Wednesday, December 05, 2012

The Downfall of Osen

1935, Japan, directed by Mizoguchi Kenji

Mizoguchi's final silent movie is actually something of a hybrid, at least if accounts of the production are reliable, as a fairly bare-bones narration was included at the last minute though the actors themselves don't speak -- almost as though the filmmakers are throwing in a benshi narration of their own, though the voiceover has none of the texture of a standard benshi performance, and half the time seems restricted to reading the titles, with minimal expansion. It's far more enjoyable to watch the film with an actual benshi narration, helpfully included in the version of the film released by the Japanese company Digital Meme in their Talking Silents series; their version is by Midori Sawato, by some way the most prominent benshi of the period after 1970.

Although Mizoguchi's direction is expressive enough in its own right -- the atmospherics of a Tokyo train station crowded with people waiting for a delayed train, the canted angles of a shrine where one of the film's key events takes place, the vaguely nightmarish aspect of a mental institution, double exposures to take us into the mind of madness -- Sawato's benshi performance is an extraordinary addition, so much so that after a short while it's easy to forget that there's just a single voice, modulated constantly, on the soundtrack, whether Sawato is providing the voice of a portly Buddhist monk, a sharp crook, or a tragically fallen woman (one of many in the Mizoguchi cannon).

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Boston, Massachusetts, United States