Comprehensive connections: the film industry, the theatre and the state in the early Japanese cinema.

Uploaded 1 November 2000

Women in cinema


In 1931 Japanese critics rated the Shochiku company’s first full talkie, Madamu to nyobo (The Neighbour’s Wife and Mine, dir. Gosho Heinosuke), the best Japanese film of the year. Though superficially a typical Shochiku lightweight domestic comedy, it can be read allegorically in two ways: as an allegory of the transition to sound in the cinema; and as an allegory of the local industry’s taming of the threat of modernity.

The male protagonist is a scriptwriter (for the theatre) whose commissioned script is overdue, causing anxiety to his practical wife, who has a family to feed. He seems to have writer’s block, and his concentration is disturbed by a series of noises (the scampering of mice, the miaowing of cats, the ringing of alarm clocks, the bawling of his children, the whining and singing of his wife) that first distract him, then irritate him and finally drive him mad. The noise of the jazz band practising next door is the final straw. His initial hostility to this violation of his peace and quiet is dissipated, soon after he enters their house in protest, when he is seduced by the music and modern manners of the band. He is finally able to complete his script successfully and speedily to the accompaniment of the jazz rhythms. The lead singer of the band, the brazenly modern girl next door, provokes anxiety in his wife, but he returns home to wife and work. The final scene is of a family outing during which husband and wife recapture the romance of their courtship to the strains of “My blue heaven”.

On the allegorical level, this film demonstrates not only that Shochiku has overcome the challenge of sound technology (initially vexing, ultimately manageable and even liberating) but also that disturbing manifestations of modernity can be domesticated. These modern girls, even if smoking and drinking and flirting outrageously, are really no threat to the stability of the Japanese family. At their Kamata studio, Shochiku were to continue to produce silent films for several years after this (until their move to the properly equipped sound studios at Ofuna), but they had found the way to defuse the threat of westernized modernity by flirtation with it and domestication of its cinematic manifestations.

But Shochiku was not the only film company in Japan at this time, and the Kamata studio was not the only Shochiku studio. In Kyoto, Shochiku, Nikkatsu, Toa, Teikine, Makino and Chiezo companies were all making period films. One very popular 1931 release was Mabuta no haha(Mother of Memory), a jidai-geki (period film) directed by Inagaki Hiroshi for Chiezo Productions. It was a silent film, but screenings were accompanied by the live performance of music and dramatic narration, so that it was not experienced by audiences in silence. This film combines racy swordplay action with family melodrama, in a story about a lonely wandering yakuza who pines for reunion with the mother who abandoned him. Based on a long-running hit of the popular theatre written by Hasegawa Shin, a popular novelist and playwright, it stars Chiezo Kataoka, one of several jidai-geki stars. The performances of narrator and star dwell on the pathetic aspects of the hero’s situation and feelings, in the tradition of the popular theatre, but the film is edited in an eclectic style: fast cutting in action sequences, slower-paced shot-reverse-shot for scenes of intimate dialogue exchanges, and decorative inserts of unpeopled scenery and still-life shots (steaming kettle, leaves falling, sword on ground) that prefigure the more systematic still-life sequences of later Ozu films. Here these odd inserts can be read as illustration of the off-screen narration, or conversely the off-screen narration serves to integrate them into the continuity of the story, just as the narrator’s expert rendering of the dialogue (in a continuous stream before, at the same time as, and after the inter-titles are shown) masks the interruption that inter-titles pose to the action.

Mabuta no haha is no allegory but, in its hybrid mixture of the theatrical and cinematic, in its eclectic approach to editing and composition, and in its recourse to a popular Japanese narrative that was already familiar to the audience through its recurrent renditions in other media (stage, print), it is exemplary of the early Japanese cinema.

In late Taisho and early Showa Japan, between 1920 and 1934, film culture blossomed and film industry personnel experimented with a wide range of styles and subjects, albeit restricted by the commercial priorities of the heads of the major companies and the watchful eye of the state censors. European and American films were avidly viewed, studied and imitated. However, as both Noel Burch and David Bordwell have noted, the resulting films were never pure imitations: they were marked by a fondness for (narratively redundant) stylistic flourishes (Bordwell) or a certain fetishization of the cinematic signifier (Burch) that Burch relates to a non-realist Japanese artistic tradition (presentational rather than representational). [1]

Both Burch and Bordwell focus on the formal differences, the variations from European and American models, of Japanese film practice in general, as well as the particular formal strategies (or norms, as Bordwell would have it) of the great Japanese directors of the classic era. Their work has been widely disseminated and is generally familiar to film scholars. Less well known is the considerable role played by Japanese institutions in the development of a national cinema. The practices of these institutions performed a mediating role in the reception of European and American models of cinema in Japan; they fostered particular film genres and particular styles of performance; they enabled some expression of modernism but domesticated its manifestations. I will concentrate here on three institutions: the theatre, the film industry and the state.

