Operating between 1982 and 1992, the indie production house became a home for the country’s young, emerging filmmakers
A generation on from Japan’s 50s “golden age”, and still over a decade before Takashi Miike (Audition) and Hideo Nakata (Ring) would spark a new wave of interest in Japanese filmmaking at the turn of the century, the 80s would prove a trying time for the country’s film industry. But as mainstream fare worsened and the studio system wavered, a new body emerged to give new hope to a group of emerging talents: the Directors Company.
Operating for exactly a decade between 1982 and 1992, the Directors Company was an independent group led by director Kazuhiko Hasegawa, as a means for young directors to grow artistically, with all founding members below the age of 36 at the time of its inception. They hailed from a broad range of backgrounds in the filmmaking spectrum, including softcore pornography, advertising, and the emerging jishu eiga, or “self-made films” scene. But at the Directors Company, they found opportunities to make modestly budgeted feature films that could reflect their creative ambitions. The gambit would bankrupt the business in 1992 as budgets spiralled out of control and commercial audiences baulked, but the value would prove itself in the years thereafter, as key figures such as Kiyoshi Kurosawa (Cure) and Shinji Somai (Moving) found major acclaim, including prizes at Cannes, Venice and Berlin film festivals.
In 2023 and 2024, a slate of newly-restored Directors Company releases will make their way to the UK for the first time via Third Window Films, after the long-lost negatives were found by former producer Takashi Ikoma in 2021. Discover some of the highlights of the collection below.
MERMAID LEGEND (TOSHIHARU IKEDA, 1984)
After a suspicious amusement park enterprise claims the waters off the coast of a seaside town, the capsizing of a fishing boat hints at foul play. Undeterred, abalone diver Migiwa (Mari Shirato) ventures out with her husband Keisuke (Jun Etoh) who is then harpooned by an unseen assailant. When Migiwa eventually makes it back to shore, she finds that she’s been framed for his murder – and as a broad conspiracy unfolds, she is forced to take matters into her own hands.
Winner of the Best Director, Best Actress and Best Cinematography prizes at Yokohama Film Festival in 1985, Mermaid Legend – the first full-length feature from the Directors Company – is a masterful, transcendental work that utilises sumptuous underwater photography and a delicate score from Toshiyuki Honda (later known for Rintaro’s 2001 anime feature Metropolis) to great effect. A steamy sex scene at the halfway point then marks an unexpected transition, with Migiwa emerging as a brutal avenging angel on the other side.
THE CRAZY FAMILY (SOGO ISHII, 1984)
The Kobayashis are a stereotypical 80s nuclear family. Dad’s a hard-working salaryman; Mum’s a doting housewife; son’s a dedicated bookworm; and daughter (Mystery Train’s Yûki Kudô, winner of Best Newcomer at the Yokohama Film Awards) dreams of being a pop star. But after making the big move to a new home in the suburbs, the depths of their depravity are soon revealed, as a termite infestation and a lecherous grandpa help to push each family member over the edge.
Influential punk filmmaker Sogo Ishii – the youngest member of the Directors Company at only 27 years old during production – is in neurotic form in this anarchic satire of the classic Japanese family drama, built on hyperactive camerawork and clattering rock music. Though it was Ishii’s only feature with the group (it failed to make an impact in the local market despite being picked up for Berlin Film Festival overseas), it remains a potent cult classic, anticipating Takashi Miike’s surreal stoner comedy The Happiness of the Katakuris and even The Simpsons.
TYPHOON CLUB (SHINJI SOMANI, 1985)
Sharing a loose affinity with The Breakfast Club (as the title hints) is this classic drama about a group of students who take refuge at school during a monsoon, by Shinji Somai: a director rarely discussed in the west despite once being voted Japan’s top filmmaker of the 80s by leading film magazine Kinema Junpo. It’s far more understated than its US counterpart, with numerous unbroken long takes dictating a languid pace, but Typhoon Club would notably win Best Film at the inaugural Tokyo International Film Festival, where Academy Award-winning director Bernardo Bertolucci (The Last Emperor) called it “one of the most beautiful and touching teenage films I’ve ever seen”.
