Another “Yasujiro” in Shochiku


For past weeks, I reviewed two films by Yasujiro Shimazu, THE TRIO’S ENGAGEMENT (1937) and LOVE, BE WITH HUMANITY (1931). I assume his name is not as familiar as another Yasujiro (Ozu) among the readers. Maybe some of you know MY LITTLE NEIGHBOR, YAE (1934), which has circulated among various film festivals around the globe in recent years. Though relatively unknown today, he was the most reliable and professional director during 20s and 30s at the Shochiku and deserves more attention. 

Shimazu was one of the “founding” fathers of the Shochiku Kamata Studio (1920 – 1936), which produced many early Japanese masterpieces in “Kamata Style”. Born in Tokyo in 1897, he was the spoiled son of a successful merchant, and while tending one of his father’s branch offices, he was spending fortunes on gambling, drinking and women. Upon discovering he also spent many hours in movie theaters, his father sent him under patronage of Kaoru Osanai, the famed theater producer. Meanwhile, Osanai and his troops were invited to join Shochiku Movie Company, and under Osanai and other pioneers of Japanese cinema, Shimazu learned film-making and direction. His works began to gain momentum after the Great Kanto Earthquake (1923). He began exploring naturalistic style with more restraint, which was opposite of the archaic “Shingeki” style prevalent among Japanese films at the time. This direction resonated with the ideal of Shiro Shiroto, the head of the Kamata Studio. Shiroto also considered the modern industrialization in Japan called for the new style of films to express modern emotions among younger generations. This style, – naturalistic, modern, restrained, less-melodramatic, often social-conscious, but never nihilistic – became the trademark of Shochiku Kamata Studio products, and called Kamata-cho (Kamata Style). One of the most important films of this period was SUNDAY (日曜日, 1924, presumably lost), directed by Yasujiro Shimazu.
Always energetic, sometimes egotistical, Yasujiro Shimazu was also good at handling actors, bringing out delicate expressions and subtle nuances. 20’s was especially his most prolific period, – 101 films in total -, displaying his versatility, ranging from slapstick comedy to naval adventure to women’s melodrama. When talkies began to emerge in Japaneses film industry, he directed the most memorable of all early Japanese talkies; MY LITTLE NEIGHBOR, YAE (隣の八重ちゃん, 1934). Set in Tokyo suburb, this light romantic comedy was the defining moment of Shochiku Kamata Style. Many young future directors learned film-making under him as assistant directors: Heinosuke Gosho (TAKEKURABE (1955)), Shiro Toyoda (PORTRAIT OF HELL (1969)), Kosaburo Yoshimura (THE TALE OF GENJI (1951)), Keisuke Kinoshita (TWENTY-FOUR EYES (1954), THE BALLAD OF NARAYAMA (1958)), Noboru Nakamura (TWIN SISTERS OF KYOTO (1963)) to name the few.

Yasujiro Shimazu
The late thirties saw his most productive period. FAMILY MEETING (家族会議, 1936), MALE VS. FEMALE (1936), THE LIGHTS OF ASAKUSA (1937) and A BROTHER AND HIS YOUNGER SISTER (1939) were all critically acclaimed and immensely popular among movie-going public. The most beautiful of all his directorial works is OKOTO AND SASUKE (1935), starring Kinuyo Tanaka and Kokichi Takada. Based on the novel “SHUNKINSHO” by Junichiro Tanizaki, Shimazu created the ecstatic world of extreme sensibility. Set in mid-19th century Osaka, it is a story of a beautiful blind daughter of wealthy merchant, Okoto, and her faithful male servant, Sasuke. While the original novel is imbued with hidden eroticism and masochism, Shimazu’s film is more wholesome and “family-oriented”. But still, the chemistry between Tanaka and Takada distills the joy of two lovers on the screen, transforming the blank spaces between the frames into erotic overtones. Shimazu was said to be the master of directing actors, and OKOTO AND SASUKE is sparkled with this mastery.
He left Shochiku to join Toho Studio in 1939. Toho Studio at the time was more cooperative with the Government, which was heading into the total war with U.S. and U.K. He made several films there until the end of war. Unfortunately, he died a month after the surrender of Japan. It is tempting to imagine what he would have created if he survived and joined Shochiku again after the war. Some say Ozu paid homage to Shimazu in EARLY SUMMER (1951), which bears some similarity with Shimazu’s A BROTHER AND HIS YOUNGER SISTER. It is undeniable that Shimazu’s influence on Shochiku’s style was so definitive that Ozu, Naruse, Shimizu, Gosho and Imai owe so much to him. Shimazu’s works should be re-appreciated by today’s audience through reprisal and retrospectives.

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5 Lost Films by 5 Masters of Japanese Cinema

The Title Card for ISO NO GENTA, DAKINE NO NAGADOSU (1932)
Here is the list of lost films by 5 Japanese masters: Shozo Makino, Kenji Mizoguchi, Yasujiro Ozu, Sadao Yamanaka and Akira Kurosawa. I guess you may pick other films, but I will state my case.

