Listen Up

Nick Pinkerton on “Japan Speaks Out! Early Japanese Talkies” at MoMA

Hiroshi Shimizu, A Woman Crying in Spring, 1933, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 96 minutes. Den Obinata and
Sachiko Murase.

JAPAN CAME LATE to sound movies—it was, in the course of the twentieth century, one of the only times that the Japanese came late to anything that had to do with technology. While synchronized dialogue conquered the various Western cinemas with blitzkrieg speed after 1927, the conversion of the Japanese lingered on for well over a decade afterwards.

This “delay” didn’t come because the Japanese were waiting on the equipment to arrive. The first Japanese sound-on-film production made in Japan is often identified as a long-disappeared 1926 production called Remai (Dawn) by theater director Osanai Kaoru. It was believed to have been made using the De Forest Phonofilm process, the invention of Americans Theodore Case and Lee de Forest. A tribute to De Forest even appears preceding the print of Kenji Mizoguchi’s Home Town (1930) which kicks off the Museum of Modern Art’s series “Japan Speaks Out! Early Japanese Talkies”—a program offering proof that the abundant genius of the Japanese moviemaking system responded eagerly to the new possibilities of sound cinema whenever available.

Before talkies could become standardized, the companies that pioneered sound cinema in Japan, including Showa Kinema, Shochiku, Nikkatsu, and newcomers J.O. Studios, and Photo Chemical Laboratory (P.C.L.—they would merge with J.O., and eventually become Toho Studios), first had to break the organized benshi—live performers who animatedly narrated, acted out, and provided dialogue accompaniment for silent films from one side of the screen, many of whom were celebrities in their own right. As the 1930s moved on, synch sound movies gradually acquired a larger and larger share of the market—a process attested to by Movie Making in Japan: A Screen Snap-Shot, a 1934 short subject made at the behest of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences which pays a visit to the J.O. Studios in Kyoto, “the Hollywood of Japan,” and boasts of all the modern conveniences available to the booming industry. (It also, for the sake of novelty, includes a passage from the 1933 RKO film Flying Devils dubbed into Japanese.)

An instance of benshi narration can be heard providing the soundtrack to Hiroshi Shimizu’s Shining Love (1931), a Goofus and Gallant story made by Shochiku for the Ministry of Education, which counterpoises the lives of a hardworking bucket-maker’s son and his snobbish friend from their grade school days to young adulthood, as they bypass one another while heading opposite directions on the ladder of success. This is not the only instance of the transition from silent to talkie rendering somewhat awkward results. Home Town, which features Japanese opera star Yoshie Fujiwara as a tenor who achieves fame in no small part thanks to the selfless love of a lower-class woman, is a hybrid silent/talkie, changing from synch-sound to intertitles from scene to scene, usually with a noticeable reduction in the mobility of the camera between the boldly stylized silent and comparatively sedate synch sequences.

While Home Town makes poignant use of the title track, it is not Japan’s premiere musical—that distinction belongs to Sotoji Kimura’s Tipsy Life (1933). The first P.C.L. film made entirely using their own facilities, Tipsy Life’s opening credits are overlaid onto boastful views of the company’s sound studio, exemplifying the Shōwa period's entrepreneurial, commercial spirit, which the film celebrates. A train station ice cream vendor, Tokukichi (Kamatari Fujiwara), courts a young woman, Emiko (Sachiko Chiba) who works at the same station selling cups of beer to salarymen, though unbeknownst to him, he has competition in the form of an aspiring songwriter, Asao (Heihachirô Ôkawa), who takes her for a wife after he writes a massive hit. Like Home Town, Tipsy Life is fascinated with the new mechanisms of mass culture, especially radio and all forms of advertising—in fact, the production was financed by Dai-Nippon Beer Company, whose Yebisu brew Emiko sells from the train platform. If we are parsing Tipsy Life for what it says about the culture that produced it, we might also take note of the fact that it ends with a sing-along in a Teutonic beer hall, replete with a verse sung in German, this some years before the German-Japanese Anti-Comintern Pact.

Along with Mizoguchi’s Home Town, other works by name-brand directors are represented here—Yasujiro Ozu’s The Only Son (1936), and Mikio Naruse’s Five Men in the Circus, and Wife Be Like a Rose (both 1935), the latter, with rising P.C.L. starlet Sachiko Chiba, among the very first of Japanese films to be widely screened in the West. Those interested in what MoMA has been calling “Acteurism”—that is, film authorship by actors—can catch sight Mizoguchi’s frequent collaborator Kinuyo Tanaka in early performances like The Bride Talks in Her Sleep (1933—paired with a pseudo-sequel, also by Heinosuke Gosho, 1935’s The Groom Talks in His Sleep) and Teinosuke Kinugasa’s audaciously-stylized Chushingura (1932), the first sound version of the story of The Forty-Seven Ronin, most famously filmed in 1941 by Mizoguchi, at the behest of the Japanese military. Of the major postwar directors, only Akira Kurosawa didn’t make the transition from the silents—he began his career in movies by serving an apprenticeship with P.C.L. which began in 1936, a few short years after his brother, Heigo, a newly out-of-work benshi, committed suicide.

Retrospectives of major auteurs can be counted on to come around again as long as some semblance of a film culture exists, so the viewer with limited time on their hands should direct themselves to some revelatory works in the series by directors less well-known in America. A Woman Crying in Spring (1933) is a far more sophisticated and affecting accomplishment from Shining Love director Shimizu, set in snow-blown Hokkaido, where it was partially shot on location. Shimizu’s film looks at the entangled affairs of the itinerant men brought to this country to work in the mines, and the itinerant women who follow along to play bar hostess and work the workers. Its considerable emotional power is augmented by the ingenious use of the soundtrack; in this underpopulated back-end-of-nowhere, romance is a spectator sport, and eavesdropped-on voices provide a chorus to the affairs of the heart. Shimizu’s habit of obscuring crucial action to let audio tell the story recalls his American contemporary William Wellman, while from the very beginning folk song sing-alongs play a prominent role in A Woman Crying…, several songs echoing throughout the film, assuming a new and deeper meaning with each repetition. Yasujiro Shimazu’s shomin-geki (lower middle-class drama) Our Neighbor, Miss Yae (1934), also made for Shochiku, is another clear stand-out, the story of two neighboring families—two young brothers on one side, two young sisters on another—so closely connected as to practically be conjoined, a simple, homely story filled with casual, naturalistic performances, with every emotional beat invested with fine-grain detail. (Though the coming of sound, replacing the easily translated silent, effectively toppled Babel, import-export flow wasn’t entirely halted—one of the film’s stars is flattered by being compared to Frederic March, and the kids watch a Max Fleischer cartoon on an urban outing.)

Both Shimizu and Shimazu’s films played at last year’s edition of the Il Cinema Ritrovato festival in Bologna, which has hosted a sidebar program called “Japan Speaks Out!” for the last three years—MoMA’s series draws from these programs, and is dedicated to the memory of Il Cinema Ritrovato director Peter von Bagh, who died last year. It is nothing less than a major work of reclamation, offering new access to a lesser-known period in one of the greatest of all national film traditions—Japanese cinema was slow to speak, but what came out is well worth pricking up your ears for.

“Japan Speaks Out! Early Japanese Talkies” runs through May 20 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.