This was the thirds and final programme of early Japanese sound films curated by Alexander Jacoby and Johan Nordstrom for Il Cinema Ritrovato. The selection of films was made from a major Japanese studio, Shochiku, whose cohorts included major Japanese directors and at a point when the industry was increasing it mastery of the new technology. This was for me the strongest programme of films of the three.
Shochiku employed to brothers to ‘plunder Western technical journals to produce an indigenous sound system, ‘the so-called “Tsuchihashi system”. The studio also moved production from its Kamata studio on the outskirts of Tokyo to rural Ofuna, where external noise was much lower. ‘Ofuna flavour’ was a description of the tone of Shochiku productions in the period, dominated by the shomi-geki genre. But the films also tended to follow the style developed at Kamata in the silent era:
directors such as Shimazu, Shimizu, and the young Naruse perfected a distinctly flamboyant visual style, ‘Kamata modernism’, ideally suited to exploring the tension in 1930s Japan between the native and the foreign, tradition and modernity.
Hanayome No Negoto / The Bride Talks in Her Sleep, 1933 57 minutes and
Hanamuko No Negoto / The Groom Talks in His Sleep, 1935 73 minutes.
This was a double bill of comedies directed by Gosho Heinosuke and scripted by Fushimi Akira. Both films were photographed by Ohara Joji. The sound team included one of the Tsuchihashi brothers. The most well known performers for western audiences would be Tanaka Kinuyo. The curators comment that
much of the film’s distinction comes from the wit of Gosho’s direction and the charm of the acting, particularly of the heroines (Tanaka Kinuyo in Bride; Kawasaki Hiroko in Groom.
Ureshii Koro / Happy Times, 1933 83 minutes and with an aspect ratio of 1.: 1.19, the standard ratio for early talkies.
Directed by Nomura Hiromasa and scripted by Ikeda Tadao. This was another light comedy, wherein a young, newlywed couple have their home visited and disrupted by an older and more traditional uncle. The film was a box office success and praised in the influential “Kinema Junpo” for ‘ its script, direction and tempo’.
Nakinureta Haru No Onna Yo / The Lady Who Wept in Spring, 1933 96 minutes.
Directed by Shimizu Hiroshi, script by Suyama Mitsuru, with cinematography by Sasaki Taro with music by Shimada Harutaka.
The film deals with a miner Kenji (Obinata Den) working on the remote northern island of Hokkaido and his relationships with two ‘itinerant’ women. Shimizu has a reputation, writers note
the director’s ‘affinity [with] fallen souls’, [and] his interest in vagrants and fallen women.
But he is also noted “as a master director of child actors”. A critic writes that
Shimizu Hiroshi presents all the splendour of life, embodied in the spectacle of children simply being themselves.
[His Children of the Beehive / Hachi no su no kadomotachi, 1948 is a good example seen in the UK a couple of years ago]. The older woman in the film has a young daughter who plays an important part in developments.
The film itself makes good use of some location filming and also of songs on the soundtrack.
The drama is finely developed and there is impressive ending that works with familiar tropes in a distinctive fashion.
Tonari No Yae-Chan / Our Neighbour, Miss Yae, 1934, 76 minutes.
Directed by Shimazu Yasujiro who also scripted the film. The neighbours involve a pair of sisters and a pair of brothers. The family homes and environs are depicted in a realist style and with a strong sense of irony. The between these young people, playful and sometime romantic, is delightful. Shimizu is reckoned to be a pioneer of the shomin-geki film at Shochiku. And a film like Our Neighbour offers a sense of whole family life rather than focusing on a couple of dramatic leads.
Shunkinsho Okoto To Sasuke / Okoto and Sasuke, 1935, 100 minutes. A second film directed and scripted by Shimazu Yasujiro. This is a period drama, jidai-geki, dealing with romantic relationships rather than the world of the samurai. Okoto is played by one of Japan’s major female stars early in her career, Tanaka Kinuyo. And Sasuke is played by Saito Tatsuo. The film is adopted from a popular novel. The film deals with distinctions of age and class and one writer proposed that it offered ‘extreme male masochism’. This is strong melodrama, with a shocking climax that recalls the unconventional style of Kinugasa Teinosuke. “Kinema Junpo” produced annual ‘top tens’ of releases, and awarded this film third place.
