Daiel: A History of The Greater Japan Motion Picture Company
Originally published in Japanese Fantasy Film Journal Issue #12 – 1979
Daiei’s career has not been an uneventful one. Nor has its former president, Masaichi Nagata, been idle in affecting the studio’s uneven course. In this issue we present our look at the Daiei film factory beginning with Nagata’s earliest dealings prior to the studio’s formation up to the company’s revival in 1974 following Daiei’s 1971 bankruptcy closing.
In 1933 Nikkatusu, in a move to enlarge its facilities, shopped several Tokyo studio sites, finally purchasing Tamagawa, an independent recently failed, building additional sound stages at the site as well. This activity worried Shochiku who decided that a second subsidiary, in addition to its recently organized Shinko, would be formed to insure its rival’s failure. Within a month Dai-Ichi Eiga was formed, and Masaichi Nagata became its normal head.
Nagata, who had entered Nikkatsu as a studio guide in 1924, eventually was to spend ten years with the company and become manager of the production and scenario department of the studio’s new Tamagawa production house. He was among those to force Nikkatsu’s long-time president to resign in a plan to break the company’s “feudalistic” practices. The new president then began a complete renovation by firing a number of people. In the mist of all the commotion Nagata resigned. Apart from the fact that he was displeased with the firing of veteran personnel, he was also embarrasses when the new president found fault with a narration he had written for a film and disapproved of sudden dictates to do a film “in 20 days and eight-thousand feet” without consideration of other factors. These were the reasons Nagata offered the newspapers.
Nikkatsu told the print media a different story, saying the Nagata had resigned because he had heard that the studio was investigating the report of his having accepted a bribe. According to Nikkatsu accounts, it was later “proved” that Nagata had received a $20 thousand bribe from Shochiku to sabotage production at Nikkatsu’s new Tokyo studio. Amid all the money talk it was ascertained that a part of the sum needed for forming Dai-Ichi Eiga came from an exclusive English school for children of the Kyoto elite run by Nagata’s wife, but just were the remainder came from went undiscovered. Dai-Ichi Eiga would fail in 1936 and with it all of Shochiku’s hopes of establishing its own tightly controlled distribution system.
The year 1941 arrived, darkened by a governmental decree that the ten major Japanese film companies merge into two. The consolidation was a war-time maneuver designed to make easier industry control. As raw film stock was a war material, its availability to the studios depended on their making the kind of pictures the state required. The announcement created much maneuvering as industry personnel foresaw the possibility of arbitrary advancement or demotion.
Masaichi Nagata claimed that the two-film-companies plan as designed by Shiro Kido, head of Shochiku’s was a means to consolidate his personal power and Shochiku’s strength. This statement endeared Nagata to certain members of the filmmaking community who opposed the government plan, and they elected him to head a countermeasure committee since, it was thought, as a Kyoto man he could take a more argumentative attitude than the Tokyo people who had come into daily contact with the government’s Office of Public Information. Nagata gladly accepted for under the original two-company plan the Shinko Kyoto studios which he now headed would be closed, leaving him unemployed. In his memoirs Shiro Kido confirmed the rivalry between himself and Nagata, saying that the latter was in chronic fear of being subordinate to someone and had disliked being under Kido. “It was mostly fate, not talent, that made Nagata big.”
To back up his dislike for the consolidation plan of the government, Nagata offered up an alternative that would create three companies instead of two. The Office of Public Information quickly realized that this new, third company, composed of firms with weak management, would have no established executive staff to oppose government policy, providing the Office with major control over a new company that would be truly “semi-official.” Nagata’s plan was quickly ratified, and almost everyone was content. The exception was Kyusaku Hori, head of Nikkatsu. His studio, Shinko and Daito were to be combined to form Daiei (Dai-Nihon Eiga, or The Greater Japan Motion Picture Company), which would make Nikkatsu include its large chain of theaters in the merger without receiving equivalent credit for these assets as the merger was to be made in terms of production facilities alone. In an attempt to salvage his own company, Hori earned the displeasure of the higher powers. When the time arrived to join assets, Nikkatsu was purposely undervalued, while Shinko was padded to the extent that it became the dominant company in the combine. Shinko’s new head found his firm now with the real power, and he himself consequently in the top position. The company head was, of course, Masaichi Nagata. Because the board could not decide on a president, Managing Director Nagata willingly took on the extra duties in 1942. Nikkatsu did not become completely dissolute for Kyusaku Hori was allowed to retain Nikkatsu as a theatre-holding company. This consolation left Daiei with plenty of studios but without any theaters except those few brought in by Shinko and Daito.
