In the aftermath of the Second World War, Japan was a disgraced nation facing the challenges of rebuilding a devastated country and a shattered society reeling from the shock of defeat. At noon on the 15th of August 1945, those looking out across the smouldering wreckage of Tokyo were shocked to hear the reedy voice of Emperor Hirohito emanating from the radio, announcing Japan’s surrender to the Allies. This was the first time most Japanese had heard their ruler’s voice, and many found it hard to match his antediluvian, formal diction with what they had been led to believe about their “living god”. After the horrors of the war in the Pacific and the atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan’s surrender and Hirohito’s renunciation of his divine status precipitated a political, social, and cultural crisis. With the subsequent American occupation came the influx of a victorious and triumphant foreign culture, one at the peak of its confidence, bringing with it movies, music, chewing gum, and comic books. A stunned and impoverished Japanese society had to contend not only with its own crisis of self but also with the assertion of new political and social structures and ideologies, as well as new popular culture from the occupying foreigners. Amidst the chaos and ruin, many Japanese artists saw an opportunity for a new beginning, and while the subsequent Japanese New Wave mirrored contemporaneous cultural movements in Europe and America, there were additional layers of social upheaval specific to Japan that sparked an unparalleled explosion of incendiary new art.
The American occupation of Japan lasted from August 1945 until April 1952, and saw an aggressive imposition of Western values and structures on the vanquished country. The formal political hierarchy was hollowed out by the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers, the imperious American General Douglas MacArthur, who nonetheless left the emperor in his position (rather than removing him to stand trial for war crimes) to ensure political and social continuity, as well as a more peaceful occupation. The Americans drafted a new constitution for the defeated nation, one which remains in place today, that included the infamous Article 9, which made it unconstitutional for the Japanese to wage war or maintain a military (the subsequently-established Japan Self Defence Forces notwithstanding)1. Other changes introduced by the new American constitution affected human rights, freedom of speech, workers’ rights (with the introduction of the Trade Union Act) and gender equality — women won the right to vote in 1945, which had an almost immediate impact as large numbers of newly-enfranchised women voted for the first time the following year. After 1947, the Occupation “reversed course” and focused on the rebuilding of Japan as an economic pillar, a process which set the stage both for the blistering pace of postwar “economic miracle” reconstruction (with its concomitant social changes), and for the reintegration of Japan into the international community, which reached a milestone with the Tokyo Olympics in the autumn of 1964 (documented in Kon Ichikawa’s excellent 1965 film, Tokyo Olympiad), and later with the Osaka Expo of 1970.
The influence of the West was hardly an entirely new phenomenon to the Japanese however. Following the Meiji Restoration in 1868, Japan took advantage of newly-opened connections with the rest of the world to combine “Western science, Japanese essence”2. Western culture had taken root by the pre-War 1920s of the late Taishō and early Shōwa eras, with young Japanese “modern boys” and “modern girls” adopting fashion and sexual liberalism from Europe and the United States. The interwar period’s love of “erotic grotesque nonsense” could be seen in the writings of Edogawa Ranpo (channelling Edgar Allen Poe’s horror and detective fiction), and in films such as A Page of Madness (Kurutta Ichipeiji, directed by Teinosuke Kinugasa, 1926), which echoed the expressionism of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Robert Wiene, 1920), and whose production and formal experimentation prefigured the avant-garde collaborations of the Japanese New Wave decades later.
Postwar, the influx of Western culture took place in a completely different context. The economic and cultural self-confidence of the Taishō era was difficult to find in the smouldering ruins of Japan’s urban centres. The liberalisation of Japanese society (which included educational reform and the removal of State Shinto, the national religion that had controlled education) created a receptive audience for French writers and philosophers such as Jean Genet, Simone de Beauvoir, Michel Foucault, and Jean-Paul Sartre, somewhat as a counterbalance to pervasive American popular culture3. However, these new voices and ideas mixed with a national mood that oscillated between humiliation and defiance, between the shame of poverty and the self-belief of a new beginning. Traditional Japanese art forms (such as kabuki theatre) were reframed by the occupying regime as relics of a poisoned feudal society and tools of war-mongering nationalism, creating a crisis of national identity that swirled together with the new inflow of foreign culture. At the same time, the day-to-day realities of the occupation, with thousands of American soldiers stationed in bases around the country, meant contending with the conspicuous presence of a foreign power, as well as newly-thriving underworlds of violence and crime, and a vast prostitution network that included the state-run Recreation and Amusement Association. Simmering anger and resistance to the occupation compounded the grinding destitution of Japanese citizens, and was voiced frequently on the streets and captured in song, on stage, and on film. The resulting atmosphere was a tense and uneasy cultural stew: the influence of jazz, American and European cinema, Marxist and postmodern philosophy, and new modes of literature and visual art were undeniable, but their absorption into Japanese artistic expression sometimes seemed like swallowing broken glass4.
