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
Of what does a revolt consist? Of everything and nothing, a spring slowly released, a fire suddenly breaking out, force operating at random, passing breeze
– Victor Hugo, Les Misérables
On a gloriously sunny day in northern Italy (and I do mean glorious) there is nothing to be done except to duck into a dark theatre and watch Soviet cinema, right? Right? Well, that’s how we roll here in Pordenone. Today I expected to be dominated by the screening of Eisenstein’s monumental October (1928), but as ever, the Giornate caught me by surprise. My day began with a simply stunning, and very refreshing Soviet comedy. Just as last year, the Russian Laughter strand is shaping up to be one of my favourites. And it ended with a Japanese film that I feared I wouldn’t get the most out of. Perhaps I didn’t, but I did love it all the same,
Back to Russia. That comedy, Dva Druga, Model I Podruga (Two Friends, a Model and a Girlfriend, 1928) was a real sparkler: it was gorgeously photographed, with sunlight dappling the river our heroes were pootling along, and brightly funny too. Unlike pure slapstick affairs, the comedy here was largely contained in the composition rather than the action – it was, if this is a thing, pictorially funny. Like a newspaper cartoon. Our heroes, the two friends, are seemingly daft soap factory workers who invent a machine, a contraption really, for making packing crates. They think it will increase efficiency at the factory (a noble Soviet aim, for sure) but their villainous overseer disagrees – they’re paid to work, not invent. In the end, the pals, a girl who has run away from her fiancee and this crazy “model” must travel to the big city by river to prove its worth. Endless fun, visually inventive at every turn, and so gentle it undercuts all one’s preconceptions of Soviet bombast at once. Please take any chance you get to see this one.
But if you ordered bombast, today delivered. A two-hour-plus silent movie is a weighty proposition to be honest, but October, with its “catalogue of inventions” is so dazzling, energetic, ferocious and breathtakingly geometric that it feels more like a weekend than a month. Eisenstein’s document of the Russian revolution screened in the Canon Revisited strand, and it is certainly a film that repays the revisiting. Today we were especially lucky to have Günter Buchwald and Frank Bockius in the orchestra pit – performing a stirring score that was no doubt an exhausting feat. I am continually dumbfounded to find that some people are immune to this rousing strain of cinema. These Soviet classics were an early staging post on my route into exploring the silents. I came to them well before the Hollywood films, and they constantly define for me what silent cinema can achieve, which is to say what cinema in total can achieve. So there. The raising of the bridge sequence in October never fails to stop me in my tracks – from the naked viciousness of the bourgeoisie to the white horse martyred several feet above the Neva. And that poor young girl’s trailing hair … As the film continues there is far more to savour than I could even hint at here. The Women’s Death Battalion could furnish several blogposts of political-sexual analysis by themselves. By the time it was over I was ready to storm the palace of silent cinema and loot for more such treasures.
We have passed the halfway point of the Giornate now, but some would argue we have taken the long route round. Because Wednesday night was epic, you’d have to agree. Tonight we witnessed all five hours of Fritz Lang’s towering, geometric monument to mythic nationalism, Die Nibelungen (1924). And arguably, grandeur was the order of the day: from a spot of early morning swashbuckling to mist-covered mountains and a trip to the opera.
Waking to grey skies and a slick of drizzle on the pavements can only mean one thing here in balmy Pordenone. To merrie Englande! To Ye Olde London Towne, in truth, for The Glorious Adventure (J Stuart Blackton, 1922) – and I have a feeling that the cleansing flames that purged in the spider cave in Tuesday night’s Pansidong are about to smite these half-timbered streets. Do I spy Nell Gwyn and Samuel Pepys in yon King Charles II’s court, as well as carriages and banquets and taverns and bodices aplenty? Of course I do, but while this film’s only concession to realism may have been to cast a real-life aristo (Lady Diana Manners) in the lead role of Lady Beatrice Fair, it’s really far better than it sounds. Of course, the reason that The Glorious Adventure is on the schedule, and the reason it is notable, is that it was shot in Prizma Color – it’s a full-colour silent, of sorts. And while the colour work does have its flaws (mostly “fringing” on movement) the skin tones are realistic, and despite the limited spectrum the shades of dresses, fruit and foliage are mostly rich and clearly defined.
It’s a touch hokey in plot, with an earl hiding his true identity from his childhood sweetheart due to “an excess of chivalry” and such like. But the fight scenes are strong, particularly a clash of swords in The White Horse early on, and Victor McLaglen makes a memorable villain as heavy Bulfinch – more memorable than the real villain Roderick (Cecil Humphreys) for sure. And when the fire comes, the Great Fire of London that is, it’s really quite something: with pools of molten lead around St Paul’s Cathedral, and silhouetted timbers framing the rich reds and yellows that signal destruction. Sarah Street points out in her notes for the film in the Giornate catalogue that the fringing may actually enhance the effect of the flames – the perfect marriage of content and form. A veritable British triumph then, so can we have the Italian weather back now?
