By Andrew Hamlin
Northwest Asian Weekly
Seattle’s ever-unpredictable Aono Jikken Ensemble brings a special one-night only presentation to the SIFF Cinema Uptown on July 11th: A screening of Yasujiro Ozu’s classic silent film “A Story Of Floating Weeds,” with live music, sound effects, and bilingual narration from a Japanese-style benshi narrator. The Ensemble’s founder, Bill Blauvelt, took some questions over email.
NWAW: When and how did the Aono Jikken Ensemble get started, and what were its first projects?
Blauvelt: Aono Jikken Ensemble began in 1997 and grew out of a group of musicians and performers who had been collaborating in different configurations for a few years. Much of it was improvisational in nature where music, sound, art, and movement were openly explored. The idea for a group took shape with a performance I put together for a festival at the Northwest Asian American Theatre where we combined traditional Asian, western and world instruments, with toys, found objects, and electronics, along with movement and visual art. At that time I was also programming the Seattle Asian American Film Festival and wanted to bring a Japanese avant-garde silent film called “A Page of Madness” and have it accompanied by live music. The festival didn’t have the budget to hire anyone so I asked the musicians I had been working with to help me create an original live score. We performed it in a midnight screening at the old Speakeasy cafe in Belltown to an enthusiastic response and the rest is history.
NWAW: What were the biggest influences of the Ensemble, and how have its influences changed over time?
Blauvelt: The group’s influences are very far ranging and include pretty much all forms of music from around the world. Each member has their own set of influences which would be too many to list but as an example my own influences include modern classical and film composer Toru Takemitsu, jazz musician John Coltrane, composer/musician Teiji Ito, pop producer Brian Wilson, and taiko artist Eitetsu Hayashi. The group’s projects are usually, but not exclusively, rooted in Japanese music, art and culture.
That’s the root of things and the springboard we take off from. Music and sound wise though we are wide open and very ominvorous, always looking for new or different things to incorporate. With our score for “A Story of Floating Weeds” you’ll hear a range of Japanese music, including chindon (street music), minyo (folk), kabuki, and Taisho-era pop tunes alongside, or sometimes intermingled with, Jewish klezmer, African folk, Americana, and experimental soundscapes.
NWAW: What led you to select Ozu’s “A Story of Floating Weeds”?
Blauvelt: Ozu was such a great filmmaker and this was a pivotal work in his career. It marked the point at which he worked through the experimentations of his earlier films and introduced what would become trademarks of his now famously rigorous style. The film has a wonderfully bittersweet quality to it and is a deft blend of the comedic goings-on of a traveling theatre troupe and the poignant family drama Ozu would become famous for.
We actually first scored “A Story of Floating Weeds” in 1999 and at that time the film was only available in this country in a rather badly damaged print. The film was recently digitally restored for DVD release, which is a rarity for a Japanese silent film. The restoration has the film looking great so it’s been on our list to revisit for a while now. At first we thought it would be easy to just do our old score and maybe tweak it a little. Well, after re-listening we realized that we’ve gotten better and learned a lot more since then, so much of the score we’ll be performing is all new. Back then we didn’t have katsudo-benshi (“moving picture narrator”) in our arsenal and this particular film affords a great opportunity for that. Also, last year in Tokyo, we found a copy of the original script, that will allow us to do a very accurate and detailed narration.
NWAW: How did the Ensemble go about preparing the score and the benshi accompaniment? How many times did you have to go through the film start-to-finish?
Blauvelt: It’s hard to say exactly how many times we’ll go through the film from head to tail as we break it down into sections, but it is quite a few times. Our usual process is that I watch the film and transcribe it into a shot-by-shot script and do research about the film, setting, time period, story and director. Naho Shioya, our benshi, will go through the film and do a literal translation of the Japanese intertitles and figure out what the characters are saying in the sequences where they talk but the dialogue is not titled on screen.
Together we’ll work on adapting what was already written and decide what dialogue will be in English or Japanese then write any original material needed for the narration. The whole group will watch the film together and discuss it then everyone will take the script and watch the film on their own. Each member will bring in ideas and examples of existing music for inspiration as well as fully realized pieces or music fragments to work on. Together we’ll refine things into a hopefully seamless whole that’s attuned to the film.
NWAW: Does the Ensemble use the same benshi each time, or do folks rotate? Who writes the narration? What are the most formidable challanges of becoming a benshi?
Blauvelt: Our one and only benshi is Naho Shioya. The role requires such a unique combination of skills that it’s hard to fulfill, particularly the way we employ it. Naho, a native of Japan, is a professionally trained actor and performer who is fluent in Japanese and English, has musical training and can sing. We use all those elements to create a unique take on the benshi art form. I write the scripts with her and we aim to not only honor the benshi tradition but create a modern, multicultural version that makes the benshi part of the ensemble rather than a separate entity performing over background music.
A good benshi has to be able to perform a wide range of character voices, write and impart clear original narration, provide on-the-fly commentary crafted for the audience at hand, and when called upon, sing a song or two.
Katsudo-benshi (literally “moving picture narrator”) have, not surprisingly, become a rare thing. At one time there were around two thousand benshi, some who were wildly popular, that performed for all screenings of silent films, both foreign and domestic. Today, in Japan, there are only about half a dozen people doing it seriously. I’ve also heard of a few people who’ve done benshi in English or another language for special screenings but these are essentially one-offs.
NWAW: Who are the Ensemble members, and what does each one contribute?
Blauvelt: The ensemble members come from different musical backgrounds–some have formal training, some are self-taught and everyone is a multi-instrumentalist. Esther Sugai plays flutes, accordian and melodica; Michael Shannon plays a variety of western, Asian, African, and Middle Eastern stringed instruments and reeds; Marcia Takamura plays koto and shamisen; David Stanford plays guitar, clarinet, saxophone and does live sound processing. Naho Shioya, besides acting as benshi, is the vocalist and finds period songs for us to use. I play taiko, percussion, prepared string instruments and provide Foley (sound) effects. Everyone also plays various percussion instruments, as well as children’s sound toys and found objects.
NWAW: What’s in the future for the Ensemble, this year and beyond?
Blauvelt: We have a slate of projects in the works including a program of early Japanese animation shorts that were the precursor to today’s anime, and the 1928 expressionist masterpiece “”Jujiro (Crossroads)” that was actually the first Japanese film to be celebrated in the west, over 20 years before “Rashomon.” We also have more works by Kenji Mizoguchi, Hiroshi Shimizu and Yasujiro Ozu on the horizon. We’re looking to take some of our recent work on the road and are looking for presenting partners. And we’re always interested in new commissions for unusual projects. (end)
“A Story Of Floating Weeds” plays one night only, Saturday, July 11, at SIFF Cinema Uptown, 511 Queen Anne Avenue North. For more information visit http://www.siff.net/cinema/a-story-of-floating-weeds-with-aono-jikken-ensemble.
Andrew Hamlin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.