Daiei Film Studio
The precursor to Daiei Film Studio, Dai-Ichi Eiga, was formed in Kyoto in 1934 as a subsidiary of Shochiku Studio; in response to rival and competitor Nikkatsu Studio’s purchase of Tamagawa, a failed independent in Tokyo. Masaichi Nagata was appointed by Nikkatsu to run Tamagawa but within a month, after a dispute with management, he left and founded Dai-Ichi Eiga instead. Nagata, born 1906, had joined Nikkatsu, Japan’s oldest film studio, in 1924, working first as a guide, then a location manager, and subsequently rising through the ranks to become Head of Production.
When he resigned from Tamagawa he took with him many Nikkatsu stars. There were allegations he had been bribed by Shochiku to sabotage Tamagawa; it was said that the money used to set up Dai-Ichi Eiga came from an exclusive English school for children of the Kyoto elite run by Nagata’s wife. Be that as it may, in its short life, Dai-Ichi Eiga produced two indisputable masterpieces: Kenji Mizoguchi’s Osaka Elegy and its companion film, Sisters of the Gion (both 1936). When, that same year, the studio failed, Nagata became head of Shochiku-owned Kyoto film production facility Shinko Kinema.
In 1941 the Japanese government announced ten independent film companies were to be merged into two. These mergers were designed to give the government control over film-making; effectively, to turn film production houses into propaganda arms of the military. There was no possibility of resistance: raw film stock was classified as a war material and its availability to the studios would henceforth depend upon their making the kind of pictures the state wanted. Nagata was in a difficult position: under the two-company plan, Shinko Kinema studios would close, leaving him unemployed.
Nagata went public, claiming the plan, designed by Shiro Kido, head of Shochiku, was an attempt to consolidate Kido’s own power and that of his organisation. This endeared Nagata to others in the filmmaking community, many of them artists and writers, who also opposed the government plans, and they elected him to head a committee to canvas counter-proposals. As a Kyoto man, Nagata could take a more proactive stance than Tokyo people, who were in daily contact with the Office of Public Information. He suggested setting up a third company. The OPI realised that a third company, unencumbered by established management structures and old allegiances, could become its own public relations arm. Nagata’s plan was ratified.
Two Nikkatsu studios, Shinko and Daito, were combined to form Daiei (Dai-Nihon Eiga, or The Greater Japan Motion Picture Company) under Nagata’s management. His power increased when the board could not decide upon who to appoint as president and Nagata offered to take on those duties as well. He officially became President in 1947 and, apart from a brief period in 1948, when he was purged then rehabilitated by the Occupation authorities, remained in that position until 1971. Throughout this period he produced about a film a year, sometimes more; as well as a great deal of television.
After the war was over and Daiei’s propaganda activities, perforce, ceased, the studio faced a number of practical problems: no theatre chain and therefore no reliable distribution; a dearth of signed up star actors; lack of a back catalogue acceptable to the Occupation authorities, who had already restricted jidai-geki or period films because they were thought to encourage patriotic feelings of the kind which had fuelled the war. Kyoto, the old Imperial capital, was the centre of jidai-geki film making while Tokyo was where most gendai-geki, contemporary (post Meiji Restoration) films were made.
Nevertheless, production at Daiei continued at the frenetic rate attained during the war; one estimate, made by Teruyo Nogami, was that in the early 1950s they were turning out fifty films a year, that is, four a month or one every week. Nagata as a producer was commercially astute, with an eye to what would prove popular; but he had a genuine respect for artists and writers as well and would work to create the conditions in which they could realise their ambitions. He also loved baseball: the studio had its own baseball team, the Daiei Stars.
Without the luxury of big names on its payroll, Daiei started making exploitation movies instead, featuring themes like adultery and auto-eroticism. One Night’s Kiss (1946), by Yasuki Chibu, was the first to break the taboo against showing people kissing on screen. Daiei also produced, in 1949, the first Japanese science fiction film, The Invisible Man Appears. It was based upon the H G Wells novel and its special effects director, Eiji Tsuburaya, went on to work on the breakthrough sci-fi film, Godzilla (1954). In 1950 Nagata was invited (by the Italians) to send Akira Kurosawa’s film Rashomon to the Venice Film Festival where, in 1951, it won the Golden Lion.
