There are three main strands of Japanese film shown in the west: animation, sex and horror. None of these owes much to traditional Japanese film, but what are niche titles in their own country are often taken as examples of national cinema when they move abroad.

“I think what film distributors select for release in Britain is mostly based on how we like to view Japan, rather than any reality about the country itself,” says Jasper Sharp, author of The Historical Dictionary of Japanese Cinema, and contributor to Whose Film Is It Anyway?, the Japan Foundation’s touring programme of recent Japanese film.

Pokémon (1998) and Dragon Ball Z (1989) at one end of the spectrum, and Audition (1999), Ichi the Killer (2001) and The Ring (1998) at the other, have come to define Japanese cinema for western viewers. These are films that comfortably reinforce the perception of two opposing extremes of Japanese culture. At one pole there is what Donald Richie, a US-born critic of Japanese film, calls the “frivolous Japan”; at the other, the Japan of dark, often fetishistic or sadistic horror and ­pornography (in its own way just as frivolous). The only middle-ground films we encounter come from Studio Ghibli, such as Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away (2001), and even those, though often excellent, are of limited variety in style or content.

Whose Film Is It Anyway?, which runs at the ICA before touring the UK, consists of nine works from the past decade, each demonstrating a departure from what we have come to expect from Japanese film. The most famous filmmaker in this season, Masayuki Suo, is represented by I Just Didn’t Do It (2006), a sombre, sincere examination of the Japanese legal system in which a young man is arrested and charged with groping a schoolgirl on the public underground. It offers an engrossing look at injustice and human relationships under pressure.

A common characteristic of the films in the season is the nuanced interactions between characters. In Yoji Yamada’s About Her Brother (2010) a mother and daughter are forced to break with the mother’s juvenile middle-aged brother, later finding him dying of cancer in a hospice. It’s a sophisticated, suitably unsentimental film – were it made in Hollywood it would almost certainly ruin the effect of its pathos with sugar. All Around Us (Ryosuke Hashiguchi, 2008) follows a couple struggling to move on from the death of a child. Set over the course of 10 years, it’s simultaneously sweeping in narrative scope and minutely detailed in its depiction of human relationships amid tragedy. Bad Company (2001), the oldest film and winner of the jury and international critics’ prizes at Rotterdam Film Festival, mixes the pragmatism and naivety of childhood and the pains of growing up.

The selection also includes two excellent comedies (a particularly under-represented type of Japanese film in the west). The Dark Harbour (Takatsugu Naito, 2009), in which a lonely fisherman records a video introduction for a dating service, features a very funny scene in a clothes store. Searching for an outfit that will impress city women, the fisherman is offered Johnny Depp’s tasseled cowboy jacket as well as the flowery shirt that Neil Armstrong left on the moon and that Nasa subsequently recovered. Arriving at the dating party, another fisherman is wearing the same shirt. But it is a deeper film than this suggests; full of pathos and understated emotion. A Stranger of Mine (Kenji Uchida, 2005), which won the screenwriter’s prize at Cannes that year, is an expertly structured crime comedy of errors, consisting of well-rounded characters who cross paths during one night in Tokyo. In comedy, as in drama, the force of these films comes from the varying aspects of human experience they depict.

These films show the continuance of an older, more character-driven, humanist tradition of Japanese film.

Yasujiro Ozu, one of the three Japanese directors most revered in the west (Akira Kurosawa and Kenji Mizoguchi being the others), was above all interested in people. When beginning a film, he and co-screenwriter Kogo Nada worked backwards: they would sit down and write dialogue first, before even the characters were conceived or the story decided.

Nenji Kobayashi, Yu Aoi and Sayuri Yoshinaga in ‘About Her Brother’ (2010)

In an interview with Sharp, Richie pointed out the effect of this process: “There’s a rightness, there’s a logic, there’s an inevitability, there’s a reality about the characters.” Tokyo Story (1953), Ozu’s most famous film, shows an elderly couple who make their first trip to the capital to visit their family, only to find them not much interested in a reunion.

For Kenji Mizoguchi too, working at the same time as Ozu, humanity is a primary theme; Ugetsu Monogatari, which came out in the same year as Tokyo Story, and Sansho the Bailiff, which followed in 1954, are stories of betrayal, loyalty, family and friendship. Only Kurosawa, the most famous in the west and the most western of the three, could be accused of having other concerns. Kurosawa is a master of dramatic storytelling; Mizoguchi and Ozu are masters of dramatising human experience.

Yet western viewers watching Japanese cinema often can’t get past the kimonos, the slippers and the bowing, to the film itself. This has a lot to do with the way westerners see eastern artworks, “rather passively assuming their mysteriousness”, writes Adam Mars-Jones in Noriko Smiling (2011), the critic and novelist’s brilliant essay on Ozu’s Late Spring (1948).

Many critics suffer from a more intellectualised version of this wood-for-the-trees syndrome. One of the aims of Noriko Smiling is to recover Late Spring from critics such as Paul Schrader (screenwriter of Taxi Driver and director of a biopic of Japanese novelist Yukio Mishima) who, prioritising style over content, insisted on its “transcendental” qualities. Referring to a famous shot of a vase intercut with shots of the heroine crying, Schrader says the tears themselves have little meaning – he subtracts all emotion, or as Mars-Jones puts it, robs the tears of “all possible moisture content”. It seems, then, that a film being Japanese is the cue for western viewers to not look hard enough, and for some western critics to look too hard.

The importance of all the films in the Japan Foundation’s season lies not in their “Japanese-ness” but in their worldliness, their humanism. Of course, we can’t, and shouldn’t, separate a film from its country of origin. But film is a human medium and its roots (pathos, empathy, joy, anger, fear) are universal elements. “That’s what I think they mean when they say that films cross borders,” director Masayuki Suo suggests. “What do we call a film? If we call it the art of light and shadow reflected on a screen, I think that’s universal. Continuing to stir up the existence of human beings themselves – that’s what film is.”

‘Whose Film Is It Anyway?’ runs at ICA, London, until February 16 and tours the UK until March 28

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