- Silent films: 子宝騒動、明け行く空 (Kid Commotion, The Dawning Sky)
5/19/15 (Tues), Tokyo
These were silent films by Torajiro Saito, evidently known in his day as film studio Shochiku’s “king of comedy”. They were narrated by a female benshi, Akiko Sasaki, who sat at the side of the screen and voiced all the roles as well as narrating non-dialogue sections in her own words. The music was newly composed and played live on a keyboard. The setup directly recalled (and perhaps stemmed from) Japan’s Bunraku puppet theater, where the narrator and musician sit in full view of the audience on a raised platform beside the stage and give voice to the voiceless puppets. The mixture of film and live performance seemed very modern somehow, so it’s interesting to note that Japan was doing it nearly a century ago.
Kid Commotion (1935), which originally had the cuter English title Birth Out of Control, featured a poor family trying to support reams of children. The mother manages to improvise even as the electricity, water and gas are cut off one by one and as her lazy Chaplinesque husband, played by Ogura Shigeru (who actually looks like Chaplin), does little more than monopolize his children’s toys to their annoyance. When the mother suddenly goes into labor again, he runs for a midwife, but because of his well-known propensity to forget to pay off his debts, no one is willing to help.
He resorts to various schemes to make money, ranging from the noble – he saves a child from a burning building and chases down a runaway pig – to the less so – he sells one of his daughters to a geisha house and tries to steal from a blind beggar. All the while, the mother is suffering, not the least as the kids and their playthings keep falling on her bloated stomach in some rather perverted humor. All ends well, of course: a midwife is found, a healthy baby is born, and the father goes off to work in a real job.
The film sometimes seemed to aiming for social critique, such as the contrast between the well-cared-for pregnant pig and the forgotten pregnant wife, but that didn’t seem to be the director’s main concern. It was curious how the cruelties in the show (the daughter being sold, the pregnant woman in pain as things drop on her stomach) were used for comic purposes; it reminded me of some of the more extreme Japanese game shows. The benshi did a great job of bringing the antics on screen to life.
Where the benshi really made a difference was in the second show, The Dawning Sky (1929). This was a weepie, written by a female screenwriter, about a girl longing for the mother she has never met. When the mother is widowed, she is thrown out of her in-law’s home but forced to leave her daughter behind. Poor and desolate, she finds comfort in the Catholic church in a new town and becomes a nun.
Later, the father-in-law, now reduced by the hard times from banker to carriage driver, has moved coincidentally to that same town with his granddaughter. The granddaughter is generally happy but envies her friends and their families, and longs for parents of her own. A chance encounter with the nun at the church convinces her that she has found her mother, whose photo looks extremely similar. Her father, refusing to explain, is adamant that she go nowhere near there.
The girl initially obeys, but unable to stop herself, slips out in a storm in the middle of the night to visit the church. She stumbles along and slips on a treacherous bridge, where she is rescued by her anxious grandfather. Seeing her passion, he finally confesses that the nun is in fact her mother and consents to their meeting.
Unfortunately, they discover when they reach the church that the mother has left town so as not to cause trouble. The grandfather drives his coach immediately to the station, but just misses the train carrying the nun. He’s determined to find her and flies across bumpy roads, rocky short cuts and muddy paths toward the train. Will he catch her? Will the daughter and the mother get their happy ending? Puh-lease.
This was standard multi-hanky stuff, but the performers were all wonderful within the context of the silent genre, especially the two women. The story, silly as it was, never flagged, and it was very well lit and staged. Black and white never looked better. The director was evidently not known for serious fare, but he did a more-than-creditable job here, even discounting the eye-rolling melodramatic touches like the girl hanging frantically on to the bridge over the river in the driving rain.
All of this was enhanced considerably by the benshi Sasaki. She had to handle a broad range of characters and emotions in this one, and was absolutely terrific – gruff for the man, girlish for the daughter, contemplative for the nun, and more. She achieved the difficult feat of making it all sound spontaneous. It adding a whole new dimension to the experience, one that can’t itself be captured in film. Hats off as well to the composer/performer for a superb score and keyboarding. I’ll be on the lookout for future performances by Sasaki, though it would be interesting to see the films with different narrator and accompaniment. The technique is by no means limited to Japanese films – next week is Potemkin – and I’m eager to catch more. I imagine the experience would be hard to duplicate in English given the structural differences in the language and the absence of a similar tradition. Certainly a new way to experience film.