Talking Heads: Prokino's Kmori Shizuo and Noto Setsuo Part 1
A little-known chapter in documentary history is that of Japan's pre-World War II proletarian film movement. The organization at the core of this movement was the Proletarian Film League of Japan, known as Prokino for short. The founding meeting for the group was in 1929, and it was active for about five years after that. But these facts were little known after the war, let alone before it, and rarely appeared even in the histories written by scholars of Japanese film.
In the 1960s there were some, particularly young activists and filmmakers, who wanted to take up Prokino's work, and people like Fujita Motohiko and Makino Mamoru began studying Prokino in order to situate it in film history. In 1989 the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival featured a section on Prokino. Recently Makino, a film historian, and A.A. Gerow, a coordinator at Yamagata, interviewed two of the original activists of the movement. Komori Shizuo served as secretary general of Prokino's Tokyo chapter and eventually headed its central organizational division. He was imprisoned in 1934 for his leftist film activities and after his release worked in dramatic and documentary films and also wrote several thousand scripts for TV and radio, "not one [of which] I am proud ." Noto Setsuo dropped out of the faculty of Nihon University to participate in Prokino in 1931. He later worked for Toho Motion Pictures and then joined the Kindai Motion Picture Association as a producer and company director; there he made such films as Children of Hiroshima and Live Today, Die Tomorrow.
A.A. GEROW: I'd first like to ask about the influences on Prokino. At the time, there were leftist documentary works like Dziga Vertov's Kino Glaz in the Soviet Union, but did you ever have any chance to see those? Or were you influenced by reading about them in magazines?
KOMORI SHIZUO: They weren't anything that special to us. In general, every one who studied film was completely entranced by Soviet film for such things as its theory of montage. Before I joined Prokino, there were predecessors to Prokino—leftist theater and film groups and so on—and there were narrow-gauge film production activities in the Film Division of NAPF. [NAPF is the acronym for the Esperanto Nippona Artista Proleta Federacio, or Nippon Proletarian Artist Conference, the result of a merger in 1928 between the Nippon Proletarian Artist Federation and the League of Vanguard Artists. Prokino was attached to NAPF.] We had that kind of experience, but since there was no particular relationship with Soviet or Euro-American film movements, I wouldn't say there was any influence.
NOTO SETSUO: At the time, anything related to the Soviet Union was seen as left wing. It was a time when it was dangerous to say anything good about the Soviet Union—the time of the Japanese emperor system. As Komori just said, there were sympathizers with the Soviets, or people studying such things, leftist movements and the like. The artistic expression of this appeared in drama, music, cartoons, painting, and in literature too, of course. It was popular in theater, and then you can include the first NAPF Film Division.
Prokino, as a whole, was a leftist movement, to put it simply. We had a left-wing political movement and economic and cultural activities as well. People worked in film as one aspect of that cultural movement. There was theater before and the like, and then some writers joined and things gradually developed and got bigger. Famous writers like Kobayashi Takiji and Kishi Yamaji had gotten involved. Basically, with the Japanese system being the emperor system, this was a cultural movement in active opposition to that.
The film movement was different from other movements in that it had functional problems like filming and projection. Film is something that records. There were people who filmed documentaries—contemporary incidents—on 9.5mm film. I still think about how one of those people, Sasa Genju, said that "a toy is our weapon." What he meant by "a toy" was different from what we mean these days: a high-priced plaything for rich people. These days cameras are widely used, but at that time only the rich had cameras. Sasa Genju was saying that we should take the plaything of the rich and use it as a weapon in the struggle. Film in those days, unlike today, was really good as a medium for taking images from place to place. People would watch a film and see how it was in Tokyo or in a foreign country. You could both study and enjoy yourself by watching a movie. Since it had commercial uses, we came to think that it should be used in the leftist movement as well. So we formed a group.
Cinema lagged behind the rest of the movement because, functionally, we had to use the camera and develop the film. This was one of the tough things about Prokino. If we took the film we shot to the developers, they wouldn't process it for us; if the police caught them, it would've turned into a big incident. In the movement, it was a time when you'd get caught the moment you did anything. One of our older comrades explained theoretically in Prokino's journal how it would really be better if we were using 16mm film—to "take a toy and make it the weapon of our left-wing movement. " It developed from there. First there was a 16mm camera, but both the 16mm camera and projector were made in America. There was the CineKodak and what not, and the projector was by Victor, but none of this equipment was made in Japan. So just getting our hands on these "weapons" was quite a problem. None of us in the movement had any money, but there were kind and progressive people in the Japanese film world who cooperated with us. There were also average citizens and workers who understood and supported Prokino.
