Names in this site follow the Japanese custom of family name first.

March 21, 2015

A History of Japanese Film by Year: Art Films and Nihilistic Heroes (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 the national Kabuki production company. Like Nikkatsu, it owned theaters. It was set-up by Shirai Matsujiro and Otani Takejiro - the company name was a combination of the elements for "take," ("bamboo") and "matsu" ("pine tree") in their names, which are also symbols of happiness (the kunyomi "matsutake" was changed to the onyomi "shochiku" in 1937). 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, modeled on Hollywood. He also introduced new techniques (such as for lighting) under the guidance of former Hollywood cameraman Henry Kotani. Like the other production companies, Shochiku owned its own theaters, such as the Shochikuza in Osaka and Marunouchi Piccadilly (first called Hogakuza) in Tokyo.

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

Mizoguchi Kenji (1898-1956) joins Nikkatsu as an actor; three years later he would become a full-fledged director.

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.

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 Nikkatsu and sets up his own production company. He continues making period films, but of a much more modern type, both as regards contents (more geared towards adults) and style (a less fixed camera). Makino would play a defining role in the development of period film as we know it.

Nikkatsu now controls half of all 600 cinemas in Japan.
The Great Kanto Earthquake destroys many old film resources. It also destroysthe Nikkatsu production studio in Mukojima in Tokyo. The company concentrates its production facilities in Kyoto (Daishogun, from 1928 Uzumasa).

Instead of the term "kyuha," the word "jidaigeki" starts being used for costume drama. A new type of period film, realistic and meant for adults, starts being made. In fact, we could say that the birth of period film was in 1923.

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 called kanzen choaku, "promoting good and punishing evil," 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. One therefore also speaks of the "rebel sub-genre." This type of film remained popular from 1923 to 1931.

This rebellious trend was borrowed from Nakazato Kaizan's voluminous historical novel Daibosatsu Toge ("The Great Bodhisattva Pass"), with its nihilistic and anarchistic hero Tsukue Ryunosuke, who in turn was partly based on Raskolnikov from Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment. The book was made into a play and also many times filmed. Nakazato Kazan (1885-1944) was a pacifist and follower of Tolstoy, who became the father of popular literature in modern Japan. .In general, period films from now on are based in the first place on popular historical novels rather than on Kabuki or Kodan stories, leading to a more mature content and greater complexity.

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.

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 popular new star Bando Tsumasaburo, and director Futagawa Buntaro (1899-1966), is known for its masterful sword-fighting scenes and melancholy mood. The film - the first great jidaigeki film - fits squarely in the "rebel sub-genre" and was made at Makino Productions. The hero, Heizaburo, has been unjustly expelled from his clan, and as a ronin, he experiences further misunderstandings which bring him in involuntary opposition to the authorities. When the reputedly noble oyabun he serves in the last part of the film turns out to be a lecherous kidnapper, Heizaburo frees the victims, but also goes berserk in a ferocious fight against both yakuza and authorities. The violence is not gratuitous, but its function is to show that our daily world can become hell. The film is ferociously rebellious descrying differences in status and wealth. The only negative point still  is that the faces of both male and female characters have the white faces of Kabuki make-up.

The maker of such rebellious films, Futagawa Buntaro, Ito Daisuke and Makino Masahiro, were all part of a broader leftist movement, from which also the Tendency Film (keiko eiga) rose. In the 1920s, especially after the Tokyo Earthquake of 1923, Japan found itself in an increasingly difficult economic and political situation and there was much poverty. Nihilism and rebelliousness were ways of protesting the existing social order. Marxism was very popular among intellectutals - the complete works of Marx and Engels were published earlier in Japan than in the Soviet Union or Germany.

The film magazine Kinema Junpo starts its annual rankings. The best film for 1926 is the comedy 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, most notably by Masumura Yasuzo in 1960.

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.

Onoe Matsunosuke, the first Japanese film star, dies at age 52 and is given a solemn corporate funeral.

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.

Makino Prodctions makes Kurama Tengu Ibun ("Strange Tale of Kurama Tengu"), the first of many films about the popular fictional Restoration hero Kurama Tengu, who, with his black mask, white horse and pistols, was clearly based on Zorro; he rather rescued little boys than damsels in distress. The character was played and made famous by Arashi Kanjuro.

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.

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. Both mentally and physically deformed, he becomes a grotesque parody of a loyalty-centered Bushido. 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), Shimazu Yasujiro (1897-1945) and Gosho Heinosuke (1902-1981) create the new film genre of "everyday realism" (shoshimin-eiga). They portray the lives of ordinary people with humor and pathos. Shoshimin-eiga would become the trademark of Shochiku and form a lasting contribution to Japanese culture. Shochiku is also called the "actress kingdom," because of the large number of actresses working there, such as Tanaka Kinuyo. Tanaka Kinuyo was active from 1929 to 1976 and appeared in 259 films. She was also one of the first Japanese women to work as a film director, debuting in 1953.

Shochiku, by the way, had been involved since 1895 in kabuki as a theatrical promoter and owner of theaters before it became a film company, something which had continued and grown along its cinematic activities. This year, all kabuki actors became affiliated with Shochiku, which also managed the two most important permanent kabuki theaters in Japan, the Kabukiza in Tokyo and the Minamiza in Kyoto.

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.

Another important period film was Kutsukake Tokijiro (dir. Tsuji Kichiro), based on a play by the popular writer Hasegawa Shin (1884-1963). It established the genre of matatabi-mono, about poor wandering gamblers (yakuza), who have to pay for their stay with a local gang by doing the dirty work. But Tokijiro escapes gang life by refusing to kill the wife and child of a man he has already murdered; instead, he redeems himself by fleeing and taking care of them. The story was remade several times, most notably by Kato Tai in 1966. 

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. (By the way, these nonsense comedies fit in the general spirit of the age, with its "ero-guro-nansensu.") His debut was in 1927 with a period drama, but from 1928 on he became a comedy director.

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.]