Kinema in Kamata: a piece of Japan’s cinematic history

One hundred years ago, two brothers, Shirai Matsujiro and Otani Takejiro decided to make movies. The brothers had already been in the entertainment business for 25 years, having started in 1895 with a Kyoto kabuki theater and growing their business from there to a chain of theaters with various kinds of live entertainment in several major cities. By 1920, mass entertainment was modernizing and the new new thing was “moving pictures” (also known, in those early days, as “kinema”).

Making movies requires space for filming and production facilities. At that time, the area along the Tama River in the corridor between Tokyo and Yokohama was predominately cheap farmland and they were able to acquire the land they needed on the Tokyo side of the river, just a couple hundred meters from Kamata train station.

The brothers had used the first characters of each of their given names, “Matsu” (松 pine) and “Take” (竹 bamboo) to call their theater enterprise “Matsutake”, and occasionally also used the “Chinese” pronunciation of the same two characters: “Shochiku”. For their new movie venture they decided on “Shochiku” as its permanent name. A century on, Shochiku remains one of the most famous names in Japanese movie production.

IMG_6282Shochiku’s studio in Kamata was Japan’s first. It was situated on less than 2.5 hectares of land accessed by crossing Shochiku-bashi, a stone bridge over a small stream that has long since disappeared. It had sound stages, wardrobe and set production facilities, dressing rooms, administrative offices and even a back lot for outdoor shots.

As soon as the Shochiku movie company was formed, it began importing foreign movies, screening them in their chain of theaters. At the same time, the brothers hired Henry Kotani, a Japanese who had worked in California’s Hollywood, as their first director and even started a film school to develop their own talent. The first Shochiku movie, “Souls on the Road”, produced entirely at the Kamata studio, was released in 1921.

On the morning of Saturday, September 1, 1923 (a normal working day in Japan), just before filming was to break for lunch, a 7.9 magnitude earthquake rippled across the Kanto region of Japan, leaving rubble and fire in its wake. The Shochiku studio, like everything around it, was badly damaged. All of Shochiku’s Tokyo theaters were destroyed.

By this time, Shochiku also had production facilities in Kyoto, and work could be shifted there while Kamata rebuilt. A 28-year-old studio executive related to the brothers by marriage, Kido Shiro, was tasked with rebuilding the Kamata studio and proceeded to make a movie with the remaining skeleton staff at the same time. His movie, Otosan (Father), directed by Shimazu Yasujiro, was released later in 1923. A family comedy about ordinary people, it was completely new for its time and launched a film genre that became known as shomin-geki (stories of ordinary people).

Thanks to this success and the rebuilt studio, film making returned to the Kamata studio, which was now headed by Kido. Shochiku’s cinematic prowess continued to grow.

Romance posterA fictionalized version of those early days of “kinema” was told in the 1984 NHK morning drama series “Romance”. Perhaps without realizing it, most people who pass through JR Kamata station hear the theme music from that drama. It is the tune played to warn passengers that the train doors are about to close.

Even as the Shochiku studio rebuilt and kept making movies, the Kamata area was developing around the studio. Like Shochiku, other companies had also found the inexpensive land attractive and proceeded to set up their factories in the area. Factory workers made their homes nearby. The area around Kamata station developed into a shopping and entertainment district with plenty of restaurants, movie theaters and other entertainment for the residents of the area.

IMG_6266When the Kamata Shochiku movie theater was closed a few years ago and converted to Athlecitta, an activity center offering bowling, batting and billiards, a commemorative pillar was installed acknowledging that the site was once part of the Shochiku empire. Curiously, it is hidden behind a staircase just inside the building’s entrance.

Not far from Kamata, where the Tama River spills into Tokyo Bay at Haneda, an airstrip was built, later to become Tokyo International Airport (more popularly known today as Haneda Airport).

Success followed success for Shochiku’s movies. Even as other production companies entered the market, Shochiku continued to dominate and innovate. In 1931, Japan’s first “talkie”, “The Neighbor’s Wife and Mine”, another shomin-geki, was produced at the Kamata studio. It, too, was a major hit for Shochiku.

Talking movies were clearly a concept that had arrived and the studio geared up and made more. But by 1936, when Japan’s military-industrial complex was concentrating on munitions production, it became obvious that between the various factories near the Kamata studio and airplanes flying overhead coming and going from the increasingly busy airport, Kamata had become a very noisy place. It was no longer a viable location for a movie studio. The studio’s operations were moved to Ofuna; the Kamata studio was permanently closed. But its existence has not been entirely erased.

The site went on to various uses over the years, with much of it a wooded parkland for many years. Finally, the site was redeveloped in the mid 1990s in a joint venture between the Ota-ku government, Nissay life insurance company, and Takasago International Corporation, a perfume company that used to have a factory in Kamata. The redeveloped site, comprising two office buildings known as Aroma Square and a public concert hall known as Aprico, opened in 1998.

At the door joining Aroma Square and Aprico stand the original stone pillars of Shochiku-bashi. A replica of the bridge stands in the green space outside, just a few meters from the bridge’s original location.

The final remnant of the Shochiku studio to be found on the site is the diorama in the basement of Aprico, a delightful construction the studio in the 1920s, several shots of which grace this blog post.

There is much more to Shochiku’s amazing history, its ups and downs, and its survival even after a century. But this is the end of its Kamata story, so I’ll finish here.

Special thanks to my friend Koseki Midori, who has very kindly helped me learn much of this history and otherwise taught me a lot about the Kamata area.

© 2020 Jigsaw-japan.com and Vicki L. Beyer
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