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by Freda Freiberg

One major factor in the Japanese film industry's successful survival of the transition to sound was its ability to convert to sound very slowly - over a ten year period - because of the popularity and strength of the indigenous variety of "silent film". Film in Japan was never experienced by the audience in silence; instead, the screening of silent films was accompanied by the live performance of narration and music in the theatre.(1) The narrators were popular entertainers:

The narrators not only recounted the plot of the films, they enhanced the emotional content by performing the voices and sound effects and providing evocative descriptions of events and images on the screen - much like the narrators of the bunraku puppet theatre. The most popular narrators were stars in their own right, solely responsible for the patronage of a particular theatre.(2)

The combined performance-cum-screening was in many ways more lively, entertaining and dramatic than the new sound film.(3) Thus, while the industry was experimenting with the new medium of sound, and consolidating its resources, it could and did continue to produce, distribute and exhibit the silent product in great numbers, without losing money.

It was not until 1935 that a talkie film won first prize at the Kinema Jumpo annual critics' poll. In 1933, the four top awards went to silents (directed by Ozu, Mizoguchi and Naruse, respectively); and in 1934, an Ozu silent again won the top award. In 1933, 81% of films produced were silent, despite the fact that talkies had been made in Japan since 1931. In 1937 and 1938, roughly a third of films produced were still silent.(4)

Even in 1942, 14% of films exhibited in Japan were still silents. Although the major companies (Shockiku, Nikkatsu, Shinko and the new company Toho) had converted to full talkie production by mid decade, there were two other companies that were founded in the 1930s that specialized in silent production. Daito Co was formed in 1933 when an existing private family company (Kawai) was joined by distributors and exhibitors from all over Japan who had been associated with two collapsed companies (Toa and Tokatsu). They produced about 100 films per annum, and supplied two films per week to 450 theatres. After 1937, they made a few talkies, but more often added a sound band - a recording of the benshi's narration, combined with music and sound effects - to their silents rather than using synchronized sound. The second company which specialized in silent production was Kyokuto Film Co. Founded in 1935, it made four reel silent jidai-geki (period films) as supports. From 1938 to 1940, it continued to produce one a week (50 per annum), but, like Daito, added a sound band of recorded narration to its silently produced films. This company was eventually absorbed by Toho, and Daito amalgamated with Shinko and Nikkatsu to become Daiei during the war, when the government insisted on reducing the number of fiction film production companies to three large companies.(5)

In the transition to full talkie production, the major company Shochiku also used a sound band of recorded music and sound effects, but tended to prefer the use of written intertitles rather than the recorded voice of the narrator (benshi) to convey the words of the dialogue. Ozu's late silents are of this type. Other films made by small companies continued to rely on the voice of the benshi, either live in the theatre or recorded onto the sound band, to convey basic information as well as the dialogue. Mizoguchi's late silents, made for small independent companies, are often difficult to follow when viewed today without the benshi's narration. Throughout the 1930s then, four kinds of films co-existed in Japanese cinemas:

(i) silent films accompanied by live benshi narration and live music performed in the theatre;

(ii) silent films with a "sound band" of recorded music and sound effects and written intertitles to convey the dialogue;

(iii) sound films with a post-synchronized "sound band" of recorded music, sound effects and narration;

(iv) full talkies, with actors speaking synchronized dialogue, mixed with recorded sound and music onto the soundtrack.

In one case, three of these types of film were combined into the production of one film, a 1934 Shochiku film called Chijo no Seiza, directed by Nomura and promoted as a "neo-film sans silence"(!). The beginning of the film was a talkie, the middle of the film used a sound band of recorded music and sound effects, and the end of the film used a recorded narrator.(6)

In the second half of the decade, a measure of economic stability was brought to the very volatile and undercapitalized Japanese industry (in which numerous small companies emerged and collapsed, reformed, amalgamated with each other or were absorbed by other companies, with monotonous regularity) by the concentration of capital and resources (human and technical) in two big rival trusts - Shochiku and Toho. They absorbed small companies, built huge theatres in the major capital cities, had their own distribution and exhibition companies and introduced "progressive" business methods to the industry (e.g. hiring staff and stars on contracts instead of following the traditional method of lifetime employment, promotion by merit rather than seniority, organizing production under the producer system, sub-delegating responsibility for the budgeting and planning of a single film, or series of films, to the producer).

