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…

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