The Development of Early Japanese Cinema: From Chushingura to A Page of Madness

While the history of Japanese cinema has been well documented in both Eastern and Western literature, there has been a tendency to neglect its humble beginnings in favour of post-1930s films, most particularly those made during the post-World War II years. Although these films, most notably directed by Yasujiro Ozu, Kenji Mizoguchi, Akira Kurosawa and Mikio Naruse, have undoubtedly had an enormous impact on world cinema, it is important to recognise the films which preceded and indeed influenced them. Through a comparative analysis between Japan’s oldest existing feature film, Chushingura, and A Page of Madness, I aim to outline the development of major film conventions and techniques during this period, taking into account the implications of these changes for the audience.

Perhaps the most important aspect of early silent Japanese cinema was the use of benshi, a popular presence in Japanese cinemas from 1896 to 1939. A benshi was a silent film narrator who would stand beside the cinema screen and provide setsumei (vocal narration) to help the audience understand the events and details shown onscreen (Dym 2003:2). As well as providing commentary and interpreting the images on screen in order to provide narrative clarity, the benshi was also there to enrich the moving image experience, and was especially useful, if not vital, for explaining foreign films to a Japanese audience (ibid. 8-9). Before a film viewing, a benshi would stand in the centre of the stage and provide a maesetsu (opening remarks) which would typically involve an introduction of who he/she was and a basic explanation regarding the film being shown (ibid. 164). Aside from benshi, there were also kowairo. A kowairo was responsible for essentially dubbing the voices of onscreen actors (ibid. 65).

It is also important to be aware that no more than 4% of products from the Japanese film industry made before 1945 are known to have survived (Houston 1994:69). Over 90% of Japanese films made pre-WWII are presumed lost (Film Preservation Society 2007). This is due to several factors. Primarily, the 1923 Great Kanto earthquake destroyed most of Japan's film studios and theatres. Prior to 1923, film storage had not been a priority and was not enforced. Later, Allied bombing of Tokyo during WWII ensured further losses of silent films and related material. Additionally, Japan's humidity, particularly during summer, had a negative impact on the extremely flammable Nitrocellulose film used at the time. These factors, along with the sheer ravages of time, have resulted in the lack of pre-1930's films in existence. Unfortunately therefore, there is little research documenting the beginning of Japanese cinema to the 1920s, and such research is often contradictory, speculative and inconclusive. Nevertheless, conclusions can only be made through the small sample of films that do exist at this point in time. The oldest existing Japanese feature film, estimated by historians to have been made in 1910 (Sato, n.d.) is Chushingura.

Chushingura ranks amongst the most widely known, popular and enduring stories in Japan. Chushingura is the name given to fictionalised accounts of the historical events surrounding the Forty-seven Ronin. The story itself concerns a group of samurai who were forced to become ronin following the assault of a court official named Kira Yoshinaka by their daimyo (feudal lord). The daimyo, named Asano Naganori, was subsequently ordered to commit seppuku (ritual suicide) for his unlawful act of defiance towards the court official. To avenge their master’s death, the Forty-seven Ronin carefully plotted for over a year to kill Kira Yoshinaka, and successfully did so. As a result of committing murder, they were forced to commit seppuku.

The main convention of Japanese film at the time was to recreate familiar stories already seen in traditional theatre, most particularly in kabuki, noh and bunraku. This helped Japanese audiences who wanted to be well informed of a film prior to watching it. It would also have made the benshi's job easier. Adapting familiar stories to film was a natural and immediately welcomed practice. Primarily because of this, films during this period did not require a screenplay written specifically for the medium of film. Onoe Matsunosuke, Japan’s first movie star and the most famous actor in Japan at the time, claimed that during this period, actors and directors did not use a script at all (Richie 2005:24). Most Japanese films made during the 1900s and 1910s had their roots in stories belonging to other Japanese art forms, primarily theatre.

