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.