Japanese cinema first came to prominence in the west when Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon won the grand prize at the Venice Film Festival in 1951. Although a great many innovative films from Japan were made during the period after the Second World War as a result of the newly granted freedom that was available to artists, writers and filmmakers, Japan had always had a rich national tradition of cinema that dated back to the very early days of motion pictures. Kenji Mizoguchi, Yasujiro Ozu, and Teinosuke Kinugasa had been making films as early as the 1920's.
Japanese cinema developed in a manner that kept it 10 years behind the films of the west. There were some commercial and technological reasons for this, such as problems with film equipment and the organization of the film industry in general, but the strongest reasons seem to have been aesthetic ones.
Women in Japan did not first appear in films untill the mid 1920's. The parts of women characters were played by female impersonators called oyama.This practice kept Japanese cinema tied to its theatrical origins, but it caused the early films to appear to be lacking the naturalness and spontaneity that was gradually developing in the films of west between the years 1905 to 1915. These early films also used a narrator who was present in the theater and spoke the parts in the film intended as dialogue. This eliminated the need to have printed titles and in some cases the narrator became the star attraction of many films, with the audience going to see a film solely because of its narrator. But one of the problems of having a narrator speak for a film is that the film does not have to speak for itself. This resulted in the early films from Japan in not developing a uniquely visual cinematic language that was starting to appear in the films of western directors such as D.W. Griffith, Sergei Eisenstein and F.W. Murnau.
Sound first appeared in Japanese films almost a decade after it had made its appearance in the west.The first successful sound film The Neighbor's Wife was not produced in Japan untill 1931 and by 1932 only 45 out of 400 Japanese films used synchronized sound for their films. The silent era of film production did not end completely in Japan untill 1937.
The advent of sound in Japan coincided with the beginning of the Second World War. The Japanese government demanded that all film production be used to support the actions of the government. As a result the films of that period supported the policies of the Japanese military. After the war ended the American occupation government also restricted what topics could be the subject of Japan's film industry insisting instead on films that illustrated the values of peaceful living and democratic institutions.
The film industry in Japan is unique in the sense that for many years it was the only film industry in the world organized like Hollywood. Many film studios in the world were either empty buildings where film companies worked or were state owned enterprises. Japan's film industry was a collection a small companies each one with its own directors, writers,producers, and actors who were in fierce competition with one another. The Japanese film industry was second only to Hollywood in total yearly output. The bad side of this intense production culture is that like Hollywood, a great deal of banal and mediocre films were produced in Japan, but also like the American film industry a great number of important works of art were produced in Japan as well.
But unlike Hollywod, the Japanese film industry is built around the director. The director is really the most powerful single person in a film company, unlike Hollywood where it is the producer that is the most prominent. It is often the director's name that is the main attraction on a film's release. The actors in the Japanese system tend to wield far less influence than their American counterparts. They are also paid significantly less. The Japanese film producer is really like the first assistant director in an American film production company.This person is really more of an assistant who manages production details than someone who actually makes important decisions about a film's creative direction.
Japanese film companies are run like "film families" where the director is the paternal head of the organization. The Japanese system is in some ways much less competitive than other national film system , such as Hollywood. Japan's film industry doesn't import talent from other media such as theater or academia, unlike the other national film industries which have routinely imported talent from the theater (Sam Mendes American Beauty and Mike Nichols Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf) as well as prominent film journals (Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Goddard, and Peter Bogdanovich).One of the disadvantages with this system is that it perpetuates mediocrity and talented filmmakers in Japan are required to serve long apprenticeships before moving up to the position of a director.
Japanese cinema has produced an incrdible wide variety films in terms of its subject matter,so it is hard to characterize the films in a general way. But the finest examples of Japanese cinema do have some common traits. Unlike Hollywood whch often add a lot of colorful scenes whose purpose is to build up the atmosphere of a film, Japanese films are economical in form. Every aspect of the film's plot, dialogue, and action is focused on answering the film's central question.
The second trait that many of Japan's finest films share is that they are not intended to be studies of individual people or small intimate groups, but are meant to represent large cross-sections of the population who take different paths in life , make different choices and end up in different places by the film's end.
There has been a consistent stream of feature length films to come out of Japan since Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon won Venice Film Festival in 1951, but over the course of the last 15 years the most influential form of filmmaking to come out of Japan has been Anime. Anime has it's origins in the early 1960's, the best example being the television show. "Astro Boy". Since Astro Boy's debut in 1963, Anime has grown into an enormous industry producing every form of animation imaginable in every media in existence. It is an internatioal art form which has reached every corner of the world.