Chushingura is one of many films heavily influenced by traditional theatre, most notably kabuki. A good example of this can be seen in one of the final scenes of the film. In this scene, the ronin find Kira hiding in a hut and ask him to commit seppuku. He refuses and claims that they have mistaken him with someone else. The scar on his forehead reveals that he is indeed Kira, however, and the ronin subsequently kill him by severing his head. This scene, lasting just two minutes, possesses many theatrical devices. Visually, the set design is clearly modelled on that of a theatrical adaptation of Chushingura. This is evident through both the minimalist and unrealistic sense of space and blocking that is conveyed through the mise-en-scene. The composition appears flat, and this is an aesthetic which has its origins in both bunraku and kabuki theatre. An emphasis on flat compositions appears to have been the "general rule in the early films; it is a trait which lasted late into the 1920s, and left an indelible mark on the films of some of the masters of the 1930s" (Burch 1979:85). Moreover, the background, showing a mansion, is quite clearly a flat, two-dimensional painted backdrop. Meanwhile, in the midground, there is a hut that is disproportionate to the size of the actors themselves. This treatment of space is unrealistic and is another conventional aspect of early silent Japanese films. As Donald Richie states:

Space is not used for illusionistic effect, nor is any effort made to achieve depth. It remains in the early Japanese film what it had been in drama, a playing area, one bound by conventions which had little to do with any illusions of reality. Among these conventions is the treatment of the motion picture screen not as a window into space but as a flat two-dimensional surface, a picture (1990:7).

Contrary to the West, in which cinematic realism in drama was treated as a majorly influential factor as a means for the audience to relate to, understand and comprehend the subject material, the concept of cinematic realism in Japan was a truly novel idea at this stage. The performances in Chushingura reflect this as they are unrealistic. This is due to the sheer exaggeration of facial expressions and physical movements, again typical in films of that period, and reminiscent of kabuki performances. Onoe Matsunosuke also plays several roles in the film. This is another standard practice in kabuki theatre and it would remain a standard practice in the Japanese film industry until the mid-1920s (Burch 1979:84).

The runtime of the film, however, sets aside Chushingura from its cinematic contemporaries. Yokota Shokai, the production company which made this version of Chushingura as well as several others, "strung together a series of short episodes that had been shot and released earlier. This resulted in a long composite program, a total of almost three hours, of collected episodes of the Chushingura saga presented in its correct theatrical order" (Davis 1996:31-32). Considering that the Japanese film industry had been making films on a scale of mass production between 1908 and 1909 (Sato, n.d.), it is not surprising that Chushingura was made from an amalgamation of previously released films and new material. It is likely that most films of this period would have followed the same procedure, as a means of rapid output, minimising costs, saving time and improving labour efficiency. As well as these benefits, there was no threat to continuity as Japanese films at the time were so similar, and actors were so distant from the camera. Any potential breaches of continuity could be filled in by a talented benshi (Anderson and Richie 1982:34). Prior to 1911, few Japanese films were over one reel in length. As more and more longer-reeled pictures arrived from Europe though, the Japanese film industry began to lengthen the duration of their films (ibid. 33-34). A range of film durations provided a greater capacity for film techniques and hence, by 1915, there was already a greater propensity for a further filmic language to excel. The difference between conservative film techniques and those which were more modern are evident by the output of two of Japan’s biggest film studios at the time; Nikkatsu and Tenkatsu. Whereas "the average 1915 Nikkatsu film was about forty minutes long and had only from fifteen to thirty different camera set-ups…those of Tenkatsu, averaging the same length, contained fifty to seventy shots" (ibid. 33-34). Longer runtimes would have required a further investment from the audiences’ attention spans, and would have likely been immediately welcomed, given that theatre was a popular pastime, lasting for several hours. Additionally, longer runtimes would have, in their very nature, made cinema a more immersive art form for the audience.

Despite its feature film length, Chushingura fits well as an archetypal Japanese silent film of the early 1900s for several reasons. Firstly, in its genre. Documentary films, along with film adaptations of kabuki plays, were the two prolific genres of the Japanese film industry at the time. Chushingura is a chambara (sword fighting) film, a popular subgenre of the jidaigeki (period drama); a genre which dominated and largely defined Japan’s film output during this era. Secondly, Chushingura is also archetypal due to its narrative simplicity, and complete disregard of both film techniques and cinematic language. The shooting speed of Chushingura is less than 16 frames per second; a common frame rate in Japanese films of the period, in order to economise film stock (Iwamoto 1987:132). Most notably, however, the scene in which Kira is killed is shot in one long take, interrupted only by one or two virtually imperceptible cuts which do not significantly disrupt continuity. While this form of editing would indeed signify that Makino Shozo, the director of Chushingura and Japan’s first major director, had "completely ignored Griffith’s editing concepts" (Anderson and Richie 1982:32), these match-cuts certainly show an awareness and thus not a complete disregard of Griffith's editing concepts (Burch 1979:81). All the while, the camera is in a fixed position and remains static. The shot itself is a long shot, at a distance similar to where an audience would view a performance at a theatre. Thus, through a complete lack of film vocabulary and techniques, along with the distance of the camera to provide a theatrical sense of space between spectator and screen, there has been a clear emphasis to provide an overt theatrical experience for the viewer rather than a cinematic experience. Although this theatrical nature of viewing would have been accepted by audiences in the 1890s, 1900s, and 1910s, who were well familiar and satisfied with the viewing practices of theatre, by the 1920s, cinema came into its own as a truly separate art form, and thus there was a demand for a dissimilar relationship between the spectator and screen; one which would be unique to cinema.

