Childhood Years

Source: Junichiro Tanizaki (trans. Paul McCarthy), Childhood Years: A Memoir (London: Collins, 1990, orig. pub. 1957), pp. 137-138

Text: There were some good places like the Yurakukan, falling somewhere between a legitimate theater and a vaudeville hall. The result was that a variety of interesting and unusual entertainments were presented: it was there that I saw my first motion picture and my first Western-style marionette show. According to One Hundred Stories of the World of Meiji by the late Yamamoto Shogetsu, the first presentation of a motion picture in Tokyo was around February 1897 at the Kabukiza; and the Yurakukan must have begun showing them soon after. They were either simple records of actual events taken on the spot on trick shots, and the ends of the reel would be joined together so that the same films could be projected over and over. I can still remember a scene, endlessly repeated, of high waves rolling in on a shore somewhere, breaking, and then receding, and of a lone dog playing there, now pursuing, now being pursued by the retreating and advancing waters. There was also a scene of a long line of horses in the distance at the edge of a broad plain, looking as small as grains of millet, They came rushing straight towards the camera, growing bigger moment by moment until finally they were upon us. Suddenly they veered away into the distance, to be succeeded by another thin line on the horizon.

Then there were scenes reminiscent of the upheavals that attended the French Revolution or the persecution of the Protestants after the Reformation: aristocratic-looking women are being dragged to the place of execution, placed on a great pile of bundled faggots, and burned to death; the smoke billows forth and the women are enveloped in flames; at last the fire and smoke die down to reveal only ashes – not even the outlines of the bodies remain.

There was yet another scene in which two beautiful, almost naked women, one on either side of a devil dressed like Mephistopheles. He summons one of them and orders her to lie on a table shaped like a chopping block. He then wraps her body in a huge sheet of glistening black material like carbon paper. A sign is given, and the body of the woman in its black wrappings rises into the air. Then from the area of her feet flames appear and begin to lick at her body, moving upward and finally consuming her, paper wrappings and all.

Comments: Junichiro Tanizaki (1886-1965) was a major Japanese novelist, who also worked for a time as a scriptwiter for the Taikatsu studio in the 1920s. The films he recalls at Yurakukan are a mixture of 1890s and 1900s works: waves breaking on a shore was a common subject in some the earliest film shows; the trick films and the burning of the women would have been a few years later (possibly French Pathé productions). Film reels could not be joined end-to-end to be projected on an endless loop. The first projected motion pictures were exhibited in Tokyo in March 1897 (preceded by showings in Osaka in February).

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8 Responses to Childhood Years

  1. @FashionFilmFest has suggested that the film with Mephistopheles, two women, black material and flames could be Le Spectre Rouge (France 1907), made by Segundo de Chomón for Pathé. There is certainly a strong similiarity.

    • Dawid Glownia says:

      “There was also a scene of a long line of horses in the distance at the edge of a broad plain, looking as small as grains of millet, They came rushing straight towards the camera, growing bigger moment by moment until finally they were upon us.”

      This is probably “Cavalry Passing in Review” (1897) as Tanisaki’s recollections are similiar to film’s description from Edison Catalog reproduced on imdb:

      “Showing Troop A, U.S. Cavalry, Fort Meyer, Va. They are first seen coming round a bend of the road, half a mile distant, and seem to be riding harder and harder as they approach. Flashing helmets, sabres and spurs makes this a very brilliant spectacle.”

      • This is quite possible, especially given that Edison films featured strongly in the first Japanese film shows. Films of cavalry galloping towards the camera were not uncommon at this time, however (all the film companies copied the ideas of their rivals), so the identification can’t be for certain. Many thanks for the suggestion.

        • Dawid Glownia says:

          Tanizaki’s description of first three films sounds similar to the vitascope program presented at the Kinki-kan in March 1897, so it was probably a vitascope screening.

          I don’t know how reliable is the information that “Cavalry Passing in Review” was shot in April 1897. If it’s true that would mean that different film was screened both in Kinki-kan and in Yuraku-kan.

          As for the “scenes reminiscent of the upheavals that attended the French Revolution or the persecution of the Protestants after the Reformation” my guess would be that it was actually “Joan of Arc” (1895), as that film was certainly imported along with vitascope.

          However, in that case the plural form “women” is problematic. Maybe Tanizaki meant that the film was looped so it seemed like a series of burnings (I doubt it). On the other hand his memory could have been obscured at that time. Another possibility is a slight mistake in translation, but without confrontation with the original verison of Tanizaki’s memoirs it’s just guessing.

          • The Vitascope identification is a likely one. The other films he mentions I think comes from the early 1900s – the French revolution or St Bartholomew’s Massacre film sounds like a Pathé film of that period, and we have an identification for Le Spectre Rouge. Such memories are always going to be hazy and feature some overlapping, though the evidence suggests Tanizaki recalled specific films rather than generic types.

  2. Dawid Glownia says:

    I just got that idea – when Tanizaki writes about scenes “reminiscent of (…) French Revolution or the persecution of the Protestants after the Reformation” it may be “Les Martyrs de l’Inquisition” (1905, Pathé).

    According to Kyokkō Yoshiyama a Pathé film about Inquisiton was screened at Tokyo’s Kinki-kan in April 1906 and banned due its excessive cruelty. I assume that film concerning Inquisition would contain some scenes of women being burned as stake.

    • It just so happens that I’ve seen Les Martyrs de l’Inquisition – there’s a copy of it at the BFI. It is amazingly lurid, as you may gather from the BFI’s catalogue description. http://collections-search.bfi.org.uk/web/Details/ChoiceFilmWorks/150000844. You’ll see that it includes an auto da fé or burning at the stake, but says nothing about women victims (and it’s too long since I saw the film for me to remember – I best remember the manic excitement on the faces of the Inquisition when a man is rotated on a wheel). But allowing for some haziness in Tanizaki’s memories, it could possibly be the film.

      A fascinating twist to this story of the film is that the BFI’s copy came from the collection of a Swiss catholic priest Joseph Joye, who collected films around the 1905-1915 to show to schoolchildren. Goodness knows what lessons were drawn when he showed them Les Martyrs de l’Inquisition.

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