Leeds IFF 2012: Crossways ( Jujiro, Japan 1928)
Posted by keith1942 on 9 November 2012
The screening was part of the Leeds International Film Festival restrospective and Silent Classics with Live Soundtrack. This is an early classic film from Japan [also known in English as Crossroads]. It was possibly the first Japanese film to receive International attention with screenings in Paris, Berlin and in London in 1930. The director Kinugasa Teinosuke, who also wrote the screenplay, was a pioneer in a more experimental approach to film in Japan. His most famous film is A Page of Madness (Kurutta ippeiji 1926). This was an avant-garde film whose style bore strong affinities both with German Expressionism and Soviet Montage. That film offers an extremely subjective and fragmentary plot set in an insane asylum. A tour-de-force of style, in Japan its screenings could have the assistance of the benshi (a film narrator in the cinema); abroad one version has had intertitles inserted to assist viewers. Unfortunately for Kinugasa, who also produced this and the later film, it was a commercial flop. This would seem to be a major factor in Crossways having a more discernible and conventional plot line: and frequent intertitles. The production was also dependent on the major commercial studio of Shochiku.
The film centres on a brother and sister, Rikiya (Bando Junosuke) and Okiku (Chihaya Akiko). Okiku is the centre of attention early in the film as she waits and worries about her brother who is visiting Yoshiwara, the entertainment district of 18th century Tokyo. Entertainment, of course, concerns prostitution and its associated vices. Rikiya is obsessed with a geisha O-ume (Ogawa Yukiko) herself the centre of an admiring circle, with several men suing for her graces. Essentially most of the film switches between the sparse attic flat where the brother and sister live, and the gaudy and racy district of Yoshiwara.
Okiku also becomes the object of both a passing man who carries a police truncheon, apparently a sign of his office: and of an old procuress at a nearby brothel. She is also caught in the economic bind of the pair’s poverty, a fact of life that is blithely ignored by the brother.
The story of the film is fairly conventional, but the style of the film is as arresting as Kinugasa’s earlier work. The living quarters are filmed in the contrasting shadows of light and darkness familiar from expressionism, and the settings make frequent use of bars and blocks, and present an extremely stylised feel. Yoshiwara is closer to the circus feel of early Soviet films, and has frequent and dramatic montages. The plot line is not only fragmentary but offers a demanding chronology.
Michael Wood, who introduced the film, remarked that Kinugasa had stated that he was influenced by the 1919 German expressionist masterpiece Das Cabinet des Dr Caligari. Sequences of the film also reminded me of Sergei Eisenstein’s 1924 Strike (Stachka), with a touch of Grand Guignol. Whilst Yoshiwara reminded at times of sequences in Fritz Lang’s 1926 Metropolis: a film which itself borrowed from the representations of Yoshiwara district.
The good 35mm print enjoyed a live accompaniment from the group Minima. They are a four-piece line-up of electric guitar, keyboard, bass and drums. Their accompaniment was an improvisation rather than a prepared score. Apparently this was their third outing with the film. Overall their music worked extremely well, and provided a fine addition to the visual poetry. There were a couple of sequences where they used woodblocks, an instrument frequently used in traditional Japanese film accompaniment. These emphasised both the melodrama but also the distance the film sought to create. There was a certain amount of repetition in their music, but this mirrors a device also found in the film. I did think in one or two sequences that the electronic amplification was a little loud. However, this was a really fine cinematic vision, which was enchanced by the live music in the auditorium.