or, a dialogue on the Japanese silent cinema, its themes, forms and influences

Overheard by Alexander Jacoby

One afternoon shortly after the conclusion of the 2001 Pordenone Silent Film Festival, B.H. Chamberlain, an eager film student in a British University, was quizzing his tutor, Professor Lafcadio, about the riches uncovered in Pordenone’s programme of Japanese silent cinema.

Chamberlain: So, Professor… Two dozen features and half a dozen fragments later, what have we learned about the Japanese silent cinema?

Lafcadio: Initially, that any evaluation is bound to be inconclusive. This is an industry that was producing hundreds of films every year during the silent era. Today the complete archive of Japanese films surviving from the twenties contains only seventy films.

Chamberlain: What about fragments?

Lafcadio: That includes fragments. Of course the silent era in Japan extended well into the thirties, by which time more films survive. Even so, we’re talking about a fraction of the total archive.

Chamberlain: I suppose that these represent the cream of the crop? That the major works of the period were deliberately selected for preservation?

Lafcadio: I’m afraid not. Generally, survival was random. Of course there were exceptions. The 1925 samurai film Orochi survives because a proud producer kept the negative. Frequently, though, silent films recovered in Japan were preserved only in battered and cut second or third generation copies. In fact, the films which still exist in good prints tend to be those which were preserved in European archives – in other words, those films which secured, or were intended to secure, commercial distribution abroad. Needless to say, this accounts for only a handful of films. Nor is there any guarantee that the films earmarked for foreign distribution actually represent the high watermark of Japanese silent film production. We know that Kinugasa sought foreign distribution for his rather derivative exercise in Germanic expressionism, Crossways (1928), and not for the more original and radical avant-garde film, A Page of Madness (1926). The Japanese films distributed abroad may well simply have been those calculated to appeal to foreign audiences. And, of course, the Pordenone programme represented only a sample of the surviving films.

Chamberlain: Even so, taking all these things into account, you must have learned something from what you’ve seen…

Lafcadio: Of course. Where shall I begin?

Chamberlain: At the beginning, I suppose.

Lafcadio: Well, the Lumière cinematograph was brought to Japan in 1896. Japan’s first cinematographer, Tsunekichi Shibata, shot streets scenes and reportage before the turn of the century. In fact, most of the Japanese films to survive from the first twenty-five years of cinema are documentaries on significant events: the visit of the Crown Prince, later the Showa Emperor, to Nikkatsu studios; the Japanese Antarctic Expedition of 1912.

Chamberlain: Of great historical interest, I imagine?

Lafcadio: Certainly they hint at the pace of Westernisation during the Meiji and Taisho periods. In Shibata’s 1890s street scenes, the people are dressed in kimono; by 1912, the crowds that greet the returning Antarctic explorers are all in suits. It’s a revealing sign of the times in a film which celebrates Japanese achievements on the world stage, and which, significantly, employs editing techniques as rapid and fluent as any Western film of the period.

Chamberlain: Whereas, the fiction films of the period…

Lafcadio: Seem barely to develop before the twenties. Admittedly, hardly any of the films by Kaeriyama and Kurihara, which supposedly pioneered Western techniques in the years immediately after World War I, are preserved for study. If more survived, it might change the picture. But the extant fragments of kabuki films from the first two decades of the century suggest that their technique was virtually stagnant. Theatrical staging, a paucity of camera movement and minimal editing are characteristic of films made in 1899, 1908 and 1916. Indeed, given the role of the benshi in narrating the action and voicing the characters, the viewing experience must have been very close to the kabuki stage.

Chamberlain: Which clearly exerted a retarding influence on the Japanese film. But surely the influence of the shimpa theatre was progressive?