1. The theatre

In the silent era, and well into the sound era, there was a close nexus between the theatre and film industries in Japan. Both Anderson & Richie’s pioneer history of Japanese cinema and Noel Burch’s ambitious re-writing of that history attribute a significant role to the institution of the benshi in early Japanese cinema [2] . By carrying the burden of the narrative, narrating the story and speaking the dialogue off-screen, he reduced the role of the film text to mime and illustration. Anderson and Richie initially saw this as a reactionary practice, delaying the introduction of true film language; but in his later writings Anderson celebrated the benshi’s role as star of the “silent” cinema[3] . Burch saw the benshi as a positive influence on the development of a distinctive national cinema. By relieving the film text of the need to narrate the story, he enabled Japanese film-makers to concentrate on extra-narrative embellishments of the visual text, on surface play, and thus to transgress the norms of Hollywood-style narrative efficiency (continuity editing, crisply cut to tell a story, shot-reverse-shot dialogue exchanges, eyeline matching, use of 90 degree shooting space).

In fact, the use of an off-stage storyteller with virtuoso vocal skills, able to register a wide range of emotions and impersonate a wide range of characters, was common in the Japanese theatre – not just in the puppet theatre (bunraku), but also in kabuki plays adapted from the puppet repertoire and in some forms of popular theatre. The popularity of benshi performers and their numerical strength (according to the Annual Film Censorship Report issued by the Ministry of the Interior, they numbered 7,500 – including 312 women – in February 1927 [4] ) enabled them to exercise considerable industrial muscle and to take strong industrial action when their jobs were threatened by the introduction of sound.

Another theatrical practice adopted by the early cinema was abandoned much sooner, already by 1923, despite industrial action. That was the practice of male actors playing female roles, a fixed convention of both the noh and the kabuki theatres. The widely held belief of the Edo era (1600-1868), that the star onnagata (male actor specialising in female roles) could better portray femininity than a real woman, survived into the present century. As late as 1940, an actor trained as an onnagata in the kabuki theatre, who was then playing the male romantic lead in an imperialist inter-racial romance, coached his co-star in methods of making her performance more touchingly feminine [5] .

But the connections between stage and screen went much further than the absorption of these theatrical practices into the early Japanese cinema. Performers and directors moved back and forth between the two entertainment media, popular plays were adapted to the screen, theatrical genres and performance styles were employed in the cinema, and the two largest film companies of the late 1930s, Shochiku and Toho, were part of giant entertainment complexes with major theatre interests, companies which derived their profits from live theatre as well as movies.

The film industry followed the practice of kabuki theatre in dividing its productions into two major genres – jidai-geki (period drama) and gendai-mono (contemporary drama), with period production centred in the region of Kyoto, the old capital with its old world charm (blessed with numerous castles, temples and decorative gardens), and contemporary production centred around Tokyo, the newer metropolis, with its high-rise buildings, offices, banks, neon-lit emporia, modern restaurants and expanding suburbs. The actors for period films were trained in the kabuki theatre; the actors for Meiji melodrama were trained in shimpa (Meiji-era new-wave theatre, largely romantic melodrama). Shochiku owned kabuki theatre companies and shimpa troupes before and after it became active in film production, distribution and exhibition. Toho ran the Takarazuka all-girls musical theatre and built giant theatres for stage shows and movie exhibition before and after it became involved in film production (in the sound era). The Shingeki (the modern, European-style theatre) supplied actors and directors for both period and contemporary films [6] . When Shochiku opened its contemporary Kamata studio near Tokyo in the early 1920s, its personnel studied the techniques of Hollywood films but it is notable that Osanai Kaoru, the co-director of their first major production, Souls on the Road (Rojo no reikon), a film which on first viewing seems like a homage to D.W. Griffith in its parallel editing, narrative complexity, sentimentality and costuming, was previously the founder of the modern theatre movement in Japan who had studied the Stanislavsky method at the Moscow Art Theatre and worked in Max Reinhardt’s theatre in Berlin. The story of Souls.. was based in part on Gorky’sThe Lower Depths.

The earliest jidai-geki were scenes from kabuki stage productions, shot from one fixed position in wide shot, as if viewed from a fixed seat in the theatre auditorium. The persistence of long static takes, rendered intelligible and entertaining only by the off-screen performance of the benshi, into the 1920s, is attested to by Kinugasa Teinosuke, who joined Nikkatsu, then the major film company, in 1917, after training and starring as anoyama (onnagata) in the kabuki and shimpa theatres in Osaka. He recalled:

A film of seven reels (nearly two hours long) consisted of no more than 20 scenes, each shot from one single point of view – and lasting the full duration of the Pathe 70-metre film strip… We stopped at the cry of “matta! ” when the operator signalled that it was the end of his strip. If the scene hadn’t entirely finished, we had to freeze in sometimes bizarre and tiring postures so that the operator could link up the movements when resuming the shooting after re-charging his camera.

