Sad Hill Media

Film & Lesser Arts with Will Ross, Devan Scott, & Daniel Jeffery.

by Will Ross

In this series of posts, I’ll be describing my impressions and making personal observations, at first historical and then increasingly critical, as I view every extant film by Kenji Mizoguchi. I will be learning and writing as I watch, and may periodically come back to extend or update my earlier posts.

One immediate result of this project is that it has stressed my ignorance of early Japanese cinema. One practice which I was aware of but had never experienced before last night was that of the benshi — a live narrator for silent films who would stand to the side of the screen, introduce the picture, and relate the narrative as the film demanded. They often voiced multiple characters or translated non-Japanese pictures, and often had live musical accompaniment. The practice, however, was more evolutionary and varied than that. According to Jeffrey Dym:

For foreign films, a solo benshi engaged the audience by explaining what was transpiring on screen. For Japanese films, a performance style known as kowairo setsumei (voice coloring) emerged. Kowairo setsumei entailed a number of performers, usually from four to six, positioned out of sight on the wings of the stage, adding dialogue in mimetic voices to the characters on screen. The illusion created by a kowairo setsumei performance was that of a dubbed film. Foreign films tended to be regarded as more high-brow and, as a consequence, foreign film benshi and their elucidating setsumei tended to be viewed as more intellectual than the benshi who provided mimetic dubbed kowairo setsumei.
This last point is of particular interest in the context of Japanese cinema in the early 20th century. As Donald Richie explains in A Hundred Years of Japanese Film, during the Meiji restoration of Japan that took place over the turn of the 19th century to the 20th, the people were urged to adopt western customs, food, and interests. The average Japanese citizen would have been going through an enormous identity shift,
And through it all, he-now perhaps in a three-piece suit and wearing a bowler hat-would have been told to somehow hold on to his Japaneseness. Yet another slogan indicated the way: "Japanese Spirit and Westem Culture" (Wakon Yosai)-in that order.
The challenges of adopting western modernity while retaining a national identity would persist throughout the 20th century and into the 21st, and this context is key to a great deal of Japanese cinema, for different reasons at different times. The earliest extant Mizoguchi film, 1925's Furusato no uta (The Song of Home) is an example of an attempt to resolve this tension. Junichi, a grown son of a poor rural family, shares his friends’ dream of going to the city and availing himself of its culture and education. He and the other local youth start a local club for dancing and socializing, in the style of those in Tokyo. Eventually, however, he realizes the importance of rural values and agriculture in Japan — "What is Japan coming to?" When a bespectacled, kindly American offers to support him in a full education (Junichi had saved the American's son from drowning earlier), Junichi is tempted, but refuses, resolving instead to become a good farmer for the betterment of Japan. The American enthusiastically supports the decision.

This attempt to curb the increasing trend among youth to move into the cities and abandon their agricultural heritage is a clunky bit of social drama and rather overt in its propagandist aims, but even in its failure to function as a good story it illustrates that central tension between embracing western culture and maintaining nationalism.


An essay on benshi by Jeffrey Dym, Associate Professor of History at Sacramento State:


Post a Comment