CMN! no.1 (1996 Autumn)

A History of Early Cinema in Kyoto, Japan

Cinematographe and Inabata Katsutaro


Japanese is here

Inabata Katsutaro

Ā@After the successful public presentation of the Cinématographe, in the following year of 1896 Auguste Lumiére showed his epoch-making invention to a former fellow student at a polytechnic school in Lyon, whom he had studied with in 1878. His name was Inabata Katsutaro, from Kyoto, Japan. Inabata had been sent to France by a spinning company based in Kyoto. He felt something more than commercial interest in this new optical equipment. Inabata decided to make a large investment in bringing the Cinématographe to Japan, and bought two of them, some films, and performing rights from Lumiér e & Co. He came back to Japan in 1897 accompanied by Constant Girel, a projectionist and photographic engineer employed by Lumiére & Co.

Ā@ "... I believed that this would be the most appropriate device for introducing contemporary Western culture to our country, and so I asked the doctor for a monopoly right in Japan, and came back with one engineer and a few pieces of equipment. " (A letter from Inabata to Tanaka Jun-ichiro, Dec. 27, 1924)


Ā@On arriving in Japan at the port of Kobe, Inabata immediately began to experiment with the equipment. However it was a period with no facilities or even knowledge of projection. Electric power had just begun to be used in Japan (Kyoto was one of the cities in Japan where wiring was done relatively early), and numerous difficulties had to be overcome. A transformer was devised with assistance from Mr Hasegawa, an engineer at Kyoto Dento Kabushiki Gaisha Company, and the Shimadzu Corporation. The experiment is said to have lasted for a week towards the end of snowy January, at a site somewhere in the property of the Kyoto Dento Kabushiki Gaisha.

First ticket of Cinematograph in Japan

Ā@The conventional account of cinema history holds that after the successful initial experiments with projection, Inabata, together with Miki Fukusuke and Okuda Benjiro, held the first paid exhibition of what was then called "jido shashin" (moving pictures) at the Nanchi Embujo Theater in Osaka on February 15, 1897. This date marks the birth of cinema in Japan. According to this view, if world cinema was born when Lumiére first introduc ed the Cinématographe to a paying public, then cinema in Japan also began wi th the first introduction of the Cinématographe to the general public. Howev er, just as preferences of films differ according to the individual, views about when cinema began in Japan also differ individually, if we regard the matter more closely. For example, even before the arrival of the Cinématogr aphe, Edison's Kinetoscope had already come to Japan. Since this was a motion picture viewing device for individual use through a peep-hole, it falls short of being called cinema, if by "cinema" we mean the current experience of a number of people sharing the same moving pictures on a screen. Nonetheless there are some who hold that the history of Japanese cinema began with Edison's Kinetoscope and its first exhibition at the Kobe Shinkou Club on November 25, 1896. Kobe's designation, in 1963, of December 1 as "Cinema Day", in commemoration of this event, is testament to the strong feeling Kobe people may have in this matter.
Ā@In any event, there is no question that the first film businessman was Inabata Katsutaro. However, as a young elite in the spinning industry, he did not regard his cinema enterprise as his main work and was confronted by numerous obstacles. Eventually he handed over all the performing rights, equipment and films to the Yokota brothers, Masunosuke and Einosuke. Yokota Masunosuke and Inabata had been students together in France. Masunosuke soon left the business but his brother Einosuke remained and was to rule the Japanese cinema world for a some time to come.

Early film in Kyoto by Girel(1897)

Ā@Inabata was also the first man to be involved in the shooting of films. Girel, whom he brought from France, played a very active role. At the Lumiéres' request, he took numerous shots of Japanese scenery and everyd ay life. The first man to record Japan on films has been accused in many books of being a failure as an technican, and that most of the footage he shot was poor. However, thanks to research by the culture section of Yomiuri Shinbun, it has been confirmed that his shots were in fact quite good. For example, films showing the Inabata family at the dinner table and Ainus in Hokkaido had been considered the works of Gabriel Veyre, a Lumiére cameraman, but it was discovered some hundred years after the fact, that they were actually Girel's.

Ā@Yokota Einosuke, who inherited the performing rights of the Cinématogra phe from Inabata Katsutaro, formed with his relatives approximately ten teams consisting each of ten or so members, and set them on nation-wide tours. These tours started in Asakusa and from there went to Hokkaido, Tohoku, Hokuriku, and so on, almost without a break. At the beginning, Yokota imported the newest films from the Lumiére & Co. and the Pathe Co., b ut in 1901 set up Yokota Brothers & Co. (later to become Yokota & Co.) and gradually began to produce documentary films depicting the Russo-Japanese War and other original films.

Ā@In 1907 a meeting took place that was to determine the direction of Japanese cinema. Yokota discovered a young theater director of the Senbon-za Theatre, Makino Shozo, and entrusted him with film making. The first product, Honnohji-Kassen, was released for public viewing, and film production in Kyoto started on a full scale. In 1907, Onoe Matunosuke, who had been invited by Makino to act, made his debut in Goban Tadanobu, Genji-no-Ishidue, and created the nation-wide "Big-eyed Matchan" sensation. Thus was founded the Japanese star system. Onoe played every role imaginable in ninja, kodan, kabuki, and rokyoku movies. Thanks also to special effects techniques devised by Makino (such as a sudden disappearance from the screen), Onoe enjoyed long-lasting stardom.

Makino Shozo

Matsunosuke's "Chusin-gura" (1921)

Ā@In 1910, a simple studio ("Nijo Castle Studio") was set up on borrowed land facing the south-west corner of Nijo Castle. Studio shooting began to be used in addition to shooting on location, the first product being Chushingura. It is not clear how often this studio was used before it was closed two years later. Nonethess it has the historical significance of being the first studio in Kyoto (and the second studio in Japan after Yoshizawa & Co.'s Meguro Studio Tokyo). A new studio was constructed on a borrowed land at Ichi-jo doori, Tenjin-suji in 1912. It was known as "Yokota & Co. Hokke-do Studio". In the first year of Taisho era, four big companies in the film industry, Yoshizawa &Co, M-Pathe, Hukuhou-do and Yokota & Co. merged, and Nihon Katsudo Film, Inc., commonly known as Nikkatsu, was born. Though leading figures of the business world initially entered their names on the board of directors, they were shocked by the practices of the entertainment world and later withdrew them. Yokota soon came to hold real power over the company.

Onoe Matsunosuke

Ā@Hokke-do Studio turned into Nikkatsu Kansai Studio, and the mass-production of Matsunosuke films continued in Kyoto. Actors performed as if they were on stage, and they were shot by fixed cameras. There were no scripts. Actors changed their costumes, and shot a different film at the same location. It was in this manner that more than incredible 400 Matsunosuke movies were made before the studio was closed six years later. At its peak, the studio supplied as many as nine films a month.