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March 28, 2015

A History of Japanese Film by Year (1930-1939)

Japanese cinema is 35 years old and has attained full maturity. It can withstand comparison with any other national cinema of the day. It shows life as it is (rather than as how it should be) and puts emphasis on character and mood rather than plot. 

The commercial studio system with its sophisticated machinery for production and consumption of films (the studios owned their own theaters) is in full swing. There is a star system, but also maverick directors who later would be recognized as auteurs have their place. The great classical directors such as Ozu, Mizoguchi, Naruse, Gosho, Shimizu, Kinugasa, etc., have all made their first films in the 1920s or early 1930s and will continue production until well in the 1960s and 1970s, thus ensuring continuity, especially as they often worked with fixed actors/actresses and a fixed team of technical staff and scenario writers. 

Japan had such a large public for film - a public that moreover in these years preferred Japanese films - that the industry could rely on the internal Japanese market and exports were not necessary. Foreign films were shown in different theaters and were only watched by a small group of urban intelligentsia. The 1930s have been called the "First Golden Age of Japanese Cinema."

As the benshi was very popular, so-called "silent films" (which were not at all silent but accompanied by music, song and the benshi narration - the benshi could even enact dialogues!) remained dominant for the first half of this decade. When sound was finally generally introduced in 1935, it was technologically more advanced than it had been in the late twenties or early thirties. Happily, Japan also evaded the phenomenon that plagued Hollywood where films became a sort of "canned theater," without filmic qualities. For most Japanese directors, a good sound film was one with lots of silence.

Unfortunately, even from this period, many films have been lost, as is shown by the example of director Yamanaka who worked in the 1930s: of his more than twenty films, only three have been preserved. The quality of the preserved copies, also, can't stand comparison with films from for example the U.S., France or Germany, where already starting in the late twenties, often beautiful copies without blemishes have been preserved. 

The leftist movement is at its peak and as these films make money, the studios encourage their production. Naniga Kanojo wo So Saseta ka? ("What made her do it?"), by Suzuki Shigeyoshi (1900-1976), is Japan's most famous leftist film (keiko eiga), about a naive orphan girl up against corrupt and materialistic society. The girl is finally forced to commit arson. When the film was first shown, audiences rioted in support of its anti-capitalist sentiments. It scored Kinema Junpo Best Film for this year.

Hogaraka ni Ayume ("Walk Cheerfully") was Ozu's 14th film and the second one still extant (disregarding the fragment from I Graduated, But...). It is a sort of gangster comedy in which the delinquent reforms for love of a pure young woman, a typist. Two other extant Ozu films from this year are Rakudai wa Shita Keredo... ("I Flunked, but..."), a "nonsense" comedy with the message that non-graduates are better off than graduates as there are no jobs anyway - containing the first substantial role of Ryu Chishu; and Sono Yo no Tsuma ("That Night's Wife"), about an impoverished father who robs a bank. As an adaptation of a piece of American pulp fiction, it also shows the impact which American films and Western culture had in Japan. On the other hand, we also already find one of Ozu's characteristic film elements: the close-up of objects which serve as sheer transition, without carrying connotative weight.

Already in this year, political suppression put an end to Pro Kino and the popularity of leftist tendency films waned, although generally speaking, many films from the 1930s do contain strong socialist-realist elements. This is true of many of the films from the 1930s by Ozu, by Mizoguchi, and by Tasaka Tomotaka, Yamamoto Kajiro and Uchida Tomu.

[The Neighbor's Wife and Mine]

More importantly, 1931 is the year the first Japanese sound film was made, although the general introduction of sound would have to wait until the middle of the decade - it remained a rarity. That film was Madamu to Nyobo ("The Neighbor's Wife and Mine") by Gosho Heinosuke (1902-1981), a domestic comedy made at Shochiku about a playwright suffering from writer's block and distracted by various noises, such as a baby crying, the ticking of  clock, but most of all a jazz band practicing in the home of the modern woman living next door (a good excuse to go there and join the party). Sound is used sparingly and inventively. Kinema Junpo Best Film for this year. Gosho, whose career spanned the years 1922-1977, was another outstanding practitioner of shomingeki. In contrast to Ozu and Naruse, he is still waiting to be properly assessed by Western film fans. His work is imbued with compassionate humanism, and is rich and complex, while also being visually intelligent (showing a debt to Lubitsch). By the way, how gradually sound was introduced in Japan is shown by the fact that Gosho after Madamu to Nyobo returned to silent production until 1935. And again to show how much has been lost: Madamu to Nyobo was Gosho's earliest film that has survived, but in fact the 39th movie he made (Gosho had started as a director in 1925).

I already mentioned Naruse Mikio (1905-1969) in the above paragraph. He was a shomingeki director with a rather dark view, who like Ozu made his greatest work in the 1950s and early 1960s (all women's films). His first preserved film is Koshiben Gambare ("Flunky, Work Hard!") from this year, about an impoverished insurance salesman. The salesman desperately tries to sell accident coverage to a wealthy woman with five children, while his own uninsured son is hit by a train.

Ozu made two films this year, Shukujo to Hige ("The Lady and the Beard") and Tokyo Gassho ("Tokyo Chorus"), the first a nonsense comedy about a bearded kendo swordfighting star, who is tamed by his girlfriend and made to shave. The second one is a shomingeki about an office worker who sticks up for a colleague and gets fired himself.

Of course, as every year many period films were made. There were two outstanding ones this year. Mabuta no Haha ("Long-sought Mother") by Inagaki Hiroshi (1905-1980), with Kataoka Chiezo, was based on a novel by Hasegawa Shin, a lyrical story about a ronin's search for and rejection by his long lost mother, - still extant and many times remade. Inagaki was a versatile film maker who mostly worked in jidaigeki - after WWII, he would become internationally famous with the Miyamoto Musashi Trilogy and The Rickshaw Man. Otsurae Jirokichi Goshi ("Jirokichi the Rat") by Ito Daisuke with Okochi Denjiro, is one of the rare surviving films by this period director. The climax consists of a dazzling lantern-filled pursuit.

This year Ozu Yasujiro made one of his best films (still a "silent" film) and at the same time one of the best Japanese films ever made: Umarete wa mita keredo... ("I was born, but..."). Two small boys learn to live with the fact that their father is not a great man, but simply a company employee, who has to be obsequious to his boss. The boys ask why they can't beat up the boss' kid when they are stronger, but in the end have to learn something of the ways of the adult world. A serious comedy, funny and devastating at the same time, that teaches us to accept life as it is. Kinema Junpo Best Film for this year. Technically, in this film also Ozu's systematic low-angle frontality begins to appear.

[I Was Born, But...]

Nasanu Naka ("No Blood Relations") by Naruse Mikio is a melodrama about a Japanese film star who has become rich in Hollywood and now returns to Japan to search for the little daughter she has left behind. With the help of her brother, a gangster, she succeeds in wrestling away the girl from the step-mother, but as the girl now really loves the step-mother, she in the end gives in and returns alone to America.

Itami Mansaku (1900-1946), a friend of Ito Daisuke, brought new ideas to period drama. In Kokushi Muso ("Peerless Patriot"), the story of an impostor who takes the place of a rightful master, he ridiculed feudal traditions. Also more generally speaking, with the demise of leftist tendency films, also the nihilistic hero was on his way out. He was supplanted by what Sato Tadao calls "the free spirit hero," replacing nihilism with an advocacy of freedom portrayed in resistance against feudal authority. As in this film, Kataoka Chiezo became the typical actor for such roles.

A new film company, P.C.L. (later renamed to Toho) is set up to take advantage of sound technology. It specialized in the adaptation of modern novels and attracted inventive directors as Naruse Mikio. Naruse switched to the new studio from Shochiku, as there he had to work under the constant shadow of Ozu Yasujiro, both being shomingeki directors.

The best film of this year is another Ozu work, Dekigokoro ("Passing Fancy"). This silent film is about a father, Kihachi, and a son living together in impoverished circumstances. The father here is not a "salaryman" but works in a brewery. A widower, he becomes captivated by a new girl in the area, but she herself is infatuated with his younger friend, who is still single. The father recognizes his folly when the son becomes seriously ill and barely survives. Sakamoto Takeshi plays the father; Kihachi's type would recur several times in Ozu's cinema of the 1930s, and in fact formed the inspiration for the famous character of Torasan played by Atsumi Kiyoshi from 1969 to 1995. Kinema Junpo Best Film for this year.

