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Period Films Born from Kyoto

Manabu Ueda
Research Associate of the Tsubouchi Memorial Theatre Museum, Waseda University

Within Japanese film history, the majority of period films were produced at film studios in Kyoto. There are several reasons why Kyoto became the center of period films in Japan. The first reason is that Kyoto is blessed with an environment that enables filming in a variety of locations. The city is surrounded by mountains on three sides and possesses rich nature such as the flowing waters of the Kamogawa River and the Katsuragawa River. Kyoto also possesses temples, shrines and other famous sites which have been built throughout the 1,200-year history of the city. Another reason is that the city was blessed with Kyoto-born talent. One such individual was Katsutaro Inahata, who first imported films into Japan. Einosuke Yokota was entrusted by Inahata with the promotion of film in the pioneering days. Yokoda later became a central figure at Nikkatsu Kansai Studio and served as President of Nikkatsu Corporation. Another influential figure who was discovered by Yokota was Shozo Makino. Makino is referred to as the "father of Japanese film", and he created stars such as Matsunosuke Onoe, Tsumasaburo Bandou, Ryunosuke Tsukigata, Utaemon Ichikawa, Kanjuro Arashi, and Chiezo Kataoka. Furthermore, Makino cultivated a large number of scriptwriters and directors who supported Japanese film, and he also produced an enormous amount of period films himself. A final reason is the role that traditional techniques such as dyeing and crafts played in creating the post-production company Toyo Genzojo (currently IMAGICA) and the prop company Kouzu Corporation. Thanks to this assortment of conditions, the production of period films supported Kyoto which was declining after relocation of the capital to Tokyo and also grew into a new industry.

Kabuki Actors in Early Films

Poster from the film Maple Viewing

I would like to examine Kyoto, a city which gave birth to period films, by using the perspective of relationship with theatre. A starting point for this examination is the early-period movie Maple Viewing (filmed by Tsunekichi Shibata, 1899), which was filmed two years after movies were first imported into Japan. In Maple Viewing, Danjuro Ichikawa IX played the role of Princess Sarashina (a ogress) and Kikugoro Onoe V played the role of Taira-no-Koremochi. Maple Viewing was first shown in 1903 at Nakaza, a large theatre in Osaka. The following year, the film was also shown at the Tokyo Kabukiza Theatre. Attention should be given to the fact the Danjuro and Kikugoro, famous Kabuki actors of the Meiji Period, both appear in the film. At that time, films tended to be regarded as records of a performance, and it was not unusual for famous stage actors to appear in films. For example, in 1897, the year in which movies were imported into Japan, cinematograph was filmed by Constant Girel who was deployed from France's Lumiere Company, and both Sadanji Ichikawa I and Ganjiro Nakamura I appeared in the film.

However, in Tokyo from 1907 to 1912, movies which had been shown at stage theatres began to be shown at the newly appearing movie theatres. The stage theatre union was deprived of customers and therefore banned the appearance of actors in films. Kabuki actors were separated from the film industry in Tokyo. There were very few cases in which Kabuki actors took leading roles in period films and were active as movie stars. One such limited case was Shirogoro Sawamura, whose career started acting on small-stages before WWII. Not until the war ended did Kabuki stars such as Kinnosuke Nakamura (afterwards known as Kinnosuke Yorozuya) and Hashizo Okawa appear in films.

Kyoto, the Birth Place of Period Films

During the same period in Kyoto, Honnoji-Gassen (1908), the first ever period film, was produced. The film was directed by Shozo Makino, a manager of the Senbonza Theatre in Nishijin. Actors appearing in the film included Fukunosuke Nakamura and Ritoku Arashi, both of whom were small-stage actors. The following year, Makino cast the traveling theatre actor Matsunosuke Onoe in the film Goban Tadanobu. Onoe began his career as the first star of Japanese film. During this period in Kyoto, there was a loose association between film production and Kabuki in the broad sense of small-stage theatres and traveling theatres. This association was one of the factors which led to the birth of period films. In Tokyo, there was a geographical separation between movie theaters which were grouped together in the Asakusa Koen Rokku district and Kabuki theatres such as the Kabukiza Theatre (located in the Kobiki-cho neighborhood) and the Meijiza Theatre (Hisamatsu-cho neighborhood). However, the situation in Kyoto reflected how Kabuki Theatres also overlapped with Shinkyogoku and Nishijin neighborhoods that contained movie theatres.

