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February 1897: The Birth of Japanese Cinema

The arrival of the Lumiere and Edison projectors in Japan was almost simultaneous, with both machines debuting within a week of each other in February 1897.   Edisonís Kinetoscope was already a fixture, having received its first public showing at the Shinkou Club in Kobe on the 25th November 1896, before swiftly appearing in Osaka, Tokyo, and the rest of the country.

The man responsible for bringing the Cinematograph to Japan was Inabata Katsutaro, a businessman from Kyoto who had been sent to France by his employers.   Inabata had studied at a polytechnic in Lyon in the 1870s, and made contact with Auguste Lumiere, who had been a fellow student.   Lumiere showed his invention to his old friend, who immediately saw its commercial potential.   Inabata bought two of the machines, a number of films, and Japanese performing rights for the Cinematograph.   He returned to his homeland with his booty in early 1897 and, on the 7th January 1897, welcomed a Lumiere projectionist and engineer named Constant Girel at the port of Kobe.

Inabata and Girel had to overcome a number of difficulties before they could present their first public screening, not least of which was the building of a transformer to enable the projector to run off the Japanese power supply.   This they eventually achieved with the aid of engineers from the Kyoto Dento Kabushiki Gaisha Co, and the Shimadzu Corporation, and they were able to give their first public demonstration of jido shashin (moving pictures), at the Nanchi Embujo Theatre in Osaka on the 15th February 1897.   Girel, as well as conducting the screenings, was commissioned by the Lumieres to film as much as possible of everyday Japanese life, and shot many scenes of dancing geishas and Tokyo street life.

Inabataís great rival during these early days was a brash young entrepreneur named Arai Saburo, who had purchased two Vitascopes and a batch of films for $3,000 from Thomas Edison while visiting the inventorís West Orange laboratory the previous year.   An Edison employee named Daniel Grimm Krouse travelled to Japan with Arai, and their first exhibition was held at Shinmachi Theatre in Osaka on the 22nd February 1897, one week after Inabataís first screening.  

Inabata quickly grew disenchanted by the numerous obstacles he encountered in the burgeoning industry, and turned over all performing rights, projectors and films to the Yokota brothers, Masunosuke and Einosuke.   Masunosuke was another former student friend from Lyon, but he too soon left the business, leaving his brother Einosuke in sole control of the operation.   Einosuke was as brash as his new rival Arai, having cut his entrepreneurial teeth in the United States.   With his new acquisitions, Einosuke travelled to Tokyo and opened at the Kawakami Theatre on the 8th March 1897, two days after Arai had opened at the Kikikan Theatre with Komado Koyo undertaking the duties of the first Benshi, a film narrator who would give a running commentary of the action taking place on the screen.   The Benshi would become a popular and powerful aspect of Japanese cinema in its formative years, and their power would eventually prove to be a damaging influence when the emergence of sound threatened their profession.

In the autumn of 1897, the Konishi Photographic Store imported the British-built Baxter & Wray Cinematograph, and Tsunekichi Shibata of the Mitsukoshi Department Store was the first Japanese man to shoot films in his home country.   Shibata filmed street scenes of the fashionable Ginza shopping district and Geisha dances.   His first film was Momijigari (Maple Leaf Viewing).   Other filmmakers operating in this first year of Japanese motion picture production were Shiro Asana and Kanzo Shirai. [ADD]


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Japan: 1897



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