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The Roots of Japanese Movies as Seen in the Tsubouchi Memorial Theatre Museum Collection

Michiko Usui, Research Associate
Waseda University Tsubouchi Memorial Theatre Museum

Using material to trace back to the early period of Japanese movie culture

The "Japanese Media: Utsushi-e (Transfer Pictures), Katsudo-Shashin (Movies), and Benshi (Narrators)" exhibition will be held at the Tsubouchi Memorial Theatre Museum until August 3rd (Sunday). This exhibition focuses on movies in a period when they were called utsushi-e and katsudo-shashin. Western technology and equipment was the starting point of these precursors to the modern movie, but they also showed developments that were unique to Japan.

katsudo-shashin "Ninin-Dojoji"

utsushi-e were Japanese-made stereopticons, or magic lanterns, that were created based on Western stereopticons. utsushi-e were popular among the general public from the end of the Edo Period to the Meiji and Taisho Periods. A furo (wooden stereopticon), tane-ita (slide), and a screen made of Japanese paper were used to project images upon a screen. These images moved in accordance with a narration or a musical performance. utsushi-e were used to stage plays at locations such as vaudeville theatres. Then, in 1897 (year 30 of the Meiji Period), projector-type movie equipment was imported from the West. In Japan, this resulted in the birth of an occupation known as benshi, or narrator, so that movies could be enjoyed using the narration and musical performance found in utsushi-e.

In the exhibition, the early period of media culture is explored through items such as utsushi-e tools and actual articles used by the benshi. The collection of the Tsubouchi Memorial Theatre Museum composes the core of the exhibition.

Early period material saved from destruction during the war

In Japan, only a very small amount of material remains which relates to the early period of media and movies. The performance of utsushi-e ended when the Showa Period began, and during this period many of the techniques and tools used in the performance were scattered and lost. Almost no film or related material remains of movies from the early period, especially the early period of Japanese movie history. One reason for the loss of film is that film material at the time was made from cellulose nitrate, which is flammable. Another reason is that storage of film after the completion of performances was not strictly enforced. Furthermore, great losses occurred because of the subsequent Great Kanto Earthquake and World War II. These losses included not only film, but also items that were used during creation and performance, as well as records from that period.

From before World War II, the Tsubouchi Memorial Theatre Museum began gathering media and movie related material. This material was evacuated to the countryside to prevent its destruction during the war. The Tsubouchi Memorial Theatre Museum was the main gathering site for media and movie related material until the establishment of specialized movie institutions such as the National Film Center of the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo. The activities taken by the Tsubouchi Memorial Theatre Museum since long ago are the reason for the miraculous preservation of some early-period media and movie related material that cannot be found anywhere else in Japan. However, unfortunately, the museum was not able to completely prevent the loss of material. For example, because proper storage methods for flammable film were not completely understood at the time, the flammable film of the museum is damaged to the point where restoration is almost completely impossible. This having been said, when the damaged film is excluded, the tane-ita, furo, and paper screen from 37 utsushi-e productions have been collected and stored. Furthermore, in the case of early-period movies, a number of valuable items remain, such as material related to the oldest Japanese films. The Tsubouchi Memorial Theatre Museum has played an extremely significant role in the preservation of early-period media and movie material.

"Japanese Media: utsushi-e (Transfer Pictures), katsudo-shashin (Movies), benshi (Narrators)"

This exhibition introduces a number of rare documents which cannot normally be viewed. Items of particular interest include the furo (wooden stereopticons) of utsushi-e, tane-ita (slides) from productions such as Kanjincho, and screens made from Japanese paper. Since utsushi-e was an art mainly for the general public, all of the pictures of the tane-ita are quite plain, and the construction of the slides themselves are simple. On the other hand, the small glass features an extremely elaborate use of colors, and the amount of work involved is surprising. Outside of the collection of the Tsubouchi Memorial Theatre Museum, recommended items include slides with a form that is an intermediate between utsushi-e and Western-style stereopticons (held by Professor Machiko Kusahara, Faculty of Letters, Arts, and Sciences), and scripts from utsushi-e performances (included in the collection of the JCII Camera Museum). Within the Tsubouchi Memorial Theatre Museum, a recorded performance of utsushi-e by the Minwaza Theatre Group is played on a television monitor.

furo (wooden stereopticon) and tane-ita (slide) of utsushi-e

After the utsushi-e is the main attraction of this exhibition, a corner dedicated to the narrator Koyo Komada. Although his name may be unfamiliar to most people today, Koyo Kamada (1877-1935) was a narrator who was active from immediately after the importation of move equipment from the West, and was extremely famous during the period when narrators were popular and glamorous. After his death, the material of Koyo Komada was exhibited in the Movie Culture Exhibition (1939) and the Movie Patriotism Exhibition (1940), both of which were held to commutate the enactment of Japan's Movie Law. The material was then donated to the Tsubouchi Memorial Theatre Museum around this same period. At the time, Japan was advancing militaristic policies, and the exhibitions were held to create understanding of the Movie Law which was passed in 1939. A number of valuable movie assets were gathered for these exhibitions, but most were subsequently lost when Japan entered a state of war. However, the material of Koyo Komada which was safely preserved by the Tsubouchi Memorial Theatre Museum has been exhibited many times, although exhibition opportunities have decreased in recent years. This exhibition of the material will be the first time in approximately 12 years.

