Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Kataoka Ichiro, Benshi: Shoes, "A Dog's Life", and Dragnet Girl

I don't, as a rule, get hugely excited about the special events on the Harvard Film Archive's schedule; they often play to a specialized audience. Sometimes, though, that specialized audience is me - I love silent movies and am probably closer to being one of those sad nerds who act like they have some sort of affinity for/knowledge of Japanese culture from manga and movies than I'd care to admit.

I freely admit, though, that I'd never heard of benshi before. They are a uniquely Japanese part of cinema, performers who would stand at the front of the cinema to add narration and voice dialogue during the silent era. They were a fairly powerful guild in their time, able to delay the introduction of synchronized sound to Japanese theaters by a number of years - for example, Dragnet Girl was released in 1933, well after the talkies had taken over elsewhere. They were occasionally even considered threatening to the government: After all, you could monitor the content of a film, but keeping an eye on what every benshi says at every screening is something else again!

There were many benshi at the medium's height - male, female, young, old, sometimes entire families performing together. Eventually, sound came to eiga the way it came to cinema around the world, and the time of the benshi was over. Except - not quite. Shunsui Matsuda, who had been a child benshi during the silent era continued after World War II, touring the country and in the process building a formidable collection of silent film prints as he did so. He also took on students, who would later do the same, which brings us to Kataoka Ichiro:

Benshi Tadaoka Ichiro

Imagine the lights brought down and a movie playing over his right shoulder.

He did the actual narration in Japanese, naturally, and there wasn't any sort of simultaneous translation aside from the films' intertitles. Unfortunately, all I've retained from a whole bunch of Saturdays at the Boston Language Institute was the ability to point to myself and say "Jason desu", so I didn't get the full experience, but it was a nifty way to see the movie nonetheless - having tone of voice connected to the image added a little texture, and although Kataoka-san was fairly restrained with dramas, he added a bit of energy to comedy.

Kataoka-san seemed a friendly guy, happy to discuss his unusual occupation after the films. He mentioned that being a benshi wasn't quite a hobby that he only gets to do on special occasions, as roughly three silent movies screen each week in Tokyo, generally with accompaniment. That's a fair number, although I suspect the number drops off precipitously once you leave the bigger cities. Still, probably more than most cities, even places like Boston where such screenings are relatively popular.

One other thing that came up that maybe didn't perk the ears of the HFA's audience quite as much as mine was that he and other benshi also do voice-over work for animation. It's natural, but it reminded me of how anime fans used to grumble both about the terrible English dubs on Stateside releases - occasionally done by the distributor's office staff - and how American animated films were often sold on celebrity voices as opposed to voice actors who knew this job well and were famous in their own right as voice actors. The general conclusion, of course, was generally something like anime is better and Japan has more respect for animation as a medium (late twentieth-century anime fans could be intense). I now wonder if this was a bit of a missing piece that anime fans didn't much consider - animation is more popular and broadly used in Japan, true, but celebrity "voice actors" actually predates animation, and even if there was enough of a gap between the decline of silents and the premiere of Astro Boy that few benshi seem likely to have transitioned directly to the new medium, this kind of work was almost certainly already respected by those in show business, rather than being a side job or anonymous like it was elsewhere.

The movie choices were interesting, too. Shoes was made by a company called Bluebird that made features for Universal in the studio's early days, and while Bluebird and their movies became relatively obscure in the USA, they were apparently quite popular and well-remembered in Japan. In a bit of a coincidence, the opening text crawl of Shoes positions it as a thematic follow-up to another Bluebird film directed by Lois Weber, Where Are My Children?, originally scheduled to play at the Brattle as part of their Universal Centennial program.

Shoes being roughly an hour long, it was originally expected to play alongside a short movie from Japan, but that was apparently unavailable as well, so Charlie Chaplin's "A Dog's Life" was substituted. No complaints about that here - it's a fun little movie which allowed Tadaoka-san to show another side to his performance, really giving everybody distinctive speech patters despite the movie being silent. And considering how hand-wringingly dour Shoes is, "A Dog's Life" almost seems like a more optimistic but barbed response, with laughs at the girl who sings about misery.

As for Dragnet Girl, well, I should probably watch more Ozu so that I have something to say about this movie from his early career. It was interesting as being the only thing in the program made with the knowledge that there would be a benshi on stage at the front of the director's mind, and there were times in the last act when Ozu seemed to be trying to assert control, with intertitles restating the relationships between characters and the plot almost word-for-word at times in the end, lest a narrator try and put his own spin on things, which apparently happened.

It was an educational experience, to say the least. Even without that, though, it's a pretty neat way to see movies, if only as a novelty, worth giving a try even if your Japanese is worse than mine.

Percussionist Damon Krukowski

(Just a bonus bit of horrible photography, showing percussionist Damon Krukowski next to his rig Dragnet Girl. I missed getting a shot of Robert Humphreville, who accompanied Kataoka-san on the piano for Shoes and "A Dog's Life". Impressed by his schedule, though - that 7pm movie was apparently only the fourth of his five bookings on a Sunday!)


* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 18 November 2012 in the Harvard Film Archive (Tadaoka Ichiro: Benshi, 35mm)

It's funny what strikes you when watching films from a hundred years ago and thinking of the society of the same time. For instance, Shoes posits that spending all one's time reading evidently was the mark of a useless layabout. The books are not even particularly described as junk or pulp; it's just that someone spends his time reading! It makes sense - it's not like there's TV or even that much radio in 1916 - but it dates this movie something fierce, as does some of its Puritan hand-wringing.

