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Chronology of Japanese Cinema


20 January

1908 witnessed profound changes in the structure of the film industry involving important developments in film production and exhibition, the proliferation of permanent film theatres across the country and a considerable increase in movie attendance by predominantly urban working class audiences. Thus, Japanese film research often signals this period as the beginning of Japanese cinema proper (Iwamoto 2016: 9).

In January, Yoshizawa Shoten built the first film studio in Japan, located in Meguro, Tokyo, an all-glass structure oddly resembling Edison's Bronx studio which Yoshizawa's owner Kawaura Kenichi had visited the previous year. The Meguro studio was soon followed by Umeya's Pathe opening of its own in April in Okubo, also Tokyo. As a result, domestic film production became steadier shored up by a surge in feature films based on kabuki or shinpa plays (1).

Yoshizawa's first work at Meguro was however a documentary-style film of a sword dance performance by Hibino "Raifu" Masayoshi, founder of the school of swordsmanship Shinto Ryu Kenbujutsu, released at Tokyo's Denkikan on 1 May. Some publications present it with the title Shinto-Ryu Kenbujutsu Sugekimi (The Art of Shinto-Style Sword Drama, Komatsu 1992: 246). Later Yoshizawa asked playwright Kawakami Otojiro and his troupe to produce the company's first non-fiction movie at the new studio. Although Kawakami was one of the pioneers of the shinpa theatre, he chose to shoot instead a Western style comedy, Wayousecchuu Kekkonshiki (Semi-Japanese Semi-Western Wedding), which opened at the Denkikan on 17 October alongside Kirare Otomi (Scar-faced Otomi), a rensageki starring Sawamura Gennosuke and Nakamura Kangoro.

From November 11th, another rensageki, Ono ga Tsumi (One's Sin) played at Asakusa's Sanyukan (Tanaka 1980: 136). An adaptation of the shinpa theatre play based on the best-seller by Kikuchi Yuho of the same title, its release gave rise to the shinpa hideki eiga or shinpa drama film genre (Iwamoto 2016: 11). The shinpa actor Nakano Nobuchika recalled how the stage performance included just two filmed scenes showing the drowning of two boys, shot on location by Chiba Kichizo at two different beach settings in Kanagawa Prefecture, which were projected at the climax of the play (Tanaka 1980: 137). According to the 1960's publication Nihon Eiga Sakuhin Taikan (Volume 1), an earlier film version, arguably the first film adaptation of a literary work, of the play, more likely a filmed section of the actual theatrical performance, had been produced the previous year by Yokota Shokai which premiered in November (Eiga 40-nen Zenkiroku 1986: 70) (2).

  1. The Shinpa (New School) theatre school emerged at the end of the 19th century as a reaction to kabuki by presenting realistic stories based on current political and social issues, although still retaining Kabuki stylistic conventions such as onnagata, male actors playing female roles. Achieving its peak of popularity at the beginning of the 20th century it was superseded by the shingeki (or new drama) which was based on Western modern dramas.
  2. Although Joanne Bernardi mentions this earlier version in her book Writing in Light: The Silent Scenario and the Japanese Pure Film Movement (p.39), later in the same volume she confusingly acknowledges the 1908's production as the first screen version of the play (p.329).

Bernardi, Joanne Writing in Light: The Silent Scenario and the Japanese Pure Film Movement, Wayne State University Press, 2001.
Eiga 40-nen Zenkiroku: Eikyuhozon: Eiga Deta Bukku no Ketteiban [The Complete Data Book of Motion Picture], Kinema junposha, 1986.
Iwamoto, Kenji, "Jidai Eiga" no Tano: Kodan, Shosetsu, Kengeki kara Jidaigeki e, Yoshikawa Kobunkan, 2016.
Komatsu, Hiroshi, Some Characteristics of Japanese Cinema before World War I, in Reframing Japanese Cinema, Ed. Arthur Nolletti and David Desser, Indiana UP, 1992.
Tanaka, Junichiro, Nihon Eiga Hattatsushi: Katsudo Shashin Jidai, Chuo Koronsha, 1980.
Yoshida, Chieo, Mo Hitotsu no Eiga-shi: Benshi no Jidai, Tokyo: Jiji Tsushinsha, 1978.

Yoshizawa Shoten's glass film studio in Meguro, Tokyo

25 June

On this day Imori no Kuroyaki (Charred Newt), Yokota Shoten's arguably first narrative film production, premiered at the Kinkikan theater in Kanda, Tokyo (Tanaka 1980 : 144). Its title refers to a popular love-charm in Japan made from ashes of burnt newt which a young man fails to sprinkle on the woman he likes with comical effects. The film's popularity piqued Shozo Makino's curiosity and became one of the first local productions viewed by the later known as father of the Japanese cinema (Shindo 1989: 8-9). Almost everything that is known about this 3-scene film comedy starring Tsuruya Danjuro and his troupe is gathered from Tanaka Junichiro's interview with the film's cameraman Fukui Shigeichi (Tanaka 1980 : 144-45).

It is always worth pointing out the great extent to which Tanaka Junichiro's volume is quoted in Japanese early cinema literature. Due to the lack of extant films and patchy information published in newspapers, during and after World War II Tanaka collected material on film shooting conditions, release dates and so on from interviews he conducted with the staff involved in these early productions. This time gap between film releases and interviews' dates might have blurred the interviewees recollections as inconsistencies are often spotted. An example of this is Tanaka's discussion of a short film (first by Tsurubuchi-Gentoho/The Magic Lantern Shop Tsurubuchi), just three scenes, released in August 1908 dealing with the murder of a professor of Russian language, Maeda Seiji, suspected, by the newspapers of the time, of being a Russian spy. Cameraman Nishikawa Kenichiro retold Tanaka how, after reading the news of Maeda's assassination murder the next day, rakugo performer Asahi Manmaro rushed to produce a movie of the incident (Tanaka 1980 : 157-158). The murder, however, took place a year earlier in August 1907 (Oku 2007 : 201).

Oku, Takenori , Rotan no Jidai - Nichirosenso-ki Media to Kokumin Kishiki /The Age of "Rotan (Russian Spy)" : Media and National Identity at the Russo-Japanese War Era, Chuo Koronsha, 2007.
Shindo, Kaneto, Nihon Shinario-shi, Vol 1, Iwanami Shoten, 1989.
Tanaka, Junichiro , Nihon Eiga Hattatsushi: Katsudo Shashin Jidai, Chuo Koronsha, 1980.

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Last update: 3/2/2019