Wednesday, November 12, 2014

To Be Continued: The Second Life of Japan's Silent Films

A scene from Kinugasa's hallucinatory masterpiece Crossroads, one of the few existing films from Japan's silent era.  

It’s often said that the classics will never be forgotten. Be it literature, art, or more recently, film, museums and archives exist to preserve these treasures for future generations to appreciate.

For Japan’s silent films of the early 20th century, it’s not quite that simple.

According to Midnight Eye, there are only about 70 pre-1930 Japanese films in the National Film Center’s database – a mere fraction of the estimated 7,000 produced in the 1920s alone.

Many factors contributed to this incredible loss, the earliest being the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1926. The quake measured 8.2 on the Richter scale and was responsible for massive fires that destroyed thousands of buildings, leaving 60 percent of Tokyo’s population homeless and killing nearly 130,000 people. Additionally, many films were destroyed in bombings during World War II, and still others were banned and later burned in accordance with censors put into place under the Allied occupation of Japan.

Another major problem can be attributed to the type of film stock used for these movies – nitrate film. The primary media used in motion pictures until 1951, nitrate film had two major drawbacks. First, it was highly flammable and could produce fires that could burn even while immersed in water. This led to many vault fires, in which studios lost most, if not all, of their film prints.

Second, nitrate film decays over time into a powder, a process that can be slowed greatly by proper storage. However, this was not known at the time, leading to less-than-ideal storage conditions which only accelerated decay.

Because nitrate film was a worldwide standard, Japan was not the only country affected. Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation estimates that over 90 percent of American films made before 1929 have been lost to history. Many of these films’ titles are unknown, making the growing list of lost films far from complete.

Not all lost films stay lost forever, though. Prominent silent-film director Teinosuke Kinugasa’s avant-garde masterpiece A Page of Madness was believed to be lost for 45 years before Kinugasa found the film in his shed in 1971. The critically-acclaimed film was not commercially successful immediately following its 1926 release, but now enjoys regular international appearances at film festivals across the globe.

Kinugasa was active for over 46 years, directing more than a hundred movies, very few of which exist today. His 1928 silent film Crossroads will be shown this Saturday with live music accompaniment by avant-garde shamisen master Yumiko Tanaka, as part of Japan Society’s film series The Dark Side of the Sun: John Zorn on Japanese Cinema.

Though impossible to ignore in their day, silent films have been, for the most part, left behind by modern Japanese society. Much like their American equivalents, they are occasionally televised, but remain largely unknown outside of film circles. When one of these films is found, it brings some much-needed attention to the genre, getting some press, recognition, and perhaps even a few new fans.

These recovered films’ lifespans will likely increase significantly thanks to improved methods of film preservation, such as copying films on nitrate to more secure media to ensure their futures.

For the rest of the films, though, it’s a constant struggle for survival, as the endless search for these lost treasures continues.

--Mark Gallucci

A sample of Yumiko Tanaka improvising to scenes from Crossroads (scene starts at 0:22).