Note: the two following films were produced at a new film company Daiichi Eigasha. The head of the news studio and many of its staff had formerly worked at Nikkatsu, the other major Japanese Studio. Its productions were funded and distributed by Shochiku and it was, effectively, a short-lived subsidiary.
Gubijinso / The Field Poppy, 1935, 73 minutes.
Directed by one of the most famous Japanese filmmakers Mizoguchi Kenji. The film is taken from a tale by a major author, Natsume Soseki, adapted by jidai-geki specialist Ito Daisuke. The cinematography, highly praised in ‘Kinema Junpo’, is by Miki Minoru.
One critic draws comparison with Max Ophuls,
Mizoguchi tracks the romantic roundelay through the circulation of a symbolic object: a watch intended as a wedding gift.
Rather different from Madame De…, this film features the tragedy that follows on from rejection rather than infidelity. The film also uses the contradiction between the country and the town and between classes. This is a film that appears to privilege the traditional over the modern.
Ojo Ikichi / Dame Okichi, 1935, 64 minutes.
This film involved Mizoguchi Kenji as he ‘supervised’ the direction by Takashima Tasunosuke: the latter a regular scriptwriter for Mizoguchi, including for The Field Poppy. The Catalogue notes debate around the extent of Mizoguchi’s contribution. Some critics suggest that
the film is characteristic of the master both in plot and style’ … the film has some typically Mizoguchian scenes that dwell on chiaroscuro melancholy.
The plot certainly has recognisable tropes; a heroine involved with gangsters but emotionally committed to innocent younger man. Shades of The Water Magician (Taki no shiraito, 1933).
Hitori Musoko / The Only Son, 82 minutes.
This is the first sound film directed by Yasujiro Ozu. It is likely to be familiar for English-speaking audiences, as it is one of his films that have circulated here. Tsune (lida Choko), a working class widow, raises her son Ryosuke (Shin’ichi Himroi). She suffers privations in order that he can receive an education. Much of the film is taken up with a visit that she makes to her now adult son in Tokyo. The film has the recognisable hallmarks of Ozu and is a fine melodrama. Untypical it focuses on working class life. Ryu Chishu, looking incredibly young, appears as the teacher Okubo.
Ozu and his team had to produce the film at the old Kamata Studio, where lack of soundproofing hindered the filming.
The Festival programme also included a short snapshot, Nihon No Eiga Zukuri / Movie Making in Japan 1934, eight minutes. This final programme of three reached 1936.
This decisive shift was mirrored in other studios [Shochiku’s move to Ofuna and the ‘talkie film’ becoming the dominant mode], with 1936 the first year in which more sound films were produced than silents in Japan overall. Therefore, that year is a particular apt moment to end this survey of Japan’s early sound cinema.
All the features were screened on 35mm prints with English subtitles and [with the noted exception in 1.37:1, and all were provided by the Japan Film Centre in fair to pretty good prints. Nearly all of the films had had digital noise reduction applied to soundtracks. Fortunately the festival programmed in two screenings because the daytime screenings were packed. The repeats, usually in the evenings, were slightly easier in finding seats.
This was a rewarding programme to enjoy and one of the highlights of the 2014 Festival.
All quotations from the Catalogue of the 2014 Il Cinema Ritrovato.
This was one of the real treats at the 2014 Il Cinema Ritrovato. The programme offered eight classics from the sub-continent that spanned the late 1940s to the end of the 1950s. The programme was curated by Shivendra Singh Dungarpur. His film, Celluloid Man (2012), a study of the Indian film archive and archivists, had limited outings in the UK last year. Shivendra writes in the Festival Catalogue:
These films represent a rich and varied cinematic heritage that is in danger of becoming extinct. 1700 silent films were made in India of which only 5 or 6 complete films remain. [These were screened at Le Giornate del Cinema Muto in 1993]. Tragically, we have lost our first sound film Alam Ara (1931, the film that established music, song and dance as the essential ingredient of popular Indian film). By 1950, India had lost seventy to eighty per cent of its films, and this has been the result of a widespread and complacent belief that film will last forever. We now realise that these eight classics too are in imminent danger of being lost to the world if urgent steps are not taken for their preservation and restoration. Screening these film is not just a reminder of a singular cinematic legacy, but one that is endangered and must be saved.
