An Introduction to Early Japanese Cinema

The history of Japanese Cinema begins with the premiere of Edison’s Kinetoscope in 1886. The following year, the Lumiere brother’s Cinematograph from France was introduced to the Japanese public. In addition, in 1898, two cinematographers from the Lumiere company visited Japan and shot on various locations. During this tour, a Japanese photographer accompanied the group. These French films have been preserved in mint condition.

Historians believe that the first Japanese made film was shot in 1897. At first, dancing geishas and the live street scenes of Tokyo constituted most of the subject matter. Geishas were especially delighted that their dancing techniques could be passed on through the wonders of this visual documentation.

In 1898, the first feature film was born. At the same time, two films, one, the dramatization of a robber’s famous arrest, and the other, a comedy about a person playing a prank on a man sleeping on a park bench, were made by the same cinematographer and actor. The same year, Game of Autumn Leaves, documenting the performance of two of the most famous Kabuki artists of the time, was produced. This short film is the oldest existing Japanese film to date.

During the Russian-Japanese war from 1904 to 1905, many foreign and Japanese cameramen were called upon to document the event. These films were quite popular in Japan, and as a result increased the number of theatergoers. Between 1908 and 1909, Japan entered its stage of mass production. Unfortunately, only a few films from this period exist as most of them were destroyed.

About Chushingura

Makino Shojo was one of the first Japanese film producers and directors. He directed or produced over 300 films between 1909 and 1928.

Initially, he started out as the owner of a theater in Kyoto, but soon started making films at the request of the Yocota company, a foreign film import company located in Kyoto. One day he took the Kabuki troupe regularly performing in his theater to a nearby temple and shot a scene of their performance. Among the troupes he cast in his films was the Onoe Matsunosuke troupe, which eventually launched Shojo’s career as a famous producer, and theirs as the first “film stars” in the history of Japanese Cinema, as their films were consistently big hits with audiences. They continued a close working relationship in film until 1921.

In 1911, Yokoda Company published a film catalogue of the films they were distributing. This catalogue indicates that most of the Japanese films during this period were short films of lengths under 200 feet. However, one film starring the Onoe Matsunosuke troupe was a feature length film approximately 7170 feet long called Chushingura. Although neither the production date nor the director is stated, historians estimated that the film was made around 1910 by tracing the film career of the Matsunosuke troupe, which started in 1909 with their first film, Go (a Japanese game) Tadanomu. In addition, since it is a well known fact that the troupe only starred in Makino Shojo films, then this film, too, must have been directed by Shojo.

Although the Matsunosuke Chushingura stored at the Matsuda Film Company in Tokyo differs from the original version, with the addition of traditional music, benshi voice-over, re-editing, and of course by the fact that the two prints were made in different periods, it is still assumed to be the Yokoda Company’s 1910 film. If so, then this film is the oldest existing feature film, and therefore one of Japan’s national treasures. According to the catalogue film synopsis, the film has 42 scenes. The existing print is missing scenes 14, 17, 19, and 20, however the catalogue includes a description of every scene.

The film is based on a well-known Japanese story, but the following describes the events which occurred between 1701 and 1702, according to the catalogue:

Chapter 1:

Inside Edo Palace, Lord Asano, who is ordered to serve the court’s envoy by the shogunate, receives special coaching from Lord Kira who is in charge of palace etiquette training.

Chapter 2:

Shibazojo Temple. However, Asano does not offer Kira the requisite bribes so Kira, in turn, gives Asano the wrong instructions. This results in the Zojo Temple reception ending in disaster, and angering Asano.

Chapter 3:

Inside Edo Palace, Asano is humiliated once again when he falls victim to Kira’s conspiracy by wearing inappropriate clothing.

Chapter 4:

Inside Edo Palace, Asano’s subordinate, Kataoka, begs Asano to restrain his anger.

Chapter 5:

Inside Edo Palace, Asano can take no more and stabs Kira.

Chapter 6:

Kira manages to survive. He is held for interrogation but is soon released after being proved innocent.

Chapter 7:

In front of the Tamura mansion where Asano is held prisoner, Asano’s men appeal for Asano’s life.

Chapter 8:

An envoy of the shogunate visits the Tamura mansion.

Chapter 9:

Asano is ordered to commit harikiri (suicide by disembowelment).

Chapter 10:

After he is visited by subordinate Kataoka, Asano commits harakiri.

Chapter 11:

Two of Asano’s men from Edo hurry off to one of Asano’s territories, Ako, by carriage.

Chapter 12:

Ako Palace. The news from Edo is delivered to the chief servant of the Asano family, Oishi (Onoe Matsunosike).

Chapter 13:

At Ako Palace, the warriors of the Asano family announce that they will fight for the palace till death to show their loyalty to their lord, Asano, who died a wrongful death.

Chapter 14:

A few cowards run away (this scene is missing).

Chapter 15:

Inside Ako Palace, Oishi holds a meeting with the remaining warriors and announces his plans for revenge. A pledge of honor is made.

