Early Twentieth Century Japanese Film Industry with Stephen Ranger

Duration of podcast 25:50

Interviewer: S

Interviewee: R


This is the Nordic Asia podcast.


S: Welcome to the Nordic Asia podcast, a collaboration sharing expertise on Asia across the Nordic region.


S: My name is Satoko Naito and I am a docent at the Centre for East Asian studies at the University of Turku in Finland. And it's my pleasure to today welcome Stephen Ranger who is a research associate at the European Centre for international political economy.


S: He's also a PhD candidate here at the Centre for East Asian studies. And his research interests include British foreign policy in East Asia, Japan's rise in the early 20th century, and film Industries in the region.


S: He's joined us today to talk about his recent publications on the early Japanese film industry. Thanks so much for your time Stephen and welcome to the podcast.


R: Thank you very much for having me on and it’s a pleasure to be here, thank you.


S: Before we discuss your papers, which were really insightful, your current research focuses on Japan and East Asia broadly. Did you start with interest in this region, and is this an extension of your previous research?


R: Yes, to a certain extent. It's been a sort of progress since I started out with Korean studies originally at university and then I went to Korea to pursue my Master’s in international relations, and then working in think tanks and so on. The focus was mainly on US-China relations in North Korea, very contemporary issues, and I found that was kind of sort of limitations on how you can approach those topics of contemporary issues so I was looking for a different approaches and cultural industries seemed very interesting. I was able to work together with some colleagues on a research project that we've just wrapped up now, in which we looked in Korea’s cultural industries, Hallyu and so on, the Korean wave. And for me, I was able to tie this with my other interests in the post-doctoral studies which I am doing at the moment which is on more historic issues and of Britain's role in Asia during the period of Japan's rise at the early 20th century.


R: So merging these two, what seemed opposite topics together, it was quite fascinating, looking at, say, the film industries in the early period when some European countries like Britain and so on where more dominant the market before Hollywood came about, before Hollywood even set up. So it is an interesting to look at this transition between the European film industries in Asia and then when Hollywood came in, to understand the decline of these industries. So I looked in to that in the first paper I did, and then the second paper I look more at Hollywood’s role, so it is kind of part two of the story, so how Hollywood began to experience its own difficulties as well. And again, I look at the political story in the background this overlap with that and what influences came from that.


S: Okay, great. It's always really fascinating to me to hear, and inspiring to hear, the range of expertise that scholars have and how your research evolves overtime, thanks for sharing that with us. You already mentioned your two articles, and I'd like to look at the specifics that you discuss, but first maybe if you can, you touch upon this already, but if you can first introduce us to the state of the Japanese film industry in the early 20th century?


R: Yes, so early 20th century, as many countries at the time, which are beginning to experience the growth of their industries and film as soon as the development of the technology to make films. And in this respect, a lot of European countries were kind of importing or exporting films to Japan, Britain was one of the leading countries. In fact, Britain at the time had London which was the hub of distribution for films that were made at the time.


R: Japan was caught up very quickly in terms of forming its own industries and I think this is very interesting example of how Britain went into decline with its own film industry, whereas Japan was rising and went on to compete equally with Hollywood by the 1920s.


R: So Japan was able to sort of very much vertically integrate their film industry similar to the way that Hollywood emerged as well. So Japan has learnt from the US, early lessons as well from Britain about filmmaking techniques and so on. So adapting the perfect lessons from each country and it came to be successful. But so that's how the background story of the paper that I worked on, but I looked at more the competitive aspect of Britain at the time.


S: Okay. So the competitive aspect of Britain, well you mention that London is a hub because not only are they producing films in Britain, but they're also distributing films, so you mean from other European countries, is that right?


R: European countries and also the US was distributing films through London at the time. But then once Hollywood established its own studio system, distribution then went directly through the Hollywood Studios, they opened up their own distribution companies in Japan which bypassed London.


R: So London's role became by the end of the 1910s, early 1920s, London’s role was non-existent at that time as a distribution hub. And I explored many of the other issues about how European film industries became more inward looking and less concerned about larger markets, more nationalistic almost in the contents of their films.


S: Can you tell us specifically when you say nationalistic; so which countries exactly are you talking about?


