Aono Jikken Ensemble has carved out a reputation for doing sensitive and imaginative live scores for silent films from Asia and plays. Now they get to re-visit the work of an old friend, the Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu. A Story of Floating Weeds (1934) tells the story of the misadventures of a down-on-its-luck kabuki troupe touring the provinces. This was the second silent film project the ensemble ever took on so they were eager to give it another go with more years of experience under their belt. We caught up with founder Bill Blauvelt as he was busy preparing for their performance. Saturday, July 11 at 7:00 p.m. One show only at SIFF Cinema Uptown. For advance tickets, contact [email protected] or (206) 324-9996 or visit www.siff.net. Tickets also available at all SIFF box office locations.
Alan Chong Lau: This is not the first time you have done a live soundtrack to Ozu’s ‘A story of floating weeds.’ Can you tell us how was your approach the first time around and how different will it be this time around? Do years of experience, performing together as a group, and the fact that you’ve done several live scores to silent films play into how you will approach the film this time around?
Bill Blauvelt: We first put music to A Story of Floating Weeds in 1999 and it was only our second live film score. Our previous work, including our first film score, was very experimental in nature and we used a structured improvisational approach. Ozu’s film was more conventional in style and required a different, more precise approach. We used our arsenal of traditional Asian, western, and world instruments, toys, found objects, and invented sound devices that we’d been using and added koto and shamisen in prominent roles. This allowed us to create not only authentic music depicted in the film like the kabuki sequences but to continue exploring new ways to play traditional instruments. We also looked to bring in unusual or unexpected musical sources that we could integrate to create more texture and variety into the score and towards that end looked to disparate sources like African folk, Jewish klezmer, Americana, and experimental soundscapes.
When the film was recently digitally restored we decided to revisit it because, in the first go-round, the only print available at the time was in bad shape. We’ve worked together for a long time now and have done many films and other projects. After re-listening to our old score we realized that we had learned so much more in the intervening years that we ended up re-writing most of the music. Interestingly, we kept all the same influences but deepened them. The Japanese music now includes chindon (street music), minyo (folk), kabuki (theatre), and Taisho-era pop songs. The African, klezmer and Americana influences in the new score are both more subtle and pronounced. The kora, a 21-string African harp made from a large gourd, was the inspiration for two acoustic guitars played in open tuning for some sequences while an African lute was used for others. Japanese chindon already has much in common with klezmer so we just made the connection more explicit. Originally Americana was represented by quotes of the old folksong “Shortnin’ Bread,” while this time we drew on old southern African American fife and drum music. The experimental soundscaping we usually include with various instruments and objects has been augmented with live electronic sound processing this time. The biggest difference though is the inclusion of a benshi, or silent film narrator. We began incorporating this into our scores in 2007 when we came up with a modern, bilingual version of this Japanese silent film tradition. We’re excited to include benshi this time because we found a copy of the original script for “A Story of Floating Weeds” while researching in Tokyo last year and it includes a lot of detail and dialogue we wouldn’t otherwise have known about.
Lau: This is not the first time you have composed a score and performed it live to an Ozu film. What makes Ozu as a filmmaker so appealing to you as musicians and why do his silent films lend themselves to music? What distinguishes Ozu’s silent films from his talkies (aside from sound) or is his way of filmmaking pretty much the same?
Blauvelt: We’ve made Japanese silent cinema a special focus of our work and Ozu is at the top of the mountain for not only Japanese but world cinema. Ozu also has the lucky distinction of having had much of his work survive intact from the silent era. Much of silent cinema worldwide did not survive and that’s especially true of Japan. You can follow the almost complete arc of Ozu’s career from the silent era to the 1960s. Ozu’s reputation in the West is due to his later sound work in the 1950s and 60s with its rigorous “zen-like” style. In contrast, Ozu’s silent work catches a young director, in thrall to western, particularly American films, who’s experimenting with technique and trying many different genres including what he called “nonsense comedies” about student life and hip young urbanites, crime dramas featuring gangsters and molls, as well as depictions of lower and middle class family life.
What’s great about A Story of Floating Weeds is that it catches Ozu at a pivotal time in his career when his mature style began to crystalize and you can see early examples of his now famous lower camera angles (the pov of someone sitting Japanese style on a tatami mat) and the more artful use of “pillow shots” (still life-like shots of inanimate objects that act as buffers between sequences). It also features an early depiction of what would become his most constant theme: the dissolution of the traditional family, which he balances with the comedic, goings-on of a traveling theater troupe. Ozu’s work in general is very humane and sympathetic to regular people’s lives and are told in a way that while very Japanese is also very universal. Also his work in the 1930s was more socially engaged, even passionate, when compared to his later work in which the style and characters are more stoic and resigned to fate. That makes the early work intriguing and challenging to score. The comedy can be hilarious and the drama devastating.
Lau: Will your group have any new or guest musicians for this performance? Is it difficult for new musicians to fit into the overall sound of the group? and how does a new addition change the chemistry or overall sound of the group?
Blauvelt: Our lineup includes original members Michael Shannon on a variety of Asian, African, and western stringed instruments; Esther Sugai on flutes, accordion, and melodica; and myself on taiko, percussion, and foley; as well as long time member Marcia Takamura on koto and shamisen, who first joined us on our earlier take of A Story of Floating Weeds. Not new to the group but to this score is Naho Shioya, our benshi and vocalist. Our most recent addition is David Stanford, who joined us on our last project, Japanese Girls at the Harbor, who’ll be playing guitar and clarinet as well as providing live sound processing. Everyone will also be playing various percussion, toys and objects as well. So far it hasn’t been too difficult to incorporate new musicians into our work. The main thing is to find people who are open and curious. In the case of Naho and David, they bring unique abilities to the table that enriches the sound of the group. Naho allows us to not only do benshi bilingually but as a singer allows us to tackle genres like minyo, a difficult style of folk singing, and revive pop songs of different eras in which the films are made or set. David’s ability to play clarinet allowed us to “amp up” the klezmer connection to chindon, which we only hinted at earlier, while his guitar playing, in tandem with Mike’s, allowed us to attempt the kora inspired passages. Also, David’s live processing provides another rich layer to the overall sound design for everything from rain to psychological under currents.
Lau: What future projects can we look forward to after this Ozu project?
Blauvelt: We have a slate of Japanese silent film projects on our list including a program of early animation shorts that were the precursor to anime; the 1928 expressionist masterpiece Jujiro (Crossroads) by Teinosuke Kinugasa, director of A Page of Madness, and the Academy Award-winning Gate of Hell; and Kenji Mizoguchi’s Taki no Shiraito: The Water Magician, one of only two surviving silent works by the great director (we previously did the other The Downfall of Osen). We want to do a silent samurai film and are looking at what’s available and will pick one soon. We also recently obtained copies of some more silent works by Hiroshi Shimizu whose Japanese Girls at the Harbor we did last year, so we’ll be checking those out to see what we can do with them. And there’s still more Ozu to do. We’d also like to take some of our recent work on the road and are looking for presenting partners, particularly in the region, to take our work to new audiences.