Monday, October 06, 2014

Treasures from the Tsubouchi Memorial Theatre Museum, Waseda University, Prog. 1: Jidaigeki

Asagao nikki. Photo: Waseda University, Tokyo. Click to enlarge.
Cinema giapponese / Early Japanese Cinema
Tesori della collezione filmica del Museo del Teatro dell’Università di Waseda
Treasures from the Tsubouchi Memorial Theatre Museum, Waseda University
Prog. 1: Jidaigeki
Programme notes by Hiroshi Komatsu

With e-subtitles in English and Italian, grand piano: Eri Kozaki, at Teatro Verdi (Le Giornate del Cinema Muto), Pordenone, 6 Oct 2014

ASAGAO NIKKI [Il diario di un convolvolo / The Diary of a Morning Glory] (M. Pathe, Tokyo – JP 1909) D: ?; C: Kasen Nakamura, Utae Nakamura; rel: 15.6.1909; 35 mm, 477 ft, 8' (16 fps); no titles; print source: Theatre Museum, Waseda University.
    "The original story of Asagao Nikki was written by Shiba Shiso in the early 19th century, and was soon transformed into a Kabuki play. The Joruri (Bunraku puppet theatre) version of this was premiered in 1832 under the title Sho Utsushi Asagao Banashi. It is still in the Bunraku puppet repertory."
    "Miyuki, a young girl, and her fiancé Asojiro are separated by a disturbance in their hometown. Running away from home, Miyuki becomes blind with tears of sorrow. Singing a song about a morning glory that she learned from her fiancé, she wanders, ever searching for Asojiro. She at last encounters him at the inn of Shimada, but Asojiro has changed his name and she cannot recognize him because she is blind. She later realizes the situation, and becoming half mad, goes after him, reaching the banks of the Ooi River."
    "The two most famous scenes of the play, those at the inn and the Ooi River, were adapted for the film. The decomposition of the original nitrate print was so severe that Act 2 of the film could not be salvaged at all in the early 1980s. Kasen Nakamura (1881-1942), a famous player of female Kabuki roles, appears as Miyuki, with her sister Utae Nakamura." – Hiroshi Komatsu
    AA: Extremely low contrast, like graphic art very lightly drawn. Impossible to understand without reading the programme note. At times, the right side of the image vanishes completely, and at times there is no image at all. What I could gather is the sorrow at the instrument. Plan-séquence.
Sakurada chizome no yuki. Photo: Waseda University, Tokyo. Click to enlarge.
SAKURADA CHIZOME NO YUKI [Neve macchiata di sangue presso la Porta Sakurada / Snow Stained with Blood at the Sakurada Gate] (Yoshizawa Co., Tokyo – JP 1909) (fragments) D: ?; C: Nobuchika Nakano Troupe; rel: 13.7.1909; 35 mm, 192 ft, 3'12" (16 fps); no titles; print source: Theatre Museum, Waseda University.
    "The original novella by Shizuka Kikutei that served as the source of this film was published in 1886. It was soon adapted into the Kodan oral storytelling tradition, by which it spread widely as a popular story. The plot concerns an actual historical incident that took place in 1860, when Grand Duke Ii was assassinated by a group of samurai at the Sakurada Gate in Edo (now Tokyo). In July 1909, as part of the celebrations to mark the 50th anniversary of the opening of the port of Yokohama, a statue of Grand Duke Ii (who had signed treaties opening up Japanese trade with the West) was unveiled. This film was made by the Yoshizawa Company as part of the commemorations.
Shizuka Kikutei’s novella had 11 chapters, which were condensed into 7 acts for the film. The surviving fragments contain parts of Acts 4 and 5. According to the Yoshizawa catalogue of 1910, the total original length was 740 ft., of which only a small portion exists today."
    "The actors appearing in the film were from the troupe of Nobuchika Nakano (1866-1932), who had a contract with Yoshizawa at the time. It is interesting to see actors specializing in the Shinpa (New School) acting style playing their roles in the Kyugeki (Old School) manner. As a result, we are witnessing a completely different acting style from the prevailing Kabuki norm." – Hiroshi Komatsu
    AA: In plan-séquence, in long takes and long shots. Plot only possible to understand from the programme note. Some twelve fighters in an epic battle scene in the snow.
Matsuo shimoyashiki. Photo: Waseda University, Tokyo. Click to enlarge.
MATSUO SHIMOYASHIKI [La residenza di Matsuo / Matsuo’s Residence] (Yoshizawa Co., Tokyo – JP 1910) D: ?; rel: 4.7.1910; 35 mm, 641 ft., 11' (16 fps); no titles; print source: Theatre Museum, Waseda University.
    "Sugawara Denju Tenarai Kagami, the famous Kabuki and Bunraku (puppet theatre) play, premiered in 1746. Matsuo Shimoyashiki was based on this play; however, it was not included in this first version. The play Matsuo Shimoyashiki was written more than 100 years after the first performance of Sugawara Denju, as a lateral story to be included just prior to Temple School scene of Act 4."