R: So we looking at France, particularly, Germany to an extent, that would emerge later. In fact, Germany was quite successful in competing with Hollywood for international type films as you might call them. Britain also began to look more popular topics that will be for British audiences rather than International audiences. So dramas that would appeal to middle class audiences in Britain rather than thinking about global markets and so on. So a lof of this is partially an outcome of First World War, there was still a lot of antagonism between different countries and a lot of boycotts and bans were put in places.


R: So it's a sort of manifestation of the politics in Europe. Yeah, it's a sort of interesting story, the decline of Europe's film industries.


S: Yeah, definitely. So of course that in this situation the Hollywood is not included in your discussion at this point.


R: At this point not direct study, I looked more of Britain and its experience. But Hollywood is always the big player in the room I guess. You know you compare because eventually Hollywood would become the more dominant in the market, in the Japanese market by the 1920s. Even Hollywood would become second to domestic films made in Japan which is a story that's unique in itself, whereas like in Europe, France for instance, or Britain, would be dominated by Hollywood films in their own markets. Japan was actually able to compete successfully against Hollywood so it's an interesting story as well.


S: Yeah that definitely is. You mentioned in one of your papers that by the early 1920s the Japanese preferred American films over those of, you cite Germany, Italy or Britai,n so obviously by this point they could distinguish American films from the European films. Can you explain a little more about that phenomenon?


R: Yes, so I think Hollywood success at the time is very much to do with its approach to filmmaking. In terms of big stars that they used, the cutting edge technology and special effects and so on, universal stories that was very appealing. And I think I used the quote in the paper about from some Hollywood executive who complained about European film makers were not really understanding international audiences in terms of even genre of the films they were making.


R: And there were also other factors in the way that Hollywood was more geared up very much for direct distribution, very effective distribution channels at worked. Well, as I was saying the interesting story from that is, although Japanese audiences enjoyed Hollywood films and this was mainly you could say urban phenomenon anyway.


R: And the other thing it reflects the great middle class as well in Japan at the time, more urbanized middle class. And they would have time and money to go to movie theatres to watch films. But at the same time as I mentioned, Japanese film industry was catching up very quickly, becoming equally as competitive so that’s a very interesting tale there.


S: Yeah, so the domestic film market: Japanese films, how did that fare domestically?


R: Obviously I focus more on the international companies over there. But yes, there were key film makers who were very effective in working in this sort of…vertically integrated structure of film companies. They were able to produce films that were quite appealing in terms of topic, they also brought in the star system as well, similar to Hollywood which was effective. But there is very little to know about the films that were made during this period, partly because of the great Kanto earthquake in 1923. It lit a lot of fires, and the fires destroyed a lot of the copies of these films that were made during this period. And there were no other copies, it was single copies, prints of these films. So a lot of the films of this period, this very critical period, a lot of original stocks of these films are missing so it is very much anecdotal evidence of what was happening in terms of the content of the films. But from what we know, we can deduce from that. So I think this is very much the Hollywood System where a studio dominates all aspects of the industry from planning, producing the film, then distributing the film to the theatres, even owning the theatres as well. So you have one company that all operations in this in filmmaking industry is run by one company. And this means that they can plan out more accurately where the film's going to go in the endpoint in the beginning point they can effectively plan out their operation. I mean there are controversial aspects about that today, I meanthe Hollywood system as you might describe it has been controversial through the ages but it has been effective in Japan, they still have their vertically integrated system, some of it still exists from what emerged during the 1910s and 20s.


S: Your focus on your paper on Hollywood in the Japan’s film industry talks about the film ban of 1937 which lasted just about a year. And it's a kind of—censorship of course is a huge issue of this period, interwar, post-war, especially in Japan. You to talk about the strength of the Home Ministry and its role in censorship. Can you speak widely about censorship during this time, both with Hollywood films and maybe also with the domestic films as well?


R: Yes so the focus of my paper was looking at the political aspects and how it related to this import ban. One of the curious aspects I found about the import ban, as you mention was its short-lived nature. It seemed very odd to me that at a time when the political climate between the U.S. and Japan at the time was really antagonistic, and there was great dispute about what was happening in China. The film ban you would think would stay, but actually it was lifted and there were negotiations over it. So it was quite interested to look at what was going on behind the scenes. It seems to me it was more related to financial aspects, issues related around the transfer of funds. But there's also the issue of censorship and I’m trying to understand how censorship works during this period.


