Japanese Cinema

Source: Carl Koch, from ‘Japanese Cinema’, Close-up vol. VIII no. 4 (December 1931), pp. 296-298

Text: The Japanese film director and actor, Katsumi, recently showed me his latest film in a Berlin projection room. This film, in which he played the main role, told of the downfall of a Samurai who fought against the reigning Shogun about two centuries ago. The plot developed slowly and was punctuated by innumerable captions, until after about 6,000 feet a tremendous fight broke out between the Samurai and (apparently) the whole assembled bodyguard of the Shogun. This ended in the hero’s suicide after an incredible struggle against overwhelming odds. Although the movements were extremely interesting both in their details and in the way they followed through, yet it was clearly impossible to expect a European audience to tolerate anything so long. In fact, I was quite at a loss how this film could be adapted for the European market.

A few weeks later I received an invitation from Katsumi to a Sunday morning performance of this film in a small west-end cinema, where it was to be privately shown to the Japanese colony in Berlin. As I came into the cinema, I was given a printed slip containing a synopsis of the film. At the side of the screen was a lectern where Katsumi stood.

The film started. At the same time Katsumi began a running commentary to the preliminary titles in the normal explanatory tones of a narrator. The Samurai were strolling about on the screen. Silence. The actors conversed with each other. The voice began again, no longer in explanatory, everyday tones, but using the guttural utterance of the Japanese classical theatre to provide an exact accompaniment to the various actors’ conversation. Then a long caption, unaccompanied perhaps for half its length. Then some monotonous instrument like a guitar began to play, continued through the following scenes and stopped suddenly in the middle of a scene. The film continued. Silence. Then, the quiet explanatory voice of the speaker. A humorous remark elicited a titter from the audience — apparently some personal allusion of the speaker’s. Presently the voice became pathetic, continued so through scenes and captions, and then suddenly stopped dead. Silence. More music. Single plucked notes with long pauses in between. Another conversation in the deep gutteral style of the classical theatre, very carefully synchronised with the film and the various actors, who were made to speak sometimes high, sometimes low, clearly, confusedly, slowly or quickly, according to the context. Silence again. On the screen the chief of Shogun’s bodyguard vainly interrogated his daughter whom he had sent to spy on the hero in order to convict him of treason. She was in love with the hero and attempted to persuade her father that she had been unable to discover anything. The old man had now shot his last bolt. He sat there for some time, alone, motionless. Suddenly a gesture — and a man’s shriek. The girl rushed back into the room and flung herself on her father. He tried to free himself in order to reach his sword. His daughter tried to prevent him. The same terrible shriek recurred everytime the old man made some violent effort. At last his daughter broke down, gave him the required information and betrayed her lover. Light guitar music. It was all very thrilling. Finally came the fight, which was accompanied, partly by an exciting rhythmic figure that rose and fell, partly by the solemn declamation of some text that was probably well known to all the Japanese present.

A movie had suddenly been turned into a talkie by the extraordinary art of the speaker, the restrained but subtly differentiated use of different kinds of elocution, and the persistence of the transparent monodic, nearly always unisonal, music. This music had no resemblance to the illustrative music usually to be heard in the European cinema; it ran counter to the action on the screen in a kind of dialectical counterpoint. (For instance, doleful music usually accompanied gay scenes on the screen; quick and lively music, slow sad scenes.) The restraint with which this was carried out made for clearness, lucidity, excitement, variety. The subtleties of tone often lent scenes which had dragged in the projection room an extraordinary tension.

This is the way in which films are shown in Japanese cinemas. The idea of an announcer and a completely independent musical accompaniment is foreign to us, and so we can hardly hope to import Japanese films with any success, since, in spite of adaptation and revision, some passages would still remain too long and deliberate in tempo, and (apart from that) the film sequences are not such as are customary according to the unwritten convention between public and producer here in Europe.

Comments: Carl Koch (1892-1963) was a German film director, whose credits included Nippon, a compilation short of extracts from Japanese films, which at this time were scarcely known about in the West. Katsumi is presumably the Japanese actor-director Yôtarô Katsumi. The article is illustrated with stills from a Japanese film whose title is given as The Torch (made by the Shochiku company). My thanks to Dawid Glownia for bringing this passage to my attention.

Links: Copy at the Internet Archive

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