To mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of film, the "Documentarists of Japan" series will turn to some of the figures who helped build the foundations for contemporary Japanese documentary. In this issue, we are proud to present an interview with Komori Shizuo and Noto Setsuo, two members of Prokino, Japan's first independent, left-wing documentary film movement which we featured at YIDFF '89. The two were interviewed by the film historian Makino Mamoru and A. A. Gerow, a coordinator at the Yamagata Film Festival.
|That's the kind of time it was. In the movement, it was a time when you'd get caught the minute you did anything|
|If you wonder why we got involved in that movement then, with that number of people, and tried to take on the enemy full force, it was because of cinema's amazing communicative power|
Makino Mamoru: Japan's prewar proletarian film movement started about sixty-seven or eight years ago. The organization at the core of this movement was the Proletarian Film League of Japan, known as "Prokino" for short. The founding meeting for the group was in 1929, sixty-five years ago, and they were active for about four or five years after that. But these facts were little known after the war, let alone before it, and rarely appeared in even the histories written by historians of Japanese film. Of course, Prokino does appear in a few of the writings of the group's chairman, the prominent film critic Iwasaki Akira. However, in my view, there has been an attempt after the war to efface Prokino from the history of film. But in the 1960s there were some particularly young activists and filmmakers - some of whom are now famous - who wanted to take up Prokino's work. So these were the beginnings of a look into Prokino's history in the 1960s. In that situation, people like Fujita Motohiko and myself began studying Prokino in order to situate it in film history. We wanted to see the films Prokino made, even if just in fragments, and we wanted to deal with Prokino's activities as a whole, so we formed an association for recording their history. Many of the remaining living members of Prokino also participated in these investigations. Among that group, the former Prokino General Secretary, Namiki Shinsaku wrote the book, The Complete History of Prokino ("Purokino zenshi"). That about covers the work on Prokino up until now. Unfortunately, many of the original activists of Prokino were quite old, or had become sick and bed-ridden by the time of our investigations, so it was difficult to get raw testimony about the time. Now the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival has decided to take up this unique movement in the context of the form of early Japanese documentary film. So, we have taken this opportunity to ask Komori Shizuo and Noto Setsuo for their living testimony to that period.
A. A. Gerow: I'd first like to ask about the influences on Prokino. At the time, there were leftist documentary works like Dziga Vertov's Kino Glaz in the Soviet Union, but did you ever have any chance to see those? Or were you influenced by reading about them in magazines?
Komori Shizuo: They weren't anything that special to us. In general, everyone who studied film was completely entranced by Soviet film for such things as its theory of montage. Before I joined Prokino, there were predecessors to Prokino - leftist theater and film groups and so on - and there were narrow-guage film production activities in the Film Division of NAPF.1 We had that kind of experience, but since there was no particular relationship with Soviet or Euro-American film movements, I wouldn't say there was any influence.
Noto Setsuo: Listening to his recollections now, I recall that there were a number of texts that introduced Soviet film technique. Sasaki Norio and others published translations of montage theory and materials from other countries. At the time, anything related to the Soviet Union was seen as left wing. It was a time when it was dangerous to say anything good about the Soviet Union - the time of the Japanese emperor system. As Komori just said, there were sympathizers with the Soviets, or people studying such things, leftist movements and the like. The artistic expression of this appeared in drama, music, cartoons, painting, and in literature too, of course. It was popular in theater, and then you can include the first NAPF Film Division.
Komori: That was less NAPF than the early version of NAPF which took over from the Film Division of the Leftist Theater.
Noto: Yes, in the early period, the film group in the Leftist Theater had many people from drama who liked or knew film. Prokino, as a whole, was a leftist movement, to put it simply. We had a left wing political movement, and economic and cultural activities as well. People worked in film as one aspect of that cultural movement. There was theater before, and the like, and then some writers joined and things gradually developed and got bigger. Famous writers like Kobayashi Takiji and Kishi Yamaji got involved. Basically, with the Japanese system being the emperor system, this was a cultural movement in active opposition to that.
