From hero to violator: An introduction to pre-war Jidai-geki cinema. (Part 1)


If one would be asked to say what comes first to one’s mind when thinking about Japanese cinema, it would not be surprising for people to think about samurai-movies. Notwithstanding the fact that the post-war golden era of jidai-geki narratives is long past – the presence of samurai-narratives reduced to the margins of the contemporary space of Japanese cinema, the association of samurai movies with Japanese cinema is still strong.

Yet despite this strong association, the pre-war golden period of jidai-geki narratives remains less well-known. Our introduction thus aims to introduce the reader to these pre-war jidai-geki narratives and provide a basis for reevaluating this often forgotten golden period. In order to fully appreciate the birth and the first golden period of the jidai-geki, we need to start from the very beginning, the very beginning of Japanese cinema.

The beginning of Japanese Cinema

Japanese cinema begins around 1897, around the time that Katsutaro Inabata (1862-1949) and François-Constant Girel (1873-1952), equipped with a Lumière Cinematographe, organised the first projected film program at the Nanchi Theater in Osaka. One week later, on the 22nd of February, the Edison Vitascope was introduced by Saburo Arai (1876-unknown) and his operator Daniel Grimm Krouse at the Shinmachi theater in Osaka.

Katsutaro Inabata
Katsutaro Inabata

Not long after introducing the vitascope in Osaka,  Saburo Arai moved to Tokyo to present the novelty at the Kikikan theatre – starting from 6 March of 1897. In Tokyo, Saburo was joined by  Koyo Komada (1877-1935), who worked for the advertising agency Hiromeya, in order to promote the vitascope. Komada gave explanations about the technology of projection and the content of the western cinematic material to the spectators. Two days later, on the 8th of March, Einosuke Yokota (1872-1943), who had acquired the Cinématographe from a disenchanted Inabata, started his shows at the Kawakami theatre in Tokyo (Note 1). 

Saburo Arai
Saburo Arai

But while the introduction of these devices can be said to mark the start of cinema in Japan, Japanese cinema only truly starts at the moment when Japanese people start to utilize the cinematographical technology to shoot their own films. In Japan, the first native cinematographers were Shiro Asano (1877-1955), Shirai Kanzo, and Tsunekichi Shibata  (1850 – 1929).

Shiro Asano, who worked for the Konishi Camera shop, started experimenting with an imported British Baxter and Wray Cinematograph in 1897 and succeeded by 1898, through trail and error, in filming and developing a short about Tokyo’s Nihonbashi. The same year he filmed in Asakusa and Ginza. Even though Shiro Asano left the Konishi camera shop in October 1898, he kept working together with them (note 2). Together with them, he made skit-films named ‘Thief’, ‘Ghost Jizo’ and ‘Revival of the death’ – the latter two written by Eijiro Hatta. In the summer of 1899, after been commissioned by Hiromeya’s Koyo Komada (or Ryukichi Akita, Hiromeya’s founder), he started to film geisha-dances, such as kappore, tsurukame, and matsukuzushi (Note 3). Komada would later recall how much trouble they have had with “the focus and with keeping the dancers within the sight-lines they had drawn on the floor” (Richie, 2005).

Koyo Komada
Koyo Komada

Around the same time, Shibata Tsunekichi and Shirai Kanzo, two photographers of the newly formed photography department of the Mitsukoshi Department Store (or Mitsui Gofukuten), started to film around Ginza and film geisha with a camera from the French company Gaumont. In April 1898, Shibata Tsunekichi was asked by the Lumière brothers to film a total of five street scenes of Tokyo – two films under the name Une rue à Tokyo, one film named Une Avenue à Tokyo, one called Une place publique à Tokyo, and a film about the then main train terminus of Tokyo, i.e. Shinbashi, in Station du chemin de fer de Tokyo (Catalogue Lumiere).

Shibata Tsunekichi
Shibata Tsunekichi

By the middle of 1899, Koyo Komada had earned enough capital to establish the Association of Japanese Motion Pictures (Nihon Sossen Katsudo Shashin Kai) (Note 4). On 20 June 1899, Komada organized the first Japanese cinematic evening, featuring geisha-dance filmed by Shibata Tsunekichi as well as Shirai Kanzo, at the Kabuki-za in Tokyo (Note 5). And between July 14-31, Komada organized a similar cinematic evening, but featuring even more shorts, at the Meiji-za theatre (Note 6, note 7).   

