NOT FOR NOTHING are new film movements called waves. For a moment they overwhelm everything, then vanish as if they never were.
When Akira Jurosawa's "Rashomon" won the grand prize at the 1951 Venice Film Festival, the cinema of Japan, a wonderfully intriguing and exotic group of films, erupted full-grown onto the mind of the West. For a while Japan was all the rage, but other sensations soon took over, and though the films remained eminently viewable, the opportunity to see them but disappeared.
The Biography Theater has determined to change all that, and its 32 item "The Films of Japan" series opening this Wednesday provides the first local opportunity in at least a decade to see a wide variety of Japanese films, everything from oddities to must-sees to all-too-rarely revived classics. Japanese films fascinate at least partly because they embody so many contradictions, being at once odd yet familier, full of stately pagentry and zesty action, simple and homey as well as elegantly fatalistic. If they have one unifying factor, it is an emphasis on ritual and form, on what is done and what is not done, an underlining of the way the force of custom can reach a pitch that would be all but unimaginable to Americans.
A full 10 of the Biography's films are by Kurosawa, the director of "Rashomon" and the filmmaker considered the most accessible to Occidental tastes, a craftsman adept enough to turn out an absolutely riveting, heart-pounding, detective film, "High and Low" an underappreciated gem, yet humanistic enough to make something like "Ikiku" ("To Live").
This story of a dying old man who wants to do one concrete good deed before the end is slow at times, especially during an apparently endless drunken wake, but the film's final image of the man rocking a child's swing in a snowstorm, is one of the most terribly moving things ever put on film.
Kurosawa's reputation comes not from work like this, of course, but from his flair for furious action, the way he films vigoruos, violent, breathtaking battles, with Toshiro Mifune, as physically exciting an actor as the screen can handle, inevitably playing the lead.
"Seven Samurai" is the acknowledged masterpiece here, the story - later remade as "The Magnificent Seven" - of how seven swordsmen defend a village against a hoard of bandits.
Yet equally enthralling, if less frequently seen, are films like "Throne of Blood," Kurosawa's scintillatin version of "Macbeth," as well as two action-satires, "Yojimbo" and "Sanjuro," both with Mifune as an older swordsman, a scruffy, always scratching bundle of rags, who inevitably ends up out thinking, not to mention out-dueling, platoons of neater types.
However, samurai films mean a great deal more than Kurosawa-Mifune efforts, and can in fact be viewed through any number of different prisms.
Most basic are the traditional, no frills, decidedly hero-worship films of Hiroshi Inagaki. The rarely seen "Samurai Trilogy," for instance, three separate films which form one enormous whole and relate the honest-to-gosh true story of Japan's greatest swordsman, Musashi Miyamoto, who is always being told things like "To study the sword, one must study the soul."
Also by Inagaki is the monumental "Chushingura," a cult of item in California a number of years back, which details the adventures of one of Japan's favorite groups, the 47 ronin, or retainers, who bide their time for who knows how many years, waiting for just the right moment to avenge their unjustly executed lord.
Not all samurai films are wide-eyed, of course. Those of Kobayashi, "Samurai Rebellion" and "Harakiri" for instance, are decidedly antifuedal and cynical. This tone also manages to seep into the snappy, razor-tight films of Okamoto, including the strange "Sword of Doom," where the hero, played by Tatsuya Nakadai, the biggest samurai actor after Mifune, is portrayed as too close to a complete psychopath for comfort. And then there are the Zatoichi epics, the burlesque adventures of a blind masseur who keeps stumbling in and out of trouble, leaving large piles of bodies in his wake.
Again, though,it would be a mistake to stop at the samurai films and think that Japan offers nothing else of interest. There are the works of Kenji Mizoguchi, the revered creator of 87 films - the Biograph is showing "The Life of Oharu" and "The Princess Yang Kwei Fei" - and known for his atmospheric settings and his psychological insight, especially into the affairs of women.
Also must-sees are the films of two directors, Ozu and Oshima, so disparate in aims and methods that they are best understood as diametric opposites.
Ozu is the great traditionalist, known as the most Japanese of directors, whose films - the Biograph is showing four, "Tokyo Story," "Autumn Afternoon," "Late Spring" and "Equipnox Flower" - were long though to be simply inaccessible to Western audiences.
Ozu's films concern, to quote one critic, "the goodness and beauty of everyday things and everyday people." Many of them have the same actors, even similar plots, they move at a snail's pace and do without fancy camera movement, snappy editing and exotic settings, but they leave a warming impression of the goodness of the solid old family ways.
Oshima is exactly the opposite, kind of a Peck's Bad Boy of Japanese film who rejects the traditional and deals in his elliptical, often difficult way with the upheavals and tensions of modern industrialized life.
Hoping to capitalize on the fuss surrounding his "In The Realm of the Senses," the Biograph is opening its series with a double bill of Oshima's "Boy," the story of a family that lives by faking auto accidents and collecting the insurance, and the more recent "Ceremony," where the rituals of family life the very forms of soceity that in Ozu are so pleasing, that fortified the 47 ronin of "Chushingura," are shown to be alienating, even stultifying when carried over into the modern world.