Japan’s silent-film era began with an exhibition of Thomas Edison’s Kinetoscope film-viewing device in Kobe in November 1896, only about one year after the first-ever public film screening in Paris.
Despite the early importation of equipment and films from abroad, the Japanese film industry took quite a different course from its Western counterparts. For one thing, the influence of traditional performing arts such as kabuki and kyōgen (comic storytelling) loomed large in everything from acting styles to subject matter. Shinpa, another native drama form with a big impact on early cinema, was based on Western drama, but used onnagata (men performing women’s roles) — an ancient convention that filmmakers also adopted.
Another difference was that in Japan silent films, both domestic and foreign, were narrated by benshi — performers who not only expanded on the subtitles, but acted out the various roles, male or female. The more popular benshi attracted fans like film stars would, but their vocal theatrics slowed the development of Japanese films toward the more cinematic, less stage-bound styles of filmmakers in the West.
The most popular genre throughout much of Japan’s silent era and beyond — the period actioner/drama — was anything but static, however. Matsunosuke Onoe, a kabuki actor whom pioneering filmmaker Shozo Makino recruited in 1909 and then directed in hundreds of films in the roles of samurai, ninja and other feudal-era heroes, had a dynamic, swashbuckling presence that thrilled the era’s fans — and made him Japan’s first true movie star.
At the same time, early theorist Norimasa Kaeriyama and other members of what came to be called the Pure Film Movement advocated reforms, such as the use of close-ups, shorter cuts and actresses instead of onnagata, all of which were already standard industry practice in the West, but were still considered daring innovations in more conservative Japan.
By the 1920s, the reformers had won the day, though their films were not always box-office successes. Meanwhile, young directors such as Yasujiro Ozu and Mikio Naruse were learning their trade by making Hollywood-style slapstick comedies, studios were hiring Japanese with Hollywood experience, such as Thomas Kurihara and Henry Kotani, to direct films using the latest American methods.
Japan did not immediately follow Hollywood in adopting sound, however. The first Japanese talkie, Heinosuke Gosho’s “Madam to Nyobo (The Neighbor’s Wife and Mine)” was released in 1931, nearly four years after Hollywood’s pioneering talking picture “The Jazz Singer” sounded the death knell of the silent era in America.
One reason was the expense. Converting to pricey sound systems was a hard stretch for Japan’s cash-strapped studios and theater owners. Another was the fierce opposition of the benshi, who rightly saw sound as a threat to their professional existence. But Japanese audiences liked talkies just fine — “The Neighbor’s Wife and Mine” was a big, studio-saving hit, and the rearguard resistance, including benshi strikes, could not indefinitely put off the inevitable. By 1938 the silents had faded out and sound was here to stay.