The film movement was different from other movements in that it had functional problems like filming and projection. Film is something that records. There were people who filmed documentaries - contemporary incidents - on 9.5mm film. I still think about how one of those people, Sasa Genju, said that "a toy is our weapon." What he meant by "a toy" - a high-priced plaything for rich people - was different from what we mean these days. These days cameras are widely used, but at that time only the rich had cameras. Sasa Genju was saying that we should take the plaything of the rich and use it as a weapon in the struggle. Film in those days, unlike today, was really good as a medium for taking images from place to place. People would watch a film and see how it was in Tokyo or in a foreign country. You could both study and enjoy yourself by watching a movie. Since it had commercial uses, we came to think that it should be used in the leftist movement as well. So we formed a group.
Cinema lagged behind the rest of the movement because, functionally, it had to use the camera and develop the film. This was one of the tough things about Prokino. If we took the film we shot to the developer's, they wouldn't process it for us: if the police caught them, it would've turned into a big incident. That's the kind of time it was. In the movement, it was a time when you'd get caught the minute you did anything. One of our older comrades, a member of the Executive Committee, explained theoretically in Prokino's journal how it would really be better if we were using 16mm film - to "take a toy and make it the weapon of our left-wing movement." It developed from there. First there was a 16mm camera, but both the 16mm camera and projector were made in America. There was the CineKodak, and what not, and the projector was by Victor, but none of this equipment was made in Japan. So just getting our hands on these "weapons" was quite a problem. None of us in the movement had any money, but there were kind and progressive people in the Japanese film world who cooperated with us. There were also average citizens and workers who understood and supported Prokino.
At that time, May Day celebrations were carried out under extreme pressure. We were the first to film May Day, you know, as a record. When I say that we filmed it, I mean, of course, that we filmed it secretly; we couldn't do it out in the open, so we'd take pains to keep the camera hidden while we filmed. But we also had to show our films, and films had to be checked by the censors. The censors would preview them and give them permits, but if a film didn't have the censor's seal you couldn't show it out in the open, legally. People who didn't have a seal were told that amateurs couldn't just do what they wanted. So even if we shot film and took it to the developer's, they wouldn't touch "red" work because it was dangerous. They'd refuse us. Yet processing film was one of the big tasks in the leftist movement in movies. Prokino was forced to go to one of our older comrades who had the technology, a man named Nakajima Shin. He helped us set up a dark room and developing lab in the bathroom of a house in Tokyo's Higashi Nakano, where he'd do reverse developing. Film at that time was reversal film: you'd expose the negative and make a positive by reversing it. Shooting a negative and then printing a positive was too hard. But in reverse developing you make a print right away by just turning the negative into a positive. So we'd make a print, then submit it to the Home Ministry for inspection by the censors. Anything unfavorable to the Imperial family, the Emperor or the government would get cut.
We would take around what was left and show it to film circles, or workers' culture movements - all kinds of places. We'd get together people who liked film and show it to them. One aspect of our movement was to use film as agitation. Our film of the May Day celebration was the best for agitation: the workers were marching boldly along a pre-determined route while totally surrounded by a huge number of imposing police. We'd show that film to rural workers, or even just average citizens, and through the movement of the images, the film functioned, as television and radio can do today, as our weapon. So it was important to make a film - not some drama, but a documentary - and to show them the raw scene: this is how the workers fight; this is how the farmers struggle. We'd film the city rail strike or the funeral procession for the assassinated leftist leader Yamamoto Senji [known as "Yama-Sen"] - really valuable records. Then we'd take them around the country showing them to people everywhere, spreading the word and using movies for our leftist movement.
Komori: Of course, we didn't have the word "documentary" then. The film world at large didn't use the word "documentary," nor did they have newsreels. If you ask when newsreels really got going, it was during the war. They'd follow advancing soldiers, then newspaper companies would show the films in school yards to raise peoples' enthusiasm for the war. People would see that and think, "That's where my son is." They'd get all excited thinking their son had been on film. That became famous over the whole country, so they began to build independent newsreel theaters. All over the place. But it was Prokino that first made news films.