Lafcadio: In the sense that tragic and melodramatic stories of young love provided subject matter for filmic innovation in a way that the conservative and statufied traditions of kabuki could not. The influence of shimpa melodrama on film narrative is still discernible in Mizoguchi’s silent films of the early thirties. But generally the stylistic influences on Japanese cinema in the twenties are cinematic rather than theatrical, and they’re American. Winter Camelias (1921), which Noel Burch analyses as a typical product of the Japanese cinema at that time, is actually a more obvious hybrid than other films to survive from the early twenties – as one might expect, given director Ryoha Hatanaka’s background in the theatre. The film’s lengthy, static medium shots are clearly conceived as subordinate to the acting, and (as Burch observes) the benshi. The influence of American cinema here is mainly apparent in the lyricism of the landscape photography. Actually Zanmu Kako’s The Lamb (1923) is a purer example of early American-influenced cinema; its visual style is very close to American rural melodramas of the teens.

Chamberlain: Doesn’t Joseph Anderson talk about the influence on Japanese film-makers of Bluebird Photoplays – American romances with pastoral settings?

Lafcadio: Indeed; though Bluebird’s output was really more varied, as was the Western influence on Japanese cinema. The most ubiquitous “modern” device that Japanese filmmakers borrowed from Hollywood was the flashback. Mizoguchi, Tasaka, Ozu and others often derived their plots from Western literature. What’s surprising is how quickly this foreign influence permeated after 1920. Take Bansho Kanamori’s Furious Fight: an action film set partly in New York, with a hammer and tongs editing style and an economy of expression which certainly proves that Japanese directors had mastered those notorious Western codes already by 1924.

Chamberlain: So Ozu’s gangster movies didn’t come out of nowhere?

Lafcadio: Clearly not. The inventive appropriation of Hollywood styles and genres is common to a whole series of Japanese films from the twenties. By 1928, moreover, they’re every bit as advanced technically. On the level of technical facility and stylistic flair, Tomotaka Tasaka’s first extant film, Town of Love (1928) rivals Murnau or Borzage. But with the best will in the world, such films lack the individuality which we find in Japanese film from 1930 onwards.

Chamberlain: Of course, there’s nothing wrong with foreign influence per se. We don’t condemn Degas for borrowing techniques from Japanese painting.

Lafcadio: No – but Degas’ paintings aren’t reproductions of Japanese ones. Those films from the twenties that we saw – at least, those set in the present day – might easily have been shot in Hollywood. They tend to confirm Noel Burch’s argument that Japanese directors spent the twenties assimilating Western techniques, before departing from them radically in the thirties. All the same, one can’t belittle the earlier films. Town of Love remains a masterpiece of liberal bourgeois art.

Chamberlain: And it’s not often you hear a Professor of Film Studies say that! But I was going to ask about the politics of the movies. With films like Mizoguchi’s Sisters of Gion (1936), it feels as if radical cinema flourished despite military government and repression. And the twenties was a more liberal period. Or was there less compulsion to protest in a time of democracy and peace?

Lafcadio: Well, you shouldn’t romanticise the twenties. The Taisho era seemed anything but placid to those who lived through it. The years after World War I saw Japan’s first industrial strikes and peasant unrest, as well as conflict between the feudal oligarchy and the emergent middle class. But the films try to contain those tensions. The ease with which Town of Love plots the reconciliation of capital and labour is faintly implausible – though Tasaka plays it with such conviction that one can still find it very moving. The same limitations are visible, understandably, in the government-sponsored educational films that flourished at the end of the Taisho period, where “class harmonisation” was a key theme. Lights of Sympathy (1926) not only looks like a Hollywood film – its director, Henry Kotani, had studied in America, and apparently insisted in directing his cast and crew in English – but also shares with the bulk of commercial American movie-making a blindness to potential political solutions. Its hero, a teenager who works as a flower seller and newspaper boy to support his ailing mother and pay for his own schooling, is finally saved from poverty by a wealthy neighbour who offers to adopt him.

Chamberlain: A moral of fairly limited application, then.