A second Ozu film from this year is the short feature Tokyo no Onna ("Woman of Tokyo") about a young woman (Tanaka Kinuyo) who puts her younger brother through school with the money she earns. But when he notices that she not only works in an office but also is a prostitute at night, he commits suicide. More than for the melodramatic story, this film is interesting for the development of two of Ozu's style characteristics: besides the further development of his "cut-away still-lifes," we also find the systematic disregard for eye-line matching here.

1933 is also the year from which we have one of the first surviving films by Mizoguchi Kenji (1898-1956), with Ozu and Kurosawa one of the greatest Japanese directors of all time. Mizoguchi had already become a director in 1923, at Nikkatsu; this was his 48th film (!), again vividly demonstrating how much has been lost. Taki no Shiraito ("The Water Magician") is a melodrama about a girl water magician who falls in love with a poor student and puts him through college, after which they loose contact. Later she is driven to murder an usurer; at the trial she meets her former lover again, who is now a judge. He has to give her the death sentence. Based on a play by Izumi Kyoka. The melodrama is redeemed by Mizoguchi's cool, distant take. Mizoguchi's prewar films were often about the plight of women trapped in impossible situations. After WWII, this would change into the more general liberal-humanist topic about the liberation of women.

Another interesting film of 1933 is Izu no Odoriko ("Dancing Girl of Izu") by Gosho Heinosuke, based on the eponymous novella by Kawabata Yasunari. Although in the original story the theme is in the first place the acceptance of the lonely student by a troupe of itinerant actors (the lowest of the lowest at that time, often forbidden entry into the villages) and his happiness at being connected with humanity, Gosho sets the tone for a whole string of Odoriko films in which the (platonic) love between the student and the underage dancing girl is highlighted, ending in a moving scene of separation. Tanaka Kinuyo played the dancing girl, and as she was a real actress (in contrast to the singers and teenage "talents" who would follow), she is by far the best. The film as a whole is not so good, as Gosho unfortunately tacked on a subplot about a gold mine which is not in Kawabata, but it was shot on location in the Izu Peninsula and there are beautiful landscapes. This film also was the start of what has been called the jun-bungaku or "Pure Literature" movement in film, the adaptation to the cinema of literary masterworks. More would follow later on in the 1930s.

[Tanaka Kinuyo]

There was more in this rich year: a friend and contemporary of Ozu at Schochiku, Shimizu Hiroshi (1903-1966), made Minato no Nihon Musume ("Japanese Girls at the Harbor"), a romantic melodrama in which he probed the dilemmas of a country posed between native and Western ideas, tradition and liberalism. It is an aesthetically exciting film, visualized in terms of art deco patternings. Shimizu made subtle, charming and humorous films, often about children, and is known for the humanity of his oeuvre.

Finally we have to mention two films by Naruse Mikio, Yogoto no Yume ("Every Night Dreams"), a melodrama about the poor, visually influenced by Von Sternberg's 1928 The Docks of New York, and Kimi to wakarete ("After Our Separation"), a love melodrama set in the geisha world.

Ozu made another great film in 1934, which again won the Kinema Junpo Best Film award: Ukigusa Monogatari ("A Story of Floating Weeds"), a film about the head of a traveling theater group (Sakamoto Takeshi) who in a mountain village meets again the - now grown-up - son who was the result of a casual affair. Based on a forgotten American 1928 circus film, The Barker. Ozu added the character of the former mistress (played by a strong Iida Choko) to the story and in his subtle characterization of the older actor and his jealous wife far surpasses the original. Ozu remade the film in 1959 in color (and, of course, sound).

Although little known today, Shimazu Yasujiro (1897-1945) was the pioneer of the shomingeki genre at Shochiku, who made his first comedy about the everyday life of the lower middle class already in 1921. One of his best films was made this year, the domestic drama Tonari no Yae-chan ("My Little Neighbor, Yae"), the story of a young girl who falls in love with the boy next door. The carefully calculated lack of action in this film gives the effect of "eavesdropping on life itself," as Anderson & Richie put it. Shimazu had a great talent for realistic observation and his blending of humor and pathos as well as his understated melodrama have influenced many other directors, such as Gosho, Kinoshita and Kawashima.

The third major film corporation, Toho (formerly PCL) starts operation. There are now 1,500 theaters in Japan; audiences also have steadily increased to a total of 185 million admissions annually. This is the year that sound finally becomes widely accepted.

The film companies have their own house styles: Shochiku specializes in shomingeki (home drama about the lower middle class); Nikkatsu in realistic period drama (jidaigeki) and films based on literary works; Toho also specializes in literary adaptations of modern novels.

The Kinema Junpo Best Film award went this year to Naruse's Tsuma yo, bara no yo ni ("Wife, Be Like a Rose"), his first true success. A bright office girl who lives with her mother, a poet, finds out that her father is living in the countryside with his disreputable mistress. She visits them intending to ask the father to come back home. But she finds a large, poor family with many children and also sees the love of the mistress for her father. In fact, the daughter discovers the mistress to be good and the (ex-)wife to be the worse of the two. Although the father comes to town when she has her wedding, he again returns permanently to the other family, for that is where he now belongs. We find again a mature acceptance of life as it is in this Japanese film, rather than a forced happy ending in Hollywood-style. Interestingly, this became one of the first Japanese feature films to be distributed in the United States (the first one may have been Gosho's A Daughter of Two Fathers, which played in 1928 in New York)..

[The Hundred Ryo Pot)

My own favorite film of the year is Hyakumanryo no Tsubo ("The Hundred Ryo Pot") by Yamanaka Sadao (1909-1938), a period film that is at the same time a breezy farce about the fruitless search for a lost pot thought to contain a map pointing to a treasure. The film features the famous one-eyed and one-armed swordsman Tange Zazen, played by Okochi Denjiro - since 1927 a staple of jidaigeki - but Yamanaka turns him into a soft-hearted slacker who sponges off the much stronger woman who operates a shooting gallery (the only film role played by Kiyozo, a real-life geisha from the Shinbashi district in Tokyo). This subversion of Bushido (and of the tateyaku type) is typical of the humanist Yamanaka - there is no swordplay in this home comedy. In the end, Tange and the shooting gallery mistress adopt a little boy who helped in the search for the pot and become a happy family. Yamanaka directed 26 films between 1932 and 1938 and was one of the greatest upcoming directors of Japanese cinema; tragically, he died in 1938 from an illness in Manchuria, after having been drafted into the army.

Mizoguchi Kenji made Maria no Oyuki ("Oyuki the Madonna"), a period drama about a prostitute with a heart of gold, interestingly based on Maupassant's Boule de Suif.

Ozu Yasujiro made another social-realist film with the Kihachi character, Tokyo no Yado ("An Inn in Tokyo"), about a vagrant father and his two sons who find the companionship of a poor widow and her little daughter.

A rich year. Mizoguchi Kenji makes his two best films of this decade. Naniwa Ereji ("Osaka Elegy") is his first work with script writer Yoda Yoshikata. A young telephone operator, a very modern woman, is ruined when she tries to help her father with a money problem by becoming the mistress of her boss. When her employer tires of her, she has no recourse but prostitution. Her fiance (of course, a ninaime type) stands helplessly by. Filmed in a modern style, with an open ending: a close-up of the face of the protagonist (played by Yamada Isuzu) as a big question mark. The film in which Mizoguchi found his true direction.

[Poster for Osaka Elegy]

That is also true of the other Mizoguchi film from this year, after modern Osaka situated in traditional Kyoto. Gion no Shimai ("Sisters of the Gion") takes a realistic look at the glamorous world of traditional geisha in Kyoto's Gion district. There is an interesting contrast between a strict and traditional elder sister (Umemura Yoko) who is faithful to her patron and a younger one (Isuzu Yamada) who is modern and opportunistic - she goes from man to man for money. Although the director's sentiments seem to go to the elder sister, the end of the film leaves her in fact condemned. Kinema Junpo Best Film for this year. Also called "the best prewar sound film."

Ozu finally changes to sound in Hitori Musuko ("The Only Son"), an example of Japanese "neo-realism" avant-la-date. A mother has slaved to send her son to college in Tokyo. After she has not heard anything from him for a long time, she visits him, using up all her savings. She finds him poor, a teacher at a night school, living in eye-sore suburbia, with wife and child (the existence of both also new to her!), and wholly disillusioned. But he borrows money to entertain his mother and she returns to the countryside where she still pretends to be proud of him. A moving work about the disappointments of family life, and the essential loneliness of human beings. The first film in Ozu's fully established mature style.

