This panel shows how three key 1950s Japanese films by respected but non-canonical directors employed the theme of labour to reveal shifts in the postwar social fabric, analysing changing patterns of work and relating them to a broader contemporary context of class, gender and modernisation.
The 1950s are widely recognised as the Golden Era of Japanese filmmaking. In the West this phenomenon has usually been approached from a purely artistic viewpoint with a focus on the second blooming of directors Ozu Yasujirō and Mizoguchi Kenji as well as the rise to prominence of Kurosawa Akira. However, this artistic aspect only represents a small fraction of the output of a booming commercial film industry that peaked with 1.1 billion admittances in 1958, before rapidly losing ground to the new medium of television. While such celebrated directors mostly focused on dealing with universal themes in either premodern or somewhat abstract settings, or worked in the home drama genre (shōshimingeki) with its relatively narrow domestic focus, a number of other filmmakers sought to investigate, with a more direct and critical eye, the rapid changes in contemporaneous Japanese social life, then undergoing a comprehensive transformation in the aftermath of war and Occupation and in the context of burgeoning economic growth. The three papers in this panel each focus on films by such directors who employed the theme of labour to reveal shifts in the social fabric while engaging with the conventions of popular genres. The screen works discussed here represent only a few examples of how commercial cinema can engage with topics of precise social relevance. In modes ranging from literary adaptation to semi-documentary to melodrama, these films, by respected but non-canonical directors Kinoshita Keisuke, Shindo Kaneto and Yoshimura Kozaburō, explore different working milieux, ranging from traditional arts and crafts to manual labour, and focus on issues that were to the fore in postwar, post-Occupation Japan: evolving patterns of labour, social inequality and alienation, the changing roles of women, and the influence of the outside world on Japan. Combining close formal analysis with broad socio-political contextualisation, this panel will explore how concepts of authorship, star image, film style and cinematic space intersect fruitfully with questions of class, gender and modernisation in a key moment of Japanese social and cinematic history.