Movie fans who gather to watch the Japanese silent comedy “The Lady and the Beard” on Friday night at Volunteer Park won’t experience a lot of silence. Accompanying the 1931 film will be a group of musicians that brings to life a tradition that is usually only seen in Japanese art-house theaters and film archives: benshi narration, in which a performer narrates a Japanese silent film, and an original score is performed live.
“Most people when they think of silent films and the music for it, they think of Charlie Chaplin with the piano music or the organ, like the huge organ that they have at the Paramount,” said Bill Blauvelt, the artistic director and founder of the Aono Jikken Ensemble, which is made up of four multi-instrumentalists and a benshi, or narrator. “Those kind of things don’t really fit the Japanese silent films. Even American films shown in Japan always were shown with a benshi, a live narrator.”
The Seattle-based Aono Jikken Ensemble has spent the last several months writing original music and narration to accompany “The Lady and the Beard,” or “Shukujo to hige,” directed by well-known Japanese filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu. The film will screen at the amphitheater on July 25 as part of the Seattle Asian Art Museum’s Deco Night. The party celebrates the SAAM exhibit “Deco Japan: Shaping Art and Culture, 1920-1945,” on show through Oct. 19.
The group’s managing director, Naho Shioya, is an actor and performance artist who added benshi to her résumé in 2007. As the audience watches the film, which is about a bearded man who has a hard time with the ladies because of his overgrown facial hair and conservative practices, Shioya provides narration and character voices in both English and Japanese.
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The era of the benshi in Japanese film began in 1899, when the first Japanese silent film was shown, and ended around 1935 with the advent of sound in cinema.
“In Japan in the silent period, the benshis were the real stars,” Blauvelt said. “People went to see their favorite benshi, not necessarily the stars of the film.”
These narrators exerted their power by announcing their opinion of the film at hand or telling the projectionist to fast-forward through boring parts. But Shioya takes a more hands-off approach, simply narrating the characters’ voices and translating the film’s intertitles. She prefers to let the story be told visually as much as possible.
“Because the physical comedy is funny by itself, I didn’t want to explain too much,” she said of “The Lady and the Beard.” “It’s funny and it still stands to this day, with all the jokes and timing and the way it was made. ”
The Aono Jikken Ensemble will be accompanying another film — a drama this time — in early October for SAAM and the Northwest Film Forum. The group has performed in Peru, Canada, France, Brazil and Poland, though they have yet to perform in Japan. They also produce experimental performance works that combine film, theater, live music and dance.
Other members of the group include a classically trained flutist, an experimental rock musician and a master of the shamisen (a three-stringed instrument) who trained in Japan for 10 years. Each plays two to five instruments during the film.
Blauvelt is the group’s percussionist, and he plays Western drums, taiko drums, and adds various sound effects by using children’s toys, dog toys and homemade instruments, such as a string pulled through the top of a cardboard oatmeal cylinder (they’ve dubbed it a “squeeka”) or a bolt and screw that make a whistlelike sound when twisted.
The musicians use a script to coordinate with the film and the benshi and have cues like “when he put his hands back on his knee” or “the second time he touches his chin” to indicate when they should play certain “themes” or do certain sound effects. It’s a massive effort of timing and precision.
“It’s difficult to watch all of it because it’s so exciting to see,” Shioya said. “The amount of instruments people are playing and the things that they are doing — it’s not just a film.”