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November 17, 2011

Japanese Film: "Gallant Jiraiya" (1921) by Makino Shozo

This short film from 1921 is the oldest Japanese film I have seen. It is one of the hundreds of period films made by director Makino Shozo (1878-1929), the "father of Japanese period drama," and Japan's first star actor, Onoe Matsunosuke (1875-1926). Onoe had been an itinerant Kabuki actor and was "discovered" by Makino. Between 1909 and 1926, he appeared in over 1,000 films, mostly one-reelers.

Onoe specialized in heroic warrior roles. One of his most popular films was Goketsu Jiraiya ("Gallant Jiraiya," or "Heroic Thunder Boy," 1921). This is a rare surviving film of the Makino-Onoe combi.

Jiraiya is a figure from vernacular fiction from the late Edo-period (the first tale was published in 1839), a ninja who uses magic to morph into a gigantic toad. His wife Princess Tsunade can use snail magic and his enemy Orochimaru has mastered snake magic. He is popular in Kabuki and today lives on in manga and games.

Thanks to the tricks necessary to morph Onoe into a toad, Jiraiya is Japan's first special effects movie (tokusatsu). It is all very elementary, just stopping the action and replacing Onoe with a humorous-looking toad-like doll, but it works. We also see him flying through the clouds.

The film doesn't have a unifying story line, but consists of some loose scenes, exactly like the Kabuki play on which it was based, and similar to other period films made at that time. Intertitles only give the name of the next scene, for the rest the benshi-narrator had to fill in the story. The film consists almost wholly of fighting scenes. Called tate or tachimawari, these too are as in Kabuki: unrealistic and heavily stylized - more like a dance or ballet than a fighting scene.

That looks rather strange as the action has been filmed on location outside. Instead of watching a realistic film, it is as if you are seeing a group of people perform a play. The camera position is also fixed during the whole scene, filming from the seat of the ideal viewer in a theater.

Onoe is a rather small man with an enormous Kabuki wig. He jumps and slashes, but keeps himself neatly upright all the time. It must have been hard work. All actors including Onoe wear beautiful but unrealistic and unpractical Kabuki costumes.  As was customary in Kabuki, the weapons don't touch the body of the opponents. The victims fall down automatically when they are pointed at.

No wonder that Onoe Matsunosuke was especially popular among children, who took to imitating his ninja performances in their games. A more serious type of period drama "for adults," would start a few years later with the advent of the "nihilistic hero."

Makino Shozo's films are characterized by long takes and long shots, and therefore make a rather archaic impression. Only in his later years he would use the camera a bit more inventively - after he had broken with Onoe and set up his own production company. But real innovations would come from the next generation of directors, including his own son, Makino Masahiro.
This film is available at Internet Archive