R: And one interesting aspect is that the censorship wasn't as strict as I might have imagined, at the time. As Japan becoming more involved in its war in China and you have stronger leaning towards far right fascist elements, you’d expect there to be complete ban on outside films and so on. But actually they didn't come to it, the war broke out with the US and Hollywood films were still being brought in fact and weren’t being censored as in complete bans. A lot of Hollywood films paused through with just minor editing, and editing at that time was mainly related to issues that were political in nature. So if there's any reference about war in China or contemporary political issues that would be cut out or in some cases, would return it and the filmmakers that made the film, slightly changing some scenes to help with the continuity. but it is interesting to say that actually the censorship wasn’t as strict and as straight as I thought it would be.


R: I mean in some ways, it's been pointed out in some studies, about how some of the censorship was actually used to make money. So they would reject films, but every time you put a film in censorship you have to pay for it. So every time it was rejected you had to pay again and again, it was kind of a money making scheme. So the film ban that did come in 1937 was very much about transfer foreign currency reserves that Hollywood film makers where making, where their profits went, how they took it out of the country. So that was possible for negotiation to find an agreement on that. Whereas if it was more political in nature and very much about keeping Hollywood out of Japan, I would have imagined that would have been impossible in analysis I use. Bu that’s a very complicated story about censorship and even the parties involved.


R: So you mentioned the Home Ministry, the Home Ministry was central. But the Army and the Navy could also petition for films to be censored or changed. And even later on as Japan became member of the Axis Alliance with Germany and Italy, then you had Germany and Italy petitioning Japan to ban or censor certain films they weren’t happy with. That was part of this effort of politics of some sort of cultural interaction between the Axis powers, which was quite an interesting story on it's own, about how Germany, Italy and Japan try to present this idea of cultural exchange between them, even though their policies were very much “superior cultures”. And it seems very odd that you would have this kind of cultural exchanges between nazi Germany, fascist Italy and Japan at that time. So it is interesting, the kind of requests they made for films that should be banned in each other's countries. Yeah, that's another story.


S: Yeah that's really fascinating. So am I right to assume that German and Italian films were never banned in Japan?


R: I mean, they were allowed in, in fact they tried to encourage more of those films and even Japanese filmmakers went to the Venice Film Festival that just started in the late 1930s. And you had Japanese filmmakers participating in the Venice Film Festival which was quite interesting as part of this whole cultural cooperation that was going on.


S: Okay so we've already mentioned the 1937 Hollywood film ban in Japan, but I understand that there was a 1924 Hollywood boycott and then finally a 1939 film law. Can you briefly outline the differences and how there's so many different levels of banning and boycotting in this period?


R: Yes, I think this really reflects the different actors who were involved at that time. The 1924 Hollywood boycott was very much amongst societies and groups in Japan at that time. Mostly far right groups and societies who were petitioning to work against Hollywood and so on, then instituted this boycott of movie theatres that were screening Hollywood films. But it was actually not that successful. Movie goers, audiences, still went to see the Hollywood films. And after a few days of shutting up shop they ended up opened up the theaters again and showed the films. So there was a limited effect of that. And I think it very much characterizes the time, the 1920s when these far right and militaristic societies, some that existed within the government and military at the time, were really taking out action on the street through assassinations and whatever. And there’s even the story of how they all must try to assassinate Charlie Chaplin, but that’s and another story.


R: But the ‘37 Hollywood ban as I mentioned before was more about the financial industry that was involved, instituted this. And it was actually ban of luxury goods of which Hollywood films were considered as one. This one affected European films although they were very marginal at the time. So it was very much a financially issue in that sense. And then once the issue about moving the funds through a Japanese trading organization bank that the issue was resolved. The 1939 film law, a piece of legislation that sort of limit more Hollywood films. So that was more closer to sort of an action against Hollywood.


R: But still Hollywood films came through, and it wouldn't be till the war actually broke out between Japan and the US that Hollywood films actually became banned completely, and that was in a sort of total war environment. But interestingly, and it has been commented in various works, about how Hollywood films still were popular even during the Second World War or the Pacific War, rather. So it had quite a lasting effect there, of power of films were made in Hollywood.


S: Throughout they always trickled through or trickled in, the Hollywood films?


R: Yeah, even after the various pieces of legislation they still trickled through in some ways. And I think a lot of studios still held their distribution offices in Tokyo and other cities. But I think it was probably after the film law that they started retreating one by one from direct distribution as the environment became more hostile in terms of the film law and other actions at some of these groups and societies became more powerful, who opposed very much anti-Americanism and so on. But yeah, among the audiences they were still quite popular.


