Orochi (1925) with benshi narration at Ciné Iluminé, 2 September 2012

Orochi (1925)
Orochi (1925)

The next screening from the silent film club at central London burlesque bar Volupté Lounge is not to be missed. This is not just because the film in question, a Japanese samurai adventure from 1925, is little seen, but because the method of presentation is a rare pleasure too. Orochi will be screened with live musical accompaniment in the form of a tsugaru-shamisen (a traditional Japanese stringed instrument) played by Hibiki Khikawa – and with benshi narration.

Benshi consists of a narration, lines of dialogue and an introduction to the film, delivered at the side of the screen. The benshi for this screening at the Ciné Illuminé will be delivered by actress Kyoko Morita. While early films were regularly screened with narration all over the world, benshi is a little bit special and is more or less unique to Japanese cinema: it’s a full performance and designed into the structure of the film,  to enhance as well as explain, and it derives from kabuki theatre traditions. It is in part due to the popularity of benshi narrators, some of whom became very famous, that silent cinema lasted well into the 1930s in Japan, providing space for directors such as Ozu, Naruse and Mizoguchi to make so many silent masterpieces.

Orochi (The Serpent) is a film that colours its tragedy with a political subtext and it was very controversial when it was first released. Director Buntarō Futagawa was known for his innovations, but only two of his films, this one and a short, survive to this day. Orochi is about a samurai railing against an unjust world, who is played by the silent film star Tsumasaburō Bandō. The swordfighting scenes play to the star’s natural abilities: they’re fast, frenzied and a step-change from the more sedate kabuki-influenced Japanese cinema of the time. However, it’s the message rather than the mayhem, that resonates here.

The story revolves around the protagonist, Heizaburo Kuritomi, an honorable but low-class samurai who is given an emotional depth, previously unseen in Jidaigeki films, as he battles with inner conflict and the injustices of society. This is especially evident in the closing sequence of the film where the protagnoist is dragged away by his enemies after his tremendous effort to protect his love. In the essay, “Bantsuma’s ‘New Breeze'”, Midori Sawato cites the ending of Orochi as one of the most ‘heroic and heartcrushing’ images she has seen. In the past, the heroes of the films were proud samurai of the upper classes who always triumphed over their evil opponents, upholding what was truly right in the world. However, Orochi was created in response to the national and military fanaticism that was prevailing at the time.

With its now famous opening lines:

‘Not all those who wear the name of villain, are truly evil men. Not all those who are respected as noble men, are worthy of the name. Many are those who wear a false mask of benevolence to hide their treachery and the wickedness of their true selves,’

the film evoked provocative ideologies and rebellious ideas during a time where liberal performers and writers were being repressed throughout Japan. Consequently, the film was severely censored with over 20% of its content being completely cut out and several scenes having to be re-shot. When the film was finally released, the hype around its creation resulted in crowds flocking to theaters all around the country. Bantsuma’s exhilarating new sword fighting style he displayed in the film may have attracted audiences but it cannot be denied that there were many who were also deeply touched by the profound message of the film.

Doors are at 5pm for a screening at 6.30pm. Tickets are £7 in advance or £9 on the door. You’ll find the Volupté Lounge at 9 Norwich Street, EC4A 1EJ. Call 0207 831 1622 or email reservations@volupte-lounge.com to book tickets. Don’t forget to check out the Facebook page or the Twitter feed for future screenings.

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