    "The story concerns Matsuo-maru’s agony concerning his debt of gratitude to Kan Shojo, who is now exiled, and Shihei, who is now his master. Shihei’s messenger comes to ask Matsuo-maru to cut off the head of Kan Shojo’s son. But Matsuo-maru hands over his own son Kotaro in order to save Kan Shojo’s son." – Hiroshi Komatsu
    AA: A filmed stage performance. A fascinating pantomime.
Kamiya jihei. Photo: Waseda University, Tokyo. Click to enlarge.
KAMIYA JIHEI [Jihei, il mercante di carta / Jihei, the Paper Dealer] (M. Pathe, Tokyo – JP 1911) D: ?; rel: 9.1911; 35 mm, 718 ft., 12' (16 fps); no titles; print source: Theatre Museum, Waseda University.
    "Kamiya Jihei is a screen adaptation of one of the most famous Joruri (Bunraku puppet theatre scripts) written by Monzaemon Chikamatsu, The Love Suicides at Amijima (Shinju Ten no Amijima). Premiered in January 1721, it was later adapted into a Kabuki play."
    "Jihei, a paper dealer in Osaka, gets to know a courtesan, Koharu, and they fall in love. Jihei’s wife Osan learns of the affair and writes a letter to Koharu, asking her to give him up. In consideration for his wife, Koharu breaks up with Jihei by making up a lie. Osan finds out that Koharu is thinking of killing herself and tries to save her. However, after Osan is forcibly brought back to her parents’ house, Jihei and Koharu commit suicide together at a temple in Amijima."
    "This M. Pathe film was released in September 1911, but was re-released in 1912 as a Nikkatsu film owing to a shortage of films available for theatrical release." – Hiroshi Komatsu
    AA: The action is impossible to understand without reading the programme note. Long shot, long take, plan-séquence, no camera movement. From watching the film I only understand it is a drama of a woman and a man.
Kamiramon taika - chizome no matoi. Photo: Waseda University, Tokyo. Click to enlarge.
KAMINARIMON TAIKA – CHIZOME NO MATOI [Il grande incendio presso la Porta Kaminarimon – L’insegna dei pompieri insanguinata / The Big Fire at the Kaminarimon Gate – The Blood-Stained Firemen’s Standard] (Nikkatsu, Kyoto – JP 1916) D: ?; C: Matsunosuke Onoe, Kijyaku Otani, Kitsuraku Arashi; rel: 4.1916; 35 mm, 2004 ft., 34' (16 fps); titles: JAP; print source: Theatre Museum, Waseda University.
    "Matsunosuke Onoe (1875-1926) played in more than 1,000 films from 1909 to 1926. He was, without any doubt, the most famous star in early Japanese film history. Everybody knew him, and children imitated his acting for fun. Although he appeared in so many films, unfortunately most of them do not survive. He worked in Nikkatsu’s Kyoto studio, and most of his films before 1921 were supervised by the director Shozo Makino. Although it is not certain if this film was actually directed by Makino, it displays the typical storytelling and acting style of Matsunosuke’s films: the story is borrowed not from a Kabuki play, but from Kodan (a genre of popular oral storytelling), and his method of acting is extremely stylized and artificial, which makes him appear almost unrealistic.
    The story echoes a famous Japanese saying, “Fights and fires are Edo’s flowers”. This refers to the fact that the fireman was a hero in the Edo period, and that different groups of firemen were often fighting one another. The fighting prowess of a young man, Senta (played by Matsunosuke Onoe), is discovered by Genshichi, the head of the Yogumi firemen’s group. When a fire breaks out at the Kaminarimon Gate, Senta and his companions rush to the scene, where they encounter the rival group Tachibana-gumi. A fight begins between the two groups, during which the Yo-gumi standard borne by Senta is broken. The head of this standard – the honorable symbol of the firemen’s group – is taken away by the Tachibana-gumi. After several incidents, Senta is falsely accused, and is sent to Miyakejima Island as a prisoner. Escaping from the island, he exacts his revenge upon the Tachibana-gumi." – Hiroshi Komatsu
    AA:  The richest and the most fascinating film in this programme. The English explanations help make sense of the story. From an extremely battered source, screened at high speed, it resembles puppet theatre or animation at times. Memorable images include a nightmare at the prison cell, the escape via a rope from a cliff, a fight at the shore, the boat by the sea, the battle of the clans, the furious rooftop finale. The composition is often striking.

These are some of the greatest treasures of early Japanese film heritage. To watch them is an endurance test, a study exercise where a lot of reading is required besides viewing. To make better sense these films should be studied several times. Due to the circumstances of the print sources there can be no evaluation of the visual quality as only the composition and the rhythm can be appreciated.

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