At that time, May Day celebrations were carried out under extreme pressure. We were the first to film May Day as a record. When I say that we filmed it, I mean, of course, that we filmed it secretly; we couldn't do it out in the open, so we'd take pains to keep the camera hidden while we filmed. But we also had to show our films, and films had to be checked by the censors. The censors would preview them and give them permits, but if a film didn't have the censor's seal, you couldn't show it out in the open, legally. People who didn't have a seal were told that amateurs couldn't just do what they wanted. So even if we shot film and took it to the developers, they wouldn't touch "red" work because it was dangerous.
Yet processing film was one of the big tasks in the leftist movement in movies. Prokino was forced to go to one of our older comrades who had the technology, a man named Nakajima Noboru. He lived in Tokyo's Higashi Nakano, and there he set up a darkroom and developing lab in the bathroom where he'd do reverse developing. Film at that time was reversal film: you'd expose the negative and make a positive by reversing it. Shooting a negative and then printing a positive was too hard. But in reverse developing you just turn the negative into a positive and make a print right away. So we'd make a print, then submit it to the Home Ministry for inspection by the censors. Anything unfavorable to the imperial family, the emperor, or the government would get cut.
We would take around what was left and show it to film circles or workers' culture movements—all kinds of places. We'd get together people who liked film and show it to them. One aspect of our movement was to use film as agitation. Our film of the May Day celebration was the best for agitation: the workers were marching boldly along a predetermined route while totally surrounded by a huge number of imposing police. We'd show that film to rural workers or even just average citizens, and through the movement of the images, the film functioned, as television and radio do today, as our weapon. So it was important to make a film—not some drama, but a documentary—and to show them the raw scene: this is how the workers fight; this is how the farmers struggle. We'd film the city rail strike or the funeral procession for the assassinated leftist leader Yamamoto Senji—really valuable records. Then we'd take them around the country showing them to people everywhere, spreading the word and using movies for our leftist movement.
KOMORI: Of course, we didn't have the word documentary then. The film world at large didn't use the word documentary, nor did they have newsreels. If you ask when newsreels really got going, it was during the war. They'd follow advancing soldiers, then newspaper companies would show the films in school yards to raise people's enthusiasm for the war. People would see that and think, "That's where my son is." They'd get all excited thinking their son had been on film. That became famous over the whole country, so they began to build independent newsreel theaters. All over the place. But it was Prokino that first made news films.
NOTO: Right, Prokino News.
KOMORI: Prokino News began with the film Tokyo May Day, 1927, all filmed on small 9.5mm cameras. Then the film of the funeral of Yamamoto Senji around 1929 was probably one of the oldest documentaries [The Funeral of Yama-Sen in Kyoto]. And then what was really odd was cartoons. We didn't call them animation. These days it's done using cels, right? They do it by combining two cels. But we didn't have anything like that. Instead, we would cut the picture and move it around frame by frame using a pin set. That's how we did it. And we did a lot of that. Agita Prokichi's Consumer Association was probably one of the first animated films in Japan.
GEROW: That was one of the unique things about Prokino. You didn't just do documentary, but also fiction films and animation.
KOMORI: Yes, it was unique. And Prokino did lots of genres on that tiny scale. We had newsreels, documentaries, dramas, and animation. And we also did lots of rensageki.
NOTO: They always did proletarian new theater at the Tsukiji Little Theater, including plays that had interludes of film, making them into rensageki. A normal rensageki was, well, you'd have a normal play, and there would be a chase scene in which the actors would run away, and you'd film that on location. Then, when you put on the play, they'd run out the door, and the lights would go out, the screen would come down, and you'd show the film. The film would follow the characters—they might go to a park—and there would be a scene in which they were about to be captured. Then the lights would come on, the stage would be set for the capture scene in the park, and you'd stage the arrest.
MAKINO: At the beginning, Prokino mostly took up critical activities, publishing magazines and writing criticism of leftist tendency films made at major studios. But at your second general meeting, in 1930, there was what could be called a Copernican revolution in which it was decided to use narrow-gauge film and actually produce motion pictures yourselves. So the bookish tendencies were completely overturned.
