Silent Film Retrospective at the National Film Center

The English title of the upcoming silent film retrospective at the National Film Center in Kyobashi is Silent Film Renaissance 2017. The Japanese title シネマの冒険 闇と音楽 2017Cinema Adventure Darkness and Music 2017 — seems more evocative, considering all six films will have one screening with live musical accompaniment. Two of the films will also have live narration performed by a benshi (弁士).

I haven’t seen many silent films, but many years ago, too many to want to say exactly when, I saw my first silent film with a benshi at the Tokyo Kinema Club in Uguisudani with my parents. That was when the Tokyo Kinema Club was actually showing films and hadn’t become a live concert hall. Somehow I thought it would be a good idea to bring my parents to a silent movie with live narration all in Japanese. I remember my dad was really happy about the shrimp dinner that they also served. But I also remember that first time I was introduced to how Japanese silent films were presented back in the day, looking up at the screen while watching someone narrate it live, right their, in person.

Silent films in the US would only be accompanied by music, usually a large organ, like the Mighty Wurlitzer I often listened to while watching films at the Stanford Theater growing up. In Japan, silent films would be screened accompanied not only with music but a live narrator, called a benshi, who would describe what was happening in the film, provide context, and give voice to the voiceless characters in the film. This introduction to a performance by Ichiro Kataoka at the Harvard Film Archive earlier this year

Katsudo benshi, or simply benshi, accompanied screenings with highly expressive performances that included narrating both the story and the characters’ dialogue, often giving their own outrageous twists and interpretations to the action unfolding on the screen. Benshi were stars who often commanded huge salaries for their masterful use of voice for both subtle effects and dramatic fireworks of emotion, and the assumption that a benshi would be present as a film’s narrator was a significant influence on the golden age of silent film style in Japan.

Kataoka will be performing at one of the screenings during the festival, as will his teacher, the most well known modern day benshi, Midori Sawato. Sawato discussed her career as a benshi in this following interview with the Japan Times.

While Kataoka and Sawato will only be performing at one film each, the other four films will, as noted above, be accompanied by a live musical performance, including two performances by Mie Yanashita, who first appeared in this blog about 2 years ago when I discussed an upcoming performance of hers at a screening of Nanook of the North.

This is a rare opportunity to see these films in the way they were meant to be seen,as a shared group experience in the darkness of a large theater, with live music and narration.

Furusato no Uta — Song of Home — ふるさとの歌

This 1925 film is the oldest surviving one by acclaimed director Kenji Mizoguchi (Ugetsu, Sansho the Bailiff). Produced by Nikkatsu for the Ministry of Education, it is the story of a young man returning to his home in the countryside, where he not only meets his old friend but discovers he still has some feelings for the simple life of his hometown. This film will be with of two other silent films by Mizoguchi, 東京行進曲 (Tokyo March, Tokyo Koshinkyoku), a 22 minute short, and 慈悲心鳥 (The Cuckoo — New Version, Jihi Shincho).

These films are screening on Tuesday, October 17th at 7pm with a live Benshi performance by Ichiro Kataoka accompanied by pianist Ayumi Kamiya.

It also screens on Saturday, October 21st at 12 noon.

Eikan Namida Ari — With Victory Comes Tears — 栄冠涙あり

This 1931 film starting Denmei Suzuki and Yuriko Hanabusa is a youth drama about the members of a university rowing club. Directed by Shigeyoshi Suzuki, it is the first film made by the independent Fuji Film studies, formed by Denmei Suzuki and other actors who broke away from major studio Shochiku.

It screens on Wednesday October 18th at 7pm with live piano accompaniment by Hodaka Amaike.

It also screens on Sunday October 22d at 12 noon.