Between 1917 and 1919 I performed in about 90 films for Nikkatsu, always following the same ways, since the benshi demanded that shots last at least five minutes. I wanted to modify these rules but [director] Oguchi, man of the theatre, took no notice of my wishes…

In 1919 I made my first film, in which I was both writer and female lead… I loved going to the labs to learn technique and I discovered there that montage meant actors didn’t have to freeze in mid-action while the cameras re-charged. I then requested – without success – that they use montage in films…

As an actor at Nikkatsu, I was directed by Tanaka Eiji in several films. He was far superior to my normal director, Oguchi. Still very young, Tanaka had started as an actor in the modern theatre [Shingeki] whence arose the movement (led by Osanai) for the renewal of the Japanese theatre. At Nikkatsu he was mainly a scriptwriter but he also directed several films, such as The Living Corpse (1919), an adaptation from Tolstoy, one of the most important post-war [i.e. post World War 1] films – where I played the role of a young Russian girl… [7]

In the late 1920s, fast cutting, dramatic angles and moving camera were increasingly employed in jidai-geki, and swordplay scenes became much more exciting, in part through studying the action and shooting style of the Hollywood western. But the stories were taken from the Japanese theatre – late kabuki plays about the escapades of disreputable ronin and yakuza and popular sentimental plays about wandering outlaws (the sub-genre known as matatabi-mono); and the swaggering gait, wild grimaces and macho posturing of the heroes in scenes of confrontation followed the aragoto style of kabuki performers. The stars of jidai-geki – Bando Tsumasaburo, Hasegawa Kazuo (called Hayashi Chojiro at Shochiku, before he worked for Toho), Kataoka Chiezo, Arashi Kanjuro – were all trained in the theatre. There was more experimentation with film language in the independent film companies started by star performers breaking away from the major companies, and taking some keen younger directors frustrated by the conservatism of the majors with them, but these independent companies were dependent on the majors for distribution and were eventually frozen out or re-absorbed by them. Chiezo Productions and Makino were two such companies attracting dynamic directors.

One female star, Irie Takako, a shimpa-style melodrama actress, also went into independent production in the early 30s, luring Mizoguchi Kenji away from Nikkatsu with her. Mizoguchi had his first critical and popular success (Taki no shiraito, 1933) while working for her company and employing her as star. He was able to indulge in ambitious stylistic exercises in the use of flashbacks, long mobile takes, and lyrical dissolves while working for Irie and then another semi-independent company, Dai-Ichi Eiga, which he joined in 1934. But Taki no shiraito, like the earlier Nihonbashi (Nikkatsu, 1929) and the later Orizuru osen (Dai-Ichi Eiga, 1934), was an adaptation of an Izumi Kyoka melodrama that had been a hit in the shimpa theatre. It was not just the story that was lifted from the shimpa theatre, but the gender stereotypes (passive romantic hero, active tragic heroine) and the performance style (described by Sato Tadao as excessively sentimental and declamatory, and marked by an extreme aestheticisation of self-pity and melancholy). Sato claims that the renunciation scenes from shimpa, in which a handsome young man faces the woman he loves and, standing at a distance from her with sadly lowered head, on the edge of tears, explains to her why they must renounce each other, were popular set-pieces that were translated to the screen and remained popular with Japanese film audiences right up to the 1950s [8] .

While shimpa-style melodrama and kabuki-style jidai-geki were the staple genres at Nikkatsu in the early days, these genres were soon to be modified through the influx of directors and actors trained in the modern European-style theatre, the shingeki, and through the avid cinephilia of young directors who followed the latest trends in European and American cinema with great interest. At Nikkatsu, the younger directors seemed more interested in modern European theatre and European cinema; at Shochiku (which only started film production in the early 1920s) they were Hollywood fans. All the Hollywood majors had distribution branches in Japan [9] and Hollywood films were exhibited in Nikkatsu and Shochiku theatres alongside local films. European films were imported by independent distributors and had a more limited circulation but their audience included people of significance to film culture – critics, writers, actors and film production personnel.

During the 1920s, film culture proliferated. Apart from an expansion of film fan magazines, two serious film journals devoted to the documentation and criticism of recent trends in local and overseas cinema were founded –Kinema jumpo in 1919 and Eiga hyoron in the mid 1920s. In 1924 Kinema jumpo instituted its critics’ poll of the Best Ten Japanese films of the year, a listing which has been made annually to the present day and has provided incentive and recognition to innovation and artistic achievement within the industry. Some influential film critics of the 1920s and 1930s were left-wingers, active in the short-lived prokino movement, the proletarian film movement. They promoted and rewarded films that exhibited awareness of social problems and highlighted social injustices; they wanted Japanese cinema to be more social realist. It is not surprising in these circumstances that, in 1936, when Mizoguchi (with the aid of a progressive new scriptwriter, Yoda Yoshikata) abandoned the shimpa conventions and Meiji period setting for a tougher, more social realist style and a sharply critical focus on the contemporary urban social scene, in his last two films with the semi-independent Dai-Ichi Eiga company, they were awarded first and third place in the annual critics’ poll (for Gion Sisters and Osaka Elegy, respectively).

Some of these critics were graduates of German language and literature departments and keen fans of European cinema. They not only helped promote interest in and knowledge of the European cinema – Expressionism, Impressionism, surrealism, soviet montage, social realism – but also translated scripts, articles and books on film from German into Japanese. Munsterberg’s The Photoplay, Its Psychology and Aesthetics was published in Japan in 1924; translations of Pudovkin and Eisenstein’s theories of film (from the German versions) in 1932 [10] .

