The apparatus of moving images, such as Edison's Kinetoscope, Lumière's Cinématographe, Edison's Vitascope, and the Vitascope copied by Lubin, were first exhibited in Japan in the latter half of 1896. By the autumn of 1897, the British motion picture camera, the Baxter and Wray Cinematograph, was imported by Konishi Photographic Store. Using these imported cameras, the first cameramen, such as Shiro Asano, Tsunekichi Shibata, and Kanzo Shirai, filmed street scenes and geisha dances, and, as early as 1898-9, were making skit films exploiting trick effects, like Bake Jizo ('Jizo the spook', 1898) and Shinin no sosei ('The resurrection of a corpse', 1898). However, by the turn of the century there was still no established film industry in Japan, and French, American, and British films dominated the Japanese market.
Following the tradition of the magic lantern show, or utsushie, early films were shown at variety halls, rental halls, or ordinary theatres, alongside presentations in different media. Many of the first Japanese films recorded scenes from kabuki: in 1899, Momijigari ('Viewing scarlet maple leaves') and Ninin Dojoji ('Two people at Dojo temple') were filmed by Tsunekichi Shibata, and Tsuneji Tsuchiya made Nio no ukisu ('The floating nest of the little grebe'). Momijigari, a film of the kabuki play, featuring the legendary actors Danjuro Ichikawa IX and Kikugoro Onoe V, consisted of three shots and already showed a primitive form of film narrativity. Ninin Dojoji was the first tinted film ever made in Japan. It was coloured by the Yoshizawa Company, manufacturers of magic lantern apparatus and slides, who later became one of the first Japanese film production companies. When Ninin Dojoji was projected at the kabuki theatre in August 1900, the sponsor created a mock-up of a valley in front of the screen, with a fishfilled pond between the rocks, and a cool breeze generated by an electric fan wafting over the audience. Such extrafilmic devices were an important feature of early Japanese cinema.
In addition to the Konishi Photographic Store, Asanuma & Co. and Tsurubuchi Photographic Store dabbled with film production at the turn of the century, but soon turned exclusively to the sale of film stock and equipment. Japanese audiences were hungry for domestic subjects, but even as late as 1904 there were no production companies to fulfil their needs. The Komatsu Company, established in 1903, made some subjects for travelling exhibitions in the provinces, but even Yoshizawa Company, the most active, filmed only news subjects, landscapes, and geisha dances, and foreign films, especially from France, still dominated the market.
It was the outbreak of the Russo-Japanese War in 1905 that vitalized domestic production. A number of journalists and cameramen were sent to the Asian mainland to report on the war, among them motion picture cameramen Tsunekichi Shibata and Kozaburo Fujiwara, whose war films, along with those shot by British cameramen, became extremely popular in Japan. The popularity of war films led to the production of Japanese-made fake documentaries, and, in a similar vein, in 1905-6 a number of French 'reproduction of war' films were released. These fake documentaries of the Russo-Japanese War drew audiences' attention to the differences between fiction and non-fiction films, a distinction that had not been visible in the Japanese film industry up until that point.
Until 1908 there was no film studio in Japan, and all films were shot in the open air, including the kabuki films that required painted backdrops. However, after visiting the Edison studio in the USA, Kenichi Kawaura, the head of Yoshizawa Company, built a glass studio in Meguro, Tokyo, completed in January 1908. Soon afterwards, Pathé built a film studio in Okubo, Tokyo, the Yokota Company followed suit in Kyoto, and a year later the Fukuhodo Company started film-making in the Hanamidera studio, also in Tokyo. From 1909, then, systematic film-making, particularly of fiction films, could begin, and these four companies formed the mainstream of that production in the early years.
In October 1903 Japan's first cinema (Denki-kan or Electric Theatre) was established in Asakusa, Tokyo, and from this point the number of cinemas gradually increased, slowly replacing the vaudeville halls. The Japanese developed a unique way of showing films, borrowed from the traditions of the staged kabuki and Noh, which lasted throughout the silent period; a benshi, who explained the filmic image to the audiences, attended each performance. In the primitive era they introduced the films and told their outlines to the audience before the show began. But, as the films became longer and increasingly complex, the benshi explained the scenes and spoke the dialogue, accompanied by Japanese music, while the silent images flickered on the screen. The system of one or sometimes several players narrating from outside the filmic image prevented Japanese cinema's complete assimilation to the western form of film practice. The narrative function of the intertitles and the shot organization tended to be simplified as much as possible to emphasize the skill of the benshi in describing the narrative development of the film, the meaning of the scene,