Thoughts On: Maple Leaf Viewing (Momijigari, 1899)
One of the oldest surviving Japanese films documenting a scene from a kabuki theatre play.
Today we will be briefly looking at the beginnings of Japanese cinema – which is just about as old as Western cinemas represented by countries such as France, America, Britain and Germany. We will then be seeking a refreshing perspective on an idea of early cinema–after all, the Japanese silent era was, aesthetically and experientially, quite different from the cinematic experience you would find in a Western nickelodeon or theatre. But, whilst we will attempt to delve into a Japanese cinema that predates Kurosawa and Ozu – the two great and famous masters from the Japanese Golden Age – we will run into problems.
As we have discussed previously, it is thought that anywhere between 70-90% of all silent films are lost, either due to neglect, fires or mistakes like one-and-only prints being thrown away. This is a statistic that varies across different studios and countries, and, unfortunately, Japan has one of the worst batting percentages in all of the world. It is estimated that around 7000 Japanese films were made in the 1920s alone. Only somewhere around 100 Japanese silent films have survived to this day – and an even smaller percentage are readily available to watch. This is not only because of neglect and mistakes, but also because of natural disasters such as earthquakes as well as wars that would wipe out archives. So, considering that the Japanese silent era lasted until the mid-30s despite the first talkies coming out in 1930 – the country was, technologically, a little behind so it had one of the longest silent eras in the world – we can imagine that 1000s more films (than the 7000 from the 20s) were made in the 30-40 year period. That would suggest that around 99% of all Japanese silent films have been lost forever. When film historians then attempt to construct histories and commentaries upon early Japanese cinema, they are left primarily with sources such as business records, newspapers and interactions, directly or not, with those involved somehow or another in this early period. We are lucky in this day and age as a practice of film preservation, film theory and film history is now decades old, meaning that there is an abundance of readily available material we can study and reflect upon. It is nonetheless difficult to study early Japanese cinema in particular, however; this is not only due to the scarcity of material, but also because of the perception of world cinema histories.
As is easily recognised and well-known, all of film history is largely overshadowed by the West – France and America (furthermore, a little place called Hollywood) especially. This is no coincidence as these two cinemas are, almost inarguably, the most important–and have been since the late 1800s. There is nonetheless an irrevocable importance in widening the lens through which film history is seen because, if we do not, it is quite impossible to understand modern cinema. This is of course because modern cinema is made up of countless figures belonging to France and America – many of whom where emigrants – who were influenced by other national cinemas. This is true in the pre-cinema era in which the development of camera technology was pretty much world-wide (though, heavily Western), just as it is true in the silent and sound era. After all, one of the most significant and often-cited silent films, The Birth Of A Nation, was a product of D.W Griffith wanting to out-do Italian epics such as Cabiria. And when we move into the 60s and 70s, we find ourselves drowning in the vast network of inspiration that sprawled outwardly from Hollywood alone. After all, who are Scorsese, Coppola and Lucas without both American film history and world cinema–with Japanese cinema as a significant example? So, whilst the cinema of Japan may not be considered as important or influential – at least not until the 1950s – as that of the West, it would be foolish to assume that such a cinema could just be overlooked.
To begin our brief overview of early Japanese cinema, we will explore how Western inventions spread to Japan and flourished into an individual and unique form of exhibition. These inventions were the Kinetoscope, Cinématographe and the Vitascope. Whilst we have explored two of these inventions so far in the Every Year series, we have not yet touched on the Vitascope…
… and so this is something we will return to. Staying on track, however, the first contact Japan had with moving pictures of this kind would have been through Edison’s Kinetoscope.
