Founded in 1912, the venerated Nikkatsu Studios is the oldest film company in Japan, tied with Hollywood’s Universal Studios as the oldest film studio in the world. Through its one hundred years of existence, filmmaking legends such as Daisuke Ito, Sadao Yamanaka, Kenji Mizoguchi, Masahiro Makino, Kon Ichikawa, Shohei Imamura, and Seijun Suzuki have passed through its doors, while its productions have included everything from Japan’s first sound film (Mizoguchi’s Hometown), to one of its biggest international art-house hits (Ichikawa’s Harp of Burma), down to—in the 1970s—Naked Rashomon.
Formed in 1912 as an amalgamation of several small companies, Nikkatsu became Japan’s most prestigious studio of the 1910s and 1920s, home to the historical epics of Ito and the socially committed leftist works of Yamanaka. After a short hiatus during the war years, Nikkatsu returned in 1954 with a new populist bent and a new slogan: “We make fun films.” “Life is short; I want mine to be exciting!” cried a character in 1958’s Rusty Knife; it’s a line that embodied the entire Nikkatsu attitude, one that stretched across a star factory that churned out new faces (which were even grouped together with nicknames such as “The Diamond Line” and “The Bad Boy Trio”) and over one hundred films a year. Indeed, in the 1960s Nikkatsu was “the coolest spot in the history of Japanese filmmaking, and just maybe the coolest film production house of all time” (Chuck Stephens, Criterion).
This series covers nearly every Nikkatsu decade: a 1921 samurai work; a 1939 musical; fifties melodramas and controversial, youth-focused “sun-tribe” films; and sixties action films. We conclude with three films from arguably Nikkatsu’s best-known auteur, Seijun Suzuki, two of which are pulled from our own archives
Jason Sanders, Film Notes Writer