Yet while the specifics of Western influence may have been contentious, Japanese artists of the postwar scene nonetheless took to heart a counter-cultural position inspired both by Western radicalism and their own discontent that had risen to boiling point by the end of the war. The artists of the New Wave resisted and attacked power structures and social hierarchies, emphasising the democratisation of art through audience engagement and participation, and rejected traditional authorial roles through collective creation and collaboration. Early idealism would curdle into cynicism however, following the 1960 US-Japan Security Treaty, commonly referred to as Anpo, which allowed for the ongoing presence of US military bases on Japanese soil. The treaty would inspire the largest popular protests Japan had ever seen, and fuel both activism and later disillusionment, particularly after the treaty’s renewal in 19705.
Photography was one of the disciplines that responded quickly to the shifting cultural landscape. Photographers such as Shōmei Tōmatsu, Kikuji Kawada, Eikoh Hosoe, and Daido Moriyama documented the riots and student protests of the time; the night-time realms of the churning red light districts; the landscapes and people scarred by war and atomic bombs; and the artists, performers, and writers who comprised the rapidly-forming avant-garde scene. The style these photographers developed was immediate, raw, and kinetic. They became known for a distinctive high-contrast black-and-white aesthetic that pushed the mundane into abstraction and presented the new urban environments of Japan as frenzied, delirious, and erotic. Shōmei Tōmatsu photographed striking images of the 1968 riots in Shinjuku, and documented the occupation in Okinawan towns with US military bases. His unflinching photographs of people scarred by radiation, objects warped beyond recognition following the atomic blast at Nagasaki, and the dancers, sex workers, and activists of Kabuki-cho all possess a stark, haunting quality. His images quickly became iconic and, in addition to influencing other photographers (including Moriyama), Tōmatsu would collaborate with filmmaker Nagisa Ōshima on the latter’s adaptation of Kenzaburō Ōe’s novel Shiiku (The Catch) in 1961.
Kikuji Kawada created a series in 1961 called Chizu (The Map) which would be published in book form in 1965. A dense, overwhelming work that juxtaposes quotidian documentation with disturbing abstraction, the series features the unrecognisable architecture of Hiroshima’s atomic dome blistered by radiation, as well as the detritus of war — uniforms, letters, flags, and portraits of kamikaze pilots — alongside capitalist symbols of the occupation, such as Coca-Cola signs and discarded packs of Lucky Strike cigarettes.
Eikoh Hosoe became best known for a series of collaborations with several key figures of the Japanese avant-garde, producing iconic portraits of writer Yukio Mishima and dancers Tatsumi Hijikata and Kazuo Ohno. He created Kamaitachi with Hijikata in the wilderness of northern Japan as an exploration of mythology, landscape, and the human body, both artists returning to the land of their childhoods before and during the war. Hosoe’s portraits of Mishima demonstrated a theatricality that spoke volumes about his complex and conflicted subject, and contrasted with the more cinematic work of Hosoe’s collaborations with Hijikata and Ohno.
A new arrival in Tokyo was Daido Moriyama, who would become recognised as a voyager par excellence of the seedy underside of the city’s nightlife. His aggressive and intimate shots of backstreets, bars, and love hotels conflated the postmodern hyperreality of the media-saturated postwar era with an existential malaise that was irresistibly seductive. Moriyama, like Tōmatsu, was influenced by photographer William Klein’s direct style; Moriyama imagined his photographs as “discarded fragments of vision” blowing in the oily gutters of Tokyo’s streets6. One of the finest examples of this style came with his 1972 publication Shashin yo sayōnara (Goodbye Photography), composed in a period of personal crisis and made from the discarded remains, mistakes, and accidents that would have been rejected by other photographers. Along with Takuma Nakahira and others, Moriyama would create the short-lived but era-defining publication Provoke, which presented their are-bure-boke (grainy, blurry, out-of-focus) style of photography as a new provocative language to engage with the times.