Shimizu Hiroshi directs his lyrical masterpiece Arigato-san ("Mister Thank-you"), about a polite and kind bus driver. The film was shot entirely on location in the Izu Peninsula, almost like an impromptu, and in its exquisite landscape photography expresses Shimizu's love of the countryside. At the same time, he also shows the extreme poverty of country dwellers during the Depression.

Gosho Heinosuke made what may well be his best film of the '30s with Oboroyo no Onna ("Woman of the Mist"), a fusion of shomingeki with romantic comedy. A widow is slaving to put her son through university (a common theme in the 1930s), but he has other interests beside his study, resulting in the pregnancy of a bar woman. To save the future of the boy, his (married but childless) uncle pretends that the child is his.

Itami Mansaku, like Yamanaka Sadao another great director of humanistic jidaigeki with little or no swordplay, directs Akanishi Kakita ("Capricious Young Man"), an intelligent comedy based on a story by Shiga Naoya, about a poor and unskilled country samurai (Kataoka Chiezo) who comes to the city, breaking all rules pertaining to his class - he likes his cat better than his sword. The film was restored by the director's son, Itami Juzo who was a director in his own right.

With the start of the Sino-Japanese War, the government demands the cooperation of the film industry with the war effort and bans "decadent" films.

The best film of 1937 (in my view, not of Kinema Junpo, which selected another film) and again one of the best Japanese films of all-time was Ninjo Kamifusen ("Humanity and Paper Balloons") by Yamanaka Sadao. It is a pessimistic masterpiece with claustrophobic qualities, presenting its samurai "hero" as a pathetic, servile man who is out of work. It is also a wonderful humanistic film made in dark times, showing something of the true life under the Tokugawa regime. Adapted from a Kawatake Mokuami kabuki play.

[Poster for Humanity and Paper Balloons]

Aienkyo ("The Straits of Love and Hate") is a rather melodramatic film by Mizoguchi Kenji. A girl working at a spa hotel runs off to Tokyo with her lover. He is taken back by his father, she is left with a baby. She joins a traveling theater group and meets her lover again. His father continues his opposition to their union, so she returns to the troupe and the poor stage partner she really loves.

Kaze no naka no Kodomo ("Children in the Wind") by Shimizu Hiroshi contrasts the trusting world of the young with the corrupt world of adults. Making films about children was a good way to evade censorship and Shimizu proved to be a master in this genre.

Shukujo wa Nani wo Wasureteka? ("What Did the Lady Forget?") by Ozu Yasujiro is a satire on the upper classes, in the form of an indolent bourgeois housewife who has her husband completely cowed.

The worst film of the year was without a doubt Atarishiki Tsuchi ("The New Earth"), also known as Die Tochter des Samurai as it was a Japanese-German co-production intended to show the union between both allies. The union did not work out, as the Japanese director, Itami Mansaku, who had been selected simply because he was the top director of his studio, and German director Arnold Fanck, who had strong Nazi sympathies, did not at all hit it off - they ended up making two different versions of the film. Also as regards the content, it was a failed attempt to form for Japan alien Nazi propaganda out of Japanese raw materials. The film was a box office disaster, despite the fact that the samurai daughter was played by Hara Setsuko.

The government calls for more patriotic films. Several directors take refuge in the safe territory of films about children or works set in the world of traditional music and theater.

Gonin no Sekkokei ("Five Scouts") by Tasaka Tomotaka was one of the first real war movies. It is about five scouts sent out to reconnoiter of whom only one returns - but he knows his time has come, too, when the signal for a general attack is given. A documentary-like war film in which no fighting is shown, but only the effects of the war. There are no heroes, but only ordinary people. Kinema Junpo Best Film for this year. It was also nominated Best Film at the Venice International Film Festival of 1939 - Japan at that time was aligned with Axis countries Italy and Germany. Also Tasaka's Tsuchi to Heitai ("Earth and Soldiers") from 1939, although celebrating duty and sacrifice, was similarly a continuation of the 1930s interest in human values.

Abe Ichizoku ("The Abe Clan") by Kumagai Hisatora is a masterful period drama examining the samurai spirit. It is based on a story by Mori Ogai about a retainer who commits junshi (seppuku to follow a deceased lord in death) in defiance of the shogun's command, a deed which leads to the destruction of his entire clan. Very ritualistic in style. Kumagai started as a leftist film maker, but later shifted to the right and ended up making patriotic propaganda films.

Haha to Ko by Shibuya Minoru (1907-1980) is a family melodrama in the Shochiku style, about a clerk who rejects his lover to get engaged to the daughter of the company president with a view to advancement in his job. Satisfyingly, the daughter in the end rejects the clerk and chooses an independent lifestyle. Shibuya was one of Shochiku's most significant directors, who had started out as an assistant to Ozu and Gosho.

Hana Chirinu ("Fallen Blossoms") by Ishida Tamizo (1901-1972) is a portrait of life in a geisha house at the end of the Edo-period. Stylistically interesting for its technique of fragmentation and also for the sympathy it shows for its subject. Ishida's work is barely known, also in Japan, and most of his other films have been lost.

Nakimushi Kozo ("Crybaby Apprentice") by Toyoda Shiro (1905-1977) is about a boy whose family is too busy to care for him; he is shifted from relation to relation and when he finally returns home, his mother has eloped with a boyfriend. A typical handkerchief film, based on a story by Hayashi Fumiko. Toyoda was a craftsman working in the classical studio system known for his many adaptations of Japanese literature. Although his films are intelligent, he never developed a personal style.

Robo no Ishi ("A Pebble by the Wayside") by Tasaka Tomotaka (1902-1974) is about a poor youth fighting adversity and making his way alone in the cold world of grown-ups. Based on a famous novel by Yamamoto Yuzo and full of melancholy naturalism. Although Tasaka specialized in romantic melodrama, he is now best known for his war films, such as the ones mentioned above.

Tsuzurikata Kyoshitsu ("Composition Class") by Yamamoto Kajiro (1902-1974), with Takamine Hideko, shows the everyday life of the lower classes, based on the compositions of a poor girl in primary school - another film about the "safe" topic of children. Yamamoto was the mentor of Kurosawa Akira. He worked for Toho and is now best known for the patriotic war films he made. Together with Robo ni Ishi, Nakimushi Kozo and Haha to Ko, this film was part of the above-mentioned "Pure Literature" movement in film, which was now in full swing. It would continue after the war especially in the hands of Toyoda Shiro.

With the Motion Picture Law, the film industry is placed completely under government control. All scripts have to be passed by censors. And still, several beautiful, humanistic films were made... Japan never was a fascist country and there was no empty triumphalism about the war, which was rather depicted as hardship for the common soldiers and a great suffering for the Japanese people.

The best film of this year is Zangiku Monogatari ("Story of the Last Chrysanthemums") by Mizoguchi Kenji. It is the tragedy of a woman in the feudalistic and snobbish world of the Kabuki, but at the same time an almost "sacramental" depiction of the family system. A kabuki actor injures the dignity of his family by falling in love with a woman of the lower classes. She sacrifices herself for his career, even at the expense of her health, but he succeeds. Sodden melodrama filmed in a most refined way. Mizoguchi sought shelter from censorship by making this and other films about Japanese traditions.

Aizen Katsura ("The Love-Troth Tree") by Shochiku house director Nomura Hiromasa (1905-1979), about the thwarted love between a weak hero, a doctor (Uehara Ken, the most famous pre-war ninaime actor), and an unfortunate heroine, a nurse (Tanaka Kinuyo). The nurse is in fact a widow with a little daughter, something which means the doctor's parents will not permit their marriage. On top of that she is poor and he is rich, the son of the owner-administrator of the hospital. Although he leaves home to marry her, she does not show up at the station due to a sudden illness of her child. The film was an unabashed tearjerker that was immensely popular with the public, although not with the critics. It belongs to the type of "surechigai," where the lovers repeatedly come close to a meeting but most of the time narrowly miss each other (another and even more famous example is the postwar film What is Your Name? by Oba Hideo). However, in the end the power of love overcomes all obstacles. (Note that there are no kisses or embraces yet in pre-1945 Japanese films - they just look each other soulfully in the eyes).

Ani to Sono Imoto ("An Older Brother and His Younger Sister")by Shimazu Yasujiro, was an oblique critique of the family system, but also showed feminist sympathies in its treatment of the heroine's rejection of a marriage proposal.

Danryu ("Warm Current") by Yoshimura Kozaburo was a major commercial succes, a low-keyed melodrama about the romantic and professional problems of a young hospital superintendent. Another case of a modern, Westernized version of romantic love slipping past the censor.