The use of long shot in the aforementioned scene is important because it is used predominantly throughout the whole film. A Western viewer might expect a few close-ups during the scene in which Kira is killed, particularly because an argument erupts beforehand, and the event itself is an important one; the most important in the film. But the audience is never given the satisfaction of any form of close-up or medium shot. Because of this, it is rather unlikely that Japanese audiences evoked any strong emotional reactions to the film. Moreover, the unrealistic sense of space, time, production design, mise-en-scene and acting automatically prohibits any emotive attachment between spectator and screen. Rather than the cinema being a visceral experience, at this stage, it appears to have been one of mere curiosity and fascination. Arguably then, at this stage, Japanese cinema was more theatrical than cinematic because unlike in the West, where cinema was embraced as a new form of photography, in Japan it was viewed as an extension of the theatre (Richie 1990:2). However, 1910 would prove to be an important year for breaking cinematic conventions and would pave the way for the evolution of Japanese cinema.

According to Tadao Sato, by 1910 it was "common knowledge that Japanese films were rubbish compared to foreign films. People who went to Japanese films were snotty-nosed little kids" (1985:33). This would suggest, therefore, that Japanese films were conservative, unprogressive and thus stale for an adult audience. Quite clearly, change was needed, although the conservative attitudes of the Japanese, who "retain a high regard for convention and a relatively low regard for originality" (Richie 1990:9) was a major obstacle. Another hindrance was the domineering power of the benshi, who wanted cinema to remain conventional for several reasons, most obviously because it ensured job security. Nevertheless, it was clear that many cinemagoers had had enough with the current primitive state of Japanese cinema in comparison to Western cinema. A period of rebellion was starting to emerge as a result of the frustrations of audience members who were up to date with the 'advanced' films of the West and hence, the Pure Film Movement (Jun'eigageki undo) was born.

During the 1910s and 1920s, the Pure Film Movement advocated to "change the production and exhibition practices of the Japanese film industry" (Bernardi 2001:13). Members of the movement criticised Japanese cinema for being overly theatrical, lacking in cinematic techniques (for example the use of close-ups and imaginative editing), and disregarding vital elements of the medium such as screenplays. Japanese films, to them, were not nearly up to the standard of those made in the West. It was time for growth, but the use of the ever popular benshi and kowairo was a major barrier to any form of advancement. Furthermore, the dominant use of onnagata (also known as oyama - male actors playing female characters) also possessed its obvious ties to kabuki theatre and thus hindered any possibility of a liberated cinema. Viewing film as a "unique and culturally respectable form of art" (ibid.), supporters of the movement naturally wanted the complete removal of oyama, faster scene transitions and the unobtrusiveness of the benshi (Iwamoto 1987:132). The growing influence of the movement was evident by 1920, in which intertitles made their first appearance in Japanese films (Masterpieces of Silent Japanese Cinema 2001). Additionally, new reformist studios such as Shochiku and Taikatsu were hiring young filmmakers and encouraging novel ideas and techniques, and in 1918, the first 'pure' film was made; Norimasa Kaeriyama's The Glow of Life. Although the movement was rather successful at this stage, helped by critical publications printed in magazines including Kinema Junpo and Kinema Recodo, and backed by influential individuals involved in the arts, such as Japanese author Junichiro Tanizaki, it was not until 1923, however, in which Japanese cinema would truly begin to revolutionise. 

