In this multimedia age, when new electronic entertainment devices for use in the privacy of one’s home — or anywhere — proliferate endlessly, it can seem hopelessly old-fashioned to trendsetters to sit in a darkened movie theater watching stars emote in heart-tugging dramas, daredevil adventure stories or raucous comedies. The constantly dwindling size of the audiences for what was a mainstay of popular escapism in the early postwar years goes a long way toward explaining the decision of Shochiku Co. to sell its famous 63-year-old film-production studio in Ofuna, Kanagawa Prefecture, to Kamakura Women’s College.
It is encouraging that the college both needed the space and was able to acquire it. Nevertheless, the demise of the facility at which many classics of what is considered the golden age of Japanese cinema were produced marks the end of an era. The public no longer seems interested in movies like those made by such noted directors as Yasujiro Ozu and Keisuke Kinoshita, many of which received acclaim abroad as well as at home. Ozu’s “Tokyo Monogatari” (Tokyo Story) and Kinoshita’s “Narayama Bushiko” (The Ballad of Narayama) were both filmed there and both are landmarks of Japanese film history. Of course, people still go to the movies, especially young people, but not with anything like the regularity that was once standard, and not to see the kind of movies that appealed to their parents and grandparents.
How could it be otherwise, with so many competing forms of entertainment making tempting demands on the limited time most people have for leisure pursuits? Shochiku executives are well aware of this. Last year the company was forced to close its much-touted Kamakura Cinema World theme park, located at the Ofuna studio, because of poor attendance. Despite all the efforts made to promote the park as a nostalgic trip into Japanese film history, and the presence of interactive attractions that allowed visitors to envision themselves as movie stars, it failed to draw people in sufficient numbers to turn a profit.
Shochiku has a long and proud history in Japanese entertainment. It was established in 1902 as a kabuki production company, a business in which it is still actively engaged. It entered movie production in 1920 through a subsidiary. The kabuki stage has faced some serious threats of its own. In the early postwar years, audiences shied away from such traditional forms of entertainment, apparently eager for anything that seemed more modern, as represented by the movies and elaborate musical-variety shows. It probably did not help that some of the most popular and beloved kabuki plays were banned for a while by Occupation authorities because of what was deemed their “militaristic” content.
At one time in the 1950s, kabuki was reported in such danger of demise that Shochiku executives allowed the stage of the historic Kabuki-za theater in downtown Tokyo to be used for solo recitals by leading popular singers. Press reports of the day indicate that it even once served as the venue for a production of the then-popular Broadway comedy “Teahouse of the August Moon,” with a combined American and Japanese cast. The reports do not note the reaction of distinguished kabuki actors, who may have considered this a desecration of their cherished stage traditions.
In the heyday of the movie industry here, each of the major studios — some of them now defunct — was considered to have a specialty genre. Shochiku’s was family dramas and comedies with a “human” touch. All 48 films in the long-running series titled “Otoko wa Tsurai yo” (It’s tough being a man) were filmed at the Ofuna studio. The untimely death of the late Kiyoshi Atsumi, the popular actor who played Tora-san, the leading character in the films, brought the 26-year series to an end. It may also have marked a turning point for the studio. The last motion picture to be made there will be one directed by Yoji Yamada, who directed all of the films in the Tora-san series.
Shochiku, which this year sold the land in Tokyo on which its head-office building once stood, has already purchased a less expensive site, also in Tokyo, on which to erect a new studio. It will be only one-fifth the size of the facility it has sold. Old-timers in the film industry who remember the opening of the Ofuna studio in 1936 campaigned for it to remain open. The movie business and its audiences have changed too much, however. Many hope the new studio will be able to recapture at least some of the glory of the industry’s past. Now, if only a way could be found to reduce the high cost of movie tickets in Japan.
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