Hataraki Ikka ("The Whole Family Works") by Naruse Mikio was a realistic treatment of the hardships of the working class. All eleven members of a printer's family have to work so that there is enough to eat, also the young children and the grandparents; a crisis ensues when the oldest son wants to quit work to go to technical college.

Kodomo no Shiki ("Four Seasons of Children") by Shimizu Hiroshi. Another lyrical film about country children.

Tsuchi ("Earth") by Uchida Tomu. Realistic depiction of the lives of poor peasants, showing the cycle of the seasons. Made on location behind the back of the studio by Uchida and his staff. Contains almost no plot and little dialogue. Called one of the finest films of the decade. Kinema Junpo Best Film for this year. Uchida Tomu was a film maker who managed to put his personal ideas in genre plots. After the war, he became famous for his versions of Daibosatsu Toge and Miyamoto Musashi.

When one sees how many wonderful films were still being made in the late 1930s, the hiatus caused by the war is all the more regrettable.
[Reference works used: Currents In Japanese Cinema by Sato Tadao (Tokyo, 1987); The Japanese Film: Art and Industry by Joseph L. Anderson and Donald Richie (reprint Tokyo, 1983); A Hundred Years of Japanese Film by Donald Richie (Tokyo, 2001); Japanese Film Directors by Audrie Bock (Tokyo, 1985); A Critical Handbook of Japanese Film Directors by Alexander Jacoby (Berkeley, 2008); A New History of Japanese Cinema by Isolde Standish (New York, 2005). All images are linked from Wikipedia.]

March 21, 2015

A History of Japanese Film by Year (1920-1929)

The last decade of the 35 formative years of Japanese film sees several developments - the first generation of intellectuals, who had grown up with film, now started making films themselves. We find: a new and more realistic type of period film, with gradually more storytelling and not only filled with sword fights (chambara); a number of fresh new actors playing nihilistic heroes; conscious art films, made by directors Murata Minoru and Kinugasa Teinosuke; and, at the end of the twenties, the birth of "everyday realism" (shomingeki) in the hands of new directors as Ozu, Mizoguchi, Naruse and Shimizu, working at Shochiku. Unfortunately, also from this period, the number of films that has been preserved intact, is still tiny. 

Japan's second major film company, Shochiku, begins production. Originally, Shochiku had started out as a Kabuki production company. Like Nikkatsu, it owned theaters. It was set-up by two peanut vendors (peanuts were the equivalent of American popcorn), Shirai Matsujiro and Otani Takejiro. The company started with substantial capital to produce and distribute films. Its studio was built in Kamata, in the southern suburbs of Tokyo. From the start, it used actresses instead of onnagata. Those actresses were such a novelty that they became stars almost overnight. The most famous actress was Kurishima Sumiko. The head of the Tokyo studio was Kido Shiro, a university graduate who had studied English, was interested in American film and literature, and who did his best to set the highest standards. He also introduced new techniques (such as for lighting) under the guidance of former Hollywood cameraman Henry Kotani.

Nikkatsu also begins using actresses, and the onnagata vanish completely from the film world in a few years' time.

Tanizaki Junichiro, a strong advocate of film reform, writes the script for a film by former Hollywood actor Thomas Kurihara (1885-1926), "Amateur Club." It is an American-style comedy about a group of amateur Kabuki actors at the seaside.

Murata Minoru (1894-1937) helms Japan's first artistic experimental work for Shochiku, the still extant Rojo no Reikon ("Souls on the Road"), partly based on Gorki's The Lower Depths. It consists of two crosscut stories: a prodigal son who returns penniless, but with wife and son; and two convicts who wander about the country seeking a place to live. The stories are united in mood and atmosphere and the film was shot on location, with endless dark roads - it shows how landscape defines character. Souls on the Road is also one of the few surviving films from the early period. The fevered crosscutting was inspired by Griffith's Intolerance, but went much further than anything in the West.

[Murata Minoru]

Makino Shozo directs Jiraiya with Onoe Matsunosuke, one of the stars' most popular films, and one of the very few that has survived. Onoe plays a ninja and the film contains various examples of nifty trick photography. Jiraya gives a good impression of Onoe's acting: a small man with an enormous Kabuki wig, always keeping a straight back even while jumping around, and every few seconds striking a pose, thereby halting the stylized fighting scenes. The film also highlights Makino's archaic style with his long shots and long takes with a fixed camera.

Later that year, Makino Shozo breaks with Onoe and sets up his own production company. He continues making costume dramas, but of a somewhat more modern type, both as regards contents (more geared towards adults) and style (a less fixed camera).

Nikkatsu now controls half of all 600 cinemas in Japan.
Instead of the term "kyuha," the word "jidaigeki" starts being used for period film. A new type of period film, realistic and meant for adults, starts being made.

From about this time, a new type of hero also appears in period film. While Onoe Matsunosuke always played a good guy winning from the bad ones (a moralistic stance based on kabuki and kodan stories), now we get the "nihilistic hero" or "anti-hero,"  whose (first wave of) popularity would last until the early 1930s. The first nihilistic hero appears in Makino Shozo's Ukiyoe Murasaki Zukin ("The Woodcut Artist") of 1923. This type of hero (although also based on the tateyaku type) is an outsider and lowly samurai or even a ronin, a masterless samurai; he is not accepted by the world and therefore lives by the sword; he is rebellious; and at the end he usually is killed in a great sword-fight.

This nihilistic trend was borrowed from popular literature, such as Nakazato Kaizan's voluminous historical novel Daibosatsu Toge ("The Great Bodhisattva Pass"), with its nihilistic and anarchistic hero Tsukue Ryunosuke, which was made into a play and also many times filmed.

A new generation of period drama actors appears to play this type of hero: Bando Tsumasaburo (1901-1953), Okochi Denjiro (1898-1962), Arashi Kanjuro (1903-1980), Tsukigata Ryunosuke (1902-1970), and Kataoka Chiezo (1903-1980).  In other words, the star system took form in Japan. All these actors played tateyaku roles. Some of these stars were inspired by the example of Makino Productions and set up their own production companies.

Directors of this new type of realistic period film are Makino Masaharu (1908-1993, the son of Makino Shozo), Ito Daisuke (1898-1981), Inagaki Hiroshi (1905-1980) and Itami Mansaku (1900-1946).

In this period, sword-fights also become somewhat more realistic. Taking their cue from the realistic Shingeki drama (plays as Daibosatsu Toge), they become faster, fiercer and the (fake) weapons really touch the opponent (in Kabuki styled fights, that is not the case). There was also a certain influence from the fast acrobatics in American films, as those with Fairbanks.

A more realistic film, Kyoya erimise ("The Kyoya Collar Shop") by Tanaka Eizo wins critical acclaim (Nikkatsu).

Seisaku no Tsuma ("Seisaku's Wife") by Murata Minoru (1894-1937) is a masterpiece of early contemporary drama. It tells about the love of Okane, a woman with an unfortunate past, for the earnest youth Seisaku. They marry, to the consternation of the villagers who think she is taking advantage of him. When the war with Russia breaks out, Seisaku is sent to the front, but returns wounded to recuperate at home. When his wounds are healed and he is ready for the war again, Okane blinds him with a hairpin as she is unable to stand the thought that he will leave her again. Technically, the film was influenced by German Expressionism. The strong-willed heroine was played by one of Japan's first screen actresses, Urabe Kumeko; Seisaku was played by a ninaime type actor.

There are now 800 theaters in Japan.

Orochi, with Bando Tsumasaburo, and director Futagawa Buntaro (1899-1966), is known for its masterful sword-fighting scenes and melancholy mood. The film was made at Makino Productions.


The film magazine Kinema Junpo starts its annual rankings. The best film for 1926 is The Woman Who Touched The Legs, followed in fourth place by Kurutta Ichipeiji.

Ashi ni Sawatta Onna ("The Woman Who Touched the Legs") by Abe Yutaka (1895-1977), is a - now lost - ironic comedy about  a writer's encounter with a female thief, modeled on American film - Abe had trained in Hollywood. Abe was known for his witty social satires, but these have all been lost. This film was twice remade.

