Magazine article Journal of Film Preservation

Archiving Disaster: Multiple Versions of Documentary Films about the Great Kanto Earthquake

Magazine article Journal of Film Preservation

Archiving Disaster: Multiple Versions of Documentary Films about the Great Kanto Earthquake

Article excerpt


The Great Kanto Earthquake on 1 September 1923 was one of the worst disasters in Japanese history, killing over 100,000 people and damaging 370,000 buildings. Although it took a long time, the recovery of the destroyed Tokyo metropolitan district became the biggest turning point in the modernisation of Japan. This year is the 90th anniversary of the Great Kanto Earthquake. A similar earthquake two years ago in Japan has left 300,000 people displaced. In terms of archiving moving images of disasters, research on films about the Great Kanto Earthquake is extremely important.

The earthquake was also a crucial turning point for Japanese film history. Immediately after the earthquake, several production companies and individuals shot footage of the affected areas and victims in order to make documentary films. These were actively shown at schools and public halls all over Japan and drew large audiences. Long feature films distributed to commercial cinemas were highly popular at the time and this led to a reassessment of the importance of documentaries. Afterwards, newspaper companies, major studios, and small production companies produced a lot of documentary films, and the 1930s saw the introduction of newsreel theatres.

The historical importance of documentary films about the Great Kanto Earthquake is not yet fully understood, the chief reason being that most of the films have not survived, while for the few that do, not much fundamental research has been done. Furthermore, some of the existing documentary films on the earthquake are in the form of strange multiple versions, which makes research difficult.

Firstly, it is not clear how many documentary films were actually made at the time of the earthquake. There is evidence that "more than a dozen small companies in Kanto and no more than ten small companies in Kansai"1 produced both documentary and feature films. Fumiko Tsuneishi, former curator at the National Film Center (NFC), has said that "the films on the earthquake are categorized as one of the chaotic genres which were repeatedly duplicated" and "revealing the number of the documentary films made right after the earthquake seems to be possible, but even such a thing is extremely difficult due to the poor surviving state of the documentation."2


According to my research, at least ten different positive prints exist as of March 2013. Eight of these are in the NFC collection. Chart 1 (see page 94) shows the films in order of acquisition year. The numbering and the abbreviated names of the films in the chart are used for convenience in this essay.

The eight films in the NFC collection are divided into two groups: four films with main titles, and four films without. For the former, the titles were taken directly from the main title frames. For the films without main title frames, "tentative titles" were created from the credits. Among the four films with main titles, only No.2, Monbu, and No.3, Moka, have records of their theatrical release or censorship. Because No.6, Hyohan, and No.7, Teito, have no records, there is no way to absolutely confirm that the contents of the films really match the main titles.

In addition, six out of eight films in the NFC collection (other than No.2 and No.3) do not maintain a consistent look throughout, with a mixture of colour scheme types, unevenness of exposure, and different intertitle designs and/ or typographies. Therefore, in these cases, one, or even more than one film, was quite possibly edited in later on. Not only that, but, at times, these films share many of the same shots. For example, as Illustration 1 shows, Monbu and Nikkatsu share a completely identical shot.

Identical here means that the composition of the shot, the camerawork, and the motion of the objects can be recognized as being the same.3 The two films obviously share the same footage. …

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