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.

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