Valuable collection of the benshi (narrator) Koyo Komada

In the exhibition room, the first item to catch the eye of the visitor is the collection of posters used by Komada during his performances. Dazzling colors were used in all of the posters, which contained Komada's name and picture, with some even featuring illustrations that portrayed him as a Western-style hero. The design of the posters was extremely diverse. Komada toured every area of Japan, taking with him these extravagant posters and his exaggerated set explanation of "extreme urgency". For most people in rural areas, their first contact with movies was during Komada's tour, and Komada made a large contribution in enrooting movies into Japanese society.

Posters for the performance of Nippon-Shashin, shown using the Vitascope

Materials which are highly recommended for viewing are the items left by Komada in relation to the early Japanese movie Geisha No Teodori.

In 1897, one of the first projector-type movie machines to be generally released in Japan was the "Vitascope" made by Edison. Komada began his career with performances using the Vitascope. Only imported film was shown at the time. However, in the same year as the release of the Vitascope, filming equipment was imported by the photography company Konishi (later known as Konishiya Rokubeiten and today as Konica Minolta). It is said that Shiro Asano, an employee at the head office of Konishi, and the contract employee Tsunekichi Shibata used this filming equipment to be the first in Japan to successfully complete the processes of filming, developing, and printing of a movie. Komada heard about the success of Asano and Shibata and began working for the release of Japanese movies. In order to appeal to viewers, the first subject chosen was the dancing of top geisha from Karyukai (the world of the geisha) in Tokyo. Since this was the first time that all processes from filming to release were performed entirely by Japanese, the series Geisha No Teodori can be considered as the earliest Japanese movie.

Among the exhibited materials are posters from the performance of Nippon-Shashin, which was shown using the Vitascope. These posters were created in the very same year (1899) that Komada began working for the release of Japanese movies. The left side of the poster contained a message from Komada, while the center featured various illustrations of the dancing geisha, along with the names of the dancers and each of their dancing titles. Since the film of Geisha No Teodori no longer exists, these posters are currently a clue for understanding the content of the earliest Japanese movie. Furthermore, these posters also enable us to know what kind of imported movies were shown together with these Japanese movies, as well as what kind of relationship existed between each individual movie.

The birth of Japanese films - discovery of the illusory frame

Film frame for Kioijishi (lion dance)

Film frame for Okane-sarashi

To continue, I would like to introduce the film frames (fragments of the movie print which was shown) of Okane-sarashi and Kioijishi (lion dance). It is known that the 3 films titled Okane-sarashi (Nuno-sarashi), Kioijishi, and Satsuma-odori were newly added to the lineup of Geisha No Teodori which was performed at the Haruki Theatre (later known as Hongo Theatre) in Hongo, Tokyo from the 11th to the 25th of August, 1899. Posters from the Haruki Theatre and film frames from the 2 titles of Okane-sarashi and Kioijishi are preserved in the Tsubouchi Memorial Theatre Museum. For the film frames of Geisha No Teodori, items of a narrator other than Koyo Komada are exhibited for the Movie Culture Exhibition and the Movie Patriotism Exhibition which were held before World War II. At the time, Geisha No Teodori had already been reduced to the state of film frames due to the Great Kanto Earthquake and deterioration over time. Photographs which are thought to have been taken from the film fragments being exhibited at the Tsubouchi Memorial Theatre Museum are even now introduced as the "early period of Japanese movies" in movie history literature. However, at the present time, it is not known how many actual film fragments remain in Japan. Since the remaining number of film frames at the Tsubouchi Memorial Theatre Museum differs from the remaining number of items at exhibitions before World War II, the origin of the film frames is somewhat unclear. However, the film frames are undoubtedly rare film material which exists as a record of the screen of the earliest Japanese movies.

I would like to continue to introduce the many other valuable materials left by Koyo Komada, such as the Japanese-made projecting kinetoscope (the oldest existing projector which was made in Japan) and katsudo-shashin posters for the production of Ninin-Dojoji. However, I will end my introduction here and let visitors see these materials for themselves at the exhibition.

Japan did not merely import stereopticons and movies which were invented by the West, but rather used these items as a base to create developments unique to Japan. Under the catchphrase of "the beginning of real Japanese movies", the current exhibition has gathered a variety of materials that specifically illustrate Japan's unique movie culture. We hope to see you at the exhibition.

Michiko Usui, Research Associate
Waseda University Tsubouchi Memorial Theatre Museum

Born in 1973. Specializes in media science. Completed the doctoral program at the Graduate School of Letters/Faculty of Letters at Kyoto University. Doctor of Kyoto University (Faculty of Letters). Co-writer of works including An Introduction: Lectures of Modern Hollywood Movies (Jinbunshoin) and Nightmare Series 4: Fear in Movies (Seikyusha).