Tatsumi Hijikata, one of Hosoe’s key collaborators, was a central figure in the avant-garde scene and would spearhead another new and urgent language, using the human body to channel the injury that had been wreaked on the country. Hijikata’s ankoku butoh (dance of darkness), a dance form which would become known simply as butoh, was inspired in part by the European avant-garde but conceived specifically for the Japanese body and the Japanese context. Hijikata looked to folk tales as much as existentialism and absurdity, and was keenly aware of the profound role landscape and environment play in human society. The austere, slow-motion form of butoh distorted the familiar into the perverse, and the results were sometimes outrageous but always provocative — a “heretical ceremony” in Mishima’s words7. Hijikata’s first butoh performance (in 1959) was an adaptation of Mishima’s Kinjiki (Forbidden Colours), and featured the decapitation of a live chicken onstage alongside boundary-pushing depictions of gay sex. The various butoh groups that would form following Hijikata’s lead were havens for those who found themselves marginalised or who in any way did not fit within the newly defined social roles. The blending of the various underworlds of Tokyo meant that the members of Hijikata’s group would perform in the sex clubs of Kabuki-cho between rehearsals. Hijikata’s charismatic and excessive character loomed large in the underground scene; he appeared in several films from this period, frequently as a monster or some kind of evil spirit, and collaborated with many of the era’s key artists8. The core thematic concerns of butoh, along with its aesthetic sense and its rejection of norms, was a vital expression of the spirit of the Japanese New Wave as a whole.
Yukio Mishima was another of the era’s central figures, despite being out of step with the prevalent political ideologies of artistic and academic circles. Mishima would become one of Japan’s most celebrated writers, but he was something of an anomaly for his time and he remains controversial to this day, a classicist who wanted to restore the past glory of imperial Japan. His psychologically baroque works explore conflicted, obsessive characters, and detail the mania that results from rigid, almost fundamentalist devotion to ideology. The repeated motifs of masks and alter-egos in his work reflected Mishima’s own contentious relationship with his body and his sexuality, which somehow merged with his political and social views. His convictions would lead him to create his own private army, before eventually publicly committing ritual suicide in 1970, an act of protest against a Japan he saw as “drunk with prosperity” and heading in the wrong direction. However, left-wing / right-wing polarities rarely fit in the Japanese postwar context, and Mishima’s traditionalist political views were not necessarily at odds with an otherwise progressive standpoint; he would prove to be a towering presence in the avant-garde scene who personally championed artists such as Hijikata and writer-director Shūji Terayama9.
The frantic pace of life in Tokyo facilitated diverse interactions and collaborations among a vast cast of artists and intellectuals; these encounters frequently occurred in the bars and jazu kissa (cafés where music was played) of neighbourhoods such as Nakano, Shinjuku, and Shimokitazawa. The soundtrack of the postwar era was, initially at least, dominated by jazz. A visit to Japan by Art Blakey in 1960 cemented the fervour for music that for years had been heard from American military bases and down Tokyo alleys, where black markets thrived and the counter culture flourished. Koreyoshi Kurahara’s 1964 film Black Sun (Kuroi taiyō), a late entry in the taiyō zoku (sun tribe) genre of films that emerged in the 1950s, featured Max Roach performing on a soundtrack by composer Toshiro Mayuzumi. Black Sun places jazz music at the centre of the intersecting spheres of rebellious teenagers, a violent criminal underworld, and the fraught relationship between Japanese citizens and American occupiers. Elsewhere musicians such as Kohsuke Mine, Masabumi Kikuchi, and many others would channel the rapid musical developments emerging from America, from modal jazz to the spiritual later work of John Coltrane, while guitarist Masayuki Takayanagi and saxophonist Kaoru Abe would push free jazz to its harsh and abrasive extreme10. Rock music was also dominant and the extent to which groups mimicked American styles or used English lyrics was further evidence of an ambivalent relationship with foreign culture. The jazz-inflected folk rock of Jacks was featured in Kazuo Kuroki’s Evil Spirits of Japan (Nippon no akuryo, 1970), and contrasted with the harder-edged proto-metal of Flower Travelin’ Band or the experimental drones of Taj Mahal Travellers. More extreme still was the psychedelic sonic assault of Les Rallizes Dénudés, underground legends whose large discography was composed almost exclusively of live bootlegs. Proving that politics was never far from artistic circles, Moriaki Wakabayashi, Les Rallizes Dénudés’s bass player and a member of the communist Red Army Faction, participated in the hijacking of a commercial flight at Tokyo’s Haneda airport and fled to North Korea in 1970.
