Film History: The Cinema of Japan.

Film History: The Cinema of Japan.

Film History: The Cinema of Japan.

We celebrate the cinematic legacy of over 120 years of Japanese film making in June, starting with the history of Japanese film.

Film History: The Cinema of Japan.
Godzilla (1954)

It’s no surprise that the country that brought us Godzilla has made a big impact on world cinema.  The Japanese adopted film making, and film watching, early.  This long tradition has gone on to power a film industry that is the fourth largest in the world.  Throughout its long history, Japanese cinema reached global heights of influence, but also suffered prolonged recessions that threatened to destroy the industry.  Each time, Japan bounced back, re-inventing itself with new mediums and genres that spoke to new generations of movie audiences.

Since we started this month off with a retrospective of the biggest cinematic export from Japan, Godzilla, and we’re anticipating the release of Hideaki Anno’s seminal animated classic – Neon Genesis Evangelion – we decided to take our tour of global cinema to Japan this month.  Join us as we explore the history and achievements of one of the world’s most vibrant film markets.

Foundation of Japanese Cinema.

Film History: The Cinema of Japan.
Magic lantern slide.

When a Japanese businessman first brought Thomas Edison’s  Kinetoscope in Japan in 1896, he was serving an audience already invested in theater going.  Japanese traditional theater such as Noh, Bunraku, and Kabuki had large cultural followings, and many of the traditions associated with them readily translated to the silent era experience of movies.  Magic Lanterns, an early form of projected animation, were also popular among the Japanese.  The arrival of the Kinetoscope, and later the Lumierre Brothers’ Cinematograph found receptive audiences.  By as early as 1897, the first theater for motion pictures had opened in Osaka.

Film History: The Cinema of Japan.
Momijigari (1898) Tsunekichi Shibata

Japanese film makers jumped in right away, with the first dramas being short ghost stories in 1898, and the first documentary short film – Geisha No Teodori – being released in 1899.  While early films did mirror the development of western cinema – focusing on documentaries, travelogues and education films – Japan drew upon the infrastructure of its theater industry to produce dramas and historical stories.  Kabuki actors became stars -the oldest surviving dramatic film, an adaptation of scenes from the Kabuki play Momijigari, was produced in 1899 featuring Matsunosuke Onoe who would go on to star in over 1,000 films.  The traditional narrators of theater dramas, the Benshi, quickly became integral to the industry, providing dialogue, music, and even their own dramatic flourishes to the proceedings.  It’s thanks to their notes and accounts of their performances that several lost films were able to be pieced back together.

The first Japanese film studio opened in 1909.  The Yoshizawa Shoten company moved from creating magic lanterns to importing cinematographs to creating their own equipment in the early 1900’s.  They established the first permanent theater in 1903, and sent camera operators to follow Japanese soldiers during the Russo-Japanese war in 1904 – wildly increasing the popularity and the prestige of early cinema.

Pre-War Cinema.

Film History: The Cinema of Japan.
Sisters of the Gion (1936) Kenji Mizoguchi

The decades before the Second World War saw a flourishing of artistic styles.  Influenced by European cinema, a reaction against old theater techniques spurred the use of more modern cinematography and a move away from adaptions of plays.  Liberal ideas and sentiments percolated among film makers, including the first director to achieve world-wide acclaim – Kenji Mizoguchi.  These “tendency films” and other, more radically political films would be severely repressed and censored as Japan headed towards entry into WW2.

While the first feature length “talkie” film made in Japan appeared in 1930, the enduring popularity of the Benshi kept silent films thriving.  This all came to a head when news of a proposed ordinance to ban Benshi from narrating certain films led to a strike.  The older brother of film legend Akira Kurosawa was a prominent Benshi and member of the strikes, and the subsequent failure of the movement and loss of the Benshi tradition were implicated in his tragic suicide.

After the War – The Golden Age.

The disastrous end of World War 2 for Japan led to a flowering of Japanese cinema.  The occupying America forces brought their movies with them – many of which had been banned by the pre-war government in Japan.  Notably, the works of Disney and other animators became a touchstone that would lead to the animation revolution of Anime in the 70’s and 80’s.  There was also a loosening on what types of films could be made – though the occupation government still did have input on what could be released.  On the whole, this relaxing of pre-war strictures helped feed an explosion of themes and talents.

Film History: The Cinema of Japan.
Rashômon (1950) Akira Kurosawa

The immediate post-war era saw the ascension of the four biggest directors in Japanese film history – Akira Kurosawa, Kenji Mizoguchi, Yasujiro Ozu, and Masaki Kobayashi.  These directors reinvented traditional genres and revitalized them, and helped to address the lingering emotions of the country through somber and hauntingly personal films.  The impact of Japanese cinema rippled overseas.  Korusawa won an honorary Oscar for Rashômon in 1951, the first of three that Japanese directors would win that decade.

Crashes and Rebirths – 1960’s to Present.

Economic recession and the emergence of a new technology – Television – caused a crisis for cinema.  While the 60’s continued to see Japanese film receive accolades abroad, the ease of new media threatened the box office and studio system.  To draw a wider audience, studios tried various tactics.  Large studios began funding sprawling epics, sporting the type of visuals and stories that TV couldn’t match.  Smaller studios expanded into niche genres, such as the sexy and lurid “Pink Films” and the hyper violent martial arts and gangster films of the 70’s.

Film History: The Cinema of Japan.

Film History: The Cinema of Japan.
Nausicaa (1984) Hayao Miyazaki

Despite the proliferation of B-movies, many studios nearly went out of business as the theater going populace declined by a billion tickets sold over twenty years.  Salvation came from an unlikely source:  comic books.

In the 1980’s, several manga artists decided to adapt their properties to full length animated films.  in 1984, Hayao Miyazaki – “the Disney of Japan” – adapted his series, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind into a hit film, starting a 35+ year tradition of excellence.  This was followed by the success of Katsuhiro Otomo‘s dystopian cyber-punk adaptation of his manga Akira, which put the anime phenomenon on the global map.  Studios began churning out similar films twice a year, propping up the flagging theater system.

A New Era.

Film History: The Cinema of Japan.
Sonatine (1993) Takeshi Kitano.

The 1990’s saw the reversal of the downward trend in cinema going, thanks in part to the explosive growth of the animated film market and brash new directors like Takeshi Kitano and Takashi Miike who made artistically resonant yet hyper violent films.

Industry bolstering institutions arose to solidify the momentum.  In 1987 the Japanese Academy Awards were instituted.  In 2000, the Japan Film Commission Promotion Council was established to help grow the industry.

Japanese cinema has continued to garner world-wide attention, with director Kore Eda’s Shoplifters being just the latest Japanese film to contend for an Oscar, and Takeshi Kitano’s film Outrage competing for the top prize at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival.

If you enjoyed this exploration of global cinema, check out our other features in the series:



About Neil Worcester 1239 Articles
Neil Worcester is currently a freelance writer and editor based in the Portland, Maine area. He has developed a variety of content for blogs and businesses, and his current focus is on media and food blogging. Follow him on Facebook and Google+!

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