Stroll down to your local arthouse video shop (forget Blockbusters) and have a look how many Japanese films there are. Ten? Twenty? Probably not more than that. And which directors would you expect to find there? Akira Kurosawa of course – famous in the West for his grand historical epics such as Seven Samurai (Shichinin no samurai, 1954) or Yojimbo (1961) amongst others. More recently the works of the famous TV personality, comedian, actor and director Takeshi Kitano have found their way into the cinemas of Europe and then onto video, with his film Hana-bi (1997) winning the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival.

But after that it might be a bit of a struggle. If you’re lucky you might find some of Kenji Mizoguchi’s majestic masterpieces, such as Ugetsu (Ugetsu monogatari, 1953) or The Life of Oharu (Saikaku ichidai onna, 1952). Hopefully, you’d find the Yasujiro Ozu classic, Tokyo Story (Tokyo monogatari, 1953), Juzo Itami’s oddball comedy Tampopo (1985), Nagisa Oshima’s disturbing erotic love story In the Realm of the Senses (Ai no corrida, 1976), Kon Ichikawa’s An Actor’s Revenge (Yukinojo henge, 1963) or Shohei Imamura’s The Eel (Unagi, 1997). And most probably, you would now find a copy of Hideo Nakata’s surprise hit of a horror movie, The Ring (1998) and its successor Ring 2 (1999).

But would these films be the most popularly-rented in Japan? Probably not. Aside from Western films, the Japanese themselvex are far more likely to be renting one of the following: a) a cheesy Godzilla movie; b) an animé, often derived from manga – either with more adult-oriented content as in the futuristic images of the film Akira (Katsuhiro Otomo, 1988) and its numerous spin-offs, or for younger viewers the computer game heroes of Pocket Monster (Pokemon, 1998), or the highest-grossing Japanese film of all time, directed by the master Hisao Miyazaki from Studio Ghibli, The Princess Mononoke (Mononoke hime, 1997); c) a Tora-san movie (director Yoji Yamada) of which there are over forty and which are more popular with the public than the critics, with their tragic-comic adventures of the eponymous drifter hero.

Three companies dominate production and distribution in Japan. First, Toho, earning most of their money through Godzilla, but also successful with animé; Toei, the most conservative and reactionary of the three, which used to produce most of the samurai dramas which went out of favour in the 80s and now are mostly seen on TV; and Shochiku, responsible for the cult Tora-san series and the early films of Takeshi Kitano. Up until the 90s these companies had a restrictive hold over directors and actors, but the end of the 20th century spawned a host of independent production houses, producing more innovative work, both in style and content, such as Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Maboroshi (Maboroshi no hikari, 1995), Shunji Iwai’s Swallowtail (Swallowtail Butterfly, 1996), Takashi Miike’s Rainy Dog (Gokudo kuro shakai Rainy Dog, 1998) and Hideo Nakata’s Ring films.

Japanese film has traditionally been divided into two genres: the jidaigeki (period drama) and the gendaigeki (contemporary drama). In the post-war period a great example of the former is Ugetsu by Mizoguchi. After the war and the occupation by the USA, he took more profound interest in the form, with its use of formalised language, using his literate and painterly instincts to create a beautiful epic exploring the balance between the freedom to be found in the traditional restrained values and the desire of the individual to go beyond those inhibitions to wider horizons. Rich in visual detail and serene in its use of long shots and takes, Ugetsu is an entrancing metaphysical emotional saga.

In many ways, Mizoguchi’s natural successor was Kurosawa, who excelled at the period drama with his eye for composition and indeed he considered himself to be a better director of "samurai emotion" than Mizoguchi. Certainly, his skill with battle and action scenes brought him global respect. His early samurai dramas of the 50s, usually starring the great Toshiro Mifune, were perhaps his best, with later epics like Kagemusha (1980) and Ran (1985) starring Tatsuya Nakadai teetering into the realms of self-indulgence with their excessive colour co-ordination and self-conscious theatricality.

The other great director in the immediate post-war / post-occupation period was Ozu. His Tokyo Story, starring, as in many of his films, the wonderful Chishu Ryu and Setsuko Hara, is the perfect example of the contemporary drama and regularly turns up in Top Films of All Time lists. It’s an elliptical study of generational differences, eschewing classic plotting and concentrating on the more complex realities of family life. The cataclysm of World War Two for Japan, with its misguided call to supposedly traditional Japanese values of self-sacrifice and total obedience to a higher authority and the consequent horrors of nuclear destruction and foreign occupation, brought this generation clash into stark relief. Older people harked back to an era before it had all begun to go wrong. Younger people embraced the imposed Western influence and the new freedoms it had to offer. Ozu’s films examined all these things without ever spelling it out.

In common with social movements throughout the world, the 1960s and 70s brought with them a new wave of directors in Japan, such as Nagisa Oshima, who deliberately sought to make more political, iconoclastic and transgressive films, culminating in the hard core but unpornographic In the Realm of the Senses – a film which encapsulates the Japanese ambivalent attitude to sexuality – an all-consuming combination of sensuousness and intense anxiety.

Oshima’s renegade contemporary was Seijun Suzuki, most famous for his Tokyo Drifter (Tokyo nagaremono, 1966) – a virtually plotless, comic and violent example of the director’s anarchic, highly populist approach. His films appealed to the youth market and succeed primarily because of their deliriously effective style. Content is a minor issue.

The same might be said of Takeshi Kitano’s films. Many of his films (Hana-bi, Sonatine (1993), Violent Cop (Sono otoko kyobi ni tsuki, 1989)) followed a similar pattern. Violent gangsters and/ or vigilante cops shoot each other to bits, engage in various comic horseplay, whilst at the centre of it all is an impossibly cool, tough and taciturn individual (always Kitano himself), who works his way through this nihilistic, moral vacuum and ends up shooting himself. Style is everything – whether it be the use of Yoji Yamamoto costumes or Kitano’s attempt to create a Japanese Clint Eastwood. But the hero always suffers. For the Japanese the ultimate expression of macho coolness is an increasing masochism. Japanese audiences identify with these lonely heroes. They are all identified by the group they belong to – be it the gang, the police force, the company, the nation – but are nevertheless individuals whose own beliefs, desires and dreams must be subverted to those of the group. This suppression leads to sudden explosions of violence – expressed both outwardly and inwardly. But these actions are not the result of moral choices and are to be judged purely on their aesthetic. As long as the violence is carried out with panache then virtually anything goes – a style first made popular by the yakuza films starring Ken Takakura or Koji Tsuruta. This is why Japanese films can often seem so oddly violent to a Western audience.