Michiko Oikawa (right) stars in Hiroshi Shimizu’s Japanese Girls at the Harbor.
Michiko Oikawa (right) stars in Hiroshi Shimizu’s Japanese Girls at the Harbor.

Seattle’s Aono Jikken Ensemble is one of the most unique creators/performers of live silent film scores working today. Their score for Hiroshi Shimizu’s 1933 silent drama Japanese Girls at the Harbor combines original music, period songs, foley effects, and experimental soundscapes with katsudo benshi (Japanese silent film narration) performed bilingually in Japanese and English. We were lucky enough to catch a few minutes with group founder Bill Blauvelt as he was busy arranging to last minute details. Here is what he had to say.

Alan Chong Lau: When did your group originally form and for what purpose? Was it originally put together to create live music for silent films or performance or both?

Bill Blauvelt: Aono Jikken Ensemble (AJE) was formed in 1997. It grew out of a solo performance I gave at the Northwest Asian American Theatre’s “Winter Fest” (later renamed A-Fest). For that show I invited several artists I had been working with over the past couple years to accompany me in combining taiko and percussion with Asian, western and world instruments, toys, found objects, and electronic sound processing while incorporating dance and visual art in a series of structured improvisations. Those guests were dancer/choreographer Yoko Murao, multi-instrumentalist Michael Shannon, and sound artist Susie Kozawa.

The initial intention was to be primarily a music/sound art group. Around the same time I was programming director of the Seattle Asian American Film Festival and wanted to incorporate archival screenings of Asian silent films with live music accompaniment since I had finally tracked down a film that I had been searching for for years. Unfortunately, the festival didn’t have the budget to pay for a composer or musicians so out of desperation I asked the people I had been working with if they’d be interested. They were and we brought in another musician we knew and collaborated with—flutist/composer Esther Sugai. Koto and shamisen master Marcia Takamura joined us a couple of years later as did actor/performance artist Naho Shioya. Percussionist Dean Moore started working with us in 2005. Eventually Yoko and Susie left the group and Dean recently went on hiatus from performing so now the core group is myself, Esther, Mike, Naho, and Marcia.

For Japanese Girls at the Harbor we’ll be joined by sound artist and multi-instrumentalist David Stanford.

As far as making music for performances, since Yoko Murao was part of the group we accompanied her dance/performances pieces. We started doing large scale multi-disciplinary performances in 1999/2000 because I wanted to combine music, dance, theatre, and film into one project. We’ve also done straight up concerts and live sound installations.

Lau: What was the first silent film you worked on as a group? What was the initial trial and error process like on that first film?

Blauvelt: The first silent film we scored was A Page of Madness (Kurutta Ippeiji), a 1926 avant garde film by Teinouske Kinugasa that was set in an insane asylum. The film itself turned out to be one of the most unique films made during the silent era in any country. It didn’t have the usual intertitles or any explanation of what was going on.

Musically we used an improvisational approach, but in a very structured way. The biggest challenge turned out to be how to tell the film’s story and make sense of the characters’ relationships to one another and do it only through music and sound.

In researching the film I discovered that almost everything written about the film by western writers was either innacurate or mostly speculative since they didn’t know much of anything about the film itself or Japanese silent cinema in general. Also, back then when other musicians tried scoring the film they knew even less but figured, “well it’s about a bunch of crazy people so let’s go nuts with the music!” I found all this to be self-indulgent at best, ignorant at worst and wanted to do things differently. So after watching the film repeatedly and breaking down sequences, often shot by shot, a narrative script was created that we used as a blueprint. Characters were a assigned an instrumental voice.

When the project turned out to be successful and well-recieved it was an impetus to continue working in this field of accompanying silent films in general and Japanese silents in particular since there wasn’t anyone in this country specializing in this area. As a result of intense research we’ve learned a lot not only about Japanese silent film but the whole time and place they came out of.

Lau: Is working on each film different or do you have a similar working game plan for each project?

