A group of samurai assemble to defend a small village from thieves. A giant monster crashes through the streets of a bustling metropolis. Two young girls go on a ride inside a bus that’s also a cat. Your experience of Japanese cinema can begin in any number of ways, but it’s more than likely that such an experience made a lasting impression.
Japanese films are like that: they seem more likely than most to stick with you. The Japanese cinema scene has produced some of the world’s most distinctive and memorable movies for more than a century; it turns out it has been doing things its own unique way since the beginning.
The early Japanese experience of motion pictures is a very different one to that of other countries and cultures. Cinema as we know it is a French invention. It was invented by the Lumiere brothers and toured around the world at sideshows and expositions from 1895.
While motion pictures existed in other forms prior to that year – indeed, the pinhole camera was invented in the early 11th century – it was the Lumieres who developed a system of taking a sequence of photographs in rapid succession and then projecting those photographs in similarly rapid succession for a viewing audience.
Photography was also developed in France, with Joseph Nicéphore Niépce and Louis Daguerre’s invention of the daguerreotype in 1822. Over the course of the 19th century, the technology and materials used to create the photograph were developed and refined, and ultimately led to a popular and accurate method of reproducing images of family, significant events and the world at large.
Photography was a game changer for fine art, since up to the point of its invention there had been a general and centuries-long push within Europe towards a realistic mode of painting. Once the photograph perfected the realist reproduction, artists were suddenly free to explore non-realist forms of art.
Put all of these successive inventions into order, and you can see a slow, inevitable movement in Europe (and, subsequently, America) from the Middle Ages through to the late 19th century away from abstract expression to realistic reproduction.
Now consider Japan. In 1895, when the Lumiere cinematograph was invented, Japan had been unwillingly open to Western visitors for 42 years. The country still operated under a feudal monarchy. The Emperor Meiji, who had come to power following the Shogunate’s abdication of authority in 1866, oversaw a rapid advancement in Japan’s technology and culture, yet ruled the nation with absolute authority and was widely believed to have descended from godhood.
The Lumieres’ cinematograph was first presented to audiences in Tokyo in early 1897. A shizoku noble in his mid-50s watching one of the Lumieres’ films would still be able to remember being a sword-wielding samurai when he was in his 20s.
When cinema came to Europe and America, it followed a long progression of increasingly realistic art forms: realistic paintings, realistic theatre, increasingly sophisticated photography, and so on. When cinema came to Japan, it arrived at a culture where abstracted, stylised art was the norm, where theatre forms such as noh, kabuki and bunraku were heavily codified and aggressively non-realist, and where even the natural landscape was cultivated and simplified before it could be appreciated.
Photography was a heavily ingrained and accepted part of Western culture by the time the motion picture became a commercial and artistic concern. As a result, the earliest films in France and the USA were documentary in nature: depictions of ordinary day-to-day life. In Japan, by sharp contrast, the earliest films were silent reproductions of traditional Japanese theatre. As with live theatre, women did not perform in motion pictures; it was not until 1911 that female actors started to appear on-screen.
Intertitles, frames of text used in Western films to further the narrative, were not utilised in early Japanese cinema. Instead, a professional storyteller (known as a ‘benshi’) would recount the narrative to a live audience, with the film simply presenting individual scenes in chronological order. So popular were the benshi that they were generally credited on movie theatre posters above the names of the film’s actual stars. Benshi schools were set up by the most popular performers, to train the next generation of storytellers. Their continued popularity also ensured that in Japan the silent film continued as a popular art form well into the late 1930s.
This disregard for realism even extended to early Japanese newsreels, where the latest news stories from around the world would be enhanced with specially shot scenes of actors playing out the described events. It was not a matter of fiction getting in the way of the facts; for the early Japanese movie audience there wasn’t necessarily a difference.