Rare Record of Japanese Movie Theater Advertising Troupe from 1929

A few people have been sharing online a YouTube video purporting to show street scenes in Kyoto from 1929. I was suspicious at first, since the same YouTube user previously also uploaded footage from the 1910s with sound added. But it does seem the video is a collection of authentic sound films of Japan in 1929, taken by Fox Movietone cameramen. The combination is sloppy, however, since at least one of scenes is not from Kyoto but from Kamakura.

What I find annoying is that these videos are not this user’s own films, but taken lock stock and barrel from the Moving Image Research Collections of the University of South Carolina. You can tell that from the watermark in the footage, but the user does little to foreground where s/he took this footage from, even though the Collection website states that "The University owns the rights to most of the material held by MIRC.” Archives, who do the hard and essential work of accumulating, preserving, and in this case, digitizing and making available online old films, should get proper credit.

That said, the Digital Video Repository of the MIRC collection is quite amazing. It features a variety of collections, from home movies to government films, but the centerpiece is probably the Fox Movietone material (described here). And what is significant about that is that it includes outtakes, footage that is mostly unedited, lacks the annoying newsreel narrator, and has sync sound without non-diegetic music. Thus while not a few of the scenes look a bit staged, they still give a strong impression of reality—of slices of real life. Many have remarked online about the impact of these everyday street scenes with everyday sounds. The MISC search system is not very good, but do go and explore the collection. There are quite a number of scenes of Japan from the 1920s and 1930s, and not all speeches by politicians and traditional ceremonies.

There are probably some other interesting finds, but of the ones that I found, the most stunning was this:

The original can be viewed here.

It is record of an advertising troupe announcing the new films showing at three Kobe movie theaters: Shochiku’s Shurakukan, Nikkatsu’s Nishikiza, and Teikine’s Aioiza (the NFAJ has images of two of these theaters here). The data says it was filmed on March 6, 1929. Some of the scenes were likely staged (it seems they had the troupe march by the same area twice), but the outtakes still offer a valuable record not only of what kind of advertising was done for films, but also of this particular kind of advertising. People today are probably familiar with chindon’ya, the small bands of performers in colorful costumes who even today advertise some store openings. What is now stereotypically thought of as chindon’ya, however, is only one form of such advertising, and a rather recent one at that. When I introduced this video on Facebook, colleagues remarked that it shows a form of advertising about which there are few records, especially in terms of sound motion pictures. 

While we can certainly criticize the Fox cameramen for their orientalist gaze, this is one example of how the foreign gaze might pick up and record something that Japanese might not, since it is so much part of their everyday. I have similarly found that some of the accounts of movie houses in the prewar or immediate postwar written by foreign observers can contain valuable bits of information. It has to be considered alongside the bias of the observer (here, the staging of the film and the choice of subject), but it reminds us of possibilities of multiple perspectives.

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