Noto: Right, Prokino News.
Komori: Prokino News began with the film Tokyo May Day, 1927, all filmed on small 9.5mm cameras. Then, the film of the funeral of Yamamoto Senji around 1929 was probably one of the oldest documentaries. And then, what was really odd was cartoons. We didn't call them "animation." These days its done using cels, right? They do it by combining two cels. But we didn't have anything like that. Instead, we would cut the picture, and move it around frame by frame using a pincette. That's how we did it. And we did a lot of that. Agita Prokichi's Consumer Union ("Ajita Purokichi no shohi kumiai no maki") was probably one of the first animated films in Japan.
Gerow: That was one of the unique things about Prokino. You didn't just do documentary, but also fiction films and animation.
Komori: Yes, it was unique. And Prokino did lots of genres on that tiny scale. We had newsreels, documentaries, dramas, and animation. And we also did lots of rensageki.
Noto: They always did proletarian new theater at the Tsukiji Little Theater, including plays that had interludes of film, making them into rensageki. A normal rensageki was, well, you'd have a normal play, and there would be a chase scene in which the actors would run away and you'd film that on location. Then, when you put on the play, they'd run out the door, and the lights would go out, the screen would come down and you'd show the film. The film would follow them - they might go to a park - and there would be a scene in which they were about to be captured. Then the lights would come on, the stage would be set for the capture scene in the park and you'd stage the arrest. Of course, a director like Murayama Tomoyoshi2 had Prokino making films for his plays. We did one scene of dirigibles rising for a play called Rough No. 1. He studied for a while in Germany and was doing all sorts of things; whatever he did was a novelty. He did animation like the Agita Pro animation series we talked about earlier.
Makino: As researchers, when we look at this historically, there may have been many international influences on literature, drama, and music, as parts of the proletarian arts or cultural movement of the time. But in connection with Gerow's question at the beginning concerning international influences on the start of Prokino, the two of you seem to be saying that there weren't any particular influences in the case of film. Instead, you were on your own. The leading theorist of the early period, Iwasaki Akira, was interested in German Expressionism, and Sasa Genju began from the position of French experimental film. Soviet or Russian films hardly ever came, and even if the theory itself was brought in, it wasn't much of a reference for Prokino. At the beginning, Prokino mostly took up critical activities, publishing magazines and writing criticism of leftist "tendency films"3 made at major studios. But at your second general meeting, in 1930, there was what could be called a Copernican revolution in which it was decided to use narrow-guage film and actually produce motion pictures yourselves. So the current bookish tendencies were completely overturned. As for the two of you here, Noto, you took the films that were made and showed them all over the country, organizing screenings which were more than simple screenings but also involved supporting and organizing regional farmers' movements or factory workers' movements. And in the case of Komori, you came in toward the end of the movement, and the core of your activities were in the Tokyo headquarters, as head of the Tokyo chapter, head of the educational division, and then head of the organizational division. They say you were working on organization right up to the very end. Those were the kinds of activities you two undertook, right?
Noto: About your first point, there was a feeling of international connection in drama and music. We wanted the same thing in film, but of course, cinema was far behind the other fields. Everyone thought Soviet film was terrific, so we sometimes said that the USSR was the home of everyone who was in the movement. In film, we studied Pudovkin and Eisenstein on a theoretical level, but never got to put montage into practice. As Makino said, we went from bookish to practical activities - independent production, to use today's term. It became necessary to make films, so we did it on 16mm, but we had to rent both the camera and the projector from a rental store. But if the camera was our weapon, we really needed one, so we took up a collection among our supporters, patrons, and sympathizers and tried to buy one. When it came to exhibition, we did two kinds: public and illegal screenings. As I said before, screenings would be done at some auditorium: in Tokyo, we did it at the Yomiuri Auditorium, a wonderful place. We suffered a lot of police harrassment during screenings: they'd frisk the audience and make trouble. We charged entry fees and collected money that way. The entry fee for average citizens was high, and low for workers, since it was a workers' movie. So we'd collect money and use that as investment for the next film. We'd make it ourselves, distribute it, and go out to the countryside by ourselves. When we went away from Tokyo, we'd go to various gatherings, maybe to a rural film movement, or to some group that was active in politics or economics. With that as our base, we'd go out and show our films, like they're still doing today. The local agricultural cooperatives or labor associations were the center. We'd get an agreement on conditions and show the film. We'd get a small fee for showing it and then come home and save that. Then we'd make the next plan.
