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Chronology of Japanese Cinema


Japanese film history books' entries for this year consistently present a list of documentary films being produced, though Nornes points out that there were other kinds of films being made in the early stages of Japanese cinema (p. 4). He describes these primitive newsreels as jiji eiga, perhaps quoting Tanaka Junichiro's description of HOKUSHIN JIHEN KATSUDO DAISHASHIN (Grand Motion Picture on the Boxer Rebellion) as the first jiji eiga in the history of Japanese cinema. However, in reality, as still in the early 1910s there was no standard word for film in Japan, the term eiga was just one among many others in common usage by the mid-tens to refer to film (Bernardi, p. 312). Instead, several other sources refer these early documentaries as "dekita koto shashin" (photographic happening).

Yoshizawa Shoten, in particular, seemed to have taken the initiative in producing the very first film news of current events. Film historians such as Tanaka Junichiro and Sato Tadao argue that some of these documentaries were even filmed by Yoshizawa Shoten's owner, Kawaura Kenichi, as well as by one of the company's official cinematographers, Fujiwara Kozaburo, who, a year later, was to be dispatched to the Russian continent to record the Russo-Japanese war. Among the short documentaries produced by this company were KOMATSUNOMIYA AKIHITO SHINNO GO-SOGI JIKKYO (Actuality of the Funeral of Imperial Prince Komatsunomiya Ahikito, released at the Kanda Asahi-za theatre on 18 February), MYONYO SHONIN SOGI JIKKYO (Actuality of the Funeral of the Holy Priest Myonyo, real name Otani Koson, 21st head abbot of the Nishi Hongan-ji Temple, released at Kanda Asahi-za, 1 March), GODAIME KIKUGORO SOGI JIKKYO (Actuality of the Funeral of Kikugoro V, Kabuki-za, 15 April), OSAKA DAIGOKAI KANGYO HAKURANKAI JIKKYO (Actuality of the Osaka 5th Industrial Exhibition), KOBE KANKANSHIKI JIKKYO (Actuality of the Kobe Naval Review) and KYOTO GION MATSURI JIKKYO (Actuality of the Kyoto Gion Festival). These last three reportage films were released at the Kinki-kan theatre on 30 May. Several sources cite the documentary of Prince Komatsunomiya's funeral as the first reference on a Japanese film of a member of the imperial family. As for Actuality of the Osaka 5th Industrial Exhibition, Sato Tadao claims it features the first camera panning in Japanese film history.

Komatsu Hiroshi, Some Characteristics of Japanese Cinema before World War I, in Reframing Japanese Cinema, Ed. Arthur Nolletti and David Desser, Indiana UP, 1992, p. 237-8.
Tanaka Junichiro, Nihon Eiga Hattatsushi: Katsudo Shashin Jidai, Chuo Koronsha, 1980, p. 109.
Sato Tadao, Series Nihon Documentary (5), Iwanami Shoten, 2010, p. 5.
Imamura Shohei et al., Koza Nihon Eiga: Volume 1 - Nihon eiga no tanjo, Iwanami Shoten, 1985, p. 91.
Shirai Shigeru, Kamera to Jinsei: Shirai Shigeru Kaikoroku, Yuni Tsushinsha, 1983, pp. 42, 92 and 108.
Abé Mark Nornes, Japanese Documentary Film: The Meiji Era Through Hiroshima, University of Minnesota Press, 2003, p. 4.
Joanne Bernardi, Writing in Light: The Silent Scenario and the Japanese Pure Film Movement, Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2001, 312.

Fifth National Industrial Exhibition
(Osaka, 1 March - 31 July, 1903)

1 October

Film history books, rather perfunctorily, record the opening of the first custom-built cinema in the country, the Denkikan in the Asakusa area, Tokyo. As a matter of fact, the Denkikan had been in operation since January the previous year, although as a variety hall hosting misemono (sideshow) performances such as X-ray demonstrations and electrical experiments, hence, according to film historians, its name Denkikan (electric hall)(Tanaka, p. 110). It is also worth noting that the best-known storefront cinema from this period in the United States was Thomas L. Tally's Electric Theater, which opened in Los Angeles in April 1902. After visiting Tally's movie facility, Swedish-born film exhibitor John A. Schuberg returned to Vancouver, where he had brought moving pictures in 1898, and opened the Edison Electric Theatre in October (Seiler and Seiler, p. 68).

The then Denkikan's manager, Taniuchi Matsunosuke, claimed that the cinema had initially been called Denyukan (Ueda, p. 57), although Ueda Manabu points to documents from 1902 which already referred to the theatre as Denkikan (Ueda, pp. 57-58). At the time of the Denkikan's conversion into a cinema, film screenings in the capital were conducted at the city centre's theatres in the Ginza or Kanda areas, which generally produced kabuki and shinpa plays, or at rental halls. Jeffrey Dym compares the debatable earlier establishment in Japan of theatres devoted exclusively to cinema to their first launching in Great Britain, the Balham Empire (1907), or in the United States, where, according to Dym, began to appear from 1913 (Dym, p. 526).