When attending the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, Takahashi Shinji, an owner of a gunpowder shop, came into contact with Edison’s pre-filmic device. He would want to buy this device here, but would have to wait until two years later when he could purchase two from businessmen who dealt in watches in Yokohama (south of Tokyo) in 1896. Before his first public unveiling of the device later that year in Kobe (central Japan), Takahashi held a private showing that the then prince, Taishō, attended. This allowed for an impressive claim to higher society in his marketing campaign – “Graced By His Imperial Highness The Crown Prince” – when he later opened up his parlour to the public with high attendance costs. However, prices were relatively high (they were similar to attendance fees for stage theatre) for all forms of cinema in this early period as the cost of accessing, importing, exhibiting and maintaining films and their attached equipment was, in itself, expensive.
The second cinematic device that was brought to Japan was imported by Inahata Katsutard, also in 1896. Inahata came into contact with this when running into an old classmate: Auguste Lumière. The two had attended the same technical school in Lyon in 1877, but Inahata would go onto work in textiles. It was on a business trip that he then ran into Auguste, heard of his recently successful invention and would purchase the rights to distribute the Cinématographe, bringing back home with him a few (somewhere between 2 and 5) machines that he would distribute to friends and across the country. The Lumières sent an operator with their distributed equipment in the form of François-Constant Girel, whose job it was to make films, help project them, distribute them, keep books and help set up projection stations in major cities. Girel was in Japan for just under a year during 1897 and would shoot films across the country whilst helping set up Japanese stations, sending his footage back to France. Inahata wasn’t too happy with Girel’s work, however, as he didn’t seem interested in helping the Japanese with equipment, nor was he very good at fixing projectors, hence, it is said that Inahata called him an “incompetent fool”.
The video we are about to watch, which is an example of Girel’s work, suggests that one of the first Japanese films was made by Gabriel Veyre – another Lumière camera operator who replaced Girel at the end of his post. His replacement, in itself, implies that he had to have been in Japan from 1898 onwards. This film is then attributed to the wrong operator – which is seemingly confirmed by The Lumière catalogue here.
For stills of other films that Girel shot, as most of his films are either lost or not available online, follow this link. That said, though Edison’s Kinetoscope would have been introduced to Japan a year before this film was made, the Kinetoscope shorts that were shown would have been made in America by Edison’s company. This could change when actual camera-projectors, Cinématographes, were brought to Japan. Escrime au Sabre Japonais, or, Japanese Sword Fencing, is then one of the earliest surviving films made in Japan shot with the Lumière device. However, because it was made by the Frenchman Constant Girel, and was likely never shown domestically, instead, in France as one of the hundreds of exotic films that would be made by the Lumières’ company, this cannot really be considered one of the first Japanese films. What this short instead represents is the initial introduction of cinema to Japan. Before we come to the topic of the first ‘Japanese film’ made by a Japanese filmmaker, it is probably best we return to our exploration of the first filmic devices that made their way to the country
Devices like the Kinetoscope and Cinématographe weren’t entirely new to Japan, much like they weren’t entirely new to the world, as devices like the magic lantern and various traditional projection devices were popular and wide-spread forms of entertainment. When these two devices were first introduced their reception was similar to that in other parts of the world – especially concerning the Kinetoscope. As famed and iconic as this device was, it didn’t last all too long. Two years after its release in 1893 in America, the Kinetoscope was under threat from devices such as the mutoscope, which was a mechanised flip book viewed through a peep-hole. And then, of course, came the invention of the Cinématographe – which, for the Japanese especially, proved a better device as it shot and projected films to wide audiences. In America, despite the Kinetoscope being incredibly profitable early on, profits were plummeting hugely around 1895 and projection to large audiences was proving far more lucrative. So, in 1896, Edison bought the rights to a phantoscope and re-names it the Vitascope.
