Japanese silent cinema is an area with which I have little acquaintance—something to do with the fact that most of it is lost and much of the extant stuff doesn’t seem to be easily accessible—and this is one I hadn’t even heard of until just recently… running 21 minutes as it does, the IMDB entry seems to think it’s a fragment of a feature, but another piece I found online suggests it probably actually is a complete short—most of the nearly thousand films its star Matsunosuke Onoe made in his short life were apparently one-reelers and the like (did the feature film not establish itself in Japan like it did elsewhere?)—and that was the feeling I got from it too, insofar as I could get anything from it at all. The story of Jiraiya was, evidently, a folkloric phenomenon that translated into novels and kabuki plays in the 1800s (director Shozo Makino handles the film in an apparently kabuki manner, cf. the costumes and make-up), which is probably why it was kind of baffling to me but probably not to Japanese audiences of the early 20s, who would know the original tale (unlike me) and also would’ve had a benshi to narrate the thing (whereas I felt kind of lost without intertitles; the only titles in the film are basically section headers). What might be the drawcard for a non-Japanese viewer, then? How about the bit where Jiraiya transforms into a giant toad? Yeah. Jiraiya is a ninja who can shapeshift into a toad, his lover Tsunade can turn herself into a snail (which I’m sure is… great) and his nemesis Orochimaru turns into a great big serpent. This business certainly caught my attention and gave the film a certain degree of what-the-fuck, kind of like Georges Méliès doing special effects for D.W. Griffith or something. See this rather singular thing here.
Goketsu Jiraiya (1921)