A decade after the Second World War, two Japanese war veterans walk into a bar. An Indonesian folk song plays in the background as the two men fantasize a world where they won the war. This is a scene from Ozu Yasujiro’s 1962 film An Autumn Afternoon, a film that explores generational differences among a family. Whether we realize it or not, the war has surely affected different parts of our lives, from short term effects such as recessions, to long term ones such as capitalist culture, our present is shaped by our bloody and brutal past. It also led us to create a new genre of film. Many of the films produced during the post war period became some of the most significant works in cinema history. It is interesting to see how different Japanese lives were portrayed, and what kind of themes bloomed during this period. Although it is hard to get hold of many of Japan’s older films, it is not impossible. With access to the internet, and with more and more institutions dedicating itself to film restoration, with a simple click on the screen, we are provided with an archive of Japanese post war films, from big streaming platforms such as Netflix, to smaller ones like MUBI, even YouTube has its own share of old Japanese movies.
Our beloved YouTube; a library of Ambient Study Music, a black hole for cat videos, a museum for internet memes; you can find almost anything in video form on Youtube—including old Japanese movies. To be fair, most of them are in unrestored 360p with delayed English subtitles, and yes, they are pirated, but hey, it’s not like we all can afford 100 dollar Criterion Collection box sets. This list of postwar Japanese movies consists of five films—exploring topics ranging from sex work to family—that can be found on YouTube.
1. Street of Shame (赤線地帯) dir. Kenji Mizoguchi, 1956
We start off the list with director Kenji Mizoguchi’s last film. Street of Shame, or Red Light District in Japanese, follow the lives of sex workers, as Japan’s new anti-prostitution bill threatens to close down their brothel. General views around prostitution are negative; the government may say that it taints the image of the nation, and men may simply see sex workers as objects of pleasure, but Mizoguchi dives deeper into the lives of these women by highlighting interactions between female characters within the workplace and placing a strong emphasis on their lives outside their job. A combination of these two features portrays these women as individuals who possess their own motivations and aspirations outside of their occupation, yet are confined into being sex workers by their economic circumstances. The rich and diverse perspectives embedded within the film allows it to be viewed from a multitude of understandings: from a feminist point of view on one hand, alternately this movie can also be viewed as an outlook on working class lives—specifically that of young women.
2. Good Morning (お早う) dir. Ozu Yasujiro, 1959
When we talk about postwar films, we can never leave out Ozu Yasujiro. Many of his works portray mundane family activities, while tackling topics of generational differences and parent-child relations. Good Morning is quite special because this one specifically centers on the children, besides having plenty of fart jokes and being Michael Cera approved. The plot of this film is centered on two young boys who urge their parents to buy a television which although sounds simple, makes this film a perfect portrayal on how war has changed the country and how Western culture slowly seeps into the everyday lives of Japanese folks. Like Ozu Yasujiro’s other works, you might want to revel in the beautiful composition, and if you’d like to explore more about Ozu Yasujiro’s distinct style and themes, Good Morning would make a great first watch.
3. Death by Hanging (絞死刑) dir. Nagisa Oshima, 1968
We’ll be taking a darker turn for this third movie. Nagisa Oshima’s Death by Hanging challenges Japanese nationalism through a dark-comedic, documentary-theater fusion format. When Korean zainichi under the name R doesn’t die after his death sentence, it left the Japanese authorities confused. The audience’s journey is centered on R regaining back his memories, while implicitly used by Nagisa Oshima to raise some questions about the flawed constitution. Unlike the previous two movies that explores the societal changes after the war, Death by Hanging criticizes the attitudes and system built on Japanese imperialism. With the use of a moving camera and unconventional storylines, this particular work successfully sets itself apart from mainstream cinema.
4. Attack on a Bakery (パン屋襲撃) dir. Naoto Yamakawa, 1982
This 17 minute short directed by Naoto Yamakawa is not a widely popular film, but its approach to tackling political themes earns Attack on a Bakery a spot on this list. This short is an adaptation of one of Haruki Murakami’s short stories. One scene depicts two hungry men attempting to rob a bakery, but encounter a communist baker who gave away his bread for free with the condition that the two men would listen to the German composer, Wagner. On another, this movie depicts a young girl who finds herself in a dilemma of buying a croissant or a doughnut (あげパン). These interesting premises, complemented by its unique utilization of cinematic language, should make Attack on a Bakery eligible as a national treasure.
5. Supermarket Woman (スーパーの女) dir. Juzo Itami, 1996
Supermarkets are the ultimate symbol of consumerism. Chains competing on the cheapest products, customers fighting for the last piece of discounted beef, supermarkets are a social phenomenon. The film follows the story of Hanako played by Nobuko Miyamoto, who attempts to reform the supermarket she works at by improving its customer service and the aesthetics of its food displays. The tone, themes, and stylistic choices of this movie is drastically different from the previous ones on the list, but the accurate depiction of Japanese social lives such as the number of “sumimasen” (excuse me/sorry) uttered, and the gossiping housewives, makes it an exceptional portrait of modern day Japan.
Reminiscing on the movies listed above, we might wonder what is post war anyway? For all we know we are still in a post war state, ranging from our obsession with mass media to our love for material goods, whether we like it or not our behavior today is shaped by history as reflected through many of the post war Japanese films. It is hard to imagine a world where the war didn’t happen, or where European nations did not colonize over half the world—but it did, and we are living products of it.