Their economic power and strength was due not just to the fact that they controlled a national distribution and exhibition network - although this made them more secure than production companies in France and England, who had no exhibition network of their own and faced resistance from exhibitors who favoured popular American films over the local product - but also to their heavy involvement in the live theatre industry. They had their own theatrical companies under contract to them, their popular film stars could make appearances live on stage in their theatres, their stage stars could make screen appearances, and popular successes could be repeated on stage and screen.

Japanese films were more widely distributed in Japan than foreign films, which tended to be restricted to special theatres in major cities and patronized by an educated elite.(7) Factors which contributed to Hollywood's failure to swamp the Japanese market, despite the fact that all the big Hollywood companies had active distribution branches in Japan, are spelt out below.

Firstly, the language and cultural barriers that faced pre-war Japanese audiences of American films. There were some benshi, like Akira Kurosawa's brother, who specialized in the interpretation and narration of foreign films, but after their services were dispensed with, in the early 1930s,(8) this effective form of mediation was lacking. Film buffs had access to the translated scripts of foreign films, which were published in specialist film journals like Kinema Jumpo and somtimes distributed at the cinema, but this form of mediation (like the subtitles, printed) was not as direct or as easy on the viewer /listener as the benshi's performance.

Secondly there was the growing nationalism and xenophobia of the Japanese after Japan's territorial annexation of Manchuria in 1931 and subsequent expulsion from the League of Nations. Although American films remained popular in Japan right up to Pearl Harbour, and continued to be distributed and exhibited until then, the authorities waged a constant propaganda war throughout the 1930s, inveighing against the corrupting influence of American films and westernized values on the "purity" of "the Japanese spirit". They were vigilant in their censorship of "undesirable films" (local and imported), introduced a National Policy on Film (in imitation of Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany) and finally, at the end of the decade, passed a Film Law which gave the government control of the production, distribution, exhibition, export and import of film. In the national interest, they then restricted the number of American films that could be imported, distributed and exhibited in Japan. However, they were not able to control the local industry as tightly as they wished, because the industry was financially independent of the government. It was in fact in the newsreel and documentary area - the non-fiction film industry - that strident propaganda films were made, as the militarists in the government had direct control of news reporting in all the media. (See case of Hijoji Nihon below)

Thirdly, rental charges for American films were higher than those for Japanese films, and therefore entrance charges at theatres which exhibited American films were higher than those at other theatres. This gave the excursion to see an American film a higher prestige value but doubtless prohibited the regular attendance of the poor at these screenings.

Fourthly, Japanese exhibitors were mostly shareholders and sometimes partners in Japanese film production companies, and so, unlike their counterparts in France and Britain, had a vested interest in exhibiting the local product. In rural areas, theatres mainly exhibited Japanese films; and even in the big expensive theatres in the major cities, a new Japanese feature was usually released on a double bill with an American or other foreign film.

As in Britain,(9) the Depression did not affect attendances at film screenings in Japan, where there was a steady growth in the number of cinemas and the number of tickets sold over the decade, except for a temporary drop in attendances in 1935.(10) However, in marked contrast to the exodus from Europe to Hollywood and the consequent depletion of European film talent, there was no corresponding exodus of Japanese film talent to Hollywood. Whether or not they supported their government's policies, they continued to work in the industry at home and in the occupied countries of east and south-east Asia. One man only, the leftist critic Iwasaki Akira, was outspokenly critical of the Film Law and, after a brief spell in gaol, was forbidden to work in the industry; but even he was put on the payroll of the Manchurian Film Co. by its managing director, who was his mate.