[Kinugasa Teinosuke]

Kurutta Ichipeiji ("A Page of Madness") by Kinugasa Teinosuke (1896-1982) is an avant-garde film about a janitor trying to free his wife from the mental hospital where she is kept. The first consciously art film made in Japan, it shows great visual brilliance and an ambiguous melding of fantasy and reality. It was lost for 50 years, but rediscovered by the director in his storehouse. The film is highly original, one of the great avant-garde silent films. Kinugasa had spent several years as an actor of female roles (oyama), and when real actresses took over, he had become director. He made his first film in 1922, the start of a long career that would last until 1966. After WWII, he won praise abroad with The Gate of Hell (Jigokumon, 1953). But with the exception of A Page of Madness and Crossroads from 1928, which were inspired by German avant-garde films as Caligari, Kinugasa mainly made mildly traditional chambara films, proving how alien his experiments were in the Japanese context.

[A Page of Madness]

Chuji Tabi Nikki ("A Diary of Chuji's Travels") by Ito Daisuke (1898-1981), the master of silent jidaigeki who was noted for his violent realismfeatures Okochi Denjiro as outlaw hero, a gambler, who faced with the conflicting demands of his own moral code and that of society, fights the authorities. It was a big hit with the public. Film made in 3 parts - only fragments survive. Ito's career spanned the years 1924-1970.

[Ito Daisuke]

Pro Kino ("Japan Proletarian Motion Picture League") gains support from progressive intellectuals, students and film makers.

Jujiro ("Crossroads") is another modernistic film by Kinugasa Teinosuke, about a young ronin's psychological sufferings after he has been temporarily blinded in a quarrel at the Yoshiwara over the geisha he loves. He has feverish visions of her and of the gaudy revelry at the entertainment quarter. Like A Page Out of Order, this film is also filled with hallucinations and past and present have been deliberately mixed up. It was one of the first Japanese films to be be exported and win praise abroad.

[Poster for Jujiro]

Shinban Ooka Seidan ("Oka's Trial") was made by Ito Daisuke, with Okochi Denjiro as Tange Sazen. Tange Sazen is a staple in jidaigeki, a one-eyed, one-armed nihilistic super-samurai, who is bent on revenge for the injuries inflicted on him by his clan. Like in Chuji Tabi Nikki of the previous year, Ito exalted the nihilist hero who was in full revolt against the social system.

At the Shochiku Studio in Kamata, on the outskirts of Tokyo, under studio head Kido Shiro, directors as Ozu Yasujiro (1903-1963), Mizoguchi Kenji (1898-1956), Shimizu Hiroshi (1903-1966) and Gosho Heinosuke (1902-1981) create the new film genre of "everyday realism" (shomingeki). They portray the lives of common people with humor and pathos. Shochiku is called the "actress kingdom," because of the large number of actresses working there, such as Tanaka Kinuyo.

[Makino Masahiro]

Roningai ("Street of Masterless Samurai") by Makino Masahiro (1908-1993) was an account of a group of unemployed samurai in Edo, focusing on the tedium of daily life. About one hour of the long film survives. Makino Masahiro was the son of Makino Shozo and started directing at age 18 for his father's company. His career spanned the years 1926-1972. Makino mostly worked as a period film director, although he also made same socially conscious films after the war when jidaigeki were forbidden. In the 1960s, he also became associated with the ninkyo-eiga genre, films about chivalrous yakuza. Makino was clearly attached to the narrative of Roningai, as he remade the film twice, in 1939 and 1957; he was also "supervising director" of the version made in 1990 by Kuroki Kazuo.


Ozu Yasujiro (1903-1963) made Wakaki Hi ("Days of Youth"), his 8th film, a comedy about student life and skiing, which is the earliest Ozu film to have survived intact. It expresses his admiration for Borzage, Lubitsch and Lloyd. Ozu was born in downtown Tokyo, but educated in Matsuzaka in Mie Prefecture and in Nagoya. He was a fiercely independent character, who never submitted to authority (unless they wanted him to do what he already wanted to do) and who found various ingenious ways to skip school and the military. When his family returned to Tokyo in 1923, he joined the recently founded Shochiku studios against the opposition of his father. He became assistant director and was, among others, trained in "nonsense" comedies, often not more than strung together gags. His debut was in 1927 with a period drama, but from 1928 on he became a comedy director.
[Reference works used: Currents In Japanese Cinema by Sato Tadao (Tokyo, 1987); The Japanese Film: Art and Industry by Joseph L. Anderson and Donald Richie (reprint Tokyo, 1983); A Hundred Years of Japanese Film by Donald Richie (Tokyo, 2001); Japanese Film Directors by Audrie Bock (Tokyo, 1985); A Critical Handbook of Japanese Film Directors by Alexander Jacoby (Berkeley, 2008); A New History of Japanese Cinema by Isolde Standish (New York, 2005). All images are linked from Wikipedia.]

March 15, 2015

A History of Japanese Film by Year (1910-1919)

During this decade, trends from the previous period are continued and intensified. More film companies are established, including the modern Shochiku which uses actresses instead of female impersonators, and "Shinpa" films on modern subjects come into their own besides the "Kyuha" period pieces - programs typically consist of a double bill containing one of each. But despite attempts at reform, the level of Japanese films remains low, an amusement for children and the lower classes. Intellectuals invariably prefer imported Western films. Almost all Japanese feature films from this period have been lost.

Makino Shozo directs his first version of Chushingura ("The Loyal Forty-seven  Ronin") with Onoe Matsunosuke.

The first major film company, Nikkatsu (Nippon Katsudo Shashin), is established by consolidating the four independent film companies then existing in Japan: Yoshizawa Shoten, Yokota Shokai, M. Pathe (not related to the French company of the same name!) and Fukudo. Prior to the merger, acrimonious negotiations take place, even accompanied by arson attacks on cinemas. The first Nikkatsu studio is in Mukojima, in eastern Tokyo. Period dramas were made in another Nikkatsu studio in Kyoto (the start of the division between both locations, where all period dramas would be made in traditional Kyoto and all contemporary stories in Tokyo). Both Makino Shozo and Onoe Matsunosuke transferred to Nikkatsu, bringing the new company commercial success. The Japanese film industry begins mass production.

In these early years, no copies were made of films. The original was the only copy and it was used up until it was gone. Therefore, there are extremely few early films left. Those that are left, are invariably in a bad condition.

Although intellectuals would see Western films, at this time Japanese films were mostly made with the lower classes and "snotty-nosed kids" as an audience. Gangsters were heavily involved in both the studios and the running of the theaters (until the 1920s).

Makino's The Loyal Forty-seven Ronin is typical of the films made in this period: the cuts are very long, the camera position never shifts, and the star, Onoe Matsunosuke, plays directly into the lens during emotional scenes.

The Japanese film Katusha, based on Tolstoy's Resurrection, draws large audiences. Despite the fact that this film is based on Shingeki, the Japanese version of Western theater (which replaced the Shinpa theater), the heroine was played by the onnagata Tachibana Teijiro. Costumes and settings, however, were made to appear Russian.

Nikkatsu starts making 14 films a month. Individual films now have an average length of 40 minutes. Another studio, Tenkatsu, is formed as a rival to Nikkatsu (but it only survives until 1919). Tenkatsu was more modern, but Nikkatsu continued to control most theaters, as owners were satisfied with its "double bills:" one Kyuha film, and one Shinpa film.

In October, the film magazine Kinema Record is started to support the Pure Film Movement, pleading for reform in Japanese film, such as a broader use of cinematic techniques to tell stories instead of relying on the benshi (the magazine folds in 1917, but its function is taken over by other magazines as Kinema Junpo).

Hayakawa Sesshu (1889-1973) becomes the first Japanese actor to find stardom in the United States (and later also in Europe), under the name of "Sessue Hayakawa." In his American movies, starting with The Typhoon of 1914, he gave a faithful imitation of the tateyaku performance. Hayakawa would play in more than 80 movies and was very popular in the 1910s - his last major role was that of Colonel Saito in The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), which earned him an Oscar nomination.

Foreign films start to be imported in large numbers. There are now 300 movie theaters in Japan.

Intellectuals prefer foreign to Japanese films. The latter mainly attract the common people. The Italian historical drama Cabiria is a big hit.

Makino Shozo makes another version of The Loyal Forty-Seven Ronin. This time he uses a script, reframing pans and matching cuts. In other words, advanced planning is born and films grow more sophisticated.

The call among critics for a broader use of cinematic techniques continues. The Living Corpse by Tanaka Eizo (1886-1968), another Tolstoy adaptation, for the first time uses close-ups and flash-backs. The same is true of another film made this year, The Captain's Daughter by Inoue Masao. Both films put emphasis on having good scripts. But such films could only be made by pretending they were meant for export, and they were shown in theaters used for foreign films. In other words, they were exceptions.

For the first time, Nikkatsu and Tenkatsu overtake foreign companies as the main source of income for Japanese screens.