Other problems surfaced. With Shochiku tying up the women’s audience and Toho appealing to the urban audience, only the farmers and children remained for the new Daiei. With its first few films failing to make money, the studio relied on capital funds loaned from another film company. Following the first success of a Daiei film, NEW SNOW, the police arrested Nagata. The Home Ministry, issuer of the warrant and traditional rival of the Office of Public Information, accused Nagata of bribing the Information Office to have his three-company plan accepted. Nagata denied the charge and was released within fifty days to the sorrow of others in the film industry.
World War II ended, and Japan was kept in tow with an answering service set up by the Occupation Forces led by Douglas MacArthur. The hunting of “war criminals” was a task that kept the Occupation busy, even in the realm of the filmmaking industry where a list of suspects was drawn up by the Japan Motion Picture and Drama Employees Union, a communist organization; often at odds with management. Among those on the list was Nagata who was removed for “rehabilitation.” The process completed in 1948, Nagata was fully reinstated, busy with big plans and bigger ideas.
As youngest of the pre-war companies, Daiei emerged into the post-war era without a chain of theaters, and needing a live answering service and since it had been organized at a time when distribution was in the hands of a monopoly, there was no opportunity to line up contracted theaters. Additionally, the firm, having been faithful to the numerous demands of the military until the end of the war, was without pictures to be screened, since almost all of its productions were condemned by the Occupation because of feudal or anti-democratic content. Lacking contracts with most of the top costume-picture stars, Daiei’s hands were tied so far as period-films were concerned. With the Occupation Forces frowning on these pictures, the Kyoto branch of Daiei, which had specialized in just this sort of film, was virtually closed.
To regain a foothold in the business, Daiei approached Toho with a distribution tie-up scheme as the company was now very much in favor of a two-company industry. Shochiku objected so strongly that the project was dropped. Without the luxury of big stars on its payroll, the company began to exploit sensationalism in its films: kissing scenes, adultery, eroticism. One of the most ingenious of the post-war kisses occurred in Daiei’s BRILLIANT REVENGE, which apparently for the purpose of including a kiss, inserted a scene showing Tolstoy’s Resurrection being performed on the stage. In this play within a film there could be nothing objectionable since the Japanese involved were playing foreigners, and everyone knew that foreigners kiss in public.
Nagata became the first member of the industry to leave Japan since the end of the war. Returning from the United States he decided that his country must enter international festivals as soon as possible, the incentive for this decision stemming from a remark made to him during his visit to America: “Are movies made in Japan too?” In the meantime, at the urging of the live answering service of the Venice Film Festival sponsors, Giulliana Stramigoli, head of the Italifilm branch in Japan, viewed a number of possible Japanese entries and took a definite liking to one Daiei film because of its “strangeness.” The film was RASHOMON.
Sometime before, Nagata, who had more or less accidentally signed a one-year distribution and production contract with Akira Kurosawa, was approached by the director to make RASHOMON. Nagata objected to Kurosawa’s offer, holding that the story was too offbeat. Kurosawa campaigned heavily and Nagata relented, but with many objections since it was his money that the director would be using. (In the Japanese film industry operating under the “director system” of hierarchy, the head of the studio, or very often the head of the company, as in the case of Oaiei’s Nagata, was the active director of policy as to what kind of pictures were to be produced. Responsibility for delegating details to a producer was not exercised. The director was held responsible for everything in a film and reported directly to the head of production. A producer under the system was little more than an errand boy, since the two powers, director and studio chief, held all the responsibility.)
When RASHOMON began to take an overly long period of time to complete, Nagata, and his answering service were interested in making several cheap quickies to fill up the schedule. He was approached by Kaneto Shindo and Komisaburo Yoshimura with a screen-play they had completed. Yoshimura: “…because of his worrying over RASHOMON, Nagata came to like me, and at Daiei if Nagata likes you everything is all right.”
Miss Stramigoli informed Nagata that RASHOMON ought to go to Venice, but he hesitated to agree. He was afraid of failure and the consequent humiliation, and worst of all, the fact that the film had not been made “especially for export.” This being the era when Westerners’ opinions were listened to, Nagata reluctantly took the plunge. To everyone’s surprise RASHOMON won, and Nagata was forced into greatness. It was a stroke of luck, and luck was something which both Nagata and Daiei needed.
