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From Godzilla to R2D2: Japan’s Influence on Modern Cinema

Michael Maher
By Michael Maher

World War II forever changed history around the globe. The American influence during the occupation of post-war Japan forever changed cinema worldwide.

70 years ago, on September 2, 1945, Japan officially surrendered to the United States of America. The Japanese Instrument of Surrender effectively ended World War II. Thus began the American occupation and censorship of Japanese culture. Through reconstruction, Japan would become a leader in technology and art. The effects of which are still felt today.


Cinema in Japan Before World War II

From Godzilla to R2D2: Japan's Influence on Modern Cinema: Japan Magic Lantern
Image: Japanese Magic Lantern slides via Pink Tentacle

Filmmaking in Japan dates back to 1897, when a cameraman working for the Lumière brothers filmed the sights of Tokyo. Though film was new to the Japanese culture, moving pictures date back much further. The Dutch had introduced the magic lantern to the Japanese in the 18th century. It became immensely popular throughout Japanese villages. 

The Japanese would use multiple magic lanterns to create phantasmagoria theater. Using rear projection, they would use shadow puppets to show skeletons, ghosts, and demons. It should come as no surprise that the earliest Japanese films were centered around these ghostly tales.

During the early 1900s, Japanese film theaters would screen pictures while storytellers would tell tales. These silent film narrators were called benshi. The benshi would either introduce a film or narrate the characters voices. Silent films would be phased out of the United States in the 1920s, replaced by the “talkie.” However, the silent film era in Japan lasted well into the 1930s, due in part to the popularity of the benshi.

From Godzilla to R2D2: Japan's Influence on Modern Cinema: Orochi Silent Film
Image: Orochi via Wikipedia

Some of the most popular early films made were samurai films. These movies were period pieces, or jidaigeki, featuring rebellious anti-heroes. Two key film directors central to pre-war Japan were Daisuke Itō and Masahiro Makino. Their fast paced samurai films were compared to rhythmic dancing. Their films were not only critically acclaimed, but also massive commercial successes.

By the 1930s, the Japanese government became much more involved in cinema, insisting on the production of propaganda and promotional documentaries. These cultural films were called bunka eiga, a translation of the German kulturfilm. In Germany, these documentaries were incredibly influential and gave rise to the Nazi party.


World War II

From Godzilla to R2D2: Japan's Influence on Modern Cinema: Japan in WWII
Image: Japanese forces in WWII via Journal Neo

Though World War II is typically attributed to the 1939 German invasion of Poland, Japan had already been at war with the Republic of China since July of 1937. Japanese forces quickly captured Beijing, and by December of 1937 they would take the Chinese capital of Nanking.

During this time, the Japanese government would demand an increase of propaganda in cinemas. Films were to show the glory and power of the Empire of Japan. The Japanese Home Ministry had total control over all domestic affairs. It controlled education, health, information, news, advertising, public events, and cinema.

Film directors could not ridicule the military or demoralize the nation. They were told not to “exaggerate the cruelties of war with overly realistic depictions.” Any offending films were to be cut or banned.

From Godzilla to R2D2: Japan's Influence on Modern Cinema: Japan Hiroshima Aftermath
Image: Hiroshima aftermath via University of Illinois

To continue with the history of cinema, it is only imperative to know that the Empire of Japan attacked the United States of America on December 7, 1941. The attack on Pearl Harbor triggered the USA’s entrance to WWII. This would ultimately end with the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August of 1945. On September 2, 1945, the Empire of Japan surrendered to the United States.

During the war, Japan’s weak economy and skyrocketing unemployment rate caused the Japanese cinema to suffer. The majority of feature films made were focused on the war, like Kajirô Yamamoto‘s  Hawai Marê oki kaisen – The War at Sea from Hawaii to Malaya. The film actually featured the attack on Pearl Harbor. The special effects were directed by Eiji Tsuburaya, who used a miniature scale model of Pearl Harbor. (More on Tsuburaya later.)


American Occupation of Japan

From Godzilla to R2D2: Japan's Influence on Modern Cinema: MacArthur Japan
Image: General Douglas MacArthur in Japan via History Net

In the years following the war, U.S. General Douglas MacArthur was tasked with revising the Japanese constitution and demilitarizing the nation. Japan was ordered to abolish the Meiji Constitution, thus ending the Empire of Japan. On May 3, 1947, the country adopted the Constitution of Japan and formally became Japan.

During the occupation, MacArthur sought a way to combat the propaganda of Japanese cinema. An enlightenment campaign was launched, in which Hollywood studios would screen American films throughout Japan. Over 600 films were distributed, each showcasing the American way of life. The goal was to introduce America as a political, social, and cultural model for the Japanese population.