Matsunosuke Ono-e (1909)
Directed by Shozo Makino
Produced by Yokota Shokai
Starring Matsugoro Ono-e
Though this is not a first dramatic cinema in the Japanese history, this is definitely the most important work during the early period of Japanese cinema. It is the first film to star the Star of Japanese Cinema, Matsunosuke Ono-e, and kicked off the life of Makino and Ono-e. Though they worked as a team for more than 200 works, only 5 or 6 survived. Judging from the surviving materials, I guess this must have been a very static, a sort of a captured version of theatrical play. But still, this is the genesis of Japanese cinema.
Advertisement for THE PASSION OF A WOMAN TEACHER (1926)
Directed by Kenji Mizoguchi
Written by Matsutaro Kawaguchi
Starring Yoneko Sakaguchi, Eiji Nakano, Yoshiko Okada
This film and another lost film, A PAPER DOLL’S WHISPER OF SPRING (1926), are considered to be the pivotal moment in Mizoguchi’s directorial carrier. In 1925, Mizoguchi was stubbed in the back by his lover with a razor and was relieved of directorial duty for several months as a result. This incident prompted him to explore the dark desire of women, in relation to irresponsible men. This film is about the curse of a jealous woman destroying the lovers on the run. I chose THE PASSION over A PAPER DOLL, simply because there might be a slim hope for this film to be discovered. Kawakita, the most notable promoter of Japanese cinema overseas, brought the prints of this film to Europe, along with Daisuke Ito’s CHUJI TABINIKKI.
Directed by Yasujiro Ozu
Written by Masao Arata
Starring Chishu Ryu, Sanae Takasugi
Out of 54 films directed by Yasujiro Ozu, 17 are now considered missing. This is the last among these 17, and his last silent film (with sound track). According to Ozu himself, this was a very depressing film, as the collage life depicted here was not nice at all. Considering the next dramatic film he directed was THE ONLY SON, and being the last silent film, I believe this film must have been intriguing as the turning point in his directorial career.
Written and Directed by Sadao Yamanaka
Starring Kanjuro Arashi
Now, this is probably the most sought-after ‘lost’ film of all time. The film was directorial debut for Yamanaka, the forgotten genius of Japanese cinema. As noted by many critics at the time, Yamanaka brought new breeze into Jidaigeki, adding another dimension to its drama. Ingenious use of title cards, punctuated by the flow of the visuals, seems to be one of many features which impressed Arashi himself. Within 5 years, he directed 15 films, only three of which have survived. A fragment of this film survived, but it is just under 2 minutes. From time to time, it has been rumored that the print of this film exists in the private collection. I hope it does.
THE IDIOT (1951)
THE IDIOT (白痴, 1951)
Directed by Akira Kurosawa
Written by Eijiro Hisaita, Akira Kurosawa
Starring Masayuki Mori, Setsuko Hara, Toshiro Mifune
It’s the same old story. The Emperor wanted his way. He demanded the film to be shown in full 266 minutes. Shochiku regretted it ever had anything to do with this ego-tripping maniac and told him to edit it down. The Emperor yelled back, “If you really want cut this film, cut it lengthwise!” Well, the studio forced The Emperor to chop it as much as possible and the version we have is 166 minutes. The original 266 minute version was supposedly destroyed by the studio at the time. Since then, there has been a rumor that this original 266 minute version exists in the vault somewhere. In 1998, Kei Kumai, the director of THE SEA AND THE POISON (1986), revealed that he had met the person who actually had the print of this 266 minute version. Along with THE GREED (1925) and THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS (1942), this complete version is the Holy Grail of film lovers.
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Love, Be With Humanity (1931)

Love, Be With Humanity (1931)
Experience in a movie theater is not about the movie itself sometimes. It is about sharing time and space with total strangers. Most of the time, you don’t know who this person is sitting in the next seat. Sometimes it’s a guy munching on popcorn, sputtering the salver-coated debris whenever he finds something funny on the screen. Sometimes it’s an old fat lady who wiggles in the seat uncomfortably whenever a sexually-explicit scene comes up. Of course, there is always a soul who just snores through whole 2 hours of matinée. But somehow we share the time and space, – and anticipation. We buy tickets to be captivated by something extraordinary. And if the movie is a silent film from 1931, directed by a lesser-known figure of Japanese cinema, screened with live piano accompaniment, you have the audience dedicated to the joy of cinematic experience. 

LOVE, BE WITH HUMANITY (1931) was screened at the Jimbo-cho Theater in Kanda, Tokyo on April 27, as a part of “Golden Week of Japanese Silent Cinema”. Tickets for 90 seats were sold out a few hours before the screening. It’s a three-hour long epic produced by Shochiku, the movie studio noted for Ozu, Shimizu, and Naruse in prewar years. Categorized as “Shochiku Kamata Modernism”, this film by Yasujiro Shimazu is a prime example of amalgamation of expressionism, social realism and Hollywood melodrama. Moreover, this film presents us with the atmosphere of modern Tokyo in prewar days, Tokyo which was to lost forever. 
Shochiku studio produced this film to celebrate the return of Hollywood Japanese star, Sojin Kamiyama. He was most memorable as the Mongolian Prince in Douglas Fairbanks’ THE THIEF OF BAGDAD (1924), which earned him a streak of villainous roles in various Hollywood silents. The advent of sound cinema striped him of carrier in Hollywood, since he spoke little English. He sought carrier in Japanese movie industry, with credentials as a Hollywood star. Shochiku saw the opportunity to cash in, supposedly creating the epic to match the actor with “Hollywood” fame. The film was assigned to Yasujiro Shimazu, a veteran of the Shochiku Kamata Studio, who had directed more than 100 films already. It took almost two years to complete, consumed 200,000 feet of film negatives, employed 80,000 extras in total, and listed more than 30 stars (including Mack Swain). Though renovated with modern background of capitalistic society, it is a familiar tale of KING LEAR. Koukichi (Kamiyama) is a capitalist playing the hard ball all the time, even to his sons. One of the sons Takeshi (Denmei Suzuki) does not get along with Koukichi, and becomes the black sheep of the family. Koukichi sees the big opportunity in lumber industry and buys the vast land in Sakhalin, which would reverse the course of his luck eventually …. 
Soujin Kamiyama as the Mongolian Prince in THE THIEF OF BAGDAD
The film was in two parts, “Japanese Part” and “American Part”, in 14 reels and 6 reels, respectively. Even at 24 fps, it would take three hours. At Pordenone Silent Film Festivel 2010, the film was presented with piano accompaniment, and took four hours at 18fps. Jimbo-cho Theater screened it at 24 fps, with an intermission. The film is full of memorable cinematic moments. Hideko Takamine (TWENTY-FOUR EYES, FLOATING CLOUDS) was 6 years old, playing a boy, with such a poignancy I never forget. Kinuyo Tanaka (UGETSU, SANSHO THE BAILIFF) plays a street-wise dancer, who is in love with Takeshi, a guy with a heart of gold. Though her part sometimes calls for Griffith-like melodramatic overacting, she nevertheless enriched the screen with subtle expressions and natural gestures. Extensive use of location shootings both in urban areas of Tokyo and in the wild, harsh land of Sakhalin, provided the film with authentic background of the time. Though the film drags quite a bit at the beginning, the plot is fast-moving and fairly well-constructed. 
Watching silent films in a suitable atmosphere is a different experience from typical movie-viewing. It requires a live music accompaniment, maybe a piano for a small theater and a larger musical unit for a larger hall. Mie Yanashita, who also supplied the piano accompaniment at Pordenone three years ago, played the piano for this small theater. At the entrance, theater staffs handed each of us a package of “snacks” for the intermission. A bottle of green tea, Daimaruyaki (Sweet bean stuffed Pancake) and Tenugui (Japanese hand towel, its design is a nice silhouette of a movie cameraman and a girl). Such a treat alone made me feel like a kid on a field trip, anticipating something wonderful to happen. I guess if every movie theater did the same thing, their box-office ticket sales would cover the cost of “snacks” and might make actual money. The audience shared the wonder, peeked into the era we never knew, and felt something resembling regret that this craft of art will never be created again. 
Daimaruyaki (with its message card) and Tenugui
The film’s last reel is a kind of a jaw-dropping moment. The reconciled family moved to the West (in the U.S. !) and Takeshi is now a cowhand. Mack Swain appears as a local doctor, while Soujin Kamiyama transforms himself into an old retired man, a la Lon Chaney Sr. I believe they did shoot this scene in U.S., and it looks so natural and authentic that if someone told me this were the scene from a Tom Mix Western, I would believe it. Though it may seem absurd in terms of drama ending in a totally unrelated location, it was meant to be a tribute to Kamiyama’s status in Hollywood. Cinema was an entertainment, after all. Japanese audience would love to see Kamiyama showing his skill as a man of thousand faces, Suzuki, a sturdy-built, dashing hero-type, mastering his horse in a vast land, and Kinuyo Tanaka decorated in Janet Gaynor halo. So, it was a joy to see this film end this way. I do appreciate the effort put into this presentation by staff at Jimbo-cho Theater and the pianist Mie Yanashita. 
(愛よ人類と共にあれ, AI-Yo, JINRUI TO TOMONI ARE, 1931)
Directed by Yasujiro Shimazu
Produced by Takejiro Ootani, Siro Shiroto
Written by Tokusaburo Murakami
Cinematography by Subaru Kuwahara, Shinichi Nagai
Starring Soujin Kamiyama, Denmei Suzuki, Tokihiko Okada, Kinuyo Tanaka