Japanese Documentary Film: The Meiji Era Through Hiroshima

picture: Japanese Documentary Film: The Meiji Era Through Hiroshima
16 February 2004


Japanese Documentary Film: The Meiji Era Through Hiroshima is a rigorous, informative and extremely readable look at an area that has remained virtually untouched in the English language up until now. That it is the first in-depth look at the subject is not too surprising, given that neither foreign-made documentaries and films prior to the Pacific War are subjects with much commercial currency, but if you are worried that this book assumes some familiarity with the films being discussed, then remember that a great deal from this period is no longer extant, so no one has seen them.

To this end, Nornes tackles secondary sources such as contemporary reviews and discussions between theorists and intellectuals at the time, as well as providing the necessary historical background to show that many of the issues discussed in these early days are still a vital part of the discourse surrounding non-fiction film even today, and the films themselves remain very much alive through Nornes' discursive and accessible style.

Nornes begins on this highly enlightening journey with the first actualités shot in Japan, one-shot takes of daily events such as street scenes, shot by foreign representatives from the French Lumière company who introduced the movie camera to Japan at the end of the 19th century. This follows through to the arguments during the Russo-Japanese War about the legitimacy of re-enacted or reconstructed battle sequences and the ability of film to present fiction as fact.

Other subjects include the introduction of the 9.5mm Pathé Baby camera in the early 1920s, presenting an unusually early case of putting the power into the hands of the people as the left-wing Prokino group distributed films portraying the issues of the politically marginalised - manual workers, farmers, women, and members of the outcast burakumin class - and screening their works outside of the conventional cinema circuit, from remote parts of the countryside to factory workplaces by means of mobile projection units. The Prokino movement was a vital precursor to the works of Shinsuke Ogawa's filmmaking collective of the 1960s, and more contemporary developments such as the work of Video Act, before it was closed down by an increasingly nationalistic and militaristic government.

The increasing hold of the government over filmmaking and distribution was obviously a significant influence in the development of the Japanese documentary style, as the mobilisation of film as a propaganda medium was more fully realised, but Nornes' approach isn't as simple as to merely stop there, instead looking at contemporary reviews and box office statistics to question the reception of these films by their target audiences, and also devoting an entire chapter to the most subversive of war time documentarists, Fighting Soldiers director Fumio Kamei.

The book also stretches on past the war to look at the troubled production of The Effects of the Atomic Bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a project initiated by battle photographer Yosuke Yamahata after returning from the frontline to a shell-shocked and defeated Japan. An essential record of the only time weapons of mass destruction have ever been used on civilians on such a scale, it's a miracle that this scientifically detached observation of the wreckage caused in the two cities ever came into existence, as Nornes catalogues the long struggle to make this film after Yamahata found his footage captured by the US occupational forces.

In conclusion, an excellent book providing a wealth of cinematic history and debate about the nature of film in the first 50 years of its existence, with the issues and arguments about the documentary form raised by these early films proving just as relevant now. I personally can't wait until the conclusion of the story, in the developments of the Japanese documentary after the war.


Japanese Documentary Film - The Meiji Era Through Hiroshima

picture: cover of 'Japanese Documentary Film - The Meiji Era Through Hiroshima'

University of Minnesota Press