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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