Light from the Rising Sun: Treasures of Japanese Silent Cinema at Pordenone

22 November 2005
picture: Light from the Rising Sun: Treasures of Japanese Silent Cinema at Pordenone


The Giornate del Cinema Muto, known to most, after the town where it was founded, as "Pordenone", is a home from home for an international community of scholars and enthusiasts devoted to the silent cinema. Established as a weekend event in 1982 by the late Davide Turconi, it has since expanded to a weeklong festival attended by up to 800 guests. Since 1999, it has been based in the neighbouring town of Sacile. The programming is catholic in approach, and each year's programme boasts a variety of strands. This year's offerings included a complete retrospective of André Antoine's films, accompanied by other significant works of French realism; various films by D.W. Griffith were shown; there were also restorations of films by Lubitsch and Sjostrom, amongst others.

But Japan was the main focus, and the festival's celebration of Japanese cinema was not limited to screenings. Donald Richie, described by festival director David Robinson as the Matthew Perry of Japanese film, gave an engaging lecture; while eminent and not-so-eminent scholars (including, in the latter category, myself) took part in panel discussions. Meanwhile, fourteen programmes of Japanese films were shown over the course of the week. This was Pordenone's second Japanese retrospective, again selected and presented by Tokyo's National Film Center. An excellent selection of films in 2001 had focused mainly on period drama. In 2005, it was the turn of the gendai-geki: films about contemporary life. That this was possible at all was thanks to the generous collaboration of Shochiku, the studio responsible for most of the distinguished dramas of contemporary life in the silent era still to be extant.

Founded in 1895 as a theatrical company, Shochiku turned to film production in 1920. The studio's output of the twenties is almost all lost, but the festival offered a rare opportunity to see the studio's most famous early production, Souls on the Road (Rojo no Reikon, 1921), in a beautifully restored print. Director Minoru Murata, who had studied in Hollywood, was certainly influenced by Western filmmakers; the film's convoluted parallel narratives (one about the return of a prodigal son to his father, another about the release of two ex-convicts from prison, another about a teenage romance) appear to ape a method - that of linking stories to point a thematic moral - that D.W. Griffith had essayed in Intolerance. Still, just as Griffith's method was in fact unusual - in fact, all but unique - in the American cinema of the time, Murata's film is actually a work of considerable individuality. The construction differs from Griffith's in that all the stories take place in the same place at the same time, but the film's narrative organisation is essentially thematic: events are contrived so that the drama can illustrate the consequences of compassion and of its absence. The film's rather showy inclusion of Western sources and customs (a story loosely derived from Maxim Gorky, Biblical quotations as bookends, the decision to set the action on Christmas Eve) are in part affectations, in part, like the curious hybrid interiors, an authentic record of the fashionable Westernisation of the Taisho period. As far as technique is concerned, though, the film confirms Noel Burch's assertion that its editing techniques are actually rather more sophisticated than those even of the most advanced Western films of the time. Souls on the Road is a genuinely original work, and some of its avant-garde qualities anticipate the extraordinary achievement of Teinosuke Kinugasa's A Page of Madness (Kurutta Ippeji, 1926).

It's possible that the experimentalism of this work was encouraged by the fact that the studio had only recently begun to make films. Shochiku, in other words, had not yet developed a house style. In the sound era, Shochiku more than any other Japanese film studio found itself associated with a certain type of film: the shomin-geki, or domestic drama - more precisely, the film about everyday life among the lower middle classes. On his deathbed in 1963, at a time when the accelerating pace of social change threatened to render Shochiku's traditional product obsolete, director Yasujiro Ozu is said to have remarked to studio boss Shiro Kido, "Well, Mr Kido - it all comes down to the home drama in the end." In the face of his own mortality and of changing times, Ozu's words poignantly reaffirmed the relevance of a tradition which he had helped to found, and of which he was unquestionably the most distinguished representative. For two generations of Japanese filmgoers, that tradition had been synonymous with the town Ofuna, where Shochiku had based its studios since the coming of sound. The "Ofuna flavour" - the bittersweet taste of the small joys and sorrows of family life - was, from the mid-1930s to the early 1960s, the hallmark of Shochiku's art.

picture: scenes from 'Souls on the Road' and 'Nightly Dreams'

