JAPANESE FILM BLOGATHON: A History of Japan's First Movie Theatre
This week the Japanese film blogging community headed up by our friends at Wildgrounds will be celebrating across borders and boundaries with the 2nd annual Japanese Film Blogathon. For our first contribution to this event Chris MaGee weighs in with the story of the very first permanent movie theatre in Japanese motion picture history - The Denkikan.
The Denkikan: Japanese cinema's "electric pavillion"
by Chris MaGee
Motion picture technology first arrived in Japan in Kobe in 1896 with an exhibition on November 25th at the Kobe Shinkou Club of Thomas Edison's kinetoscope, a device that would allow a single viewer to peek into a wooden box that contained moving photographic images. The next year in 1897 at the Nanchi Embujo Theater in Osaka Katsutaro Inabata, the head of a Kyoto spinning and textile company, brought another motion picture technology to Japan. This was the Cinematograph invented in France by brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière, and unlike Edison's kinetascope this technological wonder allowed an entire of audience to view motion pictures (or as they were known in Japan katsudō-shashin, or "moving pictures”) that were projected onto a screen. It was the beginning of film history in Japan, but despite an enthusiastic reception by both upper and lower class Japanese it took two more years for the very first indigenous Japanese film to be shot - "Momijigari (Maple-Viewing) filmed by cameraman Tsunekichi Shibata and starring kabuki actors Danjuro Ichikawa and Kikugoro Onoe. In the spring of the following year import company Yoshizawa Shoten began to distribute the first domestically produced motion picture cameras in Japan. Many of these cameras would be used to shoot films that were showcased in one-off events held at kabuki theatres like Tokyo's Kabuki-za Theater in the Ginza. Also short film clips were screened as part of live theatrical performances in what the Japanese called rensgeki, "joined drama". The closest permanent home for motion pictures in at the beginning of the 20th-century were in tents set up in the Asakusa Rokku district of Tokyo.
Think of an amusement park and red light district rolled into one - that is what the Asakusa Rokku district (above) was like in the early 1900's. 60-years before, when Japan was still closed to the rest of the world and ruled by the Tokugawa Shogunate, kabuki troupes had been exiled to the then remote sixth district of the Asakusa Ward as a way to isolate their subversive influence. Unlike today, kabuki theatre was originally thought of as a hotbed of criminality and prostitution; two things that the ruling Shogunate wanted to keep away from the respectable citizens of old Edo. As Edo transformed into Tokyo and the 19th-century gave way to the 20th Asakusa Rokku became a place where the theatrical arts thrived and the latest technological gadgets and amusements were exhibited to awe-inspired crowds. Theatre plus gadgetry? It was a ripe location for the early days of Japanese cinema. The owners of Yoshizawa Shoten knew this, and they knew that they could make more money with the films shot on their cameras in a permanent brick and mortar building rather than a series of small tents. That why in 1903 Yoshizawa Shoten purchased a large exhibition hall in Asakusa Rokku that had originally been used as a showplace for scientific oddities, including experiments in electricity and the other newly invented photographic amazement - x-ray technology. But in October of that year that Yoshizawa Shoten opened The Denkikan, "the electric pavillion", the very first permanent movie house in Japanese history.
Originally located at what is now Tokyo , Taito-ku Asakusa 1-chome, No. 42 No. 4 the Denkikan was a truly majestic-looking structure. Two storeys with a Romanesque facade, banners and and hand-painted murals featuring scenes from popular films the Denkikan fit right in with Asakusa Rokku's festive atmosphere. For only 3 sen (roughly 3 cents) curious Japanese could come in and view the latest motion pictures not only produced in Japan, but films imported from abroad. Many of the films, shot with Cinematographe technology were only roughly a minute in length.These everyday scenes shot in Japan and abroad would be looped and compiled into series of vignettes. Yoshizawa Shoten, which would eventually go from importer and manufacturer to being a fully-fledged movie studio, also ran newsreels shot at the front of Japan's war with Russia. Besides these early shorts international films with longer running times became hits at the Denkikan. These included Georges Méliès pioneering 1902 science fiction adventure "Le voyage dans la lune" and Enrico Guazzoni's 1912 historical epic "Marc Antonio e Cleopatra" (above left). Japanese hits would include the now lost film "Kami katana ryuu kenbu jutsu kankou" or "God Swords sword dancing art", a demonstration of sword-fighting expertise by Hibino Raifu (above right), the founder of the Shinto Ryu School of swordsmanship. The Denkikan also produced early chirashi style news updates (below) that were distributed to the public to make them aware of upcoming screenings.
The movie-going experience was very different than what audiences are used to toady though. While the films themselves were silent they were accompanied in Japan not only by live music but the narration of the benshi. Benshi were often men, sometimes women, who followed in the tradition of the sung and chanted gidayu choruses of Kabuki theatre. It was the benshi's job top dramatically to dramatically read the inter-titles that appeared onscreen as well as to expand upon the narrative, giving social context, adding humour, and for the international films, giving informed interpretations of the wider world that was flashing on the screen in front of the audience. Many of these benshi became as popular as the films themselves and the Denkikan's in-house benshi Saburo Somei became so famous that phonograph records of his narrations were released to the public. Yoshizawa Shoten actually set the screen at the Denkikan near to the main entrance so that those passing on the street would be drawn in by Somei's lively performance. Another way that the Denkikan differed greatly from today's movie theatres was how its management set up precautions to make sure the enjoyment of moption pictures was the only activity in the building. The unsavory reputation of that originally plagued the world of kabuki theatre seeped into the early days of cinema in Japan. The idea of having men and women crammed side by side into darkened rooms proved to scandalous to turn of the century Japanese, so the very first screenings at the Denkikan were held with the houselights semi-illuminating a segregated hall. Women and children were seated safely on one side of the theatre away from the men and the usherettes were forced to wear underwear under their kimono lest they become the victim of, or they themselves possessed of, unhealthy desires in the darkened movie house.
The Denkikan went through many changes during its 73-year history. Come the first year of the Taisho Era, 1912, Yoshizawa Shoten amalgamated with three other motion picture studios to create a brand new super studio - Nippon Katsudo Shashin Kabushiki Kaisha - which would eventually be shortened to Nikkatsu. The Denkikan would then be able to screen the films of Japanese cinema history's first director, Shozo Makino, many of which starred the first screen superstar Matsunosuke Onoe. The success of the Denkikan would eventually spawn other dedicated movie theatres across Japan, and in a bid to exploit the popularity of the very first movie theatre they many of them would take the name "Denkikan". Not even the Great Kanto Earthquake could end the reign of the Denkikan, even though after this tragedy Asakusa Rokku would become home to more and more seedy strip tease shows and less and less legitimate theatres. 1931 saw Shochiku take over management of the Denkikan and the studio operated the theatre up until 1976 when it was finally closed. For a time the building that once birthed the Japanese commercial movie industry became a flea market, then eventually it was zoned for office space. Now the only way that Tokyoites and tourists can experience that grandeur that was the Denkikan is in a to-scale diorama of the building (top) on display at the Edo-Tokyo Museum. Thankfully the movie industry that the Denkikan played a role in creating has managed to survive to this very day.
For additional information on the Denkikan and the early days of the Japanese film industry make sure to check out this excellent keynote speech given by Prof. Roland Domenig at the Tokyo-Edo Radio Project Symposium 2010, this short essay by Prof. Aaron Gerow, and this article by Akihiro Toki and Kaoru Mizuguchi.