Friday, October 17, 2008

The Early History of Japanese Cinema Part 1: The first motion pictures, Kobe, 1896

by Chris MaGee

I’ve wanted to tackle the subject of the very beginning of cinema in Japan for awhile, but I wasn’t quite sure how to approach it. It could get pretty lengthy, so I debated whether it should even get posted here on the blog. Then again it’s a subject that excites me and sharing my excitement about Japanese film is what The Pow-Wow is all about, so I thought we’d go at the early history of cinema in Japan in manageable chunks. What better place to start then at the beginning: the very first screening of a “jido shashin” or moving picture in Japan.

In 1896 Japan was a country hungry for the new. Just three decades had passed since Admiral Perry's black ships had arrived ending 260 years of isolation under the Tokugawa Shogunate and the then current Emperor Meiji had implemented radical reforms (rule shifted from the shogun to the emperor and the samurai were banned) and Western technology and infrastructures were being adopted (railroads, postal system, gas and electricity, etc.)

The port city of Kobe played an important role in this modernization of Japan. It had been one of the first ports to open to foreign trade and it was in Kobe that the first beef and cattle were imported and games like soccer were first played by its citizens. Kobe was also where a strange new device from America was first seen by the Japanese. A pine box about waist height it was fixed with a viewing goggle on its top. This new device, the Kinetoscope (above) developed by American business man and inventor Thomas Edison was imported into Japan and first showcased on November 25th, 1896 at the Shinkou Club in Kobe, and through the viewing goggles the Japanese saw marvelous things: dancing girls, strong men, boxing matches and more. It is unclear what the exact films shown on that day were, but they were most likely the films that Edison shot with the help of his colleagues Laurie Dickson and Edmund Kuhn in and around his famed Black Mariah tar paper-covered studio in West Orange, New Jersey. You can some of those very same films below, including a group of Japanese dancers filmed by Edison in 1894.

Suffice to say that like so many people around the world the Japanese were immediately taken with this new wonder and in the next few years the first seeds of a domestic film industry in Japan would be planted... but more on that in a future installment.



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