As we should be familiar with by now, Edison had almost nothing to do with the invention and production of his filmic devices – he primarily managed his business. It was then Charles Francis Jenkins that created a projection device in the early 1890s, calling it a phantoscope and putting on one of the first (free) shows to an audience in 1894. Jenkins required financial backing and so turned to Thomas Armat before the pair unveiled the device and later modified it together to be one of the first projectors that would intermittently stop film, producing a crisp, non-blurred image unlike that you were likely to have seen when looking into a Kinetoscope peep-hole. However, Armat soon stole the only working model from Jenkins to sell for his own profits. After a legal battle, Jenkins received a settlement of $2,500 as full payment for his work on the modified device (he kept the patents for the original) and later won awards recognising his efforts in initially creating the landmark projector. In 1896, Armat, having won the rights to the second modified and more advanced device, would sell the patent to Thomas Edison who would have the means to mass produce it. This was under the agreement that Edison could rename the device and market it as an invention of his own. And thus was born the Vitascope, which saw Jenkins and Armat fall from historical mention – though, without Edison, it is highly unlikely that the Phantoscope would have amounted to much, nor would Armat have made much money.
The Vitascope was then a significant step for American cinema and was the device that spread across the nation around 1896/97. Whilst Edison would soon turn to Projectoscopes, Projecting Kinetocopes, Home Projecting Kinetoscopes and even Super Kinetoscopes in his ventures to remain relevant in the rapidly expanding movie business around the turn of the century, it was the Vitascope that found its way to Japan in the same year that the Cinématograph did: 1896. It was Araki Waichi who initially saw a Kinetoscope in America during 1894, and planned to buy one on a return trip in 1896. Plans changed, however, when he came into contact with the Vitascope, which he quickly imported to Japan and used to put on the first show to a paying audience in 1897 in Osaka (central Japan). The device spread across the country a month later when Arai Saburō imported another device and put on the first Vitascope shows in Tokyo.
By 1897, the Kinetoscope, Cinématographe and Vitascope were then in Japan, entertaining audiences, often in temporary theatre spaces (the first permanent cinema was established in 1903, but it would take time for the practice to spread) for periods of around 2 weeks at a time. The Kinetoscopes quickly fell out of favour due to the Cinématographe’s and Vitascope’s virtues in regards to projecting. And so, similar to America, by mid-1897, there are no records of anymore kinetoscope showings. However, whilst the Cinématographe and Vitascope were in favour with audiences and the first companies were beginning to invest in film around 1902, providing an opportunity for a more stable practice of film viewing, exhibitors ran into much technical difficulty, which slowed down the development of Japanese cinema. This was because electricity, or direct current, which the Vitascope projector solely relied on, was only recently introduced to the country in 1878, and so the infrastructure was still developing across the nation. Added to this, exhibitors had to learn how to use these devises. Without helpful, skilled operators – which Constant Girel proved himself not to be – learning was then difficult and technical problems were hard to overcome. Thus, in early theatres as many as 10 people were said to have been needed to run all of the individual elements of the projecting process: cranking film, focusing the lens, threading the film, rewounding it, etc. Then there were supervisors, cleaners and even boys to fan the workers. But, as time went on and workers became more skilled, this task could be done by only 2 workers.
Around 1900 and the period in which cinema was still spreading across Japan, there still remained a challenge in the marketing of the Western invention – which couldn’t have been helped too much by anti-Western sentiment and the censorship of Western ideas at the time (which was the Meiji period [1868-1912] ruled over by Emperor Meiji). Also, competition from other newly imported devices such as phonographs and x-rays always threatened the young film industry. Interestingly, x-rays, which were discovered in 1895 in Germany – though, more basic incarnations were being studied since 1875 – probably found their way to Japan around 1896, and they proved to be popular attractions at which attendees could see through their bodies as a novel experience. This couldn’t have lasted too long, however, as demonstrators and showmen working at these exhibitions were, of course, in danger. For example, one of these showmen named Taniuchi Matsunosuke performed so many demonstrations that he developed cancer in his arm – which he then had to get amputated. After this, he moved into the moving picture business, implying a macabre anecdote demonstrating the sustainable nature of cinema as entertainment over the x-ray exhibitions of the time.
