What is the right speed for silent film projection? 16fps. That’s the standard. Right? Or, somewhere between 12 and 24 fps, some says. There are on-going debates about the speed even for Hollywood studio films in twenties, let alone some early films of 1910s and 1900s. When it comes to early Japanese cinema, the question sounds like a bad joke.
Makoto Ohmori, the cinematographer since the wake of Japanese film production, gave a vivid picture about how the shooting and projection of films had done in early 20th century Japan. First of all, the camera speed during the shooting was inconsistent from one production to another. According to Ohmori, Yoshiro Edamasa (1888-1944), one of the pioneers of Japanese cinema, demanded 12fps, while the Matsunosuke Onoe (1875-1926) films were sometimes at 8 fps. The reason was simple, they wanted to shave off the cost. Less film stock per one production. Then, these films would look absurd if projected at 16 fps. The projectionist slowed the cranking, which infuriated Benshis, who supplemented the narrations and voiceover to help audience to understand the stories. Benshis (during much of the silent era in Japan, Benshis played very critical role in film industry and film art in Japan) demanded projectionist to synchronize with their speech, which often modulated along with audience reactions and Benshi’s mood.
During the New Year’s holiday season, the theaters and live shows were packed with people who craved for the special New Year productions. Movie theaters were no exception, with non-stop New Year Grand Programs, starring ever-popular Matsunosuke Onoe and other popular movie stars. If theater managers cared about anything, it was the box office sales. They ordered their projectionists to max the cranking speed so that they could put up as many showing per day as possible. In one theater, there were twelve showings per day during this season. Of course, all the actions up in the screen were mess. They were shot at much slower speed (to cut the cost), but projected at almost twice that speed (to increase the profit). Apparently, benshis obliged to this house rule during this profitable season. According to Ohmori, audience at the time didn’t complain, either. They were just happy to see their favorite swordplay stars up in the screen.
Very few of these programmers survived. Matsunosuke Onoe, the first Japanese cinema star, starred in more than 1000 films, but only two or three of them survived.
I wonder how the later silent films, such as Ozu’s seminal works in thirties, were screened. Ozu’s films were considered exceptional even at the time of their release, so I doubt they were treated in the similar fashion as those forgotten films of the early era.
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