A Japanese Cinema

Source: ‘A Japanese Cinema’, New Zealand Herald, 25 March 1933, supplement p. 10

Text: A JAPANESE CINEMA

ENTHUSIASM OF AUDIENCE

NO KISSES IN FILMS

An interesting description of a visit to a Japanese cinema theatre is given by an English traveller in a recent issue of “Film Weekly.” Flaming banners and photographs of Japanese film stars denoted that this was the place I sought, (he wrote). I paid my money and entered, my progress to the seat being accompanied by deep bows from the daintily clad and elaborately coiffured usherettes. Next came a coy little lady bearing an ash tray and matches and a cushion for my greater comfort. By my side were two giggling little dolls, who every now and again cast surreptitious and demure glances in my direction.

The programme was nearing the end of the “comic,” in which two Oriental prototypes of Laurel and Hardy were competing for the affections of a lovely geisha. The audience literally screamed with merriment as, while they were indulging in mirthful altercation, another competitor stole her away under their very noses.

Let, no one talk to me of inscrutable, unsmiling Japanese. They form the most responsive and vocal audiences in the world. If they are amused they laugh – and they are easily amused – and their laugh is not just a refined gurgle, but a whole-hearted roar. If they are thrilled, an audible shiver runs through the audience.

A newsreel with a Japanese commentary showed the exploits of the representatives of the Land of the Rising Sun in the Olympic Games. This was greeted with extraordinary enthusiasm. The whole aim of Japanese pictures seems to be the glorification of Japan and things Japanese. Never was there a country so intensely nationalistic.

The feature picture was the synchronised version of Ben-Hut, from which, as the kiss in Japan is looked upon as a most disgusting affair, most of the love scenes had been eliminated. Ben-Hur’s caresses were left to the imagination. Every time the lovers showed signs of offending the Japanese moral code by coming to gags, the referee. in the form of a quick fade-out, would order them to break away, whilst the two coy maidens on my left would cover their faces with opened fingers and give a shocked “chi-chi.”

I soon tired of transatlantic Romans, and wandered forth into the gaily bannered streets in search of more film fare. I entered a second “shinema” for the modest sum of 10 sen, about 11⁄2d. All the seats being full, I stood at the back and watched a thrilling drama of the Shanghai conflict. Japan is passing through a period of intense chauvinism, and it is perhaps natural that such a proud and self-reliant nation should mirror its military prowess upon the screen. An elocutionist who commented on the story was much in evidence, in spite of lengthy Japanese captions. The story, if indeed it can be dignified by that, name, was of the slightest. The main theme was the heroism of the soldiers of Nippon.

We then went back to the days of sho-guns and samurai in an historical drama. Our worthy elocutionist, had obviously exhausted himself in his previous effort, and the complicated story slowly unfolded itself to a rapidly dwindling audience. With no English captions to guide me, the picture was almost totally incomprehensible, but I gathered that it dealt with the adventures of a lovely “Broken Blossom,” whose heart still retained its snow-white purity in spite of her sinister environment, a theme very dear to the Japanese mind.

Her handsome lover, sword in hand, after encountering incredible opposition, effects her escape, but dies in her arms. Then the story goes off at another angle with an entirely different set of characters.

Comments: This article was originally published in the British film journal Film Weekly. The silent film Ben-Hur (USA 1925) was reissued in 1931 with a music score and sound effects.

Links: Copy at Papers Past

Some Unpublished Letters of Lafcadio Hearn

Source: Osman Edwards, ‘Some Unpublished Letters of Lafcadio Hearn’, Transactions and Proceedings of the Japan Society, vol. 16 (1918), pp. 16-32

Text: We know how he loved to mingle unobtrusively with the joys and sorrows of his unsophisticated neighbours. He gives the following account of a visit to a Tokyo cinema:

“Here I, too, have been looking at scenes of the Boer War – shadowed by the cinematograph. The representation was managed so as to create only sympathy for the Boers: and I acknowledge that it made my heart jump several times. The Boer girls and wives were displayed as shooting and being shot. What you would have enjoyed were the little discourses in Japanese, uttered between each exhibition. They were simple and appealed to Japanese sympathy, – to the sense of patriotism, and the duty of dying to the last man, woman, and child for one’s country.

Also I saw the Paris Exhibition (1900) in the Kinematograph – and – a can-can! Before the shadows began to dance, their dancing was properly apologised for to the Japanese audience. ‘It is rather queer dancing,’ said the man, ‘but the French think that it is very fine!’ The dancers kept white veils or something before them when they kicked, – police injunction, perhaps! You can imagine how the audience felt – and how I felt with them! And I was glad when it was over.”