The Great Kanto earthquake of 1923 perhaps remains as the single most important event in the development of Japanese cinema. The earthquake vastly affected the Japanese film industry following its destruction of most studios and theatres. The lack of intact and functioning national studios meant that demand far exceeded output. As a result, more films were imported from abroad (Anderson and Richie 1982:47). Consequently, as viewings of Western films were becoming more common, so too were the acceptance of Western film methods, narratives and techniques by both Japanese audiences and filmmakers. A prolific output of Western films being watched by Japanese audiences would have also served as a useful learning tool for Japanese audiences who would now have benefited from an improved cultural understanding of Western norms and practices. This would have been reinforced by the fact that cinema attendance rates were increasing, most probably because it provided a form of escapism for the distressed citizens of Japan. Subsequently, more advanced films were becoming acceptable to audiences. The earthquake had "upset the industry to the extent that many of the old concepts were relinquished and completely new methods and ideas were adopted. The atmosphere of the film world after the earthquake was one of great and boundless enthusiasm" (ibid. 48). Japanese audiences were beginning to embrace modern and unconventional films, which in the 1900s and 1910s they had previously dismissed in favour of conventional films.

In 1926, three years after the Great Kanto earthquake, a very atypical Japanese film was made; A Page of Madness. Despite its uniqueness and unconventionality for its period, the film itself shows just how far Japanese cinema had advanced in a few years at a rate which had taken other countries thirty years (ibid.). The film is a great example of the scope to which cinematic freedoms had begun to assimilate into 1920s Japanese cinema. Directed by Teinosuke Kinugasa, and primarily financed through his own independent production company, Kinugasa Productions, the film was made through the collaboration of a group of avant-garde artists who were ardent followers of the Shinkankaku-ha (New Perceptionist/Sensationalist School), an art movement in Japanese literature which aimed to overcome naturalistic representation.

A Page of Madness follows the story of a retired sailor (played by Masao Inoue) who works at a lunatic asylum in order to care for and be close to his mentally ill wife (Yoshie Nakagawa). She was committed to the asylum following an attempt to drown her own child in a fit of madness caused by her husband abandoning her. Their daughter (Ayako Iijima) holds her father responsible, and he, guilt ridden, works there to make amends. The daughter visits the asylum to let her mother know of her upcoming marriage, and shortly after, the father attempts to escape from the institution with his wife but fails. He remains in the institution, along with his wife, governed by hallucinations of blissful memories and a hopeful future.

Whereas films made in the 1890s, 1900s and 1910s predominantly followed a stage-like aesthetic, it is clear from the very onset of A Page of Madness that, despite being an atypical film of its time, this aesthetic was no longer a fundamental part of Japanese film. Even in chambara films made during the mid-1920s, such as Orochi and Chuji's Travel Diary, one would expect visuals similar to Makino’s Chushingura. However, there is a greater sensibility to the optics of spatial relativity in these films and as a result, they are much more realistic and three-dimensional, and the aesthetic is cinematic in its conception and form. And, while some interior shots may appear to be theatrical, exterior shots are mostly shot on location and not in the studio. This authenticity is further emphasised through the three-dimensional, realistic production design which quite clearly had come a long way since the 1910s. Furthermore, both the complete removal of oyama in cinema and the maturity in the craft of acting since the 1910s had developed to the extent whereby performances in films during the 1920s were very realistic. Such realism and authenticity would have had repercussions towards the way in which audiences interacted with cinema as it would now have been an art form to which the Japanese could relate to, even if the film viewed was a jidaigeki and did not address contemporary issues. The 1920s would see, however, the advent of films set in modern times (gendaigeki), many of which did indeed address contemporary themes and issues.

The 1920s was a time of genre exploration, as opposed to genre expectation evident in the 1890s, 1900s and 1910s. Jidaigeki films soared in popularity following the Great Kanto earthquake, undoubtedly because such films were not set in a modern environment and rarely addressed contemporary issues. The comedy genre also soared in popularity, with films such as Yaji and Kita: Yasuda's Rescue attracting large audiences and gaining great commercial success (Masterpieces of Silent Japanese Cinema 2001), again most likely because it offered a form of escapism from the recent tragedies caused by the earthquake. Prior to 1920, comedy was a largely neglected genre in Japanese cinema. Branching out into more genres clearly paved the way for different visuals to develop, and hence different film techniques. For example, Vanity is Hell, a comedy made in 1925, uses a bombardment of close-up shots, medium shots and long shots in order to create a rather chaotic and thus comedic atmosphere. Close-ups, an imperative part of comedic films, are used to great effect. If the film had been made during the 1900s or 1910, the comedic effect would have been lost as most shots would have likely been governed by a monotonous range of camera set-ups and positions. By the 1920s, however, the Japanese film industry was using a range of cinematic techniques which helped provide an abundance of humour at regular intervals. Given that laughter was a particularly neglected emotion of Japanese cinema before this point, this would have been an exciting time for Japanese audiences.

