From Copy Machine to Computers: Collaboration and Kinema Club

Japanese film star from the 1930s

One of the most difficult problems for scholars of Japanese film is the dearth of written materials outside of Japan. Because of the high/low art distinctions that undergirded literature departments until recent times, even our largest East Asian libraries have surprisingly poor collections of film books and periodicals. This is being remedied at many libraries, most notably the University of Iowa and the University of Michigan, but even these collections hold few resources about such an important art form. Add the bad habit most Japanese film scholars have of writing without footnotes, and the problems for foreign scholars appear daunting. In the early 1990s, a number of scholars (most of them graduate students at the time) decided to take matters into their own hands. We formed an informal group designed to share bibliographic information. Each person would xerox the indexes or tables of contents for a film magazine or two, making copies for everyone else in the group. When someone new wanted to join, they would take care of a new periodical and spread it around. In no time, we had a nice file of bibliographic information that allowed us to use interlibrary loan and make the most of our precious research trips to Japan.

About the same time, I met Maureen Donovan (Ohio State University) in a newsgroup devoted to digital culture in Japan. We soon were exchanging mail off the list, discussing our respective projects. Maureen suggested the obvious. The internet was a natural place to continue our collaboration while making it available to anyone with a computer and a connection. She had just established Denshi Bunko, and offered disk space and other support. Both of us were curious about the potential for real collaboration and sharing of information via this new medium, particularly since our group started out based on paper. I had already published an online, hypertextual article on a site called CinemaSpace, so was well-prepared for the jump into cyberspace. We decided to name ourselves after a famous Taisho era movie theater: Kinema Club, going online in January 1995.

Writing this essay gave me the opportunity to open up the first version of Kinema Club, which I saved to this day on a floppy. It gives a sense for the explosive growth of both the internet and our group. At this early date, we only had lists of important reprints at US libraries, a relatively short bibliography, reading notes for To the Distant Observer, and a page for links. In retrospect, the latter is amusing. After a dedicated search of 1994 cyberspace, virtually the only film-related sites we could find were on anime (and they were all American).

In the intervening years, we have slowly built up Kinema Club. We’ve added a variety of teaching tools created by several KineClubbers. We started converting our file of indexes and tables of contents to digitized information (some are text, but others are simply scanned images because we lack OCR software for Japanese). One page provides sources for Japanese film prints in the US. Our link page is bilingual and much, much longer. And our home page is also bilingual. One particularly dedicated KineClubber, Dr. Aaron Gerow, contributed a guide to film specialty bookstores in Japan, complete with maps. Because he is living in Japan and writing film criticism for The Daily Yomiuri, Aaron has also kept those of us far from Japanese movie theaters up to date by putting his reviews online.

More recently, we brought two long-discussed projects to fruition. Maureen had always supplied us with a modest listserve to keep all the Kinema Club people in constant touch. The discussions ranged from the practical to the contentious. It was clear that opening our list to the larger networked community would benefit both the field and the website. After extensive discussion and planning, Maureen helped us establish the KineJapan Discussion List (moderator is Aaron Gerow). We thought we would be successful if 30 people signed up; within months, the membership has grown to well over 100 people from the world over.

The other large project was the conversion of our bibliography into a searchable database. This was considerably more complicated. Most people considered this the most valuable resource on the website. Over the years, many people contributed bibliographic entries in a variety of languages and the length was becoming clunky. Even when we started Kinema Club, we simply made the bibliography a link because it was too long to download at such slow speeds. Basically, the length kept up with bandwidth, and the need to create a database was painfully clear. We discussed how to do this over the course of 1997, relying on Maureen for advice on style and structure. Finally, with the help of Denshi Bunko’s Koyo Hasebe the bibliography turned into a slick database in January 1998, three quick years after Kinema Club’s appearance on the internet.

A final word on collaboration. When we started, few people knew anything about the mechanics of putting something online. This meant that the move from paper to networks required the dedication of the few who cared—or dared—to learn. We reasoned that once something went online, the project would gather its own momentum. To some degree it has played out along these lines. A wide variety of people, both fans and scholars, contribute information and a smaller number program this for the web. However, the most active contributors tend to be graduate students or those on the tenure track. Collaboration is sweet, but it runs in fits and starts with the rhythms of the academic year…and a significant number simply keep their distance and protect their time. An online journal, for example, seems inevitable to everyone, but will probably have to wait until some people get tenure. At the very least, the KineJapan list keeps us talking to each other, and the synergy between the ebb and flow of these discussions and the newest developments in the internet will ensure a constantly evolving Kinema Club. Come visit!