To do everything with our own hands, to be at the contact point between something you made and an audience, well, it's something I'm proud of. At the time it was something we had to do, but if you were active even a little bit, the cops would grab you. At legal public screenings the police wouldn't touch us. But other than that, as part of our movement, if we heard there was a strike going on, we'd rush over to the strike with our projector and encourage them to keep at it. We'd show them films of farmers' struggles and May Day and Prokino News and inspire them to continue the strike. We'd give them energy. But we had to do this in secret; it would've be terrible if we were caught. At the time we had that cruel law, the Peace Preservation Law4: if three people got together, they had to report it as a meeting, and if you were loafing about you could be questioned on suspicion. They'd ask you where you were going and if you got upset they'd arrest you for suspicious behavior. Although Prokino held some events in the open, we also did things in secret - illegal activities - and this was our main activity. We went around doing screenings in big cities like Tokyo, Osaka, and Sapporo. When we did them in the countryside, one person had to lug around the projector, the film, and the screen all by himself. Sometimes one more person, a cameraman, would go along to shoot film, and we'd go around the country as a pair screening films. The cameraman would shoot film of the workers' and farmers' struggles as material for Prokino News.
Komori: For example, our publicity film, Our Advertisement ("Oretachi no kokoku"), for NAPF's official organ, The Battle Flag ("Senki"), was rejected by the censors at the Home Ministry. But when we went out to the countryside, we took it along anyway. We didn't use it at public screenings in large auditoriums, but we'd show it at small gatherings. When I think about it now, we did go around the country making money. We'd gather two or three hundred people in a small place and take up a collection. They'd also provide food and board. We'd get travel expenses from Prokino, but only train fare from here to places like Hokkaido.
Makino: Everyone lodged at the office, didn't they?
Noto: Yes, that's right. Full-time members did. And actually, most of the time we'd get a little money for board. We'd find our own sympathizers and supporters and get them to contribute money so we could get by. It was only when the cops tossed us in the slammer that we didn't need any money for food. It sounds funny, but sometimes jail really helped out.
Gerow: Did you have any other jobs?
Noto: No, none at all. We full-time members just concentrated on this. But there were also other people, students and such. Lots of students. We two moved up from being students to full-time members. We sometimes even got money sent from home.
Gerow: Speaking of students, Prokino did run a series of lecture courses, didn't it? What were those like?
Noto: They were for one week. We had lectures everyday for a week, on theory and such. They also taught us projector technology, just once during the week - it was easy to do. They quit offering the lecture series after the third or fourth time. We were in the second class. The teachers were older members of Prokino, and they gave real lectures. If you came for a week you could be a Prokino member the next day.
Komori: No, that's not quite true. In my case, I became a member after around half a year. The policy on that changed in 1930 with the Bolshevization of leftist arts activities. The policy changed so that anyone who wanted to enter could.
