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Timeslip to the Past with Japan’s Period Film Industry

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Historical Dramas in Japan

I’m a big fan of old-school Samurai films or chanbara, as they are known in Japan. A black-and-white melodrama where swords clash and someone takes ages to die tragically in the rain? Count me in. On the other hand, I’m just as interested in films made around the same period which take on big social questions, by great directors like Yasujirō Ozu.

With so many Ninjas, Samurai, and huge social changes to draw on, it’s no surprise that the Japanese early-modern period turns up so often in popular media. There are a huge number of anime and games that feature these of characters and settings, but there are also plenty of live action period dramas being released as well. NHK, Japan’s national broadcaster, produces an annual historical television series each year known as a Taiga Drama. ‘Awaiting Kirin’ (麒麟がくる) is the latest Taiga Drama, a civil war story set way back in the 1540’s!

A scene from ‘Awaiting Kirin’

A Great Location for Films

With so many shows and films set in the past, how do production companies manage to find an appropriately historic place to shoot the scenes? There have to be castles for the Shogun to command armies from, sloping roofs for Ninjas to chase each other across and dusty streets for Samurai to have atmospheric showdowns in. Of course, the answer is to set up and film in the city that never quite left the past behind, Kyoto.

As Japan’s former capital, Kyoto is home to a fantastic collection of well maintained ancient temples, shrines and neighbourhoods. With the right camera angles you can avoid all the vending machines and capture an image that is straight out of a history book. This is probably why it’s such a popular location for famous films set in Japan’s past, such as ‘The Last Samurai’ and ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’ which both had scenes shot in the city.

Kyoto’s Samurai Town

Amazing though the historical atmosphere in Kyoto is, sometimes a few shots aren’t enough and you need a really big set that looks like it’s been pulled right from Japan’s past. In this case, production companies go to Toei Kyoto Studio. Opened back in 1975, the studio covers 13 acres of space converted to look like Japan 400 years ago, back in the Edo period (1603-1868).

The Studio is based in the Ukyo ward of Kyoto, and is the shooting location for more than 200 films each year. It was even used for films by the legendary Akira Kurosawa! Contained within the studio is ‘Toei Kyoto Studio Park’, slightly separate from the day to day business operations and open for visitors interested in walking through the authentic looking Edo streets.

Toei Studio: The Edo Theme Park

As you turn back the clock and take a stroll four centuries into the past, you might just be lucky enough to watch Toei period dramas being filmed. But there’s so much more you can do here, since the Studio Park is serious in doubling up as a tourist attraction. For the hardcore cinema fans there are movie archives, a guided tour with costumed actors and a whole museum dedicated to beloved actress Hibari Misora. If you’re more excited by the idea of making your Samurai dreams come true, Toei Studio has traditional outfits and training camps, in addition to restaurants, Ninja climbing walls, archery practice, a shuriken dojo and even a haunted house.

Tickets for Toei Kyoto Studio Park are available online now, and one of the best ways to get involved with Kyoto’s culture of cinema.

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