Movies were printed using nitrate-based film stock, which was not only perishable but also highly flammable – so much so that an old nitrate film sealed in a canister for long enough can – at sufficient temperatures – explosively combust.
It is not an exaggeration to say that people have died attempting to manufacture, exhibit and store nitrate films. Being a projectionist used to be a considerably more dangerous job than it is today.
There is also the issue that, once synchronised sound was successfully implemented, silent films became less and less relevant to movie-going audiences.
They were not seen as having much worth, and certainly few people producing motion pictures or watching them put much value in such old, outdated forms of screen media.
Put these two factors together – it’s dangerous to keep the old films, and nobody cares about them anyway – and it’s easy to understand why so much of movie-making history was never saved.
A 2013 survey by the USA’s Library of Congress found that approximately 70% of all American silent films have been lost.
The situation in Japan, however, is significantly worse.
It too faced issues of dangerous nitrate film and a public that grew disinterested in silent movies with the advent of sound and colour. On top of that there was the issue of humidity: much higher than in the USA or Europe, and much more likely to degrade and irreparably ruin film prints unless they were stored very carefully.
Then there was the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923. It remains the deadliest earthquake in Japanese history, and apart from causing the deaths of an estimated 140,000 people it also levelled most of Tokyo’s film warehouses. Most of the warehouses that survived the actual earthquake were later burned to the ground in subsequent fires.
Of the films that survived the humidity, the earthquake and the fires, most were destroyed during the American Air Force’s fire-bombing of Tokyo (a series of aerial attacks from 1942 that caused more immediate deaths than the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki).
Once World War II had ended with Japan’s surrender, an American military occupation banned all Japanese films depicting strong ideals of nationalism or feudal loyalty. There was a list prepared of 13 banned subjects, and a film featuring any one of those subjects could be pulled from release and even destroyed.
From the late 1890s to the early 1930s, it is believed that Japanese filmmakers produced approximately 7,000 narrative films. As of the time of writing, there are about 70 of those films left in reasonably complete condition. That’s a proportion of just one per cent. Pickings, therefore, are rather slim for the 21st century viewer.
The more nationalistic or subjectively Japanese the film, the less likely it is that it will have survived. The older the silent film, the less likely it is that it will have survived.
Some silent films do exist, and are accessible via several methods. With these films primarily existing in the public domain, YouTube can be a viable source.
Several key works have been remastered and released by distributors including the much-loved Criterion Collection. Key works worth tracking down include the 1926 horror film A Page of Madness directed by Teinosuke Kinugasa, Yasujiro Ozu’s early film I Was Born, But…, and Kenji Mizoguchi’s The Water Magician.