If you like film, specifically Japanese film, then why not give our podcast’s Season 2 Episode 1 a  listen? In that episode, we talk all about it and the top genres that make up cinematography in Japan. 

Japan has one of the oldest and longest film industries in the world, going back to over a century ago. Horror lovers consider The Ring and The Grudge as classic Japanese scare fests, and who hasn’t watched Godzilla? The King of Monsters became a pop culture icon. And the 2016 animation Kimi no na wa took the world by storm as soon as it was released.

We looked at the top 4 genres of Japanese cinematography: animation, jidaigeki, kaijuu eiga and yakuza. Here’s a recap of what we talked about! 

Animation

Japan is the king of animation — I mean, they have anime. To the Japanese people, anime is any type of cartoon, Japan-made or not. But to the rest of the world, anime refers to a style of animation that’s made in Japan.

With the earliest anime dating back to 1917, anime has a long-running history. It wasn’t until the 1960s that the prominent anime art style emerged, thanks to animator Osamu Tezuka, also known as the Japanese equivalent of Walt Disney. And if you haven’t heard of Ghibli Studios yet, you got a whole lot of catching up to do — quickly get in-the-know with our episode!

The 2001 anime film, Spirited Away, directed by world-renowed Miyazaki Hayao, had been warming the number one seat for ages before the spot got snagged away not too long ago. I won’t go into detail about Ghibli, but having a museum just to showcase their animation works says quite a bit about the animation studio. You won’t meet a Japanese person that doesn’t know Ghibli.

Jidaigeki

Toshiro Mifune and Tatsuya Nakadai in Masaki Kobayashi’s SAMURAI REBELLION (1967). © Toho Co., Ltd.

Literally translating to “period dramas”, jidaigeki movies are more often than not set during the Edo period (1603-1868), and gives an insight into the lives of samurai, merchants and farmers of the time. There can be all sorts of storylines, but the most popular kind features an action-packed sword fight between samurai. 

A name you’ll hear often when talking about jidaigeki is Akira Kurosawa, one of the most influential filmmakers in the history of cinematography — so noteworthy that Star Wars creator George Lucas was inspired by Kurosawa’s period works. If you look closely, some of the elements in Star Wars were heavily influenced by chanbara filmmaking.

If you want to dip your toe in the jidaigeki waters, I’m not going to spill all the beans here — Season 2 Episode 1 has everything you need to know in a neatly packed few minutes! If action, sword fighting and an underlying interpretation to storylines spark your interest, jidaigeki should be your go-to. 

Kaijuu Eiga

Monsters and special effects? Count me in! Kaijuu eiga, a subgenre of tokusatsu to refer to special effects films, is all about monsters — gigantic ones.

Yes, we’re talking about Godzilla. In fact, ever since its release in 1954, the kaijuu genre popularity skyrocketed through the roof! Although this film is Toho Studio’s most famous creation, the production company has made numerous major successes as well, earning themselves the association of being one of the top studios for kaijuu movies.

It’s not just big creatures rampaging through the city causing havoc — these monsters have metaphorical references. As for Godzilla, it’s a metaphor for nuclear weapons, referring to the atomic bombings on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. Want to know other ones? You know where to find the answers to that.

Kaijuu films have such an influence in the world’s film industry — King Kong, anyone? 

Yakuza

The final genre we talked about is yakuza. You might’ve heard of it if you listened to our Subculture Mania podcast episode (S1E7). The Yakuza’s influence in Japan’s film industry goes back all the way to the days of silent movies. Though over the decades it has shifted to something pretty different to the original, yakuza were kind of like the Japanese Robin Hood.

Yakuza films typically feature heroic gangsters with honour who live by their underworld moral code. The characters defend the traditional Japanese ways in a rapidly modernising island nation — the good guys in traditional kimono with conservative ways, and the bad guys in modern suits reeking of exploitation.

There’s a consistent theme of conflict for the heroes — their duty towards their gang and their own emotions. Which outrules which? Unlike Western movies where emotions are prioritised, in yakuza movies, duty is number one.  

The Showa Zankyo-Den movie series, first released in 1965, sums up the ningyo genre in a neatly-packed series. The title says it all; in English it translates to “Brutal Tales of Chivalry”, telling the tale of power play and rises and falls of gangs in a small Japanese town. 

We mentioned a few movie titles in the podcast episode, so if you’re interested, check that out. 

In any Yakuza film, one thing’s for sure though — you’re going to get some good retribution-fuelled action scenes, a bit of blood here and there, and a hell lot of tattoos.

Vocab Recap

So here’s a list of all the vocabulary words we used in the episode!

Anime (アニメ) — animation, but more specifically animation made in Japan

Manga (漫画) — Japanese comic or graphic novels

Onsen ryokan (温泉旅館) — hot spring Japanese inn 

onsen (温泉) — hot springs

Ryokan (旅館) — traditional Japanese inn

Sugoi (すごい) — great or amazing

Jidaigeki (時代劇) — period films, usually set in the Edo period

Chanbara (チャンバラ) — sword fight films

Rōnin (浪人) — a samurai without a lord

Kaiju (怪獣) — films that feature giant monsters

Eiga (映画) — movie

Eigakan (映画館) — movie theatre

Tokusatsu (特撮) — films with special effects 

Kame (かめ) — turtle 

Yakuza (ヤクザ) — Japanese gangsters

Ninkyo (任侠) — chivalry

Giri (義理) — duty

Ninjo (人情) — empathy/emotions

If you’re wondering why we didn’t cover horror, well, listen to our special Halloween episode which has 3 Japanese ghost stories that’ll do the trick of giving you a fright. But in any case, these 4 genres concludes the Japanese cinematography quite nicely, don’t you think?