Kaeriyama Norimasa (1893-1964) makes two experimental - and now lost - films ("The Glow of Life" and "Maid of the Deep Mountains") in order to try to bring some reform to the custom of using benshi and onnagata. The onnagata would disappear in a few year's time, but the benshi would hold out until the mid 1930s - but they agreed to limit their number to one benshi per film, in order to increase the tempo.

Charlie Chaplin's films become very popular.

Griffith's Intolerance and Chaplin's A Dog's Life are hits. Due to WWI, European films have stopped being produced and their place is taken by American films.

Film magazine Kinema Junpo starts publication in July. Founded by a group of students who support the Pure Film Movement, it pleads for the use of modern cinematic methods in Japanese film making.

[Reference works used: Currents In Japanese Cinema by Sato Tadao (Tokyo, 1987); The Japanese Film: Art and Industry by Joseph L. Anderson and Donald Richie (reprint Tokyo, 1983); A Hundred Years of Japanese Film by Donald Richie (Tokyo, 2001); Japanese Film Directors by Audrie Bock (Tokyo, 1985); A Critical Handbook of Japanese Film Directors by Alexander Jacoby (Berkeley, 2008); A New History of Japanese Cinema by Isolde Standish (New York, 2005). All images are linked from Wikipedia.]

March 8, 2015

"Rashomon" by Kurosawa Akira (1950) (film review)

Rashomon was the great international breakthrough film for Japanese cinema, winning the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 1951, and an Academy Honorary Award at the 24th Academy Awards in 1952. The film caused great excitement among Western film scholars, critics and directors; it received heaps of praise and also became a source of inspiration. It also helped establish Kurosawa's name as an important authorial director, both in and outside Japan, and established Mifune Toshiro as a commanding new star.

The film starts with a frame story. While they are sheltering from the rain under the eaves of the dilapidated Rashomon Gate forming the southern entrance to Kyoto, about one thousand years ago, a woodcutter (Takashi Shimura) and priest tell the story of a rape and murder to a peasant they meet there (the woodcutter and the priest have been present at the trial as witnesses).

When traveling through a forest near Kyoto, a noblewomen (Machiko Kyo) was raped, her samurai husband (Masayuki Mori) killed, and a robber named Tajomaru (Toshiro Mifune) arrested for the crime. Rashomon relates through flashbacks four versions of the crime, as told by Tajomaru, the woman, the dead samurai (a medium is used to let his spirit speak) and the woodcutter, who discovered the crime and as now comes out, was also an unseen witness (although he kept that secret at the trial as he didn't want to get involved).

It is impossible to reconcile the four narratives and the film leaves the viewer with the ambiguity of the situation. There simply is no way of knowing who is telling the truth. At the basis of this problem is human pride, or in Japanese cultural terms, "Face," which also encompasses a person's identity. As Kurosawa remarked: "Human beings are unable to be honest with themselves about themselves. They cannot talk about themselves without embellishing."

The robber confesses the rape but maintains he killed the samurai in an honest and fair duel with swords, presenting the image of a "noble robber." The noblewoman stresses that after she had been raped, the look of loathing on her husband's face drove her almost to madness, and in a fit she planted her dagger in his breast, presenting an image of a rightful lady. The dead samurai - lying from beyond the grave - tells that his wife after she had been raped, wanted to join the robber and even asked for the death of her husband - out of mortification, the husband later committed suicide with a dagger (suicide is more honorable than being murdered). The woodcutter (who at the trial claimed he only found the body of the samurai but did not witness the crime) now tells he saw the crime after all: it was a duel between the robber and the samurai, but they were both fearful and it was a sorry fight, won by the robber through a stroke of luck. The samurai even begged for his life before being killed, the woodcutter maintains. The noblewoman had fled in terror. The woodcutter finally steals the samurai's sword. He shows the perspective of a common man, but also his story is doubtful, as he kept it from the court at the trial.

Rashomon is now generally considered one of the greatest films ever made. Here are the reasons this film is special:

  • Visual technique: This wonderful film tells large parts of its story with only the camera, harking back to the silent cinema of Murnau and Eisenstein, and inspiring, for example, Bergman in his Virgin Spring. Especially the long shots where the camera follows the woodcutter or robber, running trough the forest, are impressive. Interesting is also the trial, where the accused and the witnesses face the viewer, who thereby becomes the judge (in fact the magistrate, as there were no specialized judges in ancient Japan) we never see. The robber and the witnesses give their testimony from the courtyard of the magistrate's mansion, where they kneel on the white gravel. The magistrate would sit on the raised veranda, so higher than the accused, but in the film the camera has been placed on the same level for more effect. 
  • "Rashomon-effect:" The same set of events is recalled in strikingly different terms by a group of characters - this phenomenon, which points at the cultural notion of the relativity of truth, was made well-known through the present film, although it was in turn based on a short story from 1922 by Akutagawa ("In the Grove"). This idea fit the existential despair over the instability of truth and value going strong in the Europe of the 1950s (think of Sartre and Camus). In a wider sense, Rashomon reflects on more general philosophical questions, such as loss of faith in human beings, the human propensity to lie, pride and egoism, and the world as hell.  
  • Acting: Over the top performances as in silent film and the traditional Kabuki theater work well in combination with the long silent passages. Especially the big laughs Mifune lets roll from his chest reminded me of the Kabuki. The miko (female medium) who summons the spirit of the dead samurai is also very effective, speaking very uncannily with a low male voice.
  • Symbolism: Not only does the dilapidated and disused Rashomon Gate serve as a symbol for the chaotic times, in which authority has been crumbling, the heavy rains (obtained by hosing water mixed with black ink) also represent the turmoil of the age (and of our own time as well!), while perhaps also having a cleansing effect - at the end, the crime has been washed away and a humane gesture has become possible. And, even more than gate and weather, the shifting light and shadow with the sun shining through the dense leaves in the forest (obtained by using mirrors to reflect the light) expresses the continuous shifting of the truth. At the end of the film, a baby is found, discarded under the eaves of the gate. The peasant reveals his real character by stealing the clothes of the child and running off. But the woodcutter, who has already five kids, decides to bring up the baby as his own. This is the glimmer of hope in human nature with which the film ends.

March 6, 2015

A History of Japanese Film by Year (1896-1909)

In these initial years movies were more a rough fairground amusement than serious entertainment. Most films shown were shorts imported from the West. About 15 years lie between the first import of film machines to the establishment of the first Japanese film company. At the end of the first decade of the 20th century, also the first native director came up, who discovered and promoted the first native star. Japanese films at this time were mostly period films full of fighting scenes in Kabuki-style. Two tendencies typical for Japanese film also started in this early period: the use of the benshi-narrator (until the mid-1930s) and the use of oyama-female impersonators (until about 1920). As far as I know, no complete feature films have been preserved from this period. In fact, for the whole period until 1945, during which tens of thousands of films were produced in Japan, only about 300 are extant; besides that we have a few hundreds of fragments.  

At a time when Japan is transforming its society and economy into a major international power, so at a time of turbulent change in which the cinema would also become a force, Edison's Kinetoscope is imported. This was not a film projector, but rather a "peep-show machine." Films had to be viewed individually through the window of a cabinet. The machine was in fact developed by Edison's employee William Dickson, although the concept came from the famous inventor.

The Lumière Brother's Cinématographe and Edison's Vitascope are imported. A cinematograph is a film camera, which also serves as a film projector and developer. The Lumière brothers shared the patent and made their first film, Sortie de l'usine Lumière de Lyon, in 1894. It was introduced in Osaka during what was Japan's first public film screening and showed twenty films with images from New York, France, England etc. The Vitascope was an early film projector which cast images via film and electric light onto a wall or screen. It showed images of a flood and a collision at sea.

It should be noted that the "moving pictures" shown with the aid of the Kinotoscope, Cinématographe and Vitascope were not a wholly new experience for the Japanese public, as from the Edo-period they already had enjoyed a rich tradition of various pre-cinematic devices, such as utsushi-e and other magic lantern type systems.

In Japan, films were shown with a narrator (benshi or katsuben), a system that continued until talkies replaced silent movies in the mid-1930s. The benshi was a descendant of kabuki joruri and kodan storytellers. Benshi not only read the inter-titles and voiced all on-screen characters, they also added their own commentary, explaining what was happening in the film. They served as a sort of mediators, who initially also explained the principles of film technology, as well as unfamiliar aspects of foreign films. Like in the West, films were also accompanied by live music, usually a mixture of Japanese and Western styles.

