by Chris MaGee
In October I ran the first part of my exploration of the early history of Japanese cinema. I say "exploration" because, as I've said before, I don't think of myself as an expert or special authority on Japanese cinema, just a fan who's learns and explores in public here on the Pow-Wow blog. I've been meaning to pick up the story after that fateful day in November of 1896 when Thomas Edison's Kinetoscope was put on display in Kobe for quite some time now, so after a long wait here is the next installment of the history of those early days of motion pictures in Japan.
After Meiji Era Kobe literally got a peek at Edison’s new technological wonder it would be take another year for Katsutaro Inabata, the founder of the Inabata Dyestuffs Store in Kyoto, to bring a competing motion picture machine from France to Japan.
Inabata, whose statue (above right) stands outside Osaka’s Chamber of Commerce, had in his youth studied muslin weaving and spinning at the La Martiniere Lyon and become friends with a fellow student named Auguste Lumière, the son of a photographer. It was after Auguste and his brother Louis’ father retired in 1892 that the two brothers inherited his photographic studio and began experimenting with motion picture photography. Three years of trial and error followed, but by 1895 the two had patented the Lumière Cinématographe, a motion picture device that functioned both as a camera and as a projector. The Lumière Brothers demonstrated their new invention to Auguste’s old friend Inabata who at that time frequented France on buying trips for his dye shop. He was immediately impressed and as he later wrote in a letter to a friend, “I believed that this would be the most appropriate device for introducing contemporary Western culture to our country, and so I asked [Lumière] for a monopoly right in Japan, and came back with one engineer and a few pieces of equipment.”
Those “few pieces of equipment” were two Cinématographes and 55 prints of Lumière & Co. films. The engineer who accompanied the spinning and dye shop owner back to Kyoto was Constant Girel. It was Girel who assisted Inabata in mounting the first motion picture screening in Japan at Osaka’s Nanchi Embujo Theater on February 15, 1897. It’s important to stress screening here as Edison ’s Kinetascope functioned more like a large View Master through which only one person could view a film at a time. The Lumière’s Cinématographe projected its image onto a white screen, so that a group of people could share in the experience, and of course Inabata the businessman made the decision to sell tickets. Maybe it was this difference in how the Kinetascope and the Cinématographe functioned that has lead to the debate that goes on to this day as to when the first motion picture was seen in Japan .
Regardless of whether this was the first or second exhibition of motion picture technology (I tend to think of it as the second) it was still a huge breakthrough for cinema in Japan . Using his Cinématographes Inabata (with the help of Girel) went on to film the first motion picture footage in Japanese history, but in the end he had much grander business plans. Selling the screening rights and his Cinématographes to Einosuke Yokota, an importer-exporter from Kobe, Inabata left cinema behind and expanded his spinning and dye business into one of the largest corporations in Japan, Inabata & Co. that still exists today and produces everything from plastics to IT technology and even food.
As for how Einosuke Yokota used his newly acquired Cinématographes… Well, that’ll be outlined in the next installment of the early history of Japanese cinema.
Thanks to CMN and Victorian-Cinema.net for background information on this.