Japan Speaks Out! Shochiku’s Modern Times

Tanaka Kinuyo and Takada Kokichi in Okoto and Sasuke

Tanaka Kinuyo and Takada Kokichi in Okoto and Sasuke

This was the thirds and final programme of early Japanese sound films curated by Alexander Jacoby and Johan Nordstrom for Il Cinema Ritrovato. The selection of films was made from a major Japanese studio, Shochiku, whose cohorts included major Japanese directors and at a point when the industry was increasing it mastery of the new technology. This was for me the strongest programme of films of the three.

Shochiku employed to brothers to ‘plunder Western technical journals to produce an indigenous sound system, ‘the so-called “Tsuchihashi system”. The studio also moved production from its Kamata studio on the outskirts of Tokyo to rural Ofuna, where external noise was much lower. ‘Ofuna flavour’ was a description of the tone of Shochiku productions in the period, dominated by the shomi-geki genre. But the films also tended to follow the style developed at Kamata in the silent era:

directors such as Shimazu, Shimizu, and the young Naruse perfected a distinctly flamboyant visual style, ‘Kamata modernism’, ideally suited to exploring the tension in 1930s Japan between the native and the foreign, tradition and modernity.

Hanayome No Negoto / The Bride Talks in Her Sleep, 1933 57 minutes and

Hanamuko No Negoto / The Groom Talks in His Sleep, 1935 73 minutes.

This was a double bill of comedies directed by Gosho Heinosuke and scripted by Fushimi Akira.  Both films were photographed by Ohara Joji. The sound team included one of the Tsuchihashi brothers. The most well known performers for western audiences would be Tanaka Kinuyo. The curators comment that

much of the film’s distinction comes from the wit of Gosho’s direction and the charm of the acting, particularly of the heroines (Tanaka Kinuyo in Bride; Kawasaki Hiroko in Groom.

Ureshii Koro / Happy Times, 1933 83 minutes and with an aspect ratio of 1.: 1.19, the standard ratio for early talkies.

Directed by Nomura Hiromasa and scripted by Ikeda Tadao. This was another light comedy, wherein a young, newlywed couple have their home visited and disrupted by an older and more traditional uncle. The film was a box office success and praised in the influential “Kinema Junpo” for ‘ its script, direction and tempo’.

Nakinureta Haru No Onna Yo / The Lady Who Wept in Spring, 1933 96 minutes.

Directed by Shimizu Hiroshi, script by Suyama Mitsuru, with cinematography by Sasaki Taro with music by Shimada Harutaka.

The film deals with a miner Kenji (Obinata Den) working on the remote northern island of Hokkaido and his relationships with two ‘itinerant’ women. Shimizu has a reputation, writers note

the director’s ‘affinity [with] fallen souls’, [and] his interest in vagrants and fallen women.

But he is also noted “as a master director of child actors”. A critic writes that

Shimizu Hiroshi presents all the splendour of life, embodied in the spectacle of children simply being themselves.

[His Children of the Beehive / Hachi no su no kadomotachi, 1948 is a good example seen in the UK a couple of years ago]. The older woman in the film has a young daughter who plays an important part in developments.

The film itself makes good use of some location filming and also of songs on the soundtrack.

The drama is finely developed and there is impressive ending that works with familiar tropes in a distinctive fashion.

Tonari No Yae-Chan / Our Neighbour, Miss Yae, 1934, 76 minutes.

Directed by Shimazu Yasujiro who also scripted the film. The neighbours involve a pair of sisters and a pair of brothers. The family homes and environs are depicted in a realist style and with a strong sense of irony. The between these young people, playful and sometime romantic, is delightful. Shimizu is reckoned to be a pioneer of the shomin-geki film at Shochiku. And a film like Our Neighbour offers a sense of whole family life rather than focusing on a couple of dramatic leads.