Midweek #GCM33. What with a late night Chinese 'spirit' film and early morning Prizmacolor feature I have now upgraded to 'doppio' espresso.
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.
This is a guest post for Silent London by David Cairns, a film-maker and lecturer based in Edinburgh who writes the fantastic Shadowplay blog. The Silents by Numbers strand celebrates some very personal top 10s by silent film enthusiasts and experts.
It’s impossible to tot up a list of “the greatest” or even “my favourite” lost films, since they are by definition lost and impossible to assess, at least without using supernatural powers or outright lying. These are just 10 that produce in me a particularly sharp pang of longing.
1) The Drag Net(1928). Since Josef Von Sternberg’s Underworld reinvented the gangster movie as romantic tragedy, and still stands up as a rip-roaring urban fantasy comparable in its antisocial mayhem to a Grand Theft Auto game with love scenes, the fact that the second silent crime thriller he made, refining his take in the genre, is not known to survive anywhere, is heartbreaking.
Sternberg was particularly targeted by the vicissitudes of fate in his career. Weirdly, those of his films whose destruction was ordered, such asThe Blue Angel (by the Nazis), The Devil is a Woman (by Spain’s Guardia Civil) have survived, whereas The Case of Lena Smith exists only as a tantalising 10-minute fragment. A Woman of the Sea may have been destroyed on the orders of its producer, Charlie Chaplin, but a second print remains unaccounted for …
2) Similarly, while the British courts ordered FW Murnau’s Nosferatu destroyed for copyright infringement, the unauthorised adaptation of Draculasurvived, but nearly all his earlier movies are lost, including Der Januskopf(The Janus-Face, 1920), an unauthorised adaptation of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Why this matters: the star was Conrad Veidt (seen looking angst-ridden in a few grainy stills), the screenplay was by Caligari scribe Hans Janowitz, and Bela Lugosi had a smaller role. Plus, you know, it’s Murnau. Doing a horror film.
Several of Murnau’s German silents are completely lost or survive only in tiny pieces. 4 Devils, his last Hollywood film, is also MIA.
3) Another German in Hollywood, Ernst Lubitsch, suffered a major loss when The Patriot(1928) vanished from the earth. This is particularly appalling since the film won best screenplay (Hans Kraly) at the 1930 Academy Awards. Also, the star of the film is Emil Jannings. The movie is far enough removed from Lubitsch’s usual brand of movies that it might be hard to know exactly what we’re missing, but the trailer for this one surivives and the vast, expressionistic sets haunted by Lubitsch’s restless camera make this look like one of the most impressive films of the silent era. Sob.
4) The Divine Woman(1928) is, of course, Greta Garbo. Her director is fellow Swede Victor Sjostrom (or Seastrom) and her co-star is Lars Hanson. And there are nine minutes of this in existence to make you yearn for the rest all the more desperately. What we can see in the clip (which turned up in Russia after Glasnost) suggests a rather more boisterous Garbo than we’re used to seeing, throwing herself at Hanson and yanking him about by the hair in an affectionate but rather rough fashion. Another 71 minutes of that, please.
5) The Mountain Eagle(1926). Its own director thought this one was rubbish, but as he was Alfred Hitchcock I’d still like to see it. It was his second directorial effort. A recent restoration of his first, The Pleasure Garden, has revealed it to be a better film than we all thought. Who knows what a rediscovery of the followup might reveal?
Do not adjust your set. The Naked Island is not from the silent era; in fact, it was made in 1960. However, this soul-wrenching Japanese film exemplifies the art of visual story-telling. With well-placed music, a choice smattering of ambient sound, next-to-no speech and the barest of captions, director Kaneto Shindô relies on his imagery to craft an engrossing realist drama. This is one of the most sophisticated, and powerful, of modern silent films. I found it completely engrossing – and the moment it finished, I pressed play and watched it all over again.
Shindô, best known for Onibaba and Children of Hiroshima, started out in the studio lab, before getting work as an art director and screenwriter and assisting Mizoguchi in the late 1930s. His common-law wife died of TB in 1943; the following year he was drafted into the army to do menial work as a cleaner. More than with many other cineastes, you could say that by the time he found success as a film director, Shindô had an appreciation for the struggles of working people. Many of his early films portray the degradations of poverty, and emphasise female suffering in particular. The Naked Island is no exception, described by Shindô as “a cinematic poem to try and capture the life of human beings struggling like ants against the forces of nature”.
A family of four live alone on a remote, hilly island in Japan’s inland sea. The mother and father raise their crops by hand, carry fresh water from the mainland in pails slung across their shoulders on painful yokes, and live at the mercy of the elements. It’s the definition of a hand-to-mouth existence, thrown into relief when the boys catch a fish and the family take it to town to sell. There, all four experience the baffling luxuries of televisions, restaurants and leisure time before they return to their relentless routine. A third of the way through the film, a shocking act of violence reinforces the fragility of their livelihood. The tragic final act is an object lesson in how poverty crushes the human spirit.