And beautiful is the word – because while this meditative work is scant on plot, it’s striking from beginning to end. Among the most succinctly framed images shot by cinematographer Akihiro Itô are those of a boy night swimming in a bottle green pool; flash storms outside Harajuku station; cherry blossom branches reaching out over the school infirmary; and basketball games played in a wood-panelled gym hall. Elsewhere, kids jam pens up their noses or get lost in philosophical musings, resulting in a broadly relatable coming-of-age story.
UK release via Third Window Films on November 27th, 2023
DOOR (BANMEI TAKAHASHI, 1988)
In a pretty apartment decorated with stained glass, peace lilies and marble busts, homemaker Yasuko Honda (Keiko Takahashi, the director’s wife) lives an average life with her young son, until a barrage of spam phone calls leaves her feeling vulnerable. An altercation with a door-to-door salesman turns nasty soon after, and before long stalking and intimidation lead to a shocking attack in this suspenseful, Hitchcockian home invasion thriller.
What’s most striking about Door is the technical prowess, with Yasushi Sasakibara’s voyeuristic camerawork climaxing with a dizzying bird’s eye view one-shot that traverses the entire apartment. Taut direction from Banmei Takahashi, a heavy-handed reference to The Shining, and bloody make-up effects by Tomoo Haraguchi – latterly of cyberpunk classic Electric Dragon 80,000v and Terminator-esque V-Cinema sci-fi Mikadroid – only add to the appeal in this lo-fi gem.
UK release via Third Window Films on October 30th, 2023
EVIL DEAD TRAP (TOSHIHARU IKEDA, 1988)
Director Toshiharu Ikeda (Mermaid Legend) is also credited as the creator of Japan’s first proper splatter movie, which would go on to receive cult status overseas in the years since its release. And for good reason: Evil Dead Trap is like a sleazy Japanese counterpart to the gruesome Italian exploitation films of Lucio Fulci (Zombie Flesh Eaters) and Ruggero Deodato (Cannibal Holocaust), partly making up for its shoddy pacing with pyrotechnics, carnivalesque death scenes, and a twinkling prog-rock soundtrack that sounds like it was pinched from Suspiria.
It’s the story of a late-night TV show host who receives a snuff film in the mail and goes off to investigate where it came from with a car full of pals (among them: “Queen of Adult Video” Hitomi Kobayashi). Upon arriving at a desolate warehouse full of dead animals and tentacled monster babies the crew are gradually faced with their own doom, which includes death by impalement, decapitation, and Saw-esque booby trap.
THE GUARD FROM UNDERGROUND (KIYOSHI KUROSAWA, 1992)
Slasher movies were all the rage in America in the 80s, with Halloween, Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th inspiring kinds of fun copycats – but in Japan, they were a rarity. So in 1992, future J-Horror icon and Texas Chainsaw Massacre fan Kiyoshi Kurosawa decided to make his own riff on the concept with The Guard From Underground: a low-budget thriller about a murderous security guard stalking the hallways of a corporate office building; one of his first to foreshadow the eerie claustrophobia of future masterpieces Cure and Pulse.
Though he was “never actually properly paid”, as the director told Tokyo Film Festival in 2022 – the Directors Company was facing imminent bankruptcy in 1992 – Kurosawa persevered with the passion project on sheer determination. And while the cheesy faux-Bernard Hermann score betrays its low budget, there is a potent atmosphere to be reckoned with in the end product, thanks to a clever utilisation of darkness and shadows, astute shot composition, and a dreary colour palette. Throw in some memorable kills and you have a brooding B-movie that’s more than the sum of its parts.
UK release via Third Window Films on September 25th, 2023