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Exploring Prewar Japanese Film Periodicals in the B-Collection

(The following is a post by Quade Robinson, Junior Fellow, Asian Division, Summer 2020.)

This summer I had the opportunity to work in the Asian Division on the Prewar and Occupation Period Japanese Serials project. This project, begun in 2018, aims to inventory the roughly 3,800 serial titles in the “B-collection,” which contains most of the division’s historical Japanese periodicals. Interested readers can learn about this project from a previous Junior Fellow’s blog post, “Mapping Imperial Japanese History through the B-Collection.”

When the COVID-19 pandemic made onsite inventory work on the collection untenable, my participation in the project shifted toward a complementary goal: to highlight these unique materials by identifying and describing geographic and thematic groupings among the diverse titles, which will be published online in a forthcoming research guide.

One interesting subset of this collection is the assortment of magazines related to the burgeoning film industry. The emergence of cinema in Japan gave rise to film criticism and film studies, propagated by popular magazines like “Eiga Asahi” (“Asahi Films”), which combined in-depth analysis with articles that appealed to popular sentiment. These periodicals contain reviews of popular films, critiques of film as a medium by literary figures and scholars, and gossip columns, mixing public taste with refined sensibility.

The cover of the April 1939 issue of “Eiga Asahi” features a white actress in Western dress. “Eiga Asahi” was published by the Asahi Shimbun Company, which likely accounts for the high quality of its cover artwork and materials. “Eiga Asahi,” Asian Division.

The film industry began to take off in Japan almost immediately after the invention of motion picture technology in the late 19th century. A number of terms emerged to refer to this new medium. In addition to loan words from French and German like shinema or kinema, one early approximation was gentō 幻灯, the Japanese word for the image projector technology known internationally as the “magic lantern.” Later, the neologism katsudō shashin 活動写真, a literal translation of “motion picture,” came into use and remained common into the 1930s. Eventually, though, it gave way to eiga 映画 (“reflected image”), which is now the standard term for “film” or “movie.”

In light of the success and interest in films imported from abroad, aspiring Japanese filmmakers sought to develop their own unique style and looked to Japanese dramatic forms for inspiration. Some early Japanese films thus reflect influence from traditional theater like Noh and Kabuki. As Japanese films grew in popularity alongside foreign imports, special interest periodicals emerged that covered both types of films, their performers, as well as developments in film technology.

The film periodicals from the 1920s to the 1940s found in the B-collection reveal a mix of article types, from movie reviews to updates on international film development in China, Europe and especially the United States. During this period, some Japanese publications rendered the word Hollywood in Chinese characters as 聖林, literally meaning “holy woods” and perhaps a somewhat accurate characterization of the allure many felt for the origin of American films. The larger-than-life effect of the movies and their stars mixed with the sense of mystery that permeated Japanese views of America. This may partially explain how American films, stars, and companies became a benchmark for Japan’s home industry.

Covers of the August 1930 (left) and April 1931 (right) issues of “Shinema ōkoku.” Featured on the cover of the April 1931 issue are Buster Keaton and Sally Eilers, stars of the 1930 American film “Doughboys.” From “Shinema ōkoku,” Asian Division.

One example of this preoccupation with the American film industry can be found in an article titled “Hokkaido ni okeru eiga hattasushi” (“A History of Film Industry Development in Hokkaido”) from the April 1931 issue of “Shinema ōkoku” シネマ王国 (“Cinema Kingdom”). The article’s author, Oki Kurumi 大木来実, used economic and statistical data to argue that Hokkaido’s untapped local resources made it a natural place for capitalist expansion. He noted how the film industry seemed naturally recession proof, and how Japan’s national film industry had grown to compete with America’s. The author used direct comparisons with foreign filmmaking to suggest ways Japan could compete in economic and cultural spheres. In terms of style, he argued the rural location would be important for making use of the montage technique in film, drawing attention to the popularity of its use in Soviet filmmaking by director and film theorist Sergei Eisenstein (1898–1948). Even project sites became areas of international competition, suggestive of how Japan was attempting to catch up to and outperform the Western world culturally and economically.

An excerpt from an article on the film scene in China focusing on popular actresses from mainland China and Hong Kong. The right side of the page features an advertisement for sulfonamide-based medicine and medical treatments. From “Eiga Asahi,” October 1940, Asian Division.

