by Gregg Rickman
Japan has long had one of the most beautiful cinemas in the world, with masterpieces extant from its prolonged silent era, from the militarist period of the late 1930s and early 1940s, through the postwar era of American occupation and economic resurgence. This primer covers films made through this postwar era, extending its commentary to the present day to demonstrate the continuing influence of Japan's film pioneers. Early Japanese cinema is hard to find, little of it surviving the firebombs of the Pacific War, and a small portion is presently available on DVD. This survey will comment not only on the few films now available for home viewing but other works as well, in hopes that as time passes more films will become available.
Shiro Asano imported the first motion picture camera to Japan in 1897, two years after the first Lumière Brothers screenings in Paris. Unlike the west, where for most of its formative early years the medium was considered working class entertainment, fit only for fairgrounds and the nickelodeon - and thus was able to develop as a vigorous, story-telling medium - the Japanese upper class favored the new medium from the start. As a consequence, until 1920 most films were filmed stage plays, drawn from either the classic kabuki form or the newer, post-1890, shimpa ("new school") theater. This division is the basis of the still-existing divide of Japanese cinema into historical, period films (jidaigeki) and contemporary pictures (gendaigeki). Both forms were stylized, shot in a series of long takes from a fixed, stage-like position, and drew from theatrical tradition as well in its use of female impersonators for women's roles.
Western films, widely imported to Japan after 1917, were a great contrast and quite successful. The young Akira Kurosawa's father took him to many imported American and European films, which he felt were "educational," and the boy, writing years later in his Something Like an Autobiography, was particularly impressed by the "reliable manly spirit and the smell of male sweat" of William S. Hart's westerns (a forecast perhaps of his own taste for samurai films). Devices such as pans and close-ups began to influence Japanese cinema. The first "realist" (in the western sense) Japanese film is considered to be the still-extant Souls on the Road (Minoru Mirata, 1921), a loose adaptation of Maxim Gorky's The Lower Depths (which Kurosawa himself would film in 1957).
A Page of Madness
German Expressionist cinema of the 1920s would influence two films by Teinosuke Kinugasa (1896-1982), who had entered cinema as a female impersonator in 1917 and directed two highly regarded experimental narratives, A Page of Madness (1926) and Crossroads (1928). A Page of Madness echoes The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari in its story of a man ridden with guilt by his wife's insanity; he takes a job in her asylum. Both films skip freely through time, as with many post-1960 experimental narratives from Resnais to Tarantino. Kinugasa had a long career - his colorful Gate of Hell (1952) was one of the first Japanese films to be seen worldwide.
Other foreign films and trends influenced Japanese silent cinema as well. The popularity of American slapstick, for example, gave rise to a nansensu ("nonsense") genre. Yasujiro Ozu's early films are nansensu in nature; his earliest surviving film, Days of Youth (1929) featured a bespectacled protagonist (à la Harold Lloyd) who chases a lost ski with a mind of its own. (A clip from this film can be seen in the documentary, I Lived, But…, which is included in the bonus disc for the Criterion Collection edition of Tokyo Story.)
But full adaptation of western filmmaking modes was impeded by the ongoing popularity of a figure who had died out in the west after 1910, a lecturer who sat beside the screen and gave a running interpretive commentary on the action. These lecturers (benshi) were popular in their own right, and their popularity held back the development of movies as a story-telling medium whose images could stand on their own. Even the coming of sound was delayed. The enormous popularity of Josef von Sternberg's Morocco in 1930 set the stage for Japan's first all-talking film (Heinosuke Gosho's The Neighbor's Wife and Mine) in 1931, but lingering resistance from benshi and from audiences delayed sound's complete triumph for several years. A stubborn Ozu continued to make silent films up through An Inn in Tokyo (1935). A key turning point was a 1932 strike by benshi against the announced policy that had urged theaters showing foreign films to fire all of their benshi. The strike was led by Akira Kurosawa's brother, Heigo, a famous benshi who committed suicide after the strike's failure.
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