But there had been other dimensions to that art. In the last years of the silent era, based in Kamata in southern Tokyo, the corporation had essayed a somewhat different style of film, more abrasive than sentimental, and focusing more directly on social reality. Shochiku was in fact the only major studio operative in Tokyo during the latter part of the silent era. Nikkatsu, its major competitor, had relocated after the Great Earthquake to Kyoto, whose traditional townscapes and cultural heritage encouraged the production of period films and romantic melodramas. Shochiku, therefore, was uniquely placed to explore the realities of contemporary life in Japan's most modern city. The phrase "Kamata modernism" was coined to describe the studio's approach, and it might be tempting to construct an artificial dichotomy between Shochiku's films at Kamata - brash, modern, visually flamboyant, socially critical - and the studio's later work at Ofuna - subtle, low-key, melancholic, nostalgic. The fact that directors such as Ozu and Shimizu were stalwarts both of Kamata modernism and of Ofuna realism should lead one to be suspicious of any such stark division. What is undisputable is that the Kamata period marked one of Shochiku's Golden Ages, with a superb company of directors - Ozu, Naruse, Shimizu, Shimazu and Gosho among them - at work in Tokyo.

The centrepiece of the Pordenone retrospective, coinciding with the centenary of the birth of their director, was the screening of Mikio Naruse's four surviving silent features. Of these the most famous are Nightly Dreams (Yogoto no Yume) and Apart From You (Kimi to Wakarete), both made in 1933: they are companion pieces which focus on the difficult lives of women in contemporary Japan. In one the heroine is a geisha, in the other a bar hostess; and in both they pursue their professions with determination, in the face of social stigma, to support their families. The characterisations, in particular the contrast between strong female characters and weak men, are harbingers of the future direction of Naruse's oeuvre. The tone of the films is melodramatic, but it is a melodrama of a distinctly subdued brand, grounded in the realistic observation of social milieux. Stylistically they display a considerable discipline, with a low-key, detailed and observant style punctuated at climactic moments by flamboyant camera rhetoric. The tone of Naruse's sound films, with their stress on poverty, insecurity and the bitter realities of daily life, is equally foreshadowed here. For all that each film builds to a climax of high drama, the ending marks a return to the banal - having endured the worst, the characters are left with no choice but to go on.

In this, the title of Naruse's last silent, Street Without End (Kagirinaki Hodo, 1934), is paradigmatic. But that film differs from the diptych which had preceded it, being more melodramatic in narrative, yet more austere in style. The realistic detail of Tokyo's fashionable Ginza district is the backdrop to a bleak story concerning a Tokyo waitress who marries a wealthy man, only to be mistreated by his snobbish family. Eventually she leaves him. Shortly afterwards he is hurt in a car accident; only then do his mother and sister ask her to return, though the motive is less compassion for their relative than the sake of appearances. The extraordinary ending, where the heroine walks out on her husband on his deathbed, has a devastating ambivalence and intensity; the viewer's response is one of simultaneous horror and admiration. Setsuko Shinobu's performance is faultless, and makes one regret that she played leading roles so rarely.

Naruse's earliest extant silent feature, Not Blood Relations (Nasanu Naka, 1932), is his rarest, having not hitherto been screened outside Japan. It proved remarkable. More influenced by shimpa traditions than Naruse's later work, it concerns the conflict between biological and surrogate mothers for possession of a child. Tamae, a film actress who has made her name in Hollywood, returns to claim the daughter that she left behind in Japan, who has been raised by the wife of her former lover. The film is directed with considerable stylistic flamboyance, which intensifies its melodramatic effect; one scene, as the surrogate mother briefly encounters her child in the department store where she works, is masterly in its build up and timing. But the film is also an intelligent enquiry into conflicting obligations - whether biological or emotional ties should take precedence. In fact, the film's scope is wider: the conflict is between the material and the intangible. Tamae is not only the child's biological mother, but is also wealthy enough to guarantee her daughter security; the child's father, meanwhile, has gone bankrupt. Nevertheless, the film affirms the child's emotional bond with her adoptive mother, their reunion constituting the happy ending. Meanwhile, Tamae sails again for California. Departure from Japan, as a resolution to problems, is common in Shochiku's Kamata films, where characters tend to leave for America or Europe - later in the thirties (see, for instance, Yasujiro Shimazu's An Older Brother and His Younger Sister / Ani to Sono Imoto [1939]), the destination was to become Manchuria.