As for the two of you here, Noto, you took the films that were made and showed them all over the country, organizing screenings that also involved supporting and organizing regional farmers' movements or factory workers' movements. And in the case of Komori, you came in toward the end of the movement, and the core of your activities were in the Tokyo headquarters, as head of the Tokyo chapter, head of the educational division, and then head of the organizational division. They say you were working on organization right up to the very end.
NOTO: As you said, we went from bookish to practical activities—independent production, to use today's term. It became necessary to make films, so we did it on 16mm, but we had to rent both the camera and the projector from a rental store. But if the camera was our weapon, we really needed one, so we took up a collection among our supporters, patrons, and sympathizers and bought one. When it came to exhibition, we did two kinds: public and illegal screenings. As I said before, screenings would be done at some auditorium. In Tokyo, we did it at the Yomiuri Auditorium, a wonderful place. We suffered a lot of police harassment during screenings: they'd frisk the audience and make trouble. We charged entry fees and collected money that way. The entry fee for average citizens was high and low for workers, since it was a workers' movie. So we'd collect money and use that as investment for the next film. We'd make it ourselves, distribute it, and go out to the countryside by ourselves. When we went away from Tokyo, we'd go to various gatherings, maybe to a rural film movement or to some group that was active in politics or economics. The local agricultural cooperatives or labor associations were the center. We'd get an agreement on conditions and show the film. We'd get a small fee for showing it and then come home and save that. Then we'd make the next plan.
To do everything with our own hands, to be at the contact point between something you made and an audience, well, it's something I'm proud of. At the time it was something we had to do, but if you were active even a little bit the cops would grab you. At legal public screenings the police wouldn't touch us. But other than that, as part of our movement, if we heard there was a strike going on, we'd rush over to the strike with our projector and encourage them to keep at it. We'd show them films of farmers' struggles and May Day and Prokino News and inspire them to continue the strike. We'd give them energy. But we had to do this in secret; it would've be terrible if we were caught.
At the time we had that cruel law, the Peace Preservation Law: If three people got together, they had to report it as a meeting, and if you were loafing about you could be questioned on suspicion. [The 1925 Peace Preservation Law became the legal basis for maintaining the emperor system and the current social order by suppressing all opposition movements.] They 'd ask you where you were going, and if you got upset they'd arrest you for suspicious behavior. Although Prokino held some events in the open, we also did things in secret—illegal activities—and this was our main activity. We went around doing screenings in big cities like Tokyo, Osaka, and Sapporo. When we did them in the countryside, one person had to lug around the projector, the film, and the screen all by himself. Sometimes one more person, a cameraman, would go along to shoot film, and we'd go around the country as a pair screening films. The cameraman would shoot film of the workers' and farmers' struggles as material for Prokino News.
KOMORI: For example, Our Advertisement, or publicity film for NAPF's official organ, The Battle Flag, was rejected by the censors at the Home Ministry. But when we went out to the countryside, we took it along anyway. We didn't use it at public screenings in large auditoriums, but we'd show it at small gatherings. When I think about it now, we did go around the country making money. We'd gather two or three hundred people in a small place and take up a collection. They'd also provide food and board. We'd get travel expenses from Prokino, but only train fare from here to places like Hokkaido.
MAKINO: Everyone lodged at the office, didn't they?
NOTO: Yes, that's right. Full-time members did. And actually, most of the time we'd get a little money for board. We'd find our own sympathizers and supporters and get them to contribute money so we could get by. So when the cops tossed us in the slammer, we didn't need any money for food. It sounds funny, but it really helped.
GEROW: Did you have any other jobs?
NOTO: No, none at all. We full-time members just concentrated on this. But there were also other people, students and such. Lots of students. We two moved up from being students to full-time members. We sometimes even got money sent from home.
GEROW: Speaking of students, Prokino did run a series of lecture courses, didn't it? What were those like?
NOTO: They were for one week. We had lectures every day for a week, on theory and such. They also taught us projector technology, just once during the week—it was easy to do. They quit offering the lecture series after the third or fourth time. We were in the second class. The teachers were older members of Prokino, and they gave real lectures. If you came for a week you could be a Prokino member the next day.
KOMORI: No, that's not quite true. In my case, I became a member after around half a year. The policy on that changed in 1930 with the Bolshevization of leftist arts activities. The policy changed so that anyone who wanted to enter could.
Part 2 will cover more about Prokino's political activities, the demise of the movement, and what came after. Read more: "Talking Heads: Prokino's Kmori Shizuo and Noto Setsuo Part 2"
This article was originally published in Documentary Box (October 1994), the newsletter of the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival. It was translated by Alan Christy.