Blauvelt: There is a general approach that stays the same with each project. I watch the film repeatedly and create a narrative script that breaks down the story into sections with character relationships made clear. There’s also a lot of research about the film’s subject, the time period, the director and how a chosen film relates to their other work. We’ll also try to track down any source material if the film’s story is based on a novel, short story, folk tale, etc. After this, which can take a few months, the film and material is brought to the group and on average we spend two months working on the music and sound score. The music/sound score is created as an ensemble with every member contributing.

At first things grew out of structured improvisations but over the years it’s become a combination of composed sections, adaptations of traditional music and period songs as well as improvising.

Lau: Can you give us a brief history of benshi and when did you start to incorporate that element into your presentation? How has the role of the traditional benshi evolved throughout the years?

Blauvelt: Silent film narrators seem to have always existed in Japan since film was introduced in 1896. The first were simple narrators who explained the new technology to audiences and told them what they were about to see which were very short films imported from the West.

The first Japanese films were made three years later and were simple filmed documents of Kabuki performances with a static camera and actors running in and out of the frame. For these kabuki films, many performers called kowairo stood by the screen and said the dialogue the characters were mouthing silently. That approach did not make for very interesting films as an artform in itself. Meanwhile fledling benshi began developing their style with the western films they narrated.

Eventually younger, more progressive elements in the film community wanted to modernize things and pushed for changes so that films relied on directors and editing and could stand on their own without any narration. This led to a big brouhaha with the narration camp on one side and the filmmakers on the other that was mediated by the famous author Junichiro Tanizaki.

It ended up with the kowairo being phased out but the benshi kept on even as filmmaking techniques got more sophisticated. Interestingly the benshi became very popular performers in their own right and were often billed over the actors in the films they narrated.

During the 1920s and 1930s there were several thousand benshi working (both men and women) and they narrated every film shown—Japanese or Western. They delivered non-stop performances that included narration, character voices, plot exposition, quotations of classic poetry, an occasional song, and sometimes personal opinons. Theaters had several benshi working each film which also featured live musical accompaniment. Silent cinema lasted longer in Japan—into the 1930’s— than elsewhere because, although some sound films had been made, it took a while for theaters to adequately incorporate the new technology on a mass scale.

Also, the benshi were a powerful lobby in the industry who, not wanting to lose their livelihood, did everything they could to slow the progress of the inevitable. So with the advent of sound the benshi faded away. Basically it was the work of one man, Shunsui Matsuda, who kept the benshi mantle alive by starting his own company, collecting silent films and continuing the benshi performances he began doing as a child performer.

Today there are a small handful of benshi still working through Matsuda Film Productions led by Matsuda’s protege Midori Sawato. The role of the benshi in Japanese film has not changed much since the 1930’s, it’s become a matter of preserving the past so as to not lose it.

We started incorporating katsudo benshi (silent film narration) into our work in 2007. I began getting interested in benshi by reading about it in film books when AJE started but back then in this country there was no way to see or hear benshi performances.

And often when written about in Western texts the benshi were often depicted as a somewhat backward aspect of early Japanese cinema. Many of these writers had no actual experience of benshi and repeated the opinions of earlier writers who disdained it for asthetic reasons. Around 2002 I finally got the chance to see and hear live benshi performances when Midori Sawato came to the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley for a festival. I spent a week going to her performances for Japanese and western films, talked to her, and got to hear some of the original benshi via recordings as well. I found it very interesting and enlightening and could see the pros and cons of the art form. As for incorporating it into our work, a couple of things cinched it for me—the fact that Japanese silent films were made to have benshi and without it it seemed like something was missing. Also, the fact that there was no one in this country doing it created an opportunity to do something fairly unique. I also remembered something an audience member said at that festival—they loved the benshi aspect but lamented that it wasn’t in English so they could directly understand what the benshi was saying without having to rely on the subtitles which didn’t cover all of what was in the narration.