Shunkinsho Okoto To Sasuke / Okoto and Sasuke, 1935, 100 minutes.  A second film directed and scripted by Shimazu Yasujiro. This is a period drama, jidai-geki, dealing with romantic relationships rather than the world of the samurai. Okoto is played by one of Japan’s major female stars early in her career, Tanaka Kinuyo. And Sasuke is played by Saito Tatsuo. The film is adopted from a popular novel. The film deals with distinctions of age and class and one writer proposed that it offered ‘extreme male masochism’. This is strong melodrama, with a shocking climax that recalls the unconventional style of Kinugasa Teinosuke. “Kinema Junpo” produced annual ‘top tens’ of releases, and awarded this film third place.

Note: the two following films were produced at a new film company Daiichi Eigasha. The head of the news studio and many of its staff had formerly worked at Nikkatsu, the other major Japanese Studio. Its productions were funded and distributed by Shochiku and it was, effectively, a short-lived subsidiary.

Gubijinso / The Field Poppy, 1935, 73 minutes.

Directed by one of the most famous Japanese filmmakers Mizoguchi Kenji. The film is taken from a tale by a major author, Natsume Soseki, adapted by jidai-geki specialist Ito Daisuke.  The cinematography, highly praised in ‘Kinema Junpo’, is by Miki Minoru.

One critic draws comparison with Max Ophuls,

Mizoguchi tracks the romantic roundelay through the circulation of a symbolic object: a watch intended as a wedding gift.

Rather different from Madame De…, this film features the tragedy that follows on from rejection rather than infidelity. The film also uses the contradiction between the country and the town and between classes. This is a film that appears to privilege the traditional over the modern.

Ojo Ikichi / Dame Okichi, 1935, 64 minutes.

This film involved Mizoguchi Kenji as he ‘supervised’ the direction by Takashima Tasunosuke: the latter a regular scriptwriter for Mizoguchi, including for The Field Poppy. The Catalogue notes debate around the extent of Mizoguchi’s contribution. Some critics suggest that

the film is characteristic of the master both in plot and style’ … the film has some typically Mizoguchian scenes that dwell on chiaroscuro melancholy.

The plot certainly has recognisable tropes; a heroine involved with gangsters but emotionally committed to innocent younger man. Shades of The Water Magician (Taki no shiraito, 1933).

Hitori Musoko / The Only Son, 82 minutes.

This is the first sound film directed by Yasujiro Ozu. It is likely to be familiar for English-speaking audiences, as it is one of his films that have circulated here. Tsune (lida Choko), a working class widow, raises her son Ryosuke (Shin’ichi Himroi). She suffers privations in order that he can receive an education. Much of the film is taken up with a visit that she makes to her now adult son in Tokyo. The film has the recognisable hallmarks of Ozu and is a fine melodrama. Untypical it focuses on working class life. Ryu Chishu, looking incredibly young, appears as the teacher Okubo.

Ozu and his team had to produce the film at the old Kamata Studio, where lack of soundproofing hindered the filming.

The Festival programme also included a short snapshot, Nihon No Eiga Zukuri / Movie Making in Japan 1934, eight minutes. This final programme of three reached 1936.

This decisive shift was mirrored in other studios [Shochiku’s move to Ofuna and the ‘talkie film’ becoming the dominant mode], with 1936 the first year in which more sound films were produced than silents in Japan overall. Therefore, that year is a particular apt moment to end this survey of Japan’s early sound cinema.

All the features were screened on 35mm prints with English subtitles and [with the noted exception in 1.37:1, and all were provided by the Japan Film Centre in fair to pretty good prints. Nearly all of the films had had digital noise reduction applied to soundtracks. Fortunately the festival programmed in two screenings because the daytime screenings were packed. The repeats, usually in the evenings, were slightly easier in finding seats.

This was a rewarding programme to enjoy and one of the highlights of the 2014 Festival.

All quotations from the Catalogue of the 2014 Il Cinema Ritrovato.

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