Despite these numerous difficulties and hindrances that exhibitors would face around the turn of the century, the industry would still develop – and, in large part, thanks to one of the defining aspects of silent Japanese cinema: benshi. Sometimes also referred to as katsuben, benshi were the narrators of silent films. Narration was an uncommon practice throughout the world with there being a few examples of Westerners who would explain and add to a film through an aural performance. However, within Japan, narration was one of the – if not the – most integral elements of film exhibition throughout the entirety of the Japanese silent era. This all began for multiple reasons. Not only were exhibitors asking for high prices for their film showings, but they were primarily screening foreign films. To provide a show worth paying for and one that audiences would understand, exhibitors hired people to explain a film beforehand, stating the locations of street scenes and providing details of the culture and history of an area. They would even delve into the technological process of filmmaking and projection as well as the inventors who brought moving pictures to life and then to Japan. Moreover, because the films were initially so short, they would be looped as to extend the show. So, whilst the reels played over, the benshi would also explain what was occurring on screen, bringing action to life all the better.
As the benshi’s role developed, they would become ever more important in the marketing and exhibition of films. For example, some American films from Edison’s manufacturing company would be subject to censorship. One of the first films to ever experience this in Japan was Annabelle’s Butterfly Dance.
Featured in this short was Annabelle Moore, who at the time, would have only been around 17. She danced in Edison’s Black Maria studio numerous times, featuring in many short films around the late 1800s and early 1900s. When this film was screened in Japan in 1897 it soon became the first example of film censorship because Moore was said to have lifted her leg up too high. In the same year, Edison’s controversial film, The Kiss, came to Japan.
Whilst you can find examples of kissing – even between two completely naked women – in Eadweard Muybridge’s ‘films’, this is generally accepted to be the first kiss ever caught on film. When it was first released in America it proved scandalous with numerous entities, such as the Roman Catholic Church, and media outlets calling for censorship and a ban. In Japan, this film also had the potential to come under criticism from authorities, but, understanding this, certain benshi would explain as part of the film’s exhibition that kissing was a common practice and means of greeting one another in the West. This saved the film from being banned as it was seen as an insight into a foreign culture – which is not only humorous, but an example of the growing power that the benhsi could wield.
Whilst benshis would often provide accurate and insightful content that greatly enhanced the screening of films, they could sometimes relay inaccurate or lacking information and so prove more comical than insightful. However, the benshi practice quickly developed as the narrators soon became one of the main draws to screenings. It was then the most insightful and powerful performers who could put on the best show that would then motivate the growth and spread of cinema as not just a basic novelty tantamount to an x-ray exhibition, but a show closer to a theatrical performance. A key element of this was then the influence of, and the love for, traditional theatres in Japan. An example of a significant influence on Japanese cinema that lasted beyond the silent era was then kabuki theatre, which featured songs, dance and highly stylised drama and dates as far back as to the 15th century. Benshis would then not only approach their performances as theatrical recitals of poetry and plays in the dark, but would also be feeding a cultural affinity for spoken performance into cinema – which is what made it so unique.
It was then the need for information, explanation, translation and – most importantly – performance that catalysed the growth of early Japanese cinema. This saw the most famous benshis become the crux of marketing, overshadowing on posters the titles of films and even actors as a result of the importance and the connection that audiences would have felt with regards to the performers. When we then look to our subject for today, Momijigari, or, Maple Leaf Viewing (a.k.a Viewing Scarlet Maple Leaves or Maple Viewing), we should remember the context in which it would be presented.
Made by Tsunekich Shibata, this is the oldest surviving Japanese film in existence today. It is not so much a piece of narrative film, however, more so a record of two famous kabuki actors performing an extract of the play, Momijigari, in which a Taira clan commander from the Genpei War (1180–1185), Taira no Koremori, defeats an ogress disguised as a princess. Shooting this using a camera from Gaumount, Tsunekich was one of the first Japanese filmmakers to have his film domestically distributed. Figures such as Shirō Asano had made ghost films in the years before him, but none of his films, whilst on record, have survived to this day.