This resolution recurs in several of Hiroshi Shimizu's silent films, of which Eternal Heart (Fuei no Shiratama, 1929) was shown at Pordenone. This film examines different aspects of modernity through the personalities of two sisters. The elder is in love with Mr Narita, but he marries the younger, only to find that she neglects him and spends her time attending parties and drinking. Thus summarised, one might read the film as essentially conservative - an indictment of a "modern" woman who fails in her wifely duties. But the older sister also personifies an aspect of modernity, since she works as a typist in a Tokyo office. Courted by her boss, she is introduced to his children, who speak scathingly of her profession, and criticise the morality of working women. Here, Shimizu's sympathies are clearly with the modern, professional woman against the spoilt and judgemental upper class. The film's intelligence, in fact, lies in its ambivalent attitude to the modern - an ambivalence that one can trace through Shimizu's later and finer silent films. Unfortunately, the narrative resolution is unsatisfactory; the hero's departure from Japan and the heroine's marriage to her boss fail to answer the problems that the film has posed. The final escape seems a contrivance, though it may be that this failing is to be blamed on Kikuchi Kan, author of the original novel, rather than Shimizu.

picture: scenes from 'Nightly Dreams', 'A Woman of Tokyo' and 'The Izu Dancer'

Shochiku's best-known director, Yasujiro Ozu, was represented at Pordenone by one of his lesser-known films, A Woman of Tokyo (Tokyo no Onna, 1934): this was an appropriate choice, since it encapsulates the aspect of his work which was closest to Kamata traditions. In place of the delicate, melancholic comedy of Tokyo Chorus (Tokyo Gassho, 1931) or I Was Born, But... (Umarete wa Mita Keredo, 1932), he essays a bleak, uncharacteristically melodramatic narrative, about the suicide of a man who discovers that his sister works as a nightclub hostess to fund his studies. Uncharacteristic of Ozu, this plot formation is certainly typical of the Japanese cinema, especially at this time, as films such as Naruse's silents, Mizoguchi's Cascading White Threads (Taki no Shiraito, 1933) and Shigeyoshi Suzuki's Tears Behind Victory (Eikan Namida Ari, 1931) indicate. All focus on women who sacrifice themselves for male friends or relations - a narrative trope which is less a concern of individual artists than an illustration of certain fundamental assumptions of Japanese culture. Nevertheless, the style of the film is certainly Ozu's own: compositions of simple grace, focusing sometimes on the characters, sometimes on the objects that surround them, and a predominantly static camera, with intermittent, simple tracking shots. In fact, the contrast between melodramatic subject matter and a stylistic quietism give the film a special complexity of tone.

Naruse, Shimizu and Ozu were all represented by work that was rather more melodramatic in tone than was usual for their sound films. Gosho's The Izu Dancer (Izu no Odoriko, 1933), by contrast, is rather more Ofuna than Kamata in tone, with a more prestigious literary source (a novella by Yasunari Kawabata, later winner of the Nobel Prize) and a tone of low-key drama and delicate sentimentality. It also closely anticipates the methods of Gosho's postwar films: impeccable dramaturgy, a strong sense of place (in this case, the remote and rural Izu Peninsula) and excellent performances (Kinuyo Tanaka is superb as the unhappy heroine). Gosho's mise-en-scène is functional, subtle and never showy - a sharp contrast with most of his contemporaries, who at that date (with the exception of Ozu) were exploring the expressive potential of decorative and flamboyant techniques.

Of the films by lesser-known directors, the best was Hotei Nomura's Foster Sisters (Chikyodai, 1932), a stylish melodrama again based on a serial novel. The plot concerns two women raised as sisters, though one is in fact the daughter of an aristocrat; the other, however, masquerades as the daughter and marries his chosen heir. This bleak narrative is developed with economy and skill, but is unfortunately marred by the worst imaginable ending: the anti-heroine dies at the hands of a vengeful former lover, after which her "good" foster sister enters a convent. The effect of this is to transform a potentially complex drama into something of a grim morality play; it is not only the images which are black and white. Even so, the film merits attention for its dramatic efficacy and skilled direction. Director Nomura (whose son Yoshitaro was to follow his father into the profession in the 1950s) specialised in melodrama and was admired in his time, but is now neglected, largely as a consequence of his early death in 1934. Had he lived into the postwar era, his name might be more widely known.

