Tuesday, 27 June 2017

Talking the walk… I Was Born, But... (1932) with Katsudo-Benshi Hideyuki Yamashiro and Mie Yanashita, Barbican

Many silent films have placed adult actors as children and the results have been occasionally juvenile yet here we have a film featuring children as children who teach the adults as much as they learn.

Tomio Aoki and Hideo Sugawara are two fine actors and are clearly well-directed in delivering relaxed and believable performances. Director Yasujirō Ozu was a master of the family dynamic and here, as in his later works, you see a fully-rounded unit built on love, disappointment and stretched by social obligations. In some ways, it’s a slight story but told with almost novelistic attention to detail – it feels so rich.

An Adult's Picture Book View — I Was Born, But... to give its full title and then in Japanese - 大人の見る絵本 生れてはみたけれど -  was Ozu’s 25th film and he had 30 more years of film-making to go.

Tomio Aoki
Sugawara and Aoki play Ryoichi (the eldest, 8 at the time and 93 now!) and Keiji (the youngest although he was actually slightly older), the two sons of a business man, Kennosuke Yoshi (Tatsuo Saitō) and his wife, Haha (Mitsuko Yoshikawa) who have moved to the Tokyo suburbs – an area with improved education and where they will be closer to his boss Iwasaki (Takeshi Sakamoto); such are the obligations of working life.

Almost immediately the boys encounter difficulties with the local children who take against them in the way children do. The biggest boy pushes Keiji down and he runs to get Ryoichi to stand up for him. Sheer weight of numbers plays against them but, as the Yoshi’s escape, the boys promise to get their full revenge in school.

Ozu manages to catch a poignancy even among the ealy morning washing...
The next day their courage fails them as they sight of the gang at school leads the boys to play truant and forge their school work. The plan almost works until their teacher tells their father who, on hearing their reasons for avoiding school tells them to ignore the bullies. But, as every child knows, this tactic rarely works and so it proves.

But the boys are made of stern stuff and after fighting back and being helped by an older delivery boy called Kozou (Shoichi Kofujita) the biggest boy is despatched. Kozou won’t do anything about Taro (Seiichi Kato) the son of their father’s boss and also a very good customer of Kozou’s company.

The playground hierarchies are, as we grow to learn, not that dissimilar to adult ones and the boys become alarmed to see their father – seemingly – playing the fool to win favour with his manager, Iwasaki when they go along with Taro to watch cine-film at his house.

Hideo Sugawara who is now 93
Disgusted they both confront their father and ask why he must be subservient – he’s my Director and he pays me… says the father and the boys say he should refuse to accept the pay and pay his director… Not one I’ve tried I’ll admit but, as the two come to terms with the sacrifices their dad must make they realise that compromise and ambition aren’t necessarily incompatible. By the same token Kennosuke accepts he must keep his eye on his own goals…

Not a lot happens but a lot happens…

The Gang
Today’s screening was special for a variety of reasons and featured a precious 35mm print flown in from the National Film Centre in Tokyo. But it wasn’t alone in making the trip as Katsudo-Benshi Hideyuki Yamashiro and acclaimed silent film pianist Mie Yanashita had also made the long haul. Yanashita I was fascinated to hear as accompaniment styles vary by film culture whilst all the while embracing the same humanity on show. She opened with some glorious themes and then got stuck into the humour with practiced ease: this is what I love about Ozu, his ability to cover emotional range with deceptive ease and Mie was more than up to the task.

Family debate
Of course, she also had to accompany Yamashiro’s verbal accompaniment and that’s a skill in its own right. I’d never seen Benshi before and for the uninitiated, it’s more than just the reading out of inter-titles. Yamashiro acted out the scenes in between the dialogue, adding words where he could lip read them and tonally-appropriate narration. It was all in Japanese of course but between the mime, the piano and the emotional accenting we got the joke even if the Japanese speakers in the audience were there just that bit quicker!

It’s a remarkable combination and all I can say is that life would be a lot more interesting if we all had a personal Benshi with us on a daily basis.

The screening was part of the Barbican’s series The Japanese House: Architecture and Life After 1945, showing life before in this case and was sponsored by the Japanese Film Foundation, NFC Tokyo and Shindofuji Ireland.