Many films resembling Momijigari would have been made in the first decade or so of Japanese cinema – though, at the request of the performers, this wasn’t actually screened until 1907. Japanese filmmakers would then often shoot or re-create kabuki plays much like Westerners would adapt or shoot plays, books and well-known parables from their own cultures. It was during the first decade of cinema in Japan that many films would then not differentiate themselves from theatre, which seemingly solidified the role of the benshi in the screening spaces. Added to play re-creations, however, would be comedies and other novel attractions as well as animated shorts on legendary figures such as Miyamoto Musashi, who was a swordsman and rōnin who wielded two blades and was never defeated in his duels. This indicates that, especially in regards to their own films, Japanese audiences would already know the stories that they were being told, meaning the film itself was secondary to the manner in which the benshi brought characters to life as well as injected humour and drama into the stories. A note we must touch on now we are moving up to 1910 in Japan is the birth of Japanese animation.
Not much is known about the first animated Japanese films; the earliest was discovered in 2005, and is dated to 1907. Katsudō Shashin, or Active Photo (a.k.a Moving Picture) is this film:
Only a few seconds long and quite clearly not a fragment of a longer narrative, it is quite clear that this was an experiment of sorts – funnily, it bears much resemblance to the Dickson Greeting, which was one of the first successful experiments put to film by Edison’s company. So, whilst this can only be confirmed to be the oldest surviving Japanese animated film, it presents itself, quite clearly, as an early effort – if not one of the first animated films of the country, then probably the one of the first of its unknown creator. This short is atypical of later animated Japanese films, however, as the frames were stencilled directly onto the film. Many other animated films from the era were hand-drawn and photographed or, later in the 20s, you can find examples of cut-out animation.
As it goes without saying, animation or anime would later become one of the biggest cultural exports of Japan. It was then around the 20s that animation, as inspired by Western forms, would begin to grow. After WWII the practice would evolve until the 1970s when it began to become very distinct from all forms of Western animation, becoming what it is known as today through television series such as Dragon Ball Z, Cowboy Bebop and Naruto as well as the films of Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli.
Without wanting to stray too far into Japan’s silent era, nor beyond it, as this is a subject that we can return to, we should conclude with a final reflection upon the crux of what makes the early Japanese silent cinema so unique. It was the benhsi, those who defined Japanese cinema (as well as the cinema of the Japanese diaspora – emigrants – in countries such as the Philippines and the Americas) to be a tradition of performance and image joined together that replaced the honky-tonk piano or the orchestra found in Western cinemas. Even when music was played during screenings it was often reminiscent of classical the kabuki theatre style and would be coordinated with the performers to change pitch and volume when they had to speak. The benshi were then the stars of silent cinema, those that audiences would go to specific theatres for, those that served to be educators as well as entertainers. They rose to particular prominence after the Russo-Japanese War of 1905 urged people to the theatres to see newsreels and re-constructions of fighting where the benshi would spur up patriotic courage and belief. Their popularity following 1905 shaped the way that Japanese films were constructed and the manner in which foreign film was consumed, catalysing further growth in the industry as films began to get longer and groups of benshi would be required to work in cycles. Even when the first Japanese film critics and theorist that arose around 1915 began calling for a “pure film” (a term later given to the movement) – a cinema that wasn’t so steeped in tradition and had a concentration on the image alone – the benshis remained. Whilst the styles were varied and evolved over time, and, quite sparsely, are still practised to this day, their impact on Japanese cinema was quite resolute: they established a unique kind of filmic experience from which would evolve a great cinematic industry in the 40s and 50s following the extinction of the benshi when the silent era ended in the mid-30s.
There is much that we couldn’t touch on today, and so I’ll urge you to explore my two main sources: the Chronology of Japanese Cinema and Jeffery A. Dym’s essay, Benshi and the Introduction of Motion Pictures to Japan. I also found this interview with a modern Benshi on MidnightEye very interesting. With that said, that’s all from the Every Year series today and also the end of the 1800s as next time we will be in the year 1900.
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