Almost as though the folks at Eden Court heard me lamenting the lack of silent films at the film festival a couple of weeks ago, a Japanese silent film with live musical accompaniment popped up in the cinema schedule. Despite Japanese films and silent films being two long standing cinematic loves of mine, I realised that I’d never actually seen any Japanese silent films, so clearly I needed to rectify that. Add to that the fact that Walk Cheerfully (1930) is an Ozu film, then well, how could I resist.
I got into Japanese cinema in a different way from most of the other genres that I fell in love with in my teens. In typical teenage fashion though, it was because I had a crush on someone who was really into Japanese cinema. Being a film student at the time, I spent the whole of that winter break reading every book on Japanese cinema that I could get out of the university library and watching every Japanese film I could get hold of cheaply. Unfortunately, being that it was the early 00s and the era of the ‘Tartan Asia’ releases, the crossover between the ‘classic films’ that the books talked about and the films I could actually get hold of was not particularly high. I saw a lot of Kurosawa and Miike films – often with my crush, though it turned out we were both more into geeking out about Japanese cinema together than snogging – but the films I longed to see, that remained tantalisingly out of reach, or at least budget, were the films of Yasujirô Ozu. For a while it felt as though Tokyo Story (1953) was taunting me as it seemed that every time it was screened somewhere I would try to go and then be thwarted. Screenings were cancelled, leave was cancelled, once memorably a storm caused all the trains to Glasgow to be stopped.
The film itself is a fascinating artefact, part 30s gangster flick, part romantic comedy, where our hero Kenji, a small time hood – he and his tiny gang seem to mostly be stealing wallets, Kenji and his brother Senko share not only a tiny apartment but it appears a bed too – is trying to go straight to win the heart of an honest girl with whom he’s fallen madly in love with and the pitfalls and struggles he faces along the way. An interesting point that another review of the film brought to my attention is that Yasue and her family are the only non-Westernised characters in the film, living in a traditional house, wearing traditional clothing, and by implication adhering to traditional Japanese values and honour. Whereas all the criminals, and their victims – even Yasue’s sleazy boss – are dressed and living as though they could be bootleggers in an American film of the same period. We’re told early on that this film is set in a time of great economic hardship and societal breakdown, and clearly the costumes are meant to stand in somewhat subtly for the moral degradation brought to the country by modern life in a newly globalised world. There are some fabulous beautifully choreographed sequences with the gangsters, that make them seem as if they’ve escaped from some kind of Hollywood musical before they were even a thing, as though they’ve decided to make their desperate, precarious existence glamorous if it kills them. Everyone is tap dancing on the edge of ruin and trying to scrape a better life however they can, often by sheer force of will. It’s a slight film, somewhat melancholic, but a charming and strangely hopeful one too.
Then there was Silvia Hallett’s accompaniment, which in the tradition of the best silent film accompaniment this was not just performing a basic score. It seemed largely improvised, so able to respond not just to the film playing on screen, but also to the benshi performance as well. She played a whole variety of instruments – some traditional, both Western and Japanese, some electronic – certainly but also provided a whole array of sound effects throughout the film that altogether felt more like she was performing live sound design!
Because my passion of Japanese cinema predates my passion for silent film, I clearly hadn’t paid much attention to Japanese silent cinema traditions – and in my defence I think most of the books I read in my research binge all those years ago, mostly focused on post-second world war Japanese cinema – so I was completely unprepared for the benshi performance from Tomoko Komura. Unbeknownst to me, Japanese silent cinema didn’t go down the inter title route, and instead had live narrators who performed dialogue, provided plot summaries and generally brought the piece to life. Apparently at the height of their popularity, the best benshi were paid on a par with the screen actors, and were just as much of a draw for audiences. I can absolutely believe that, because Komura’s performance was a tour de force, giving the whole film an atmosphere and vivacity that I would definitely seek out again. It was both a delight and a revelation, on a par with the first time I saw Neil Brand improvise to a Buster Keaton film for upending my ideas of what ‘silent’ film can be and do. Just excellent.