Confrontational attitudes were common also in the art world. Tokyo’s Hi-Red Centre group grew out of the Japanese Anti-Art movement of the 1950s, mounting public performances and interventions that were generally anti-authoritarian in tone. Their happenings used the rapidly mutating Tokyo streets as their stage, rejecting the gallery system and other hierarchies of the art world in favour of a more direct engagement with contemporary life and the social and political movements of the time, a reflection of a wider thematic concern with systems of power and organisation. The Gutai Art Association, which was active from the mid-1950s until the early seventies, was an arts collective founded by painter Jiro Yoshihiro, whose members worked with a wide range of media, producing experimental performances and installations. Their focus was on the body and the concrete materials of the world around them, yet they also maintained a preoccupation with the importance of the intangible human spirit. In addition to connecting Japanese artists with the international contemporary art world and contextualising Japanese art within a global ecosystem, Yoshihara’s group adhered to socially-conscious principles of freedom and autonomy of thought.
As the country rebuilt itself and its networks of transportation, agriculture, and industry were re-established, much thought was given to the opportunities resulting from the destruction of Japan’s cities; presented with a blank slate, new environments and new ways of living could now be considered. The Metabolist group of architects, including Kenzo Tange, proposed revolutionary designs for modular buildings and city-sized megastructures that would encourage and enshrine new social values and hierarchies. While those ideas were being explored however, Tokyo’s citizens struggled on in a city that was built on an obsession with images and voyeurism11, that melded hyper-consumerism with eroticism, and where artists sought a new identity in the wreckage of Japan’s own imperial past and the cultural imperialism that it now contended with.
The artists of the Japanese postwar avant-garde collaborated across disciplines, intuitively building a loose movement that was born out of chaos, one that responded to an unstable present and an uncertain future. The generation of artists that formed the Japanese New Wave grew up during the war and came of age among the ruins and under the shadow of the Occupation. Of all the art forms that flourished during this period, it is perhaps cinema that best captured the volatility, desperation, defiance, and potential of Japan in the postwar years. The era is notable for its remarkable number of cinematic masterpieces, a collection of singular films that adhere to no one genre, aesthetic, theme, or viewpoint. From experimental Marxist treatises to sensationalist sex-and-violence genre films, the vast array of cinematic wealth generated by the Japanese New Wave is unique in its fusing of formal and conceptual experimentation with political and social consciousness. The artistic strength and personal conviction of the directors behind these films, and the diversity of their voices, reflect the vitality of the cultural furnace they were working in. The following essays will focus on six key films that are central to the Japanese New Wave, all of them produced under the aegis of the country’s first independent production company, the Art Theatre Guild.
For consistency, in this article Japanese names are rendered using the Western format of given name first, family name second, and not according to the standard Japanese mode that places family name first.
- Article 9 would continue to be controversial until the present day; the recently deceased former prime minster Shinzo Abe notably sought a significant revision and reinterpretation of the Article.
- A concise overview of modern Japanese history can be found in Ian Buruma’s Inventing Japan, with further insight offered by John Dower’s Japan in War and Peace.
- See Bullock 2009 and Kersten 2009.
