks when they start looking at foreign film is "do I have to read the subtitles?" In short, yes. 

But it's really a question of the viewer. If you're, say, 9 years old and you aren't the fastest reader in the world, you may need to resort to the English dubbing, but you'll lose nearly all of the nuance of the acting. You'll get used to the subtitles soon enough. 

This is most effective if you watch it and write a short review of it on Letterboxd. Why the short review? A work of art will stick with you longer if you force yourself to reflect on it, even if for only a few minutes, before you move on to another episode of The Office.  

Feel free to post your reviews on the social media platform of your choice and tag Stay-at-Home Film School. You can also use the hashtag #StayatHomeFilmSchool.

(far) East coast

As Hollywood was setting up shop in California, other filmmakers were heading east. The first Japanese and Indian short films were made in 1898. The first East Asian feature was 1912's The Life Story of Tasuke Shiobara

One of early important filmmakers from East Asia is Japan's Kenji Mizoguchi. Mizoguchi directed 90 feature films in 33 years before his death in 1956 and is best known for Ugetsu and Sansho the Bailiff

Mizoguchi was only 58 when he died of leukemia, just as the "Golden Age of Asian Cinema" was taking off. His work made possible the career of one of cinema's greatest masters. 

this week's films

That master, you might have guessed, is Akira Kurosawa. He shows up in a number of this week's films. 

Plus, the gifs are back! 


[1950 | Akira Kurosawa]

Watch: HBO Max  

A landmark of storytelling and winner of an honorary Oscar (because there was no category for Foreign Language Film), Rashomon is the film that introduced the world to Akira Kurosawa and Japanese cinema. 

Rashomon is most famous for the structure of its story. Kurosawa tells the story of a rape and murder, but from multiple different perspectives, each different, each skewed. This technique is now known as "The Rashomon Effect". 

When Rashomon played in Venice and then went into international distribution, it stunned audiences. No one had ever seen a film quite like this one. For one thing, its daring, nonlinear approach to narrative shows the details of the crime as they are related, through the flashbacks of those involved. Kurosawa gives us four versions of the same series of events, through the eyes of the woodcutter, the thief, the woman, and the spirit of the husband, each retelling markedly different from the others. Kurosawa’s visionary approach would have enormous cinematic and cultural influence. He bequeathed to world cinema and television a striking narrative device—countless movies and television shows have remade Rashomon by incorporating the contradictory flashbacks of unreliable narrators.
But Rashomon is that rare film that has transcended its own status as film, influencing not just the moving image but the culture at large. Its very name has entered the common parlance to symbolize general notions about the relativity of truth and the unreliability, the inevitable subjectivity, of memory. In the legal realm, for example, lawyers and judges commonly speak of “the Rashomon effect” when firsthand witnesses confront them with contradictory testimony. (Stephen Prince)

Seven Samurai               

[1954 | Akira Kurosawa]

Watch: HBO Max 

If Rashomon was America's introduction to Japanese cinema, Seven Samurai was the main event. 

Often considered Kurosawa's masterpiece, Seven Samurai created the idea of the "assemble the team" story later used in just about every heist movie you've ever seen. 

It's a samurai movie about seven samurai hired to protect a village, a simple task with a larger purpose. 

That purpose was to make a samurai movie that was anchored in ancient Japanese culture and yet argued for a flexible humanism in place of rigid traditions. One of the central truths of "Seven Samurai" is that the samurai and the villagers who hire them are of different castes and must never mix. Indeed, we learn that these villagers had earlier been hostile to samurai--and one of them, even now, hysterically fears that a samurai will make off with his daughter. Yet the bandits represent a greater threat, and so the samurai are hired, valued and resented in about equal measure. (Roger Ebert)
And what a film it was. It was remade as The Magnificent 7 in 1960 and again in 2016. 

Instead of rambling on, here's a video essay on how Kurosawa's depiction of action (and death) carries much more dramatic weight and power than your average superhero movie. 

And this video does a fantastic job of contrasting the camera work and editing of Seven Samurai against a scene from The Avengers

Tokyo Story                

[1953 | Yasujirō Ozu]

Watch: HBO Max | Kanopy | Amazon (rental)

An elderly couple (Chishu Ryu and Chieko Higashiyama) travels to Tokyo to spend time with the children they haven't seen in years. The children, while happy to see them, are unable (or unwilling) to clear enough time in their schedules to accommodate the visit, passing their parents around like bothersome orphans or leaving them to fend for themselves in Tokyo. Eventually, they tire of Tokyo and head home early, only to have the mother fall deathly ill upon their return. So the children must travel from Tokyo to be with their dying mother, inconvenience be damned, despite her explicit request that they not trouble themselves because of her. They do not, for even a minute, consider honoring that request. To do so would be the ultimate insult to the woman who gave you life, but still she makes the request. Mothers are funny that way.

There's a deceptive simplicity to Ozu's work that is both uniquely his while at the same time being incredibly Japanese. Here's a great summary of how he does it.  

Ozu pulls you in slowly, imperceptibly. He's a master. 