Shochiku’s Kamata studio (the centre of their contemporary production) departed from theatrical tradition more quickly and more sharply than their older theatre-bound rival, Nikkatsu. They were the first to use female actors to play women’s roles, to employ so-called amateurs (actors untrained in the theatre) as performers, and to produce Hollywood-style genres – urban family melodrama, silent slapstick comedy, contemporary crime movies and detective films. So they became associated with modernity, American culture, and light-hearted fun. Ozu Yasujiro trained there under a director of “nonsense films” – a genre derived in part from American slapstick but also rife with toilet humour – and went on to experiment with a variety of genres during the 1920s. But by the1930s, under the guidance of the studio boss Kido Shiro, the studio developed its own distinctive genre of “home drama”, which combined the pathos of family melodrama with comedy routines and some degree of social realism. The combination of pathos with humour won audiences over and the social realist elements pleased the critics. Working under Kido at the Kamata studio, Ozu gained critical approval in the early 1930s with films that employed some slapstick but also dealt feelingly with serious social issues (unemployment, social inequality, poverty); and Naruse Mikio made movies that more jarringly mixed high melodrama and social realism with slapstick routines. The latter’s films have a heavier, darker tone than the Kamata signature product – which is light and witty, charming and entertaining – and it is not surprising that he left Shochiku for PCL and Toho in the mid-1930s. The other Kamata studio directors – Gosho Heinosuke, Shimizu Hiroshi and Shimazu Yasujiro – largely unseen in the West – played by the rules, keeping the tone light and witty.

There was one amazingly experimental avant-garde film made in 1926 outside the industrial studio system. Directed by Kinugasa, the former female impersonator and Nikkatsu director, it seems to have been a product of the literary avant-garde as well as Kinugasa’s desire to experiment with the medium in ways that the studios did not allow. Kurutta ippeiji (A Page of Madness) was made with the money he had saved from his earnings as a star performer, and the unpaid assistance of fellow enthusiasts in the contemporary arts world (performers and writers, including the young novelist, Kawabata Yasunari). His original intention to set the film in a circus was abandoned when they were refused permission to shoot in the Big Top, and Kawabata suggested they shift the setting to a mental hospital. According to Kinugasa, the scenario was largely improvised from day to day; and he told Georges Sadoul in 1965 that:
“The story assumed less importance than the technical research into tracking shots, close ups, fast montage, flash-backs, fading dissolves, irises etc. I used in this film almost all the avant-garde techniques.” [11]

He claimed then to be influenced by The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (Germany 1919), Abel Gance’s La roue (France, 1923) and a Universal Bluebird film directed by Rupert Julian. But it is possible that he under-emphasised the contributions of his collaborators.

The mental hospital setting suggests the influence of Caligari, but the loosely associational narrative and the spartan sets bear little comparison. The brilliant opening montage of expressive images suggests some debt to French impressionist cinema. The dazzling display of experimental camera work, distorted and processed shots, and plethora of editing devices, demonstrate total intoxication with the possibilities of the film medium. Burch compares the film to Dziga Vertov’s The Man with a Movie Camera (USSR, 1922) [12] but, apart from sharing an intoxication with the medium, it is quite unlike Vertov’s work, which harnessed the medium in the service of didactic and celebratory documentary, while this film uses it to create a brooding atmosphere, hallucinatory effects and a subjective representation of madness – an interior world more akin to that of German Expressionist art. In its structure, based more on a loosely associational psychological logic than narrative coherence, and in its use of distorted eye imagery and histrionic performance, the film also prefigures the early surrealist films of Bunuel.

James Peterson [13] has argued that the film was a product of the literary avant-garde, in particular the group of writers known as shinkankakusha, or New Impressionists, whose work experimented with a wide variety of modernist styles – Constructivism, Futurism, Dada, Surrealism and Expressionism. They employed startling images and abrupt transitions and refracted raw sensation through the minds of their characters. Peterson’s thesis gains support from a comparison of this film with Kinugasa’s later work. Kurutta ippeiji is unique in Kinugasa’s oeuvre, which is otherwise strongly indebted to his theatrical origins. While his very next semi-independent film, Jujiro (1928), continues to employ subjective camera work to represent madness, includes some sequences of striking visual patterning and is totally intoxicated with the use of dissolves, it is a shimpa-style melodrama in setting and narrative, and the performances are exceedingly theatrical, even including a kabuki-signature mie pose at the dramatic climax. Despite spending two years in Europe (Moscow, Leningrad, Berlin and Paris) after completion of Jujiro, and becoming familiar with Pudovkin, Eisenstein, Romm, Lang and Pabst, [14] Kinugasa seems to have quickly reverted to the shimpa and kabuki repertoire of stories, theatrical styles of performance, and a more conventional film style, when he resumed working as a jidai-geki director in the studio system (at first for Shochiku, then for Toho) in Kyoto after his return to Japan, judging from the films I have been able to see.

