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Masterpieces of
Japanese Silent Cinema

(2000)

 

Largely neglected in English-speaking countries is the history of Asian silent era cinema. Extant prints of films and information pertaining to Japanese silent cinema has been to hard to acquire for study and viewing. A pair of books written by Tadao Sato, and Joseph L. Anderson and Donald Ritchie have served English-speaking researchers well as overview histories. But the films have been nearly impossible to see in theaters or on home video and so, it is safe to say, the great Japanese silent films are all but completely unknown in America.

The Japanese silent era spans the late 1890s through the late 1930s. Japanese silent film production continued well into the 1930s because of the well-ensconced Benshi tradition of live narration of silent film action. The Benshi narration of film performances was adapted from the Kubuki stage tradition that provided narration of live performances. Sometimes the narration would describe the events on-screen, other times the narrator would speak dialogue for the film’s mute actors. The audience’s acceptance of the established Benshi tradition of film presentation coupled with strong Benshi unions who lobbied against lost jobs delayed the transition to sound in Japanese films. — Carl Bennett

Urban Connections
2000 DVD-ROM edition

Masterpieces of Japanese Silent Cinema (2000).

Urban Connections (Japan).
One single-sided DVD-ROM disc; requires minimum Windows 95-compatible PC; standard DVD keepcase in cardboard box, ¥18,900 (US $200.00).
DVD-ROM release date: 2000.
Country of origin: Japan

Ratings (1-10): video: 5 / audio: 7 / additional content: 9 / overall: 8.
Urban Connections, a Japanese publishing company, has released a DVD-ROM entitled Masterpieces of Japanese Silent Cinema that serves English-speaking readers as both an introduction and overview of the Japanese silent era cinema, and as a substantial database cataloguing 12,000 of the most significant films.

As we did, most users of the DVD-ROM will first access the disc’s selection of video clips from 45 Japanese silent films ranging in age from Chusingura (1913?) through Danshichi Chigireguno [Danshichi the Wanderer] (1938). Each clip is accompanied by music and narration in Japanese (subtitles in English) from both historical and modern Benshi, including Shisei Umemura, Shunsui Matsuda, Midori Sawato, Korakuten Nishimura, Goro Fukuchi, Koro Goto, Shiko Kunii and Ryokuson Kaneko. The video quality is consistent with multimedia MPEG-1 video commonly seen on CD-ROMs and not the higher quality of DVD Video discs. If desired, a multimedia presentation raises an animated theater curtain, features about 10 seconds from all 45 films, then lowers the curtain. Each film can also be individually selected for viewing. Everything plays well although we did have problems running the exerpt from Chuji Tabi Nikki Dainibu Shinshu Kesshohen [Chuji’s Travel Diary: The Shinshu Bloody Smile Episode] (1927). The DVD-ROM package includes an instruction booklet in Japanese and English to guide the user through the disc’s user interface.

Of the 45 exerpts, we thought the stand-out clips were of the hair-raising stunt work from Soto Ashuragai [Bloody Town] (1938), the striking visuals of Oatsurae jirokichi goshi [Jirokichi the Rat] (1931), the camera movement in Kutsukake Tokijiro (1929), the rapid cutting of Orochi [Serpent] (1925), and the beautiful cinematography by Minoru Miki in Kenji Mizoguchi’s Orizuru Osen [The Downfall of Osen] (1935). We noted that the comedy Kodakara sodo [Kid Commotion] (1935) features an actor with a Chaplinesque moustache and that Daigaku wa deta keredo [I Graduated, But . . . ] (1929) prominently displays a poster for Harold Lloyd’s Speedy (1928) on a set wall. Exerpts from examples of Japanese animation are also included. Among the best-known directors represented are Mizoguchi, Yasujiro Ozu, Teinosuke Kinugasa and Daisuke Ito.

As entertaining as the video clips are, the DVD-ROMs true value lies in its information database of 12,000 Japanese films dating from 1898 through the late 1930s. Database entries can be accessed by list selections or searches by name, film title or keyword. Data includes title, year of release, cast and crew credits, stills, commentary and a story synopsis. The vastness of the database’s information could easily keep a user reading for days. We would also like to note that all names listed in the disc follow the Japanese tradition of surname first (ie. Yasujiro Ozu would be listed as Ozu Yasujiro).

The disc also features a multimedia section called the Library, containing leaflets, photos, programs, and audio and video interviews (with sidebar text translations) with silent era projectionist Yoshikata Akiyama, film critic Tadao Sato, silent film researcher Larry Greenberg (in English), benshi Midori Sawato, actor Fumindo Matsuo and film director Kozaburo Yoshimura. The Library also includes profiles of 614 people active in the silent era with audio narration in Japanese for 31 of them, a chronology of silent film production in Japan, articles on Benshi, and information on six Japanese film theaters and eight Japanese film studios.

Masterpieces of Japanese Silent Cinema is a vast and wonderful production, well implemented and deeply researched. The disc’s requirements are Microsoft Windows 95 or greater, minimum 200 MHz Pentium processor, minimum 64 MB RAM, sound board, DVD-ROM drive. The DVD-ROM comes packaged in a sturdy and attractive box, with the disc itself stored inside a standard plastic jewel case. We are personally disappointed that support for Macintosh computers hasn’t been included since the disc would be very valuable to add to the Silent Era website research library.

The brief clips included on the disc give the user a sampling of the high quality of films produced in the Japanese silent era. It is tragic that more films haven’t survived the years. A combination of climate and war bombing have been sited as the key reasons that so few films are extant today. But we would encourage home video producers in America and in Japan to consider releasing some of these great silent era films on NTSC region worldwide DVD Video discs.

We highly recommend Masterpieces of Japanese Silent Cinema to libraries and universities, but the relatively high cost of the DVD-ROM ($200 US) may discourage individuals from acquiring this valuable research tool.

 

To order the DVD-ROM Masterpieces of Japanese Silent Cinema, you may contact Urban Connections to place an order (Attention: Reiko Ehara) by mail or fax directly to Urban Connections. The cost is $200.00 U.S. plus postage.

Urban Connections
Tokyo Nissan Shibuya Bldg. 8F
16-10, Higashi 2-chome
Shibuya-ku, Tokyo 150-0011 Japan
Telephone: 81-3-5467-4721
Fax: 81-3-5467-4722
books@infoasia.co.jp

Your order should include your name, the name of your institution, your mailing address, your delivery address (if different), your telephone and fax numbers, your e-mail address (English language communication is possible), purchase order number, and indicate how you will be paying (Urban Connections will send an invoice for payment before shipment), that being by cash (by registered mail), by credit card (MasterCard, Visa, American Express, JCB or DC accepted), by postal transfer or by bank transfer (Urban Connections will provide their account information).

 
This DVD-ROM edition is also available through MATSUDA FILM PRODUCTIONS.
 
 
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