July 1, 2013

Silent Japan I: The One Per-Cent

Tokyo Chorus (1931, d. Yasujiro Ozu)
I have decided to watch some Japanese silent films. Exploring the earliest motion pictures of any country is relatively difficult. They were printed using nitrate-based film stock, which was not only highly perishable but also highly flammable – so much so that an old nitrate film sealed in a canister for long enough can, at sufficient temperatures, spontaneously and explosively combust. Being a projectionist used to be a considerably more dangerous job than it is today.

The generally received wisdom is that approximately 75 per cent of all silent films produced in the early decades of cinema have been lost forever. There are two primary reasons for this. The first is simply the perishable nature of nitrate film and the age of the motion pictures in question. The second is lack of care, plain and simple, combined with a general failure to appreciate the value of those early films.

In Japan, however, this problem is severely exacerbated. There are still the issues of age and carelessness. Then there is the humidity of Japan, much higher than in other early filmmaking nations such as the USA, France, Germany or the United Kingdom. High humidity makes the issue of aging and degrading film significantly more severe. Add to that a devastating Great Kanto earthquake of 1923 – still the deadliest earthquake in Japan’s long history – which is credited with destroying a vast number of original film prints as part of the broader devastation. By the end of World War II the city of Tokyo, the site for all of Japan’s major film corporations, had been levelled by American fire-bombing campaigns. Finally in the post-war occupation by American soldiers, any Japanese films deemed to represent any one of 13 banned subjects (particularly those including concepts of feudal loyalty) were destroyed as part of a broad strategy to break the nation’s feudal system and mindset.

From the late 1890s to the early 1930s, it is believed that approximately 7,000 Japanese silent films were produced. As of the early 21st century, there are around 70 extant films left – a proportion of just one per cent.

Pickings, therefore, are rather slim for the 21st century viewer. The more patriotic or classical the silent film, the less chance there is that it will have survived. The older the silent film, the less chance there is that it will have survived. I shall, however, watch what I can, and report back on what I find.

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