A short history of Japanese film studios

(This is a revised version of a posting from 2009 that had become seriously outdated. If there are any other errors we haven’t spotted, please leave a comment.)

Japan offers the film student an alternative ‘studio history’ to that of Hollywood. There are striking parallels and some major differences in the development of ‘studio majors’ from the 1920s onwards. Three of the oldest Japanese studios Shochiku, Nikkatsu and Toho have been around since at least the 1930s and are still active today. Toei arrived a little later, as did Daiei, which was eventually incorporated in the assets of a relatively new player, Kadokawa, a publishing house founded in 1945. In 2015 the four members of the Motion Picture Producers Association of Japan (MPPAJ) are Toho, Toei, Shochiku and Kadokawa. These are in effect the four ‘majors’ of the current Japanese film industry.

Like the Hollywood studios, some of the Japanese majors have at different times attempted to run fully integrated film operations with producing studios, distribution companies and exhibition chains. One slight difference has been that live action venues, especially kabuki theatres have remained in their portfolios – but another similarity is an interest in theme parks and studio tours etc.

The first Japanese studio system reached its peak in the 1930s having had to recover from the earthquake in 1923 which destroyed much of central Tokyo and in which film prints and facilities were lost. But from the late 1930s until the early 1950s, the Japanese film industry was effectively controlled/restricted first by the Japanese military authorities who forced through a ‘realignment’ of studios via mergers and then by the Allied Occupation Forces from 1945-52 who vetted script ideas and discouraged production of jedaigeki (‘period’ films which might promote traditional/non-democratic values). During the 1930s the Japanese film industry had become the world’s biggest and it regained this position in the 1960s, only to lose it again with the impact of video in the late 1970s.

The Japanese studio system saw stars and writer/director units contracted to the major studios much as in Hollywood. There seems to have been a more visible form of apprenticeship system with new directors having a mentor or ‘old master’ who helped them get established. Aspects of this can be found discussed in books about Kurosawa and the other major directors. Kurosawa is also interesting in terms of his move towards a form of independent production under the umbrella of Toho in the 1950s. The Japanese majors tended to own or lease studio facilities in both Tokyo and Kyoto. Tokyo was the base for gendaigeki (‘contemporary’ films) and the old capital of Kyoto became the centre for jedaigeki. Kyoto still has studio facilities used for film and television production of period dramas. During the studio period, double bills would often include one film from the company’s Tokyo studio and one from their Kyoto studio.

During the 1950s, the major studios came to be associated with specific genres and approaches to retaining audiences. Animation became important in Japan after 1945 and some studios developed specific animation divisions or acquired independent animation companies.

Brief background on the best-known studio brands

Some studio websites are only available in Japanese. If there are studio brands that I have missed out or if any of this material is incorrect, please leave a comment!

daieilogoDaiei was originally formed as a subsidiary of Shochiku in the mid-1930s but came into its own as part of the Japanese wartime ‘consolidation’ of the industry into three companies. After the war, in which Daiei had been a compliant provider of propaganda pictures, the studio faced several problems – no theatre chain or ‘acceptable’ back catalogue and a general restriction on jedaigeki imposed by the Occupation authorities which hit Daiei’s Kyoto studio hard. Two of Daiei’s innovations in the 1950s, however, proved successful. The gamble on sending a film to the Venice Film Festival paid off with Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1951) and Mizoguchi’s The Life of O’Haru (1952). This was sustained by the export success of Gates of Hell in 1954 with its colour photography. Daiei then became the first Japanese studio to consistently use colour. The studio declined during the 1960s and shut its doors in 1971 before the assets were finally bought by Kadokawa in 2002. (See Greg Shoemaker’s ‘History of Daiei‘.)

logo_kadokawa-copyKadokawa Pictures has a more complex history than the other three current ‘majors’. Variety‘s Japan-based correspondent Mark Schilling recently reported recently on 70 years of Kadokawa which was founded as a publishing house in 1945. Kadokawa Shoten is now a major publishing house responsible for manga, magazines and popular literature. Schilling suggests that ‘Kadokawa Group’ expanded the firm’s interest into television, video games and both live action and anime filmed entertainment from 1976 onwards. Identifying Kadokawa films is not straightforward as the company owns Asmik Ace and other film-related businesses and in 2002 took over the assets of the Daiei studio which was a major producer from 1942 (see above). Kadokawa thus acquired a large library of titles, some of which have been re-branded as Kadokawa films. Kadokawa owns a small cinema chain and also acts as a distributor of foreign films in Japan as well as for its own products. Kadokawa made an impact in Europe and eventually North America in the late 1990s through films such as Ringu and Dark Water, both based on books published by Kadokawa Shoten and produced by Asmik Ace.