Einosuke Yokota
Einosuke Yokota

For those who are wondering why geisha became the first cinematographical object for the early Japanese cinematographers might be surprised that the reason was merely economical. Various people, like Tsunekichi, had noticed that among postcards, the postcards of Geisha outsold any other (Richie, 2001). Even Shiro Asano, who was asked to film geisha dances, underlined this: “We can understand how popular geisha were in those days from the fact that picture postcards of geisha sold better than any other picture postcards” (Asano as quoted by Tanaka (1975)). The choice to shoot geisha was, in other words, the most financially interesting choice.   

Even though geisha were financially interesting – a splendid way to attract spectators, it did not take long for the early Japanese movie-makers to move on to other things as well. In September 1899, at the request of a local (shinpa) drama troupe, Tsunekichi Shibata, who was working together with Koyo Komada from the Nihon Sossen Katsudo Shashin Kai, filmed the climax of their play about Japan’s first pistol robber Shimizu Sadakichi (1837-1887). Pisutoru Goto Shimizu Sadakichi (Armed Robber: Shimizu Sadakichi), screened with great success later that year at Tokyo’s Engi-za, starred Umpei Yokoyama (1881-1967), considered by many as Japan’s first movie actor, as detective and Keijiro Sakamato as burglar. The day after filming the piece about the armed robber, Umpei Yokoyama starred in Shibata’s Shosei no Sumie (The Schoolboy’s Ink Painting) where he played a man who, while asleep on a bench was painted with ink by two boys.

In November of the same year, Shibata was finally able to film excerpts of the kabuki version of the noh drama Momijigari (Maple viewing) [Japans oldest extant movie]. That it had taken some time and effort to convince the legendary kabuki-actor Ichikawa Danjuro IX (1838-1903) to appear on film might be an understatement. He had, in fact, nothing but disdain for the idea by Hiromeya to show films at the theater and ridiculed the idea of that ‘ship-brought’ thing. When Saburo Arai approached him in 1897 to film him, he received, not surprisingly, a refusal. However, two years later, by stroking his ego, by telling him that a film showing his talent would be a gift to posterity, Inoue Takejiro, the director of the kabuki-za, eventually made Danjuro IX agree with letting himself be filmed. Yet, Danjuro IX only agreed on the condition that the film would only be screened publicly after his death (Note 8, Note 9).  

Ichikawa Danjuro IX
Ichikawa Danjuro IX

In Momijigari (Maple viewing) Danjuro IX played a demon that disguised herself as princess Sarashina and Onoe Kikugoro V (1844-1903) played the hero Taira no Koremochi. The movie shows Princess Sarashina’s dance as well as Koremori’s fighting-dance with the demon. Tsunekichi Shibata recalls about that day:

“From the morning on, it was sunny but very windy. We hanged a curtain in front of the tea-house behind the Kabuki-za and hurriedly build the stage, all the while fearing that Danjuro IX might suddenly change his mind again. All the people helped to keep the curtain from blowing away by the wind. […] Danjuro IX’s Sarashina was to dance with two fans, but one fan was torn out of his hand by the wind. It was a blunder, but because we did not re-shoot it, it eventually became quite amusing.” (Shibata as quoted by Tanaka, 1975, O.T.).

One month after filming Momoji-gari, Tsunekichi Shibata filmed Ninin Dojoji (Two People at Dojo Temple) at the Kabukiza, starring Onoe Eizaburô V as Hanako and Ichimura Kakitsu VI as Sakurako. Ninin Dojoji was the first tinted film made in Japan. It was coloured by the Yoshizawa Company, a manufacturer of magic lantern apparatus and later one of the first Japanese film production companies. “When Ninin Dojoji was projected at the kabuki theatre in August 1900, the sponsor created a mock-up of a valley in front of the screen, with a fish-filled pond between the rocks, and a cool breeze generated by an electric fan wafting over the audience” (Komatsu, 1997, p. 177). Such extra atmospheric devices were, as Komatsu (1997) underlines, an important feature of early Japanese cinema. 

[In the next part of our introduction of jidai-geki film, we will explore the characteristics of early Japanese cinema as well as the role of the benshi. The second part will further help the reader to gain a rich understanding of the beginnings of Japanese cinema.]


Note 1: To be entirely correct, it should be noted that Katsutaro Inabata handed the performing rights, equipment, and the films he had to both Einosuke and Masunosuke Yokota, who he knew from their time as students in France. But – and this is the reason why he is not mentioned, Einosuke’s brother soon left the business. 

