The Water Magician / Taki no shiraito
d. Kenji Mizoguchi / 1933 / Japan / 98 min
Silent Film & Live Music series @ Barbican (London, UK)

Still from The Water Magician

In the late 1920s and early 1930s, when the American film industry was clamouring to update to the latest sound technology in the hope of capturing an ever-lucrative market share, Japanese cinema audiences were beholden to a vastly different way of experiencing the moving image.

Developed from long-practiced traditions of Noh and kubuki theatre, films of the silent era – both local and imported – were interpreted for Japanese audiences by live benshi narrators, who would relate the story, give voice to the characters and apply their own personalities to an entirely unique brand of cinematic storytelling.

The most popular benshi increasingly became attractions in their own right, and it was not uncommon for them to be billed above the film itself. Indeed, such was the lasting appetite for benshi narration in Japan – helped, in no small part, by the strength of benshi unions – that the tradition continued well into the 1930s, long after sound cinema had become standard practice for most of the western world.

Released in 1933 – when the US box office was already topped by a steady stream of musicals and talkies – Taki no shiraito (The Water Magician) was perhaps Kenji Mizoguchi’s most popular silent production. Presented as part of the Silent Film and Live Music series, it’s screening at the Barbican provided a crucial pre-sound link for Aspects of Japanese Cinema, an extensive screening programme timed to coincide with the Barbican Art Gallery’s current exhibition – Future Beauty: 30 Years of Japanese Fashion – which closes on February 6.

In what might be a first for UK audiences, The Water Magician was presented at the Barbican with live benshi narration (in English) by Tamoko Komura, who was accompanied by Melissa Holding on the koto. Komura does a wonderful job of evoking the shifting moods of Mizoguchi’s glorious, yet tragic love story, giving voice to the main characters and describing their inner and outer worlds.

And yet, as quasi-orientalist as it might sound, I can’t help wonder if the experience might have felt a little more ‘authentic’ if the narration had been in Japanese with sub- or surtitles. Then again, regardless of language or presentation format, the curious mix of theatre and cinema that is live benshi narration is surely something that needs to be seen more widely in the UK, if only to allow silent film fans a greater understanding of how film presentation differed across cultures during the silent era.

Another curious aspect of this particular screening, of course, was the sheer (and welcome) predominance of a female perspective. As well as the dual-female presence of both Komura the benshi and Holding, her accompanist, The Water Magician is itself a product of Mizoguchi’s usual preoccupations with well-intentioned, but seemingly doomed women, and their relationships with lowly men desperate to better themselves via an attachment to these strong, powerful women. The title character is also played by the great Takako Irie, a strong female figure in Japanese cinema history who helped to produce this film as well an earlier Mizoguchi, Manmo kenkoku no reimei (The Dawn of Mongolia), in 1932.

On a completely different tack, however, I’ll end this post with an excerpt from The Water Magician which features a re-score by Canadian band VOWLS, as presented live at Toronto’s Shinsedai Cinema Festival in July 2010.

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