The film is available on Blu-ray/DVD along with Good Morning, Ozu’s 1959 re-make. You can buy it from the BFI shop here at a very reasonable price!

Personal post-script: It was Yasujirō Ozu who got me interested in watching film again. Many years after the joyful complications of fatherhood began, I was walking along the Southbank enjoying some "us time" with Mrs IThankYou when, on impulse, we watched Late Autumn at the BFI. I’d never seen or heard of Ozu before but this was an energising enlightenment; a true holiday for the mind and a work so powerful in its strange simplicity and familiarity.

And one thing leads to another because, you just have to explore and find out more…

Sunday, 18 June 2017

"The powder of instruction in the jam of entertainment..." Minute Bodies (2016) on BFI Blu-ray/DVD

Everything is so familiar and yet so wonderfully strange in the films of F. Percy Smith and the score from Stuart A. Staples’ Tindersticks is perfectly in tune. This is mindful movie making and leads the viewer into a relaxed contemplative state as you watch flowers grow, newts metamorphose and a drone fly juggles a cork.

Seeing life so strangely, we inevitably try to reconcile these unrecognisable patterns and to draw parallels to the safer, known macro-universe. As the very RP voiceover says during the description the fungal Plants of the Underworld (1930) one of the extras, Nature is the most “grotesque artist in the World.” Magnified 20,000 times the growth of the fungal cells is alien and unsettling… still entrancing and fascinating all the same.

Between 1909 and 1943 Percy Smith made a sequence of extraordinary documentaries after the former clerk for the British Board of Education had impressed producer Charles Urban with a close-up of a bluebottle's tongue. From The Acrobatic Fly (1910), The Birth of a Flower (1910), The Strength and Agility of Insects (1911) to Life Cycle of the Newt (1942) and, my favourite, Life Cycle of the Pin Mould (1943) Smith kept his subjects closer than any film-maker in history.

There are eight shorts from Smith on the set which compliment those already released by the BFI on the Secrets of Nature DVD. Minute Bodies itself is what the BFI term an “interpretive edit” of original footage compiled by Staples himself. The result is spellbinding and succeeds emphatically in pulling you into Smith’s world of impassioned patience.

It’s an “analogue” experience and the music is suitably “organic” featuring the largely non-digital sonic pallet of a band rooted in earthy deliberation: there’s no rush to make musical points with the ‘sticks!

A mighty ant!
Stuart A. Staples has previously said that having originally been fascinated by Smith’s images he came to want to tell the story of their creator through this strange and powerful micro-cinema. So, odd as it may seem, Minute Bodies turns out to be a musical biography of the man from North London who photographed moss growing in his spare time. A man who, in the interests of scientific discovery, wasn’t afraid of working with small insects, pin mould and animation.

Watching unknown cellular organisms scuttling across the screen, strange moulds advancing to attack each other and animalistic plants writhing their way sun-ward you get a feel for the character of the person taking such obsessive care over the production of these images. As hobbies go… micro-cinematography is all-consuming but, what joy in these ever-present but unexpected glimpses of the life underneath us. It’s unsettling and the score works that feeling – this is a brutal little world.

But Smith’s work is not without a very English sense of humour and there’s a lovely syncopated section showing micro-organisms at play… or it feels that way!

The project took three years of stop-motion musical production between Staples and co-producer David Reeve before the full Tindersticks were convened to record the music. Staples’ music takes care and works sympathetically with his subject to create that new narrative. The music is restrained as you’d expect from such experienced soundtrack performers who deftly combine elements of post rock, electronica and the emphatically-acoustic.

It is only at the end when we see Smith, his profile close-up to a rat and then full-on with four of the rodents climbing around his neck. One nips his throat, he smiles and calmly pulls it back: in his element with his beloved nature; respecting his subject matter.

Smith said that he aimed to provide "the powder of instruction in the jam of entertainment" and Mr Staples and the Tindersticks do the same. They pull together to entrance you in this world we take for granted as we power our way through the day-to-day… Stop, listen and learn.

Minute Bodies is available NOW from the BFI on Blu-ray and DVD – you can order it direct from here along with Secrets of Nature.

The soundtrack album is also out and is available from the Tindersticks' website along with a trailer to tempt you all!

Percy works the camera