Noto: My years in Prokino were the two years from 1931 to 1932. When I look back over those two years, I can say that I did broaden myself. I walked all over Hokkaido, Okayama, and Kochi prefectures carrying a projector. During that whole time, I got tossed in the coop a couple of times. In Tokyo we had the "Eye-Opening Troop" ("Mezamashitai"). The Eye-Opening Troop was a mobile group that gathered together all the various cultural movements we've been talking about: the Drama and Artists Leagues, the Musicians League, and Prokino. We'd show films, sing songs, and make teams; we'd go to strikes and spur them on. The main task of the mobile group was Prokino. Screenings were quite a task after all: you had to be careful. I'm from Sapporo, but when I went there to do screenings, I couldn't even visit my parents' house. When I first left Sapporo, I wasn't thinking about entering Prokino. But when I went to see a film, I saw a poster recruiting members for the Proletarian Film League, and I figured it would help me become a filmmaker. Before that I had gotten somewhat interested in leftist activities through friends, some of them in the then leftist New Generation Club at Tokyo University. I went thinking it was just a film, but it turned out to be an amazing proletarian film. I didn't hate it; in fact I thought it was interesting, so I jumped right in. But when I carried a projector off to Hokkaido, I couldn't even show my face in my own house. If I turned up there, the neighbors would talk about how my family had produced a "red" and I'd cause everyone lots of trouble.
Komori: The Bolshevization of proletarian cultural movements wasn't just writing novels, making movies, or painting pictures. We also gathered people who liked film into groups, like fans of the film stars Hayashi Chojuro [later known as Hasegawa Kazuo] or Kurishima Sumiko. Then we'd work to educate them, to get them to lend their energies to the proletarian front. That's what I did. But if I just got together people who liked Hayashi Chojuro, nothing would happen. It wouldn't really come together; it would just end with them thinking that they liked him. I continued that mostly in the factory zone of Tokyo's downtown. I brought together women who worked in soap factories, but you can't make an organization from that. You can if it's for novels. You can gather people together to write novels, or for a literature study group. But you can't do that with film.
Noto: We would keep people after a screening in the countryside and have a discussion. And if during that discussion someone would speak up and, as we used to say, showed "good tendencies," close to the left, we'd mark them and pass it on to the locals. Komori would do what we talked about earlier - the student circles, workers circles, and what not - in Tokyo because it was so large. In the countryside it was the same kind of leftist movement, so I felt like I had do that kind of activity through film screenings. By doing that we could make Japan better. What we enjoyed, what made us proud, was our desire to make Japan better. You could ask what could be fun about not eating or drinking. Why did we take such pains? Well, it's because, as I was saying, it was the time from when I was twenty-three to twenty-five and I felt that things couldn't go on the way they were going. We had to do something no matter what kind of pains we had to endure. The people who joined also liked film; we were alike in that we were all in a movement to do film. There were some who quit, but not many. There were all kinds of people, and in the midst of that, Komori and I worked exclusively as full-time members.
Makino: Komori, there were both production and organizational activities. You didn't really participate in the production activities much, did you?
Komori: No, not at all. I just did organizational work: organizational maintenance. What I did was, when members stopped coming out, I would try to get them to work for us somewhere in the organization. It came to the point where I spent everyday talking to people, making contact.
Makino: That was near the end, wasn't it? It must have been hard.
Noto: We were completely destroyed by police persecution.
Komori: It got hard to pull people out. That's all I did, everyday. And we didn't have any telephones in those days, you know. All of the activists began to have problems, and I just couldn't convince them to come out.
Makino: Had production and screening activities already stopped by then?
Komori: No. Screening activities continued until the very end. Prokino News and Rice Cakes for Worker-Farmer Solidarity ("Rono danketsu mochi") were in production at the end.
Noto: The latter was a publicity film for a consumers cooperative, calling for solidarity between workers and farmers through making rice cakes. That's how we got the title, "rice cakes for solidarity."
Komori: It was nothing at all. It was just publicity for a rice cake-making machine. We only added the "worker-farmer" part.
Noto: Just as Komori was struggling back in Tokyo, I was lent out from Prokino to help make a tendency film. It was an allied independent production company, and for the first time I got to work on a 35mm dramatic film. The company was called the Center for Research in the Art of Sound Film ("Onga Geijutsu Kenkyujo").5 They were comrades of Prokino, so Shino Shozo and I were sent out to work with their staff. We went off to make a 35mm dramatic film and while we were gone, the head office was done in. We got off easy as a result.