The other films in the programme can be dealt with more briefly. Shochiku's documentary production, Rebirth of the Capital (Teito Fukko, 1930, dir: Hamataro Oda & Asajiro Itoh) is a record of Tokyo in the years after the Great Earthquake. Footage of the young Showa Emperor at ceremonies celebrating the completion of the reconstruction project was unprecedented at the time, but the film's interest is largely historical. Dynamite Bride (Bakudan Hanayome, 1932, dir: Keisuke Sasaki & Torajiro Saito) illustrates the genre of nansensu-mono ("nonsense-film") as essayed by Saito, its most famous practitioner, who in this case reshot and re-edited footage initially directed by Sasaki. The timing and choreographic wit of the later sequences display sufficient skill to justify his reputation, though the flimsiness of the genre is limiting. A surviving condensation of Man-Slashing, Horse-Piercing Sword (Zanjin Zanbaken, 1930, dir: Daisuke Ito), restored from a 9.5mm intended for domestic distribution, displays the outstanding choreographic skill of Ito, master pioneer of samurai films. However, the incompleteness of the extant footage has destroyed the rhythms and diminished the political implications of the film. Seeing it, in fact, is a lesson in the arbitrary nature of film preservation in Japan. Shochiku's fame, admittedly, always rested on its dramas of contemporary life. Yet the studio was also responsible for a considerable number of distinguished period films in the silent era, made not at Kamata but in Kyoto. Chance events - the survival, despite intensive wartime bombing, of Shochiku's archive in Tokyo; the destruction by fire, in 1950, of their archive in Kyoto - have preserved a good proportion of the former while leading to the loss of most of the latter. It is a salutary reminder that the canon of cinema is written as much by the chances of history as by the skills of its creators.

To fill in some of the gaps, the Pordenone retrospective also included a number of films not produced by Shochiku. The tradition of shimpa melodrama, and the work of Japan's greatest filmmaker, Kenji Mizoguchi, was represented by his last silent film, The Downfall of Osen (Orizuru Osen, 1934), actually distributed by a Shochiku subsidiary, Dai-ichi Eiga. The plot, based on a novel by Meiji-era writer Kyoka Izumi, is another account of a woman sacrificing herself for a male friend. Mizoguchi's stylistic flair, and the characteristically outstanding performance of Isuzu Yamada, bring conviction to the florid narrative, which makes an extraordinarily complex use of flashbacks and rapid editing. The director had not yet renounced the use of close ups and montage, or developed the celebrated long-take aesthetic which would distinguish his sound films; but this film shows him to have been capable of using more conventional techniques with great skill and to overwhelming emotional effect. Another alleged Mizoguchi was shown alongside this one - the semi-documentary The Morning Sun Shines (Asahi wa Kagayaku, 1929), made to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the foundation of the Asahi Shimbun newspaper. However, since the surviving copy is much shortened and the dramatic sections have been lost, it is doubtful whether Mizoguchi, who co-directed the film with Seiichi Ina, contributed anything to the extant print.

Triumphant Shout (Kachidoki, 1926, dir: Masayoshi Katsumi) is a samurai film produced by genre specialists Makino Productions, with a vaguely subversive take on the codes of bushido, seen here to lead to tragedy. Regrettably, in its present form, the plot is incoherent; this is a film that might have benefited from the explanatory accompaniment of a benshi. The Golden Bullet (Ogon no Dangan, 1926, dir: Hiroshi Innami) is a rare example of a Japanese silent film in a purely Westernised style. A detective thriller, it feels like something of an exercise, though its play with disguise and mistaken identity creates some faintly Langian moments. Its most engaging sequence is the climactic, location-shot chase through exquisite countryside. Public Manners: Sightseeing in Tokyo (Koshu Saho Tokyo Kenbutsu, 1925, dir: Kaname Mori) is an example of the Government-sponsored education films produced towards the end of the Taisho period: a semi-documentary of Tokyo life, it includes some charming and often witty images of contemporary mores.

picture: scenes from 'Foster Sisters' and 'Special Express: 300 Miles'

Among these non-Shochiku films, it's worth singling out a sidebar to the main programme, not among the films chosen by the Film Center, but presented as a special event by silent film accompanist and composer Günther Buchwald. Special Express: 300 Miles (Tokkyu Sanbyaku Mairu, 1928, dir: Genjiro Saegusa) was recently rediscovered in Osaka, and preserves an example of the twenties style of Nikkatsu, a studio whose prewar work, unlike that of Shochiku, has almost entirely disappeared. It is an eerie experience to watch a film like this, which had hitherto been totally forgotten, in a perfectly, but accidentally, preserved print. The plot, it should be said, a contrived affair about a train driver who protects an ill-treated girl from her oppressors, is an insult to the intelligence. But it is impossible not to be impressed by the visual flair of a forgotten director who, in his time, was considered a rival of Mizoguchi. One would welcome the opportunity to see what Saegusa might have produced from a decent script. Alas, we will probably never have that opportunity. To see this film was another sobering reminder of the sheer arbitrariness of film survival in Japan. As far as the country's silent cinema is concerned, even a retrospective such as this - substantial, well-planned, and mounted with the full support of the relevant studios and archives - can never be comprehensive; it's impossible to know whether it was even representative.