2. The film industry

Like Hollywood, the Japanese film industry was prolific in output. Each company kept a stable of actors, directors and technicians in full-time employment, churning out two new features per week – one period film and one contemporary film. Kinugasa recalls the schedule when he joined Nikkatsu in 1917:

“At that time, an actor played a film a week: two days were taken up by rehearsals, choice of costumes, wigs, make-up, etc.; three days on outdoor shoots; two on studio work.” [15]

The number of film theatres in Japan increased steadily from 470 in 1921 to 1,057 in 1926, and 1,538 in 1934. Attendances likewise rose steadily from 153,735,449 (first recorded attendance figures) in 1926 to 244,389,636 in 1934. [16]  There were few independent exhibitors; most of the theatres were contracted to the big companies or owned by them. In 1929, almost three-quarters of the theatres were tied to the big two, Nikkatsu and Shochiku; and the smaller companies had to compete for the rest. The major companies employed bullying tactics and blackmail to restrict competition. In 1925, when some independent companies (Makino in particular) started to make popular comedies, Nikkatsu and Shochiku ganged up with Teikine and Toa and these top four companies threatened to withhold their films from exhibitors who showed independent films, causing an effective ban in Kyushu and a six-month delay in the release of the independent films elsewhere. There were reputed links between the film companies and the yakuza in Kyoto. In the mid to late 1930s, when Toho had replaced Nikkatsu as Shochiku’s main competitor, and a number of actors and directors defected from Shochiku to Toho, a defecting jidai-geki star was slashed and injured by an unknown assailant – as punishment for his disloyalty to the company.

There was resentment against the power of the majors but their stranglehold over exhibition meant that they were able to deal effectively with Hollywood competition. They did so by screening popular Hollywood films alongside their own products, in double and triple screenings; keeping their production costs low and their rental rates cheap; and making exhibitors shareholders in production companies, thus giving them a vested interest in the local industry. As most Hollywood films required both linguistic and cultural mediation, they were not as easily consumed in Japan as they were in Europe and especially the English-speaking world. However, silent slapstick comedy was directly accessible to audiences everywhere and Chaplin in particular was a great hit in Japan [17] .

By the end of the 1920s, Shochiku had replaced Nikkatsu as the major company. It assumed financial control of Teikine in 1928, and founded another subsidiary company, Shinko Kinema Co, in 1931, to distribute independently-produced jidai-geki films (made by Arashi Kanjiro and Bando Tsumasaburo, both jidai-geki stars). [18] Shochiku had the financial resources to cope (albeit slowly) with the transition to sound [19] ; Nikkatsu did not. A third company, Toho, emerged in the later 1930s from an amalgamation of two separate production companies with expertise in sound technology (PCL and JO Studios) with the Toho theatre chain, under the auspices of the railway magnate and theatrical entrepreneur, Kobayashi, who had good connections with big business, and thus access to investment capital. The new company adopted modern methods of business management and the contract system of hiring actors. With use of the best equipped sound studio complex in Japan, at Kinuta, and premieres at the palatial new movie theatres built by Kobayashi, Toho rapidly grew so attractive that it seduced stars and directors away from the other companies and threatened the supremacy of Shochiku. It was deemed more patriotic than Shochiku, whose contemporary films were tainted with foreign American influence. In contrast to Shochiku, whose films were deemed frivolous and criticized for showing Japanese women smoking and flirting and generally dressing and behaving like their corrupt western counterparts, Toho was seen as more responsible and serious, more responsive to important national issues like imperial expansion, military successes and patriotic pride.

The silent Japanese film industry, as mentioned above, was closely connected to the theatre industry, and drew on the theatrical repertoire for its narratives and performance styles. Popular stage hits, as well as popular novels, were adapted to the screen, and exhibited in theatres alongside the live performance of a star dramatic narrator and musicians. Japanese adaptations of European and American stories were also made, but shifted to Japanese locations and peopled by Japanese characters.

European art movies had restricted circulation, mainly confined to the big cities, and were distributed by independent specialist companies like Towa. These films had strong appeal to an educated elite and to people involved in film culture but were not big business. In the late 1920s, the narration of foreign art movies was performed by specialist benshi who explained and interpreted them to the local audience. Kurosawa Akira’s elder brother, an addict of Russian literature, was one such specialist [20] but the most famous one was Tokugawa Musei, who became a film star at Toho in the talkie era.

The industry did not dispense with benshi until talkie technology made them redundant, and even then the audience of a silent film enjoyed a dynamic theatrical experience, with no lack of sound in the theatre, so producers were able to continue to shoot and distribute silent films well into the 1930s. There was no sudden transition to sound in Japan. Silent films continued to be produced while experimentation with sound technology and the occasional sound production occurred. [21]  From the businessmen’s point of view, this meant that the costs involved in changing over to sound were spread over a longer period, and the production crews could take their time to master the new medium.

The industry was in the business of entertainment, and that involved steering a middle course between conservative and progressive tendencies, between recycling the old popular indigenous forms of entertainment and embracing the new equally popular international trends, between restraining and encouraging experimentation. The bigger companies derived profits from exhibition and distribution, which they were able to invest in production. By the 1930s the industry was concentrating on refinements and variations of their three major genres – the jidai-geki, the woman’s melodrama and the home drama – with a proliferation of sub-genres within these categories.

Kurosawa is given credit for the revitalization of the jidai-geki in the 1950s, but it had already been “revitalized” twice before. In the late1920s, Ito Daisuke and Inagaki Hiroshi enlivened the action with fast cutting, dynamic swordplay choreography and camera movement; and employed a greater degree of filmic realism than their predecessors in their use of locations and direction of actors. In the mid1930s, Itami Mansaku (father of Itami Juzo) and Yamanaka Sadao further humanized the jidai-geki by importing some of the humour and gentle pathos of the Shochiku home drama into it, by mocking or even seriously questioning the macho heroics and feudal values of the conventional jidai-geki,and by characterizing the hero as a reluctant, incompetent or failed hero.