Lafcadio: I’m afraid so. On the other hand, Mizoguchi’s earliest extant film, Song of Home (1925) – another Government-sponsored picture – clearly strives to subvert the political complacencies of the genre. His hero, a country boy unable to fund his way through college in Tokyo, actually refuses an offer of support from a wealthy foreigner. On the one hand the implications are conservative; the message is all in favour of farmers knowing their place. But the rejection does serve to show up the contrivance of this sort of happy resolution.

Chamberlain: Surely Japanese films were more overtly politicised by the early thirties. Ozu’s silent films stress poverty and unemployment; Naruse displays a trenchant feminism. Or were those isolated cases?

Lafcadio: Certainly not. The early thirties was the heyday of the tendency film – virtually every well-known director made one of these socially critical realist melodramas espousing leftist views. Unfortunately, very few of them survive. One extant example is Shigeyoshi Suzuki’s What Made Her Do It? (1930), about a girl who is driven by hardship to commit arson. In fact, Suzuki’s name deserves to be better known in the West. He’s a superb stylist and he carried over his political concerns into work in more innocuous genres. The same anti-capitalism which apparently caused audiences to riot at the premiere of What Made Her Do It? is still clear in The Reclaimed Land of Bears (1932) – basically a Western, albeit set on Hokkaido, where stringent efforts had been made to reclaim land for agricultural purposes. The hero of the film wages a one-man war against the wicked capitalist who has murdered his father, married his mother, and appropriated the reclaimed land from the men who farm it. Not only does Suzuki advocate collective ownership; he also subverts the patriarchal inheritance system. The mother plays the system for her own ends; she marries the villain so she can restore his lands to their rightful owners after his death. Even in his student comedy, Tears Behind Victory (1931), Suzuki remains politically engaged. At first sight, this gentle romance seems far more escapist than Ozu’s college comedies, with their stress on poverty and the prospect of unemployment. But towards the end, Suzuki shifts his focus to concentrate on the hero’s sister: an unhappy girl who risks her reputation by working as a nightclub dancer to fund her brother’s education. Her only hope of escape is marriage to a wealthy man who will take on her familial responsibilities; when he betrays her, the feminist implications are as clear as in any of Naruse’s early films. It’s at this point, clearly, that the director is most fully engaged with his material: the climactic sequences rise to an unprecedented intensity.

Chamberlain: Presumably some films in the early thirties reflected the dominant ideology?

Lafcadio: Inevitably. Tomu Uchida, who in A Living Doll (1929) had directed one of the earliest tendency films, made Police (1933), a thriller which stressed duty and civic responsibility and had a gang of Communists as the villains. The denunciation of Western imperialism in Minoru Murata’s Foghorns (1934) seems distinctly equivocal given Japan’s own imperialist adventures at the time. But by and large, the best films of the period are progressive, particularly in their sexual politics.

Chamberlain: Noel Burch associates the isolationist spirit of thirties Japan with the individuality of its cinema at that date. Do the early thirties really mark the development of a specifically Japanese style?

Lafcadio: They begin to. Granted, directors like Murata adhered to an essentially Western découpageFoghorns even lifts an extravagant tracking shot directly from Murnau’s Sunrise (1927). But Suzuki’s silent films, like Ozu’s, are beginning to develop the use of what Burch terms the ‘pillow shot’: those still shots of household objects or features of the landscape which momentarily distance the viewer from the narrative. And the classical economy of Police is disturbed by qualities of melodramatic excess in a manner which anticipates Kurosawa – particularly his own police thriller, Stray Dog (1949). Even so, it wouldn’t be too inaccurate to argue that the decisive break with Western stylistics was made with the coming of sound. It’s in his sound films of 1936 that Mizoguchi renounces expressive close ups; likewise, Naruse’s first talkies were his most formally experimental films. Of course this is a generalisation, not a hard and fast rule. But essentially the major Japanese silent films – even Ozu’s – display similar virtues to the great European and American silents. The virtues of the best early Japanese sound films are distinct and unique.

