Uncovering lost worlds of Japanese film

by Donald Richie

RECALLING THE TREASURES OF JAPANESE CINEMA: Japanese Film History Studies, edited by Friends of Silent Film Association, supervised by Matsuda Film Productions, preface by Tadao Sato. Tokyo: Urban Connections, 2003, 200 pp., with photos, 1,800 yen (cloth).

With movies so ubiquitous it is easy to forget how fragile they are — particularly Japanese movies. Even in a world where two-thirds of all silent cinema is lost (and perhaps a quarter of all sound films as well), the destruction of the Japanese cinema is extraordinary. Except for a few titles, there is nothing extant from the period of 1897 to 1917 and only somewhat more from 1918 to 1945. The 1923 earthquake, the 1945 fire-bombing of the major cities, the postwar Allied Occupation torching of banned films, and the later indifference of the industry itself have meant the destruction of 90 percent of all Japanese films made before 1945.

Occasionally something thought lost is recovered. An early Yasujiro Ozu film was found in mislabeled cans, the negative of a 1928 Teinosuke Kinugasa was discovered in a rice barrel, a third of Ito Daisuke’s 1927 epic “Chuji’s Travel Diary” (“Chuji tabinikki“) was recovered; and in 1994 a complete copy of the big hit of 1930, “What Made her Do it?” (“Nani ga Kanajo wo Sosasetaka“) was found in the Gosfilm archives in Moscow.

It is an account of this latter film and its discovery which concludes this interesting and valuable book about 50 of the better-known lost films. For almost all the entries the scenario and a few stills has survived . From these and from contemporary accounts, the movies are reconstructed and the reader gets at least some idea of what they might have been like.

The earliest thus reviewed is “The Glory of Life” (“Sei no Kagayaki“), a 1918 film which marked both the directorial debut of Kaeriyama Norimasu and also the introduction of detailed scripts and the use of actresses rather than oyama, actors who traditionally played female roles. It is also the film which has received the most scholarly attention (Benisawa Yoko, Chiba Nobuo, Aaron Gerow) and is the subject of Joanne Bernardi’s excellent “Writing in Light’ (Wayne State Press).

Bernardi also includes in her book a detailed account of the second of the lost films in this volume, Kurihara Kisaburo’s “Amateur Club” (“Amachua Kurabu, 1920“), script by Tanizaki Junichiro. Readers will be able to augment this information with the complete script, translated into English, in the Bernardi volume.

Other films of particular importance include Tanaka Eizo’s 1921 “The Kyoya Collar Shop” (“Kyoya Erimise“) here somewhat bafflingly rendered as “The Lapel Shop”; Mizoguchi Kenji’s 1926 “A Paper Doll’s Whisper of Spring” (“Kaminingyo Haru no Sasayaki“) and Ozu’s first film, a samurai swordplay entertainment called “Sword of Penitence,” 1927, (“Zange no Yaiba“).

One of the most regrettably lost films, Yamanaka Sadao’s 1933 “The Life of Bangaku” (“Bangaku no Issho”) is here described in all the detail the scenario permits. As are important and missing movies by Itami Mansaka, Shimazu Yasuhiro, Gosho Heinosuke, and many others.

There is also full listing of production crews and casts, and concluding appendix of Kinema Jumpo (one of Japan’s top film magazines) Top-Ten lists from 1926 to 1935.

Matsuda Film Productions who supervised this book has its own archive of early Japanese cinema (the other major archive is that of the National Film Center of Japan) and has made a number available on its DVD-ROM “Masterpieces of Japanese Silent Cinema” which includes footage from 45 films but is unfortunately only playable on Windows. This disc is available through Urban Connections, which has also published an interesting popular account of Japan’s first “sound” films in “The Benshi — Japanese Silent Film Narrators.”

Lost films are still discovered. Just 10 years ago a large hunk of an Ozu early comedy was found and recently a number of reels were recovered from the Hokkai permafrost, where they had been slumbering for almost a century. Still, many fine films will never be again seen. But they can at least be imagined which is just what this dedicated study allows us to do.