By Andrew Hamlin
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
William Satake Blauvelt, musician, composer, and professor at Seattle University, admits, not quite believing himself, that the Aono Jikken Ensemble (AJE), over which he presides, started 20 years ago. The Ensemble, providing a fresh score and Japanese benshi-style narration to the classic silent film “Dragon Painter” at the Paramount, evolved out of several other collaborations.
“Esther Sugai, Yoko Murao, and Susie Kozawa,” as Blauvelt recalled, “were part of Sokkyo — an improvisation group that combined music and sound art with dance, vocals, and poetry. Michael Shannon, along with Dean Moore (who joined AJE some years later), were in Blue World — a ‘torch and trance’ band that performed standards with a noir attitude and world music influences. I had been working as a solo and collaborative musician for a couple of years after leaving Seattle Kokon Taiko (a prominent local taiko ensemble) after 14 years with them.”
He first became aware of “The Dragon Painter,” a 1919 silent classic featuring Sessue Hayakawa, the first Asian American Hollywood superstar, in 1994, when he was programming at the Seattle Asian American Film Festival. Decades later, when approached by the Seattle Theater Group (STG) to score a selection for their series of silent films with live scores, he knew immediately which one to propose.
The film, based on a novel by Mary McNeil Fenollosa, is set in Japan and concerns a famous Japanese painter struggling with madness, obsession, and deaths, both real and faked. Hayakawa, who was born in Japan but lived most of his life outside it, was one of the most famous leading men of his era, and he released the film through his own Haworth Picture Corporation.
Explained Blauvelt, “It’s one of the earliest Hollywood films produced by and starring an Asian that features an Asian storyline with Asian characters that are complex people, rather than stereotypes. The film was made with a lot of skill and ambition — the acting by Hayakawa and Tsuru Aoki, his wife and a pioneer in her own right, is engaging and moving, and the direction by Hayakawa’s partner William Worthington is done with great care. Plus the cinematography, done on location in Yosemite National Park, is spectacular.”
In 2014, the film was recognized as culturally, historically, and aesthetically significant by the Library of Congress and placed on the National Film Registry.
The Ensemble, for this project, consists of Michael Shannon on guitar, erhu, and dulcimer; Marcia Takamura on koto and shamisen; Stan Shikuma on taiko and percussion; Jay Hamilton on cello, bass guitar, and flute; and Blauvelt himself on taiko, percussion, lu sheng, and prepared string instruments. Local actor and performance artist Naho Shioya will provide the Japanese benshi-style narration to the silent film.
The benshi narrators, who flourished in Japan and Korea during the silent film era, provided live-action narration to accompany the film. Shioya will read the film’s on-screen intertitles in both English and Japanese, but in the classic benshi tradition, she’ll go a bit further than that. She collaborated with Blauvelt for narration, in both languages, separate from the intertitles.
“This film presents an interesting juxtaposition for us,” Blauvelt mused. “We’ve done many Japanese silent films that we are, on different levels, translating for a non-Japanese audience. ‘The Dragon Painter’ is an American film about an imagined Japan, created by an American writer that was adapted by a Japanese artist working with American collaborators. The film was somewhat controversial to Japanese viewers when it was first released, so it will be interesting to see what modern Japanese viewers will make of it and whether or not our contribution will help.”
“The Dragon Painter” plays March 6, 7 p.m., at the Paramount Theatre, 911 Pine Street in Seattle. For tickets and further information, visit stgpresents.org.
Andrew Hamlin can be reached at email@example.com.