In the late 1920s and 1930s, left-wing film movements formed across the globe, most notably in the Soviet Union, Germany, the United States and Japan. While the Soviet film activities are unique to the extent that they were state sponsored, the others evidence a number of similarities. They all critiqued the slick, capital-driven cinema of Hollywood. They produced and distributed their own independent films. And they supplemented their filmic agitation with publications on paper.
The Japanese proletarian movement preceded the German and American collectives in many respects, and probably achieved a larger scale at the peak of its activism. Most of the people that made up the movement started in film criticism, and these writers initially restricted their political intervention to the printed word. They simply couldn't imagine film production outside of an industrial context.
However, in the late 1920s, a theater activist named Sasa Genju demonstrated how they could exploit the newly developed small-gauge cameras for political ends. These cameras were marketed toward bourgeois amateurs, but the left-wing critics started taking the cameras to demonstrations and strikes. By the early 1930s, they were making and screening films all over the country.
Most of the materials here are from the Proletarian Film League of Japan (Nihon Puroretaria Eiga Domei), or Prokino for short. This is the organization that achieved a considerable size, with affiliated groups in various regions of Japan. They were finally forced to disband through political violence—primarily excessive censorship and frequent arrest—in 1934.
Prokino formed in 1929, but there were activists politicizing film criticism in the years preceding this. They even formed an organization, the Proletarian Film Federation of Japan (Nihon Puroretaria Eiga Renmei), and published their own journal. As Makino Mamoru points out in his historiography of the proletarian film movements, which is also reprinted here, the existence of these activities parallel to Prokino have been largely excised from the histories of left-wing film culture. Our reprint is intended to rectify this suppression, and finally provide access to what remains of their work.
The materials collected here are from the Makino Collection. The journals are not complete runs, but the Prokino journals can be found in a beautiful paper reprint. This paper reprint collects all the extant journals and newsletters of the Proletarian Film League of Japan, as well as a poster and some tickets to their screenings. Users of the Michigan electronic reprint will want to know about the supplement to the paper reprint; it includes an index to all the Prokino journal articles, cross-listed by author. Unfortunately, the paper reprint and supplement are out-of-print, but they are available in many research libraries under the title Showa Shoki Sayoku Eiga Zasshi (Early Showa left-wing film journals) (Tokyo: Senki Fukkokuban Gyokai, 1981).
Newsletters and Leaflets from the Censors
Films (Rikka Press in Japan is issuing a DVD of Prokino films, with English subtitles. In support of their project, we have unlinked the films that had appeared here.)
Historiography of the proletarian film movements (English): Makino Mamoru, "Rethinking the Emergence of the Proletarian Film League of Japan," in In Praise of Film Studies: Essays in Honor to Makino Mamoru, ed. Abé Mark Nornes and Aaron Gerow (Victoria: Trafford / Kinema Club, 2001), 15-45.