We adapted katsudo benshi for a modern, multi-cultural audience. Since we’re based in the United States, our audience is primarily English speakers but we also attract a lot of Japanese people as well. We have the ability to do benshi in either just English or Japanese but felt it was important to make it bilingual because no one else anywhere is doing it this way. Also, there are some things that just don’t translate and we want non-Japanese audiences to get a flavor of what the actual language and style of the character’s voices would be like. A big inspiration for our approach comes from perhaps an unexpected source—the Chicano playwright and film director Luis Valdez (“Zoot Suit,” “La Bamba”) whose work focuses on the Mexican American experience. His work weaves English and Spanish together so that an English-only viewer can understand all the important things going on even if they don’t understand Spanish. But the more knowledge you have of Spanish and Mexican American culture the richer the experience you’ll have. This can inspire people to find out more about the culture and the issues raised by creating a way in for those who might be outside this particular world and does it in a way without pandering to them.

In the old days, the benshi would be the dominant element in the screening of silent films with the music serving as background. We’ve made the benshi a part of the ensemble working equally with the musicians. Keeping in mind modern audiences we’ll put things into context if needed but there’s no need to explain every little thing when they can see it for themselves. One area that gets tricky is trying to convey what is going on inside a character who, to a viewer from outside the culture, may seem too stoic to read. Older films often have archetypal characters that the audience of that time would automatically know what to expect from them so there would be no need to go into detail about things like motivation. It’s up to us, through a combination of benshi and music, to give our audience a clue.

I should say that incorporating benshi into our work would not have been possible without the particular talents of Naho Shioya who first started working with AJE in 1999 on our stage works. As a professionally trained actor and performance artist who is a native Japanese speaker and speaks perfect English, and can also sing, she gives us a lot of latitude to explore and push the limits of this artform.

Lau: What was the most difficult project you worked on?

Blauvelt: The most difficult projects were the two Guy Maddin films we worked on. Guy is a very talented and iconoclastic filmmaker from Canada who has made a number of neo-silent films. We were initially hired by the producers of his film Brand Upon The Brain! to take over the foley (sound effects) portion of the touring company for live performances that included a celebrity narrator, chamber orchestra, an opera singer, an actor portraying a castrato singer, and a foley team to accompany his grand guignol styled film about a very dysfunctional family running an evil orphanage. We had never done full on actual foley so we took a crash course in the subject by studying old books and radio shows to learn how to properly create and make sound effects work live. We didn’t want to just do things like slam doors and break dishes but also wanted to bring in an aspect of what we do. We were constricted because of the presence of the orchestra playing an established score, so we emphasized the sound art aspect and created a physcologically-based sound design that acted as another layer. We got pushed outside our comfort zone because we were required to become performers in addition to musicians/sound artists. In our own work we try to remain relatively invisible and let the audience concentrate on the film and sound, but for this we were lit and costumed in white lab coats so the audience could see everything we were doing. Our crazy producer kept exhorting us to be more flamboyant and dramatic with every move and sound we made which led to much offstage melodrama. But we did learn new skills and audiences certainly remembered us and were fascinated by what we were doing.

Guy liked what we did and later invited us to participate on the re-boot of his first feature film Tales From The Gimli Hospital about a love triangle among Icelandic immigrants in a plague stricken, turn-of-the-century Canadian village. This time we contributed music as well as foley and sound design in collaboration with an all-star group of Icelandic musicians. Unfortunately we all ended up having to deal with a nightmare of a composer, who turned out to not be much of a composer at all ,who was ripping off the Icelanders and resented our presence. We almost lost our place in the project when Hurricane Irene derailed our travel to New York for a residency to refine the score but we ended up flying into a nearby state and driving in just in time to find this composer trying to do away with our contributions. Anyway, all the musicians banded together, got the composer dumped, and collectively scored the film to acclaim at the Film Society of Lincoln Center—so a happy ending.

Lau: Can you describe some of the non-film projects you have worked on?

