By Andrew Hamlin
Northwest Asian Weekly
Seattle’s musical/performance art troupe Aono Jikken Ensemble brings its musical and performing expertise to two performances of the classic Japanese silent film “Japanese Girls at the Harbor.” The first performance will be on Saturday, Oct. 4th at the Northwest Film Forum. The second performance will be on Sunday, Oct. 5th at the Seattle Asian Art Museum. Ensemble founder William Satake Blauvelt took some questions over e-mail.
NWAW: How did Aono Jikken Ensemble become aware of the film?
William Satake Blauvelt: We became aware of the film when Criterion released a box set of the director’s work. Hiroshi Shimizu, the director, was a name that I was familiar with as a writer on some of Yasujiro Ozu’s early films, but I didn’t know he was also a director. He was almost completely unknown in the West until fairly recently, but was a successful and prolific director in Japan having made around 160 films over a 40-year career.
“Japanese Girls at the Harbor” was a revelation in that here was a film and director, who although unknown here, were on the same level as the acknowledged greats like Ozu and Mizoguchi.
NWAW: What attracted the ensemble to the film?
Blauvelt: The film’s style, subject matter, and setting were unusual and very intriguing. The film has a very modernist style and although it is very Japanese at its core, there is very little of the usual traditional Japanese look of other films of the period. The setting is the port city of Yokohama, which has a strong international flavor reflected in the film.
Also, the director uses a number of experimental techniques in areas like editing to create psychological depth in the characters. Then there’s the characters themselves — three of the four main characters are Eurasian, played by mostly mixed race actors. The presentation and depiction of these characters is very matter-of-fact and doesn’t include the usual baggage of the tragedy of mixing blood and other nonsense typical of old films. The characters are sometimes selfish, sometimes noble– in short, imperfectly human.
NWAW: How many players will the ensemble have and who plays which instruments?
Blauvelt: There are six of us: William Satake Blauvelt (taiko, drum set, percussion, foley, prepared string instruments — hammered dulcimer and autoharp)Michael Shannon (guitar, cello, harmonium, percussion)Naho Shioya (benshi, vocals)
Esther Sugai (flute, melodica, accordian, percussion)Marcia Takamura (koto, percussion, foley)Special guest David Stanford (guitar, saxophone, percussion, live electronic processing)
NWAW: How does the live music differ from the “sound score”?
Blauvelt: Everything we do onstage is live from the music, to the sound score, to the benshi. The music is made with a variety of Asian, Western, and world instruments that play original music we create, adaptations of traditional Japanese music, recreations of popular songs of the era. For “Japanese Girls at the Harbor,” aside from Japanese influences, there are elements of tango, flamenco, gamelan, and chanson incorporated.
The sound score includes creating an ambient sound world that represents things like the harbor atmosphere prevalent in the film, so the sound of ships, water, etc. are created through foley (sound effects). Other things like a rain storm will be done with a combination of instruments and foley sound devices. Also some of the instruments are sometimes processed electronically to alter their sound. This can do things like help create a more intense psychological atmosphere for certain scenes.
NWAW: Who will provide the narration and how was it written? What is the benshi tradition and how does this performance relate to it?
Blauvelt: Our benshi is Naho Shioya, who is a professionally trained actor and performance artist who is a native Japanese speaker, speaks perfect English, and sings.
Naho and I will watch the film with subtitles first to see how the translation is. Then she’ll do her own translation of the film’s original intertitles, since we don’t use the English subtitles. We’ve found that provided translations are sometimes not accurate or lack pizzaz.
We’ll determine what kind of other narrative information is needed and where it can be placed within the film.
Since we do a bilingual version of benshi, we have to determine the balance between the languages. While English will be predominant, we try to put in as much Japanese as we can — usually in the more improvised areas. This depends on how much space there is between the character’s dialogues.
Narration for silent film had been a part of the Japanese movie-going experience from the beginning, when film was introduced to Japan in 1896. The benshi were performers who stood at the side of the screen. The film projected provided non-stop narration, character voices, plot exposition, dropped-in quotations from classic poetry, sang occasionally, and offered their own opinions on what was unfolding. All this was done to the accompaniment of an ensemble that provided background music or selected musical recordings were played.
Sometimes the benshi were given background materials by the film studios, but they often created their own scripts and/or improvised
The benshi were at their peak during the 1920s and early 1930s when there were several thousand of them working, sometimes in teams, who narrated every film that was shown in Japan, whether domestic or foreign.
The benshi were so popular that the best-received star billing above the actors in the films they narrated and had devoted followings. The benshi era ended when sound films became the norm, although in Japan, the silent film era lasted longer than other countries due to delays in getting reliable sound systems into theaters nationwide and opposition from the benshi who were a powerful lobby in the industry.
AJE’s use of katsudo benshi (silent film narration) makes the benshi part of the overall ensemble, rather than the dominating force. We see it as creating a balance between the film and its director’s intentions, the music and sound elements, and the narration.
NWAW: What were the major challenges in this project? How did the ensemble overcome them?
Blauvelt: The biggest challenges were trying to determine the director’s intentions, since we didn’t know that much about him. This particular film relies less on the need for a benshi than other Japanese silent films we’ve done. There’s no fat or padding in the film and that leaves less room to insert narrative that may be needed for non-Japanese audiences. Usually we do research that includes finding the story’s source material for background information that we can use, but in this case, the original book, as well as some original songs written specifically for the movie, have been lost. We ended up embracing the mystery and tried to give the film an anchor in its own time and place while taking a cue from director Shimizu by taking it in new directions like he did with his experimental techniques, as he searched for the poetry in things.
NWAW: What are the ensemble’s plans for the future?
Blauvelt: We have a number of new silent film scores planned for the near and far future, including the 1928 expressionist sensation “Jujiro (Crossroads)” that was actually the first Japanese film to cause a sensation in the West, over two decades before Akira Kurosawa’s “Rashomon” appeared. We’ll also be scoring and adding benshi to two of the classics of 1930s Japanese silent cinema, Yasujiro Ozu’s “A Story of Floating Weeds,” a bittersweet tale about an itinerant troupe of Kabuki actors, and Kenji Mizoguchi’s “Taki no Shiraito: The Water Magician,” one of his first great tragedies about women’s struggles in Japanese society. (end)