Films and Television

Japan Table of Contents

Reeling from television's overwhelming success, the cinema industry retreated in the 1980s to the tried-and-true formulas--the comedies, romances, detective stories, and youth films that always had sure audiences. Production at the four major film companies decreased to some 200 films a year, of which only a handful were quality productions. Pornographic films grew to constitute about half of the films made. The animated format used for children's films did show promising originality, but truly creative productions could be found only among independent film directors. A burgeoning number of art films, both domestic and imported, found homes in intimate art theaters in the cities. Foreign films were often the major draws in urban areas, which had record runs for European and North American hits. Some top directors produced major films with foreign funding or in foreign locations. In a return to Japanese production at the end of the 1980s, Akira Kurosawa, the acknowledged old master of cinematic art, summarized his remembrance of things past in Dreams. A nostalgic look at past views of family life was seen in Ichikawa Kon's remake of Tanizaki Jun'ichiro's The Makioka Sisters, a visually beautiful color film portraying the nearly vanished world of earlytwentieth -century upper-class women. A major historical offering was Teshigawara Hiroshi's Rikyu (1989), which marked the return of this major director after a seventeen-year absence from films, in a pictorially magnificent presentation of the life of the famous Momoyama tea master and his moral conflict with the political overlord Hideyoshi.

Although there was virtually no market in Japan for documentaries, a major docudrama, Tokyo saiban (Tokyo Judgment), directed by Kobayashi Masaki and taken directly from footage of tribunal proceedings against alleged Japanese war criminals, had a rapt audience. Outstanding among the newer independent directors were Itami Juzo and Morita Yoshimitsu, whose The Family Game set a new pattern for satirical comedies on urban dilemmas. By the mid-1980s, Itami's savage new satires showed unprecedented originality. Although these films addressed the anomalies and excesses of Japanese life, their subjects were mirrored around the world, and they had a strong international following.

Popular comedy was led by the beloved Tora-san series about the travel adventures of an avuncular, bumbling everyman, played by the ever-popular Atsumi Kiyoshi, whose forty-first feature film in 1989 took the hero to Vienna in a telling display of internationalization. Another hoary favorite was the monster series starring Godzilla. The most sophisticated youth movie of the 1980s may have been Yamakawa Naoto's The New Morning of Billy the Kid, a fantasy set in a Tokyo theme-bar, which was embraced by the young worldwide. A much-loved children's classic Kaze no matasaburo (Children of the Wind), written by Miyazawa Kenji, was filmed by award-winning director Ito Shunya as a skillful fantasy. Animated full-length features ranged from a gorgeously interpreted selection from Tale of Genji to Otomoto Katsushiro's Akira, a violent, provocative futuristic fantasy. Such animated features had their origins in the wildly popular manga action cartoons. Television also produced a substantial number of cartoons, including the ever popular "Sazae-san," which had the highest rating in the late 1980s.

Television had attained virtually 100 percent penetration by 1990, and only 1 percent of households were without a color television set, making Japan a major information society. Programming consisted of about 50 percent pure entertainment and nearly 25 percent cultural shows, the remainder being news reports and educational programs. There were two main broadcasting systems: the public NHK and five private networks. The major system, NHK, was publicly subsidized by mandatory subscription fees. Leading newspapers were among the financial supporters of the most important private channels. International programs were transmitted by satellite for instant replay after the government, in 1979, set up the Communications and Broadcasting Satellite Organization. Japan's first operational broadcast satellite was launched in 1984. Commercial television stations had become a major vehicle for advertising in place of newspapers and received huge revenues, far surpassing those of NHK.

Samurai and yakuza (Japanese underworld) themes in the 1980s were almost solely the providence of television, as were those of family life, ubiquitous in daytime soap operas. The biggest hit of the 1980s overall was the television drama "Oshin," a tale of a mother's struggles and suffering. The longest-running series since 1981 was "From the North Country," in which a divorced father and his two children survive in the backwoods of Hokkaido.

Criticism continued concerning the vulgarity of some commercial programs, but these programs still appeared in the early 1990s. Major problems perceived were the high level of violence and the lack of moral values in children's shows. All television and radio stations, however, were required to devote a certain proportion of broadcast time to educational programs to retain their licenses, and these programs grew steadily in response to popular demand. All networks have to comply with the Broadcasting Law of 1950, while several councils oversee general programming, although compliance with their recommendations is voluntary.

Japan's traditional arts and their modern counterparts found wide expression at home and internationally in the 1980s, reflecting the strong continuing creativity of its artists, performers, and writers. Major trends were seen in the search for characteristic cultural values and modes of expression, on the one hand, and the growing awareness of internationalism, on the other hand, affirming Japan's strong economic position in the world.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress