Conversion to Talkies: Price of Technology

Projection room in 1931 (Loew’s Valencia Theatre, Jamaica NY)
In the interview published in Jiji Shinpo, July 3, 1932, T.D. Cochran, the head of Paramount Tokyo Branch, condescendingly pointed out the miserable state of talkie in Japan. He recommended Japanese motion picture studios to quit developing their own “inferior technologies” and to use superior U.S. technologies instead. “It is true that Western-Electric system’s license fee is expensive,” he said. “But we have a discount for Japanese market at $200 per reel. You have to pay $500 per reel in New York.” It’s 60% off. It sounds terribly a good deal. But very few Japanese companies actually adapted the Western Electric system. Why?

The exchange rate for dollar-yen in 1930’s was around 100 yen = $40. Therefore, the license fee of $200 per reel is roughly 500 yen per reel. Adjusted for inflation, it is roughly equivalent of 2,000,000 yen ($20,000) per reel today.
First, we would like to compare this license fee with movie’s actual production cost. I looked up several places for typical production cost during this era, but I couldn’t find any solid data on it. It seems the minimum cost for one production (a feature) around 1930 was several hundred yen to 1,500 yen. I think, if they spent more than 5,000 yen for one production, that would have been an A-movie. For a 6-reel feature, the license fee for General Electric system would have been 500 x 6 = 3,000 yen. There would have been no incentive to go for this license contract, even if the technology had been superior.
Another figure I found was actual profit they made. Annual profit for Shochiku Studio in 1931 was 518,348 yen. Now, according to Annual Report of Motion Picture Censorship for that year, Shochiku produced total of 1,537 reels for theatrical release. This means they made profit of only 329 yen per reel. There was no way they would pay 500 yen for sound technology license.
However, there was one company that incorporated Western Electric sound system. Nikkatsu decided to use American system in 1932, abandoning the P. C. L. system. Nikkatsu needed stimulant to resurrect its status in the industry. Their products were heavily criticized, along with its poor sound quality. It was losing money in 1932, more than 800,000 yen in red. Now, I cannot find data on how much they actually paid for license, but it wasn’t bad decision after all. Their products improved around 1933, regaining its momentum, and their financial figures improved as well. Its directors, such as Tomu Uchida, Tomosaka Tasaka, made a series of ambitious films in late 1930s.
Just for comparison, JAZZ SINGER’s production cost was $422,000, which was a generous budget for a typical Warner Brothers’ feature. Considering that 5,000 yen (A-movie production cost in Japan at the time) would have been only $2,000 in U.S. currency, the difference was phenomenal. It was just the gap in monetary power between the two nations. Moreover, I guess this license fee mentioned was just for camera negatives only. It might well have been another arrangement for theatrical distribution positive prints as well. It is no wonder that Japanese companies pursued their own sound motion picture technologies.

Conversion to Talkies: Japanese Studios

The Poster for FURUSATO, the first Nikkatsu talkie feature directed by Kenji Mizoguchi

In the last post, I discussed about the overall transition from silent to talkies in 1930’s Japanese cinema industry: number of theaters and total number of motion picture consumption. In this entry, let’s look at the talkie transitions at individual motion picture studios. Data is from “Annual Report of Motion Picture Censorship”.

Before WWII, there were three major motion picture studios in Japan: Shochiku, Nikkatsu and Toho. During 1930s, Shochiku outpaced Nikkatsu in technology, artistry and star appeal. It was arguably the leader in the entertainment industry at the time. Home to the notable directors such as Yasujiro Ozu, Hiroshi Shimizu, Heinosuke Gosho, Mikio Naruse and Yasujiro Shimazu, Shochiku was noted for women’s melodrama, slapstick ‘nonsense’ comedies and social drama. Nikkatsu had been the king of Jidaigeki (period Samurai films) during the earlier decades, its financial woes plagued management and production throughout 1930s. Nonetheless, Tomu Uchida, Masahiro Makino, Daisuke Ito and other seasoned directors exhibited energy and creativity at Nikkatsu. Toho was established in 1937 by Ichizo Kobayashi, the railroad magnate. Toho had the distinctively modern and urban style and it aimed at the younger generation who preferred more liberal and contemporary stories. Due to the global financial crisis since 1929, even these larger studios had problems raising money to equip their studios and affiliated theaters with sound systems.
Shochiku (松竹)

The largest studio in the industry saw (almost) complete transition in 1937. Throughout the decade, Shochiku produced more than 100 films annually, but its number fluctuated from year to year. The dip in 1936 was probably due to closing of the Kamata Studio. They opened its new Ofuna Studio in the same year, but the transition was somewhat sluggish. Though Shochiku was not the first Japanese studio to release a feature-length talkie, its first talkie, THE NEIGHBOR’S WIFE AND MINE (1931), was considered to be the first major successful one. Shochiku developed its original sound system called Dobashi-Talkie, named after its inventors, the Dobashi brothers.
Notable films:
THE NEIGHBOR’S WIFE AND MINE (1931) Dir. Heinosuke Gosho
I WAS BORN, BUT … (1932) Dir. Yasujiro Ozu (silent)
THE SISTERS OF GION (1936) Dir. Kenji Mizoguchi
MR. THANK YOU (1936) Dir. Hiroshi Shimizu
AIZEN KATSURA (1938) Dir. Kosho Nomura
Nikkatsu (日活)

Nikkatsu released FURUSATO in 1930, a first feature-length movie with soundtrack (part talkie). The film was directed by none other than Kenji Mizoguchi, and starred Yoshie Fujiwara, the star of the Asakusa Opera. It used the Western Electric “Mina Talkie” sound system, but according to contemporary reviews and the surviving print, it was a failure. Due to financial problems and struggles in top management, the studio’s output was sometimes uneven.
Notable films:
THEATER OF LIFE (1936) Dir. Tomu Uchida
FIVE SCOUTS (1938) Dir. Tomosaka Tasaka
EARTH (1939) Dir. Tomu Uchida

P. C. L. and Toho (写真化学研究所、東宝)

P. C. L. (Photo Chemical Laboratory) was established in 1930, aiming at developing its own sound system. It was the technology provider to news agencies and Nikkatsu. Since Nikkatsu decided to use the Western Electric sound system instead, P.C.L. decided to produce its own sound motion picture. In 1937, P. C. L. transformed itself into Toho, one of the most influential studios in coming decades. Because of its open culture and talent-hungry management, the studio attracted many young directors and actors. Mikio Naruse, who had never been allowed to make a talkie in Shochiku, joined P. C. L. and directed many of his pivotal films. Akira Kurosawa joined P.C.L. as a staff in 1936, abandoning his career as a painter. The plot above shows the transformation of a small experimental movie studio to an entertainment giant in just one year (1937).
Notable films:
WIFE! BE LIKE A ROSE! (1935) Dir. Mikio Naruse
SHANGHAI RIKUSENTAI (1939) Dir, Hisatora Kumagai

Shinkou Kinema (新興キネマ) and Daito Eiga (大都映画)

Shinkou Kinema was an essentially B-movie studio, the subsidiary of Shochiku. Sometimes it functioned as a buffer for talents kicked out of the major studios. Mizoguchi, after having drifted from Nikkatsu to several small productions, joined Shinkou Kinema and directed three movies in 1937 and 1938. Mansaku Itami directed AKANISHI KAKITA (1936), one of the most modern Jidaigeki in prewar era. Daito Eiga was a pure B-movie studio, and produced low-budget entertainment every week. Personally I have never seen any of its product. Most of Daito Eiga films were lost. It seems that every production was overseen by its chairman, Tokusaburo Kawai, and very aspect of its movies, especially its cost, was fiercely controlled by him. 
As can be seen from these two plots, the number of movies from these two studio remained constant throughout the decade. In several places, I read Daito Eiga kept producing silent films very late in thirties (due to cost restrictions), and it shows. It is rather interesting that Shinkou Kinema converted to talkies in 1936, almost the same time as its parent company, Shochiku.

Conversion to Talkies

Talkie Production in Japan (1933)
You may wonder why Yasujiro Ozu was still shooting silent films well into 1936. It’s true that he was one of the most hesitant to adapt to sound films, but the conversion from silents to talkies was very slow process in Japanese cinema industry anyway. It took almost a decade for all the theaters to be equipped with sound film projection. There were many reasons for this relatively slow process. Film projection narrators, Benshis, were integral part of silent film projection and had strong influence on motion picture business. They demanded the production companies to support and preserve their businesses and the art of film live narration. Backed by huge fan base, their voices echoed loud. At the same time, the economy was not in good shape. The waves of depression from the Wall Street were hitting hard on Japanese market since 1929. Even though motion picture business expanded its horizon for three decades, many theater owners were still on a shoestring, not being able to afford another expensive investment. The technologies from Hollywood were well beyond their means, while the domestic technology was still immature. They all loved to see talkies (most of the Hollywood films were talkies), but Japanese production and market was cautious and reluctant.

Number of theaters in Japan during 1930s
The graph is a plot of actual data lifted from “Annual Report of Motion Picture Censorship” published by the Ministry of Interior, from 1926 to 1942. It is the number of commercial theaters equipped for sound films (“talkie-ready”) vs. those with only silent film projectors. While the ratio of talkie-ready theaters steadily grew throughout the decade, the silent-only theaters were still dominant during first half of 1930s.
Note that the total number of movie theaters in Japan suddenly surge in latter half of 1930s. Interestingly, the number of silent-only theaters actually increase from 1938 to 1939, meaning there were new theaters only for silent films.
Another statistics show the number of censored motion pictures, silents or talkies, from three different geographic origins; domestic, U.S. and Europe. These numbers are those of total censored film ‘items’, meaning they include news reels, educational films, reissues and documentaries as well as re-submission of expired materials to the censorship offices. Since every motion picture was required to undergo through the censorship process, these numbers are probably pretty good indicators for motion picture consumption. (It’s difficult to obtain decade-long trend of film production in terms of talkie conversion, since data categories in Annual Reports were not consistent from year to year.) Until 1934, the vast majority of domestic motion picture consumption was silent films. The films imported from U.S. were mainly talkies, and their popularity helped the industry to convert to sound film presentations. It seems that most of silent films in late 1930s and early 40s were educational films for schools, according to the Report.
Note the sudden jump in domestic talkie production in 1937. According to the Report, it was due to sudden increase in newsreels, reporting the eruption of Second Sino-Japanese War in this year. Especially “Marco Polo Bridge Incident” in July 1937 kicked off the flood of newsreels in Japanese theaters. Also, since 1940, the number of U.S. imports dropped drastically, resulting zero in 1942. Of course, it was the beginning of the Pacific War, and all movies of “the enemy states” were banned. Yes, the entertainment industry never exists in vacuum and even the most innocent works show the mark of the time.
I think that closer look at these and other numbers in the Annual Reports will give us more insights into the historic context of the Golden Age of Japanese Cinema. In coming weeks, I will put up some interesting data from the Reports to explore more. Also, I would like to see comparable data from U.S. and other countries for comparison… Does anyone know?
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