The first Japanese films are shot. Performances by the two famous Kabuki actors Ichikawa Danjuro IX and Onoe Kikugoro V in Maple Viewing ("Momijigari") are recorded on film, and this is the oldest extant Japanese film. It was made by Shibata Tsunekichi of the newly formed photographic department of the Mitsukoshi Department Store in Tokyo. The film was shot outdoors, at the back of the Kabuki Theater. Danjuro was originally opposed to appearing in something as lowly as films, but was eventually convinced that his doing so would be a "gift to posterity." The film was shown in private to Danjuro, giving rise to the remark: "It is terribly strange to be able to see my own dance." It was finally shown to the public in 1903, when illness prevented Danjuro from performing in Osaka and he sent the film instead. It proved very popular. Also in 1899, Japan's first documentary was shot, a short film of a geisha dance.

[Statue of Ichikawa Danjuro IX in Sensoji, Asakusa]

The first permanent movie theater is built in Tokyo by the Yoshizawa Shoten company, the Denkikan in Asakusa (Asakusa is now a nostalgic neighborhood, but in the Meiji and Taisho periods it was at the forefront of modernization).

Newsreels of the Russo-Japanese War prove popular - Japan's first media event. The Yoshizawa Shoten film company sends a team to follow the fortunes of the armed forces.

Osaka's first permanent movie theater, the Sennichimae Denkikan, a former vaudeville theater, is built by the Yokota Shokai company.

The fist version ever of the eternally popular Kabuki classic Chushingura ("The Loyal Forty-Seven Ronin") is made.

A Kyoto Kabuki manager, Makino Shozo (1878-1929), begins making period drama movies with Kabuki actors. This pioneering director of Japanese film, started his influential career with Honnoji gassen ("Battle at Honnoji Temple"), produced for the studio Yokota Shokai. Makino Shozo has rightly been called the "Father of Japanese Period Film (jidaigeki)."

[Makino Shozo]

Early Japanese film was heavily influenced by Kabuki, both in its style, mannerism and subject matter, as in the fact that all roles were played by men: films copied the custom of working with onnagata (also called oyama), who were very skilled in acting femininity, until close-ups started showing their Adam's apples to disadvantage. Oyama disappeared from film in the early 1920s. 

Although Kabuki actors looked down on the then vulgar genre of the cinema, in the "feudal" family system valid also in modern Kabuki, only the eldest son of a leading actor of a major school could succeed his father and play roles at major theaters; consequently, ambitious actors who lacked suitable connections turned to the film world, where they could earn more than leading Kabuki actors.

Something else Kabuki gave the new genre of film (as pointed out by Sato Tadao), were the two types of leading men: the tateyaku (lit. "standing role"), who played noble, idealized samurai and other strong, manly characters, who however never fell passionately in love; and the ninaime (lit. "second," i.e. second billed after the tateyaku) who played handsome and pure men, who were kind and gentle toward the heroine, often fell passionately in love, but who were also helpless and frail. These two types would remain clearly recognizable in Japanese cinema until the early 1970s. 

Also, at this early period the camera position was fixed (the viewpoint of the ideal spectator at a play - this was also initially the case in the West) and there were no scripts, the director just shouted some instructions to the actors, who then did their thing as they saw fit. 

Makino Shozo also was the discoverer of Onoe Matsunosuke (1875-1926), Japan's first movie superstar, who initially worked as an itinerant Kabuki actor. Onoe was of course a tateyaku type. Between 1909 and 1926, Onoe appeared in over 1,000 films, mostly shorts. His debut film in 1909 was Makino Shozo's Goban Tadanobu. Onoe specialized in playing heroic warrior roles. He used his eyes for their expressiveness, earning him the nickname "Medama no Matchan" ("Eyeballs" Matsu). Onoe was especially popular among children, who took to imitating his ninja performances in their games. One of his most popular films was Jiraiya (1921). The most important part of these period films was the sword fight, called tate or tachimawari. In Onoe's films, the fighting scenes are as in Kabuki: heavily stylized, but that was what spectators were used to and what they wanted.

[Onoe Matsunosuke]

This year, too, the first feature film based on a modern subject is made: Onoga Tsumi ("My Sin"). This is the beginning of a new genre besides period drama: sentimental contemporary drama based on modern plays. Period drama was called Kyuha ("Old School"), this new genre Shinpa ("New School"). Although Shinpa films used colloquial language and contemporary settings, with an acted performance versus the stylized movements in Kabuki (and Kyuha films), it still retained some old elements, such as the use of onnagata (males in female roles).

The division in the two types of male protagonists followed this division in kyuha period drama and shinpa contemporary drama: the tateyaku would usually be the hero of period films and the ninaime would shine in shinpa's contemporary stories, which invariably had some love interest to captivate female spectators.

Yoshizawa Shoten builds Japan's first film production studio at Meguro in Tokyo. The building includes a glass stage for maximum light and protection from the elements.
[Reference works used: Currents In Japanese Cinema by Sato Tadao (Tokyo, 1987); The Japanese Film: Art and Industry by Joseph L. Anderson and Donald Richie (reprint Tokyo, 1983); A Hundred Years of Japanese Film by Donald Richie (Tokyo, 2001); Japanese Film Directors by Audrie Bock (Tokyo, 1985); A Critical Handbook of Japanese Film Directors by Alexander Jacoby (Berkeley, 2008); A New History of Japanese Cinema by Isolde Standish (New York, 2005). All images are linked from Wikipedia.]

January 1, 2015

The Year of the Sheep

2015 is the Year of the Sheep. The sheep or goat is the eight symbolic animal of the East-Asian zodiac.

Years of the Sheep are 2015, 2003, 1991, 1979, 1967, 1955, 1943, 1931, 1919, 1907... etc.

The Year of the Sheep

In China the goat may have been the original zodiacal animal, but in Japan this sign of the zodiac is called hitsuji, sheep (goat is yagi). But it is still a cultural import from China, for neither sheep not goats used to be very numerous in Japan, and in art before the Meiji-period they are virtually absent, too. Japanese paintings of these animals are usually copied from Chinese originals. The extreme scarcity of sheep and goats may be due to the fact that there are no grasslands in Japan - except in Hokkaido where one does find sheep today, but that is again a modern phenomenon.

People born in the Year of the Sheep are said to be elegant and highly accomplished in the arts. They are also considered to be passionate in whatever they do.

I wish you a very cultural year!

December 12, 2014

"The Temple of the Golden Pavilion" by Mishima Yukio (Book review)

The Temple of the Golden Pavilion (in Japanese Kinkakuji) is a novel about beauty so perfect that its becomes unbearable and has to be destroyed.

The novel, written in 1956 by Mishima Yukio, is based on a real event. On July 2, 1950, at 2:30 a.m. the Golden Pavilion of Kinkakuji Temple (official name: Rokuonji) in northwestern Kyoto was torched by a 22-year-old novice monk, Hayashi Yoken, who then attempted suicide on the hill behind the temple. He survived and was arrested. Later he was sentenced to seven years in prison, showing no contrition, but released because of mental illness (schizophrenia); he died of tuberculosis in 1956. The pavilion was a wonder of architecture, a marvelous wooden, three-storied structure, a national monument that many times through history had been spared destruction. It now burned to the ground, with the statues inside, and the loss of the precious, seven-centuries old architecture severely shocked Japan and the world.

Kinkakuji, Winter 2007
[The new Golden Pavilion in light snow (2007) - photo Ad Blankestijn]

Of course, today the Golden Pavilion is again one of the top tourist attractions of Kyoto, but what all those tourist throngs don't know is that they are looking at a copy, a reconstruction vintage 1955. The present Golden pavilion looks even better than the real one, for while the old one was just a bare wooden structure without any gold on its outside walls, the new one has in the late 1980s - Japan's nouveau-riche period - been covered in an obscenely thick layer of gold. Yes, it looks good on photos, especially after it has been powdered by a thin layer of snow, but it is not the original national treasure anymore. And it is debatable whether the original pavilion really was ever covered in gold on the outside of the whole building, instead, as was usual, only on the inside.

Mishima regularly based his novels on real events - another example is After the Banquet, about machinations in the political world, based on the lives of the proprietress of a famous traditional restaurant and a well-known politician (who in fact successfully sued Mishima for violation of his privacy). Also for the present novel Mishima carefully studied the reports of the case, including the transcripts of the trial. But of course Mishima was a writer, not a journalist, so he changed events and characters to obtain an artistically satisfying story. The resulting novel is an imaginative reconstruction of the pathology of the perpetrator.