Similarly to Vanity is HellA Page of Madness also makes use of varied cinematic techniques in order to draw a particular type of emotion from the audience. The film utilises virtually every technique in the cinematic repertoire, and a great example of its varied use can be seen in the film's introductory sequence. Listing the succession of shots does not to justice to the impact of the images themselves, and since there is no typical narrative structure, is rather meaningless. Nevertheless, some form of description is necessary in order to contextualise the sequence. The film begins with a shot of rain in the evening, followed by a dissolve to a close-up of a window. Then a door repeatedly moves in the wind, a car’s headlights approach the camera and the car’s tyres pass by in close-up. Two barred windows are shown in chiaroscuro interior, water erupts from a drain, and a man's silhouette emerges from the darkness into the light. Similar shots follow, and the shots are repeated in a rapid montage of image overlays. There is then a dissolve to a huge spinning ball, to which an eccentrically dressed woman dances in front of. There are several overlays of the dance until the camera tracks backwards to reveal silhouetted bars. The screen fades to black, and an iris wipe reveals a barred window, then a barred door, through which one can see the shadow of the dancer, still performing and still in costume. There is then a dissolve to a close-up of the girl now dancing in rags, and various Dutch angle shots of her inmates, clutching to barred doorways. We see various shots of the environment she is in, a torn photograph of a dancer, a nurse walking towards the camera, and images of drums, trumpets and trombones playing overlay various other images, among them various close-ups of the dancer’s feet. There is a rapid succession of images, largely of the aforementioned instruments playing and the dancer’s movements, which become faster and faster until the scene culminates with the dancer collapsing from exhaustion, feet bleeding.

Though it should be stressed that A Page of Madness is indeed a very unconventional and atypical film of its period, it does possess many similarities with its film contemporaries. The aforementioned scene in A Page of Madness is a great example of the explorations of film technique which Japanese films were now delving further into. Whereas in films made before 1920, in which Japanese filmmakers used foreign cinematic techniques out of novelty rather than dramatic justifiability (Richie 1990:6), they were now utilising techniques to convey certain emotions or provide a particular aesthetic to the audience. So then, whereas the quality of pre-1920 films was largely a formulaic result of mass produced fare, with finance rather than audience in mind, it now seemed that the aim was to make an impact on the audience by making films of genuine quality. As more and more modern film techniques from abroad were being readily accepted by a more accommodating audience since the Great Kanto earthquake, Japanese cinema followed suit. Thus, by the mid-1920s, many films possessed an assortment of cinematic techniques. Even period films, such as Chuji's Travel Diary and Spell of the Sand Painting, Part II boast a whole vocabulary of modern film techniques such as close-ups, dissolves, rapid editing, pans, whip pans, tracking shots and point of view shots. Films of this genre made prior to the 1920s had a tendency to be overtly theatrical but were now rather cinematic. This new aesthetic offered more variety in narrative, and thus more sophistication. As a result, adult audiences would have felt more satisfied with Japanese film output and would have come in their numbers to re-assert the dominant adult demographic of Japanese cinema. The public perception that Japanese films were awful with an audience largely consisting of "snotty-nosed little kids" (Tadao 1985:33) was rapidly diminishing.

A Page of Madness goes further than its film contemporaries, however, by using virtually every cinematic technique known at the time. In fact, the film is so ahead of its time that it predates the most innovative of Soviet films such as Dziga Vertov's Man with a Movie Camera and Alexander Dovzhenko's Earth. In the introductory scene alone, the audience is bombarded with a range of techniques including dissolves, fades, cutaways, cross-cuts, Dutch angle shots, close-ups, long shots, medium shots and fast cutting. There are more than 800 shots in the film, much more than, and shorter in length than the average film, which averaged between five and seven seconds per shot (Richie 2009). The large number of shots, especially when shown in a montage of quick succession, ironically command and require audience attention. This concept of challenging the Japanese audience, and psychologically stimulating them through complex imagery, particularly emerged during the 1920s, as more avant-garde, impressionist and expressionist films were imported. Indeed, though rare, it was also evident in other films of the period, such as Jujiro. Given the popularity of German Expressionist films in Japan during the 1920s, it would seem that Japanese audiences had now acquired a taste for daring and intellectually challenging films; films which had been unpopular in previous years.