Note 2: While it might seem trivial, we do want to note that Shiro Asano, before leaving Konishi, taught Tsunekichi Shibata about film techniques. 

Note 3: Asano Shiro’s Tsurukame is supposed to be have been exhibited at the Meiji-za theatre between 14-31 July. [『長唄鶴亀』(蔦小松家おえん、翁家小いな、松の家おえつ)]

It is very likely that kappore or katsupore, and matsuzukushi, both mentioned in the advertisement in the Houchi Shinbun on 13 July 1899, were also filmed by Asano Shiro. [『かつぽれ』(浜田家五郎、萬屋小千代、三輪屋錦糸)『端唄松づくし』(立花家小静、地方若松家なつ、上総家やを)]

Sedo no danbata, also mentioned in the advertisement, is from the hand of Tsunekichi Shibata.『端唄背戸のだん畑』(鈴木家小竹). Both Sedo No Danbata and Tsurukame are supposedly filmed at the same restaurant, Hanatsuki.

Note 4: Despite having established his own association and, we assume, leaving Hiromeya, Komada kept working together with the advertisement agency, who now sponsored his events.  

Note 5: While 20 June 1899 is generally accepted as the first time domestic films where exhibited, Film historian and collector Yoshinobu Tsukada has convincingly argued that some domestic films were already shown alongside newly imported american productions on 13 June 1899 at an exhibit held at the Hongo Chuo Kaido (Hongo central church).

Manabu Ueda, for that matter, found out that Koyo Komada already organized an event on 12 May 1899 at the Wakatake-za theater in Shizuoka City. While no film-titles were listed, the event did feature, between the films, recorded musical performances by famous geishas from Tokyo’s Yoshiwara, Kyoto’s Gion, Osaka’s Minami, Nagoya and even Shizuoka.

Note 6: In Hazumi Tsuneo’s history of fifty Years of film (1942), one can find the program of the show at the Kabuki-za as it was advertised at the time.


One of these Geisha Hand Dances, known as ‘Japan’s first film for commercial release’,  is shot by Koyo Komada himself with a camera he bought from Konishi Camera Co., Ltd. (Tanaka, 1975). For this movie, Komada shot three geisha at Tokyo’s Autumn Leaf Pavilion [kouyokan], a high-class restaurant (that once stood on the site where the Tokyo Tower is). 

Note 7: Based on the fact that the name of the restaurant where the geisha were filmed was always present on the background of these geisha dance films has led some people to speculate that these restaurants sponsored these films and saw them as a subtle way to advertise their business (Yoshiro, 2009). 

Note 8: One year after filming Momijigari, Danjuro Ichikawa IX saw the movie at a screening at his private residence. According to an article in a local newspaper, Danjuro exclaimed: ‘‘It is terribly strange (fushigi) to be able to see my own dance.’’ (Tanaka, p 79). His exclamation illustrates the fact that film can function as a kind of mirror. Before the advent of film, Danjuro had not been in the position to observe his own dance and, in fact, his own talent.

Note 9: But despite Danjuro IX’s initial wish, Momojigari (Maple viewing) did screen before this death in September 1903. It was, in fact, first shown to audiences on 7 July 1903 at the Naka-za in Dotonbori (Osaka) when Danjuro could not perform due to an illness. After seeing how popular the initial 15 day-run of Momojigari (Maple viewing) was, they organised a 25-day run starting from 1 August (Tanaka, 1975).  


Tanaka, Junichiro  (1975), Nihon eiga hattatsu-shi (1) katsudō shashin jidai. [History of Japanese movie development (1) Silent movie era], Tokyo: Chuokoron Shinsha.

Irie, Yoshiro (2009). Saiko no Nihon eiga ni tsuite (PDF) [About the oldest Jaapnese movies]Tōkyō Kokuritsu Kindai Bijutsukan Kenkyū Kiyō. National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo (13): 67-91.

Tsuneo, Hazumi (1942). Eiga gojūnenshi [History of fifty years of film]. Tokyo: Masushobo. 

Komatsu, Hiroshi (1997). Japan: before the Kanto earthquake. In The Oxford History of World Cinema (Nowell-Smith G., Ed.). Oxford: Oxford University press. p. 177-192.

Richie, Donald (2005). A Hundred Years of Japanese FilmA Concise History. Tokyo: Kodansha international. 




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