Asakusa Movies

Tokugawa’s Times Square becomes a foundry for new forms (Taishō Part 3A)

During the time of the Tokugawa Bakufu, the pre-modern city of Edo began to grow as the place from which the shogun ruled, and indeed so it was with its district of Asakusa. The Buddhist temple, Sensō-ji (浅草寺), the nucleus around which the town was to grow was founded in 645, dedicated to Kannon Bosatsu (観音菩薩, Avalokiteśvara), the Bodhisattva of compassion. It remains a central feature of the area to this day, despite having been entirely destroyed in WWII.

Various shops tend to spring up near temples in Japan and there are frequent fairs; as I mentioned in the previous article in this series, they were a type of sakariba. The declaration of Sensō-ji as a tutelary temple of the Tokugawa dynasty also swelled the district, as did the growing affluence of the middle class during the period since they were the main consumers of the entertainments the place had to offer.

Add to this the fact that Asakusa was essentially the gateway to the Yoshiwara red-light district, an extremely popular sort of proto-Disneyland of adult entertainment. When theater performances were banned in Yoshiwara in 1841, they simply moved to Asakusa. All this meant that even prior to the modern period the district was known as the Tokugawa Times Square.

Already the top sakariba, the advances of the Meiji and early Taishō only accelerated Asakusa’s status. There was a new landmark, the Ryōunkaku (凌雲閣, “Cloud-Surpassing Tower”), better known as Asakusa Twelve Stories (浅草十二階, Asakusa Jūnikai), it was the country’s first skyscraper. The main impetus however was from new forms of entertainment; in addition to the temple, brothels, theaters (though kabuki began to fall out of favor), street performers, food, and shops, Japan’s embrace of the West meant that cinemas and “Asakusa Opera” (浅草オペラ) came into vogue.

To get some idea of the feeling of the place in these times, I’ll turn to anarchist songwriter Azenbō Soeda’s (添田 唖蝉坊) Fragments:

In Asakusa, all sorts of things are thrown out in raw form.
All sorts of human desires are dancing naked.
Asakusa is the heart of Tokyo—
Asakusa is a marketplace of humans—
Asakusa is the Asakusa for all.
It’s a safe zone where everybody can expose themselves to their guts.
The Asakusa where the masses keep walking hour by hour; the Asakusa of those masses, is a foundry where all old forms are melted down, to be transformed into new forms.
One day’s dream. Fleeting adoration for the outdated.
Asakusa mood. Those without authority who grieve for the real Asakusa, ignoring new currents, withdraw.
You, proponent of cleanliness who aims to make Asakusa into a palace of lapis lazuli, pull back.
All things of Asakusa may be vulgar; they lack refinement.
But they boldly walk the walk of the masses, they move with vitality. . . .
The Modernist who inhales nourishment from the Western painting of the new era walks alongside believers of the Goddess of Mercy who buy favors from the Buddha with copper coins.
A huge stream of all sorts of classes, all sorts of peoples, all mixed up together. A strange rhythm lying at the base of that stream. That’s the flow of instincts.
Sounds and Brightness. Entangled, whirl, one grand symphony — There’s the beauty of discord there.
Men, Women, flow into the rushing around of these colors and this symphony, and from within it they pick out the hope to live on tomorrow.

Asakusa was the location of the first movie theater in Japan, and before the earthquake, the total number had risen to 14. Yasunosuke Gonda (権田保之助) film theorist and sociologist discussed the phenomenon of what he described as “moving-picture fever” in “Crossroads of Posters: The Popular Entertainment of ‘Asakusa’”, in 1920:¹

[Gonda] recorded the jeering of laborers at the Fuji showcase for the swashbuckling idol Matsunosuke, and the dialogue yelled back and forth between film narrators and “girl and boy tykes” in the audience, while elsewhere women (and their husbands) wept to melodrama alongside vocational school students and a scattering of soldiers, who clattered their swords. There was also the rapt response of students and intellectuals who applauded when the names of their foreign idols appeared on screen. And there were finer distinctions: the Imperial claimed students from Tokyo Imperial University, while the Cinema Club catered to Keiō University students, and so on. The places that showed foreign films and played a smattering of Mozart and Beethoven for their audiences had “high-class” customers.

The dazzling variety of entertainments for different types of audiences is hard to even picture from our perspective today where movies, and especially theaters are entirely generic. The Gonda article’s title refers to the atmosphere that pervaded the “movie streets” of Asakusa, where hundreds of advertisements appeared:²

Different syllabaries vied for prominence on the banners hanging in front of the theaters and suspended across the streets, and movie titles were juxtaposed with the huge billboards depicting samurai dramas and Hollywood heroines. These images, preserved in photographs of Asakusa, enable us to imagine the movement and energy there […].