Chandralekha, 1948, black and white, in Tamil, 193 minutes.
Directed by S. S. Vasan. The script was developed by a group in the Gemini Studio Story Department. It was a Tamil production but an early example of that industry attempting a nation-wide distribution and circulated in both Tamil and Hindi versions. It is an epic film with innumerable songs and dances. Chandra is a young village girl who captures the eye of a prince. Much of the plot concerns the machinations of the prince’s younger brother. The story wanders over action and countryside, including an impressive sequence in a travelling circus. The film ends with a mammoth Drum Dance number that leads into the final battle. If you have watched documentaries on Indian cinema on British TV you will have seen a snippet of this sequence, a popular film clip. In 1948 the film played into the rhetoric of Indian Independence –
The film’s primary conflict – the struggle between the usurper and the rightful heir – would have resonated strongly with Indian audiences, leading them to register all the nuanced allusions and metaphors embodied in the film.
Awara, (The Vagabond), 1951, black and white, in Hindi, 168 minutes.
This is a film directed by and starring Raj Kapoor, one of the most popular stars in the history of Indian cinema. Alongside him is Indian greatest female star, Nargis. And the film was produced at Kapoor’s own studio, built from the profits of his earlier successes. The film runs for 168 though there was a longer version of 193 minutes. The film, Kapoor and Nargis were also immensely popular in the Soviet Union and Arabia and China. Kapoor’s character is clearly influenced by Chaplin and he exploited the persona in a number of films.
The film follows the son of a judge, unfairly expelled from home and who grows up in the slums and is tutored by criminals. The film ends in a courtroom, where both romance and the father/son conflict are resolved.
Do Bigha Zameen (Two Acres of Land) 1953, black and white, in Hindi, 142 minutes.
The film was directed by Bimal Roy who started in the Bengali film industry and then moved to Bombay and the mainstream Hindi film. The film shows the influence of Italian neo-realism [Roy had seen De Sica’s Ladri di Biciclette, 1948 in Calcutta). However much of the film is shot in a studio with a limited amount of location work. Even so it stood out from the contemporary popular film. What also stood out was the performance of Bairaj Sahni as the central character Shambu. He is the victim of an exploitative landlord and ends up in the city struggling to find work and earn a living. The Catalogue notes that:
Audiences around the country greeted it with stunned silence. There was no boisterous acclaim, none of the celebratory music that follows the news of a film becoming a box-office success. It was an acknowledgement that a new kind of cinema had emerged: a cinema in the popular mode, with the ring of truth.
Pyaasa (The Thirsty One) 1957, black and white, in Hindi, 143 minutes.
The film was directed by Guru Dutt. That two of his films were included in the programme gives an idea of his status in Indian film. Dutt also stars as the hero Vijay, and plays opposite another major star Waheeda Rehman as Meena. The music is by a major composer of the period S. D. Burman. Their import is spelt out in the Catalogue:
In Pyaasa Guru Dutt disregarded the conventions of Indian cinema regarding songs. He could use them in fragmentary form or as an extension of dialogue, while at other times, they went beyond the standard length.
Vijay is a poet who
encounters greed and philistinism among the gatekeepers of society, and compassion among its outcasts.
Mother India 1957, in colour, in Hindi, 172 minutes.
The film is often referred to as India’s Gone With the Wind. This comparison is misplaced, though both films are the most famous and popular examples of their two respective studio systems. Where the Selznick film recycles a reactionary representation of the US Civil War the Hindi film, directed by Mehboob Khan, dramatises in populist terms the class conflict and exploitation involving India’s peasant millions. This is another epic with Nargis in her greatest role as Radha, village girl, wife, mother, widow and finally the matriarch of the title. The film is crammed with melodrama and song and filmed in evocative colour. The Catalogue notes that Nargis’ Radha
combines the characteristics of both Mother Courage and Mother Earth. Through her we traverse the epic journey of a country from darkness to light.
The filmmaker Mehboob Kahn, like the Government headed by Nehru, was strongly influenced by the Soviet model. In one glorious dance number the peasants in the fields combine in the form of a hammer and sickle.
Ajantrik (Pathetic Fallacy) 1957, black and white, in Bengali, 102 minutes.