Makino: So, Komori, you were arrested at the very end?
Komori: Yes. After all, I was the secretary of the Tokyo chapter. All the central members of KOPF6 had been arrested at that time. We figured we were in trouble, that they'd be coming for us next, so we tried to keep working without going near the office. But a bunch of the special police busted into my house. They were strange, asking if I had a gun, things like that, and I figured I'd better not say anything out of the ordinary. It seems that they were a bunch of special cops from the Azabu station who had never arrested anyone before.
Makino: With your arrest, Prokino was in effect finished.
Komori: That's right. When I got to the police station, there were a number of people from the Ochiai dorm, and more people kept getting brought in. It was as if the next meeting of the Tokyo chapter was being held in the slammer.
Makino: Historically speaking, this was just at the time that NAPF changed to KOPF. In general, just about everyone, the drama and musical sections, and the others, were done in.
Noto: Not just the movement, but all over, all leftist activities came under intense persecution. Of course, the cultural groups were first because cultural movements have the power to transmit. That had to be crushed. As I mentioned earlier, some of us went over to work with the Center for Research in the Art of Sound Film where we made a tendency film called Youth Across the River ("Kawa muko no seishun"). It got cut to pieces by the censors, but it was our first time screening a film at a big theater. Kawakita Nagamasa of Towa Company distributed it for us, even though that kind of tendency film was called "red." It was shown right out in the open at the Hogaku-za. It was the talk of the town.
Makino: The director was Kimura Sotoji.
Gerow: He was a Prokino member, wasn't he?
Noto: Yes, he was. But because he was, after all, a famous director, he couldn't really get involved in our activities. He did give us money, though. In fact, the actor Tsukigata Ryunosuke, the director Ito Daisuke, and a number of others at the Kyoto studios all donated funds.
Gerow: To move on towards the end, Prokino was destroyed, but you can say that its spirit continued to live on to a certain degree after the war. What kind of influence do you think Prokino had on later film history?
Komori: The former members of Prokino unfortunately didn't really do much in today's Japanese film world. But many, like Imai Tadashi7 or Yamamoto Satsuo,8 were Prokino sympathizers. You know, Imai Tadashi went from Mita High School to Tokyo University and tried to start a leftist student film federation there. Imai was at Tokyo, I was at Waseda University, and Asukata Ichio, later the head of the Socialist Party, was at Meiji University - he was the chairman of the Meiji film society. The three of us got together maybe once or twice, but that was all. Then I got pinched by the cops a couple of times and that was that. A few years after I got out of jail, I finally got a job at a studio in Kyoto and Imai Tadashi was already there. In some sense, it was because Imai wasn't really active in Prokino. Yamamoto Satsuo - Noto knows him very well - he was a member when we made a film called Sports at Waseda. In a sense, the two of them got ahead because they were still around. I entered Prokino, Imai Tadashi entered J.O. Studios, and Yamamoto Satsuo joined Shochiku's Kamata studio. As a young leftist film buff, I thought that entering Prokino was the right way to go, so that's what I did.
Makino: Some sixty-odd years have passed since then. You influenced the people around you and, at one time, had various kinds of support. Since then, the two of you have continued in the world of film, each building up his own series of achievements. Yet at the beginning of this was Prokino. While The Complete History of Prokino and other sources provide a comprehensive view, looking back over it now, what did Prokino mean in each of your lives?
Komori: That's a difficult problem. For me, as an organizer for the movement, Prokino seemed, somewhat against my expectations, to be distanced from film production. Later, it proved completely useless for my work as a script writer. On the other hand, it did nurture in me an eye for viewing people and society. Then prison, along with military life and all those times in the hospital, I think helped give me a strange kind of courage.
Noto: Prokino was good for me. It was an independent production movement which got me into Toho where I continued to do film.
Komori: You just happened to be sent there.
Noto: We went to the Center for Research in the Art of Sound Film and got left there. Couldn't return even if we wanted to. Prokino just disappeared. After I went there, I moved to P.C.L and then to Toho, after which I was just a normal film person. But I'm glad I did what I did at Prokino while I was young.