Official War Film US in Japan
Image: War Department intro via Internet Archive

The films were a box office success, essentially turning Japan into a key market. While American films were widely broadcast across the country, military authorities were strictly controlling and censoring Japanese films. The priority was to present American ideals, and all other views were suppressed.

It’s also worth noting that General MacArthur requested the assistance of W. Edward Deming during the reconstruction efforts. Deming was originally involved with the 1951 Japanese Census, but would also help shares his expertise in quality control techniques. Deming trained engineers, managers, and scholars in statistical process control and concepts of quality. Among the trainees was Akio Morita, the future cofounder of Sony.

Deming insisted that improving quality would reduce expenses while increasing productivity and market share. Many Japanese manufacturers would apply his techniques, essentially creating the massive technological industry Japan has become known for.


Akira Kurosawa

From Godzilla to R2D2: Japan's Influence on Modern Cinema: young akira kurosawa
Image: Akira Kurosawa via British Film Institute

The most famous Japanese director of all time was very active during this time period. Born in 1910, Akira Kurosawa would go on to revolutionize not only Japanese cinema, but the entire filmmaking world.

Akira was actually not the first Kurosawa in the film industry. His older brother, Heigo Kurosawa, was a noted benshi in Tokyo. As narrated films fell out of popularity in the 1930s, Heigo began to lose work. In July of 1933, Heigo committed suicide. His death had an everlasting impact on Akira Kurosawa‘s life. The director even talked about the incident in his book, Something Like an Autobiographyin a chapter titled “A Story I Don’t Want to Tell.”

2 years after Heigo’s death, Akira Kurosawa left his job as a painter to enter the Japanese film industry. He applied for a job at a new studio called Photo Chemical Laboratories (PCL), which would become the major studio, Toho. It was there he would find his mentor, Kajirō Yamamoto. Kurosawa quickly rose to be an assistant director on many of Yamamoto’s projects. It was there that he learned that a good director must master screenwriting. He would go on to co-write all of his own films.

From Godzilla to R2D2: Japan's Influence on Modern Cinema: Sanshiro
Image: Sanshiro Sugata via Criterion 

In 1942, a judo novel was published by Tsuneo Tomita. Kurosawa read the book in one sitting and immediately asked for Toho to secure the film rights. His intuition prevailed, as soon other major studios were competing for the rights. Toho secured the deal and Kurosawa would go on to make his directorial debut with the 1943 action film Sanshiro Sugata.

The film’s release did face challenges, as the Japanese censorship board considered the film too Western. Director Yasujirō Ozu intervened, and with his help Sanshiro Sugata was finally released. The movie was a huge success, and Kurosawa was immediately pressured for a sequel. He was forced to make Zoku Sugata SanshirôThe sequel was obviously a piece of propaganda, and it would be referred to as one of Kurosawa’s worst films. 

From Godzilla to R2D2: Japan's Influence on Modern Cinema: Kirosawa Mifune
Image: Kurosawa & Mifune via The Red List

In 1945, Kurosawa aimed to make a film that was censor-friendly. He produced Tora no o wo fumu otokotachi – The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail Based on the kabuki play Kanjinchō, the film would not be completed until September of 1945. By this time, the United States had begun its occupation of Japan. The American censors declared the film was overly feudal, and the film was banned. The film would not be released until 1952. Ironically, during the film’s production, Japanese censors had deemed the film too Western.

In 1948, Kurosawa cast unknown actor Toshiro Mifune in the film Yoidore tenshi – Drunken Angel.  Though the film went through forced censorship rewrites, Kurosawa felt this was his first film he was able to work on freely. Mifune’s incredible performance would lead to many more collaborations with Kurosawa. Japanese magazine Kinema Junpo declared the film to be the best film of the year.

From Godzilla to R2D2: Japan's Influence on Modern Cinema: Rashomon Criterion
Image: Rashomon via Criterion

In 1950, unknown to himself, Kurosawa would begin the Golden Age of Japanese Cinema. He would produce and release the film Rashomon. When the film was initially released in Japan, it was only a moderate success. Kurosawa would turn to his next project, however the film was entered into the Venice Film Festival. In September of 1951, Rashomon was awarded the Golden Lion, the Venice Film Festival’s most prestigious award.

Rashomon showcased Kurosawa’s skill as a director. He had embraced Western filmmaking, the works of Shakespeare, and American pulp novels. By combining those elements with traditional Eastern culture, Kurosawa’s films would break away from the traditional Japanese style of directors like Ozu and Mizoguchi. His work would find an international audience, cementing him as a legendary director.