This was the second feature of Ritwik Ghatak, a Bengali filmmaker. Ghatak’s films, whilst observing some of the conventions of popular cinema, fall outside the mainstream. He is a key figure in the development of what became known as the ‘parallel’ or New Indian Cinema. In this film
Literally, the tile Ajantrik extends the word ‘jantrik’ (mechanical) to suggests its antithesis.
The plot, which follows an unconventional structure, concerns a taxi-driver Bimal and his vehicle, a battered old Chevrolet, called Jagaddal. Ghatak himself commented on the film re the idea of the machine:
It is something that is alien. [T]his apathy may be due to the fact that all change and the very introduction of the machine age was the handiwork of foreign overlords.
(Quoted in Encyclopaedia of Indian Cinema by Ashish Rajadhyaksha and Paul Willemen, BFI 1994). Those authors add that the film suggests that
the forces driving the speed of change disregard and thus destroy the slower, more human tempo at which people adopt and incorporate change into their networks of social relations.
Madhumati, 1958, black and white, in Hindi, 149 minutes.
This was the second film directed by Bimal Roy in the programme, and was scripted by Ritwik Ghatak. It features one of the popular stars of the period Dilip Kumar as Anand. The plot involves a haunted mansion, ghosts and reincarnation. The film falls within a genre known as Indian Gothic – which will give some sense of its style and atmosphere. The film was immensely popular and weaves the generic tale into a tapestry of songs, dances, folk-style humour and traditional tropes.
Kaagaz Ke Phool (Paper Flowers), 1959, black and white CinemaScope, in Hindi, 144 minutes.
This was the last film on which Guru Dutt put his name as director. It is a doomed tale of a successful filmmaker whose career goes into decline when his personal life goes awry. There is a strong element of autobiography in the film: Dutt committed suicide in 1964, aged only 39. Dutt plays the lead character Suresh, whilst his favoured actress Waheeda Rehman plays Shanti.
The music is by S. D. Burman, though the songs and dances are not integrated into the film story as well as in the earlier Pyaasa. What is most memorable about the film is the cinematography by V. K. Murthy. This was the first occasion that I was able to see a film print in the full widescreen format; earlier screenings had been cropped to 1.37:1. This is a film of shadows, which are used in an exemplary fashion. The chiaroscuro lighting in many of the studio sequences is beautifully done. Dutt and Murthy also have a mastery of the crane shot, with one striking flowing camera movement during the climatic sequence of the film.
The screenings were preceded by Indian Newsreels of the period, some of more interest than others. The films were mainly screened in 35mm prints, the majority from the National Archive of India. Unfortunately three films were screened from Blu-Ray discs, not a format that could do justice to these great films. When there were not subtitles on the print digital titles were projected in both English and Italian. We did miss the lyrics for several songs in this way.
Shivendra Sing Dungarpur is a founder member, along with some illustrious names from the Indian film Industry, of the Film Heritage Foundation. This foundation aims to campaign for the restoration and preservation of the Indian film heritage. Many of these great classic films from the sub-continent are only in video formats in the UK – so I applaud their intent. A Website for the Foundation is under construction and will be found when uploaded at – www.filmheritagefoundation.co.in
I missed this festival on my doorstep last year when its first outing coincided with other work but I managed a brief visit this time. RATMAFF is the ‘River Aire Ten Minute Amateur Film Festival’, the brainchild of Marcus Gregg, a lecturer at Leeds City College and his students at the college campus actually in Keighley (15 miles from Leeds). For those of you not in West Yorkshire, Keighley’s film-related fame derives from The Railway Children (1970), Yanks (1979) and numerous train-related costume dramas ever since. The festival venue is next door to Keighley Station, terminus of the Keighley and Worth Valley Railway seen in many films and TV productions. Keighley’s most famous film figure is Simon Beaufoy writer of The Full Monty and Slumdog Millionaire. The prizegiving at the festival is in the evening at Keighley’s 1913 Picturehouse.
RATMAFF is an interesting model for anyone thinking about creating a festival. The students seek sponsorship from local firms and they act as unpaid volunteers in staffing the festival operation. The screenings take place in the (high-tec) campus building opened in 2010. Entry to the festival is free and screenings are also free with donations to charitable causes welcomed (Cancer Research UK this year). This year the organisers received 300 entries from all over the world from which they selected the best 70 short films. These were then organised into 10 programmes which ran as ‘looped’ presentations of mp4 files playing from computers all day in separate screening spaces – a viewing experience referred to in the programme as ‘screen surfing’. There were 2 Documentary programmes plus Animation, Art, Comedy, Music, Science Fiction and Drama (3 programmes).
