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Masahiro Shinoda has never cracked the top tier of Japanese auteurs and he’s never enjoyed the fame of Akira Kurosawa, the critical reverence of Yasujiro Ozu, or the historical significance of Kenji Mizoguchi, but time has revealed the filmmaker to be one of the most vital directors of the 20th century. From the frenetic pop energy of the Japanese New Wave to the more meditative, historically focused features that became de rigueur towards the turn of the millennium, the versatile Shinoda was a mainstay in his country’s national cinema from his wild debut in 1960 to his swan song in 2003 (he’s still alive, but at 85 a comeback seems unlikely). Harder to pin down than his more monolithic contemporaries, Shinoda’s films evinced a consistent attention to the castaways of Japanese society, often finding hope — or at least something darkly beautiful — in stories of the poor and persecuted.
Shinoda’s films have also been harder to find. In the last few years, however, that’s mercifully started to change, as distribution outlets like the Criterion Collection have done a great deal to recognize and affirm Shinoda’s value. When FilmStruck went live last month, an incredible 19 of his movies were ready to stream. This embarrassment of riches couldn’t be more perfectly timed, as Shinoda’s star is set to rise all over again — his gripping 1971 adaptation of Shūsaku Endō’s “Silence” isn’t just a powerful film in its own right, it’s also an invaluable contrast to Martin Scorsese’s forthcoming spiritual epic of the same name.
If you’re already familiar with Shinoda, it’s easier than ever to enjoy the full scope of his career; if you’re new to his work, there’s never been a better time to get acquainted. Check out our list of his five most essential films below, and then go watch them (and all the rest!) for yourself on FilmStruck.
“Killers on Parade” (1961)
An exuberantly demented pop exercise that’s all style and no sanity, “Killers on Parade” is an 82-minute firecracker that explodes with the self-possessed euphoria of a true cinematic movement (in this case, the Japanese New Wave).
The kind of movie that requires an exclamation point in order to be properly summarized — FilmStruck’s description reads: “A team of hired killers target a young journalist, and only another killer can save her!” — Shinoda’s audacious early career delight is like a Seijun Suzuki movie as remade by Edgar Wright. Restless, exhausting, and bursting at the seems with wonderful sight gags, “Killers on Parade” may not be the most accurate indication of where Shinoda was going, but it’ll make you want to follow him anywhere.
“Pale Flower” (1964)
Like an impossibly dark black hole that pulls a century’s worth of narrative traditions into the void, Shinoda’s shady masterpiece is an unclassifiable hodgepodge of yakuza culture, noir shading, existential anguish, and modernist flair — instead of sorting it into any particular genre, it’s easier to think of “Pale Flower” simply as one of the coolest films ever made.
Twisting a typical gangster narrative into an ambient symphony of self-destruction, the movie begins with a gambling addict getting out of prison, and invites us to watch helplessly as he falls for a femme fatale who’s obsessed with death. Luminously shot and palpably angry, “Pale Flower” revealed Shinoda’s power to the world and to himself.
“Double Suicide” (1969)
Shinoda may not have been the most openly subversive filmmaker of his day (it’s hard to compete with the likes of Nagisa Oshima), but he was no less eager to disrupt conventional narrative modes in order to confront them with modern political thought. In the dazzlingly cubist “Double Suicide,” Shinoda takes a famous Bunraku puppet play about a paper merchant who’s obsessed with a prostitute and re-imagines it as a Brechtian nightmare, perched at the divide between the wholeness of Japan’s cultural history and the volatility of its uncertain future.
With “Double Suicide,” Shinoda absolutely obliterated the fourth wall, anticipating filmmakers like Abbas Kiarostami while also giving new life to old art forms at the same time.
Scorsese’s “Silence” isn’t a remake — and the film pulls at significantly different threads than any previous tellings of this story — but it wouldn’t be much of a stretch to assume that the director is a pretty big fan of Shinoda’s original.
While Scorsese’s version is more internal and less preoccupied with violence, it speaks to much of the visual language that was established 45 years ago, even going so far as to share a number of virtually identical shots. In other words, the new version evinces a clear respect for what Shinoda was able to do, how he — with a screenwriting assist from “Silence” writer Shūsaku Endō — was able to take the novel’s spiritually wracked story of persecuted Jesuit priests in 17th Century Japan and re-imagine it as a lurid, tortured examination of faith as a physical crisis. Whether watched before Scorsese’s take, after, or simply on its own, “Silence” is an invaluable religious epic.
“Ballad of Orin” 1977
It would be wrong and reductive to suggest that Shinoda “softened” as he got older, but the stories he gravitated towards during the late ’70s (and beyond) were definitely of a more traditional variety, even if he told them with the same intensity that defined his punkish early work. 1977’s “Ballad of Orin” stars Shinoda’s wife, Shima Iwashita, as an early 20th century goze — nomadic blind singers who traveled the country together in order to keep themselves safe.
In this beautiful film, which summons memories of Mizoguchi’s “Life of Oharu” in its non-linear approach to the life of a poor woman whose fate is shaped by sex and cruelty, Orin and her sisters are often seen holding each other by the hand as they walk between towns. Things inevitably assume a minor tone, but Shinoda’s bittersweet throwback resolves as an unforgettable portrait of friendship as a form of survival.