In the late 1920s and early 1930s, under the influence of leftist ideas, the woman’s melodrama acquired a more socially critical bite, accentuating issues of gender and class oppression, and the economic struggle for survival. It also became less stagey – with increased use of moving camera and/or cutting in both indoor and outdoor settings. The female stars of this genre had a strong screen presence, and attracted many fans. In the performances of Irie Takako, Tanaka Kinuyo and Yamada Isuzu, Japanese women are portrayed as strong, spirited, assertive and defiant. Mizoguchi’s experiments with long mobile takes and flashbacks also enhanced the aesthetic and emotional impact of films in this genre.

The home drama in the early 1930s also reflected concern with issues such as unemployment and class distinction, but it was generally light-hearted and optimistic in tone, in contrast to the heavier, pessimistic tone of the melodrama. The home drama’s pathos was balanced by comedy, including slapstick routines – in the vein of Chaplinesque comedy. As it was the least traditional of the staple genres, it was the most open to Hollywood influence. But if the cheeky behaviour of children and undignified conduct of parents seem to embody American manners as reflected in Hollywood comedies, rather than the realities of Japanese family life in the period, the pacing is more leisurely and the drama more low-key, less obviously plotted, than in American family sit-coms. The Shochiku home drama came to be seen as modern but non-threatening to traditional family values. So one could say that the Japanese industry domesticated the Hollywood film in more ways than one.

If some social criticism was smuggled into the genre films, provided it was neither strident nor disruptive to the generic conventions, it was carefully monitored by the studio bosses, not only because they did not want the entertainment value of their films hampered by political polemics, but also because they did not want trouble with the censors. With their tight schedule of weekly releases, they could not afford delays and disputes with the censors, who could hold up releases and insist on re-cutting of the film to comply with their criticisms. So the studio heads would self-censor in advance to avoid these costly disruptions to their schedule.

3. The state

The film industry was in the hands of private businessmen and received no financial support from the state. However, the state had a strong indirect influence on the industry. In the early period, its role was largely a censorious one, acting as policeman through its censoring agencies. In the 1930s, however, the state assumed a more positive supportive role, albeit more in rhetoric than in practice.

Initially, the control of motion picture exhibition was in the hands of the local prefecture police forces. They were empowered to close theatres not complying with regulations, and stop screenings of films and/or performances of benshi that had not received prior approval from the censors. The Motion Picture Regulations introduced in Tokyo in 1917 divided films into two categories: those suitable for children and those not. Film theatres had to be segregated, with separate seating sections for men and women. Billboards were policed, to prevent misleading or salacious advertising. A censorship room was installed in police headquarters. Censors were instructed to cut or ban the following content:

* films injurious to the dignity of national policy or the Emperor;
* films about adultery or free love which are opposed to Japanese customs and morals;
* kissing and bedroom scenes that arouse obscene feelings;
* scenes of arson, theft or murder that provide a motivation for crime.

These regulations were adopted in all 47 prefectures of Japan, but there were some variations in implementation and some films were banned in one area but passed in another, causing some difficulties to distributors and exhibitors. So, in 1925 censorship was centralized and placed in the hands of the Naimusho, the Ministry of the Interior of the national government. The official reasons for the shift were (i) the need for special expertise in the practice of censorship; (ii) the need for uniformity in regulations and their implementation; (iii) inefficiency and expense of local regulation. [22] One may note here the trend to increased bureaucratization – with accompanying centralization and rationalization of resources and personnel – common to all modern nation states. But postwar Japanese commentators tended to associate the shift with a shift to the right, towards more conservative, nationalist and imperialist values, at the start of the Showa era, following the relative liberalism and internationalism of the Taisho era. One such historian of censorship pronounced that:

The main purpose of the new censorship laws was to maintain the sanctity of the Imperial family and to maintain feudal ethics and the Confucian spirit as intrinsic to the national character. [23]

Though recognising that film was a medium of entertainment, the paternalistic censors were concerned about the educational and moral values thereby imparted. The major categories of concern were labeled ko-an (public security) and fuzoku (public morals). Infringement of ko-an involved desecration of the sanctity of the Imperial family, damage to national dignity, incitement to disorder or anarchy, damage to relations between Japan and other countries, and detailing of criminal behaviour. Infringement of fuzoku involved desecration of religion, cruelty, ugliness, obscenity, adultery, sexual license, contravention of good family moral standards, ruining the ideas of young people, obstructing the development of knowledge, revealing family secrets and demeaning the honour of individuals. [24] If the censors identified infringements, they could order the film banned or oblige the producers to cut the offending scene or scenes.