I visited two of the drama programmes watching 13 short films in all. The first point to make is that although the films were made by ‘amateurs’ the 13 films I saw certainly weren’t ‘amateurish’ in presentation – or in script, camerawork, direction, performance etc. Current digital technology allows anyone to think about making a film. Some training, lots of creativity and hard work can then help to deliver a perfectly watchable film. I chose ‘drama’ because I prefer realist dramas to other forms of filmmaking but I might easily have gone into other screenings. My first observation is that there were three films from Spain and one from Mexico in my selection and that the remainder included films from India, Estonia, Germany and the US. The remaining four were from the UK and only one was ‘local’ to West Yorkshire. Without the internet it would have been impossible to programme such a mix of films from disparate places. It was noticeable in my sample that the Hispanic and Indian entries tended to be more ‘political’ in theme than the UK/US entries
The one thing I’m not clear about is whether the awards in the evening are all based on the votes of ordinary viewers. The award for drama went to The Exchange, a genre piece with a twist ending in which a ‘fixer’ provides an unexpected (and not necessarily welcome) solution to a man’s problems. This was an interesting and very well-made example of African-American cinema made in Los Angeles. My personal favourite was Die Reise (The Journey) a delightful film from Angela Schuster in which a small girl makes an imaginary journey on a summer’s day. The film has no dialogue but from what we see it appears to be either set in East Germany in the 1970s or to be an attempt to deal with memories of the period. A bigger budget could improve the sound mixing and possibly the costumes (the child’s shoes?) but really that’s just nit-picking. It’s great as it is (see below).
Special mention also to Fuero by Juama Juarez, an interesting Spanish film addressing the possible outcomes of ‘The Law for the Recovery of the Historical Memory’. Watching this made me think about the struggles filmmakers must have to send their films with English subtitles. They might have to rely on friends or Google Translate. The subs on this film weren’t great but the story effectively ‘told’ itself.
Festival director Marcus Gregg wrote in RATMAFF’s brochure that “this is not a festival-goers festival”. It’s a good point. This is a festival for anyone to come in off the street and ‘screen surf’. To try to increase awareness the preceding Saturday saw RATMAFF operating a ‘pop-up’ cinema in Keighley’s Airedale Shopping Centre (one of the festival sponsors). Most of the festival visitors I’m guessing went first to the Comedy, Music and Science Fiction screenings – the latter showing in the college’s ‘Star Room’. The People’s Choice Award at the festival went to Eatbrains by Danny Hardaker from the Science Fiction programme. Next year I’ll try to get to see more of this innovative festival.
Sally Potter’s seminal medium-length film Thriller played as the centrepiece of a programme of ‘Sally Potter Shorts’ in the director retrospective at BIFF honouring her BIFF Fellowship. It brought back for me an entire period of British independent filmmaking. No wonder its reputation has lasted and grown – here we get commentaries on class, gender and race, film theory and the status of classical works of high culture.
Potter ‘deconstructs’ Puccini’s La Bohème as a feminist murder mystery. She explores the construction of the two female characters in the opera, Mimi the poor seamstress and Musetta the café dancer. Potter turns Mimi into the investigator of her own murder and in the process offers us an analysis of how the honest woman must die and the bad girl survive. She adds another layer by casting a black woman to play Mimi. The investigation involves a replaying of key scenes from the opera on an expressionist set complete with mirror and window. The film was shot on 16mm b&w stock and this helps the expressionist noir effect. There are several scenes comprising a succession of still images and the live action is accompanied by extracts from Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho score alongside music from Potter’s frequent collaborator Lindsay Cooper. The overall effect is to open up an analysis of film conventions for the thriller genre as well as the melodrama.
The film was screened non-theatrically at festivals and conferences/workshops during the early 1980s and for many years remained a film more likely to be read about in academic papers than actually seen. It’s now available on YouTube and the hope is that a whole new generation of filmmakers (including feminist filmmakers) will take it as an inspiration. Well done to BIFF for providing further stimulus.