As was to become the pattern for the Japanese, they created their own unique style: audiences weren’t there to see Foreign movies or even Japanese movies—there were plenty of other venues in Tokyo and elsewhere in the country for those—they were there to see Asakusa movies.

First of all, the district itself was an experience, as I’ve already suggested, but additionally, Asakusa was on the forefront in creating a new way of presenting films. Here silent films were accompanied by the live performances of musicians and voice actors called benshi (弁士) for foreign and domestic films alike. While movies were often accompanied by music in the West, Japanese cinema performances drew heavily on the traditions of kabuki and noh, employing their musical instruments in some cases, but particularly their style of declamation.

These performances proved so popular that the benshi, not the screen actors were the main draw for a film, with their photographs prominently displayed outside the theaters. Though talkies were introduced in the late ’20s, silents continued to dominate through the mid ’30s. As of 1927, nearly 7000 benshi were working in Japan, including 180 women. Gonda notes that junior high school students competing in speech contests would attempt to emulate the speech patterns of popular benshi.³

The Japanese film essentially grew up around the benshi, understanding that they would elaborate the plot as well as performing all the voices. Jidaigeki (時代劇, “period drama”), and especially the chanbara (チャンバラ) subgenre came into being in the Taishō, borrowing themes and even actors from kabuki, but presenting less mannered swordfighting action. The benshi would also describe the fighting just as one played by Toshiro Mifune did in the 1994 film Picture Bride.

A technique pioneered by Yasujirō Ozu (小津 安二郎) called the tatami shot was an elaborately composed and largely static mise en scène filmed with a camera positioned at around three feet high, as if from the POV of someone seated on the floor. This too can ultimately be seen as an extension of the benshi tradition as it was just the kind of scene to which a benshi would add commentary. Nonetheless with the advent of sound films, Ozu would trust the imagery to speak for itself. It was often used in dialogue scenes as well, where unlike the over-the-shoulder shot the Hollywood playbook would dictate, it placed the viewer into the scene.

The tatami shot came to influence directors, not just in Japan, where you can easily see its ubiquitous use—look for it the next time you’re watching any of these films—it has also spread globally: Wes Anderson, in particular has incorporated a great deal of Ozu’s aesthetic into his works.

Just as film was a unique experience in Taishō Japan, seen particularly in Asakusa, Asakusa Opera was a thing unto itself. I’ll explore this in the next article in this series.

Read Subsequent Articles in This Series

Part 3B: Asakusa Opera

Part 4: The Mysteries of Zūja-Go

Part 5: How “Alice” Grew Big in Japan

Read Previous Articles in This Series

Part 1: Japan’s Turbulent Taishō

Part 2A: Epochal Architecture

Part 2B: When Tokyo Moved West


  1. Related in Erotic Grotesque Nonsense: The Mass Culture of Japanese Modern Times, Miriam Silverberg, 2007.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.


The Disney Artists Collective (DeDisnification, Part 9D)

In making Snow White, Walt Disney proved himself a business visionary by pivoting his studio from working solely on shorts to producing feature films. But it took more than just understanding the advantages of this move and seizing the opportunity. He had a band of artists who were quite skillful, as the Oscars racked up by the studio attest, but that skill lay in clever gags for funny animals, and now something quite different was required of them, and here Disney proved no less of a visionary.

He sprang into action to create a wide-ranging program of art education, inviting writers, painters and sculptors, as well as animators, to either work or teach at the studio. The Chouinard Art Institute in particular provided instruction in a variety of areas, including drawing, action analysis, and color theory. This was the school that Walt and Roy Disney were to guide into a merger with the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music to establish the California Institute of the Arts in 1961, a school I nearly attended. Walt also showed countless films in the studio to develop a deeper knowledge of the medium, a shared understanding of the techniques and tropes employed in it, and to inspire his artists with its great works.

Loyal readers might think I’ve been hitting the Disney Kool-Aid but I do actually have nearly unmixed admiration for not only the commitment to the huge effort that this move required but also because Walt sought out not just the best fine art sources to inspire the studio’s artists, but in particular embraced the avant-garde. This again had its foundation in the business concept that the studio’s work be defensible, in the sense that someone else couldn’t easily accomplish what they had: they perceived it was in their interest to get to, and remain on the bleeding edge.

The studio carefully studied the works of illustrators like Arthur Rackham and Kay Nielsen, who were of particular interest because of their work with fairy tales, and so aligned with the direction Walt was pushing, and eventually the latter artist would come to work for Disney. Later for Bambi, they’d look at Beatrix Potter’s Benjamin Bunny drawings and Sir Edwin Lanseer’s paintings of deer, and then on The Lady and the Tramp, they’d also study Lanseer’s dog images.

Pioneering architect Frank Lloyd Wright lectured at the studio. There were also artists like Jean Charlot who came to give painting lessons. Though lesser known, Charlot was solidly in the avant-garde, working alongside Diego Rivera in the founding of Mexican muralism as well as working extensively with lithographs and woodcuts.

