Pordenone 2001
feature by Sean Axmaker, 7 December 2001

Cinema Giappones

In the last days of Pordenone 2000 the participants were buzzing with news of the 2001 schedule: a focus on Japanese silent cinema. True to form, the 2001 schedule was packed with rarities and discoveries: over twenty programs of features, shorts, and fragments. “Every surviving Japanese film is an exception to the rule, a chance, a mere happening, a crumb,” writes Mariann Lewinsky Farinelli, a collaborating programmer on the "Cinema Giapponese" spotlight. “For Japan the lost film is the norm. According to its 2000 catalogue, the National Film Center has among its holdings not more than seventy films and fragments from before 1930.” Pordenone screened over a third of that catalogue, with an emphasis on features and an eye to sampling the sweep of history and the work of artists and directors unseen by International audiences. In the US, Japanese silent cinema is almost exclusively represented by the work of Ozu (due largely to the Museum of Modern Art collection) and the cult surrealist/experimental classic A Page Of Madness (1926) by Teinosuke Kinugasa. In Japan the situation is little better. “I came here to see the silent films I couldn’t see in my own country,” confessed one Japanese exchange student, studying silent film history and film restoration in New York and invited to Pordenone on a unique fellowship program. Thus, Cinema Giapponese began at the beginning: a program of early shorts, in essence a look at the Japanese “primitives”: Lumière actualities and street scenes from 1898 (but shot by Japanese cameraman Tsunekichi Shibata), short tableaux style Kabuki performances, newsreels from the early 1920s, and the astounding documentary Nippon Nankyoku Tanken (1911), a record of a 1910 expedition to the Antarctica.

One hopes to revel in the discovery of untapped masterpieces. The reality is more complex and messy. The earliest works were hard to follow, partly because some of them were incomplete. but I think the biggest problem is a cultural and stylistic barrier that can be identified in a word: Benshi. The Japanese silent cinema evolved in a separate path from Western cinema, developing a unique combination of narrator/storyteller/stand-up impressionist that would interpret and vocally perform to the film. The practice led to a star system among benshis and audiences would flock to their favorite performer as much as to their film of choice. The benshi union proved so strong that the spread of sound film in Japan was delayed by years. The tradition also apparently affected the way films were made in the early days, when exporting films overseas was hardly an issue. Intertitles were sparse, to say the least, as the benshi was counted on to carry the dialogue and the narrative. Cut to eighty years later, and Pordenone audiences at best guessing at narrative turns in such films as the 1921 Kantsobaki (dir: Ryoha Hatanaka), an example of the melodramatic “Shinpa Play” and the earliest feature in the Japanese presentation. The story of a poor watermill keeper, his lovely young daughter, and the coachman who pressures the father to give him her hand in marriage is pure sentimental melodrama but the twists in the narrative became all but indecipherable without the titles (or the benshi) to explain them.

And so we were treated to a benshi show, with Miss Midori Sawoto doing the honors on the 1925 samurai drama Orochi (The Monster), accompanied by the five piece band Colored Monotone. The grim story of a hot-tempered swordsman whose impulsive actions and naïve acts of heroism brand him as a troublemaker is one of the most compelling in the Japanese collection. Director Buntaro Futagawa plays it as tragedy and star Tsumasaburo Bando (who also produced) makes for a solemn, simmering hero, stewing in his sense of self righteousness as society brands him a scoundrel and finally a common thief. The titles were sporadic, but Sawoto’s growling performance created a spellbinding sense of theater, not simply a narrator or a storyteller but an organic part of the presentation, filling in for absent titles and adding a dimension to the characters with her dynamic voice (oddly her weakest performances were those of the women characters - Sawoto was much more adept at the passionate, the energetic, and the outraged  than the passive). It clearly showed that we were missing a dimension of the earlier films that their contemporary audiences were not. This print, by the way, was subtitled to match the benshi vocal track recorded and added to the film in the 1960s by Shunsui Matsuda, the man who kept the art alive for decades and taught the new generation, including Sawoto herself.

While masterpieces were in short supply, there were still compelling discoveries to be found. Most of the silent samurai films on display were more frenzied chaos than martial arts choreography when it came to fight scenes, but Toko Yamazaki’s Fuun Joshi (Castle of Wind and Clouds, 1928) was both handsomely shot and effectively choreographed. This grim example of the tragic samurai genre of honor and betrayal that continues to this day turned out to be interesting drama too, with the corrupt destroying the good and the honorable sacrificing themselves… to no end.