In 1953 Daiei made Gate of Hell (Jigokumon), directed by Teinosuke Kinugasa; the first Japanese-made colour film released internationally. Filmed in Eastmancolor, it won the Grand Prix at Cannes in 1954 and took out Best Foreign Film at the Academy Awards. American film makers were transfixed by the way it cast a sheen of colour across subject matter that accorded with their own explorations of noir themes. Gate of Hell became a template for Daiei: a blend of the exoticism the West hungered after and the kind of picture which Japanese audiences would go to see.
Other innovations at Daiei in the 1950s included a Japanese Tarzan, Buruuba, in a picture shot in Hollywood; the making of erotic films for young people; and, mid-decade, some Taiyozoku (‘Sun Tribe’) pictures about disaffected youth, which included the smash hit The Punishment Room (1956) by Kon Ichikawa. It featured a drug-assisted date rape and played morning to night with standing room only, primarily because of its appeal to high school students and especially to young women.
Most of those who worked for Daiei in the immediate post-war years were young. Too young, perhaps, to have served in the war; but not so young that they hadn’t felt its effects. Teruyo Nogami was one. As a school girl of 17, at the Tokyo Club in 1941, she saw Mansaku Itami’s Akanishi Kakita (1936) and was so impressed by its satirical intelligence that she wrote a fan letter to the director. He replied immediately, sending her an inscribed copy of his Notes on Film and, although the two never met, they continued to correspond until Itami died from tuberculosis in 1946. She remained in touch with his widow, whom she did meet, in 1949; and it was contacts within the Itaman Club, formed after Itami’s untimely death, which led to her finding a job at Daiei.
Another member of the Itaman Club was Shinobu Hashimoto, a handsome young man who was prone to illness and endured many years of poor health. He was drafted during World War Two but found to be tubercular and sent to a sanatorium where he spent four years. Here a fellow patient one day lent him a film magazine; it had a scenario printed in the back and after he read it Hashimoto thought he could do as well or better than that writer had. He sent his first effort to Itami, who was both critical and encouraging. Hashimoto continued to write; through a complex series of exchanges, his adaptation of a Ryūnosuke Akutagawa story, ‘In the Grove’, found its way to director Akira Kurosawa, who added framing elements from another Akutagawa story, ‘Rashomon’, to form the basis of his 1950 film of the same name.
When Kurosawa, on a one year contract, came to Daiei to make Rashomon, Teruyo Nogami was assigned to his crew as script girl―responsible for continuity. She worked with Kurosawa for the rest of his career, becoming one of his closest colleagues, his production manager, and afterwards publishing an illuminating account of her experiences in the film industry. As for Shinobu Hashimoto, he went on to write more than eighty screenplays; Kurosawa directed eight of his scripts, including The Seven Samurai, Throne of Blood and The Hidden Fortress, which had a direct influence on George Lucas’s Star Wars movies. It’s said that Lucas derived the name Jedi, as in the Jedi Knights, from ‘jidai-geki’, the Japanese term for period films.
Teruyo Nogami remembered hanging out the window with other excited employees of Daiei the day Kurosawa and his entourage arrived. He liked to eat with cast and crew every night after filming; his favourite meal was sanzoku-yaki, beef sautéed in garlic. Afterwards they would smoke and drink and talk. These were social occasions but also opportunities to plan for the next day’s shoot. The work hard / play hard ethos was already in place; it probably hadn’t changed much since the war. Many people used the drug philopon, a Japanese invention, a soluble amphetamine whose name means ‘love of work’. Nogami writes: the production crew would walk around with trays of capsules and syringes, inviting us to help ourselves or offering to administer the injection if we preferred.
The pressure of time and work encouraged innovation. Film stock was in short supply so few directors indulged in multiple takes of a scene. Sometimes music was written before the scene it belonged to was shot; these phantom compositions, called ‘ghosts’, were structured around the dramatic shape of the interaction in the screenplay. Often crews worked all night and then breakfasted in the canteen in the morning. Nogami in these years was also looking after Itami’s teenage son Yoshihiro (later film director, actor and writer Juko Itami). She was so poor she sometimes had to pawn her clothes. Sometimes she didn’t have the money for the bus or train fare to work; but she never regretted her choice of vocation.
