Writing in Light: The Silent Scenario and the Japanese Pure Film Movement

picture: Writing in Light: The Silent Scenario and the Japanese Pure Film Movement
17 May 2004


It will probably come as a surprise to many to find out just how much is still being discovered about the first few decades of the moving image. Even in the well-documented industries of America and Europe, the chronic scarcity of surviving materials from the beginning of the twentieth century has left us with a host of unanswered questions about the true nature of productions from these formative years, a period often referred to as that of "Primitive Cinema". In Asia, this problem of existing early sources is particularly acute.

This, and the centralized focus of studies of global cultural history over the past century is undoubtedly one of the reasons that decent books covering early non-Western cinema history in any depth are few and far between. As far as Japan is concerned, the key developments have been covered in scant detail in a variety of books including Donald Richie's Japanese Film: Art and Industry. Nevertheless, the fact remains that virtually nothing has survived from the period from when cinema first arrived in Japan in 1896 to the end of the First World War in 1917, and without the primary resources at hand for more detailed reference, it has been nigh on impossible to get any real feeling into how the industries of nations considered on the margins of the film-producing world first took root.

As such, Writing in Light by Joanne Bernardi is like a flashlight in the dark. An academic publication, though thoroughly accessible for layman readers, this meticulously researched and highly informative look at the infancy of Japanese cinema sheds a great degree of light on the otherwise silent history of these invisible movies.

And what could possibly be of interest in films we can't see? Well, those who like their film history to stretch beyond the films themselves to focus more on the debates that have gone on behind the scenes will find plenty of rich pickings here. The arrival of what was essentially a foreign technology that had the ability to both capture and reproduce reality sparked heated debate amongst the artistically-minded members of the Japanese literati, and trawling through early movie publications and industry catalogues that accompanied the arrival of this new form in Japan, Bernardi does an admirable job in picking out the numerous threads within this discourse.

What Japanese cinema was to become was a question on many people's lips. Would audiences be content, as was the case in a number of countries at the time, merely with the novelty of watching foreign imported "actualities" (single-shot one-reelers taken from a fixed position) of street scenes, trains arriving at stations and babies being fed, or would they turn the camera on subject matter closer to home, and if so, what would it be? Who would film it, who would watch it, and would these Japanese-shot subjects ever find themselves making their way in the other direction to Western viewers?

As films started growing in length and ambition, early attempts at fictional narratives and dramatic presentation remained bound closely to the conventions of the stage. As Noel Burch has already pointed out in To The Distant Observer, an occasionally contentious but nevertheless essential theoretical work on Japanese film, the very tradition of theatrical presentation in Japan was markedly different from that of Europe and America. How would Japanese stage forms meld with this new alien means of presenting their stories to their audiences? Was it to stick with its own theatrical traditions, and if so, would it be Kabuki, Shimpa or Shingeki? Or would it follow clinging onto the coat tails of Western movies, and if so, in which direction would it follow? From around the time of the First World War until the take-over of talkies at the beginning of the 1930s, large scale productions such as Intolerance (1916) in America and Italy's Cabiria (1914) saw both the American and European industries pushing the new art form in two very different directions. With the large amount of foreign films being released into Japan at the time, the difference between the two approaches were easily picked up on by domestic audiences and critics.

The focus of Bernard's book is the Pure Film Movement (jun'eigageki undo), referring to the debate surrounding efforts to change both production and distribution practices of the Japanese industry in the 1910s and to establish film as an artistically legitimate and culturally important medium in its own right. Topics covered in detail include the changing role of the benshi film commentator, who has often been accused of effectively holding back the development of Japanese film narrative, and a look at the gradual erosion of such limiting theatrical proprieties as the one which prevented women from appearing as screen actresses until the early 20s, with female roles taken by male "onnagata" or "oyama" actors.

Key figures in attempting to bring about the change include the Japanese actors Henri Kotani, Thomas Kurihara and Sessue Hayakawa, who had briefly stayed in America playing Asian roles in "Yellow Peril" movies such as Cecil B. DeMille's The Cheat (1915) and returned to Japan later to put their experience from working in Hollywood to use back home. A particularly interesting portion of the book is given over to the role of one of Japan's most celebrated novelists of the 20th century, Junichiro Tanizaki. Though it is fairly well known that Tanizaki was relatively vocal on the subject of cinema, the chapter on his own directorial efforts, with several films including the now lost The Amateur Club (Amachua Kurabu, 1920) is particularly revelatory. The script of this and several of the other key titles from the period which are also no longer extant, such as Norimasa Kaeriyama's The Glory of Life (Sei no Kagayaki, 1918) are included in the appendices.

Hearing about these lost productions that we know we will never see is almost enough to make one weep. At the same time, Bernardi's rigorous but highly readable approach makes these seemingly distant exercises in the new form seem like only yesterday. Even if the films no longer exist, we can take heart with the large number of film stills, early film posters and magazine covers with which the book is handsomely illustrated that serve to bring the atmosphere of the early Taisho period alive. My one regret is that pre-1910s cinema is not covered in more detail, though admittedly this period falls a little outside of the central scope of the research, and besides, at 354 pages, one can hardly complain of lack of content. Heartily recommended for readers with a healthy interest in both global cinema and cultural history as well as the specifics of the Japanese industry, and those with a curiosity about what new directions the nation's cinema might have developed in, if only…