Nobuko Otowa, Shindô’s favourite actress and his lover, plays the mother; and it’s an expert performance, for all its apparent naturalism. As she repeatedly makes her way up the hillside with her buckets of water, the tension is every bit as high as when Lila Crane creeps into the cellar of Bates family home, say, but drawn out over an agonising half-hour. With no lines other than sobs, and little opportunity to emote, Otawa portrays suffering without recourse to melodrama. Taiji Tonoyama, another Shindô regular, plays her stoical husband as a bruised soul. The two young boys, particularly Shinji Tanaka as the eldest son, are excellent too: conveying the effervescence of youth frustrated by a life of difficulty and disappointment.
The film is elegantly, cleverly photographed too – in lush monochrome CinemaScope by Kiyoshi Kuroda. The long takes of the family’s manual labour create not a documentary effect, but in their reworking and repetition, bring foreboding, life-or-death fear and sorrow. As the central couple, picked out against the overbearing hillside or the lowering sky, bear their yokes like crosses or dredge for seaweed in the pouring rain, their story speaks for itself. It is abundantly clear that the strength of this film would be diluted by conversation or narration. Shindô himself (in conversation with composer Hikaru Hayashi on the commentary track) explains during The Naked Island‘s heartbreaking climax: “We decided at the beginning to have no dialogue and that enabled us to express this scene so boldly.” The finale is all the more horrifying for its wordlessness – a twist of fate that is inexplicably cruel.
The Naked Island is accompanied by the aforementioned audio commentary, the option to watch without English subtitles, a video intro by Alex Cox and a booklet of supporting material including an interview with Shindô.
This is a guest post for Silent London by Jasper Sharp – scroll down for a chance to win tickets to these events.
Taking place at the Cinema Museum between 14-16 September, the UK’s premiere celebration of cutting-edge Japanese film, Zipangu Fest, returns for its third year, with a number of choice items of interest to silent film fans.
The centrepiece is the screening on Saturday evening of Kinugasa Teinosuke’s classic of the avant-garde, Crossways (Jujiro, 1928) from 35mm, with a new score performed live by Minima. One of the first Japanese films ever shown in the West, Crossways was Kinugasa’s follow up to his better-known Page of Madness (Kurutta ippeiji, 1926). Set in Tokyo’s Yoshiwara pleasure district, Crossways was described by its director as a “chambara [samurai action film] without swordfights” and was heavily influenced by German Expressionism.
This screening will be introduced by a visual presentation on the history of the film by Zipangu Fest director and author of the recent Historical Dictionary of Japan Cinema, Jasper Sharp. The evening kicks off at 7.30pm, and tickets are available from the Zipangu Fest website.
Crossways will be preceded by another very rare screening for those with an interest in Japan’s early cinema, To Sleep So as to Dream (Yume miru you ni nemuritai), the 1986 debut from Kaizô Hayashi (Circus Boys, Zipang, and the ‘Yokohama Mike’ trilogy).
Two private detectives hunt for an actress trapped within a frame of an ancient ninja film in this magical double-handed homage to the movie worlds of the 1910s and 1950s. Predating Michel Hazanavicius’ recent faux-silent work The Artist by 25 years, To Sleep So as to Dream is chockfull of references to Japan’s rich cinematic heritage, featuring cameos from a host of veteran talent including the benshi (silent film narrators) Shunsui Matsui and Midori Sawato, and the baroque sets of Takeo Kimura, the Nikkatsu art designer fondly remembered for his flamboyant work with Seijun Suzuki in the 1960s. Playing for the most part without dialogue, it toys with the conventions of both the silent film and hardboiled detective genres, leading the viewer through a maze of colourful locales such as a carnival fairground and a deserted film set.
Both of these titles will be screened from film. Indeed, cinema purists might want to also note Zipangu Fest’s Sunday afternoon session, beginning at 4.30pm, Spirit Made Flesh: Works from 3 Experimental Filmmakers, featuring work by Shinkan Tamaki, Momoko Seto and Takashi Makino, all of which interrogate and explore the very essence of celluloid and analogue technologies. The screenings will be followed by a panel discussion “Is There Still a Need for Film in a Digitising World?” in what promises to be a lively and fascinating event.
Zipangu Fest is generously offering a pair of tickets to all three of these events. All you have to do is sign up to our mailing list, and tell us which of the films in our 2012 lineup interests you. On submission you will be signed up to our responsibly-managed mailing list, and three names will be selected at random for a prize. The first gets a pair of tickets to the Crossways event, the second to To Sleep so as To Dream, and the third to Spirit Made Flesh. Click here to enter.
Zipangu Fest was established in 2010 to shatter existing preconceptions about what ‘Japanese cinema’ is, and to celebrate one of the most vibrant and dynamic moving image cultures anywhere in the world. The third Zipangu Fest, hosted by the Cinema Museum in Kennington from 14-16 September, looks set to be our most ambitious and exciting yet.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org to book tickets. Don’t forget to check out the Facebook page or the Twitter feed for future screenings.