Kurosawa was himself an innovator. He refused to allow the crew to address him as Sensei, teacher, as was de rigueur then. He was happy smoking Japanese cigarettes, not the Lucky Strikes everyone else craved. Rashomon was filmed using a single camera and just three locations, one of which was the massive, ruined cedar gate which he had constructed, and which continued to stand for years afterwards at the Daiei Studios. When filming in the forest, he would use large mirrors to catch and then re-direct the sunlight; he also shot directly into the sun, unheard of until then. When he filmed the chase through the forest, rather than use tracks and a dolly, he had the actors run in a circle while using a 360 degree pan to capture their movement. He was so sure of his framing that he allowed Machiko Kyo, playing the Samurai’s wife, to wear running shoes below her kimono: he knew her feet would be out of shot.
Kurosawa preferred to record sound in situ, using a crystal motor to sync sound and image. He also post-recorded dialogue, where appropriate, outside. Mirrors would be set up in the back lot and, at night, when the trains from the nearby railway line stopped running, the actors would call to each other in the moonlight while the film played back in reflection around them. Another innovation was his insistence upon editing the work print. The custom in those days was for the editors to cut the negative according to their understanding of the script and only send through the relevant portions to be reviewed each night after filming had finished. This enraged Kurosawa; he wanted to see everything that had been shot during the day and edit from that. This method, like his habit of recording sound live, was adopted internationally.
Sometimes, after the day’s filming had wrapped, and everyone had eaten, actors and crew, including the director, would run up Wakakusa Mountain, overlooking the forest where they were filming and, when they reached the top, dance in the moonlight to the Tankobushi, the Coal Miner’s Song; which ended with everyone in a circle miming the action of a miner digging in the earth. Kurosawa said: I was still young and the cast members were even younger and bursting with energy. We carried out our work with enthusiasm. Rashomon took forty-two days to make and, despite a fire in the studio towards the end of the shoot, and then a second, smaller fire in a projection booth, was completed on time and made its way subsequently, to enduring acclaim, into the world.
The photograph shows a group of ten people. Nine of them are walking towards the camera, on a sunken path between a roughcast stone wall above which conifers grow, and another supporting a grassy slope where there are spindly, deciduous trees; the tenth has his back turned. It is a sunny afternoon, as can be seen by the way their shadows, and the shadows of the trees, are etched into the path upon which they are walking. From their clothes, you might assume it is cool not hot, early spring or late autumn; the spindly trees are bare of leaves. Maybe they are formally dressed because they are going to be photographed? Or are they on their way back, to the office or the studio, after the shoot?
This possibility is augmented by the fact that the one who has stopped and turned around is in the act of photographing the other nine. Which means that he is himself being photographed while taking a photograph. Those whom he is photographing are aware of what he is doing. They are pleased, amused, happy; perhaps someone has just cracked a joke. The photographer wears a dark suit. He is upright, poised, almost in a dancer’s pose as he holds the camera to his eye, while a finger on his right hand, we assume, is about to click the shutter; or has already clicked it.
Who are the other nine? The man nearest the photographer is tall and thin, wearing a rumpled suit and smiling in a crooked, self-effacing manner. He is accompanied by two women, whose hands he is holding. The woman on his right is obscured; the one on his left, wearing a white pullover and dark skirt, a scarf knotted loosely round her neck, and calling out to the photographer, is the centre of both photographers’ compositions. Perhaps she is the one cracking the joke; or making some derisive comment. If so, it is good-humoured, without malice or aggression; she is joshing.
The two women to the right of the picture, in step with one another, are smiling―at the photographer or at the joke, if there was a joke. They wear dark jackets over skirts that fall to mid-calf, good leather shoes. They too are holding hands. Behind are two more figures, one of whom is obscured by the woman with the scarf. The other is a suave, handsome man in a dark suit smiling in an enigmatic manner at the photographer. The other two people in the photo are so far away it is difficult to make out much about them, beyond noting that they are both women dressed, as most of the others are, in suit jackets and skirts and leather shoes.
Who is the photographer? Who took the photograph of him photographing? And who are these people? What are they doing? Two other photographs (#237; #239) give us some clues. In the first, thirteen people gather around the edge of a stone pool full of dark water. There are trees behind, and fragments of what look like fences. It seems we are in a park of some kind. The group is arranged around the corner of the pool, with those to the left with their feet on its very edge and those on the right standing on bare ground. The ambience is relaxed, informal, companionable. Most of them are smiling.