With the industry facing a double demand in 1953, that of the home audience and that of interested foreigners, there was much turmoil and not a little discussion. One of the few involved who knew what was going on was Masaichi Nagata. Clearly seeing the possibilities of both markets, he set off to do something about them. For some time Daiei had been experimenting with Japanese-made color film, but found it severely lacking in quality. Because of this Nagata turned to Eastmancolor and, although the film was still in a somewhat experimental stage, sent two of his people to America to make tests. The move was inspired both by his seeing that color would be the coming thing and by his desire to break even further into the international market.
The investigations amply paid off. GATE Of HELL was released in 1953 and proved the answer to Nagata’s every prayer. The film was ordinary enough for the home market and exotic enough “for the foreign market. What made GATE OF HELL important even more was its incorporation of the most beautiful color photography ever to grace the screen up to that time. Now definitely on top, Daiei set what shortly was to become a pattern, representing as it did the perfect compromise between the exoticism which the studio believed the West hungered for and the mediocrity which it was thought that Japan would happily consume. The industry was elated. The days of big business were finally here. GATE OF HELL went on to win the 1954 Grand Prize at Cannes and a year later an American Academy Award. But the Japanese critics were completely confounded by the foreign success of the film since it made no one’s “best ten” list in 1953 in Japan, and their attitude. was that of the insulted and injured since these foreigners seemed to suggest that the Japanese critics did not know their business. Many were the articles suggesting this and claiming that Japan had suffered a national insult.
One critic pointed out that “in the same way, foreigners, forever souvenir-hunting, always pick Japanese-style paintings on silk rather than our oils on canvas.” Daiei, however, was not complaining. Daiei then launched a regular program of color-film production and thus became the first Japanese company to go in for color on more than an experimental basis. Evaluating the international market, Nagata decided that the success of his films overseas lay in their exoticism, and he therefore decided on more large-scale period-films. Little by little, however, it became abundantly clear that Nagata was wrong. His policy of producing period-films “that appeal to foreigners” was disastrous.
In 1955 Nagata learned the extent of his misery. He failed to win anything abroad, and the films in question, apart from not selling in foreign countries, had only moderate success in Japan because of their poor quality, not because they were made for export. This concentration of resources on a few films for foreigners resulted in a neglect of Daiei’s weekly bread-and-butter products and a consequent fall in their over-all quality. Too, despite Daiei’s frequent announcements claiming sole concentration on “big, quality pictures,” due in part to Nagata’s disdain to the double-features policy set by several of the other studios and his reasoning that there was bigger opportunity for making money on a film that was successful abroad than on the biggest films at home, Daiei’s actual output showed an almost total concern with slickly-made, but essentially trite adaptations of fiction appearing in second-rate magazines.
The company’s more constructive efforts in this period were the introduction of the color film and the persuasion of other producers to turn their eyes to markets abroad. Daiei also served as example in this time frame of how not to make a co-production. The other companies, profiting by Daiei’s two failures when the studio used an American director on one film and film star Margaret O’Brien in the other, decided to embark on a few collaborations of their own.
Despite its co-production failures, Daiei was anxious to try again. This time it looked to Hong Kong and interested the Shaw Brothers, to the extent of their putting up thirty percent of the money, the result being THE PRINCESS YANG (YOHIKI), a rather dull if pictorially beautiful reworking of Chinese history. Box-office returns were not impressive, but at least Daiei received the dubious prestige of having made another foreign co-production.
A division of the market into six spheres assured each major company (Toho, Daiei, Shochiku, the recently formed Toei and Shintoho companies, plus Nikkatsu, the latter back in production) its own private share and a presumably loyal audience, and had as one of its effects a partial removal of inter-company rivalry, hampering greatly the healthy principle of competition. Daiei sought out the teenage audience with its youth films, erotic or otherwise, also making period-dramas which particularly appealed to the city storekeepers.
While the policy of division was successful in allowing each company to attract the type of audience it wanted, it was never completely rigid. Each studio made many films which naturally included audiences not within its sphere of influence. In general, however, the result of this striving for security within the industry was a complete commercialization of the film product.