In addition to high-brow critique, “Shinema ōkoku” also featured columns much narrower in scope, such as those relating to celebrity gossip. The article “Eiga sutā hakyō no nageki” (“Grief in Movie Star Break-ups”), from the August 1930 issue, focuses on the romantic relationships of leading contemporary American silent film actresses, such as Helene Costello and Jacqueline Logan. The article, attributed to Tokiume Fujiwara 藤原時梅, consists of personal interviews with American actresses, which were likely not gathered firsthand but rather summarized and translated from foreign magazines. The article argues that, despite their success and the idyllic lives they portray in film, these actresses’ own personal relationships tended to fail. With extensive quotes from the actresses themselves, it suggests their collective poor luck in love may be rooted in the movie star lifestyle. Although the tone of articles like this one, which focuses on these famous actresses in terms of their relationships with men, may feel dated to modern readers, it is surprising how often the content of magazines from this period still resonate with current issues in the contemporary film industry. This article in particular is prescient in forecasting the instability that characterizes publicized relationships, as well as the public interest in the personal lives of famous individuals.

The cover and table of contents for the second issue of “Eiga tenbō,” produced by students in the film club at Yokohama College. From “Eiga tenbō,” 1938, Asian Division.

Debates over changes in film technologies are also reflected in the pages of these magazines. An article attributed to Minoru Mihara 三原実 titled “Koe to oto” 声と音 (“Voice and Sound”) that appeared in the October 1938 issue of “Eiga tenbō” 映画展望 (“Film Outlook”) questions the dominance of “talkies” and reflects upon the fact that the silent film style has been all but replaced. “Eiga tenbō” was published by a film studies club at Yokohama College, the forerunner of contemporary Kanagawa University. The thinly drawn characters and lack of uniform script indicate that the original was written by hand and reproduced by a low-cost copying technique like mimeograph or spirit duplication. The article specifically points to the shift from silent to voiced production, but technological changes including the evolution from black and white to color and the emergence of subtitled foreign films also caused concern amongst the film-going community.

 The cover of the May 1933 issue of “Silver.” As in “Eiga tenbō,” the handwritten quality of the script and lower-quality paper attest to its origins as a do-it-yourself endeavor. In fact, it was published by students in the film club at Yokohama Commercial High School (which later evolved into Yokohama City University). “Silver,” Asian Division.

Although we can look back and see these technological improvements as a linear development, to those experiencing it firsthand the same “improvements” were likely met with discomfort, apprehension, or even concern that their jobs became obsolete. One such occupation was that of the katsudō benshi 活動弁士, often simply called the benshi, who introduced, narrated, and translated silent films. Their presence and performance could alter the experience of watching a film and were sometimes considered more entertaining than the film itself. The popularity of the benshi peaked in the 1920s and 1930s but soon declined as their roles in narrating and translating films became incorporated into the film itself through sound and subtitles. They found their niche jobs automated and replaced as a result of rapidly shifting technological improvements.

The cover of the December 1939 issue of “Eiga Asahi,” which features Uno Kōji’s review of the film adaptation of “Tsuchi to heitai” (“Mud and Soldiers”). From “Eiga Asahi,” Asian Division.

As films became more popular, consumers faced an increasing amount of choice in what movies to spend their time and money on. Tapping into the consumer desire for more objective and professional information about films, magazines began publishing film reviews. This gave rise to film criticism in Japan, and writers of different backgrounds tried their hand at the new genre. One example is Uno Kōji 宇野浩二 (1891-1961), who brought his experience as a novelist to bear on a review of director Tasaka Tomotaka’s 田坂具隆 (1902-1974) adaption of “Tsuchi to heitai“ 土と兵隊 (“Mud and Soldiers,” a bestselling war novel by Ashihei Hino 火野葦平 (1907-1960), in the December 1939 issue of “Eiga Asahi.” Uno almost immediately admitted that, perhaps due to his literary sensibilities, he had found most Japanese films boring, but he conceded that “Tsuchi to heitai” had stuck in his mind, writing a balanced and fair assessment of the film as an artistic piece. He praised the soundscape of the film, as well as its cinematographic prowess, as if the film had been able to open his eyes to the possibility of filmmaking as a unique medium. At the same time, he criticized elements of the movie, such as its length and unrealistic dialogue, before finally settling on it begin close to, but not quite, a masterpiece.

As these brief examples suggest, the historical periodicals found in the B-collection offer a rich trove of material for conducting research not just on film but on numerous other topics in prewar Japanese history. I hope others will continue to identify and present the many stories contained within the B-collection, chronicling such topics as community formation, mainstream and counterculture voices, and the history of print in imperial Japan.

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