Time Travel Back to Tokyo After World War II, and See the City in Remarkably High-Quality 1940s Video

In May we featured color footage of a bombed-out Berlin a month after Germany’s defeat in the Second World War. Today we have footage of Tokyo, the other Axis power’s capital city, shot in that aftermath era, albeit in black-and-white — but at such a high level of clarity and with such smoothness that it feels as if it could have come from a historical movie made today. These clips, assembled into a sort of music video by the record producer and DJ Boogie Belgique, take us for a ride down a shopping street in the Shinbashi district, past market stalls in Shibuya, alongside the river, and even into areas meant exclusively for the occupying American forces.

Given that, and given the obviously high technology used to capture the footage itself, the occupying American forces more than likely shot this film themselves. But when did they do it? Clearly, Tokyo has had time to build itself back up after the immense destruction of the war, but how much time exactly? The Japan-watchers at Rocket News 24 have put their heads together to answer that question. “Japan was occupied from 1945 to 1952, so it was most likely around that time,” writes that site’s Scott Wilson.

He goes on to enumerate the visual clues that help pin down the year, including one poster for “Hatsu Imai, the first woman elected to the Japanese House of Representatives in 1946” and another for Miracle on 34th Street, originally released in November 1948. The consensus, in any case, seems to call this the Tokyo of the late 1940s, the city that Yasujirō Ozu, one of Japan’s most beloved auteurs, used as a setting in films like The Record of a Tenement GentlemanA Hen in the Wind, and Late Spring.

But Ozu never included any visible traces of the American occupation, much less the clear presence we see in this documentary clip, in large part due to the demands of the American censors. They frowned on any direct reference to the United States, to the point that they almost cut out of Late Spring the admiring reference to Gary Cooper, to whom the main character’s matchmaking aunt compares the suitor she’s chosen for her. That main character, named Noriko, went on to appear in Ozu’s Early Summer in 1951 and Tokyo Story in 1953 — not as the exact same person each time, but always played by Setsuko Hara, rest her sweet soul, as the archetypal young-ish woman in postwar Tokyo. How many real-life Norikos of Shinbashi or Shibuya, I wonder, turned their heads to watch the American camera crew pass by?

via Rocket News 24

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinemaand the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future? Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.


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  • Chris Floyd says:

    Interesting video, and great historical background. Here’s an earlier video using that same footage: a rough-sketch music demo released in January 2015. https://youtu.be/JlWDjd1dhTY

  • @bartleybabica says:

    Fascinating film footage, and a fun video update of it. (In fact, the excellent image quality is not “remarkable” at all. Thousands of 1940s films and newsreels worldwide show the same level of image resolution and editing.)

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