In the hilarious samurai farce Kokushi Muso (Peerless Patriot, 1932), director Manasaku Itami has his naïve peasant wanderer play it straight as a pair of con men change the man’s name to that of a legendary warrior and present him to a town as the real thing. The low-key goofing as the hick tries to master a samurai’s manners pales next to his confrontation with the real samurai (“Oh, same name as me,” he nonchalantly comments) when he grudgingly battles him with “a piece of tree” and wins! Although all that’s left from the feature are these fragments, Itami displays the timing of Keaton and the dry wit of Lubitsch in the surviving scenes. On a modern note is Mikio Naruse’s short comedy Koshiben Ganbare (Flunky, Work Hard!, 1931) The trials of a poor but spunky insurance salesman who becomes a veritable toady to the parents of a bully who picks on his son is reminiscent of Ozu’s family comedies, where lurking in the back of the father’s comic antics is a portrait of the white-collar poor scraping by in the slums.

Taking us into the present are a pair of modern crime thrillers. Keisatsuken (Policeman, 1933), by Tomo Uchida, is a Japanese policier, the somber story of Itami, a working class cop pursuing the mysterious gangleader who shot and killed his mentor. He comes to suspect his childhood pal, now a well-to-do ne’er do well hanging with a rough crowd. The second act could be the inspiration for Kurosawa’s Stray Dog, as Itami methodically shadows suspects, searches the alleys and bars for clues, and stakes out a suspicious joint for a sleepless three day stint. Uchida’s direction is just as methodical as he slows the film down to capture the details of his numbing search, then kicks the film back into gear with an action packed the third act without losing his sense of mood and location. What’s surprising is the burst of sloganeering on the intertitles as the police cars careen down the street, criminals scramble through alleys, headlights and spotlights search the darkness, and the chase brings the two buddies into the inevitable showdown. The police have never received a more rousing celebration.

Minori Murata fine-tunes the foggy port town atmosphere of Muteki (Foghorn, 1934) into the kind of dream worlds Marcel Carné created in his poetic realist crime dramas in the late 1930s France. Eiji Nakano is the self-loathing street thief made the literal slave of a powerful American shipping magnate. Brooding, sullen, and angry, he accepts his servile role in the American’s employ, then unleashes his frustrations by challenging the local port thugs. Equally intriguing is Murata’s use of the American as more than a simple villain: untouchable by Japanese law, he’s a threat to Japanese culture and society, but not as evil as his reputation and his fierce carriage suggest. The tale is essentially a tragedy of doomed love (Nakano falls in love with a Geisha who belongs to a much more powerful man), but Murata creates the perfect port town hell of black nights, enveloping fog, sidewalk bars and vengeful thugs.

The ninety-four surviving minutes of Daisuke Ito’s Chuji Tabi Nikki (A Diary of Chuji’s Travels, 1927) hints at a sweeping epic sadly lost, a tragic ronin tale of a disgraced samurai who scatters his loyal but shady gang of rascals when they disgrace him. When he’s struck by a crippling paralysis (which, rather symbolically, hits him whenever his honorable actions are betrayed by those he protects) and reduced to a bedridden wreck, the old gang reunites to shelter him at the risk of their freedom and their lives. The glances and gestures and hidden details of Ito’s chamber scenes reveal an even greater battle of honor than the grand fight scenes. Ito’s Oatsurae Jirokichi Goshi (The Chivalrous Robber Jirokichi, 1931) turns those intimate moments into even grander drama. He transforms a shadowy port town into a morally murky world where his Jirokichi, a criminal hero who follows his own private code, is the most honorable man. The film climaxes with one of the most visually arresting scenes in the festival: Jirokichi scuttles across the rooftops of the portside cottages and buildings, white robes against the black of night, while mobs of pursuers carrying glowing paper lanterns converge on him from all sides: through the streets, across the water, even crawling along the roofs.

