Setsuko Hara: Into Silence
She became a film icon during the most chaotic years in Japan’s modern history. And then she walked away.
Film production in Japan began in 1889, growing from “sightseeing films” of different Tokyo districts, to short films of plays, dances, Kabuki, and Sumo wrestling. Newsreels detailing the military’s campaigns at the turn of the century soon followed.
Tokyo became the center of film production, with most early studios beginning as importers of foreign films. During the 1920s, Japanese studios began to adapt the Hollywood system of production, distribution, exhibition, and promotion. The 7.9-magnitude Great Kanto Earthquake in September of 1923 leveled every studio in Tokyo except for Shochiku Kamata — the others rebuilt in other regions of Honshu: Kyoto, Osaka, and Kobe. This earthquake, along with later Allied bombings and the degradation of the nitrate-based film stocks, resulted in the loss of the majority of films made during this early period.
Toho, Japan’s most well-known studio, began life in 1929 as as a film development company named P.C.L., which expanded into recording studios during the advent of talkies in the early ’30s. With these facilities in place, they began in-house production of short concession advertisements for theaters. Their first full-length feature was a musical comedy funded by the Dai-Nippon Beer company, titled Horoyoi Jinsei (Intoxicated Life).
P.C.L. was eventually acquired by railroad magnate Ichizo Kobayashi (rail companies in Japan often owned theaters and shopping arcades near railway stops), and through a series of mergers with other Kobayashi-owned studios, officially became Toho in August of 1937.
The Nikkatsu studio was created in 1912 by the merger of four smaller film importing companies. After their facilities were destroyed in the earthquake, they relocated to Kyoto. By the time Nikkatsu opened another Tokyo studio in 1934, the Japanese film industry’s studio system conventions, primary aesthetic characteristics, and genres — most broadly, the jidaigeki (period film), and the gendaigeki (modern film) — were largely established.
As in Hollywood, when an actor was contracted with a studio, they were provided with a new name and public…