Amongst this group we can identify individuals from the previous shot. The woman with the scarf, for instance; the suave, handsome man, with his arm around a woman’s shoulder; the thin man, again with a woman on either side; the two suited women who were holding hands. Other identifications are less certain. The photographer in the dark suit, for instance, does not appear in this picture, suggesting perhaps that he is the one who took it. But if we go to the next photograph, a more formal shot, this time of sixteen people grouped together, before trees, on a forest path, there he is, in the front row, extreme right, with his glasses on and his camera held before him in his two hands.
Most of those who are recognisable in the two previous shots are in this one as well; though the woman is no longer wearing her scarf; and the thin man in the rumpled suite is absent: is he then a third photographer? If so, is there a doubling and re-doubling of perspectives in that first picture: a photographer taking a photograph of a photographer taking a photograph of another photographer? There are several women who do not seem to figure in either of the two preceding pictures. Only one of the women is smiling―she is one of those walking in step; the others look abstracted, even melancholy. The beautiful woman in the centre of the composition is looking out of the frame, as if she has just seen something disturbing there.
The men, too, are solemn; perhaps the photographer asked them to adopt a formal air. They are all wearing suits and ties, as the women wear jackets and skirts. All sixteen are bare-headed. The photographer has asked seven of the men to squat down on their haunches in the front, while eight women stand in a row behind them; behind them, incongruously, is the eighth man, handsome, with a large square head, who appears in the previous picture, the one by the pool, with an easy stance and his hands in his pockets; whereas here he looks like someone who does not quite belong.
When you look a bit closer at that line of women, the one fourth from the left seems ambiguous. S/he could be male or female; although s/he is wearing a suit jacket and a tie, the figure looks feminine and you wonder if s/he is, improbably, cross-dressing. Is she also one of those obscured in the first photo? In the centre of the row of squatting men is a small man with spectacles who also appears in the photo by the pool. He is older than the others; an executive; or a scholar. The rest of them are younger, in their twenties or early thirties.
They are clearly work colleagues who have, for whatever reason, decided to have photographs taken. The time is the early 1950s; chances are, they all worked at Daiei Film Studio; but in what capacity? Maybe they were in accounts; or transport; or in script development; maybe the women are from the typing pool and the men from the camera department. Or maybe they are a loose group of friends who work in a variety of different positions in the studio. Their casual familiarity with each other suggests they are colleagues who know each other well from working together and enjoy getting together after hours to have fun.
Anonymity & Glamour
Some accounts say the girl who became actress Machiko Kyo was born Motoko Yano in Osaka in 1924. Others allege she was born in Mexico, where her father worked as an engineer. Her parents separated, in one version, while she was still young; in another, her father died when she was five and she was raised by her grandmother and her mother, a geisha, in the entertainment district of Osaka. An uncle took her to music hall shows and she began dancing―perhaps in the streets―when she was six or seven years old. By the time she was in her early teens, she’d changed her name to Machiko Kyo and joined a burlesque troupe. She made her film debut in Tengu Daoshi (The Tengu Did It), a hate-the-enemy film directed by Inoue Kintaro in 1944.
Five years she later was signed by Daiei, where Masaichi Nagata, with whom she may have become romantically involved, began promoting her as a sex symbol in the mould of Betty Grable or Hedy Lamar, hoping to arouse the interest of western audiences. Rashomon, in which Kyo starred, was a breakthrough for everyone involved. Even though Nagata, its producer, called it incomprehensible, it won an honorary Oscar for best foreign film, set box-office records for a subtitled picture and pioneered the so-called Rashomon effect, in which the same event is remembered in different ways. Pauline Kael called it the classic film statement of the relativism, the unknowability of truth.
Kyo also starred in Gate of Hell, the colour feature Nagata produced for Daiei in 1953. It is set in 1159, during the Heiji Rebellion, and tells the story of a samurai, Morito, who falls in love with a woman, Kesa, whom he has rescued. Kesa, played by Kyo, is a lady in waiting at the court and already married to another man, Wataru. Morito persuades her to conspire with him to kill her husband while he is sleeping; she gives him precise and detailed instructions as to how to do that. However, when Morito does commit the fatal act, he finds he has stabbed Kesa, not her husband. She has sacrificed herself to save Wataru and to preserve her own honour.
