Genre in Japanese Cinema

A few years ago, during one of the Q&As at the end of a student event on the thriller crime genre, a teacher challenged me by stating that there weren’t really any genres in Japanese Cinema. I was so taken aback by this, I wasn’t sure how to respond. I thought it was such a strange thing to say. On reflection, perhaps the ways in which Japanese Cinema has developed are quite difficult to grasp. During the 1930s and again in the 1950-60s, Japan had the world’s biggest output of films, many produced in a form of studio system which certainly organised production with reference to generally accepted ideas of genre categories. These categories have been widely used by critics and academics in Japanese film studies. Given my own form of dyslexia in remembering how to spell foreign language terms (and therefore how to remember which is which), I thought it might be useful to make a list of as many terms as I can find. Any suggestions for additions to the list gratefully accepted.

The two overarching terms for Japanese films:

jidaigeki – ‘period’ or historical films. These were often based on the popular theatre or Kabuki plays of the Tokugawa period (1601-1867) – shinkokugeki or ‘the new national drama’ added a new form of realism to the jidaigeki from 1917 onwards.

gendaigeki – contemporary set films. The first of these derived from the shimpa or theatre of the modernising Japan of the the Meiji period (i.e. the last third of the 19th century). Shingeki – films in the style of western realist theatre began to appear in Japan from around 1909.

More specific terms for genre categories (all are used in various books by Donald Richie, Keiko McDonald or Yoshimoto Mitsuhiro) as well as other Japanese words used to describe the content or style of films are listed below. I have used some descriptions from Arne Svensson, author of a Tantivy Press book on Japanese Cinema in 1971 in the Screen Series.

(‘eiga‘ just means film in Japanese and monogatari means ‘stories’)

bungei eiga – adaptations of literary works

bunraku – the puppet theatre that developed in the sixteenth century

chambara – swordfight films (kengeki is ‘swordfight theatre’)

ero – erotic films 

ero-guro – erotic/grotesque style

haha mono – ‘mother’ films, about mothers, their sacrifices and sufferings, and their children

J-horror – horror films since the 1990s (also kowai hanashi or ‘scary story’)

kaidan (or kwaidan) – a traditional term for the ghost story, often set in the Tokugawa period. 

kateigeki – home drama

keiko eiga – political or “tendency films”, usually leftist

kokusaku eiga – “national policy films”

kyuha – ‘old school’ used in opposition to shimpa or ‘new school’

matatabi mono – films about gamblers or yakuza

nansensu – comic exaggeration or farce

Nihonjin-ron – studies on ‘being Japanese’

ninkyo eiga – films about yakuza gangsters

noh – the oldest form of Japanese theatre, dating back to the 14th century

Nuberu Bagu – literally the ‘Nouvelle Vague‘ or New Wave

onnagata/oyama – the female impersonators on stage and in early films (up to the late 1920s). Ichikawa Kon’s An Actor’s Revenge is about an oyama.

pink film (pinku eiga) – from the 1960s, a major development as the studios fought back against declining audiences, these softcore(but by Western standards, quite ‘extreme’) erotic films appeared in large numbers

roman-porno – softcore porn, mainly from Nikkatsu studio in the 1960s

ronin – the ‘masterless samurai’ who are often the protagonists in chambara

salaryman film – films about the vast army of Japanese white collar workers, especially from the 1950s-80s , who provided the workforce for the major corporations (see the entry on Tokyo Sonata for more discussion)

shakai-mono – the ‘social-problem’ film

shomingeki – films about lower middle-class family life (or, according to Richie, films about ‘little people’ or ‘the lower classes’)

taiyozuko – a late 1950s group of ‘juvenile delinquent films, also known as ‘sun tribe‘ films

tsuma mono – films about wives

yakuza – generic term for thug, gangster, gambler etc.

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