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Japanese companies love to celebrate landmarks, and Shochiku, a major film producer and exhibitor, is no exception.

Founded by brothers Takejiro Otani and Matsujiro Shirai in 1895 to manage kabuki theaters (which it still does), the company launched a film subsidiary, Shochiku Kinema Gomei-sha, in 1920.

This year, Shochiku is commemorating its centennial with exhibitions, broadcasts and screenings, although these are at the mercy of the ongoing coronavirus crisis and some have already been canceled. Still on schedule at the National Film Archive of Japan is an exhibition (May 29-Aug. 30) and screenings (June 25- Sept. 6). Shochiku had also planned an anniversary film, Yoji Yamada’s “God of Cinema,” that was set for a December release until its star, Ken Shimura, died in late March after contracting COVID-19. Production has since been suspended.

Despite these setbacks, Shochiku has a lot to celebrate. Studio directors such as Yasujiro Ozu, Kenji Mizoguchi and Mikio Naruse have been hailed as world-class masters while its more populist filmmakers, such as Yamada with his long-running “Tora-san” series, have long had a stronghold on the affections of local fans.

From the start, Shochiku aimed to be innovative, hiring Henry Kotani, a Japanese director who had worked in Hollywood, to direct films at its new studio in Tokyo’s Kamata neighborhood. Shochiku also started a film school whose first production, the 1921 Minoru Murata melodrama “Souls on the Road,” featured flashbacks and other new techniques.

The Great Kanto Earthquake of Sept. 1, 1923, heavily damaged the Kamata studio, forcing Shochiku to shift the bulk of its production to Kyoto. Shiro Kido, a 28-year-old executive placed in charge of reconstruction at Kamata, was given permission to make films with the remaining staff. The first was Yasujiro Shimazu’s “Father,” a family comedy that had elements of what Kido later called the “Kamata style.”

Unlike Shochiku films based on shinpa (new school), a theatrical form that favored perfervid melodramas, “Father” had a simple story taken from daily life. It became a hit, as did its follow-up, “Sunday.” Boosted by these successes, Kido took over as Kamata studio boss in 1924. He disliked the star system, which was an import from Hollywood, so he developed his own stars from talented newcomers, while giving more clout to directors, who were less likely than actors to make outrageous demands. Together with young directors like Ozu, Heinosuke Gosho, Hiroshi Shimizu and Torajiro Saito, Kido produced shomingeki — films about ordinary folks, including company employees who were part of a rising urban middle class.

He also came up with the idea for Japan’s first talkie, the 1931 comedy “The Neighbor’s Wife and Mine,” which became a landmark smash. But the Kamata studio was becoming both too small and, with a diesel engine factory nearby, too noisy for sound recording. Kido scouted a larger site in Ofuna, Kanagawa Prefecture, where Shochiku opened a new studio in 1936.

In 1938 Kido produced yet another influential hit, “The Compassionate Buddha Tree.” This romantic drama about the star-crossed romance between a doctor and nurse inspired three sequels as well as a slew of films with similar surechigai (ships passing in the night) story lines.

During World War II, Shochiku, like all Japanese studios, produced propaganda films under the watchful eye of military censors. By the war’s end in 1945, with much of the country in ruins, the Ofuna studio had one film in production, and only 35 Shochiku theaters had survived.

In the postwar era, however, Shochiku rose to a commanding position in the industry, with a majority market share for domestic films. Among its best-remembered hits are Kinoshita’s “Carmen Comes Home” (1951), which was Japan’s first color film, and “Always in My Heart” (1953/54), a three-part melodrama about a thwarted love affair, set in the war’s chaotic aftermath.

A box-office sensation, the trilogy was made in the humanist “Ofuna style” that was targeted at women and that Kido had long championed (and developed from the “Kamata style”). A proven formula, in other words, but with a timely difference.

“Kido always said that a producer had to keep one step ahead of the audience,” Shochiku managing director Tadashi Osumi says. “Not two steps, one. Otherwise, you get too far ahead.”

Breaking the mold: Nagisa Oshima's 'Cruel Story of Youth' heralded a new wave of film for Shochiku, with its depiction of rebellious youth. | © 1960/2014 SHOCHIKU CO., LTD.
Breaking the mold: Nagisa Oshima’s ‘Cruel Story of Youth’ heralded a new wave of film for Shochiku, with its depiction of rebellious youth. | © 1960/2014 SHOCHIKU CO., LTD.

In the latter half of the 1950s, a new generation of studio directors arose, rebelling against what they viewed as Shochiku’s conservatism. Their ringleader was Nagisa Oshima, whose 1960 film “Cruel Story of Youth” heralded the advent of the so-called Shochiku Nouvelle Vague, named after the more famous French New Wave. The film’s depiction of rebellious youth in search of thrills and sex in Tokyo was diametrically opposed to the Ofuna style, but drew flocks of young fans. The Nouvelle Vague boom was short, though, and Oshima left Shochiku to work independently.

The studio’s most enduring success of the decade was Yoji Yamada’s “Tora-san” series about a wandering peddler, played by comic Kiyoshi Atsumi, who tries and fails to get the girl in episode after episode. From 1969 to 1995, Yamada produced 48 feature installments, earning a Guinness World Record.

The film industry struggled in the 1960s with the diffusion of television and the resulting plunge in box office revenues. Kido, now Shochiku’s president, even lowered himself to produce sci-fi and erotic films, but to patchy success. In the end, the studio closed theaters, laid off staff and, in 1965, shuttered its Kyoto studio.

“It was tough to survive back then,” Osumi says. “(The company) was looking for ways to keep its head above water.”

Fortunately, the “Tora-san” series and other hits helped Shochiku stay afloat in the 1970s and ’80s, while other studios, like Daiei, were dying or, like Nikkatsu, turning production over to soft-porn features. In the 1990s, however, Shochiku had its own near-death experience when then-President Toru Okuyama oversaw an ambitious expansion that included a theme park, multiplex theaters, film fund and satellite broadcasting service. As the tide of red ink rose, the board of directors became restive and, in a January 1998 corporate coup, dismissed Okuyama and his son, Kazuyoshi, who was then head of production.

“The company had a debt of about ¥100 billion but its sales were ¥30 billion,” Osumi explains. “When they asked for my advice, I said the company would fail unless we got rid of (the Okuyamas).”

Riding to the company’s rescue was current president Junichi “Jay” Sakamoto. A grandson of Kido, who died in 1977, Sakomoto joined Shochiku after graduating from Keio University, but left to become a lawyer, with Harvard Law School on his resume. In 1998, he returned to Shochiku as an advisor and, in 2004, became president and CEO.

“He put the brakes on the debt by selling assets,” Osumi says. “It was painful, but necessary.”

As part of this restructuring drive, Shochiku closed its Ofuna studio and sold the land, a blow to company pride.

“Even though we don’t have a studio of our own in Tokyo, we can make enough films by borrowing the studios of (other film companies),” Osumi says.

Shochiku, he says, has been debt-free for more than 10 years and is now releasing an average of 10 films a year, though “streaming services like Netflix have hurt the box office.” The solution, he believes, is not to shut out Netflix — or surrender to it.

“We make our money by making movies,” he says, “and since we have our own theaters to show them in, we can make a lot of them.

“It’s better to enjoy a movie in a theater with a big screen and good sound. That will never change.”

For more information, visit www.shochiku.co.jp/global/en/cinema.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

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