Here's Roger Ebert:

His visual strategy is as simple (therefore as profound) as possible. His camera is not always precisely three feet above the floor (the eye level of a Japanese person seated on a tatami mat), but it usually is. "The reason for the low camera position," the writer Donald Richie explains, "is that it eliminates depth and makes a two-dimensional space." So we are better able to appreciate a composition because Ozu lets us notice its lines and weights and tones -- which always reflect his exact feeling about the scene.
He almost never moves his camera (it moves once in "Tokyo Story," which is more than usual). Every single shot is intended to have a perfect composition of its own, even if that means there are continuity errors. All the shots are framed in some way. In the foreground of the interior shots, perhaps tucked in a corner, is a little teapot. Ozu loves that teapot. It's like the red signature stamp of a Japanese woodblock artist; it is his maker's mark.
If there is movement in an Ozu film, it comes from nature or people, not from the camera. He often shows a room before people enter, and lingers a second after they leave. If characters go upstairs, they are absent precisely long enough to actually do that. If a character is speaking, he shows the entire speech. No cutaways, no listening shots, no overlapping dialogue. He is comfortable with silences. Sometimes characters speak little and imply much; the old father in "Tokyo Story" often smiles and says "yes," and what he means is sometimes yes, sometimes no, sometimes deep regret, sometimes a decision to keep his thoughts to himself.

Pather Panchali                

[1955 | Satyajit Ray]

Watch: Criterion | Eros Now | HBO Max | Kanopy | Amazon (rental)

India is best known for a long history of Bollywood Musicals, but perhaps India's greatest contribution to cinema is Satyajit Ray's Apu Trilogy

At twenty-nine years old, Ray, with no background in cinema, felt compelled to make the film because of the humanism, lyricism and truth that he saw in the novel while he was creating illustrations for a new children’s edition. He scribbled his first animated notes for Pather Panchali in 1950 when he was still working for the British-run advertising agency D.J. Keymer. In 1952 Ray self-funded, drowning all his savings in a film that no one would fund given that it had no stars, no songs and no action. He began filming with mostly amateur actors and crew including cinematographer Subrata Mitra who was operating a camera for the first time. In the ensuing years, Ray pawned his life insurance policy, his treasured collection of gramophone records and convinced his wife to sell her jewelry to continue work on the film which he completed in 1955 after nearly three years of filming and numerous tussles for funding from independent producers, the West Bengal government and a final grant from New York’s Museum of Modern Art. (RollingStone Magazine)
It worked out pretty well. It was nominated for a BAFTA (the British Oscars), won 2 awards at the Cannes Film Festival, and is generally considered one of the 100 greatest films ever made. has it currently ranked at #55.

If you haven't seen it (I haven't yet), it's because it was really, really hard to find until recently. The original prints were destroyed in a fire. Thanks to the Criterion Collection, an extensive restoration was completed in 2015. 


[1954 | Ishirō Honda]

Watch: Criterion | HBO Max | Amazon (rental)

Obviously, you're familiar with Godzilla.  

There have been 36(!) Godzilla films since his debut here in 1954. 

Unlike King Kong's stop-motion approach, Godzilla was the first use of suitmation, or having someone inside a suit destroying a bunch of models.

By now, you've seen this done a million times, both earnestly and in parody. 

Godzilla's legacy is tied to everything that came after it, but it's worth noting that it was controversial when it was released, as the wounds of WWII were still fresh. 

The original 1954 Godzilla was loaded with anti-American dialogue and its characters laid the blame for the emergence of Godzilla from the bowels of the earth on the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and continued U.S. above ground atomic testing at the Marshall Islands, close to the coast of Japan (67 nuclear blasts there, including the first H-Bomb). The Americanized version of the film, issued in 1956, cut out all the atomic bomb references, slashed some twenty minutes of film and replaced it with ridiculous scenes of an American reporter (Raymond Burr) racing about Japan chasing Godzilla. The American producers decided that the U.S. was not ready for a look at the destruction of Japan through the eyes of the victims. (

Still, it was a big hit, both in Japan and the very, very edited American version. The rest, as they say, is history. 

By the way, Godzilla was recently made a honorary citizen of Japan, so hopefully he'll stop destroying things. 


[1961 | Akira Kurosawa]

Watch: Criterion | HBO Max | Kanopy | Amazon (rental)

A lone Samurai (Toshirô Mifune) wanders into a small town caught between two warring gangsters. Against the advice of his innkeeper friend, he opts to sell his services to the highest bidder, all the while working toward his ulterior motive of destroying both factions (and being well-paid to do so). He plays both sides expertly, taking money from one then giving it back just as the battle is about to begin. But when a competing samurai appears with a pistol, the power dynamic changes drastically and he is forced into a dangerous game of survival.

Yojimbo was remade by Sergio Leone as the first of his spaghetti westerns and it isn't hard to see as there's a lot of similarities between Mifune's samurai and Clint Eastwood's Man With No Name. The only problem is that he didn't exactly get permission. Kurosawa wasn't flattered. He sued Leone. They eventually settled out of court and the story is that Kurosawa made more money from the lawsuit than he did for the original film. 

Mifune's samurai is also the influence for this: 

Yojimbo also works as Kurosawa's odd take on the classic western. The town is structured like the classic western border town, with the one road down the middle, and a constant breeze whipping up dust in the street. The Samurai spends much of his free time in the town's saloon, drinking sake and waiting for people to come to him. It's clearly an homage to the John Ford westerns, from the disposition of the hero, to the action, to the composition of shots. Kurosawa turns what could have been a cheap gimmick into a beautiful melding of East and West. 

It has been said that Yojimbo is a film that could exist without the subtitles and still function effectively, and that's not far off the mark. To watch Yojimbo is to watch one master honoring another. 

The Hidden Fortress                

[1958 | Akira Kurosawa]

Watch: Criterion | HBO Max | Kanopy | Amazon (rental)

There's a good chance you've already seen The Hidden Fortress. That's because it's the basis for Star Wars

Don't believe me? 

George Lucas, as you might imagine, was a big fan. 

coming soon

I've made a small scheduling error and failed to add a Halloween section, so we're moving Classic Hollywood 301 up a week. 

Sometimes, I'm just not thinking.

Send me the emails

Lucas McNelly
Writer. Filmmaker. Maker of all the lip balm.

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