Komori: It's true that in your case, what you have today is thanks to Prokino.
Noto: Well, that's because, basically, I participated in the same kind of movement. After I quit Toho, I made and screened films independently for 40 years, the same thing I did at Prokino. For that reason, I'm glad I did it. Everyone has their own experiences.
Komori: Looking back on it now, I kind of regret that I didn't spend those three or four years more involved in my own way in film production.
Makino: Well, I think this will be the last question. At the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival, they are getting submissions of full-length documentaries from young documentary filmmakers from all over the world. The circumstances are different, but in a certain respect, Prokino was similar in how it also collected its own money and labored to make films among friends. The social circumstances may be different, but in what way do you think that a historical movement in Japan sixty years ago can of help to young people today?
Noto: I think the fact that age - being young or old - doesn't matter in cinema is, after all, something tremendous. It's everything. My whole life was a life of film, in the end.
Komori: Looking at things now, I think documentaries are more interesting than dramatic films. In the end, drama is just something made-up, and, while something made-up can be interesting, it just doesn't develop at all. But documentary has developed tremendously.
Noto: Well, documentary was our starting point. Whether you are someone who has always done documentary from the start, or someone who moved into the category of dramatic film through a variety of commercial activities, in the end, it's all the same. In the case of what I did in my life, I did independent production in both places. I was faced with bad conditions because I did leftist films. But of course, today's young people are also in a bad situation; because of some economic condition or the like, they also can't do what they want to do. But I think you must fight that which won't let you do what you want to do in order to do it. I want to appeal to everyone through the strength, or magnificence of film. Even through hauling around a film projector.
Makino: So your critique of society then, or, you could say, your youthful sense of what was right was one big motivation for getting involved.
Noto: We figured we had to do it. We couldn't do it thinking about what we'd gain or lose. Like in the communal situation we talked about before, we studied things like dialectics, or read books we didn't always understand. But we'd still read. After all, we were also taught that when you're an activist, you also need theory.
Komori: If we count up the total now, there were about 200 members of Prokino over the whole country.
Noto: When I think about it, film has a wonderful quality: you can study just by watching it. You can see America, or people in Hokkaido can see people working in Tokyo. There were photographs at the time, but if you wanted to see movement itself, there was only film. That attraction may be have been kind of childish, but at root, like Komori said, documentary was the origin of film. When you go in the direction of dramatic film you change the elements. There are all kinds of film theory about this, so I don't know for sure, but documentary is, in fact, the basis of film.
Makino: In that sense, precisely at a time when there was no television, it was possible to see on film something which had only been in the newspaper, like a city rail strike in Tokyo.
Noto: When I went to Hokkaido, I went to a village to show some films. There was a police station in the village, and a policeman came around to my lodgings and gave me some food that his wife made. I wondered why he was being so kind to me. Well, I didn't understand, but I ate the food anyway, because after all, he'd gone to the trouble of bringing it to me. I had my projector with me so I offered to show him a film and ended up showing him the one of May Day in Tokyo. The Hokkaido policeman then saw the policemen in Tokyo. He talked about how unique it was, and then asked me not to cause a big commotion in the village. I wondered why he treated me so kindly, but when you leave Tokyo for the countryside, they treat you like a VIP.
I'd go off with my projector and show people a film, and seeing a film was better proof than hearing a lecture. The audience would get excited and cause a commotion. You'd put on a record of the International or of a May Day song, and then show the film with the record. We'd show them the May Day film, with everyone running around, and people would start buzzing, faces flushed, and get all riled up. At the end, in all the commotion, if the cops arrested some comrades, we'd be amazed at the fact people would shout about how they should go and get them back from the oppressive police. It's really amazing, and it's because film moves, I think. It may be petty and childish, but there was an amazing power to cinema itself. So if you wonder why we got involved in that movement then, with that number of people, and tried to take on the enemy full force, it was because of cinema's amazing communicative power. It's different from a play or music. You'd show it to them and they'd understand right away. In that respect, I think the films we made in the movement were great. From today's perspective it looks insignificant, like we were just fumbling around, but we developed the film ourselves, we made animation - we did it all by ourselves. I don't think you'll find many other examples of that in film history.
