Here are some details from Osian's Cinefan Festival of Asian & Arab Cinema:
Matsuda Film Production has produced a DVD of 'The Water Magician' and some
other Japanese silent films that now carry the soundtrack of a benshi
You might like to show both the versions to your class, the silent and with the
Apparently it is not the same experience. The film 'The Water Magician' with a
live benshi is part theatre and part cinema. The two are not disposed to come
together as given. The two are brought together in the mind of the audience and
not on the screen. That old time-space unity remains deeply fractured. There are
distinct moments when the two unify to strike a deep chord and you lose the
sense of them being discreet. At the same time, they do repeatedly fall apart
to create a healthy alienation from the narrative the silent images are
attempting to put together.
When the benshi is reduced to a soundtrack that does not accompany but is part
of the film, it naturally aspires for a kind of unity that is not inherently
available. Benshi does not belong as voices and effects and even
music do in normal films.
From the introductory remarks the benshi artist made before her performance and
the small conversation I later had with her, she appeared more beholden to her
master who trained her in the art of benshi than to the inspiration one
thought she might have had from subtle nuances and broad sweeps masterfully
realized by Kenji Mizoguchi. Like many oriental art disciplines I could in her
training sense the presence of a rather strict ‘grammar’ and at the same time a
total freedom to improvise, to elaborate. A recorded performance can never
the uncertain prospect of a live performance. Because it is such a
well-established tradition that can be clearly imparted in definite steps to
aspiring pupils, I presume, the audience to an extent objectively receives it's
content. In other words, the extent of interpretation is more in the area of
intensity (of emotions) than in meaning. We know there are better and worse
benshi performers. This might provide an oblique answer the pertinent question:
if Mizoguchi who seemed to have controlled every aspect film making would let
the benshi interpretation pass whatever its quality?
For myself I like to independently play image and sound tracks for any film I
teaching in a class in order to demonstrate the nature of their relationship.
is so true in the case of Robert Bresson, in particular. The fact that he
renounced the visual in the image and brought the soundtrack to the foreground
is most evident in L’argent. It is a treat to hear the soundtrack of ‘A Man
Escaped’ in a dark theatre. The orchestration borders on the symphonic.
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