In practice, few films were banned and cuts were ordered to only a small percentage of total footage. Over the first eighteen months of national censorship, only six films were banned outright, and cuts ordered to local productions dropped from 1% of footage in 1925 to 0.6% in 1926. [25] European films suffered more heavily from the censors than American films (1.5% v 0.8% in 1926). In the case of local production, the grounds for offending the censors were more often attributed to breaches of public morals than security (two thirds v one third), but in the case of European films objections were more evenly divided between the two categories of offence. The Japanese companies seemed to learn quickly what was acceptable to the censors. The second annual censorship report of the Naimusho Film Censorship Office reported that “Applicants withdrew films voluntarily in advance when they thought they would be censored”.[26] Makino had more trouble with the censors than either Shochiku or Nikkatsu. In one documented case of censorship violation, exhibitors and benshi were fined for ignoring the censors’ ban on the use of words (in inter-titles and narration) that suggested that the priestess Himiko was the founder of the Imperial royal family rather than the goddess Amaterasu. This Makino film, Nichi-rin, also had two scenes cut for excessive “cruelty”. The censors were troubled by the sexual attractiveness of the women and the violence of the men in the film, but ultimately were most upset by the slur on the Emperor’s purity. [27] The censors’ report claimed most cases of ko-an in that period involved fighting and crime; while the major cause for breaching fuzoku (public morals) was “obscenity” – which included “kissing, embracing, naked dancing, sexual innuendos, especially passionate kisses or embraces.”

However, in the later 1920s and early 1930s, the censors became troubled by the leftist strain of thought infiltrating genre films and the influence of the Prokino movement. In 1928, another Makino film, one highly rated by the critics, suffered heavy cuts, while a projected film with Marxist leanings was halted in production[28] Socialist ideas were seen as a risk to public security, as were criticism of state policies. The 1934 annual report of the Film Censorship Bureau of the Naimusho speaks of these matters in no uncertain terms:

Over the past few years, the popularity of left-tendency films with a background of socialist thought, along with impure obscene or erotic films, have caused the censors much concern because of their adverse effect on the audience.

In March 1933, a bill for the establishment of a national policy on film was passed in the Diet, and in March 1934, Cabinet established a Film Regulation Committee. Senior bureaucrats in various ministries propounded the necessity for more regulation, on the grounds that film was not only a popular medium of entertainment but also a powerful medium of education and propaganda, and so the local industry required more guidance and control. They conducted research on national policies on film in foreign countries (i.e. Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany) and proposed the production of National Policy Films. The proposal’s rationale noted that, in the past,

the government allowed the private companies to make profits and did not take measures to give positive guidance ..

Film is a powerful medium that exercises more influence than other media; on young people especially it exercises more influence than schooling.

There is a danger that films introducing Japan overseas can give the wrong impression of Japan, and damage the reputation of Japan. It is impossible to rely on private companies alone to project a pure and superior image of Japan abroad. Therefore, it is necessary to establish a special organization to guide and control films… [29]

The government’s interest in the possibilities of the film medium as a tool of national propaganda was doubtless influenced by the sense of national crisis which followed Japan’s withdrawal from the League of Nations and the escalation of Japanese military activity abroad. They recognized the need to engage the co-operation of the local film industry to promote the national cause; and their overtures were not unwelcome. In November 1935, when the Dai Nippon Eiga Kyokai (The Greater Japan Film Association) was founded, the presidents and directors of the major film companies and prominent film producers and directors were invited to join the committee, alongside the Ministers of the Interior and Education, leading politicians, senior bureaucrats, and prominent scholars. The film industry personnel were doubtless flattered to be included in a government-sponsored enterprise, and to be sitting among such high status people. The industry had not enjoyed a high status, nor much respectability, so it was pleasing to finally receive recognition of the value of their enterprise. The Association was more active in production of rhetoric than deeds, but it symbolized closer co-operation between the industry and the state. It conducted screenings and lectures, arranged consultations between government and private industry personnel, and published a magazine devoted to the promotion of Japanese cinema, called Nihon eiga.

The rationale for the establishment of the Dai Nippon Eiga Kyokai[30] was the need to foster the production of high-quality Japanese films, to increase exports and project a proud and positive image of Japan and the Japanese both at home and abroad. The weaknesses of the local industry were identified as under-capitalization, a poor showing in the international marketplace which was dominated by Hollywood, and industrial reliance on quick and cheap production methods, and weekly changes of the exhibition programme, resulting in a large quantity of poor quality films. The industry was encouraged to be more patriotic, more serious and more ambitious. The government’s recognition of the industry’s national importance and its upgraded valuation of the medium of film doubtless contributed to the industry’s increased self-confidence in the mid to late 1930s and its efforts to produce films that were serious works of art, rather than mere entertainments.

In the late 1930s, with the invasion of China and prolonged military engagement on the mainland, the industry responded favorably to the dominant nationalist ideology by producing films that valorized qualities of discipline and self-sacrifice and celebrated traditional Japanese culture in all its forms.

In Taisho and early Showa Japan, the cinema, along with coffee shops and moga (modern girls) and jazz, was associated with modernity and embraced by artists and urban audiences in particular. In the 1930s, the state increasingly came to view all of these as tainted by corrupt Western influence – a departure from the “pure” Japanese tradition – and fostered the development of a national cinema based on the valorization of Japanese tradition and the Japanese spirit. Just as modern technologies of warfare and propaganda were employed and prized in the service of nationalist ends, so too were modernist tendencies in cinema – soviet-style montage, social realism, abstract patterning – used to endorse conservative values and accompany nationalist rhetoric.

