When Fires Threaten Tokyo
For a full day I feverishly toured Tokyo by taxi, penetrating every corner and listing all conceivable shots which would suit my purpose.
Buddhist temples, fish and vegetable markets, parks, rivers, alleys, and native hotels were inspected.
The Earthquake Memorial told a mighty story. My brother and I had been in Tokyo just three years after the great quake and fire of 1923. Now new buildings have been erected throughout the city to take the place of those which burned. But the memorial brings to mind the 200,000 persons who lost their lives in that day of horror. It is raised on the spot where, in a poor section of town, 32,000 persons perished in one group. I tried to picture the hell and confusion of that bygone day. But a few minutes later we were to have a realistic, if tiny, sample of what must have taken place.
We were walking through Asakusa Park, the Coney Island of Japan. Shops, theaters, stalls, had changed little here since I had seen them last. Incongruous to the Western eye, at the center of the amusement zone stood a great Buddhist temple where it would be easy to leave the theaters or merry-go-rounds for a brief moment of worship. Perhaps the Japanese have the right idea in this, after all.
Just back of the stalls and shops the wooden houses were packed together in a maze of tiny streets and alleys. The crowds of people were dense. We were standing before the temple listening to the deep soft booming of a bell as some high priest inside swung his mallet in a call to worship. Quite suddenly the tone of the bell changed. It was now harsh, raucous, insistent. But no, it was coming from another direction. A fire engine streaked through the midway of the amusement zone. We looked up. Black smoke was darkening the sky.
Following the mad rush toward the fire—for such it was—we soon stood before one of those wooden houses, a large three-storied structure, burning furiously.
Cinders and sparks were creating a rainstorm of firebrands. Frightened shopkeepers began scurrying for pails and started to throw water frantically on their stalls and wares. Women were wailing. People in the whole neighborhood were moving out their goods. From the third floor of the burning house several men crawled out of windows and down jutting roofs to the ground.
There was the confusion of a battlefield. My interpreter, my government agent, and I were caught in the thick of it and for a time could not get out. Our heads were dusted with falling cinders; we were liberally soused with water. We ran in and out of several houses, from front to back, trying to get away, and it was not until police had formed lines and established some sort of order that we made an exit.
An inspection several days later revealed that the blaze had been brought under control after a block of houses had burned. But it served as a succinct summary of what must have happened on a tragically greater scale during that earthquake day in 1923. Millions of people crowded hopelessly together in cardboard-like structures create a grim hazard.
It afforded me a horoscopic view, too, of what would happen in case of an incendiary air raid over Tokyo. A hundred bombs, strategically dropped, on a windy day, might have the whole city in flames, threatening six million lives. No great capital of the world is so perilously constructed, with respect to air raids, as is the capital of Japan.
We finished our tour with an inspection of the Imperial Palace grounds and a view of the government buildings. Nearly all work at the palace is done by school children, each group proudly parading its banner, and all busy with pushcarts, spades, and baskets, learning in this early fashion the importance of serving their emperor.
There were many imposing government buildings but the grandest was the new Parliament structure, a modern pile of dignified granite overlooking the city. It will make a tremendous picture.
Over iced tea in the Imperial Hotel lounge that night my interpreter and I drew up the list of pictures which I wanted, then poured through guidebooks in order to construct a hypothetical list for the rest of Japan.
A meeting was set for ten o’clock next day. List in hand, at the appointed time I was ushered into a private office. Six men were seated at a table.
This was the original board of censors—the first hurdle. Following a prolonged session of bowing and the exchanging of innocuous platitudes we got down to work.
May my guiding star be forever praised that I made my list voluminously long. Under the knife-like eyes of that group it shriveled and melted away like a savings fund at Christmas time. First one person then another would shake his head and the black pencil would get in its deadly work on view after view.