One documentary filmmaker, in 1938, lost his licence after making an elegaic rather than a celebratory documentary on the invasion of China. Otherwise, the personnel of the Japanese film industry proceeded with business as usual and appeared to have no misgivings, until the military defeat of Japan and the Occupation made them repent their collaborative past. If anything, the early military expansion into east and south-east Asia gave a boost to employment in and profits for the industry, opened up potential new markets for Japanese film and provided exciting new locations for film production, as well as new subjects for films.

The military expansion also helped to foster a realist aesthetic, by giving a boost to newsreel and documentary production, as well as a new genre of war films with on location sound. The authentic images and sounds of the action on the frontlines and the exciting military victories could thereby be experienced by the people back home. A realist aesthetic had also been advocated by the "progressive" film lobby in Tokyo with cosmopolitan leftist film critics like Iwasaki supporting the introduction of realism and the abandonment of the hybrid benshi cinema. They, along with the educated middle class urban audiences, applauded the realistic sound and look of Mizoguchi's 1936 punchy social melodramas, the understated performances of Shimazu's "neo-realismo" films, the classy literary adaptations made at the Nikkatsu studios and the gritty earthiness of Uchida Tomu's Tsuchi (Earth).

The new generation of filmmakers entering the film industry in the mid-to-late 1930s were better educated and from higher status backgrounds than the pioneers of the industry, and they had aspirations to be realist artists, not company hacks. The military leaders and the educationalists needed to construct a unified national consciousness - and obedient, loyal subjects - and promoted the virtues of discipline, restraint and perseverence. The government, from 1933 on, recognized the "educational potential" (i.e. propaganda value) of film to promote "the national spirit" and decried the poor quality and backward technique of Japanese films, in comparison with overseas products, encouraging Japanese filmmakers to improve so that they could better serve the nation.(11) The Prime Minister, Viscount Saito, at the inauguration of the Great-Japan Film Association in 1936, claimed that the local industry was underdeveloped in capital, penetration of overseas markets and production technology, in comparison with the American industry, and that it should aim to improve the quality of its products and increase overseas distribution.(12)

I would like to end this paper with a brief examination of one film from this period Hijoji Nihon (Japan in a Time of Emergency). This "educational" sound film, made in 1933 by the Osaka Daily Newspaper Film Department, and narrated by General Araki, Minister of the Army, used a full battery of "modern" techniques and soviet-style montage to propound the need for moral and military rearmament and industrial productivity. Employing a full barrage of sound effects, it has dramatic thunder, lightning, crashing waves, howling winds, whistling trains. The narrator addresses the audience directly, standing in front of a Japanese flag or map, and his address to the nation continues in voice-over, but periodically returns to him. Through menacing arrows on maps and diagrams, Araki encourages his audience to feel threatened by the aggressive might of Great Britain, France, the USA and Soviet Russia. Dramatized sequences show decadent westernized urban Japanese admonished in the street by a "pure" Japanese whose stance is supported by Araki. The depicted evils of western influence include Hollywood film posters, English novels, and women wearing make-up, high heels and stockings, going to cafes, smoking and flirting with men. One breathtaking montage sequence in Reel 8 has: trains racing, wharfies loading and unloading coal, telephonists connecting lines, machines turning, steelworkers welding, furnaces blazing, chimney stacks smoking. Another montage sequence of military activity in Reel 10 has: tanks rolling in formation, cavalry riding, infantry running, the lighting of flares, cavalry charging, anti-aircraft guns and cannons firing, morse-code messages tapping out, planes flying, boats launched on a river, rafts built, a floating bridge erected, and the infantry crossing over, carrying aloft the national flag. The final rousing montage in Reel 12 combines images of nationalism, national productivity and military marching with climactic music and the fluttering of national flags.


