Last weekend, thanks to the fantastic review from the always trustworthy Goregirl’s Dungeon, I caught up with the Criterion Collection release of Kuroneko (1968). It’s about a woman and her daughter-in-law, who are raped and killed in a fire by a band of samurai. They return as ghosts, exacting their revenge upon all samurai… until they encounter the woman’s son (and the daughter-in-law’s husband), who has become a samurai. I won’t continue lest I spoil the film. Needless to say, it’s a tremendous movie. And it made me look back on all of the Japanese films I’ve seen out of the Criterion Collection. I haven’t seen a bad one yet.
It all started in February 2007. I’d joined Netflix at my friend Ryan’s behest so I could educate myself a little bit about world cinema. He pointed me in the direction of Akira Kurosawa, and my friend Marty recommended Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950). It took me about 15 minutes to go bananas for the film. Enamored, I grabbed The Bad Sleep Well (1960), Ikiru (1951), and The Lower Depths (1957) within a month. Ikiru remains one of my very favorite films ever made. Eventually, I branched out from Kurosawa when I watched Kon Ichikawa’s The Burmese Harp (1956). Then came more Kurosawa, then Onibaba (1964), then Harikiri (1962), all in 2007.
I could continue rattling off all of the Japanese films I’ve seen out of the Criterion Collection, but I’d rather be more succinct. The point of the exercise is to acknowledge the tremendous beauty of the world of Japanese films that have been placed in the Criterion Collection. It’s amazing to me that I’ve been performing that exercise- watching Japanese Criterion films- for more than five years and I have yet to find one that I’d consider a bad movie. I don’t think there’s even one that’s average. They’re all tremendous. Japanese arthouse cinematography is stunning, and there’s a brilliant choreography to the on-screen action that you don’t find in most of the rest of the world. More amazing about that statement is that I’ve barely tackled Ozu. The majority of what I’ve said about Japanese cinema applies to a world that doesn’t involve Ozu.
The stories are tremendous as well. So many focus on feudal Japan, and they strike at the heart of human existence. They’re stories about honor, social norms, family, and familial roles. In short, they’re universal themes that span eras, and yet they all have a uniquely Japanese thumbprint. In the case of Kurosawa and many others, the films aim at a level of metaphor that relate on a global level. But there’s more than just that. If you want experimental cinema, Criterion’s bag of Japanese cinema offers Hausu (1977). If you want horror- smart horror- Criterion offers a trilogy of films from Hiroshi Teshigahara. If you want ghost stories, some of the best ever made are Japanese films in the Criterion Collection- Ugetsu (1953), Kwaidan (1964), and Kuroneko (1968).
If you love cinema and you’re unfamiliar with the Japanese films that Criterion has to offer, you owe it to yourself to give those films a try. You won’t be disappointed.
19 responses to “Japan and the Criterion Collection: A Winning Combination”
How ironic that you publish this post just as I’m halfway through watching a Japanese film, directed by my absolute favourite Japanese director who you haven’t mentioned here. His name is Yasujiro Ozu, and I hope you’ve seen some of his films. The one I’m watching is The Only Son (1936), but Late Spring (1949), Tokyo Story (1953) and An Autumn Afternoon (1962) are all absolutely essential, 10/10 masterpieces. What are your thoughts on Ozu?
Oh, just noticed that you mentioned Ozu in your post. Definitely tackle him next.
Will do, although I’m basically drowning in French film for the next few months, for better or worse.
It’s a shame that they don’t have that many Mizoguchi cause he’s worth the look if you loved Kurosawa Mizoguchi has also his own print and explores feudal Japan with grandeur!
And like Tyler said, Ozu is a must! Every damn film he made is a masterpiece!
I’ll add Mizoguchi to the list.
I’ve basically seen one Ozu- Good Morning, which I liked a ton.
Then watch Tokyo Story, Early Summer, Late Spring and the oft-overlooking The Flavour of Green Tea Over Rice (my personal favorite).
I personally have many many Ozu films to see. Which is a great thing because I love love his films.
I have Story of Floating Weeds on my DVR right now- the silent version.
Your ‘C’ giving the map of Japan a high-five put a big smile on my face when I was talking to a cranky customer this morning! I couldn’t agree more, Criterion’s Japanese cinema is a treasure trove of goodness. I have enjoyed every single one I’ve seen, and I look forward to discovering the ones I have not. Still need to see Teshigahara’s The Face of Another (I’m 6th in the library queue). Thanks for the nod too by the way 🙂
Yes! Another laugh for the high five.
I really enjoyed the heck out of The Face of Another. It’s really smart horror, sort of a body horror kind of thing, all revolving around the face and identity.
I wish we could have the Criterion films here. Without having to have an open region player. Sucks big time!!
Although the Masters of Cinema Blus are good, they are not as good as these!!
It’s doubly a shame that Hulu Plus isn’t in England. They’ve started streaming a ton of those Criterion films.
I have to admit I’m not familiar with Japanese cinema at all. For some reason it’s not as huge in Indonesia as other world cinema fares like Indian or Chinese films. I did see a couple of them in college but they’re not my cup of tea.
Fair enough, Ruth. It’s very cool that you have a non-American perspective on stuff like this. I always appreciate that.
That high five banner is cracking me up. I need to beef up on more Japanese classics. I have seen three Kurosawa films and one Ozu, but that’s it.
I’m glad the high five got someone to laugh.
I am a huge fan of the Teshigahara trilogy, especially Pitfall. Also, The Burmese Harp is a wonderful bit of cinema.
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Japanese cinema is my absolute favorite, so happy you wrote this post. “The Human Condition” “The Samurai Trilogy” “Samurai Rebellion” “Sansho the Bailiff” are all favorites other than those you already mentioned. I haven’t seen “Kuroneko” yet though. Gotta change that.
I have yet to do The Human Condition or The Samurai Trilogy but I’m a big fan of the other two. I even watched Sansho with my parents and my mom even liked it.
As a huge Criterion fan,I must say they did a brilliant job including some of the finest Japanese films in its catalog,MOC is excellent too,these two combined present almost at least 80% of the greatest Jap films.I notice you did not mention Tashigahara,Oshima and Imamura here,those all are all discoveries I made after watching those Criterion titles.