I must have shown actual genius at picking the wrong shots. Off went a superb scene of the great new Insurance Building, to have been taken from the moat surrounding the Imperial Palace. Off went all views of the moat itself (how beautiful those would have been). Off went the Imperial Palace. The Mitsui Bank (owned by the “Rothchilds” of Japan) and the Bank of Japan were both eliminated. Views which I wanted showing houses along the river all were overtaken by the fate of the black pencil. That pencil became a scourge.
So on for half an hour. But my list had been constructed on a generous and magnanimous scale. An adequate number of shots remained.
But time to take the shots, before rain set in, was fleeting. While one set of government officials commenced making a triplicate transcript of the residue of my list (accomplishing this on a Japanese typewriter, which resembles a huge electric mangle) the chief film man started preparing a schedule for presentation to the police throughout the city. All this was rushed through on the double-quick.
Then, grabbing a taxi, and accompanied by my entourage of interpreter and government agent, I sped across town, past stately blocks of great government buildings, to the Department of Home Affairs. This would be the real hurdle—the final test.
Stopping before one of the finest office buildings in the city, we at once penetrated its maze of halls. There was infinite questioning, presenting of cards, long sallies through corridors, led by one orderly after another. At last we were conducted into a great office filled with industrious clerks. At one end, separated from the others by a ponderous railing, sat a man alone.
He was of the military type, with short crisp black hair, skin like sallow leather, and with high cheekbones. Fortunately I had not had to deal with many of this type before. No one needed to tell me that this was the chief. He was the person who was to determine the final fate of my film.
Already the advertising for it had been released back home. Even now it was probably being booked. Looking at this man who sat there at his desk still ignoring us, I felt that in attempting colored movies of Japan I had perhaps taken too big a chance. It seemed my words froze in my mouth and I couldn’t speak. To me, just then, this official before me was the human counterpart of a European blackout.
The Military Holy of Holies
My interpreter and government agent carried on the negotiations with the chief of the Home Affairs Department. The whole ceremony was conducted in Japanese. The chief scanned my list of proposed “shots,” pondered, questioned, shook his head, asked more questions, pointed out one item after another, shook his head some more. Then we all bowed deep and left the room. I presume we resembled a funeral procession. I was crestfallen.
“What did he say?” I asked.
And my interpreter replied: “Perfect. He says O.K.”
I jumped for joy and almost wanted to give cheers for the emperor. It seems the chief had explained that some Americans had recently tried to take pictures without a permit and that (to quote my interpreter) “had made an awful mess” which was injurious to my case. Certain restrictions had been stipulated about taking pictures at Fujiyama but otherwise, if the Board of Tourist Industry would take complete responsibility and have me watched at all times, then “it’s O.K.”
I left the building on the run. The sky was sunny. “And now,” I shouted, “let’s get started with the pictures. “
My interpreter hesitated. “Well, there is just one more place. You see, there are many strategic locations in the city. We first have to get the permission of the War Department.”
I suppose one gets inured to things like this. I stopped, gurgled baby-like three or four times, then simply said: “Well, let’s get going. “
A taxi sped us through the outer grounds of the Imperial Palace until we came to a great government building—the very nerve center of the Japanese Army. As we went in, and followed through one corridor after another, interesting sights were revealed. Down in the courtyard were soldiers stripped to the waist, drilling under the staccato commands of an officer. I was all eyes.
Probably if I had asked permission to view all this, it wouldn’t have been granted without days of negotiation. Even if I never obtained any pictures I was using my mental photography to the greatest advantage. As my interpreter would have said, “I was getting my eyes filled. “
An army orderly was assigned to us and we went through more halls. Finally a ponderous door was shoved open. I missed a couple of breaths. But at the same time I began to get a highly important opinion of myself For this room into which we were ushered had all the appearance of the council room of the general staff It was like a Wall Street boardroom, with a great oak table, fifteen huge expensive chairs, and fine trimmings. From the window was the best view of the city, palace grounds, and army buildings which I had had. Motioning us to be seated, the orderly disappeared. We occupied just three seats; there were a dozen still vacant. I wondered how many would take part in the inquisition.