In Shoes, the shiftless bibliophile is the supposed head of the Meyer family (Harry Griffith), a father who avoids looking for work and spends what little money daughter Eva (Mary MacLaren) brings in to the family on novels. Eva, who is the sole person supporting the poor family wants a new pair of shoes, and it's gone well beyond just vanity - what she wears is so close to falling apart that one strongly suspects that she won't be able to keep the job much longer if they frown on working barefoot; it seems like a reasonable investment for the family, really. But there's always some reason to put it off and they take her for granted, unlike the lascivious cabaret performer (William V. Mong) who spots Eva coming out of the department store one day.

The main problem with the movie is that for "a film in five acts", it feels like it could be compacted to a short with little damage; the characters just don't do very much other than restate their poverty and the father's laziness again and again. Director Lois Weber actually does a fairly impressive job of not making this drag, breaking it up with a fantasy sequence and making just enough use of the repetition to get across how Eva can't seem to make progress. The movie runs just under one hour, and though it could potentially be stretched at half that, it only skirts the borders of trying the audience's patience.

Like a number of other films directed by Weber and produced by Bluebird Photoplays - an early division of Universal that also made Where Are My Children? - Shoes is highly moralistic and leaves no doubt of what sort of reaction it aims to produce in its audience. From the earnestness of the opening titles to a finale meant to fill the audience with the same horror and shame as the characters, it makes for a strange time capsule.

The presentation is often as much of its time as the fervor, with the narrative intertitles a match for the broad acting. Harry Griffith and William V. Mong, especially, give the sort of big, theatrical performances that zero in on what's important about their characters unpretentiously enough to be enjoyable as more than just camp. Mattie Witting (as Eva's mother) and Mary MacLaren don't play quite so much to the balconies, but get across their characters' dire straits without making the women just walking misery. The shooting is nice, if static.

Because of all this, few if any today are going to watch Shoes as the sort of parable and piece of popular entertainment it was made to be a hundred years ago. It's still interesting, though, and probably goes down better than many of its contemporaries.

Full review on eFilmCritic.

"A Dog's Life"

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 18 November 2012 in the Harvard Film Archive (Tadaoka Ichiro: Benshi, 35mm)

You really haven't seen a Chaplin film until you've seen it with a Japanese guy narrating and performing dialogue for the characters. With the fast-talking way Kataoka-san rattled off what he imagined the Tramp saying, it was almost like a Popeye cartoon at times.

Even without that, it's still a very funny movie, with Chaplin's Little Tramp befriending Scraps, "a thoroughbred mongrel" as they try to scavenge enough to survive on the street and eventually win the love of a woman whose singing at the Green Lantern club is so sad as to reduce all the revelers to tears. There's a bunch of quality slapstick and pathos that never really gets sappy... What more could one want from a Chaplin movie?

Hijosen no Onna (Dragnet Girl)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 19 November 2012 in the Harvard Film Archive (Tadaoka Ichiro: Benshi, 35mm)

I haven't seen nearly as many films by revered Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu as I probably should if I want to consider myself a well-rounded lover of world and classic cinema. Heck, this may be it, and it's probably more representative of him as a craftsman than an auteur. It's an enjoyable example, though, perhaps especially if seen in its original, narrated format.

It's a fairly familiar sort of youth-at-risk story: Hiroshi (Koji Mitsui) is a kid who could potentially be a great boxer, but it's hard to muster the dedication necessary when crime seems to be treating former champion Joji (Joji Oka) better than boxing ever did. Hiroshi's sister Kazuko (Sumiko Mizukubo) is concerned, but of course her brother is hearing none of it.She's pretty and pure enough to get Hiroshi's attention, to the annoyance of his girlfriend Tokiko (Kinuyo Tanaka), whose job as an office girl means dealing with attention from the owner's son (Koji Kaga). but may lead to criminal opportunity.

It's easy to think of the Westernization of Japan as a post-WWII phenomenon, but one only has to give this movie from 1933 a look to see it was going on earlier. But for the ethnicity of the cast, it feels like it could easily have come out of Hollywood; not only does everybody spend most of the film in Western attire, but Joji and Hiroshi practice boxing rather than karate or judo, and there's not a yakuza trope to be found among the crooks, either. Kazuko is the only one who spends a notable portion of the movie in traditional dress, for that matter. The story is the same on both sides of the Pacific, and Ozu and company tell it well.

There's probably something to just how western it seems which a westerner watching it almost eighty years later doesn't quite grasp except in the most vague sense. A formulaic story about the perils of easy money and falling in with the wrong crowd gains another layer warning about about breaking with tradition, although Ozu and co-writer Tadao Ikeda opt not to hammer this home (at least, these subtitles don't do that). It's actually a fairly entertaining movie to watch - Ozu and cinematographer Hideo Shigehara find interesting angles and move the camera in a fairly lively manner at times, and things move at a good pace despite not having the action of a typical crime story until fairly late in the game.

The acting style also seems surprisingly modern compared to other movies of its era, compared to the theatricality of silents and early talkies. The cast is good all around - Tanaka would go on to have a long and noteworthy career - giving the sort of performances that don't necessarily seem silent in one's memory. That may be in part due to seeing it not just with a live score, but narration and dialogue delivered by benshi Kataoka Ichiro. Live narration with silent films was the norm in Japan at the time - the guild actually managed to delay talking pictures in Japan for several years - and it allows Ozu to rely less on intertitles than other cultures' silent directors, and helps things flow more smoothly. The flip side is that benshi were independent, occasionally putting their own spin on a movie's story, and the repetitive dialogue in the last act's intertitles almost seems like an attempt to force the narrator to stay on the right track.

It's a relatively minor disruption to an enjoyable movie. It's almost certainly not among Ozu's best, given his reputation, but it's the sort of better-than-expected genre work that certainly can herald great work down the road.

Full review on eFilmCritic (dead link).

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