The March of Japan

Source: Edgar Lajtha, The March of Japan (New York: Frederick A. Stokes, [1936]), pp. 109-114

Text: The twentieth century has allowed the Japanese to live again their middle age through the cinema, and when the Japanese wants to escape from glaring modernity, he can find solace in the world of the Japanese fighting-spirit films when he sees the virtues of his ancestors rise up from their graves.

In Tokyo’s film street, where every building is a cinema, there are posters with gigantic coloured photographs of the stars and dramatic scenes from the film displayed at every entrance. Japan’s history lives again on these façades, and sometimes a large flaming sword covers the front of one cinema, or two warriors’ heads, or simply the head of a weeping woman. But the swords predominate, for in these eventful days the sword is the matinée idol of the people.

Between two historic heroes a good looking Tarzan may be jumping naked out of the jungle on to a crocodile’s back, laughing down at the blonde head of Greta Garbo, his vis-à-vis. The heads of the Western stars look unfamiliar; for the Japanese the faces of Garbo, Barrymore and Bergner would lack character, and the poster-artist retouches their faces, as the Japanese photographer does his portraits, thereby suppressing their true personalities.

The Chinese use other methods, and when I saw the Garbo’s head outside a Hongkong cinema, she had wrinkles at the side of her mouth and almond-shaped eyes.

An endless stream of people pass through the Asakusa from morning till night, the men in grey kimonos, the women in colour, and the children most brightly dressed of all. The clatter of their wooden sandals on the hard street blends with the music from the cinema doors. Flags displaying the tides of the films in large letters flutter in profusion in the glare of street-lights. Sometimes the names are written in Japanese characters on net flags and fly like dragons above the heads of the crowds.

As the people pass along on both sides of the streets, they often stop in front of one cinema trying to decide whether to go in. It is no easy decision, for the choice is so wide and the prices so cheap, seats can be had from five sen. The propaganda in the street is cleverly conceived and it dims their eyes. Who can withstand the power of a flaming sword as big as a rowing-boat? So I, too, reeled into a cinema.

A samisen orchestra accompanies the silent historical films and an announcer, who stands following the film like one of the audience, speaks the actors’ parts out of the darkness. He follows the lip-movements of men, women and children and adjusts his voice accordingly. As I was at the last evening performance, the announcer was becoming hoarse.

The audience had their eyes fixed on the screen. Women clutched crumpled handkerchiefs, wrapt in another world. In these warrior-films Japan is again shut off from contemporary life. Japanese fight only Japanese; the clock has been put back a hundred years.

The Japanese landscape was unfolded before us in black and white. We could see silver lakes glinting in the light, dark islands and black trees. White steam rose out of a deep crater and rice fields basked in the sun. Suddenly the black silhouette of a Samurai overshadowed this peaceful picture. Two swords hung at his side, the long one for his enemy, the short one for himself; for the Japanese warrior is never taken alive. The excitement began when a speck could be seen on the horizon, gradually becoming bigger and bigger, till we could see that it was the enemy of our Samurai.

The two Japanese warriors were now face to face, staring silently with unwinking eyes and proud mouths. Only their fingers twitched, convulsively clutching their swords.

The moment they drew their swords with a lightning movement the scene became alive with other warriors jumping from behind bushes and rocks. There were about fifty of them, Japanese against Japanese, and if one was threatened in the back, he whipped round as if he had eyes there too. The Samurais’ training in fencing, which lasted for years, was no ordinary one, for it taught them to concentrate their five senses on one thought, so that they learnt to feel the sword-point in their backs the instant before it was thrust.

The Samurai turned round with a sudden spring that repulsed his enemies for a yard or so; while he cut in two the man who had been about to kill him, the others had time to regain breath. Swords clashed. This catlike stratagem came off again and again; if he did it once, he did it five times until he had reduced his fifty enemies to ten.

In a short time they fled and disembowelled themselves.

