Reviewing a silent film screening is not just about the film, but also about the unique aspects of the live performance, for of course (as is now I hope a widely-understood truism) silent films were never silent. This screening featured music from the duo Sylvia Hallett and Clive Bell, and (rather more unusually) a benshi narration by Tomoko Komura. The latter is a traditional form of accompaniment which is largely confined to Japanese cinema, as it derives originally from kabuki theatre. As Tony Rayns explained in his introduction to this screening, silent cinema held out as the dominant form of film production in Japan until the mid-1930s due in part to the unionised power of the benshi, who resisted the coming of sound film technology. Their role was to narrate the film (and translate foreign films’ intertitles), often doing different voices for the different characters, and this indeed is how Ms Komura accompanied Walk Cheerfully, all the time nattily dressed in a hat and suit similar to that of lead character Kenji ‘The Knife’ (played by Minoru Takada).
The story of the film is fairly simple and centres on Kenji, an understated and sullen gangster who reforms himself and finds greater happiness in pursuit of the ingenuous Yasue (played by Hiroko Kawasaki), a girl he’s fallen for in the course of scoping out potential targets for his small gang of petty criminals. If this seems a slender set-up for a feature film, it is worth remembering these are still early years for the gangster film genre; Walk Cheerfully predates even The Public Enemy (1931, a film I reviewed only a few days ago), both following closely on from Josef von Sternberg’s foundational masterpiece Underworld (1927). In some ways, it is the Japanese film which is the more faithful to its antecedent, but this is no bad thing, and it benefits from consistently good acting (particularly from his frequently comedic gangster sidekicks) and gliding camerawork unencumbered by the need to record sound directly.
Most striking of all, this is a film that embraces its filmic origins, which shouldn’t be surprising if we are aware there was little of this type of gangsterism in Japan of the period. What social realism that does exist is around the edges, in the passing references to the difficulty of finding a job, or in the outdoor filming on the real streets of contemporary Tokyo. No, this is entertainment every bit as self-conscious as any of Godard’s mid-1960s films, nowhere more so than in the musical-inflected entrance of the gangsters and the way they use little dance moves to greet each other, and it’s no surprise to see American film posters and English language song lyrics (“I am the gay caballero…”) adorning the walls. There are still early signs of what would later be recognised as Ozu’s distinctive stylistic tropes — the “pillow shots” (the use of seemingly unconnected still-life images in between scenes) and “tatami shots” (a low-height shot from the level of the tatami mats found in Japanese domestic spaces) — but mostly the film is just suffused with a joyful spirit of cinematic pastiche.
As this is a silent film screening, it is important to mention the musical accompaniment, which wonderfully complemented the film and gave space for the benshi narration. Given the prominent Western influences on display in the film itself, the musicians skilfully blended the traditional Japanese instruments (played by Bell) with violin and electronic accompaniment (by Hallett). I only hope that the BFI and other cinemas are able to present more screenings of this nature, especially with the benshi alongside, as they offer a quite different way of appreciating better the early history of Japanese cinema.
ADDENDUM: The BFI has posted a video online (link to the video) featuring interviews with the benshi narrator and one of the musicians at this screening, explaining their respective crafts.
Director Yasujiro Ozu 小津安二郎; Writers Tadao Ikeda 池田忠雄 and Hiroshi Shimizu 清水宏; Cinematographer Hideo Mohara 茂原英雄; Starring Minoru Takada 高田稔, Hiroko Kawasaki 川崎弘子; Length 92 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Monday 22 April 2013.