Malleable Culture: Localization of Silent Films in Japan

As Gennifer Weisenfeld states, modernity in Japan is often “impelled by its own logic based on local contingencies” rather than duplicating Western models (Weisenfeld 66). Moreover, in Merry White’s essay “Coffee in Public,” the author discusses the re-appropriation of coffee culture in Japan, concluding this phenomenon by using the term “makes ordinary extraordinary” (White 20). This essay will examine the confrontation and consolidation of Western film culture and the traditional Japanese performance form katsuben, adapting both Weisenfeld and White’s notions about Japanese modernity into the analysis of Japanese film culture during its early period. This ultimately indicates the flexibility of Japanese culture as a whole, and how this flexibility has effectively visualized Japanese people’s cultural and social identities in certain historical periods.

Before the popularization of sound film, katsuben was the main component of the Japanese viewing experience, described as “an extension of tradition-based vocal storytelling venues” (Anderson 259). Katsuben is a kind of live “dialogue, narration, [and] commentary” (259) that started to supplement imported (especially American) silent films in the early twentieth century or late nineteenth century, and its prototypes involved several traditional Japanese art forms, which in other words is the tradition of “commingled media” (262). For instance, the “narrative emakimono,” or traditional East Asian scroll painting, as well as etoki, already offered a model for combining storytelling with illustrations (262). Therefore, the hybridization of katsuben and silent films not only illustrates the harmonization of sound and picture, it also demonstrates the lineage of traditional katsuben and its predecessors within a context when they had to encounter modernized film technologies. It implies that this combination of domestic and international art forms is not coincident; rather it is an extension of a conventional logic in artistic creation in Japan. In that sense, the importation of films in Japan became a part of the ‘ordinary’ Japanese art traditions while adding more dimensions (i.e., as a moving image on screen) that made the Japanese traditional forms look ‘extraordinary.’

To specify the mechanism of the collaboration between films and katsuben performance, the content of katsuben scripts and the skills it required also made the seemingly ‘ordinary’ universal film genre (i.e., silent films of the time) ‘extraordinary.’ In addition to the function of adding audio tracks to silent films, katsuben turned a single recorded film into a variable performance. As Anderson states, a katsuben performer can “vary the speed of a scene” depending on the length of his speech, ultimately as a strategy to control the affectivity of the entire integration (Anderson 275). More importantly, these special choices made by katsuben symbolized the embedment of Japanese traditions in either social and cultural terms. For example, Anderson refers to Kaeriyama Norimasa’s instruction that “scenes of the imperial family should be projected slowly to show respect” (275). Given the early twentieth century Japanese context, this choice interestingly juxtaposes the conservative aspect in Japanese society that worships the imperial power with films that symbolize modernity. Positioning this within a larger discussion of Japanese modernity, even today the well-developed modern Japanese society still co-exists with an imperial system that embodies Japan’s past.

To contextualize the katsuben practice more, not only performance art but early-twentieth-century visual arts in Japan also engage with multimedia, which is “both expanding and contracting possibilities of expression” (Weisenfeld 94). Hence, Japan’s confrontation with modernity has added more innovative dimensions to both traditional Japanese culture itself and to the internationally popular art forms that symbolize the universal modernization trend. In that sense, it started to have more creative possibilities in terms of art creation and the formation of social identities in Japan, while the concept of modernity started to take on a Japanese meaning. Therefore, the awareness of Japanese-ness in modern encounters, having become an epitome of Japanese society and just as the conclusion White states in her essay, is the hybrid form of art that in this case also demonstrates both “malleability” and the “capacity” to “grasp and predict what will happen next” (White 41).

Works Cited

Anderson, J. L. "Spoken Silents in the Japanese Cinema; Or, Talking to Pictures: Essaying the Katsuben, Contextualizing the Texts." Ed. Arthur Nolletti and David Desser. Reframing Japanese Cinema : Authorship, Genre, History. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1992. 259-311. Web.

Weisenfeld, Gennifer. "Expanding Arts of the Interwar Period." Since Meiji: Perspectives on the Japanese Visual Arts, 1868-2000. Honolulu: U of Hawai’i Press, 2011. 66-98. Web.

White, Merry I. "Coffee in Public," and "Japan’s Cafés: Coffee and the Counterintuitive." Coffee Life in Japan. Berkeley: U of California, 2012. 1-42. Web.