R: You could still say Hollywood films are still popular. Maybe domestic films still hold a stronger showing at the market, but Hollywood films always seem to be popular worldwide.


S: That’s definitely true. About the ‘39 ban, so was that finally then lifted just after the war?


R: Yeah obviously, once the war came to an end then you talk about US occupation period. And then the US occupation period is quite interesting because you saw this as well in Korea which is an area I am looking at now. The U.S. occupation of Korea after the Second World War and how filmmaking and film distribution took on a new emphasis at that time the Cold War began to emerge. And then they were looking at the US military authorities who were trying to really do nation building exercises in these countries, using film as a medium to project thoughts, or moods and feelings about anti-communism and so on, that they were concerned about. But the filmmaking industries at that time began to receive quite significant funds and support. And then with the Korean War, a lot of film equipment came over from Hollywood for local Korean filmmakers to make films about, documentary films about, the war, but using Hollywood equipment because Hollywood filmmakers were not coming over to do it. I mean that's a very different story, but it's a fascinating one as well what happened there.


S: Yeah definitely. You mentioned this, so this is what you're focusing on, this is your current research?


R: Yeah this is another side research I'm working on. It’s not my main research for my postdoctoral studies but it’s another area that we're looking at and it’s quite interesting. As well as Japan, I am also looking at Korean film industry. It is part of this project I’ve been working for last five years or so, and in supporting this is about cultural industries in Korea and so on. Yeah that’s very interesting, there’s a lot of related papers as well.


S: There is definitely this common thread and their cultural diplomacy and foreign policy and censorship and really films are exciting topics. So I can imagine that it must be difficult and exciting to have so many ongoing projects. Can you tell us a bit about, well I'm not sure if I should call it your main line of work or your current research, but can you tell us a little more about what you're doing now?


R: Yeah I guess it's more like my primary research. My postdoctoral research is focused on British foreign policy in East Asia during the early 20th century so from 1894 to 1931. It is a very broad time period, it looks at the way in which Japan's rise affected Britain's relations with two countries: Korea and China, of course Korea losing its independence and becoming occupied by Japan, and then China losing Manchuria. So it's looking at the story of Britain at the time: 1894, Britain was very much one of the most powerful countries in the region. And how it interacted and the alliance it formed with Japan, and then how it interacted specifically with these two countries, Korea before it lost its independence, and China as it led up to Manchuria becoming Manchukuo sort of puppet state established in 1931. And it's so very long period of research and looking at the why in which British policy makers and strategies, and look at the region and try to understand the way in which threat perception works that identity politics are involved.


R: And how issues such as Russia, or the fear of Russia, brought Japan and Britain together more than it was concerned about Korea’s future or China's political integrity. And I think a lot of the lessons that could be extrapolated from looking at this period to be poignant for today when we look at more contemporary issues such as US-China relations which goes back to what I was saying before about the limitation of looking at contemporary issues in a sort of broader research project, it’s better that you have something that you can see that has happened such as in Japan’s rise. We've seen that, we know what happened it's just a question of how to interpret the events, that maybe that's going on today is very difficult to know, to predict, or even focus on in the future. But it’s also looking at other issues rather than just focusing on say, too much of a European centric view of using realist or liberalist or whatever approaches to the topics and try to look at some other ways. Also the region’s history, rather than using European history, to understand Asia. So I try to look at new approaches.


S: Yeah it sounds like really crucial research. I mean like threat perception, you mention Russia and of course the Chinese-American relationship now, this is all not at all irrelevant today. So it sounds very important and interesting.


S: Thank you so much, I'm really impressed and inspired by the wide scope of your research, and I really look forward to your continued work. And thank you so much for taking time to talk about your research today on the podcast.


R: Great, thank you very much. It's been a great pleasure to talk about my research and work I've done so far. And it helps also to keep clear of what I’ve been doing, so it is good to go through and revise and remember everything. With so much going on it's often you forget about your past work so it is good to go back. Again, thank you very much for giving me this opportunity to talk with you, it's been great.


S: Thank you. This was Steven Ranger, who is a research associate at the European Centre for international Political Economy and also a PhD candidate here at the Centre for East Asian studies at the University of Turku. And to our listeners, thank you for joining the Nordic Asia podcast, showcasing Nordic collaboration in studying Asia. Thanks again.


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