You can’t blame the festival for including Kurutta Ippeiji (A Page Of Madness, 1926), perhaps the most physically accessible work of Japanese silent cinema. Teinosuke Kinugasa’s expressionist classic could best be described as Japan’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari by way of The Last Laugh. Set in an insane asylum, where an old man has come to see and perhaps free his disturbed wife, it was Kinugasa’s attempt to make film both an international language (there are no intertitles) and a subjective experience, much like Murnau was doing at the time. Kinugasa, however, was working on his own, having not seen Murnau’s work, or Eisenstein’s, or any of the avant-garde films making waves in Europe at the time. The festival showing was accompanied by a suitably impressionistic modern electronic score by Italian electronic artist Teho Teardo, a series of looping melodies and musical samples woven into suggestive textures that fade in and out through the film. Kinugasa’s 1928 Jujiro (Crossroads) applies the techniques of Kurutta Ippeiji (double exposures, rapid montage, eccentric angles, extreme close-ups, traveling shots--both graceful and dreamy, and rapid and harried) to a mix of social drama and poetic realism set in the slums. In keeping with the European comparisons, think of it as The Joyless Street of old Japan. Two naïve orphans, a love-struck young man and his older sister, are preyed upon by the predatory inhabitants of a cruel world in this simple but lovely melodrama. It’s a magnificent work of shadowy beauty, shot at night on a gorgeous studio set, less realistic than impressionistic, but a rich experience.

Daisuke Ito and Teinosuke Kinugasa are two of the five “masters” showcased in the series. Yasujiro Ozu was surprisingly represented by a mere two comic shorts (one assumes it’s because so many of his features have played festivals and retrospectives around the world), but the festival organizers made sure they were treats: two recently discovered shorts from 1929. Tokkan Kozo (A Straightforward Boy) is a modest but goodhearted take on “The Ransom of Red Chief” and Wasai Kenka Tomodachi (Fighting Friends - Japanese Style) is Ozu’s tribute to American buddy comedies, a lighthearted story of impish friends who take in a homeless girl and become surrogate big brothers.

Torajiro Saito (whose specialty was comedy) was sampled with a pair of high-energy slapstick pieces and a slim dramatic feature. Akeyuku Sora (The Dawning Sky, 1929) is a slight but sweet melodrama, a gentle story of a family split by a grudge and reunited in the pastoral countryside. It’s quite a contrast from his energetic comedies, the wild slapstick ghost story turned romantic fantasy, Ishikawa Goemon No Hoji (A Buddhist Mass For Ishikawa Goemon, 1930), and Kodakara Sodo (The Treasure That is Children, 1935), a wacky slapstick farce that celebrates the crazy energy of a harried father who leaves his pregnant wife in the questionable care of his children to rescue a family from a burning house and lead a mad chase for an escaped pig, all in the effort to earn enough money to pay for a midwife. There is, however, one bit of invention in Akeyuku Sora that comes right from the comic mind: a dutiful son caring for his ailing mother rigs up a medicine cart to the key of an alarm clock. When the alarm goes off, the key winds the string and pulls the cart to her bedside. In his hands, the gag becomes a sweet little moment that brings a smile rather than a laugh.

The final “master” is, of course, Kenji Mizoguchi, and only two of his sixty silent films survive. Furusato No Uto (The Song of Home, 1925) was made to promote agricultural activity among young people and displays its conservative message rather obviously. It was his thirtieth film in a career that embraced all genres and one assumes it isn’t indicative of his work of the period: the heroes are rather too pure and noble, education is seen as a corrupting influence on rural youth, and a proud life of poverty in service to the land is promoted as a noble, almost spiritual path. By contrast Taki No Shiraito (Taki,  the Water Magician/White Threads of the Waterfall, 1933), his final silent production, is pure Mizoguchi. You can almost draw a straight line from this story, of a showgirl in a traveling company who decides to dedicate herself to helping a young law student with his school bills and winds up sacrificing herself (quite literally) to further his career, to such masterpieces as Life Of Oharu (1952). Taki (Takako Irie) is a strong, dominant, vivacious character who never loses her spirit as she transforms from selfish starlet to philanthropist, and Mizoguchi’s camera is unerring. In the opening scene it snakes past a stage, through a dressing room door, and down into a room where Taki holds court: the flirtatious diva receiving her fans. “What is the secret of your smile?” asks an unseen interviewer and film reels back. There is a delicate grace to the images and the measured camera moves, a beauty to the mise-en-scène, and a glowing performance from Takako Irie who never sacrifices her playfulness and joie de vivre in her sincerity. Mizoguchi contrasts the surface impressions with the soul and creates a more complex figure than any other film in this Japanese program has shown, male or female.




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