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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