At Cinefan yesterday evening, at the screening of Kenji Mizoguchi’s 1933 film The Water Magician, I saw what was promoted as “the first ever benshi show in India”. This is an old tradition in Japanese cinema – in the silent-film era, the benshi (not to be confused with the banshee, or with Benji) was a sutradhar figure who would stand by the movie screen and interpret the story for the audience, often speaking out the dialogue for different characters (even as the title cards simultaneously appeared on the screen). I have no way of knowing whether the Cinefan organisers’ claim that this was the first such show in India was true, but I suspect it was: there aren’t very many benshi around today, and in his speech before yesterday’s screening the Japanese ambassador (who looked at least 60 years old) caused much mirth by admitting that he had never seen a benshi in action himself.
Ms Yuko Saito was our benshi-in-residence and her performance was excellent (though admittedly I have no idea what the benchmarks are for judging these things) – we especially enjoyed her skilful voice modulation in the scenes where lots of characters were talking to each other. Have to say though that I’m not really sold on the idea of having someone speaking aloud throughout the course of a silent movie.
As it is, The Water Magician is not the kind of silent film I really enjoy – it’s too heavily driven by narrative. Very much in the grand melodramatic tradition (I kept thinking of 1930s Hollywood films about self-sacrificing women, like Stella Dallas), this is the story of the large-hearted Taki no Shiraito who falls in love with a young carriage driver and takes on the responsibility of funding his law studies in Tokyo – sending him money regularly until hard times come along and she ends up murdering a lecherous moneylender and then being reunited with her lover in the most tragic circumstances. Unlike some of my favourite silent films (examples: Murnau’s The Last Laugh, Fritz Lang’s Siegfried, Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc and even Hitchcock’s narrative-driven Blackmail), which tell their stories more through visuals than through the written word, this one relies on lots of title cards that carry the plot forward, explaining all the characters’ motivations and inner thoughts. At yesterday’s screening this meant that the benshi had to emote almost non-stop, and while she did it extremely well, I prefer my silent films to be more...silent.
Don’t have too much else to say about the film, partly because the print was very poor – it was faded, making it difficult in some scenes to even see the characters’ expressions, and the area it took up on the auditorium’s screen was frustratingly small (only about 30 per cent). I believe it’s considered a key film in Mizoguchi’s early career, but watching it I got little sense that it was by a young director who would, years later, make such classics as Ugetsu and Sansho the Bailiff. (There were a couple of very striking shots – Shiraito and her lover on a bridge together, a quick nightmare montage before Shiraito attempts suicide by throwing herself off a train. Maybe I would have enjoyed it more if the print had been better.)
P.S. The anachronistic subtitles on prints of period Japanese films bring much joy. Kurosawa’s medieval peasants are forever saying things like “Hey, so what’s up?” to each other on my DVDs, and at yesterday’s screening my wife was mightily amused by a scene where the noble, teary-eyed Shiraito helps a young couple to elope and the subtitle reads: “I’m a sucker for young love!” (There were also quite a few “gonnas” and “gottas”: for example, “I’m gonna throw myself off this train!”)