The Water Magician
I did something dead cultural yesterday – I saw a Japanese film called The Water Magician*
The film came out in the dying days of the silent era**, and was shown with live koto accompaniment and was accompanied by a benshi narrator, as it would have been when it was shown almost eighty years ago.
The benshi was essentially a live narrator, who explained the story, read out or interpreted the dialogue, and was a star in his or her own right. Crowds would flock to see a specific benshi, the way people today go see a movie if Tom Cruise is in it, or if it is directed by Michael Bay.
Ours was performed in English (thankfully) by Tomoko Komura, and within five minutes the novelty of having a nimble footed Japanese woman in a kimono performing all the voices and narration had already worn of, and I’d accepted it as an integral and normal part of the cinematic experience. I was able to concentrate simply on the story, which was the usual tale of circus performer meets coach driver, falls in love, sends him money so he can study to be a laywer, then runs into debt due to a series of unfortunate events, with tragic results. The lead actress – Takako Irie – also produced the film, which is pretty right-on for 1933***. She’s a wonderful, playful presence, contrasting nicely with the grim-faced honour of Tokihiko Okada (who sadly died only a year after the film was made).
Also the film is interesting from a purely historical perspective. It contrasts a dying traditional Japan – all the lower classes still wear traditional dress – with the Western suit-wearing elite class.
It was pretty jarring to exit this disappeared world only to emerge, blinking, into the foyer the Barbican Centre, with its 70s retro-futurism aesthetic.
If any of this appeals, you’re in luck – they’re showing it again on Sunday 23rd January 2011.
* Actually Taki no shiraito, which more accurately translates as something like White Threads Of The Waterfall
** Though they held out quite a while because – hurrah! – the benshi were strongly unionised
*** This is the second film in a row I’ve seen that came out in 1933, after Duck Soup. That would make for a confusing double bill.