Kurosawa was also a fantastic composer of movement, some say the best in history. In this video essay from Every Frame a Painting, take a look at how Kurosawa was able to create incredible composition.


Japan’s Golden Age

From Godzilla to R2D2: Japan's Influence on Modern Cinema: 7 samurai
Image: Seven Samurai via Empire

Not only had Kurosawa started the Japanese Golden Age, he would continue to create some of his best work during this period. He produced Seven Samurai, adapted Shakespeare’s Macbeth into Throne of Blood, and released The Hidden Fortress. Kurosawa would continue into the 1960s with films like Yojimbo and Red BeardAll of these films would find international success, and would go on to influence a whole new generation of filmmakers.

Meanwhile, Japanese filmmaking was adapting as well. In 1954, nuclear tests in the Pacific were causing radioactive storms in Japan. Most famously, a Japanese fishing vessel fell victim to nuclear fallout. Post-war Japan was still struggling with the effects of the atomic bombs, and nuclear testing created a heightened state of fear. Japanese filmmakers, like Kurosawa, would focus on the effects of nuclear fallout, but it would be a whole new genre that would embrace it.

From Godzilla to R2D2: Japan's Influence on Modern Cinema: Gojira 1954
Image: Gojira via Toho

The studio Toho would go on to create the biggest film star in Japan. By embracing the atom-bomb allegory, the studio would create the kaiju film Gojira – Godzilla. Gojira was directed by Ishirô Honda, a friend of Kurosawa. In fact, Honda had filmed documentary footage of war-ravaged Tokyo that Kurosawa used in his film Stray Dog.

Gojira also employed the special effects work of Eiji Tsuburaya, who was previously mentioned for his use of miniature models of Pearl Harbor in Yamamoto’s film. The film spawned a series of sequels and other giant monster films. Toho nearly went bankrupt in 1954, as they simultaneously produced Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai and Gojira. Both films would receive nominations for Best Picture at the Japanese Academy Awards. Seven Samurai would ultimately win.

From Godzilla to R2D2: Japan's Influence on Modern Cinema: Tokyo Story
Image: Tokyo Story via Criterion

This period also saw the release of Yasujirô Ozu‘s Tokyo Story. The film is considered Ozu’s masterpiece, often cited as one of the greatest films ever made. Hiroshi Inagaki would win the Academy Award for Best Foriegn Language Film for Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto and a Golden Lion for The Rickshaw Man. Kon Ichikawa‘s The Burmese Harp was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film and Kenji Mizoguchi would win the Silver Bear for Ugetsu


Japan’s Influence on Hollywood

From Godzilla to R2D2: Japan's Influence on Modern Cinema: Magnificent Seven
Image: Magnificent Seven via MGM

The films of the Golden Age truly inspired some of the most renowned directors of the past 50 years, many of whom credit these films as direct influences on their own projects.

Japanese films were not the only influence. W. Edward Deming’s work on quality control created several business empires, such as Sony and Toyota. Their assembly line processes directly influenced Ed Catmull, the President of Pixar Animation and Disney Animation. Catmull has stated that the Japanese assembly line’s focus on individual employees being able to voice concerns or make suggestions became crucial to Pixar’s early success.

From Godzilla to R2D2: Japan's Influence on Modern Cinema: Star Wars Concept
Image: Star Wars concept poster via Blastr

Akira Kurosawa’s films were the most adapted or remade films of Japanese cinema, often times becoming cowboy Westerns. Seven Samurai was adapted into The Magnificent Seven. Director Sergio Leone would literally remake Kurosawa’s work, often framing shots in the exact same manner, when he adapted Yojimbo into A Fistful of Dollars. George Lucas cites The Hidden Fortress as a major influence on his space-western saga Star Wars.

It was [Francis Ford] Coppola who said of Kurosawa, “One thing that distinguishes [him] is that he didn’t make one masterpiece or two masterpieces. He made, you know, eight masterpieces.” Both [Steven] Spielberg and [Martin] Scorsese have praised the older man’s role as teacher and role model—as a sensei, to use the Japanese term. Spielberg has declared, “I have learned more from him than from almost any other filmmaker on the face of the earth”, while Scorsese remarked, “Let me say it simply: Akira Kurosawa was my master, and … the master of so many other filmmakers over the years.” – Wikipedia

In this video from CineFix, take a look at how early Japanese films influenced the creation of Star Wars.

Japanese films have cemented themselves a staple of cinema, and their legacy will live on forever in film.


Interested in more pieces like this? Want more on Kurosawa? Let us know in the comments below.

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