Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Jujiro in the West

Teinosuke Kinugas's Jujiro was shown in Europe and the United States in 1929 and 1930, but it was not, as is sometimes reported, the first Japanese film to have screened for Western audiences. Kenji Mizoguchi's Passion of a Woman Teacher was screened in Paris at around the same time, and Minoru Murata's The Street Magician came to Germany before Kinugasa did. In New York, Mordaunt Hall's March 1929 Times review of Heinosuke Gosho's a Daughter of Two Fathers indicates that that comedy played the Fifth Avenue Playhouse with a Harry Langdon short at the time, more than a year before Jujiro played at the Fifty-Fifth Street Playhouse.

Nor was Jujiro the last Japanese export known to Western audiences until Rashomon launched the post-World War II Euro-American fervor for jidai-geki upon its winning the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 1951. A selection of Japanese films had played at the 1937 edition of that festival, for instance. Mikio Naruse's wonderful Wife! Be Like A Rose was circulated in a number of North American cinemas in 1937 as well.

But evidence suggests that Kinugasa's tour of Europe with his Jujiro print was the most significant exposure of a Japanese film in the West in its time. According to D. A. Rajakaruna's preface to his translation of the screenplay, Jujiro played "in ten countries including Germany, France, Switzerland and England". In Germany the film was screened for UFA producers, and secured a theatrical release under the title Shadows of Yoshiwara, Yoshiwara being Tokyo's licensed red-light district just outside Asakusa, where the film's action is set. Rajakaruna relates that there was some outcry from Japanese residents of Berlin over the title and subject matter -- Yoshiwara was notorious, not a source of national pride.

Critics in France compared Jujiro's close-ups to the aesthetic of Carl Dreyer, who had just released the Passion of Joan of Arc. The film's appearance in London is the reason why an English-intertitled print survives to screen today; most of Kinugasa's silent output no longer is known to exist. Though Kinugasa began his European tour in Moscow, it seems that Jujiro did not screen there. However, Kinugasa did meet Soviet directors Vsevolod Pudovkin and Sergei Eisenstein, and apparently picked the latter's brain on the transition to sound, a process that was just starting to occur in Japan. Kinugasa would go on to direct the first jidai-geki talking picture, the Surviving Shinsengumi in 1932.

For its New York engagement, Jujiro became Slums of Tokyo. It played for two weeks in July 1930, along with an early talkie short with a Japanese subject, called the Golden Kimono. According to Joanne R. Bernardi and Greg M. Smith, Slums of Tokyo was sold as an exploitation picture, with ad copy promising "Painted Lilies Barter Bodies in Yoshiwara Tenderloin...For Adults Only! No One Under 18 Admitted!" The only advertisement I was able to find in my research was the New York Times' more highbrow appeal, however; there Slums of Tokyo was billed to arthouse audiences as the "Greatest since the Passion of Joan of Arc and Shiraz". Presumably the exploitation ad copy comes from another New York paper or other source.

One final caveat: since my research focused on English-language sources, it ignores the film screenings held within Japanese-American communities in Western states, where films were shown untranslated at Buddhist temples and elsewhere, and advertised only in Japanese-language newspapers. There's always another door left to unlock when it comes to researching early cinema.


  1. The tag line comes from the original theater program for the NYC run. I found a copy of it in the NYPL (Billy Rose Theater Collection).

    Thanks for the interesting comments on the festival screenings.

  2. Just back from vacation, which is why it's taken so long to respond here.

    Thanks for the source info! In addition to the Japan Quarterly article referring to Slums of Tokyo, I got a lot out of your treatment of the "Pure Film Movement" in Writing in Light. I hope to see more Japanese silent films in order to improve my understanding of the context for Kinugasa's films.