A couple of weeks ago I posted about our visit to the haunted house at the Toei Uzumasa Eigamura. In passing, I mentioned a couple of dates whose significance should be emphasised.
Toei began operations in 1951, making this the company’s 60th anniversary year. The place where the fledgeling film company began making movies, dubbed “the Hollywood of Japan,” has an even longer history. The first studio in Uzumasa opened in 1926, making this the 85th anniversary of moviemaking in what used to be a quiet bamboo forest.
Hollywood, now home of the American movie industry, had only got off the ground sixteen years before, when D. W. Griffith’s 17-minute short In Old California became the first film made there. A year later, the Nestor Film Company upped sticks from New Jersey for better weather and less restrictive local authority policies. Hollywood’s renowned sign was only three years old (and had actually been erected to sell dreams of a different sort: an expensive real estate development.)
By the time the Twenties started to roar, movies were booming all over the world. Japan already had a number of film studios, and in 1925 an ambitious young actor named Bando Tsumasaburo established his own production company and agency in Nara, and looked for a site to build a studio.
The Bantsuma Productions studio was built in Uzumasa in 1926, when the Keifuku railway opened a new station just a few hundred yards away. The combination of cheap land, rural settings and rail access made the area attractive to film-makers and a number of major studios followed the actor-impresario to Uzumasa. Many great movies were shot there, by renowned directors including Kenji Mizoguchi and Akira Kurosawa. The town’s contribution to Japan’s movie history was immortalised on film in 2010, in Yoji Yamada’s Kyoto Uzumasa Monogatari (Kyoto Story,) a nostalgic contemporary love story laced with documentary inserts remembering old-time Uzumasa in its glory days.
Tsumasaburo sold the studio to Shochiku in 1930 and moved to a new studio in Yatsu, near Chiba, in 1931. A Shochiku affiliate company, Teikoku Kinema, moved in, but folded in 1931. The former Bantsuma studio was used by several companies in succession, but closed down for a time during World War II due to Government restrictions. In 1947 the Toyoko Motion Picture Company resumed feature film production there under Mitsuo Makino, scion of a renowned Japanese movie dynasty. In 1951, Toyoko became part of the newly-formed Toei Company and the studio had another new name – Toei Studios Kyoto.
Toei expanded fast, moving into animation feature film production in 1956 with the foundation of its renowned studio in Nerima, Tokyo. As TV gained ground in Japan in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Toei used its expertise in historical films, and its Uzumasa sets and costume archives, to make historical dramas for the small screen. The studio also made science fiction and science fantasy shows for TV; its colourful team-hero shows were re-edited, redubbed and revamped in the 1990s to create the international franchise phenomenon Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers.
In 1975, just a year before the site’s 50th anniversary of film production, Toei Uzumasa Eigamura, or Toei Kyoto Studio Park, was opened to the public. The outdoor sets are still used for filming – Toei’s website offers prices for sixteen stages and backlot locations, including those in the park, and it isn’t uncommon to see filming going on there. The company’s link to live-action sf and fantasy is honoured with a stunning display of props, costumes and sets from dozens of hit TV series in an aircraft-hangar sized museum of tokusatsu (special effects) and sentai (team) shows.
A visit to Uzumasa is a walk back through Japan’s movie history. This year, we say “happy birthday” to the studio that started it all and to one of Japan’s leading film and TV companies.