Thursday 29 July 2010

Shinsedai 2010 - The Water Magician

At the tender age of 22, Takako Irie was already a power player in the Japanese film industry. Impressive for anyone, but triply so considering that she was able to do this as a young woman in 1933 Japan. She created her own production company and struck out into the world of independent film with Kenji Mizoguchi's "The Water Magician" as one of her first projects. She not only produced, but also took on its main starring role. Hearing these details in the introductory comments before its screening at this year's Shinsedai Cinema Festival provided some additional information as to why a silent film from a noted master of the artform managed to sneak into this year's lineup. After all, it's not really the first thing you think of to program in a festival dedicated to new Japanese films by young filmmakers (the term Shinsedai actually means "new generation"). One assumed the film was being screened simply because the opportunity was there - and if you could add on live musical accompaniment, why would you not? Especially when the music is by experimental Toronto band Vowls and the space within which they would perform it is the lovely confines (acoustically friendly one at that) of the Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre.

It's somewhat hard at this stage to separate out the music from the movie since the ebbs and flows of the soundtrack provided by the 5-piece band (including many analog and digital effects) meshed with the pace of the movie. The tale is straightforward - a young woman named Taki no Shiraito travels around with a circus performing tricks with water and becomes taken with a young carriage driver. She's attracted to him, but is also impressed with the way he stands up to her and the other passengers who taunt the slowness of his buggy. She insists that he make something of himself and offers to pay for his education with the condition that he become an honourable gentleman. The slow build of Vowls' music during the film's opening exposition is initially hard to fit into the 80-year old look of the film and its characters, but it pulses and weaves its way into your head until you're hooked - into both the music and the story.

In the grand tradition of melodramatic storylines, the separated lovers are doomed to encounter each other again and, of course, in a fashion that tests those initial promises. It's all in the telling, though, and Mizoguchi has a couple of weapons at his disposal to make this a very engaging story. The first is his camera - it moves a great deal throughout the film pushing in, following, tracking and staying with our characters. Things just seemed more vibrant with all that movement. The second high-powered item in his arsenal is Takako Irie herself - specifically her beautiful, expressive and mischievous face. When the lovers are apart, we spend almost the entirety of the time with her, so that face gets a lot of screen time and I have to say that she makes use of it well. The emotions are high and her expressions match them, but it never feels like its played too broad. Because of the nature of the story, there certainly are moments when you think things like "if you'd just talk to that guy, it would all be fine!", but it's not meant to be...

If there was a small downside to the screening it was that the film had a great deal of subtitles that were explaining much of the action on screen - these were actually for the narration used by Benshi who would typically tell the story of the film to an audience while also speaking the roles of several characters on screen. This was common for many silent films in Japan and apparently true Benshi were performers in their own right and could elevate what they did to an artform. Unfortunately, without the Benshi present, it was just a whole lot of additional subtitles on the screen. After awhile you could safely ignore them and just read the intertitles, but it's hard to ignore that blaring white text at the bottom of the screen...It's a small annoyance though.

The score by Vowls kept enveloping the audience more and more as the film went on. One of its early peaks was during the sequence when Shiraito is hiding out with a young couple and is discovered and led away to jail on suspicion of murder. The band shifted gears a bit during this section to bring an overall darker and more insistent tone to the rhythms of the piece. The final 10 minutes or so seemed to be one constant build that completely fit the tone of the trapped feelings of the characters. If the band were not overly animated in their performance, they certainly knew how come up with intriguing sounds and stitch them all together to make a great film all that much better.

A magnificent evening.


Peter Nellhaus said...

I wish I could have seen this. What might be fun, if it could be done right, is to show a silent Japanese film and recreate the experience with a contemporary benshi.

Bob Turnbull said...

Hi Peter...I'd love to see a silent with a real benshi! I spoke to a few folks after the film who have experienced that and they said it's a very different, but no less amazing way to see a silent.

With the subtitles alone though, it doesn't do much...I believe this was the available print though, so I'm certainly not complaining.