Gate of Hell had as profound an effect on American film-making as Rashomon, albeit for different reasons. Bosley Crowther, in the New York Times, wrote: The secret, perhaps, of its rare excitement is the subtlety with which it blends a subterranean flood of hot emotions with the most magnificent flow of surface serenity. The tensions and agonies of violent passions are made to seethe behind a splendid silken screen of stern formality, dignity, self-discipline and sublime aesthetic harmonies. The very essence of ancient Japanese culture is rendered a tangible stimulant in this film. In other words, American audiences were beguiled by the film’s use of colour as a splendid silken screen concealing, as it revealed, what was essentially a noir plot.
Kyo also starred in Mizoguchi’s 1955 film Princess Yang Kwei-Fei, playing a maid who becomes a princess; and a year later headlined the director’s last feature, Street of Shame, as a westernised woman prostitute who chews gum, overeats, and is a heavy smoker. Around the same time, Kyo went to Hollywood and made her sole American film, The Teahouse of the August Moon (1956), a satire upon the military occupation of Okinawa in which she appeared, opposite Glenn Ford, as a geisha named Lotus Blossom; her other co-star was Marlon Brando, in yellowface, cast, improbably, as Ford’s Okinawan interpreter. Kyo remained with Daiei until the studio filed for bankruptcy in 1971; and worked only intermittently, mostly in television, thereafter. She died, aged 95, in 2019.
This sketch of a biography suggests something of the ambiance of Daiei Studio in the 1950s, when those young people in the photograph were employed there. Working behind the camera, in whatever capacity, is not the same as being in front of it; but, as anyone who has worked upon a film shoot knows, the glamour of the cast belongs also to the crew; the same is true in the studio. At Daiei there were probably about a hundred and fifty staff in the various departments; they shared in the excitement of the artistic breakthroughs, of the breaking of sexual taboos, of the international successes which saw Japanese culture going out into the world. They lived a life full of possibilities, so apparent in the demeanour of those in this photograph.
Anonymity is the other side of the star system; the reverse of glamour if you like. Most people involved in the making of a film, which is inherently collaborative, only ever see their name in small print in the credits that roll at the end; and sometimes not even then. Contemporary practise is to list everyone who worked on a picture; even so, extras in crowd scenes or those who work in accounts, for example, do not usually make the credits. In the 1950s, only principals were acknowledged; everyone else had to be content that they and theirs knew what their contribution was. Not that there’s anything wrong with anonymity; after all, it is the fate of the majority of humankind.
Yet there is a poignant subtext to this photograph: perhaps some of those in it, whether they fulfilled their potential or not, were hoping for fame or fortune. Perhaps they wanted to achieve their ambitions in other terms, for instance by living a full and happy life. They might have done so; or they might have gone on to failures and disappointments, even to tragedy: the joy seen in this photograph is ephemeral and cannot be taken to mean anything other than what it was at the time. This is why anonymity in photographs is so suggestive: we want to know of the fate of these people and yet we doubt we ever can.
The German romantic poet Novalis said novels arise out of the shortcomings of history; meaning that whatever about the past we intuit but don’t actually know, we are tempted to invent. This photograph is so rich in detail it is easy to imagine a future for every person in it; and a past for each of them as well. This might or might not be a satisfying exercise; it would be better to know the actual life stories of those we see before us; but that is so unlikely as to be almost impossible. And yet: you never know. Something might still come up. Some wise old voice might speak and say: Oh yes, well, she . . . and as for him, he . . .
Note: photograph #238 is one of more than three hundred photos artist Mayu Kanamori found in a flea market in Daylesford, Victoria, about five years ago. The stall owner who sold them to her said they came from a deceased estate in Geelong but had no further information. They were all taken in Japan between about 1900 and 1960 and among them is photograph #213 which shows some of the same people in #238 standing in front of the Daiei Motion Picture Co. Ltd Kyoto Studio where, it seems, they worked. Mayu is making an online work about these photographs and has asked for speculative contributions, like the above, to it. When the work goes live, I will include a link to it here.
Credits : Daiei Film Studio in Kyoto; Rashomon Gate; photograph #238; Machiko Kyo in Gate of Hell