Japan through the lens of its film genres

by Mark Schilling

Special To The Japan Times

As a new reporter for a movie trade magazine, I quickly learned that every film has its genre — even ones that don’t play by genre rules. The industry slices genre-straddling films into discrete categories: action, comedy, sci-fi, etc. Call it crude, but this system serves a purpose: If you’re a buyer looking for horror specifically, you can safely ignore anything labeled otherwise.

Japanese cinema has had its own genre categories for more than a century, though the genre landscape has changed greatly over the decades.

In the silent era Charlie Chaplin was as big a superstar in Japan as he was everywhere else in the world, but the favorite genre of local fans was jidaigeki (period dramas). Set primarily in the Edo Period (1603-1868), jidaigeki encompassed a wide range of stories, though the most popular genre subset featured samurai sword action. Informally known as chanbara eiga (swordplay films), this subgenre served much same function as the cowboy movie did in Hollywood: a cheap formula product for the masses.

But the jidaigeki, which accounted for nearly half of production in Japanese cinema’s Golden Era during the 1950s, has since dwindled to a niche item targeted mainly at over-60s. Meanwhile, the few samurai films aimed at younger audiences tend to depart from genre formulas, including the swordsman hero who slices and dices his enemies.

One example is the “Rurouni Kenshin” jidaigeki duology — part one was released in 2012 and part two in 2014. The title hero is a former assassin who has disavowed killing, but fights evil nonlethally — though not nonviolently — at the beginning of the Meiji Era (1868-1912). In contrast to the high body counts generated by the classic chanbara heroes, Kenshin (Takeru Sato) only stuns opponents with his reversed-blade sword. (Technical note: Japanese-style swords, known as katana, have only one sharpened edge.)

Another un-warrior-like warrior is the title hero of 2013 film “Neko Zamurai” (“Neko Samurai: Samurai Cat”) and its 2015 follow-up, “Neko Zamurai: Minami no Shima e Iku” (“Neko Samurai 2: A Tropical Adventure”). Played by Kazuki Kitamura, the hero was once a killer for hire but has abandoned his death-dealing ways after meeting his final assassination target — a cute white cat — and making it his pet. The sight of this stern rōnin (masterless samurai) facing off against opponents with his sword blade reversed and his kitty peeking out of his kimono is supposed to be funny, though chanbara traditionalists may not agree.

Another long-established genre in Japan that has evolved over the years is the war movie. Used as propaganda tools during Japan’s wars in Asia and the Pacific, these films were banned by Occupation forces after Japan’s 1945 defeat. Starting in the ’50s, however, films depicting the Pacific War appeared on screens — and men of the war generation were their primary targets. Some were jingoistic celebrations of Japanese valor, though most were ostensibly antiwar, with their heroes framed as noble victims, even ones in uniform.

But the biggest hit among recent Japanese war films, “Eien no Zero” (“The Eternal Zero”), released in 2013, centers on a veteran fighter pilot (Junichi Okada) who proclaims his intention to return home alive to his wife and child at the war’s end. This declaration is called cowardly by some of his fellow pilots, and would have been unthinkable in the mainstream war films of a previous generation, but won him sympathy from the film’s nearly 7 million ticket buyers.

Another bender of domestic genre rules is Masaharu Take with his 2014 film “Hyakuen no Koi” (“100 Yen Love”), though it begins with the typical zero-to-hero trajectory of local sports films: A 30-something slacker (Sakura Ando) takes up boxing to give her aimless existence meaning.

Chosen as Japan’s nominee this year for the best foreign language film Academy Award, “100 Yen Love” is one of a growing number of local sports movies to depart from the male-oriented genre standard.

Other films about the struggles of female athletes from the mid- to late 2000s include “Rough” (which looks at swimming and diving), “Naoko” (track and field) and “Bushido Sixteen” (kendo).

“100 Yen Love” also defies local sports movie orthodoxy in its take on the core Japanese value gaman (perseverance). The film’s heroine displays ample gaman in both her brutal training sessions and her first professional bout, in which she is beaten to a bloody pulp. By contrast, her then-boyfriend faces the end of his unsuccessful ring career with a pat to his last winning opponent’s back and a philosophical shrug, not more gaman.

Instead of a quitter, he is portrayed as a hard-bitten realist who knows his limits in an unforgiving sport — and world. He will not go to his glorious death in the ring like the hero of “Ashita no Joe” (“Tomorrow’s Joe”), a ’60s boxing manga that became the template for not only Fumihiko Sori’s 2011 live-action film of the same title, but many Japanese sports movie and TV franchises.

It could be argued that these kinder and gentler heroes represent a new generation of Japanese men who are less willing to sacrifice themselves on the altar of machismo and more willing to view women as equals. Or some may view them as stand-ins for sōshoku danshi — the so-called herbivorous males who are supposedly driving the country to ruin by refusing the traditional husband and provider role.

My own view is that film genres — in Japan and elsewhere — may wax and wane, but they rarely die. There will always be swashbuckling movie samurai, even if every Japanese guy goes vegan.