Kuma Ga Deru Kaikonchi — The Reclaimed Land Where Bears Live — 熊の出る開墾地

This 1932 Fuji Film Studios film also directed by Shigeyoshi Suzuki and staring Denmei Suzuki and Yuriko Hanabusa is set in a pioneer village in post Russo-Japan war-era Hokkaido, with some actual location filming in Hokkaido. Denmei Suzuki plays both a man who is was murdered by a landlord, who is also the lover of his mother, and the man’s son in this revenge drama.

It screens Thursday October 19th at 7pm with live piano accompaniment by Hiroto Kobayashi.

It also screens on Friday, October 20th at 3pm.

(I couldn’t find a formal or informal English title, but liked how my initial translation of the Japanese title sounded, so that is what is used above)

Ashita Tenki ni Naare — 明日天気になアれ

This 1929 film has two listed directors, Yasujirō Shimazu and Yoshio Nishio. Shimazu is the more famous of the two, said (by Wikipedia!) to have been an important person in the development of the shōshimingeki genre, which depicted the life of the lower middle class, at Shochiku. Since the Tora-san films are descended from those films, all respect from me goes to Shimazu. This film print has English subtitles for the intertitles, though I couldn’t find an English title for the film. It is a children’s films that shows how two boys help raise two dogs they received while also showing the economic and social inequality of the times.

It screens on Friday October 20th at 7pm, with piano accompaniment by Mie Yanashita (who has appeared in this blog before)

It also screens on Wednesday October 18th at 3pm.

Junkyo Kesshi: Nippon Nijuroku Seijin — The 26 Martyrs of Japan — 殉教血史 日本二十六聖人

This film, which was directed by Tomiyasu Ikeda and had top Nikkatsu star Kaichi Yamamoto as St. Pedro Bautista, but more interesting story is how it was made. Masaju Hirayama, a Japanese Catholic from Nagasaki who lived in Seoul (which at the time, like all of Korea, was occupied by Japan) working in the livestock business. His grandson, Takaaki Hirayama, who would be born in Seoul before this film was produced, would later become a bishop in Japan. He was somehow not only able to find funding for the film but also have it produced by Nikkatsu,though he had no previous connections to the film industry. It included scenes of Rome, which were quite rare in Japan at the time. Then, in addition to promoting this story of Japanese Catholics in Japan, it was also supposed to promote a positive image of Japan abroad. Somehow an Italian subtitled version survived, which was restored and then screened this year at the Vatican, on February 6, the day the Church commemorates the 26 Martyrs.

I have been interested in the story of the 26 Martyrs for some time and have been to Nishizaka Hill where they were executed. Though I wonder if I will ever have the time to do so, I am also interested in following the path they were forced to take from Kyoto to Nagasaki. Though Scorcese’s Silence seems to have raised awareness of the history of Catholicism in Japan abroad, my interest in the history of Catholicism in Nagasaki came from watching, perhaps unsurprisingly for me, Yoji Yamada’s Nagasaki: Memories of My Son. There are also some churches in Nagasaki I need to visit, since they were used as locations in a few Tora-san films, as well…

It will be screened on Saturday, October 21st at 4:30pm with famed benshi Midori Sawato accompanied by Joichi Yuasa on guitar and Makiko Suzuki on flute.

It will also be screened Thursday, October 19th at 3pm.

Jujiro — Crossroads — 十字路

This 1928 film was the first Japanese film to be exported to Europe, which explains the English language print, which was found in a London archive in 1955. This film was directed by future Palme d’or winner Teinosuke Kinugasa. Made after is avant-garde classic (and failure at the box office) A Page of Madness, this film, distributed by Shochiku in Japan, is about the downfall of the lives of a brother (Junosuke Bando) and sister (Akiko Chihaya) in the Yoshiwara pleasure district in the Edo period, but this blog post states “The story of the film is fairly conventional, but the style of the film is as arresting as Kinugasa’s earlier work.”

It will be screened on Sunday, October 22 at 4:30pm accompanied by Mie Yanashita on piano.

It will also be screened on Tuesday, October 17 at 3pm.