March 21, 2017
On Sunday I had the pleasure of seeing Yasujirō Ozu's silent film, Passing Fancy, on the big screen at The Film Forum. That alone would have been enough to sell me on a day trip to NYC but it gets even better! This screening was accompanied by a live piano performance -- composed and performed by Makia Matsumura -- and a live benshi performance by Ichiro Kataoka.
From the beginning of the film era, way back in the late 1800's, benshi performers would narrate silents films in Japan. Initially they were there to explain western customs to Japanese audiences before imported films, but as the medium grew more complicated, so did the benshi's role. Eventually they took to narrating foreign films during the movie, and acting out Japanese silent films in a way that essentially served as live dubbing! The benshi's popularity was so great that it's partially responsible for Japan's reluctance to adopt sound pictures until the mid 1930's! Of course, when the sound era finally began, the role of the benshi faded away. But the art form has been passed down through the generations, and benshi still perform at repertory silent film screenings around the world to this day. It's a rare treat, though, so I was tickled pink to be able to attend this special screening! In introducing the program, Film Forum programmer Bruce Goldstein said that as soon as they heard that Kataoka was going to be in town they immediately bumped something else from their spring lineup in order to accommodate this screening. For something this unique, that is certainly understandable!
Ichiro Kataoka performed in Japanese, and despite my inability to understand the language, it was still an unbelievably moving experience. I could tell that a lot of his words were meant to be dialogue, matching the mouths of the actors perfectly. He adopted different voices for each of the characters, even convincingly voicing two different women and a child.
It was so moving to me, to think that I was experiencing this film exactly the way that Japanese audiences experienced it in 1933. When Ozu made this film, THIS is how he believed the public would see it. If you ever have the opportunity to see a silent film with live benshi, I highly recommend it. Experiences like this are the closest we have to time travel, I feel. It was just beautiful.