Chamberlain: So far we haven’t talked about the tradition of jidai-geki. I suppose the period films mined a more indigenous vein of inspiration from the start.

Lafcadio: To a degree. Not only is there no close equivalent to the genre in Western cinema of the time; stylistically, the period films achieve a distinctive visual style much earlier. As early as the mid-twenties, films by Buntaro Futagawa and Tamizo Ishida display a marked preference for staging action scenes in long shot, and begin to prefigure the methods of Mizoguchi. Still, it’s difficult to regard that as a deliberate and systematic stylistic choice at this early date. It’s more likely to be a relic of the kabuki tradition. The jidai-geki of the late twenties and early thirties make much more frequent resort to close up and rapid editing.

Chamberlain: I assume that the period films are more conformist politically. The militaristic ideals of the thirties had a lot in common with the samurai ethos.

Lafcadio: Even so, they don’t espouse it uncritically. The surviving reels from Masahiro Makino’s epic, Street of Masterless Samurai (1929), are virtually bare of heroics; their subject is the monotony and poverty of daily life for these dispossessed warriors. The gulf between aspiration and reality is heavy with irony. Likewise Castle of the Wind and Clouds (1928), a poignant tragedy produced by Kinugasa’s company. Kazuo Hasegawa’s retainer returns from service in the capital, only to discover that his fiancee has been taken as a concubine by his feudal lord. Though he accepts the situation and remains loyal, he is unjustly accused of treachery. Driven into exile, he returns to save his lord from the real traitor, only to encounter wrath and mistrust again. Loyalty goes unrewarded and the unjust prosper.

Chamberlain: A subversive film, then.

Lafcadio: Except that feudal loyalty is supposed to be unconditional! For me, the hero’s sufferings exposed the worthlessness of the samurai ideal. But I doubt that Japanese audiences in the twenties would have shared that reaction. As early as 1946, Ruth Benedict observed that Japanese films made as wartime propaganda would be taken by Western audiences for pacifist works. Of course it would be patronising to imply that the pacifist reading simply wasn’t available to Japanese audiences, as if individual responses are any less diverse in Japan than they are in Europe and America. But it wouldn’t have been the standard reading. Similarly, I suspect that it’s basically a Western reaction to read the bleakness of these early period films as an assault on feudal ideals. For most Japanese moviegoers, a film like Castle of the Wind and Clouds may have seemed not so much a critique of feudal ideology as a High Noon-like account of the pain incumbent on doing what a man’s gotta do.

             Chamberlain: Doesn’t Darrell William Davis argue that the period film was, in the first place, predominantly a comic genre? That the serious jidai-geki developed out of a humorous tradition?

Lafcadio: That wasn’t borne out by the films we saw. A sombre tone was the main quality they shared, certainly in the twenties.

Chamberlain: Which would make sense, if the true ancestor of the genre is the kabuki theatre, and the films which re-staged kabuki plays.

Lafcadio: Precisely. Though its ancestry is mixed. The Japanese period film also parallels developments in the historical novel, which in turn derive from popular kodan narratives. According to Joseph Anderson, the basic template for the genre was fixed by Kaizan Nakazato’s swordplay novel, Daibosatsu Pass, published in 1913. That established the nihilistic tendencies of the silent jidai-geki, which seem to persist until the thirties. It’s only then that the genre becomes the vehicle for humour and pastiche – in Mansaku Itami’s Unrivalled Hero (1932), for instance. Itami openly derides the ideals which the standard period film promoted, and converts swordplay to slapstick. Then there’s Tsurihiko Tanaka’s The Red Bat (1931) – both in plot and style, a wonderfully mischievious parody of the jidai-geki’s early master, Daisuke Ito.

