Fifty years is a long time, especially in film history. The iconoclastic Japanese New Wave, born with the release in 1959 of Nagisa Oshima’s debut feature, “A Town of Love and Hope,” is now an established part of Japan’s cinematic canon. And in contrast to the French Nouvelle Vague, several of whose practitioners are alive and working, the Japanese Nuberu Bagu (a katakana reading) looks, at first sight, like a thing of the past.

Of the major directors, Shohei Imamura and Hiroshi Teshigahara are dead; Nagisa Oshima is ailing; and Susumu Hani and Masahiro Shinoda are retired. But in this anniversary year, DVD releases and international retrospectives are proving to audiences the world over that their work is still alive and vital.

The three films by Imamura released this month on the Criterion DVD label show some of the reasons why. Imamura avoided both the decorum of the classical Japanese cinema and the generic lineaments of much recent popular filmmaking. Instead, he essayed an unflinching realism. The heroine of “The Insect Woman,” brilliantly played by Sachiko Hidari, uses any means necessary to survive; Imamura observes her actions in precise detail, but without moral judgment, as if through an entomologist’s microscope.

Meanwhile, the work of Oshima, currently the subject of an international touring retrospective, displays the stylistic invention for which the New Wave is particularly famed. Changing his style from film to film, Oshima experimented with both long takes and rapid montage, and employed Brechtian devices — text inserts, switches from black and white to color, moments of overt theatricality — to undermine audience involvement. Instead, the viewer is impelled to adopt a distanced, critical approach and to consider the political implications of Oshima’s narratives.

Although the leading members of the Japanese New Wave were of roughly the same generation, having been teenaged or slightly younger during World War II, it was not a coherent movement. Kiju Yoshida, one of the filmmakers that critics have usually associated with the New Wave, goes so far as to claim that “the Japanese Nouvelle Vague did not exist; only individual film directors existed.”

But it is still reasonable to group these individual artists together. Despite their differences, they shared one vital attitude: a desire to break with the past, to find new subjects and styles. Like their French counterparts, who excoriated what they called the cinema du papa — the French commercial cinema of the 1950s — the Japanese New Wave directors rejected the established traditions of their national cinema, which they saw as stale, overdependent on literary adaptation and out of touch with current realities. Oshima dismissed veteran filmmaker Kon Ichikawa as “just an illustrator,” while Imamura claimed that the “self-sacrificing women” in films by Kenji Mizoguchi and Mikio Naruse did not really exist.

Yet ironically, the New Wave took shape mainly within the studio system. Although Hani and Teshigahara, who started out in documentary, made their first features without major studio backing, Imamura was under contract to Japan’s oldest major studio, Nikkatsu. Oshima, Shinoda and Yoshida all started out at Shochiku, the company which had nurtured the restrained, traditional artistry of Yasujiro Ozu. In the early ’60s, studio bosses like Shochiku’s formidable head, Shiro Kido, hoped that younger directors with new ideas might invigorate a cinema undermined by the domestic attractions of television.

Yet these filmmakers could not thrive within the studio system. At Shochiku, Oshima and Yoshida were often unable to pursue or fulfill their own projects: Both eventually formed independent production companies. A significant boost came when Art Theatre Guild, an organization set up to distribute arthouse films in Japan, entered production. With some financial input from a major studio, Toho, but with creative policy firmly in the hands of influential husband-and-wife team Nagamasa and Kashiko Kawakita, ATG provided an environment where the New Wave directors could craft their most personal achievements. Oshima’s socially critical masterpieces, “Boy” and “The Ceremony,” and Shinoda’s extraordinary avant-garde reworking of traditional theater, “Double Suicide,” were made with ATG funding.

Significantly, the New Wave came to the fore in a time of social change and social unrest. In 1959 and 1960, when Oshima, Shinoda and Yoshida made their debuts, there were mass protests against the renewal of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty (ANPO). Oshima himself responded quickly to these events, making “Night and Fog in Japan” as a satire on the disunity of the radical left. When socialist politician Inejiro Asanuma was assassinated just days after the film’s release, Shochiku, fearful that Oshima’s film was inciting violence, withdrew it from circulation — one of the events which precipitated the director’s departure from the studio.

By the mid 1960s, Japan’s postwar economic miracle was at its height: 1964 witnessed the opening of the shinkansen, the Tokyo Olympics, and Japan’s admission to the OECD. But there was a dark underside to this success story, and the New Wave directors were its chroniclers. Imamura’s films can be read as an alternative social history, focusing on those excluded from the official postwar narrative of peace, reconstruction and economic growth. In films like “Death by Hanging,” Oshima hit out at the power of the Japanese state and highlighted the oppression of the ethnic Korean minority in Japan.

The history of the New Wave shows both the rewards and penalties of innovation and independence. In the late 1960s, its directors were able to work on subject matter and in styles of their own choosing, producing some of the most individual and imaginative films in the history of Japanese cinema. But within a few years, funding became scarce. Oshima sought finance abroad for a diminishing trickle of films; Imamura spent the 1970s working on experimental documentaries; Yoshida made no features for over a decade; Shinoda stayed in work, but largely renounced formal experimentation for conventional narrative filmmaking.

Indeed, most of the New Wave directors latterly turned away from youthful iconoclasm. When Imamura filmed “Black Rain,” about the aftermath of the Hiroshima bombing, in the late 1980s, he found himself echoing the quiet style of Ozu, whose assistant he had once been. Similarly, Yoshida, having criticized Ozu in his youth, later wrote a sympathetic book about his work. Most Young Turks mellow with age, but it is perhaps particularly appropriate that the innovators of the Japanese New Wave should have found their place, alongside the classical masters they once believed they had superseded, in the canon of Japanese cinema. That fact reaffirms the truth of Edward Seidensticker’s remark: “The relationship between tradition and change in Japan has always been complicated by the fact that change is itself a tradition.”

The subtitled Criterion Collection box set of Imamura’s films, entitled “Pigs, Pimps and Prostitutes,” is now available. Subtitled DVD copies of Shinoda’s films remain available for purchase in Japan. An Oshima retrospective is currently touring internationally; Tokyo’s National Film Center will hold retrospectives of Oshima, Yoshida and Shinoda in early 2010.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.