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March 6, 2015

A History of Japanese Film by Year: First Stirrings (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 (there were no actresses until about 1920; the use of female impersonators was based on kabuki, which also knew no actresses). 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.  

1896
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 machine was first shown in Kobe in November of this year.


1897
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. The Lumière brothers themselves came over to Japan to premiere their films and used the opportunity to film various shorts throughout the country. Shibata Tsunekichi (1850-1929), who assisted the Lumière brothers when they filmed in Tokyo, became one of the very first Japanese film makers, in 1899 filming Momijigari (see below).

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 (with the help of assistants, kowairo) 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. Through the institute of the benshi, film in Japan was smoothly incorporated in the existing entertainment culture. As this was very different from America or Europe, Japan could maintain its cultural independence. Note that the benshi was more important than the film and that the experience of one film could be very different with different benshi.

1898
The first Japanese shorts (which are now lost) are made by Asano Shiro of the Konishi Camera Shop. One, about a corpse that during transport falls out of the coffin and revives, even contains some trick photography.

1899
The first Japanese films that are still preserved 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, Asano Shiro shoots Japan's first documentary, a dance by three geisha in a restaurant in Tokyo's Shinbashi.

[Statue of Ichikawa Danjuro IX in Sensoji, Asakusa]

1903
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).

1904
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. Not only real documentaries were made, but also "fake" ones, shot as a sort of "docu-dramas" in Japan.

1907
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.

1908
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)." Yokota Shokai later (1910) built one of the first Japanese studios on a lot near Nijo Castle in Kyoto.

[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. 

1909
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.

A History of Japanese Film by Year:
1896-1909 - First Stirrings
1910-1919 - Development
1920-1929 - Art Films and Nihilistic Heroes
1930-1939 - Social Realism and Shoshimin-Eiga
1940-1949 - Censorship during War and Occupation
1950-1954 - Golden Age of the Classical Studio System
1955-1959 - Taiyozoku and other Youth Films
1960-1964 - The New Wave
1965-1969 - Independent Productions
1970-1974 - Sex and Violence
1975-1979 - Decline and Stagnation
1980-1989 - Disintegration of the Studio System
1990-1994 - The Rise of Indies
1995-1999 - Revival
2000-2004 - Postmodern Peak
2005-2009 - Cinematic Bubble
2010-2014 - Risk Avoidance
[Reference works used: Currents In Japanese Cinema by Tadao Sato (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); The Japanese Period Film by S.A. Thornton (Jefferson & London, 2008); Eros plus Massacre, An Introduction to the Japanese New Wave Cinema by David Desser (Bloomington and Indianopolis, 1988); Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema by David Bordwell (Princeton University Press: Princeton, 1988); Kurosawa: Film Studies and Japanese Cinema by Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto (Duke University Press: Durham, 2000); The Waves at Genji's Door by Joan Mellen (Pantheon Books: New York, 1976); Japanese Classical Theatre in Film by Keiko I. Macdonald (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1994); From Book to Screen by Keiko I. Macdonald (M.E. Sharpe: New York and London, 2000); Reading a Japanese Film by Keiko I. Macdonald (University of Hawai'i Press: Honolulu, 2006); Behind the Pink Curtain, A Complete History of Japanese Sex Cinema, by Jasper Sharp (Fab Press: Godalming, 2008); Contemporary Japanese Film by Mark Schilling (Weatherhill: New York and Tokyo, 1999); The Midnight Eye Guide to New Japanese Film by Tom Mes and Jasper Sharp (Stone Bridge Press: Berkeley, 2005); Kitano Takeshi by Aaron Gerow (British Film Institute: London, 2007); Iron Man: the Cinema of Shinya Tsukamoto by Tom Mes (Fab Press: Godalming, 2005); Agitator: The Cinema of Takashi Miike by Jasper Sharp (Fab Press: Godalming, 2003); Nihon Eigashi by Sato Tadao (Iwanami Shoten: Tokyo, 2008, 4 vols.); Nihon Eigashi 110-nen by Yomota Inuhiko (Shueisha; Tokyo, 2014). All images are linked from Wikipedia.]