Chamberlain:  And one of Noel Burch’s favourites…

Lafcadio: He admires the film – though, at the time his book was researched, none of Ito’s silent work was known to survive, so he uses The Red Bat as second-hand evidence of Ito’s own style. The irony is that Ito’s own work, now we’ve seen it, would probably be less to his taste. Tanaka was a man of the avant-garde, and a disciple of Eisenstein. His Soviet-inspired montage is rather more experimental than Ito’s style – in fact, his sheer disregard for narrative coherence goes to confirm, yet again, the stylistic proximity of lowbrow entertainment techniques and the methods of the intellectual avant-garde.

Chamberlain: Whereas Ito…

Lafcadio: Is a much more classical artist. The narrative economy of his films is their most immediately obvious feature. Still, efficiency isn’t Ito’s only virtue. Jirokichi the Rat (1931), in particular, contains sequences of breathtaking visual beauty: the director stages long, elaborate tracking shots, and choreographs the movements of actors on screen with astonishing precision.

Chamberlain: You make it sound almost like a film by Mizoguchi.

Lafcadio: In fact the comparison isn’t only stylistic. The way in which the heroine becomes the central focus of the last scenes in The Diary of Chuji’s Travels (1927), a hitherto male-dominated film, anticipates Mizoguchi’s treatment of another perennial legend, the story of The Loyal 47 Ronin of the Genroku Era (1941-2). As the outlaw Chuji succumbs to paralysis, his concubine assumes an active role, herself executing a traitor and defending her helpless lover with his own weapon.

Chamberlain: Appropriating the phallus?

Lafcadio: If you want to put it that way. Certainly Ito creates female characters of a depth and complexity unparalleled among jidai-geki of the time. The tragic catharsis of Jirokichi the Rat, a melancholy story about the life and loves of an Edo-period Robin Hood, derives as much from the sufferings of the women he loves as from his own sorrow.

Chamberlain: The Chivalrous Robber Jirokichi is a better translation, isn’t it?

Lafcadio: Chivalry doesn’t extend to commitment. Actually the two heroines personify a contrast familiar from Western cinema: femme fatale versus submissive maiden. But Jirokichi, as an outlaw, can see no hope of a permanent relationship with the good woman he truly loves. The femme fatale, meanwhile, he rejects, because he suspects her, unjustly, of betraying him. Ultimately she sacrifices herself for his escape, proving her love – with tragic irony – at precisely the moment when consummation has become impossible.

Chamberlain: Isn’t that a typical sexist device? You know, the unworthy woman given a “heroic” death to save the life of a hero who’s too good for her?

Lafcadio: Potentially. But I suppose the important thing is the degree of sympathy that the filmmaker extends to the woman in question. Ito’s heroines are autonomous, never merely appendages of the hero, and their emotions are credible and moving. Admittedly they don’t become the real centre of sympathy, as in a film by Mizoguchi. Even so, Ito points in that direction.

Chamberlain: So your exploration of the unknown riches of Japanese silent cinema did turn up at least one unknown master.

Lafcadio: Well, Ito isn’t so much unknown as unshown: his work’s mentioned in all the histories. For me, Suzuki was the real unexpected discovery of the season. But this was a rich and fulfilling retrospective all round – for which we must extend our heartfelt thanks to its curators, Hiroshi Komatsu and Tomonori Saiki.

Chamberlain: And your conclusion?

Lafcadio: As I say, it can only be tentative. Too much is missing to be definitive – and we have, anyway, seen only a selection of the surviving films. But of one thing there’s no doubt: the Japanese silent cinema was fully the equal of the Russian, the German, the American and the French – which is to say, of any other major filmmaking tradition in the world at that time. Given which, the most fitting conclusion would be for these films to receive wider distribution in the West.

Chamberlain: I hope the programmers of our national cinemathèques are eavesdropping.

Lafcadio: Let’s hope so…

And so they ended their conversation and walked into the lecture theatre to attend another tedious seminar on the deconstruction of the cinematic image.