How well do you know the history of the Oscars in Japan?

There have been many historical firsts at the Academy Awards recently. Long mocked as a demanding institution chaired by a group of old whites, Hollywood’s most glitzy annual gala has sought to renew itself, after being caught off guard by the #OscarsSoWhite controversy seven years ago.

In 2015, that viral hashtag highlighted the painful lack of racial diversity among nominees in major award categories, including an all-white acting slate. When the same thing happened again in 2016, prompting for a boycott, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) was forced to act.

Since then, the voting body behind the Oscars has worked hard to expand and diversify its members, creating new standards of diversity and inclusion for Best Picture nominees that are expected to go into effect in 2024. Although there is still plenty of it. way to go, the academy already seems to be expanding its reach and every year a few more barriers are demolished.

In 2020, Bong Joon-ho’s “Parasite” became the first non-English-language film to win Best Picture, beating Sam Mendes’ “1917,” the kind of lavish historical drama that usually would have scored an easy win. Last year she set a record for diversity in acting categories, with Daniel Kaluuya (“Judas and the Black Messiah”) and Youn Yuh-jung (“Minari”) both taking home awards, while Chloe Zhao is became the first black woman to win Best Director, for “Nomadland”.

To get an idea of ​​how much that has changed, though, just look at Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s “Drive My Car,” which is in the running for Best Picture this year, a first for a Japanese film. Although the film was almost universally acclaimed, it’s hard to imagine a three-hour ruminant drama about pain and Chekhov, with subtitles! – even checking out the Oscars just a few years ago.

Haruki Murakami’s adaptation is also nominated for Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best International Film. The only other time a Japanese film got this many nominations was Akira Kurosawa’s “Ran” in 1986.

In the end, the epic of the Shakespearean samurai received only one award, for costumes by Emi Wada. Kurosawa was named Best Director, but lost to Sydney Pollack, whose grueling and picturesque “Out of Africa” was that year’s big winner.

In retrospect, it was the wrong decision, even though it often happens at the Oscars. The history of the Academy Awards is full of insults, compromises and bewildering choices.

Films that are now regarded as some of the greatest of all time have often received little attention – “Citizen Kane” and “2001: A Space Odyssey” both went home with only one award – or were never nominated. The academy has awarded best film to some brilliant films in recent years, such as “Parasite” and “Moonlight”, but it has also settled for superficial and pleasant things like “Green Book” and “The King’s Speech”.

The omissions become even more evident when we consider the directors working outside the Anglosphere. It is relatively rare for films in other languages ​​to be recognized in the main categories at the Oscars. To date, only 14 non-English language films have been nominated for Best Picture.

Most years, the entire panoply of global cinema is squeezed into the category of best international feature films – until recently known as best foreign language film – while receiving occasional nods for best documentary and best feature film. animation. (Hats off to Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s “Flee” this year for becoming the first film ever to be nominated in all three categories.)

If “Drive My Car” wins Best International Feature Film, it will be only the second time a Japanese-language film will, after Yojiro Takita’s “Departures” in 2009. Pedants will note that Kurosawa’s “Rashomon”, “Gate of Hell” and Hiroshi Inagaki’s “Samurai, The Legend of Musashi” all received honorary awards in the years leading up to the category’s introduction at the 1957 ceremony, but those don’t really matter, do they?

Japan’s nomination for best foreign feature film – I’m sorry, international – is decided by the Eiren (Association of Japanese Film Producers) and tends to match the consensus of the prevailing critics. Over the past two decades, half of the films Eiren has presented to academy attention have also taken the top spot in film magazine Kinema Junpo’s annual poll.

Confusingly, Kurosawa won an Oscar in 1976 for his only film that was not in Japanese: “Dersu Uzala” in Russian, a Soviet-Japanese production made at a time when he found it impossible to obtain home studio funding. .

The Enchanted City of director and animator Hayao Miyazaki won the Oscar for Best Animated Film in 2003, the only non-English-language film to receive the award. He also received an honorary award in 2014. | MONICA ALMEIDA / THE NEW YORK TIMES

The director was also awarded an honorary Oscar in 1990, “for achievements that have inspired, delighted, enriched and entertained audiences and influenced filmmakers around the world.” They might have added: “I’m sorry I dropped the ball on ‘Seven Samurai’.”

Japanese actors only seem to be recognized when they appear in Hollywood productions. Miyoshi Umeki won an Oscar in 1958, for playing him in the romantic melodrama “Sayonara”. The same year, Sessue Hayakawa – a true international star during the silent era – was nominated for “Bridge over the River Kwai”. She lost to Umeki’s “Sayonara” co-star Red Buttons, but still, better late than never.

Another notable Japanese Oscar winner is Hayao Miyazaki, whose “Spirited Away” won the Best Animated Film Award in 2003. To date, it is the only non-English-language film to receive the award, and also the only one drawn by hand. Isao Takahata’s sublime swan song, “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya”, was really supposed to win in 2015, but was thwarted by Disney’s “Big Hero 6”.

Miyazaki did not show up at the ceremony in 2003, but was there in person to collect an honorary award in 2014. In his acceptance speech, he joked that it was worth it just to get the chance to meet the great actress Maureen O ‘ Hara. Hamaguchi would do well to approach this weekend’s Oscars in a similar spirit: enjoy the show and don’t take everything too seriously.

The 94th Academy Awards will take place in Los Angeles on March 27.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government strongly urges residents and visitors to exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues, and other public spaces.

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