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It's not every day you get to see a silent Japanese film from the 1920s, so when ms_siobhan said that she and planet_andy were going over to the Media Museum to see one, and asked if I'd like to come along, I said "yes, please."

Crossways (aka Crossroads; original title Jujiro) was presented as part of the Media Museum's Film Extra series, which includes a talk before the screening, so we were well set up to understand what we were about to see. The talk (given by Keith Withall) explained that Japanese films in the pre-sound era had often made use of benshi - live performers who provided a mix of voice-over, commentary and music to accompany the film - rather than intertitles and a live musical soundtrack. This particular film, though, did have intertitles from the start, and what's more the copy we were watching was one which had been created for the British Film Society in the 1920s, for which the Japanese intertitles had been replaced with English-language ones, so in that respect the experience did not feel all that different from watching a European or American silent film. In some ways, of course, the silent medium (once you are used to it) acts to minimise cultural distance, because you are less aware of language differences than when watching a film with a foreign-language soundtrack. Similarly, the live piano accompaniment probably had much the same effect, since although the pianist clearly made an effort to weave eastern-sounding intervals and harmonies into his performance, he was still inherently playing from the western tradition.

The plot of the film was, as Keith Withall put it, 'pure melodrama'. It concerned the relationship between a brother and sister, and basically boiled down to him behaving like a jerk and her suffering as a result. He was a hot-headed young trainee Samurai, utterly infatuated with a totally unsuitable Geisha girl, and his actions in the film basically consisted of a series of naïve efforts to win her over, fights with his rival suitors, massively over-dramatic responses when those fights didn't go very well for him, and total disregard for his sister and anything that was happening to her as a result. Meanwhile, she made dresses in an effort to support the pair of them, and spent most of the film trying to mop up the consequences of his idiotic and selfish actions while simultaneously fending off a metaphorically-rapacious procuress and a literally-rapacious man pretending to be a police constable. Or that's how it all looked to our modern, western eyes, anyway. Apparently, in traditional Japanese culture, sisters are expected to have a special bond of care for their brothers, and clearly this story was a tragic idealisation of that role. But we all sat there basically thinking that the sister would have been a great deal better off without the brother, scoffing when he claimed that he would 'follow her to the ends of the earth' towards the end of the film without having ever given the slightest sign of doing anything of the sort, and cheering when he finally died (in over-the-top melodramatic fashion) at the end.

In many ways the plot, costuming and exaggerated acting style reminded me of a Kabuki play which I saw during a family visit to Tokyo in 1997. It wasn't actually the same - the make-up and costuming for this film was realistic rather than fantastical, and the silent medium obviously meant that there couldn't be any dancing or singing (though I don't know what live music might originally have accompanied it). But I could see how it drew on the same dramatic tradition, especially in its emphasis on heightened emotions and long-drawn-out scenes of suffering, conflict or tragedy. Yet, as Keith Withall also explained in his introductory talk, director Teinosuke Kinugasa was also very definitely drawing on emerging European traditions of film-making, for example in his use of expressionistic and avant-garde techniques such as double-exposures, deliberately disorientating footage of spinning lanterns and laughing faces, montage sequences, surprising camera-angles, use of contrasting light and shadow, etc. Meanwhile, despite the ostensibly-historical setting of the story, the depictions of the poor, cramped, leaking urban apartment where the brother and sister lived, and of the swirling lights and raucous crowds of the red-light district, Yoshiwara, where the Geisha girl operated, struck me as likely to be reflecting life in contemporary 1920s Tokyo rather more than the 18th century.

All in all, very visually-striking, and a fascinating insight into the evolution of film as both a Japanese and a global art-form. Perhaps the acting is a little too melodramatic for modern tastes, and the familial / gender roles downright annoying, but then again the past would be pretty boring if everyone there had behaved like and wanted the same things as us. I'm certainly glad I saw it.

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( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
Mar. 19th, 2014 07:50 am (UTC)
This sounds really interesting! I'm glad you got to see it. I do find silent film is usually much more melodramatic than we're used to these days, even if it's European or American. I read somewhere that it was one of the 'teething troubles' of switching to sound films, the actors trying to be more subtle and less melodramatic.
Mar. 20th, 2014 09:52 pm (UTC)
Yes, of course - you're right about European and American ones being very melodramatic, too. The precise details of how the Japanese actors conveyed their melodrama were slightly different, but the basic principle was the same, and in both cases it's very much a case of developing out of the local theatrical tradition.
Mar. 20th, 2014 06:02 pm (UTC)
I'd love to see a performance with a benshi - apart from the fact I can't speak any japanese that is, wonder if there was ever a western equivalent or if it was always just musical accompaniment instead.
Mar. 20th, 2014 09:55 pm (UTC)
Good question! It could be re-worked for the modern age as a cutting-edge art form, actually. Like with a live actor interacting with the filmed footage, perhaps subverting what was going on on-screen, and each performance being individual and unique. I could genuinely see that happening as part of the effort to combat pirating of DVDs, in fact.
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )

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