An introduction to the Shochiku 100 retrospective by its curator, Dick Stegewerns.

This year we celebrate the centennial of Shōchiku Cinema, one of the biggest players in Japan’s film industry. Although often dubbed ‘the Shōchiku studio’, most of the time it functioned as a true conglomerate of film production, distribution and screening, with its own nation-wide chain of cinemas. And although in the postwar period it generally was looked upon as conservative, it is Shōchiku that brought us Japan’s first modern film, sound film, colour film, and Oscar-winning film, the world’s longest running film series, two in-house new wave movements that changed Japanese cinema, and – last but not least – the oeuvre of Ozu Yasujirō.

The roots of the film company date back to 1895, as a theatre/kabuki company, headed by the brothers Ōtani Takejirō and Shirai Matsujirō. The Sino-Japanese pronunciation of the first parts of their personal names make for Shōchiku. When they entered the film business in 1920 they endeavoured to bring the Japanese audience ‘true film’. Notwithstanding the theatre tradition of the company, it promised a more realistic ‘filmic’ experience rather than a filmed theatrical performance. They did away with the tradition of female roles played by male actors (onnagata) and instead brought in Hollywood-trained cameraman Henry Kotani and advocate of the Pure Film Movement Osanai Kaoru. The latter headed the semi-autonomous experimental Cinema Research Institute, whose first production Souls on the Road (Dir. Murata Mioru,1921) is the oldest extant Shōchiku film.

The strongly western-influenced experiments were not commercially successful, and in 1924 it was the new boss of the company’s Tokyo studio Kido Shirō who defined the character of the mainstay of Shōchiku product for the next 100 years. He decreed that the company would focus on films about contemporary society, mainly aimed at a female audience. The films provided star actresses, but in a modern (sub-)urban everyday life setting. The genre of (lower-)middle class ‘home dramas’ (in Japanese shōshimingeki) provoked laughter and tears, but not social change or revolution. Shōchiku films needed to be uplifting, in Kido’s words ‘blissful resignation’ to the status quo. Ozu Yasujirō, now regarded as one of the best film directors ever, worked since the early 1930s almost solely within this genre. Just like a few other directors he was given an autonomous status, that came along with his own crew, set of actors, and the freedom to work with original scripts.

In this program, however, we will screen the 1932 silent film Dragnet Girl, a gangster film – albeit with a fair amount of melodrama and a strong female lead role – which clearly shows that Ozu was raised on Hollywood cinema, not Japanese cinema. The other film from this period, Gosho Heinosuke’s The Neighbour’s Wife and Mine (1931) stands out in film history as the first Japanese talkie. The film takes on the new feature of sound in various inventive way, to the extent that sound actually becomes one of the main players. However, at the same time it also brings us to one of the main venues of the shōshimingeki, the newly developed outskirts of Tokyo, where traditional social mores clash with the attractions and tensions of modern urban life.

Dragnet GirlDragnet Girl

In 1941, as Japan’s armed invasion of China turned into a world war, the Japanese film industry was put under control and amalgamated into three companies. Shōchiku and Tōhō were the only companies allowed to remain intact. Of the three Shōchiku proved the least willing (or suited) to make belligerent war films. And Ozu’s only production during the official war period, the 1942 There Was A Father, does not even refer to the war, and is rather a precursor of his postwar masterworks, focusing on parent-child relations. Mizoguchi Kenji, that other giant of Japanese cinema, spent the 1940s at Shochiku’s Kyoto studio, which focused on samurai films. However, as under the postwar occupation the depiction of feudal loyalty with the related violent swordfights were censured off the country’s films screens, Mizoguchi in his first postwar films inevitably focused on the modern and contemporary periods. The most successful is Women of the Night (1948), in which he gives a harsh but empathic view of how women during the dire occupation days had to prostitute themselves in order to make ends meet.

