Benshi

It must have been at Cornerhouse that I first saw an Ozu film. Later I remember seeing some on BBC2, back when they had proper film seasons with critics’ introductions, which tells you it was probably fifteen years ago or more.  Since then I’ve often recommended Tokyo Story to people, though I do wonder how many have acted on the suggestion. What I remained ignorant about was his body of early silent films. At one time, as I learned during a Japanese cinema course (again at Cornerhouse), their industry was larger than Hollywood.

The showing of Ozu’s Walk Cheerfully this Monday, for BFI members, was an unexpected opportunity to address this gap. After seeing Asquith’s Underground (my first trip to Kermode‘s famous Phoenix in East Finchley) I felt able to tackle another silent film.  A few days before, BFI sent out an e-mail pointing out that there wouldn’t be any subtitles.  Instead, a Benshi performer would interpret the action and intertitles, along with a couple of musicians.  I wonder whether they were trying to undercut potential complaints?

Tony Rayns introduced the film, pointing out that for various reasons silent cinema persisted as the main format in Japan until the mid thirties, in contrast to the rush of talkies elsewhere.  Tomoko Komura, the Benshi artiste, came on stage in what Rayns described as an “appropriate gangster outfit”.

How initially strange it was to witness an interventionist chorus, who provided the words we couldn’t hear or read, as well as the groans, yelps, shouts and whispers, talking in Japanese as well at times (for the greetings and formal thank yous, etc.)  She varied her voice well for the male and female characters and barely hesitated throughout the film, without a script.  It was quite an extraordinary performance.  At the other side of the stage were two musicians (there’s more about them here).  A man playing shakuhachi and other wind instruments, and a woman playing violin and electronics/laptop. Beyond their obvious musicianship, they were tremendously inventive and resourceful, emulating cars, trains and typewriters, providing sounds for the polishing of a golf club and a skipping rope in a boxing gym.

While perhaps a little crude judged by his later standards, the fundamental humanity of Ozu shone through and there were quite a few stylistic flourishes, rather at odds with his reputation as the master of the static camera. The combination of a beautiful film with a peculiarly Japanese accompaniment made it an unexpectedly moving and highly satisfying experience.

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