- The perceived Westernisation of Japanese culture was a contentious topic of ongoing debate. Later artists of the Mono-ha school, such as Lee Ufan, Kōji Enokura, and Nobuo Sekine, pursued a minimalist discipline rooted in Asian philosophy and tradition rather than Marxist or postmodernist academicism, giving primacy to natural materials such as stone which were juxtaposed with industrial materials such as steel. Nonetheless, they were also influenced by the turbulent political environment of the late sixties and early seventies, particularly the United States’ demands on Japan for support in the ongoing Vietnam war, as well as the storage of nuclear weapons in Japan.
- The treaty was called Anzen Hoshō Jōyaku in Japanese, which was shortened to Anpo. The Anpo protests were referred to as Anpo tōsō. Such resistance continues today, with Okinawa a central locus of agitation. The persistence of the island’s American base has been continually protested due to incidents of rape and violence against locals by American troops stationed there.
- Holborn, 1986.
- Holborn, 1986.
- Hijikata’s collaboration with Donald Richie, War Games (1962), is particularly interesting, as is his appearance in Eikoh Hosoe’s only film, Naval and A-Bomb (1960). The dancer also appeared in films such as Horrors of Malformed Men (Edogawa Rampo Zenshū: Kyoufu Kikei Ningen, Teruo Ishii, 1969), a pseudo-exploitation reworking of The Island of Dr. Moreau, based on the writings of Edogawa Ranpo.
- Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985) by American director Paul Schrader takes an appropriately theatrical approach to the many contradictions and complexities of the writer’s life, mixing Mishima’s own life story with those of the characters in his novels. Schrader’s film captures the tense balance between artifice and authenticity that defined Mishima’s life and work, and is enriched by spectacular set and costume design by Eiko Ishioka, and a rapturous score by Philip Glass.
- The tempestuous relationship between Abe and his wife, model and writer Izumi Suzuki, was captured in Kōji Wakamatsu’s 1995 film Endless Waltz. Long overlooked, Suzuki is beginning to receive recognition for her work; a collection of her science fiction stories was published in English for the first time in 2021 under the title Terminal Boredom.
- “Kabuki-cho is as theatrical as its name implies. It has a facade of brilliant colour, the garish packaging of flesh. Kabuki-cho is the stalking ground of voyeurs in a city where voyeurism is the most obvious escape. […] Voyeurism, which was a significant characteristic of [the] Shunga erotic-print tradition of Edo, remains an erotic cue. The city is also the capital of the greatest camera-manufacturing nation in the world. Technological ingenuity and graphic sensibility, coupled with a hunger for the consumption of the image, suggest and confirm a national preoccupation with photographic practice.” (Holborn 1986). See also Stephen Barber’s discussions of Tokyo’s feverish ambience (2006 and 2013).
Bibliography and further reading
- Anderson, Joseph L. and Donald Richie. The Japanese Film: Art and Industry. Princeton University Press, 1982.
- Baird, Bruce. Hijikata Tatsumi and Butoh: Dancing in a Pool of Gray Grits. Palgrave, 2012.
- Barber, Stephen. Art, Riot, Terror: The 60s Tokyo Avant-Garde: Mishima, Hijikata, Oshima. Elektron, 2013.
- Barber, Stephen. Hijikata: Revolt of the Body. Creation Books, 2006.
- Buruma, Ian. Inventing Japan: 1853-1964. Phoenix, 2005.
- Bharne, Vinayak. “Manifesting Democracy: Public Space and the Search for Identity in Post-War Japan”, Journal of Architectural Education, Vol. 63, No. 2, 2010. pp. 38-50.
- Bullock, Julia C. “Fantasy as Methodology: Simone de Beauvoir and Postwar Japanese Feminism”, U.S.-Japan Women’s Journal, No. 36, 2009. pp. 73-91.
- Cho, Hyunjung. “Expo ’70: The Model City of an Information Society”, Review of Japanese Culture and Society, Vol. 23, 2011. pp. 57-71.
- Chong, Doryun, editor. Tokyo 1955-1970: A New Avant-Garde. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2012.
- Daliot-Bul, Michal. “The Formation of ‘Youth’ as a Social Category in Pre-1970s Japan: A Forgotten Chapter of Japanese Postwar Youth Countercultures”, Social Science Japan Journal, Vol. 17, No. 1, Winter 2014. pp. 41- 58.
- Desser, David. Eros plus Massacre: An Introduction to the Japanese New Wave. Bloomington Indiana University Press, 1988.
