11 April 2006

The May Irwin/John Rice Kiss

I taught my first class at Kanagawa University last night. As I wasn't sure about what level the students' English was, I planned the class around screenings of early Edison and Lumiere films and put the students into two small groups to discuss the films. Of eight graduate students, two were confident enough in their English to become natural spokespeople for their groups. Before screening the films, I asked the students to imagine that it is 1897, the year of the first screenings in Osaka and Tokyo, and to tell me about the people of the time. There was much debate about this -- one group was lucky enough to have someone who seemed quite knowlegeable about the time period and could explain that while women still mostly wore kimono, it was quite fashionable for men to wear Western-style suits and hats. The other group debated what year 1897 was in the Japanese calendar (I believe they came up with Meiji 30 -- the Japanese calendar uses the name of the Emporer and the year of his reign) before they could get down to details.

None of the students had seen these early films before and they seemed to find them fascinating and sometimes even bewildering. One student remarked on the colour in Edison's The Serpentine Dances and asked how this had been done so I explained to them about the various processes of hand-tinting film during this period. Other students remarked on how some of the activities would have been familiar to the Japanese of the time: cockfights (& apparently even dog-fights) were popular (may still be??) in some parts of Japan, and of course the promenade through the Paris Zoo was not unlike the spectacle of Ueno Zoo at the time.

The one film the students singled out as being the most surprising to a Japanese audience of the time was Edison's The May Irwin/John Rice Kiss (1896), which was filmed in the Black Maria and was the most popular Kinetoscope film, I believe. Kissing in public is still somewhat risque in Japan, and would have been very shocking to a Meiji-era audience. In A Hundred Years of Japanese Film, Donald Richie explains that it was common practice in Japan and the West to show these very short early films more than once. They would join together the ends of the reel and play the film in a continuous loop, a technique known tasuke in Japanese. This of course, made the screening of The Kiss even more scandalous and had suspicious police arrive on the scene. The screening was saved by the clever benshi, Ueda Hoteikan, who "explained that Westerners customarily greeted each other with a full-month kiss and that the ladies and gentlemen of the audience ought to be edified by this documentary footage of what in America was an everyday courtesy." (p. 19) Richie also points out that the pracrice of tasuke still exists on Japanese television (and in cinemas where they often play the ads twice in a row!!)-- a practice I had always wondered about. Do they think their audience has a short attention span? Are the producers trying to fill airtime with as little footage as possible? Richie claims that "the argument holds that anything short may be twice savored" (p. 20) and is an "acccepted element of Japanese dramaturgy." I'm not so convinced... but it's the best answer that I've heard so far.

The most interesting response of the evening (the class runs from 18.00-19.30) was from a student who admitted that to his frustration he was unable to form a response to the images. "I can't make any meaning from these films. There's no story." I think he was surprised when I told him that he was exactly right... there was no "story" yet in film, only spectacle. Although all the technical requirements for filmmaking had been invented by 1896, narrative films had not been invented yet. I thought that this was a remarkable response from a generation so used to fast-editing and quick video clips. I guess it just proves just how strongly we desire )or have been trained to expect) a narrative in order to make meaning.

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2006


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