The introductory sequence of A Page of Madness also possesses obvious parallels with Western cinema, particularly European films. The rapid editing is reminiscent of Soviet Montage, while the aesthetic appears to be influenced by German Expressionism. However, the influence of Soviet Montage on the film remains unclear as communist propaganda films at the time were considered a threat to the established order, so films such as Sergei Eisenstein's Strike andThe Battleship Potemkin were banned in Japan (Sharp referenced in Bowyer 2004:18). Kinugasa had not seen either of these films until he travelled to Russia years later (Richie 2005:88). And, though Kinugasa claimed to not have seen The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (ibid. 87), German Expressionism was a popular and welcomed art form in Japan (ibid. 84-89) and its influence on A Page of Madness is evident. It is known for certain, however, that Kinugasa was strongly influenced by F. W. Murnau’s The Last Laugh, which, like A Page of Madness, possesses no intertitles. He claimed to have seen the film five times and declared it as his favourite film (Sharp referenced in Bowyer 2004:17). From late 1924 onwards, avant-garde French films were being imported to Japan for the first time and were met there with enthusiasm. Japanese film directors were being influenced by such films as Abel Gance's La Roue and Alexandre Volkoff's Kean (Mariann Lewinsky referenced in Sharp 2002). This contrasts with Japanese films made during the 1900s and 1910s, in which Japanese film directors largely ignored the cinematic methods, techniques and practices used in the West.

Moreover, Japanese films made during the 1920s were also alike to those of the West in terms of the methodological use of a screenplay. In comparison to films made before the 1920s, in which Japanese films did not require a script, by the late 1920s, it was a standard industry practice. Films were now adapting stories from different areas of the arts and media, not just from traditional theatre as in the 1910s. For example, Vanity is Hell was one of the first screenplays to have been adapted from a story published in a newspaper (Masterpieces of Silent Japanese Cinema 2001). This gave Japanese cinema another opportunity to explore a greater range of narratives, plot locales and address up to date themes. A new diversity and variety of films would have provided a more stimulating cinematic experience for Japanese audiences, as they would have been granted more choice in what films to see and were bound to find a film which appealed to them. 

Additionally, throughout the 1920s, the influence of new Western art forms such as "Constructivism, Expressionism and Futurism were already being enthusiastically embraced and re-interpreted to fit the ideals of a burgeoning avant-garde in Japan as eager to demolish traditional modes of expression as their European counterparts" (Sharp referenced in Bowyer 2004:15). Given that, since the Great Kanto earthquake, the audience had recently welcomed the use of what were previously perceived as Western film techniques in Japanese cinema, they were now also more accepting of experimental narratives, stories and themes in films influenced from such art movements. Previously, in the 1910s and early 1920s, the common view was that "short-length shots, editing, dramatic lighting, and close-ups were for foreigners" (Anderson and Richie 1982:37). However, by the late 1920s, although not many experimental films were being made in Japan, it was clear that Japanese audiences were in the final stages of "a peculiarly Japanese pattern of behaviour: first the acceptance of a new idea, then a period of reaction against it, and finally the complete assimilation and transformation of the idea to Japanese patterns" (ibid. 34). Whereas avant-garde films and filmmakers would likely have confused Japanese audiences in the 1900s and 1910s, even with the use of a benshi, both Expressionist and Impressionist films did not perplex Japanese audiences because by the 1920s, they were already aware of the style due to previous foreign imports of such films (Richie 2009). Furthermore, the financial success and critical acclaim of avant-garde films such as A Page of Madness, showed that, by the mid-1920s, there was now a significant proportionate audience and demand for it.

Although the use of a benshi for films made during the 1890s, 1900s and 1910s was a standard practice, Japanese films made during this period were predominantly straightforward, with simplistic narratives, familiar stories and a lack of cinematic techniques. In terms of understanding such films, therefore, they were not truly needed. However, a benshi would have been vital in explaining films such as A Page of Madness due to its fragmented narrative, abstract visuals, absence of intertitles and rigorous demand of attention from the audience. Due to the larger range of cinematic techniques used in 1920s Japanese cinema, further imports of foreign films (including avant-garde films), and the emergence of new genres, arguably the use of benshi in 1920s Japanese cinema was essential, perhaps as vital as it had been since the inception of Japanese cinema, and probably more so than it had been during the 1910s. Thus, the modernity of films shown in Japan may have contributed to the enduring popularity of the benshi, which would continue to be an integral part of Japanese cinema well into the 1930s, even after the advent of synchronised sound in motion pictures. So then, although the practice of making films in Japan had advanced dramatically since the 1910s, the practice of viewing them had relatively retained its conventionality.

