“During the early years of the Showa period (1926–89), while Japan’s silent cinema reached new artistic heights, Japanese filmmakers took the first steps towards sound film. Whereas in the West the transition to sound was abrupt and practically complete by around 1930, in Japan it stretched over almost a decade, although a considerable number of films (part-talkies, films shot silent with added music or sound effects, etc.) made limited use of sound technology. it was not until 1936 that the majority of films produced in Japan were full talkies. This retrospective focuses on this transition period, showing how the Japanese cinema gradually adopted the techniques and exploited the potential of sound film.
Pioneering works as Kenji Mizoguchi’s Home Town (Fujiwara Yoshie no Furusato, 1930) and Heinosuke Gosho’s The Neighbour’s Wife and Mine (Madamu to nyobo, 1931) immediately embraced the rich possibilities of sound film for comedy, lyricism, and the integration of music into drama. But the move to sound had a profound effect on the style of Japanese film in the 1930s. Shochiku, a leading Japanese studio and host to many of the most enduringly famous of Japanese directors and stars, moved away from the distinctively flamboyant visual style of its late silent films. As the studio moved towards sound, directors such as Yasujiro Shimazu and Hiroshi Shimizu simplified their styles, opting for realistic narratives and a less showy, more understated technique. Shochiku’s early sound films thus provide a unique record of the daily customs, manners and fashions of the early Showa Era, when a fragile modernity co-existed with traditional and nationalistic values. They helped to cement the tradition of understated realism which became a central mode in Japanese film art.
At Nikkatsu, a studio noted for its period films, directors sought to fuse traditional narratives with the new sound technology, creating a distinctive style of realist period drama. This is exemplified in particular by the work of Mansaku Itami, whose subversive output is represented here by the sparklingly satirical Akanishi Kakita (1935).
At last, in 1933, the Tokyo-based P.C.L. (Photo Chemical Laboratory) began production with the remit of producing sound films exclusively. The work of P.C.L., with its stress on musicality, city life and its at times trenchant social commentary, highlights the troubled modernity of 1930s Japan. Catering to the more prosperous urban middle class, musicals such as Tipsy Life (Ongaku kigeki: Horoyoi jinsei, 1933) are evidence of a modern consumer culture with their sophisticated use of product placement and multimedia tie-ins. Yet P.C.L. also confronted the social and personal concerns of interwar Japan, its economic and regional divisions, in realist and socially critical dramas such as Wife Be Like a Rose (Futarizuma: Tsuma yo bara no yo ni, 1935) and Ino and Mon (Ani imoto, 1935).
We dedicate this programme to the memory of Peter von Bagh (1943–2014), film historian, curator and artistic director of Il Cinema Ritrovato” (Alexander Jacoby and Johan Nordström).
All film notes for this exhibition are written by Alexander Jacoby and Johan Nordström.
This retrospective is a condensed version of a three-part series programmed by Alexander Jacoby and Johan Nordström for Il Cinema Ritrovato, Bologna, Italy, 2012–14, a collaboration with The National Film Center, Tokyo. Organized at MoMA by Dave Kehr, Adjunct Curator, Department of Film.