Then there was Heinrich Kley, who properly belongs to the Jugendstil movement (essentially Art Nouveau in Germany) but whose works of “high art” are less well known than his often darkly humorous pen drawings, published in the art magazines Jugend and Simplicissimus, which mixed art with political brashness and literature including works by Thomas Mann and Rainer Maria Rilke. Of Kley’s connection with Disney it was noted:¹

Kley’s drawings were not animated yet each drawing possessed such rhythm and humour they seemed to move. Young animators diligently studied his work to learn how to bring their characters to life. The influence of his drawing style is particularly strong in Fantasia’s Dance of the Hours.

As to filmic references, German Expressionism seems to have been at least one major influence on Disney’s artists. The image of Snow White in the glass coffin, in particular, is a clear lift from Fritz Lang’s 1927 Metropolis. In the latter film the evil inventor Rotwang (played by Rudolf Klein-Rogge) gives his Machine-Person (Maschinenmensch) the form of Maria (Brigitte Helm) in order to sow dissent among the workers who revere her. The theme of losing one’s humanity is a common one for the interbellum, even predating Lang, in Karel Čapek’s 1920 play RUR (Rossum’s Universal Robots, Czech Rossumovi Univerzální Roboti) and is central to this scene.

Not only is the scene from Snow White similar, the mad scientist is the descendant of the wicked witch for the modern era, and Disney is simply turning the clock back on the motif. The transformation performed in the Metropolis version contains the Tesla coils seen in many a SciFi production since, replaced in the Disney version with the soon-to-become-ubiquitous kiss of true love.

The scene is reiterated yet again in the “cellular regeneration tube”, a technological glass coffin in which Leeloo (Milla Jovovich) is brought back to life in The Fifth Element, merging the two versions.

And Jean Cocteau, whom I mentioned in the context of Beauty and the Beast? A surrealist. In a documentary, David Lynch introduces Cocteau’s 1930 film Blood of a Poet (Le Sang d’un Poete) thus:²

In my opinion Cocteau is the heavyweight of surrealism.

One can see why Lynch was drawn to it: it’s a disturbing film, whose release was so controversial it was put off for a year, and even then partially censored.

In 1937, Salvador Dalí quipped to his fellow Surrealist Andre Breton about his trip to California:

I have come to Hollywood and am in contact with the three great American surrealists—the Marx Brothers, Cecil B. DeMille, and Walt Disney.

According to an article in The New York Times

Like his Surrealist colleagues, [Dalí] recognized that America’s animated cartoonists were unwittingly applying Surrealist principles in their films. Spontaneous subconscious association, anti-logical juxtaposition of imagery, unconnected gags and dream logic abound in the work of Max and Dave Fleischer, Tex Avery and also Disney: his “Pink Elephants on Parade” sequence in Dumbo (1941) is one of American Surrealism’s most sublime moments.

I would argue that the article’s characterization of the application of Surrealism in animation as “unwitting” is the one glaring inaccuracy here. Disney and Dalí would go on to collaborate on a film called Destino, whose fate was unfortunately to stall and remain so for another 57 years until its release in 2003.

Despite all his efforts, it turned out that Walt’s vision of an unassailably bleeding-edge position was not; other animation groups could simply learn from Disney’s films the things that the studio had striven so hard to learn from the masters. Indeed, there is even a counter influence of Disney’s work on fine art, which can be seen in the works of Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, Claes Oldenburg, Christian Boltanski, and many others.

Read Subsequent Articles in This Series

Part 10: The Little Less-Than

Read Previous Articles in This Series

Part 1: Straightening out “Hunchback”

Part 2: Making over “Mulan”

Part 2 Addendum B: Your Western Wuxia Is Weak

Part 3A: “Hercules”: Myths and Mistakes

Part 3B: Doing Hera’s Work

Part 4: “Belle” Epoch

Part 5: Putting “Pocahontas” to Rest

Part 5 Addendum: Powhatan’s Mantle

Part 6: The Trouble with “Tarzan”

Part 7A: Down the Rabbit Hole

Part 7A Addendum A: Curious Curation

Part 7A Addendum B: “Alice” in Revolt

Part 7A Addendum C: How “Alice” Grew Big in Japan

Part 7B: Alice’s Adventures in the Cousins War

Part 8: Guerrillas and the “Jungle”

Part 9A: Through a Magic Mirror Marred

Part 9A Addendum: The Woods “Over the Wall”

Part 9B: The Sum of its Versions

Part 9C: The “Snow White” Studio


  1. Bruno Girveau, Once Upon a Time: Walt Disney: The Sources of Inspiration for the Disney Studios, 2007.
  2. David Lynch Presents the History of Surrealist Film, 1987.
  3. John Canemaker, The New Season/ Film: The Lost Cartoon by Disney and Dalí, Fellow Surrealists, 2003.