Chapter 16:

Ako Palace falls into the hands of the army sent by the shogunate.

Chapter 17:

Kyoto. Asano’s subordinate, Yoshida is suspicious of Oishi (this scene is missing).

Chapter 18:

A bar in Kyoto. Oishi is fooling around with around with geishas. The shogunate acts suspicious of Oishi in order to fool the spy into thinking that he carries no intention of revenge. Oishi pretends that he is fully engrossed in the amusements surrounding him.

Chapter 19:

Oishi’s comrades become suspicious of him.

Chapter 20:

One of Oishi’s comrades kill the spy (this scene is missing).

Chapter 21:

Oishi’s house is located on the outskirts of Kyoto. Oishi is reprimanded for keeping his plans for revenge even from his wife and mother.

Chapter 22:

Oishi bids farewell to his young children.

Chapter 23:

Oishi divorces his wife and then sends his mother and children off to his hometown in order to protect his family from any punishment after his plans are carried out.

Chapter 24:

Although Oishi’s original plans are kept from his family, Oishi and his eldest son, Chikara find out Oishi’s mother is aware of his plans. All are very moved.

Chapter 25:

One of the comrades, Kamikazi, is insulted by a man on horseback on his way to Edo to participate in the mission for revenge. Although he could easily kill the man, he apologizes to the horseback rider in fear of setting off any news to the shogunate that Asano’s men are gathering in Edo.

Chapter 26:

Asano’s residence, Edo. On the eve of the event, Oishi pays a visit to Asano’s widow. Expecting to hear Oishi’s plans for revenge, Asano’s widow is disappointed that he has none for her to hear.

Chapter 27:
The same place, outside. Oishi bids farewell and leaves behind a letter.

Chapter 28:

The same place, inside. A spy finds out Oishi’s plans for revenge in the letter and is captured by Asano’s widow’s men.

Chapter 29:

Edo. 47 of Asano’s men gather on the 2nd floor of a noodle shop near Kira’s house.

Chapter 30-40:

Kira’s mansion. The 47 men infiltrate the mansion and attack Kira’s men.

Chapter 41:

Kira is found hiding in a hut in the corner of the mansion and is killed by Asano’s men.

Chapter 42:

Asano’s men march towards Asano’s grave located at Sengaku Temple.

About Hero Jiraiya

Producer and director, Makino Shojo, and the main star, Onoe Mastrunosuke, made numerous films based on Kabuki theater and historical tales. In Japan, historical tales were performances based on heroic tales which were rhythmically told by a benshi (a live voice-over narrator to a silent film).

At the time, only one cut was made for each scene. In case the camera ran out of film stock, the actors waited in the same position until the film was changed. If one of the actors had to go to the bathroom, the scene was shot without the actor which seemed like the character had disappeared from the screen. The realization of camera tricks such as these led to the development of transformation techniques which were quite popular with Japanese audiences.

The 1921 film, Hero Jiraiya, directed by Makino Shojo and with Onoe Matsunosuke as the main character, was one of the many films that utilized these transformation techniques. The existing print is in insufficient condition; however, as most of the other similar films have been lost, it carries great weight.

The story is based on an early 19th century bestseller describing the tale of a Chinese robber. Jiraiya uses his ability to transform himself to rob evil landlords in order to reconstruct his master’s [ ]. Overall, it is about guerilla type resistance against the enemies who brought down the Jukun family.

About The Japanese Antarctic Expedition

In the early stages of Japanese Cinema, many documentary films or news reels including scenes of the city, dancing geishas, Kabuki, Sumo, royal or celebrity funerals, the Giwadam incident, and the Russia-Japan War, were produced.

In 1907, a documentary about Taiwan was made. At that time, Taiwan’s value as a colony was questioned; therefore, this documentary was filmed for the purpose of advertising it as a valuable piece of land.

In 1908, Ito Hirobumi brought the prince of Chosun to Japan. He was met with strong opposition that believed the prince to be a hostage. Subsequently, Hirobumi ordered a film company to make a documentary describing how the prince was welcomed in Japan in order to diminish such controversy. This account illustrates how documentary films were used as political tools.

Among the documentary films that are stored at the Film Center of the Tokyo National Museum of Modern Art (See Korean), with the exception of short films, the oldest film that still exists in mint condition is the 1912 film, The Japanese Antarctic Expedition, made by the M. Path Company. Although the company’s name sounds rather French, it is, in fact, a Japanese company whose owner, Umeya Shokichi, supplied funds for the revolutionary activities of the Chinese revolution leader, Sohn Moon. This film documents the 1910 Antarctic Expedition of naval lieutenant, Shirase and his companions. During this trip, cameraman Taitsumi Yasunao from the M. Path Company accompanied the group and filmed the expedition. The original print was twice the length of the existing print. Politician Osumi Shigenobu provided funds for the expedition, which explains why quite a few politicians can be seen in the farewell party scene at the beginning of the film. It seems that this film was used for expedition-related seminars rather than for commercial purposes.

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Sato Tadao

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Sato Tadao

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