Saturday, October 30, 2010

Review – The Water Magician

October 31, 2010

The Water Magician – Japan, 1933

I would like to have seen a silent movie during the silent period, before Al Jolson proclaimed that we hadn’t heard anything yet, before many films from that era were sped up to make them seem unnaturally clunky, before they were allowed to sit in dusty warehouses where time would eventually eroded most of them beyond repair. To have sat in front of a live orchestra, seen some of the great actors of the day on the screen in front of me, and been part of an audience that could fully understand what was transpiring in front of them without the assistance of line after line of dialogue – it must have been quite an experience. Sure, there are still silent film festivals, but I imagine the experience is completely different. Then these films were the norm, not the exception, and everyone saw them. The aspects of silent films that many modern day viewers have trouble with – the theatrical acting techniques, the silence, the lack of color – were simply commonplace.

Often when I watch silent films, I’m reminded just how influential and daring many of these films were. Sure, there were slapstick comedies, but in those comedies, we can see the beginnings of the kind of comedy we see so often in pictures today. And silent dramas often tackled such controversial topics as prostitution, revolution, crime, religion, and the nature of good and evil itself, topics that were later restricted or heavily censored as a result of the Hayes Code. Many people nowadays may feel uncomfortable with D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation or The Jazz Singer (which is essentially a silent film with a few musical numbers), but it is impossible to overstate just how awed audiences were by these films, just how much of a leap forward each of them were from the films that preceded them.

Some time ago, in the hopes of inspiring someone to give them a chance, I wrote about some of my favorite silent films. I have a new addition to the list: Kenji Miziguchi’s 1933 film The Water Magician. The Water Magician is the story of a famous young carnival performer known to her audience as Taki no Shiraito (Takako Irie), and when the film begins, it’s impossible to miss just how spoiled and conceited she is. She barks orders that she expects to be followed immediately and is fully confident in her ability to use to both her fame and her beauty to get whatever she wants. Early in the film, one of her fellow performers sees her sitting to the side of the stage smiling and remarks, “It’s a sin to smirk like that.” Well, perhaps the thought behind the smirk is. This confident facial expression betrays her belief that a young carriage driver she happened to met three days earlier will soon pay her a visit. It doesn’t enter into her mind that she hadn’t been particularly polite to the gentleman or that he might not want to see her.

The man is Kinya Murakoshi (Tokihiko Okada), a young man of honorable birth with big “dreams and plans.” We see their first meeting in a flashback, yet it is their second meeting that really stands out. When it begins, Shiraito is the pursuer, acting as if her conquest of Kinya is an nothing short of an eventuality. She flirts, struts, smokes his pipe without asking his permission, and when she does get the desired response right away, merely assumes that his resistance is merely part of an elaborate cat-and-mouse-game. It isn’t - Kinya simply doesn’t remember her, and once reminded of the circumstances under which they met, he would just as soon keep on forgetting, for Shiraito caused Kinya to lose his job as a carriage driver. At first, she’s unwilling to accept this fact, yet later, she is forced to admit, “It really was my fault.” She’s never the same again.

Love between the two of them develops quickly. For all practical purposes, it has to, yet unlike other films in which love forms at a rather unnatural pace, what develops between Shiraito and Kinya seems perfectly reasonable. Much of the credit for this goes to Irie and Okada, who simply command the screen. In the scene, all of the stages of their emotions are on full display: from playfulness and indifference to guilt, forgiveness, and finally love. By the end of the scene, the two of them have come to an understanding that each of them hopes will enable them to achieve their dreams: Shiraito has generously offered to pay Kinya’s tuition, and Kinya has promised to work hard to both honor Shiraito’s belief in him and pay her back. Shiraito won’t hear of being paid back, however. Instead, she has a simple request: she wants him to want her. The sentence has a completely different meaning that it would have had earlier in the movie.

There have been other films about traveling performers, yet none that I can remember that was both as positive and as dark as The Water Magician. For every patron who adores Shiraito for her art, there’s at least one – probably more - that stares at her with rather lecherous eyes. This wouldn’t as much of a problem if the leader of the troupe were not in the habit of entertaining offers from such clients and didn’t have a gang of thugs to make sure that such arrangements were honored. It’s no wonder that some of the female members of the carnival run off. Shiraito seems to be spared this treatment only because she has a loyal following and is deeply in love. However, an uncommonly cruel winter, ever shrinking audiences, and her own inevitable fall from superstar status seem to be conspiring against her.

Unlike their American counterparts, Japanese silent films were seldom completely soundless. Dressed in a suit and bow tie and standing either in front of or to the side of the screen was a benshi, and among other things, it was the benshi’s job to narrate the film and explain parts of the film that were missing. Modern day benshi also explain the historical context in which a film takes place. On the DVD of The Water Magician, the benshi is Midori Sawato, who according to Wikipedia is one of the only benshi still working today. Sawato’s narration is utterly fascinating. For male parts, she speaks in a lower voice; when female characters speak, her voice is higher; and when she is speaker as the narrator, she speaks in a middle register. She does her job so well that I was never confused as to which character was talking.

The Water Magician is a strong film for the most part. It becomes a bit repetitive towards the end, as events from earlier in the film are repeated over and over so that each new character has a chance to hear them. It’s not the most affective technique, but it’s easy to understand why it is used. Also, the film devotes a significant amount of time to an obscure legal proceeding that made very little sense to me due to my limited knowledge about the Japanese legal system in the late 1800’s. I could have used an explanation from the benshi, but unfortunately one was not forthcoming. Viewers should also know beforehand that the film is not in the best condition, and lines and scratches appear at various times throughout the film. In addition, the film’s final scene appears to be missing a few shots, one of which was likely very powerful, if it was indeed shot at all. None of this took away from my appreciation of the film, though, for it is a blessing to still be able to watch the film at all. It’s a plus that The Water Magician just happens to be very well made as well. (on DVD in Region 1 and 3)

4 stars

*The Water Magician is in Japanese with English subtitles.

*Also included on the DVD of The Water Magician is Mizoguchi’s 1929 short film Tokyo March. It is about a young woman forced to become a geisha as a result of poverty and the man who falls in love with her and tries to free her. It’s not as predicable as that description makes it sound, and viewers should be prepared to be surprised. (3 stars)

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