For a long time Western views of Japanese cinema, beyond the realms of cult fans, were concerned with the great masters of the form such as Mizoguchi, Ozu and Kurosawa, directors of ‘world art cinema’. Other Japanese cinema was considered strictly for kids – badly dubbed (and often cut) eiga kaiju, badly dubbed (and often cut) anime or badly dubbed (and often cut) bastardisation of live action kids’ shows such as the psychedelic hybrid nonsense The Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers.
Of course there has always been a following of alternative (and indeed commercial) Japanese cinema but it was the worldwide success of Ringu, Battle Royale, Audition and Kill Bill Vol 1 that brought J-cinema to the attention of a wider audience. Battle Royale’s explosive cocktail of violence, doubly potent because it featured schoolchildren forced to kill in a Grand Guignol update of Lord of the Flies, led to questions being asked in the Diet (Japanese parliament) and allowed its director Kinji Fukasaku to step once more into the limelight at the age of 70. Fukasaku is one of the "Outlaw Masters of Japanese Film" featured in this book – directors whose style and vision explode onto the screen with devil-may-care attitude. That Fukasaku could still be (as, say, Ken Russell) an enfant terrible whilst collecting a pension says a lot for the incendiary nature of his films as well as highlight that the lines between art, commercialism and exploitation can (in Japan at any rate) be hard to define. Fukasaku is pretty much the binding link here, encompassing assistant film-making duties post WWII right up his commencing work on Battle Royale 2 over half a century later (sadly he died before production finished, leaving completion of the film to his son). Even in the 1970s when budgets went low (and Toei’s standards went lower) he was at the top of his game with the nihilistic Battles Without Honour and Humanity series – an angry, often documentary styled (way ahead of its modern popularity), deconstruction of the male yakuza in post-war Hiroshima.
Chris D has a phenomenal knowledge of his subject and a clear love of genre cinema (his passion for Italian films and American film noir is also abundantly clear). Each chapter comprises a discussion of the film-makers’ work and career, a filmography (normally selective – many of these directors made astonishing numbers of films) and finally an interview with the subject. Included also are a couple of key stars ("Sonny" Chiba (The Street Fighter) and Meiko Kaji (of Lady Snowblood and Female Convict Scorpion fame) and an extensive set of appendices about the history of the major studio players, female yakuza films and DVD availability (helpfully not limited to US releases but including Japanese subtitled editions and UK releases – a useful but wallet-damaging resource). The book covers a diverse range of titles, some of them wonderfully lurid and evocative, but almost all are some form of transgressive or "pulp" material: pink films, yakuza flicks, horror, swordplay, thrillers. What separates them from the drive-in exploitation fare of 50’s-70’s America is that they are, for all their independent spirit, generally produced by major studio players. The gruesome "Joys of Torture" series (1969 onwards), for example, were major productions. In this way Chris D’s linking to US noir films seems appropriate, maverick films made within the system and often more gritty and downbeat. Naturally some directors went too far stylistically for their studios – notably Seijun Suzuki’s famous sacking from Nikkatsu studios in response to his increasingly elliptic, immaculately designed pop-art masterpieces. However, although not in such an extreme way as Suzuki, many of the other film-makers felt that the pinch as television and then video forced cutbacks – some of the filmographies have notable gap years when directors were involved with advertising or television productions just to stay in the business. The book concludes its primary section with two of modern Japanese cinema’s successors to the crown – prolific, multi-genre wild-boy Takashi Miike and Kiyoshi Kurasawa (Kairo, Cure).
Obviously it would be impossible to include everyone in a book this size, especially as obtaining interviews can be so difficult, but there are a few notable omissions such as Shinya Tsukamoto and Takashi Ishii that would be welcome were a further volume to be published. Andy D’s in-depth knowledge and enthusiasm for his subject is evident on every page and clearly this has been a long gestating project – the interviews span many years. If there are any reservations, they lie in the occasional abrasive question or need to rush through a career in such a short space, but this is compensated by the sheer amount of information and the illustrations. Bring on volume two…