Women of the Night

Also in the postwar period Shōchiku continued its tradition of fundamentally uplifting filmmaking, especially when Kido Shirō was depurged at the end of the American occupation, and in 1951 became the company boss. Shōchiku celebrated its 30th anniversary by means of Japan’s first colour film Carmen Comes Home (1951), a satirical comedy about a female stripper returning to her countryside village, by artisan filmmaker Kinoshita Keisuke. However, the company also employed politically outspoken directors, such as Kobayashi Masaki, who is featured here with the 6-part magnum opus The Human Condition (1959-61), a true monument of anti-war humanism.

With the arrival of the crisis in the Japanese film industry due to the onslaught of the introduction of television Shōchiku was severely hit, as its main audience of women were the first to shift to the home screen. Whereas normally it would have taken them another decade, suddenly a group of young assistant directors was called upon to make their debut, in order to cater to younger audiences. The group’s brightest star Ōshima Nagisa is here represented with his fourth film, the Brechtian Night and Fog in Japan (1960), and the stylish Yoshida Kijū with his incredibly mature debut Good For Nothing (1960), well-known for its A Bout de Souffle ending. The raw and refreshing films were heralded as the Shochiku Nouvelle Vague, probably the only new wave movement in film history that took place in the centre of film industry, and even named after a studio.

Night and Fog in Japan

However, the new directors were not merely young. They were also politically inspired intellectuals from Japan’s top universities. When Ōshima in Night and Fog in Japan took the mass demonstrations of 1960 against the US-Japan military alliance to the big screen, the revolution within Japan’s most conservative film studio ended overnight. Before long the young Turks all went independent, and Shōchiku returned to its home drama-type business-as-usual. The business-as-usual that came to dominate the company to the extent that it was the only thing people associated Shōchiku with, is the world’s longest running film series Tora-san (48 films from 1969 until 1995, and 2 sequels in 1997 and 2019). The story of an old-fashioned tramp, experiencing an unreciprocated love to the backdrop of an idyllic countryside (all 47 Japanese prefectures were toured), and his broken heart being nurtured by his family in an equally idyllic Tokyoite setting, touched the hearts of the Japanese. They demanded semi-annual or annual sequels, usually timed for festive season family outings, until the lead actor Atsumi Kiyoshi died in 1996. Another huge box-office success during this period was Nomura Yoshitarō’s The Castle of Sand (1974), a monumental social suspense film.

Castle of Sand

During the latter days of the Tora-san era, Shōchiku showed signs of a miraculous rejuvination. Under the supervision of young company scion Okuyama Kazuyoshi, for the first time during the crisis of Japanese cinema, sustained opportunities were given by an established film studio to new filmmakers. As son of the company boss Okuyama was successful in bringing about the directing debut of comedian Kitano (Beat) Takeshi, actor Takenaka Naoto, and kabuki actor Bandō Tamasaburō, producing arthouse-type of films that won prizes at Cannes, Venice and Berlin. This second new wave within Shōchiku is represented by Sonatine (1993), Kitano’s moody third contribution to the genre of new violence, which he originated many years before Tarantino’s debut. Sakamoto Junji’s Face (2000), a feminist festival hit, seemed to herald a continuation of this line in the new century for Shōchiku. However, Okuyama had been fired in 1998 after a scandal and the official arthouse line-up under the name of Cinema Japanesque was discontinued. Moreover, in the same year of 2000 the company announced to close down its big studio in Ōfuna, merely holding on to a small facility in Kyoto, and thus withdrawing from direct production.

Although now it at most functions as a co-producer, the company name and logo still adorn many new Japanese films. Moreover, its back catalogue is broadcasted 24-7 through its Eisei Gekijō satellite channel, and in terms of distribution and screening it as before is one of the biggest players with its Movix nationwide multiplex cinema chain. Its continuing key position is symbolised by the fact that Japan’s first and only Oscar-winning film, Takita Yōjirō’s Departures (in 2009) came under the Shōchiku banner.

Dick Stegewerns
The associate professor in modern Japanese studies at the University of Oslo

Shochiku 100 Years series continues in Kino Regina 20th Nov 2020–28th Jan 2021.