Similar warriors attacked the Samurai on his way home through the countryside. When he finally reached his village, he found that his home had been plundered of his goods and his loved ones. He knew at once that it was the work of these same enemies, and set out to find his young lover.

A steep coast on the ocean. A weeping girl was wandering under the steep cliffs, dressed in a light striped kimono, with her hair arranged in the old style, above her white, oval, classical Japanese face.

She strayed from one rock to another. Sometimes jumping down, and sometimes springing from stone to stone to keep her kimono from trailing in the sea. At other times she would be high up, where one false step meant certain death. She had been wandering on this coast for days, for every minute represented months, and her hair began to fly in the wind. Now she held a new born infant in her arms, her tears falling on its little face while she stood far above high rocks and the surging sea. She looked down hopelessly at the waves. Then a strong hand drew her back.

The Samurai had at last found his lover. He laughed and wept with joy, but she no longer wept but only laughed shrilly. She was mad. She handed him the child, and even as he bent down to see the first smile on his first-born’s lips, the waves were surging over the woman’s head.

The Samurai, still wearing his two swords in his belt, and with the child in his arms, looked down dumbly at the waves. They soon surged over his head too.

The Samisen orchestra burst into jazz, for the second film on the programme was more modern.

Two marriages seemed to be going awry! In one the husband was too Westernised and the wife too conservative, in the other the situation was reversed. After an hour of complications the husbands and wives reached a compromise and the film closed with a happy ending.

The third film was at last a sound film. It was concerned with the problems which Western civilisation have brought to Japan, the problems of the middle-class youth who are still undergoing wedekindian trials. A “modern boy” had fallen in love with a “modern girl.” When the girl’s father found his daughter in the boy’s flat, he shot her, whereupon the boy came out of his hiding place and shot the father. The youthful murderer then became a haunted wanderer of the night. Homeless and at the end of his strength, he fled to a friend’s house. The friend forgave him and the murderer wept on his breast. Later he gave himself up to the authorities and was acquitted.

The films were not directed properly and the stories were drawn out to appalling length with streams of dialogue. But that did not seem to disturb my neighbours who must have been paragons of patience. The great fault of all film producers is also committed by Japanese directors. They do not stick to realities, and their players are not true types. The sets in the films are always ultra-modern milieus where the Japanese would like to live but will never see in all their life. A foreigner is particularly struck by the absence of mimicry and gesticulation. The gamut of passions is never expressed with more than a nervous twitching of the lips, and kissing does not exist. In love scenes two heads nestle together and tears fall, and one comes away from the Asakusa cinemas with the impression that the sons of one of the manliest nations in the world weep more than any of their fellow men.

But if the photography of Japanese films is considered by itself, all the faults are forgotten. Every picture is a feast for the eye and even the most prosaic scenes are filled with poetry.

The educational films are the most beautifully photographed of all. They enlighten the people and they pulsate with the force of Japanese life. The possibilities of expansion are pointed out in a lovely series of pictures, showing an immense landscape of cherry blossom. Suddenly a volcano erupts: “Strengthen your spirit. … That is the fate of the Japanese.”

The young Japanese intellectuals do not often frequent the Asakusa for its cinemas cater for provincial tastes; but provincials are typical of the Japanese taste as a whole.

The cinemas outside the Ginza district show American films principally. Two hundred and fifty films are imported annually from Hollywood, and while the Japanese film predominates in the suburbs and the provinces, American productions are more popular in the better quarters of the large towns. These films teach the youth about the latest developments of Western civilisation, and pleasure is a secondary consideration. They are also useful as a means of giving English lessons to those who cannot go abroad. But the mogas find them useful for showing the latest Hollywood fashions.

Comments: Edgar Lajtha (1910-?) was a Hungarian travel writer. His account includes a description of a benshi performer, who provided audiences with Japanese an interpretation of the action. Silent films continued for a longer period in Japan than they did in the West, and programmes in the mid-1930s could comprise a mixture of silent and sound films. I have not been able to identify the films he describes.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

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