- Dower, John. Japan in War and Peace. Harper Collins, 1995.
- Hayashi, Michio. “The Imagined Map of the Nation: Postwar Japan from 1945 to 1970”, Review of Japanese Culture and Society, Vol. 26, 2014. pp. 285-303.
- Holborn, Mark. “Black Sun: The Eyes of Four — Roots and innovation in Japanese photography”, Aperture, No. 102, 1986.
- Hosoe, Eikoh. Kamaitachi. Gendai Shichosha, 1969.
- Inuhiko, Yomota. What Is Japanese Cinema?, Columbia University Press, 2019.
- Kawada, Kikuji. Chizu (The Map). Bijutsu Shuppan-sha, 1965.
- Kawada, Kikuji and Ryuichi Kaneko. “Kikuji Kawada: In conversation with Ryuichi Kaneko”, Aperture, No. 219, 2015. pp. 122-133.
- Kersten, Rikki. “The Intellectual Culture of Postwar Japan and the 1968-1969 University of Tokyo Struggles: Repositioning the Self in Postwar Thought”, Social Science Japan Journal, Vol. 12, No. 2, 2009. pp. 227-245.
- Klein, William. Tokyo. Crown, 1964.
- Koolhaas, Rem and Hans Ulrich Obrist. Project Japan. Metabolism Talks, Taschen, 2011.
- Kovner, Sarah. “Base Cultures: Sex Workers and Servicemen in Occupied Japan”, The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 68, No. 3, 2009. pp. 777- 804.
- Lin, Zhongjie. “Urban Structure for the Expanding Metropolis: Kenzo Tange’s 1960 Plan for Tokyo”, Journal of Architectural and Planning Research, Vol. 24, No. 2, 2007. pp. 109-124.
- Meier, Richard L. and Ikumi Hoshino. “Cultural Growth and Urban Development Inner Tokyo 1951-1968”, Ekistics, Vol. 26 No. 155, 1968. pp. 390-394.
- Mishima, Yukio. Confessions of a Mask. 1949.
- Mishima, Yukio. Forbidden Colours. 1951.
- Moriyama, Daido. Shashin yo sayōnara (Goodbye Photography). Shashin hyoron-sha, 1972.
- Petrić, Vlada. “A Page of Madness. A Neglected Masterpiece of the Silent Cinema”, Film Criticism, Vol. 8, No. 1, 1983. pp. 86-106.
- Shimbori, Michiya et al. “Japanese Student Activism in the 1970s”, Higher Education, Vol. 9, No. 2, 1980. pp. 139-154.
- Suzuki, Izumi. Terminal Boredom. Verso Fiction, 2021.
- Tōmatsu, Shōmei. Nippon. Shaken, 1967.
- Tōmatsu, Shōmei. Okinawa Okinawa Okinawa. Shaken, 1969.
- Tomii, Reiko. “Art Outside the Box in 1960s Japan: An Introduction and Commentary”, Review of Japanese Culture and Society, Vol. 17, 2005. pp. 1-11.
- Yoshimoto, Midori. “Expo ’70 and Japanese Art: Dissonant Voices An Introduction and Commentary”, Review of Japanese Culture and Society, Vol. 23, 2011. pp. 1-12.
- A Page of Madness (Kurutta Ichipeiji). Directed by Teinosuke Kinugasa, 1926.
- Black Sun (Kuroi taiyō). Directed by Koreyoshi Kurahara, 1964.
- Endless Waltz. Directed by Kōji Wakamatsu, 1995.
- Evil Spirits of Japan (Nippon no akuryo). Directed by Kazuo Kuroki, 1970.
- Horrors of Malformed Men (Edogawa Rampo Zenshū: Kyoufu Kikei Ningen). Directed by Teruo Ishii, 1969.
- Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters. Directed by Paul Schrader, 1985.
- Navel and A-Bomb (Heso to genbaku). Directed by Eikoh Hosoe, 1960.
- The Catch (Shiiku). Directed by Nagisa Ōshima, 1961.
- Tokyo Olympiad. Directed by Kon Ichikawa, 1965.
- War Games. Directed by Donald Richie, 1962.