nikkatsuNikkatsu is Japan’s oldest major film studio. The name Nikkatsu is an abbreviation of Nippon Katsudō Shashin, literally “Japan Cinematograph Company” and it was founded in 1912 when several production companies and theatre chains consolidated under a trust. Nikkatsu lost out in the 1940s when wartime controls forced a damaging merger. The studio did not make films again until 1954 after which there was a concentration on modern action films such as the yakuza films of Suzuki Seijun as well as the more varied output of Ichikawa Kon and Imamura Shohei. The company has made, and continues to make films in numerous genres. However, for most of the 1970s and 1980s, they strictly produced what they termed roman porn films in order to make ends meet. Unlike “pinku eiga“, Nikkatsu’s films were produced with relatively high budgets and production values, as well as featuring mainstream actresses, many of whom also starred in network television and nationally released film dramas. Today Nikkatsu is a smaller and more focused organisation with an international perspective. It operates a small studio facility, a production services company and co-production operation with Nippon TV and a Thai production company Kantana, plus distribution operations (including satellite in Japan). 

PCL Photo Chemical Laboratory was an early film production company that was bought in 1936 by Kobayashi Ichizo to form the production base for what would become the Toho group.

Toho (from Wikipedia) Toho was founded by the Hankyu Railway in 1932 as the Tokyo-Takarazuka Theater Company. It managed much of the kabuki in Tokyo and, among other properties, the Tokyo Takarazuka Theater and the Imperial Garden Theater in Tokyo; Toho and Shochiku enjoyed a duopoly over theatres in Tokyo for many years. Toho had a long (and often difficult) relationship with Kurosawa Akira over many years from the 1940s-60s. As well as the popular Kurosawa films, Toho is also a known brand in Europe and the US because of its science fiction and ‘monster’ pictures from the mid 1950s onwards and its distribution of Miyazaki Hayao’s work for Studio Ghibli.

tohoscopeThe ‘TohoScope’ logo (for the anamorphic system used by the company from the early 1960s) is a fondly remembered image for many film fans.

Toho-Towa is a distribution company, founded in 1928 with a focus on importing the best of international cinema. It is now a subsidiary company of Toho.

Tōei (from Wikipedia) is a Japanese film and television production and distribution corporation. Based in Tokyo, Tōei owns and operates thirty-four (34) cinema houses across Japan, a modest vertically-integrated studio system by the standards of the 1930s Hollywood. The name Tōei is derived from “Tōkyō Eiga Haikyū” (Tōkyō Film Distribution Company, the company’s former name). Tōkyō-Yokohama Films, incorporated 1938, had previously erected its facilities immediately east of the Tōkyū Tōkyō-Yokohama Line; they managed the Tōkyū Shibuya Yokohama studio system prior to V-J Day. From 1945 through the Tōei merger, Tōkyō-Yokohama Films leased from the Daiei Motion Picture Company a second studio in Kyoto. Through the merger, they gained the combined talents and experience of actors Chiezō KataokaUtaemon IchikawaRionosuke TsukigataRyutaro OtomoKinnosuke NakamuraChiyonosuke AzumaShirunosuke ToshinHashizo Okawa and Satomi Oka. On October 1, 1950, the Tōkyō Film Distribution Company was incorporated; in 1951 the company purchased Ōizumi Films.

Toei Animation is a leading animation company and part of the Toei Company.

Shintoho began as a Toho subsidiary in the late 1940s and then sought to develop an independence that in the 1950s saw it successful with war pictures and action adventures for ‘ultra-conservative’ audiences. Its independence ended in 1961 when the studio went bankrupt and the assets reverted to Toho. 

180px-shochiku_logoShochiku Formed in 1895 by Takejirō Otani and his brother as a Kabuki production company, Shochiku grew fast, expanding its business to many other Japanese theatrical entertainments, like Noh and Bunraku. The company began making films in 1921 and was the first film studio to abandon the use of female impersonators and sought to model itself and its films after Hollywood standards, bringing such things as the star system and the sound stage to Japan. Today, Shochiku is considered to be the oldest continuously-operating film studio in Japan. Shochiku is associated with the ‘lower middle-class’ dramas of Ozu Yasujiro and other films for a family audience in the 1950s.

Encyclopedia of Contemporary Japanese Culture – cinema entry by Aaron Gerow

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