Equally important is the evolution of themes in Japanese cinema. In contrast to films of the 1900s and 1910s, which largely expressed themes that were common in Japanese theatre, such as feudal loyalty and revenge, a rising number of films made during the 1920s went against this, opting for more contemporary issues. Films such as Minoru Murata’s Souls on the Road commented on contemporary issues such as poverty and homelessness, while also honing in on themes familiar to films made during the 1900s and 1910s, such as the comradeship of men. The 1920s also provided many anti-establishment films, while others, such as A Page of Madness, were critical of Japanese institutions. Particularly, A Page of Madness focuses on mental institutions, criticising them through its depiction of inmates caged up like animals and living in poor conditions, the unprofessional behaviour of doctors and nurses who are seen laughing at their patients and its general dreary atmosphere. An increasing tendency towards making films with thematic significance and importance suggests that the cinema was being taken a lot more seriously as an art form than it had been previously. Film directors were now seeing themselves as artists with an obligation to individually express themselves to cinema audiences. Additionally, the growing number of tendency films made during the 1920s suggests that cinema was now being recognised and exploited as an important political tool for propaganda. Whereas Japanese cinema of the 1890s, 1900s and 1910s had been conservative and was not a cause for concern for authorities, by the 1920s, the Japanese government were a lot more cautious of the medium and began to ban more films. As a result, it is quite possible that audiences in the 1920s were being politically persuaded, whether consciously or unconsciously, through tendency films. Japanese cinema was now more important and powerful than ever before.

Evidently, as the cinematic practices and ideologies of the Japanese film industry had radically developed far beyond convention from the 1890s to the 1920s, so too did the perceptions of the viewing audience, albeit at a slower rate. The establishment of a filmic language, progression in film techniques and the rising acceptance of cinema as a unique form of art all contributed to a change in the audience’s relationship with the medium. While Japanese cinema of the 1890s and 1900s satisfied the morbid curiosity of Japanese audiences, the 1910s provided the beginnings of a period of reaction against the customs and practices of it, and by the 1920s, the focus was resolutely on the newfound demands of the audience. Japanese cinema, once governed by convention, was now shaped by the evolving tastes of 1920s audiences. This shift in dynamics in regards to audience reaction and participation with cinema helped establish a symbiotic causal relationship between the audience and cinema, an important relationship which would develop further through the 1930s and 1940s, and one which would leave an indelible mark on post-war Japanese cinema.


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Chushingura. Dir. Shozo Makino. Yokota Shokai. 1910.

The Glow of Life. Dir. Norimasa Kaeriyama. Tennenshoku Katsudo Shashin. 1918.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Dir. Robert Wiene. Decla-Bioscop AG. 1920.

Souls on the Road. Dir. Minoru Murata. Shochiku Eiga. 1921.

La Roue. Dir. Abel Gance. Films Abel Gance. 1923.

Kean. Dir. Alexandre Volkoff. Films Albatros. 1924.

The Last Laugh. Dir. F.W. Murnau. Universum Film (UFA). 1924.

Strike. Dir. Sergei Eisenstein. Goskino. 1925.

Vanity is Hell. Dir. Tomu Uchida. Asahi Kinema Gomei-sha. 1925.

Orochi. Dir. Buntaro Futagawa. Bando Tsumasaburo Production. 1925.

The Battleship Potemkin. Dir. Sergei Eisenstein. Goskino. 1925.

A Page of Madness. Dir. Teinosuke Kinugasa. Kinugasa Productions. 1926.

Chuji’s Travel Diary. Dir. Ito Daisuke. Nikkatsu Daishogun. 1927.

Spell of the Sand Painting, Part II. Dir. Kanamori Bansho. Makino Mimuro. 1927.

Yaji and Kita: Yasuda’s Rescue. Dir. Ikeda Tomiyasu. Nikkatsu Uzumasa. 1927.

Jujiro. Dir. Teinosuke Kinugasa. Kinugasa Productions. 1928.

Man with a Movie Camera. Dir. Dziga Vertov. VUFKU. 1929.

Earth. Dir. Alexander Dovzhenko. VUFKU. 1930.