Film series highlights film narration tradition and Japanese cinema

Center for Japanese Studies

By John Bohn, Daily Arts Writer
Published September 28, 2012

During cinema’s infancy, there existed across the globe a performance profession that has become all but extinct. It complicated what were very simple narratives in order to enliven what was happening in a silent film.

Silent Ozu: Fall Film Series


Fridays through Nov. 9 at 7 p.m.
Natural Science Auditorium
Free

This profession was the narrator-lecturer.

With the invention of cinematic storytelling techniques such as cross-cuts and close ups — and later with the advent of the “talkies” — these narrators became obsolete, except in certain immigrant communities where they acted as translators.

Yet in Japan, the tradition was extremely popular. These narrators were called benshi, and they did everything from providing background information to performing every character in the film, be it man, woman or child.

“They were so popular that people would often decide which film to go to based on the benshi and not the film,” said Abé Markus Nornes, a Prof. of Asian Cinema.

Nornes specializes in Japanese cinema, and this semester he's organized a film series on the great Japanese filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu. The series, which mostly involves silent films, will include a professional benshi, Ichiro Kataoka — a singular experience in itself.

Now in his thirties, Kataoka has been studying the art of the benshi for a decade now. He has narrated nearly 200 films, mostly Japanese, but also American, Italian, French, Chinese and Korean, among others. At the University alone, Kataoke has performed in a handful of classes.

“One of the classes was on animation,” Nornes said. “The professor asked if he could do ‘Felix the Cat,’ and he just whipped out a new script for it and did it.”

“This is the first time that anyone outside Japan has tried to do this,” Nornes said. “These benshi have gone to international film festivals for a few days, but never has anyone come in for half a year and done a whole film series. It’s totally unique and pretty amazing.”

The project started with a seed grant from the Center for World Performance Studies, and then evolved into a community effort out of necessity. In addition to living expenses for the benshi, the films themselves are shot on 35 mm film, and require an assortment of live music, all of which Nornes has organized for the event. Small donations have come from many of the departments at the University, most notably from the Center for Japanese Studies.

Though Ozu is best known for directing post-war melodramas, this series mostly focuses on his critically acclaimed silent-era comedies and an exclusive fragment of an unfinished project.

“One of the most amazing things is that (Ozu) can appeal to a regular audience because his films are so funny,” Nornes said. “But he appeals to makers and lovers of film because he has a very strange and unique style.”

Ozu's signature style is marked by a camera angled upward from the ground, said Nornes. There is also a symmetrical quality to the film, used in “I Was Born, But … ” that showed during the first week of the series. It features two kids, two men and two families.

“It’s built in a very formal way, but there’s a craziness and anarchy to it at the same time,” Nornes said.

Kataoka will speak Japanese for performances. During one of the premiere movies, he actively translated an American film into Japanese.

This type of experience has precedent from a short interlude in cinema history where sound was used, but filmmakers didn’t yet know how to add subtitles, making the viewing of talkies difficult to send abroad.

“People thought this was the end of international cinema,” Nornes said. “In Japan, the benshi stepped in. They would yell over the soundtrack.”

From now until the end of the semester, Kataoka will perform in the Natural Science auditorium. In addition, an assortment of local musicians and DJ’s will help to recreate the original experience that Ozu intended for his films, which range from Steven Warner of the Michigan Theater playing the organ to a DJ from WCBN spinning 78s.