I HAVE HEARD THE BENSHI

John Ewing at the Cleveland Cinematheque last week presented Ozu’s An Inn at Tokyo in the historical Japanese manner.  I found it a privilege and a unique experience.  A narrator on stage, to the side of the screen, offered modest commentary to the silent film and spoke the dialogue in various voices.  Our narrator or benshi Ichiro Katoka studied under famous Japanese master Midori Sawato.  Katoka is an excellent actor, a thorough professional with skilled timing, good judgment and instinctive taste.  His voice for female characters was higher but within the range of comfort for his Western moviegoers.  Katoka was enthusiastically received by the audience.  Undaunted by some projection difficulties, he improvised and entertained us until the story was again up and running.

I prefer my silent films silent, but I was happy to see and hear how this process worked in the Japan of the silent era and to witness its being done so well.   Yasujiro Ozu continued making silents through 1935, the year of An Inn at Tokyo.

An Inn at Tokyo
Yasujiro Ozu
1935

The basically good print I saw, with only occasional nitrate disintegration, has a music track and of course inter-titles.  But this simple narrative needs nothing but the expressive faces given us through the unpretentious camera of Ozu, his stark black and white framing and his perfection of pace. 

The emotions here are simple but deeply felt.  A single father with two small boys needs a job in hard times.  The three wander the countryside into small towns looking for work.  Small events are the film’s crises.  It rains, when the the three have planned to sleep outdoors and have spent their lodging money for food.  The older boy uses the little money they have saved from rounding up and selling stray dogs, to buy a jaunty cap that takes his fancy.

They encounter a small girl and her single mother who also is looking for work.  Desperate to help the stranger when her daughter becomes ill, the father goes for desperate measures in a shocking conclusion.

The acting is all fine in this quiet Ozu masterwork.

NEXT FRIDAY POST November 30

See you at the moives,
Rick

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