The reality was that even after its takeover by Yoshizawa Shoten, Japan's first film production company, and conversion into a permanent film theatre, the Denkikan's offerings still mainly consisted of misemono shows such as nozoki megane (peep boxes) or kineorama (an admixed form of diorama, film projections and electric light effects) performances. Early film-goers at the Denkikan, such as Shonen Sekai children's magazine's editor Kimura Shoshu, while praising the low price of the admission, complained about the damp dirt floor and instability of the seating, mere long wooden benches similar to the kanransenki used in misemono halls (Ueda, p. 50). Such facilities were hardly better than the average American nickleodeon, which had its boom between 1905-1907.

The Russo-Japanese War (1904-5) provided the local film industry with a boost that led from 1907 to the opening in major Japanese cities of a large number of movie theatres, many of which were in fact misemono halls transformed into cinemas. This trend had also began roughly at about the same time in the United States or Great Britain, where vaudeville theatres were converted into cinemas. In 1908, for example, several New York theatres became cinemas (Allen, p. 168) while Britain's first cinema, The Balham Empire, operated as a music hall since its opening in 1900 until 1907 (Evans, p. 71). Film theatres proper were not built in Japan until 1909, as exemplified by the opening of a second Denkikan on 10 March 1909, adjacent to the original one. This was designed to resemble Western theatres, particularly in its addition of a second floor for extra seating space and a box seat area.

As for the type of audience that frequented these early film theatres, Anderson concludes that "it came from the shitamachi sections of urban and small town Japan. These people were artisans, petit bourgeois, and their families. Japanese movies played to only a few proletarians (despite claims elsewhere to the contrary), intellectuals, white collar workers, and farmers" (Anderson 1988, p. 20). Interestingly enough, in an update to this article, Anderson tones down his rather Olympian argument and rephrases the above paragraph as, "most movie audiences came from the Shitamachi section of urban and small town Japan. This was where artisans, petite bourgeoisie, their families, and employees lived. Most movie theatres were in Shitamachi or in public amusement areas near them. Movies played to a smaller number of white-collar workers and even fewer proletarians and farmers." (Anderson 1992, pp. 275-6). He also affirms that the high cost of admissions made movies unaffordable to the working class.

Certainly, as observed in other major cities around the world, the early film performances at downtown Tokyo's prestigious theatres were rather costly. The relocation of film exhibition from central Tokyo theatres to permanent cinemas in peripheral areas such as Asakusa, soon to become the Mecca of moviegoing in Japan, led to a drastic reduction in the admission price. The establishment of a second Denkikan in 1909 aimed to accommodate both well-off patrons, who had until then frequented the upmarket downtown theatres, in its more expensive seating area in the second floor and a quickly emerging new type of audience found among the lower classes.

As opposed to Anderson, Ueda considers that working-class people made up the bulk of movie-going in the Asakusa entertainment area. He draws a connection between the development of purpose-built cinemas in Tokyo and the influx of people from the countryside to the capital to fill the demand for manual labour in rapidly industrialised areas along the east of the Sumida River, precisely where Asakusa is located, particularly during the mid-1900s. Consequently, the population of the metropolitan area of Tokyo almost doubled between 1900 to 1910, from 2,100,000 to 4,000,0000 (Ueda, p. 55).

Tanaka Junichiro, Nihon Eiga Shi Hakkutsu, Tojusha, 1980.
Robert M. Seiler and Tamara P. Seiler, Reel Time: Movie Exhibitors and Movie Audiences in Prairie Canada, 1896-1986, University of Washington Press, 2013.
Ueda Manabu, Eiga Josetsukan no Shutsugen: 1900-nendai no Denkikan to Sono Kankyaku Kara / The Emergence and Transformation of the Moving Picture Theaters: An Analysis of the Denkikan theater and the Cinema Audience in the 1900s, Art Research, 9, 2009, 49-59.
J. L. Anderson, Spoken Silents in the Japanese Cinema; or, Talking to Pictures: Essaying the Katsuben, Contextualizing the Texts, in Reframing Japanese Cinema, Arthur Noletti Jr. David Desser (editors), Bloomington: Indiana University Presss, 1992, pp 275-76.
J. L. Anderson, Spoken Silents in the Japanese Cinema, Essay on the Necessity of Katsuben, Journal of Film and Video, Volume 40, Issue 1, January 1988, page 20.
Robert C. Allen, Motion Picture Exhibition in Manhattan, 1906-1912: Beyond the Nickleodeon, in Film Before Griffith, John L. Fell (editor), University of California Press, 1983, pp. 162-175.
Okubo Ryo, Kinodrama and Kineorama: Modernity and the Montage of Stage and Screen in Early Twentieth-Century Japan, Iconics, Volume 10, 2010, pp. 74-95.
Aaron Gerow, Visions of Japanese Modernity Articulations of Cinema, Nation, and Spectatorship, 1895-1925, University of California Press, 2010.
Graeme Evans, Cultural Planning: An Urban Renaissance?, Routledge, 2001.
Jeffrey A. Dym, Benshi and the Introduction of Motion Pictures to Japan, Monumenta Nipponica, Vol. 55, No. 4. (Winter, 2000), pp. 509-536.

Asakusa Denkikan
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Last update: 21/1/2015