18

Wind from the East: Japan, India, and China

JAPAN

The Early Years

The Japanese cinema, like most other aspects of Japanese culture, evolved in nearly total isolation from the West until the end of World War II. The Edison Kinetograph was introduced into Japan as early as 1896, and movies almost immediately became a popular cultural form. But Japanese cinema went through a much longer "primitive" period than the cinemas of the West (roughly 1896-1926) because of the persistence of an older, more venerable cultural form: the kabuki theater. Ironically, it was kabuki that had stimulated Eisenstein in elaborating his radically innovative theory of montage.

Kabuki is a highly stylized and somewhat overwrought dramatic form deriving from the feudal Tokugawa period (1603-1867), and because of its perennial popularity in Japan, the earliest Japanese fiction films were versions of famous kabuki plays (there exist some 350 of them). As Japanese cinema grew into a large-scale domestic industry in the first two decades of this century, the stylized conventions of kabuki became the mainstream conventions of Japanese narrative film. This prohibited the kind of formal experimentation then going on in the West in the work of Griffith, Eisenstein, Feuillade, and Murnau, but allowed Japanese cinema to develop along its own path.

Two conventions of kabuki are especially unusual relative to Western films. First, all female roles until well into the twenties were played by professional female impersonators known as onnagata or oyama, which worked against even the simplest sort of photographic realism. Second, and much more formative in the development of Japanese cinema, was the convention of the bensbi—an actor who stands at the side of the stage (or screen, in the case of films) and narrates the action for the audience. In the earliest Japanese films, the benshi provided both voices for the characters and commentary on the action. After 1912, the benshi concentrated exclusively on dialogue in response to an influx of foreign films using intertitles, a practice quickly imitated by domestic producers. By 1920, however, the benshi had returned to the practice of mixing description / commentary with spoken dialogue—sometimes read from intertitles, sometimes interpolated from the action itself. As Donald Kirihara has pointed out, the effect on film form was immense: "[T]he presence of the benshi was a fact that filmmakers could assume during production, allowing them to make films with ambiguous spatial and

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