1. At the Perth Conference my presentation included not only extracts from audio-tapes, which reproduced the kind of sound track which was performed live in Japanese theatres to accompany the screening of silent films but also an analysis of the narration to two melodramas of the early 1930s, translations of which were distributed to the audience. Lacking the dramatic voice of the narrator, the music and the sound effects, this paper must necessarily lose much of the interest of the original presentation. Because of the absence of an audio channel, and the prohibitive length of the translations, I have had to omit a full discussion of the functions of the benshi in the Japanese silent cinema in this paper (I intend to tackle this subject on its own on another occasion). I have decided to publish the rest of the paper because it includes some useful data on the Japanese film industry in the 1930s and the transition to sound in Japan; because its absence would leave an important gap in the coverage of cinema of the 1930s undertaken by the conference; and because its account of developments in Japan offers instructive parallels and contrasts with developments in other film industries, as described in other papers delivered at the Conference and collected here.

2. Akira Kurosawa, Something Like an Autobiography, translated by Audie Bock (New York:Alfred Knopf, 1982), p. 74.

3. This was demonstrated in my presentation at Perth, through taped extracts from Mr Matsuda's narration of two early 1930s melodramas - Mabuta no Haha (1931, Chiezo Productions, starring Kataoka Chiezo, scripted and directed by Inagaki Hiroshi) and Taki no Shiraito (1933, Irie Productions, starring Irie Takako and directed by Mizoguchi Kenji).

4. In 1937, 1626 talkies and 916 silents were made; in 1938, 1362 talkies and 701 silents were made. (Source: Home Ministry statistics, quoted in Motion Picture Development in Japan Proper, 1939, Special Report 79 from USA Assistant Trade Commissioner in Japan, National Archives, Washington.)

5. Accounts of Kawai's company, Daito and Kyokuto Film Company are given in Junichiro Tanaka's Nihon Eiga Hatatsushi (History of Development of Japanese Film), vol. 3 (Tokyo:Chuei Koron Co., 1976), pp.53-5 and 62-3.

6. Tanaka, vol. 2, p. 297.

7. In 1935, of the 1586 cinemas in Japan, 1117 exhibited Japanese films exclusively, 59 exhibited foreign films exclusively, and 410 exhibited both. In 1936, of the 1627 cinemas, 1130 exhibited Japanese films exclusively, 64 exhibited foreign films exclusively and 433 exhibited both. In 1937, of the 1749 cinemas, 1234 exhibited Japanese films exclusively, 49 exhibited foreign films exclusively and 446 exhibited both. In 1938, of the 1875 cinemas, 1373 exhibited Japanese films exclusively, 56 exhibited foreign films exclusively and 466 exhibited both (Source: Home Ministry Statistics)

8.See Akira Kurosawa's autobiography, pp. 85-7. Kuros-awa's brother suicided, after the failure of the strike which he led against the dismissal of the benshi of foreign films following the introduction of sound. But other sacked benshi went on to become stars in talkies, narrators of non-fiction films and radio or stage performers.

9. See Douglas Gomery, "Economic Struggle and Hollywood Imperialism: Europe Converts to Sound", in Yale French Studies, no. 60 (1980), p. 92.

10. The number of cinemas in Japan increased steadily from 1057 in 1926 to 2,363 in 1940, and attendances rose from 154 million to 440 million over the same period. In the eight years between 1932 and 1940 cinema attendances doubled. (See table on p. 40 of Yamada's Nihon Eiga no Genzai-shi (Modern History of Japanese Film, Tokyo: Shinnichi Books Publication Company, 1970, compiled from Home Ministry records).

11. The 1934 "Rationale for the proposed establishment of a National Policy on Film" argued: "Film is an important means of public enlightenment as well as entert-ainment... It has a greater influence on the young than the other media and than formal education... therefore it is necessary to guide and control the film industry, which has up till now been left without positive guidance or control and been guided purely by the profit motive. It is impossible to depend on private companies alone to project a positive image of Japan abroad." from Genzai Shishiryo (Modern Historical Documents), vol. 40 (Mass Media), National Library Tokyo, p.263.

12. Ibid, pp. 650-51.

Freda Freiberg `The Transition to Sound in Japan'. In T. O'Regan & B. Shoesmith eds. History on/and/in Film. Perth: History & Film Association of Australia, 1987. 76-80.

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