The Early Sound Film in Japan

The first film to include both image and sound (before which was only the silent film) is considered by historians to be The Jazz Singer (directed by Alan Crosland, 1927). This remarkable achievement, the result of years of technological research and experimentation by Warner Bros, quickly inspired others to replicate it and ushered in the era of the sound film. One small part of this story is especially important: how the incorporation of sound into film spread to other countries, with the most oft-cited case study being Japan.

This fall, having finished graduate school and with the benefit of actually having free time, I read a recent book called Electrified Voices: How the Telephone, Phonograph, and Radio Shaped Modern Japan, 1868-1945 by Yerim Kasar (published 2018). In it, Kasar brings to light new information that questions the traditional narrative that film historians have told about the early days of the sound film in Japan.

Before we get to Yasar’s revelation, we must first recount that traditional narrative, which goes something like the following. After the success of The Jazz Singer and other sound films in the United States, they were quickly exported, as was typical of Hollywood films in those days, to other countries. They were big hits in Japanese theaters as well, and, unsurprisingly, the Japanese studios wanted to cash in on this success by producing sound films of their own.

However, Japan was much slower in adopting synchronized sound than the USA. It didn’t become the industry-wide norm until 1933 (whereas in the USA it was the norm by 1929). Why? This is the critical question, and the reason that film historians belabor this story so often in introductory film courses. The answer typically given is that sound was delayed by the benshi, the vocal narrator who performed alongside films in Japanese theaters. The benshi would provide commentary, voice acting, and sometimes even sound effects for what was happening on screen, obviously a tremendous benefit for silent films. Because films with their own synchronized soundtracks would essentially put them out of a job, the powerful benshi union opposed the introduction of sound films in Japan.

This is the most basic form of the traditional narrative, though serious books on the topic provide more nuance and describe other factors (the high cost of sound projectors, the reluctance to purchase the U.S. technology which would require paying royalties, etc.). The story is also often told, by scholars such as Noel Burch, in a way that emphasizes Japan’s cultural difference from the U.S., and implied that Japan perhaps had some kind of cultural predisposition against the use of recorded sound. Kerim Yasar, in Electrified Voices, calls this into question.

In his book, Yasar describes the sound culture of Japan from the mid-1800s to 1900s. First, Japanese radio plays had a vibrant interplay of dialogue and sound effects that clearly demonstrates there was no cultural antipathy to recorded sound. But most importantly, Japanese inventors made several early attempts at synchronizing sound onto film. The crucial example here is the film Reimei [Daybreak] (directed by Kaoru Osanai, 1927), a full feature-length sound film. Reimei used an optical soundtrack which, without getting too technical, was far ahead of its time and significantly more advanced than The Jazz Singer. Both films were in fact completed in the same year. Unfortunately, Reimei never made it to a full theatrical release, and so never had the artistic impact of The Jazz Singer, but Reimei’s creation shows that it was only luck and the alignment of economic factors that allowed the United States to adopt the standard of the sound film before Japan, and nothing more.

Though the historical facts remain largely unchanged, the overall narrative should be broadened to include the groundbreaking nature of Reimei and other earlier Japanese experiments with sound technology. The story as it is told includes too many implications of American genius and Japanese primitiveness (for not immediately accepting the “superior” art form). The delayed acceptance of the sound film is entirely economic and has very little to do with culture, and so we need to be very careful in the way that we tell this story.

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