Fantastic news. Two events coming up in London explore the Japanese art of Benshi narration for silent film, both of them courtesy of the Japan Foundation. You may have already heard that there will a screening of the masterpiece I was Born, But … (Yasijuro Ozu, 1932) at the Barbican on 25 June with piano accompaniment and Benshi narration. Book your tickets here.
Before that, on Friday 23 June at Foyles on Charing Cross Road, you can learn more about Benshi itself, with Katsudo-Benshi Hideyuki Yamashiro and silent film pianist Mie Yanashita. There’ll be a talk, demonstration (with a scene from Orochi, 1925) and even the chance to have a go yourself. I’ll be there too, giving an introductory talk about silent cinema to set the scene and chairing the Q&A with Yamashiro. More details below – it’s free but you have to book your seat on Eventbrite.
In conjunction with the Barbican’s screening of Yasujiro Ozu’s I was Born, But… organised as part of The Japanese House exhibition, the Japan Foundation is delighted to present a special evening exploring the art of Benshi. Following an introductory talk by silent cinema specialist Pamela Hutchinson, Katsudo-Benshi Hideyuki Yamashiro and Silent Film Pianist Mie Yanashita will perform a clip from Orochi (1925) recreating an authentic Benshi experience. As part of his illustrated talk, Yamashiro will discuss Benshi as a contemporary occupation as well as the unique appeal of Japanese silent cinema.
This fascinating event will also offer a few audience members the chance to take to the stage and perform the role of Benshi under instruction from Yamashiro himself!
This event is free to attend but booking is essential. To book your place via Eventbrite, please click here
Charlie Chaplin is in the house. Naturally, this being his centenary year and all. Naturally, also, he is speaking Japanese. Because all the characters in Charlie Chaplin films speak Japanese – to a Japanese-speaking audience that is. And also to us lucky types in Pordenone tonight who saw a programme of Chaplin shorts with the accompaniment of Benshi Ichiro Kataoka along with Gunter Büchwald and Frank Bockius. Clearly they had all been in cahoots and the riotous combination of voice and music was expertly judged. A little Benshi can go a long way with me, but that’s how it’s meant to be I think: exuberance squared. The Japanese movie fragment that preceded the Chaplins, Kenka Yasubei (Hot-Tempered Yasubei, 1928) was an inspired choice – all the brawling and boozing of three or four Keystones packed into a frenetic half hour.
There was yet more exuberance to come at the end of the evening with Pansidong (The Spider Cave, Darwin Dan, 1927). This Chinese silent, once thought lost but recently rediscovered in Oslo, was introduced charmingly by the director’s grandson, who was seeing it for the first time tonight. I hope he enjoyed as much as I did: it was a silken concoction laced with surprises in which a glamorous girl gang of “spider-women” entrap a monk in their cave, among the spirits. There’s magic, and swordfighting, and some very witty subtitles. Mie Yanashita accompanied tightly on the piano and percussion, including a clattering cymbal that made many of us jump – right on the nose of that wedding-night moment.
But it’s not time for bed quite yet. Here’s what else happened today. The short version: lots. I’m going to begin with something really quite beautiful. Several things in fact.
The mountain footage in 'Colored Views from the Entire World' with musical accompaniment by Stephen Horne was particularly magical. #GCM33
The leopard-skin trim on a Paul Poiret evening coat, scarlet fireworks in a sea-green night sky, vicious yellow flames engulfing a city tenement, a bowl of fresh oranges amid Sonia Delaunay’s sumptuous Orphist designs, gold sequins twinkling on a chorus line and a freshly dyed sugar-pink frock: the first shorts programme in the Dawn of Technicolor strand was a many-splendoured thing. Many different colour processes were on display from Kelley Colour to hand colouring to Natural Color to … far too many to name here. But this was as entertaining as it was instructional, and all beautifully and kaleidoscopically accompanied by Stephen Horne on piano, flute, accordion, and xylophone … at least. Married in Hollywood, the parting shot, was a Multicolor finale from a lost black-and-white sound feature. It must have been an impressive technical achievement, but it was also incredibly cheesy. Quattro formaggi.
Yasujiro Ozu wasn’t always quite the Yasujiro Ozu we know from Tokyo Story and Late Spring. And he was certainly nothing like the film-maker you would expect if you had never seen those films, just been told about them as slow, domestic dramas on the theme of loss. Ozu has always put the fun into formalism, with playfully picturesque compositions and his famous cutaway “pillow shots” inserting frames of pure, simple cinema into his simmering narratives.
