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When I was first starting out my obsession with Japanese cinema, at one point I was blinded by Akira Kurosawa. Somehow I took on the biased notion that Kurosawa had the monopoly on quality films from Japan, and any movies not bearing his imprimatur (especially "old" black and white ones) must be boring and inferior.
In time I wised up and discovered the vast riches of Japanese films beyond the great Kurosawa-sensei. Although I'm still not into the genres of anime, Godzilla-type monster movies and modern J-horror, I have found favorites in just about every other category and era. And a lot of those discoveries have come via Criterion.
I own just about every Criterion release from Japan. Even though I haven't loved everything, it's been a superb ongoing education. Below are some of the most significant Criterion eye-openers that might help other viewers overcome a case of Kurosawa chauvinism. (Then after that, you just might need to defeat a prejudice against movies without the Criterion seal of approval... but hey, baby steps!)
Thanks to Kill Bill Vol. 1, the old DVD of Lady Snowblood was the first Japanese movie I ever bought that wasn't by Kurosawa. I still consider this to be the beautiful Meiko Kaji's best film.
I love the whole Lone Wolf series, which probably stands as the best adaptation of any comics series (sorry, Marvel). Everyone fixates on the spurting blood in these movies, but it's the quiet moments that made a lasting impression on me. Those flashback scenes in the first film denoted by dropping the background sounds -- silent rain, silent rivers -- this technique captivated me and sparked an insatiable desire to discover cool Japanese cinema.
I discovered Shintaro Katsu's amazing classics through IFC's Samurai Saturdays, and they became my all-time favorite Japanese film series. Now they have become, in my opinion, the crown jewel of the Criterion Collection. What a phenomenal box set, and what a blessing that Criterion has brought Zatoichi to a vast new English-speaking audience.
With all due respect to Kurosawa, I think this is actually the finest samurai film ever made. It's relentlessly perfect. All the reviewers hailing the mediocre Miike remake should be required to see the original.
Released in 2005 at exactly the time I was getting interested in obscure chambara classics, this magnificent proto-Eclipse set introduced me to four important and diverse directors in one fell katana swoop. All of these films are great, but the highlight is Kobayashi's Samurai Rebellion featuring Toshiro Mifune's best role outside of the Kurosawa canon.
My introduction to the "cruel jidai-geki" genre. It hit me like a visceral experience without compare, but I've since seen several other adaptations of the same story that preceded it. I've also learned that Kihachi Okamoto typically wasn't so dark and intense, with most of his other work bearing a playfully sarcastic smirk.
Criterion was late to the party on this one, which I first saw on IFC and owned in a decent fan-subbed edition. But I'm delighted Criterion finally put out this Janus property in a stunning Blu-ray edition for a broader audience to gain access to some good old Gosha.
Ugetsu was my first Mizoguchi film (which also came via IFC Samurai Saturdays), but this is the one that convinced me of the man's genius. Truly brilliant in plumbing the depths of human despair. Get your Kleenex ready when you sit down with this one.
I treasure this set for its inclusion of Street of Shame, Mizoguchi's final work and perhaps my favorite vintage Japanese film with a contemporary setting. Machiko Kyo is at her best as the sexy, sassy and Americanized Mickey.
This was a true revelation. Once I never would have guessed that Japanese films from the 1930s and the WWII era could be so fresh, so funny and so relevant. I've also found Sadao Yamanaka to fall into the same ahead-of-his-time category. Ornamental Hairpiece is especially magnificent. I know there's plenty enough other Shimizu classics to make up another Eclipse volume or two. That would make me sound just like the bus-driving Mr. Thank You: "Arigatooo! Arigatoooo!"
The calm and gentle manner of Ozu is an acquired taste, and I like to think of him as the Mister Rogers of Japanese cinema. Which I say as a great admirer of Fred Rogers. This Eclipse set was my introduction to his work, and even with my subsequent appreciation of his biggies like Tokyo Story, I still have a special fondness for it. The underrated Late Autumn is my personal favorite Ozu.
Another immersion in a director I'd never encountered before and came to admire big time. I also got to know Masumi Harukawa, the chubby beauty who stars in two of these movies and has become one of my top favorite Japanese actresses (also seen in a couple of Zatoichi installments).
I resisted this set at first because I used to think I wasn't interested in yakuza films. Nikkatsu Noir changed my mind with five stylistic dazzlers. Cruel Gun Story stands out as one of the best heist films I've ever seen.
Full disclosure: I actually own the Masters of Cinema edition, not the Criterion. But regardless of the publisher, this is a thrilling, visually arresting masterpiece. Whenever Criterion releases a Blu-ray upgrade to accompany the recent Kuroneko, I'll jump right on board.
Originally I had a UK edition of this one, but now I'm pleased to upgrade to the Criterion Blu-ray. It's a deranged parable with images that stick in your mind forever. Those richly textured close-ups of grains of sand clinging to skin are a joy to view in high definition clarity.
And last, this is a total oddball that I might never have discovered if not for the Criterion release and all the positive buzz surrounding it. I'm not a horror enthusiast and I would likely have dismissed House as silly teen girl fluff. But oh my goodness, is it ever a wonderful and delirious experience. Thank you, Criterion, for opening my gaijin eyes time and time again.