Though Daiei had produced the first Japanese science fiction film in 1949, THE TRANSPARENT MAN, it wasn’t until Toho issued GODZILLA in 1954 that the genre took off. Eager for a piece of the action, Daiei produced a SF number for the foreign market titled SPACEMEN APPEAR IN TOKYO which in full color, missing in the Toho effort, solemnly warned against the threat of an invading asteroid, advising unilateral cooperation to end the threat. Foreigners never saw the film theatrically since Daiei was unable to sell it to anyone, but the company was able to distribute the picture to American television under its own auspices nine years later as WARNING FROM SPACE. The film was eventually picked up by American International Television, along with most of Daiei’s monster films, for television distribution in the latter sixties.
Perhaps even more typical of the commercialization of the Japanese films was the fad of the taiyozoku movies during the summer of 1956. The concept of the taiyozoku (literally, “sun tribe”) was often credited to Shintaro Isihara for his short novel Season of the Sun, a violent, adolescent outcry against tradition and the older generation. It is this theme which was soon taken up by the young people whose anarchistic ideas allowed them to think themselves members of the taiyozoku.
Though the novels based on this concept aroused little public resentment, the films did. Daiei was unsympathetic. Seeing the taiyozoku pictures as a logical extension of its erotic films for teenagers, it was delighted to note that its film, PUNISHMENT ROOM, about sex and lawless youth, was playing to standing-room-only from morning to night because of its attractiveness to female high school students.
Besides sex, war and science fiction, another favored exploitation theme in commercial Japanese cinema was the use of exotic and foreign locales, Daiei ‘s THE PRINCESS YANG being an example. But Daiei went further a field to shoot its BURUBA in Hollywood in an “African jungle” set since the story was about a Japanese Tarzan. Period-dramas meanwhile, in the manner of Hollywood’s western, proved the most stable and sure of all. Yet, it too was undergoing transformation now that Toei, with its serious, short feature-length period-films, was setting the profit-making, though critics were of the opinion that Daiei was making the more competent period-pictures. One of the reasons was that Daiei had both Teinosuke Kinugasa and Daisuke Ito who could turn out commercial products better than others in the field. In addition, Kenji Mizoguchi’s highly creative experiments in the area of the period-film helped considerably to raise Daiei’s reputation. (A businessman’s businessman, Masaichi Nagata nevertheless was always overwhelmed by genuine artists, being fascinated by both them and their work. Despite his reputation as a maker of the most uninteresting and most financially successful of pot-boilers, Nagata had always liked to use his commercial talents to help men of genius, hence his long association with Mizoguchi and his continuing support to provide that director with every- thing he needed to make good films.)
In the sixties Daiei found its money-makers to be the works of Yasuzo Masumura, whose style relied upon shock editing, sensationalism and eroticism, and the popular series about Zatoichi the blind swordsman for mainstream audiences. In the area of fantasy and horror the studio found acceptance in its many supernatural films and two series featuring giant monsters, one about a huge, avenging stone idol which comes to life (3 films) and the other about a fire-belching, gargantuan turtle (6 films) whose first film finds him in simply a monster-on-the-loose premise, but who later became a sort of accidental savior of mankind.
In December, 1971 it all ceased to exist. Daiei declared bankruptcy amid a number of suspicions and accusations which occurred in a “bloody” climate of corruption in management over money and political involvement. The lengthy bankruptcy battle continued into 1972. In April the bankruptcy administrator for the defunct company sued the four executives of the insolvent firm, including president Masaichi Nagata, for approximately $1.6 million in damages compensation. According to the suit filed with the Tokyo District Court, the four executives had made illegal disbursements in donations to political groups and other accounts beyond the company’s normal business activities and incurred losses to the studio until it went bankrupt December 23, 1971.
Daiei was revived in the summer of 1974 under the presidency of newspaper publisher Yasuyoshi Tokuma. The Daiei parent company now had four subsidiaries, one of which dealt exclusively with distribution, a second with production, and the remaining two operated studios in Tokyo and Kyoto. Additionally, there was an affiliated company, Toko Tokuma Co. which specialized in the import of Chinese films and the export of Japanese films to China.
The studio produced 8 motion pictures from the time of its revival up through 1978, one of which was an occult thriller called YOBA, co-produced by former president Masaichi Nagata, a man obviously unfazed by all his legal uncertainties and for whom supposed offenses appeared to be lacking substance, and distributed by Shochiku, the studio for which Nagata had worked some 43 years earlier and would later disown to form Daiei. The circle, it seemed, would never be unbroken.