Later Ozu films are so routinely described as distinctively Japanese, as distinctively Ozu-esque that it may surprise many to learn that the director was actually a huge fan of Hollywood cinema. When he first started work at the Shochiku studio as a young man, he horrified the boss by claiming to have only seen a handful of Japanese films, and hundreds of American pictures. The twentysomething Ozu first aspired to make comedies, aping the slapstick of Harold Lloyd and the wit of Lubitsch.
The BFI collected a handful of Ozu’s campus comedies in a box set last year – and while their subject matter and setting seem very different from Ozu’s sound films, there was much that was familiar: a certain poignancy to the humour; the awkwardness of social and family situations; the sense of change and loss on growing old and leaving friends and family behind.
Now the BFI has brought together more of Ozu’s earlier, funnier material for a second set, but this time with a darker theme. The Gangster Films set reflects Ozu’s Hollywood influences, sure, but also a changing Japan, more urban, more hi-tech, more susceptible to western influences. In the student comedies, our slacker heroes are horrified by the brazen manners of so-called modern girls – Ozu’s gangsters embrace them, at least for a short while. The films featured in this new set are Dragnet Girl,A Straightforward Boy (fragment), Walk Cheerfully and That Night’s Wife. I don’t want to lump these films together, certainly the fragment is its own beast, but they do share some characteristics. The three features are all set in an Americanised Tokyo, accented with deep shadows and populated by Japanese gangsters straight out of US novels and films – double-breasted suits, sharp-brimmed hats and shiny leather shoes. Their molls have bobbed hair and fur collars, high-heeled shoes and glint in their eye.
The beauty of watching the gangster movies is to see Ozu’s cinematic style grow despite his influences. Or to put it in David Bordwell’s words: “The exotic and formulaic genre allows Ozu to experiment stylistically, moving toward that highly overt narration that was to become his trademark.” While the gangster films offer us Hollywood thrills in the shape of guns, girls and skulduggery, the poetics, the cutaways and composition are all Ozu’s own.
Full disclosure: I’d quite like you to buy this box set. I contributed one of the essays in the accompanying booklet, on Walk Cheerfully. You’ll find more erudite words there too from Tony Rayns, Bryony Dixon and Michael Kerpan. The films are the thing, of course, and they are beautifully accompanied by Ed Hughes’ scores. The set has been reviewed in Film International, by Wheeler Winston Dixon, and in Sight & Sound, by Philip Kemp.
However, I’m not just writing to plug the box set, but to bring you some information about a forthcoming screening of Walk Cheerfully at BFI Southbank on 22 April. This is a members’ ballot screening, and you should know by now whether you have a ticket, though I suppose there may also be some more available nearer the date. This is a special screening and will be an experience very different to watching the DVD. First, the music will be a live improvised score that combines traditional Japanese music with electronic distortions – and a 78rpm record player. Walk Cheerfully is certainly a toe-tapping film, so I have high hopes for this. More details below:
Sylvia Hallett and Clive Bell are the two musicians improvising a live score for Walk Cheerfully. The pair have worked together for several years on projects for film, dance and theatre, as well as numerous international concert and festival performances. Their duo album The Geographers is on the Emanem label.
Clive Bell is a specialist in Japanese traditional music; he lived in Tokyo where he studied the shakuhachi (Japanese flute). Later he learned to play the khene, a bamboo mouth organ from Thailand – a bright-toned, chordal wind instrument that is an ancestor of the accordion. Sylvia Hallett is a violinist, composer and instrument maker, with a unique personal approach to live electronics.
Clive Bell writes: “Walk Cheerfully is a film full of subtle surprises, that deserves a fresh-sounding score. Our musical accompaniment will blend these Far Eastern instruments, and the more familiar violin, with electronic looping and pitch-shifting. The live orchestra which accompanied Japanese screenings in the 1930s often mixed traditional Japanese instruments such as shamisen (lute) and taiko drum with trumpet, violin, clarinet and piano. Instead of a piano, we use electronics to extend the music’s range into magic and atmospheres.
“Ozu was a keen student of American cinema, but made films that remained essentially Japanese. We hope to return the compliment by creating a rich musical mix of Western and Japanese, of contemporary and traditional. And, when the gangsters play their 78rpm records in their club, we will activate an antique 78rpm record player of our own.”
The second surprise is that the film will be accompanied by live Benshi narration – as Japanese film screenings were in the silent era. The Benshi will be performed by Tomoko Komura, who will both translate the intertitles and narrate the film.
If you want to learn more about Ozu, and his silent work, I can’t think of a more enjoyable way to begin.
Walk Cheerfully screens at NFT1 on 22 April 2013 at 6.30pm. Read more here.
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 email@example.com to book tickets. Don’t forget to check out the Facebook page or the Twitter feed for future screenings.