Comments: Patrick Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904) was an Irish-Greek journalist and travel writer best known for books on Japan, where he lived from 1890, taking on Japanese nationality with the name Koizumi Yakumo. The films of the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902) may have been the fictions produced by the Edison company. My thanks to Dawid Glownia for bringing this reference to my attention.

Village Life in Old China

Source: Cornelius Osgood, Village Life in Old China; a community study of Kao Yao, Yünnan (New York, Ronald Press, 1963), pp. 19-20

Text: A little after nine we set out for the Cosmopolitan cinema in our host’s car. The journey was a short one and we descended at the side door which led to the directors’ office. My first impression was of being in a dark basement room of an old house, but the feeling was soon displaced by friendliness when tea was served. About ten, we all went into the theater to see the picture, a box with comfortable overstuffed arm chairs of the European type being reserved for us. The building itself was originally a temple famous for its great red columns of a celebrated hard wood notably used for expensive coffins. We sat in a reserved section of the left wing of a balcony, the central part of which extended some distance to the rear. All quarters of the house were crowded with Chinese and, as the picture began, someone started shouting at the other side of the balcony creating a din which made the English sound track of the film, already somewhat muted, completely inaudible. I expected the man who was yelling to have vented his feeling after a while, but when he continued with no sign of stopping, I discovered that he was the speaker, and that he was paid to convey the theme of the film to the audience who could not understand English nor, for the most part, read the Chinese characters customarily added to a foreign production. My companion informed me that Kunming was one of the few cities in China where the custom of having a speaker still existed. I regretted not being able to understand for, from what I could comprehend of the picture, it could not have helped from being considerably improved by an oriental commentary.

Comments: Cornelius Osgood (1905-1985) was an American anthropologist who conducted research in China, as well as the Arctic and Korea. Though published in 1963, his book Village Life in Old China describes field research undertaken in 1938. Lecturers who explained the action to audience were common in Chinese and Japanese cinemas into the 1930s, when films were silent.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

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

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

The Nightside of Japan

asakusa

‘The Cinematograph Street in Asakusa Street’ (the caption for the photograph that accompanies the text below)

Source: Taizo Fujimoto, The Nightside of Japan (London: T. Werner Laurie, 1914), pp. 1-2

Text: The Asakusa is the centre of pleasure in Tokyo. People of every rank in the city crowd in the park day and night old and young, high and low, male and female, rich and poor. It is also a haunt of ruffians, thieves, and pickpockets when the curtain of the dark comes down over the park. All houses and shops along each street in the park are illuminated with the electric and gas lights. The most noisy and crowded part is the site of cinematograph halls. In front of a hall you see many large painted pictures, illustrating kinds of pictures to be shown in the hall, and, at its entrance, three or four men are crying to call visitors: “Come in, come in! Our pictures are newest ones, most wonderful pictures! Most lately imported from Europe! “Men of another hall cry out: “Our hall gives the photographs of a play performed by the first-class actors in Tokyo; pictures of the revenge of Forty Seven Ronine!” Tickets are sold by girls in a booking-box near the entrance of each hall; they are dressed in beautiful uniforms, their faces painted nicely, receiving guests with charming smiles. Most of the Japanese carry geta (clogs) under their feet, instead of shoes or boots, and specially so are the females. When you come into the door of a hall, tickets are to be handed to the men, who furnish you zori (a pair of straw or grass-slippers) in place of your geta, and you must not forget to receive from them a wood-card marked with numerals or some other signs the card being the cheque for your clogs. When you step on upstairs you are received by another nice girl in uniform, who guides you to a seat in the hall. Now the hall is full of people; it seems that there is no room for a newcomer, but the guide girl finds out a chair among the crowd and adjusts it to you very kindly. Pictures of cinematograph are shown one after another, each being explained by orators in frock or evening coat. Between the photograph shows performance of comic actors or jugglers is given. After the end of each picture or performance there is an entr’acte of three or five minutes, and in this interval sellers of oranges, milk, cakes, sandwiches, etc., come into the crowds, and are crying out: “Don’t you want oranges? Nice cakes! New boiled milk! etc., etc.” The show of cinematograph is closed at about 12 P.M., and all people flow out of the hall. Where will they go hence? Of course most of them go to their home, but a part of them young fellows among others runs to the Dark Streets of the park, or Yoshiwara, the licensed prostitution quarter near the park.

Comment: This passage is from a travel book on Japan, intended for Western audiences. The ‘orators in frock on evening coat’ were benshi, the narrators who habitually accompanied screenings of silent films in Japan, whether fiction or non-fiction. A number of short films were made of stories of the revenge of the forty-seven ronine (such stories are known as Chūshingura) before and in 1914.