Silent Movies, East and West

To the Barbican Cinema to see a classic of the silver screen: Orphans of the Storm, D. W. Griffith’s 1921 epic of the French Revolution, in a restored version presented by Photoplay Productions with John Lanchbery’s specially-recorded score. It was a wonderful afternoon, and a welcome antidote to the media hype for the latest high-tech offerings. Griffith’s 89-year-old movie could easily compete for visual richness and exquisite detail with the CGI marvels of James Cameron’s Avatar, seen on the same screen a few weeks earlier, and the acting was no more melodramatic.

Griffith’s ambition was astonishing, and it paid off. Although he took a few liberties with historical sensibility in his script, he was scrupulously accurate with his sets and costumes, building segments of mediaeval Paris full-scale on his vast estate, dressing his throngs of peasants and aristos in costume as historically correct as the time could achieve. His gift for lighting and framing ensured a powerful emotional impact for every major scene, and his stars gave him their all. The Gish twins, demure Dorothy and mischievous Lilian, were sweetness personified as the titular orphans. The result is a film that lingered in folk memory long after silents had faded from the big screen. I can remember my mother and aunts using “orphans of the storm” as a catch-phrase for bedraggled, scruffy-looking children – often including myself – in the 1960s.

Some think of the silents as belonging to a dead era, with nothing to offer a modern audience, that the only reason to see such a film is nostalgia or historical curiosity. That’s unjust. There were a number of older people in the audience, but it’s unlikely that many were old enough to have seen this 89-year-old film on its first run. Even if  nostalgia had drawn a few older cinemagoers who remembered parental tales of courting at Griffith movies, it didn’t motivate all the twenty- and thirty-somethings alongside them. Everyone in the audience seemed to find Griffith’s film thoroughly entertaining, and not only because of the unintentional ironies added by changing times and attitudes.

It’s sobering to reflect that as recently as 1975, few people in Britain showed much interest in the rich heritage of silent film. It was the same all over Europe and America, and in Japan – a few giants of the silents were remembered, especially if their careers had continued to thrive in the talkie era, but war, decay and commercial changes led to the loss or destruction of many movies made before sound. Thanks to the pioneering work of companies like Photoplay and cinemas like the Barbican, British filmgoers today can enjoy what remains. There are companies and scholars in Japan doing the same work, recovering, conserving and showing Japan’s rich heritage of silent film.

Towards the end of the twentieth century, these treasures of early Japanese film began to be sought after and studied. The interest was there – some events showcased early film, like the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival, which has been screening films made as early as 1905 ever since its debut in 1989 – but material wasn’t always easy to find.  The films themselves were often missing, or damaged, and written records suffered the same fate.

Much early Japanese film was lost to a triple whammy of nature and politics: the effect of the humid climate on unstable early film stock, the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, and the bombing of Tokyo and Osaka during World War II. As recently as 2000, when Jonathan Clements and I were finalising the first edition of The Anime Encyclopedia for Stone Bridge Press, it wasn’t easy to find information on early anime, but that’s changing fast.

In recent years a number of spectacular discoveries have been made. The media fuss around the ‘Matsumoto Fragment’, an undated three-second strip of animation discovered by art historian Natsuki Matsumoto and animation historian Noboyuki Tsugata in Kyoto in 2005, was an attempt (so far unsuccessful for lack of hard evidence) to revise the origins of anime and animation. In 2008 Matsumoto picked up two more treasures in an antique shop in Osaka, including what may be the second anime screened in Japan in 1917.  The story (complete with a clip from the film and comment from the Tokyo Anime Festival, conveniently happening around the time of the discovery) made the TV news, and generated huge excitement.

The work of reclaiming anime’s past started many years before the new millennium’s successes brought it wider notice. Yoshitsugu Tanaka’s pioneering anti-war anime Perrault, made in 1930, was thought lost until 1986, when a print was discovered at the home of a former associate of Tanaka’s.  It was restored in 1987 by Cinema Work and Group TAC, and released on video. Researchers and organisations like the National Film Center in Tokyo and Osaka’s Planet Bibliotheque de Cinema are still working to recover and restore early films, sourcing music and narrators to re-create the original audience’s experience as closely as possible almost a hundred years later.

With these new discoveries, the English-speaking world has finally begun to realise how much we can learn from early anime, and how much fun we can have in the process. As far as I can tell, the first public screenings of early anime in the USA seem to have been seven sessions collectively titled The Other Anime at the University of Michigan in 2003. More have followed all over the world, including a magnificent programme at Canada’s Cinémathèque Québéçoise in 2008. Companies like Zakka Films and Digital Meme have released early anime on DVD.

The DVDs won’t be on every anime fan’s wish list, because most fans of any medium are not especially interested in its history. They live in the now; the shows they want to see are the kind that first hooked them, which is why the formulae of TV anime are so often reused, and why gifted recyclers have been able to build entire careers on the same three plots and six characters. But if you’ve ever been curious about how and why anime developed as it did, what creators like Osamu Tezuka and Shigeru Mizuki watched when they were kids, or what a silent Japanese movie actually sounded like, you should take a look at some early anime.

Just don’t blame me if you end up hooked, combing the Internet and haunting the Barbican for screenings of silents from around the world.

2 thoughts on “Silent Movies, East and West

  1. This was a neat read. As much as I’m ashamed to admit that I fall into the category of fans who aren’t really interested in delving that far back into the history myself, I still love reading about people who are actively trying to preserve old film, and about the treasure-hunt nature of the quest to find prints of movies considered lost to time.

    • I think that’s fine. Nobody can watch everything available, even if they just stick to new material, and not everybody is an historian. But if you respect the roots of the media you enjoy and support efforts to uncover their history, that interest helps to encourage more writing and research about them.

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