Blauvelt: Our other major area of work is multi-disciplinary performance works for the stage. We’ve been creating a cycle of works that focus on Asian women who’ve been marginalized by society and find themselves caught up in larger events. These pieces are also a chance to examine how the weight of history and the persistence of memory informs our lives. So far we’ve completed two full-length pieces: “Komori-uta (Lullaby)” which dealt with a Japanese “war bride” haunted by World War II who’s trying to start over in post-war America; and “Kaiki Shoku (Eclipse)” which interwove the true story of early feminist writer Suga Kanno, who was executed for plotting to assassinate the Emporer of Japan, with tales of the mythical sun goddess Amaterasu. These type of projects take years to put together because of the research, writing and amount of funding needed. We also bring in a number of guest artists which can swell our ranks to over twenty people so that’s a lot of people and schedules to coordinate.

Lau: How do you decide which silent films to score? obviously the film has to appeal to you but is it also what possibilities each individual film suggests to your musicians as a group, the sonic possibilities you could explore?

Blauvelt: We’re always looking for well made films with a good story and interesting characters. The director’s style is also important. I’ve found that generally Japanese silents from the late 1920’s and early 1930’s have been the best to work with. Films that create a world of their own that aren’t necessarily bound to the time they were made in provide the most freedom. We’re trying to walk a fine line with our silent film work – on one hand we’re respectful of each film and it’s director’s intentions (and the benshi tradition as well) but on the other hand we’re not trying to recreate an old-timey picture show experience either. Musically and sound wise everything is fair game. It becomes a balancing act between accurate period and cultural detail and innovative experimental approaches.

Lau: Why did you pick this particular film to score and what specific challenges did it offer?

Blauvelt: When I first saw “Japanese Girls at the Harbor” I was very intrigued and impressed by it. Here was a film by Hiroshi Shimizu, a director I didn’t know but whose work was on par with great directors like Ozu, Mizoguchi and Naruse from the same period. Although it has a somewhat conventional storyline the way it’s told is unique with experimental touches throughout and a very modernist outlook. Also, the fact that three of the four main characters were mixed race and were being presented in a matter-of-fact way that had none of the usual “tragic mulatto” or some other defect that was typical of such characters in films from any country made in the same era (and beyond) was refreshing.

The film had some challenges in that it was less reliant on benshi narration than the typical film. As a director Shimizu doesn’t waste any time so there’s less room to explain things that could use clarification. On the other hand because of its cosmopolitian setting in the port of Yokohama and the film’s modernist approach it was much easier to incorporate a wide range of different music and influences, so in addition to Japanese music you’ll hear hybrids of Japanese/Western music, French chanson, elements of tango, flamenco and gamelan as well as ambient sound environments created with foley effects and live electronic sound processing of some of the instruments. We’ll be joined by multi-instrumentalist and sound artist David Stanford who’ll help us create this dynamic sound world.

Lau: What are future projects you are working on?

Blauvelt: Some of the films we’ll be scoring in the near future are Jujiro (Crossroads) from 1928 by Teinosuke Kinugasa. This was the second avant garde film by the director of A Page of Madness and is an expressionist tour-de-force that the director described as “a chanbara without swordfights” which he replaced with intense psycological explorations. It was the first Japanese film to create a sensation in the west, twenty some years before Rashomon. This will take us back to our improvisational/experimental roots but done with all traditional Japanese and Asian instruments combined with live electronic processing.

We also plan to revive and revise our score for Ozu’s A Story of Floating Weeds which we did once back in 1999. The print we had back then was in bad shape but the film has been digitally restored which is a real rarity for a Japanese silent and since it’s one of Ozu’s best early films, and superior to his own color remake, we thought it would good to revisit and add benshi to it.

Further out we’ll tackle Mizoguchi’s Taki no Shiraito: The Water Magician (aka Cascading White Threads of the Waterfall) one of only two of his surviving silent features that is considered one of the pinnacles for benshi performance. And eventually we’ll get around to the third installment of our performance works cycle Minashigo (Orphan) which focuses on the myth and reality of the Tokyo Rose case.

For more information, visit www.facebook.com/aonojikken. Seating is limited at both venues so advance tickets are recommended.

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