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The Remarkable Universe of Masahiro Shinoda

 

Running parallel to the stellar film program of this year's New York Film Festival is a finely curated retrospective series of films from Japanese director Masahiro Shinoda. This prominent director of the Japanese New Wave was fascinated by traditional Japanese aesthetics and the modernity of cinema (and of the transformed Japan of the 1960s, when he started his film career, through to the present). Shinoda's movies detail the spiritual emptiness of post-war Japanese life and search for some essence of the Japanese character.

Shinoda was born into one of Japan's most illustrious families in 1931. His ancestors were large landowners and village leaders who also had a long literary and cultural heritage. As a child, Shinoda was studious, but by the end of World War II, he experienced the same sort of bitter disillusionment as many of his generation. When he entered entered Waseda University in the early 1950s, he was enrolled in its theatre history program, studying under some of the most renowned experts in such traditional Japanese forms of drama as Noh, Kabuki, and Bunraku (puppet theatre). As he continued to study, he felt a passionate need to understand what quirk in the Japanese character lead to the disaster of the Second World War.

In 1953, Shinoda was forced to withdraw from university after his mother died. Though his family had a distinguished lineage, its financial status was depleted after the war, and he had to find work. In desperation, he took and passed the Shochiku Studios entrance exam and soon became an assistant director for Nagisa Oshima on TOWN OF LOVE AND HOPE (1959). The next year Shinoda was able to direct his own film, the somewhat poorly received ONE WAY TICKET FOR LOVE. Shinoda's first success occurred not long afterwards, when he teamed up with poet Shuji Terayama to create the populist YOUTH IN FURY (1960).

 

Shinoda's films are populated with people who irrationally sacrifice themselves for love and beauty, be it the nihilist gangster who risks jail for a beautiful young thrill-seeker in PALE FLOWER (1963), the jealous apprentice consumed with love for her painting teacher in WITH BEAUTY AND SORROW (1965), or the lovers who choose death over separation in the controversial DOUBLE SUICIDE (1969). Shinoda presents this self-destruction with a sense of unavoidable fate; his protagonists are unwilling or unable to break themselves from the spiral towards the abyss, which is acccentuated by the filmmaker's bold experimentation with narrative and visuals of the Bunraku theater style. 

In the following decades, Shinoda continued to make important and controversial films, including such contemporary classics as HIMIKO (1974), MCARTHUR'S CHILDREN (1984), SHARAKU (1995), OWL'S CASTLE (1999) and SPY SORGE (2003). He often cast his wife, actress Shima Iwashita in his films. In total, his oeuvre is an exploration of the essence of the Japanese character. Shimoda is coming to New York for this special tribute, part  of the 150th celebration of the Japan-NYC Friendship.

Sandy Mandelberger, Festival Dailies Editor

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The Ultimate Guide to the New York Film, Video and New Media Scene.

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