[1] See Noel Burch, To the Distant Observer (London: Scolar Press, 1979) and David Bordwell, “A cinema of flourishes: Japanese decorative classicism of the prewar era”, in Arthur Nolletti Jnr and David Desser (eds), Reframing Japanese cinema: Authorship, Genre, History (Indiana University Press, 1992), 328- 346.
[2] See Burch, ch 7; also Joseph L.Anderson and Donald Richie, The Japanese Film: Art and Industry (Tuttle 1959, reprinted in expanded edition Princeton University Press, 1982), ch 1.
[3] J.L. Anderson, “In praise ofBenshi”, Japanese Film, Appendix A (1982), 439-444; and J. L. Anderson, “Spoken silents in the Japanese cinema; or talking to pictures: essaying the Katsuben, contexturalizing the texts”, in Nolletti & Desser, 259-311.
[4] Naimusho Keihyokyoku, Showa 2, National Diet Library, Tokyo.
[5] Yamaguchi Yoshiko and Fujiwara Sakuya, Ri Ko Ran: watashi no hansei (Ri Ko Ran: My Early Life) (Tokyo: Shincho Press, 1987).
[6] For details of the influence of the progressive modern theatre on jidai-geki  , see S.A. Thornton, “The shinkokugeki and the zenshinza: western representational realism and the Japanese period film”, Asian Cinema 7, no 2 (Winter 1995): 46-57
[7] Kinugasa Teinosuke, “Le cinema japonais vers 1920”, Cahiers du cinema 166/7 (May-June 1965): 44, 46. My translation.
[8] Sato Tadao, “Theatre et cinema au Japon”, in Cinema et litterature au Japon de l’ere Meiji a nos jours (Paris: Editions du Centre Pompidou, 1986), 35
[9] Dai-nihon Universal was founded in 1915; United Artists and Paramount established branches in 1922; MGM and First National in 1925; Warner Brothers in 1932; Columbia and RKO in 1934; Twentieth Century Fox in 1935. See Tanaka Junichiro, Nihon eiga hattatsu shi, (History of the Development of Japanese Cinema) , Vol lll (Chuei Koron, 1976), 80-81
[10] Tanaka Junichiro, Vol 2, 386-388.
[11] Kinugasa Teinosuke, 46.
[12] Burch, 128.
[13] “A war of utter rebellion: Kinugasa’s Page of Madness and the Japanese avant-garde of the 1920s”, Cinema Journal 29, no 1 (Fall 1989).
[14] Kinugasa Teinosuke, 46-7.
[15] Kinugasa Teinosuke, 44.
[16] Yamada Kazuo, Nihon eigano gendai shi (Shinnichi Books, 1970), 40.
[17] See Miriam Silverberg, “Remembering Pearl Harbour, forgetting Charlie Chaplin and the case of the disappearing western woman: a picture story’, positions 1, no.1 (1993): 24-76.
[18] Shinko later became a major production company, attracting leading writers and directors and, under the astute management of Nagata Masaichi, eventually became the main player in the creation of Daiei in 1942, when wartime regulations restricted the number of commercial film companies to three.
[19] On the gradual transition from silent cinema to the talkie in Japan, see Freda Freiberg, “The transition to sound in Japan”, in Tom O”Regan and Brian Shoesmith (eds), History on/and/in Film, Proceedings of the 3rd History and Film Conference 1985 (Perth: History and Film Association of Australia, 1987), 76-80.
[200] Akira Kurosawa, Something Like an Autobiography (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1982), 74.
[21] For more detailed information on the transition from silent to sound production, see Freiberg 1987.
[22] Speech made by Chief of Police Administration Section of Naimusho to Naimusho-sponsored meeting of officials in charge of entertainment, 4-6 August 1925.
[23] “The post-war film world and GHQ”, in Endo Tatsuo, Eirin: rekishi to jiken [Film ethics regulation: history and incidents] (Tokyo: Kabushigaisha Pelican, 1973).
[24] From official history of film censorship section of Police Administration Department of Naimusho, in Taikakai (ed., under Gojo Fumio, a former Minister of the Interior), Naimushoshi [History of the Ministry of the Interior], vol. 2, Part 4, no. 5 (Chiho Zaimu Kyokai,1 November 1971).
[25] Statistical tables in “Film censorship measures July ,Taisho 14 – December Showa 1”, in Gendai shishiryo (Modern Historical Documents) vol. 40, no. 1, Regulation of Mass Media, 21-28, Diet Library, Tokyo.
[26] Naimusho Keihyo Kyoku, Annual Report on Film Censorship, June 1927, Diet Library, Tokyo.
[[27] Case no. 3, of “Main instances of violations”, in Censorship report for July 1925 – December 1926, in Gendai shishiryo, 32-3.
[28] Anderson and Richie, 69.
[29] Rationale for Proposal of National Policy Films, Genzai shishiryo, 263.
[30] Inauguration speech of Prime Minister, Viscount Saito, cited in Genzai shishiryo, 650-651.

About the Author

Freda Freiberg

About the Author

Freda Freiberg

Freda Freiberg is a film historian and critic who has conducted extensive research on the pre-war, war-time and post-war Japanese cinema.View all posts by Freda Freiberg →