Scene from a film starring Matsunosuke Onoe

Kansai Kabuki was the birthplace for the career of Tsumasaburo Bandou, Utaemon Ichikawa, Kanjuro Arashi and Chiezo Kataoka and other period film stars who were discovered by Makino. It is interesting that the most of period film stars of Kyoto from the late Taiho Period to the early Showa Period underwent the same training of Kansai Kabuki. This includes Chojiro Hayashi (later known as Kazuo Hasegawa), who also had the same background. Of course, these actors were not born of leading Kabuki families, and their decision to seek a new venue for performance in the film industry resulted in their breaking away from the Kabuki world. There also existed discrimination which disdained the art of film acting practiced by younger generations. However, Kyoto's existence as a city which linked Kabuki and film is deeply related to the city's history of accepting such actors and providing them with a venue for performance. This was especially true in the period from around the Meiji forties (1907 to 1912), when production of period films first began.

Shin-Kokugeki and "Sword Fighting Films"

The environment in Kyoto also encouraged new exchanges between theatre and film in the city. One example is Waseda University graduate Shojiro Sawada, who studied at the Theatre Research Center of the Bungei Kyokai (Literary Association) of Shoyo Tsubouchi and who was the founder of Shin-kokugeki (new wave theatre). At that time, Sawada was not accepted in Tokyo, which was the location for the start of Shin-kokugeki. Sawada's first success came in Kansai. In particular, Sawada appeared in the premiere of Tsukigata Hanpeita that was performed in 1919 at the Meijiza Theatre in the Shinkyogoku neighborhood of Kyoto. The radical new movement of the performance received extremely positive reviews. Period films were heavily influence by the sword fighting of Shin-kokugeki and the fencing seen in Hollywood action films and best represented by Douglas Fairbanks. This led to the birth of what is known as "sword fighting films". Sword fighting films placed emphasis on physical movement. Such action films created a great change in the movement of period films, which had been patterned after the stylistic beauty of kabuki and were known as older theatre.

Script of Tsukigata Hanpeita

Sawada also took leading roles in period films produced in Kyoto. One example is the performance of Tsukigata Hanpeita (directed by Teinosuke Kinugasa, 1925) done by the Rengo Eiga Geijutsuka Kyokai the United Film Artisans Association, that was founded by Sanjugo Naoki and included participation from Kan Kikuchi and Kanichi Negishi. The Shin-kokugeki which had been raised in Kansai was one major source for supporting the period films of Kyoto. This is true from the perspective of films such as Tsukigata Hanpeita and Kunisada Chuji (both of which were written by Rifu Yukitomo) which provided a source of narratives. It is also true from the perspective of producing stars such as Denjiro Okochi and Ryutaro Otomo.

Tracing the History of Period Films through the Collection of the Theatre Museum

Costume from Hatamoto Taikutsu Otoko

The Tsubouchi Memorial Theatre Museum possesses an enormous collection of items pertaining to individuals who have left a major mark in the history of period films. There are materials related to Shojiro Sawada, an individual associated with Shoyo Tsubouchi. Also featured are items related to Utaemon Ichikawa, who is known for his performance in Hatamoto Taikutsu Otoko, and materials pertaining to Kazuo Hasegawa, a star who enthralled female audiences with his good looks. Also deserving mention are materials related to Hiroshi Inagaki, who contributed to the first success of a wandering gambler film,directed by him Banba-no-Chutaro: Mabuta no Haha (1931) and who won an Academy Award for best foreign film with Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto (1954). Also included are items related to director Masahiro Shinoda, who attempted new stylistic beauty in The Love Suicides at Amijima (1969). This precious collection will be introduced at the Period Film History Exhibition which will be held at the Theatre Museum from November 27th, 2010 to February 5th, 2011. The exhibition is an unparalleled opportunity to reflect upon the history of period films which have been produced in Kyoto for more than 100 years.

Period Film History Exhibition —From the Collection of the Tsubouchi Memorial Theatre Museum—

Period: November 27th (Sat.) 2010 to February 5th (Sat.) 2011
Venue: the Tsubouchi Memorial Theatre Museum, Special Exhibition Room

Manabu Ueda
Research Associate of the Tsubouchi Memorial Theatre Museum, Waseda University

Born in 1979. Area of expertise: film and media. Completed the Doctoral Program at the Ritsumeikan University Faculty of Letters. Holds a PhD in literature. His written works include "Japan Film History Library 10-Film and War" (edited by Masaru Okumura; published by Shinwasha; 2009).