[The original Golden Pavilion in 1886 - isn't it without gold much more beautiful than the "new" one? - Photo Wikimedia]

In the novel, the arsonist-acolyte is called Mizoguchi, a person afflicted with an ugly face and a stutter, who from his youth has been so obsessed with the beauty of the Golden Pavilion (possibly as a symbol for the whole of Japanese traditional culture) that he gradually - especially after the war has been lost - starts feeling the urge to destroy it. His character defect has made him jealous of beauty, in his view true beauty is something that overpowers and finally destroys. He is prodded on by his friend and "bad angel" Kashiwagi, a cynic, who has a club-foot, and likes to hold long "philosophical" digressions.

Already during his childhood, on the coast of the Japan Sea in Maizuru, Mizoguchi was assured by his country-priest father that the Golden Pavilion was the most beautiful thing on earth. But he is a friendless, stammering boy, who seeks compensation for his weakness in vengeful fantasies. At the height of the war, in 1944, his fate is sealed when he becomes a novice at the Rinzai Zen temple Rokuonji that in 1397 was set up to control the Golden Pavilion. At that time, it is almost deserted, as most monks have been drafted into the army. When American planes are destroying one Japanese city after another with their terrible firebombings (which took many more lives than the atomic bombs), Mizoguchi has an ecstatic vision that also the Golden Pavilion will be burnt to ashes. Unfortunately for him, the Americans have the decency to spare the cultural capital, Kyoto, and the war ends in bitter disappointment for Mizoguchi. There is the suggestion that he later destroys the Golden Pavilion because it survived the war.

[The Golden Pavilion after arson - photo Wikimedia]

The Pavilion has such a huge hold over Mizoguchi that it even makes him impotent - Kashiwagi (who is as little popular with women as Mizoguchi) has taught him a trick how to seduce women by making them feel sorry for him, but when Mizoguchi successfully puts this advice into practice, and is about to embrace his girlfriend, his mind is so filled with the image of the Golden Pavilion that his desire is blocked. It is as though the temple is shutting off Mizoguchi's access to the normal world. The Golden Pavilion in all its arrogance becomes his mortal enemy. And after Mizoguchi has finally set fire to the Pavilion, he feels properly relieved - instead of trying to commit suicide as the real arsonist did, he sits down on the hill above the temple and lights a cigarette, enjoying the view of the blaze.

Japanese tradition fares badly in this novel. The tea ceremony, flower arrangement and garden viewing - and not to forget Zen Buddhism - provide occasions for acts of sadism, arson and treachery. Beautiful traditional symbols are deliberately contrasted with the ugliest of actions and placed in a world of lost ethics and perverted values. The abbot of Kinkakuji Temple is caught by Mizoguchi when he secretly visits a geisha. At a tea ceremony, a woman who is taking leave of her lover who has been called into battle, squirts milk from her breast into the man's traditional tea bowl. An American soldier walking in the garden of the Golden Pavilion with his pregnant Japanese girlfriend, tempts Mizoguchi into kicking her in the belly, so that she has a miscarriage. The novel, a study in evil, has therefore been called "an expression of postwar nihilism." But the novel can also be understood from Mishima's (anti-) aesthetics: the Golden Pavilion simply is too beautiful, it has to be robbed of its arrogance and power. Mizoguchi - and also Mishima - seems to feel that he will only become free through its destruction.


[Mishima Yukio in 1956 - Photo from Wikipedia]

Mishima Yukio (Hiraoka Kimitake, 1925-1970) was one the major twentieth century Japanese authors, and also one of the most problematical. Highly talented, Mishima started writing at the end of the war and at high speed produced many acclaimed novels, short stories and literary essays, as well as modern plays for the Kabuki and Noh theater. He was originally inspired by such Western authors as Wilde, Rilke and Mauriac. His breakthrough novel, written at age 24, was Confessions of a Mask, about a young homosexual who must hide behind a mask in order to fit into society. This novel also introduced Mishima's masochistic fantasies, as well as his preoccupation with the beauty and decline of the (male) body, themes which recur in his later work as well. Many of his later short stories and novels deal with the themes of suicide and violent death. That preoccupation also influenced his extra-literary activities, as he for example posed in photographs of "St Sebastian shot through with arrows" (showing off his bodybuilding) or acted a doomed yakuza in a 1960s film, or played the officer who commits (a rather distasteful) seppuku in the film version of his own story Patriotism.

Mishima, who spoke fluent English, in the 1950-1960s befriended several American and British Japanologists in Tokyo, who later became translators of his novels, so the ratio of his work that was translated was higher than was the case with contemporaries. Other famous works are, for example, After the Banquet (1960), The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea (1963), Death in Midsummer (1963), and the Sea of Fertility tetralogy (1965-70). In the late 1960s, Mishima was several times nominated for the Nobel Prize, but he was passed over due to the extreme right-wing ideas and activities he had developed by that time (including a private militia of 100 radical youths). The Nobel Prize, rightly, went to Kawabata Yasunari in 1968.

While interest in his work declined in Japan in the course of the 1960s, Mishima gradually conceived a chaotic, extreme right-wing ideology, becoming an adherent of his own brand of bushido. That ideology formed the background for the terrorist attack with his militia on the head-quarters of the Self-Defense forces in Tokyo, on November 25, 1970. They took the commandant hostage and Mishima held a speech for the soldiers at the base, from the HQ balcony (giving occasion to an all-too famous press photo), trying to incite them to a coup d'état, and revive the ghosts of the nationalistic past that had been happily laid to rest in 1945. But the soldiers kept their heads cool and only laughed and jeered at Mishima, after which he went inside and committed ritual suicide (the seppuku was botched, so Mishima died a most painful death). In the view of most Japanese at the time, Mishima's deed was just as schizophrenic as the torching of the Golden Pavilion.

The English translation is by Ivan Morris and dates from 1959 (Vintage International).

December 7, 2014

Kounji Temple and its Garden

Although lying next to the much trodden Philosopher's Path (Tetsugaku no Michi) at the foot of the Higashiyama range in Shishigatani in Kyoto, Kounji is only open a few weeks each year and therefore happily free from tourist throngs. I had previously caught glimpses of its garden and also marveled at its huge tiled roof just below me when walking along the Philosopher's Path.

Kounji Temple, Kyoto
[Kounji Temple, Kyoto]

The temple in fact belongs to Nanzenji (as a outside subtemple), but originally came from Osaka where it was presumably founded in 1280 by Daimin Kokushi, the founder of Nanzenji. After it fell into disrepair due to various wars, in 1664 it was rebuilt and revived on the present site by the 280th abbot of Nanzenji, Eichu. The present main hall and belfry still date from that period, but most other buildings and land were lost in the mists of modern history.

Kounji was in fact re-established in 1664 as the family temple of Tofukumonin (Tokugawa Masako, 1607-1678), the daughter of the second Tokugawa shogun Hidetada and consort of Emperor Gomizunoo. She was the mother of Empress Meisho (reigned from 1629-1643), the seventh out of only eight women to occupy the Chrysanthemum Throne. Empress Meisho dedicated the above mentioned belfry to the temple. Tofukumonin was an important patron of the arts and used her wealth to help restore many temples and other significant buildings that had been damaged or destroyed during the centuries of internal wars that had ended with the peace of the Tokugawas.

Kounji Temple, Kyoto
[Garden of Kounji Temple]

The main image of the temple is a serene Shaka statue with two disciples. There is also a very fine Sho Kannon statue that used to be the object of personal devotions of Tofukumonin. The high and spacious main hall also houses a statue of Tofukumonin herself, clad in imperial robes and with a golden crown on her head.

Kounji Temple, Kyoto
[Stepping stones - Garden of Kounji Temple]

The small but exquisite garden of Kounji already existed in the 18th century, as it is mentioned in travelogues of that period, but it only took its present shape under the hands of the famous modern garden master Ogawa Jihei VII (Ueji; 1860-1933). Ogawa Jihei was also responsible for the gardens of the Heian Shrine, the Murinan Garden and Maruyama Park, where he worked with water as he did in Kounji. He restored the Kounji garden in 1927. It is a pond stroll garden with the Higashiyama hills as borrowed scenery (visitors have to view the garden from the temple, it is not possible to enter it; but as it is quite small, that is in fact a wise arrangement).

Kounji serves as the Nanzenji Zen Center and also offers Zazen sessions (English website of the head priest, Tanaka Kanju). Kounji lies just west of the southern end of the Philosopher's Path, not far from the Eikando Temple. It is only open to general visitors for a few weeks in autumn, at the end of November.