Gerow: Thank you very much for coming here today and sharing your experiences with us.
(Interviewed September 8, 1994)
1. NAPF is the acronym for the Esperanto Nippona Artista Proleta Federacio, or Japan Proletarian Artist Conference. NAPF was the result of a merger in 1928 between the Japan Proletarian Artist Federation and the League of Vanguard Artists. It contained specialized divisions for literature, art, film, music, and publishing, but after its reorganization, each of the subdivisions became independent federations. The Proletarian Film League got its start at that time and was attached to NAPF.
2. Murayama Tomoyoshi was born in 1901 and studied in Germany after leaving Tokyo Imperial University without graduating. Upon his return to Japan, he became a champion of the avant-garde in painting, architecture, theater, and film. Was active as a leader of the proletarian cultural movement through theater in particular.
3. "Tendency films" were films produced at commerical studios during the latter half of the 1920s which took up social themes under the influence of left-wing ideology.
4. The Peace Preservation Law was promulgated in 1925 and became the legal basis for maintaining the emperor system and the current social order by suppressing all oppositional movements. It also organized the Special Police who symbolized the police state during the war.
5. The Center for Research in the Art of Sound was founded in the winter of 1932 around Omura Einosuke and the leftist director Kimura Sotoji for the purpose of making progressive films. Prokino was later recognized as an allied film group. Eventually, the Center passed through P. C. L. (Photo Chemical Laboratories) and entered the umbrella of Toho.
6. KOPF is the acronym for the Federacio de Proletaj Kultur Organizoj Japanaj (the Japanese Federation of Proletarian Culture Organizations). Formed in 1931 as the leadership organization for the proletarian culture movement with the addition of six groups to the original six of NAPF.
7. Imai Tadashi was born in 1912 and entered J.O. Studios after leaving Tokyo Imperial University without graduating, eventually ending up at Toho. After the war, he was a leading social realist filmmaker, having become an independent producer with such films as Until the Day We Meet Again.
8. Yamamoto Satsuo was born in 1910. Before the war he moved from Shochiku to Toho and afterwards, he made independent films in a social realist style, producing such works as Vacuum Zone and War and Humanity.
Born in Tokushima Prefecture in 1911, and raised in Tokyo. Expelled from Waseda Second College for leftist activities in 1931. Joined the Japan Proletarian Film League (Prokino) and was assigned to the newly formed organizational division. In charge of establishment and management of film circles in Koto-ku, Tokyo. Traveled around Saitama and Nagano prefectures doing mobile screenings. In 1932, selected to become Secretary General of the Tokyo chapter, then head of the central educational division, and finally head of the central organizational division. Arrested and taken to the Toriisaka police station in January 1934. Imprisoned in Ichigaya Jail in May. Released the following year after serving two years, to spend four more on probation. After release from prison, worked in dramatic and documentary film, and wrote several thousand scripts for television and radio, but, unfortunately, he says, "not one that I am proud of."
Born in 1908 in Sapporo. Dropped out of the Arts Faculty of Nihon University in 1930 to participate in Prokino from 1931 to 1932. Worked at the Center for Research in the Art of Sound Film in 1932 and joined P. C. L. in 1933, working in the production division as the company changed its name to first Toho Motion Picture and then just Toho. Left in 1948 and joined the Kindai Motion Picture Association in 1952, working until the present as a producer and company director. Films as producer include: Blue Mountains (Toho, 1948), Vacuum Zone (Shinsei, 1950), Children of Hiroshima (1952), Cape Ashizuri (1954), Onibaba (1964), Kuroneko (1968), Live Today, Die Tomorrow (1970), and numerous others (the latter all for Kindai Motion Picture Association).