The Oxford History of World Cinema

By Geoffrey Nowell-Smith | Go to book overview

Japan: Before the Great Kanto Earthquake


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,


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The Oxford History of World Cinema
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Acknowledgements vii
  • Contributors ix
  • Contents xi
  • Special Features xv
  • List of Colour Illustrations xvii
  • General Introduction xix
  • 1 - Silent Cinema 1895-1930 1
  • Origins and Survival 6
  • Early Cinema 13
  • Transitional Cinema 23
  • The Hollywood Studio System 43
  • The World-Wide Spread of Cinema 53
  • The First World War and the Crisis in Europe 62
  • Tricks and Animation 71
  • Comedy 78
  • Documentary 86
  • Cinema and the Avant-Garde 95
  • Serials 105
  • French Silent Cinema 112
  • Italy- Spectacle and Melodrama 123
  • British Cinema from Hepworth to Hitchcock 130
  • Germany- The Weimar Years 136
  • The Scandinavian Style 151
  • Pre-Revolutionary Russia 159
  • The Soviet Union and the Russian émigrés 162
  • Yiddish Cinema in Europe 174
  • Japan- Before the Great Kanto Earthquake 177
  • Music and the Silent Film 183
  • The Heyday of the Silents 192
  • 2 - Sound Cinema 1930-1960 205
  • The Introduction of Sound 211
  • Hollywood- The Triumph of the Studio System 220
  • Censorship and Self-Regulation 235
  • The Sound of Music 248
  • Technology and Innovation 259
  • Animation 267
  • Cinema and Genre 276
  • The Western 286
  • The Musical 294
  • Crime Movies 304
  • The Fantastic 312
  • Documentary 322
  • Socialism, Fascism, and Democracy 333
  • The Popular Art of French Cinema 344
  • Italy from Fascism to Neo-Realism 353
  • Britain at the End of Empire 361
  • Germany- Nazism and after 374
  • East Central Europe before the Second World War 383
  • Soviet Film under Stalin 389
  • Indian Cinema- Origins to Independence 398
  • China before 1949 409
  • The Classical Cinema in Japan 413
  • The Emergence of Australian Film 422
  • Cinema in Latin America 427
  • After the War 436
  • Transformation of the Hollywood System 443
  • Independents and Mavericks 451
  • 3 - The Modern Cinema 1960-1995 461
  • Television and the Film Industry 466
  • The New Hollywood 475
  • New Technologies 483
  • Sex and Sensation 490
  • The Black Presence in American Cinema 497
  • Exploitation and the Mainstream 509
  • Dreams and Nightmares in the Hollywood Blockbuster 516
  • Cinéma-Vérité and the New Documentary 527
  • Avant-Garde Film- The Second Wave 537
  • Animation in the Post-Industrial Era 551
  • Modern Film Music 558
  • Art Cinema 567
  • New Directions in French Cinema 576
  • Italy- Auteurs and after 586
  • Spain after Franco 596
  • British Cinema- The Search for Identity 604
  • The New German Cinema 614
  • East Germany- The Defa Story 627
  • Changing States in East Central Europe 632
  • Russia after the Thaw 640
  • Cinema in the Soviet Republics 651
  • Turkish Cinema 656
  • The Arab World 661
  • The Cinemas of Sub-Saharan Africa 667
  • Iranian Cinema 672
  • India- Filming the Nation 678
  • Indonesian Cinema 690
  • China after the Revolution 693
  • Popular Cinema in Hong Kong 704
  • Taiwanese New Cinema 711
  • The Modernization of Japanese Film 714
  • New Australian Cinema 722
  • New Zealand Cinema 731
  • Canadian Cinema/Cinéma Canadien 731
  • New Cinemas in Latin America 740
  • New Concepts of Cinema 750
  • The Resurgence of Cinema 759
  • Index 785
  • List of Picture Sources 823


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