Essential Japanese New Wave Films

“As Touch of Evil is to classical film noir, so Vengeance Is Mine is to the Japanese New Wave,” Slant Magazine’s Clayton Dillard wrote of Shôhei Imamura’s 1979 film, which arrived on Blu-ray from Criterion this week. “Each film retrospectively serves as the apotheosis for the style or movement, encapsulating many of the aims and concerns of films from the previous two decades into a singular, reflexive work.”

Catch-all terms like “New Wave” can be confusing, but in this case I’m referring to the cinematic movement in Japan during the late 1950s and into the ’70s. Comparisons to the familiar French New Wave period, which developed during the same time, are inevitable. And many Japanese New Wave filmmakers were influenced by directors such as François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard. But as author and editor David Desser wrote in his indispensable book Eros Plus Massacre (borrowing its title from the canon):

To see the Japanese New Wave as an imitation of the French New Wave fails to see the Japanese context out of which the movement arose. While the Japanese New Wave did draw benefits from the French New Wave, mainly in the form of a handy journalistic label which could be applied to it (the “nuberu bagu” from the Japanese pronunciation of the French term), it nevertheless possesses a high degree of integrity and specificity.

Here are a few essential titles that explore key themes from the Japanese New Wave movement.


Funeral Parade of Roses

Art house cinema meets quasi-documentary meets exploitation freak-out in Toshio Matsumoto’s utterly Oedipal film Funeral Parade of Roses. The word “roses” here refers to the transgender and drag characters who populate the film’s main setting: Tokyo’s underground nightclubs. Frenetic editing, breakneck montages, on-screen text, and other effects call back to Matsumoto’s early experimental film career. It’s said that Stanley Kubrick modeled Malcolm McDowell’s Alex and his droogs after Funeral’s youth gangs. “I wanted to make a kind of experimental, dramatic film that had not existed before, I was provocatively raiding the fiction film world as a guerrilla,” Matsumoto stated in an interview for the Yamagata Film Festival. “Thus in this project, my creative intent was to disturb the perceptual schema of a dualistic world dividing fact from fiction, men from women, objective from subjective, mental from physical, candidness from masquerade, and tragedy from comedy.”