In July 1959, Japan’s leading film magazine, Kinema Junpo, published a list of what it hailed as “The best 10 Japanese films of all time.” This list included works by such acknowledged masters as Mikio Naruse, as well as the young but by then amply acclaimed Akira Kurosawa.
Yasujiro Ozu’s “I Was Born But … ” came in third; Kenji Mizoguchi’s “Sisters of the Gion,” second. But the work considered in 1959 to be the best Japanese film of all time was “Chūji Tabi Nikki” (“A Diary of Chūji’s Travels”) — which was actually a trilogy of silent films made in 1927 by director Daisuke Ito.
It is strange yet altogether understandable that Ito has long been a largely unknown genius of Japanese film. There have not been the numerous retrospectives, in Japan and abroad, accorded the directors mentioned above. But Ito’s story is rather complicated; and this too has contributed to him being both revered and neglected.
This year marks the 30th anniversary of Ito’s passing. Born in 1898 in the beautiful castle town of Uwajima in Shikoku’s Ehime Prefecture, he went to middle school in Matsuyama. As an only son, when his father died in 1916 he was obliged to give up his studies and go to work. But an encounter with the famous playwright and director Kaoru Osanai, a leading light in the new theater movement in Japan, led Ito to Tokyo, where he aspired to be an actor.
Being sauve and good looking, the stage would have seemed an apt choice for him — yet it was as a scriptwriter that he found his first success.
After much of Tokyo was destroyed in the Great Kanto Earthquake of Sept. 1, 1923, and the fires that raged afterward, Ito moved to Kyoto and joined the Nikkatsu studio. At the time, Kyoto rivaled Tokyo as a center of filmmaking, particularly the cranking out of jidaigeki (period dramas) that Japanese audiences craved. He directed his first jidaigeki in 1926, and made eight of them in 1927, including the “Chūji” trilogy.
The trilogy was an instant success with the filmgoing public and marked Ito out as the most skilled practitioner of the genre. As with Abel Gance, the great French silent film director who in many ways resembles him, Ito was markedly influenced by D.W. Griffith, the American pioneer of epic screen dramas. Ito became known for his use of the moving camera, so much so that he was given the nickname “Idō Daisuki” — a pun on his name that means “He just loves to move.”
But if you look at Ito’s silent films, what sets his technique apart isn’t just that he largely spurned the fixed camera shots prevalent in the cinema of the day. As well, he also skillfully employed tracking shots, follow shots from the side with what appears to be a hand-held camera, vertical movement and circling shots. Together with his very tight editing, all this transforms garden-variety fight scenes into an art form — and it was those scenes in such period dramas that became the emblem of Japanese cinema at the time.
I said that his story is complicated. A major complication occurred with the seeming loss of all of the prints of his masterpiece, the “Chūji” trilogy. So, younger readers of Kinema Junpo in 1959 would just have had to take its editors’ word as to the supreme merit of this work.
But then, in 1992, a miracle occurred when a good portion of the trilogy turned up after a couple in Hiroshima “discovered” some cans of film that had been stacked outside (!) on their veranda. To make a long story short, the film was restored and digitalized. We can now see why the magazine editors gave it the premium award and why the lead actor, Denjiro Okochi, was considered a legend.
Watching this film recently, I was overwhelmed not only by Ito’s classic fight scenes, but also by the subtlety of the romantic encounters in it. When Chūji and the lovely ingénue flirt amid enormous barrels for making sake turned on their side, an atmosphere of intimacy and tenderness is created, heightened by the silence of the medium.
Another thing that complicated Ito’s life was sound. He was one of the many directors around the world who did not readily make the transition to the talkie. (Japan entered the talkie era in 1931, but Ito didn’t make his first one until four years later.) In addition, Ito was an iconoclast, whose heroes are outlaws and rebels. As such, he had trouble adjusting to the growing censorship and restrictions that were being placed on film as Japan marched, with high steps, toward a repressive fascism.
It wasn’t until 1948 that he made his true comeback. The censors of the Allied Occupation’s GHQ did not look favorably upon the jidaigeki or anything that smacked of prewar moral codes. The comeback came, then, with Ito’s brilliant take on the mores and warmth of Osaka, “Osho.” Two remakes of this film followed, one starring one of Japan’s best actors, Rentaro Mikuni. I have seen all three, and the first, with Tsumasaburo Bando (known as “Bantsuma”), is incomparably dramatic and moving.
“Osho” is the story of Sankichi Sakata, a master of shōgi, the board game often referred to as Japanese chess. His all-consuming love of the game leads him to pawn not only his (and his wife’s) worldly goods, but also his daughter’s kimono and the ancestors’ Buddhist altar ! His wife threatens to walk out, but Sakata manages to salvage the marriage by winning and reclaiming the altar.
Sakata is a loser in life, but one who lives it to the fullest. The ending, poignant and deeply illustrative of typical Osakan ninjō (human warmth), has brought tears to my eyes every time I’ve seen the film.
Ito directed 95 films in all, and he scripted a whopping 200. Director Mamoru Watanabe has said, “It is fair to say that Japanese cinema began with Daisuke Ito.”
He was both an incorrigible rebel and a technical master whose philosophy was, “Let us seethe with both the wisdom and the fighting spirit that smashes the conventional frame.”
There is a Japanese phrase, reigan nesshu, which means “keep a cool eye but a passionate hand.” Daisuke Ito revised this to netsugan nesshu: Keep a passionate eye and a passionate hand.
It is these words that adorn, engraved in his own hand, his tombstone in the precincts of Rengeiji Temple in the Omuro district of Kyoto — not far from where he and his wife, Asako, who is interred with him, lived.
When confronted with his nickname of “Just loves to move,” he countered, “It’s not just a camera technique in use. It represents the dashing of my heart (kokoro no shissō).”
What more telling words could there possibly be than “the dashing of my heart” to describe the life and work of this stunning filmmaker.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.