The door opened. We three sprang to our feet. An army officer—complete in uniform even to cap—came in and we all bowed low. He motioned us into our chairs. We presented our list.
Carefully the officer studied it, not saying a word. Then he arose. We did likewise, and he left the room. We sat down. Of course he was going to summon the rest of the board.
He returned. A servant was with him—bearing a tray with four cups of tea. He laid the papers aside; we sat down and stirred in our sugar, two lumps apiece. Sugar is being rationed; this was the first I had seen in Japan. The tea was excellent.
Then the document once more. All I can say is that the original board of censors who had gone over that list must have done a good task. It remained intact.
The officer began to speak. My interpreter translated. “Go ahead” he said, “and take the pictures. Make a good film of Japan and go back to America and say a good word for us. “
He regretted that he couldn’t speak English and I expressed my sorrow that I could understand no Japanese. Then, when we all arose, I bowed low and said, “Arigato gozaima. ” The officer roared. We all roared. He returned my “thank you” in English and we roared some more. Thus laughing, my permit signed and in my pocket, we left the room. The tracks were clear. I could start taking my color motion pictures.
And I really did. My interpreter and government agent had never known what hurry was. The sun had come out; the sky was clear and blue. I had a film to make. I had ground to cover. We used a taxi if we had to go more than a block. But even in the short spaces we walked I would sometimes be a hundred yards ahead of my two companions. If the government agent saw what I took it was a marvel. But he was supposed to be accompanying me; not vice versa. It was no fault of mine if he couldn’t keep up.
I carried two cameras, a tripod, meter, and quantities of extra film. That is to say, I and my government agent and interpreter carried them. They came in handy.
On the main streets, when policemen would come up to object, I would just sic my government agent on them. While he would be pulling out the permit and going over it with all the frills, I would be off and away getting more pictures. He would only later be able to locate me because of the great crowds gathered about me and my tripod. Once I swung around and got a picture of such a crowd—probably 150 people all massed to watch me work.
And so it went. In the space of the afternoon I covered Ginza Street, the Japanese theater, the stone temple, and obtained shots of strange signs, street life, subway signs, and of costumed girls crossing thoroughfares.
We made a three-mile trip out to Asakasa Park and photographed the park stalls, the wooden temple, the pagoda, and the main theater street. I obtained good close-up views of women carrying babies strapped to their backs.
The rainy season was fast approaching, but my camera’s appetite for colorful sunlit scenes was being satisfied.
It was my desire to obtain close-ups of the women and geisha girls. But my companions said that the girls would not think of posing for me. Even my interpreter refused to ask them. So I had a try myself.
Going up to an attractive young geisha girl, I made some motions, and in no time she was posing sweetly for me. It worked. As soon as my companions saw what was happening they fell to and lent help with a vengeance.
One geisha girl whom I stopped in a park and who smiled charmingly while her picture was being taken was, according to my government agent, the most ravishingly beautiful thing he had ever seen. No sooner had she walked away through the crowds than he was seized with a mad desire for her address. So he started running after her.
Thousands of people were in the park. It was impossible to locate the government agent, so I sent my interpreter looking for him. While they were both gone I took pictures unaccompanied and unmolested.
Fifteen minutes later we found one another again. Poor government agent—he had failed to locate the girl. But my interpreter had caught up with her and had her address. Later a special party was arranged for me, with this same geisha girl as the honored dancer.
By 5:00 P. M. we quit for the day. I was dead tired. My companions were in the last stages of exhaustion. But we had really made a start.
Thus the crowded street life, the color, the beauty and severity and immutable orientalism of Tokyo was fed into my camera lens and recorded in color on celluloid. Never had I gone through such difficulties and suffered such mental strain to obtain pictures, but they were worth it. After taking time to collect my thoughts and make a written record of my observations, I would be ready to head into rural Japan, to film the farm people, backbone of the Japanese nation.