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The Benshi Makes a Difference – Mizoguchi Part II

June 9, 2010

The second oldest Mizoguchi movie I could see is “White Threads of the Cascade” (also called “The Water Magician”) made in 1933. Like “Tokyo March” it is a silent movie, but Japanese silent movies weren’t all silent, they were told by a benshi who slips into the characters and speaks their roles. Some of the benshi became quite famous and people went to see the same movie several times to hear different benshi. They played a crucial part in interpreting the movie and providing the right atmosphere to the scenes. Due to the poor quality of film material in those days, interpretation was important and could lead to striking differences. I could notice that in “White Threads of the Cascade”. Towards the end of the movie, there is a scene were Shiraito, the main character of this movie visits the house of her lover. For some reason the police is searching for her and in the version I saw the benshi interpreted the shadows on a screen as policemen coming for her, while I read in a review that it was Shiraito’s lover coming back home. Shiraito is hiding in the next scene and with each interpretation we get a different impression of Shiraito’s behavior. It is only reasonable to hide from the police, but why should she hide from her lover she had come to see? So the first interpretation would be natural and the second leaves some question marks, but neither is wrong.

Anyways, what has led poor Shiraito to a situation where she has to hide from the police? We get introduced to her as an independent woman and a famous artist from a circus troupe named after her. They travel around with their show which is very popular in summer because of Shiraito’s water magic. As she rides in a carriage she falls in love with Kinya, who takes her back on a horse after his carriage breaks.

Eventually, the two meet again on a moonlit night and chat. Kinya tells Shiraito that he has lost his parents and now has to earn his living as a coachman although he wishes to become a lawyer. Shiraito then decides to pay his studies at Tokyo and asks him to become a great lawyer so that they can live together. Therefore, Kinya moves to Tokyo and starts studying while Shiraito continues traveling with the show and sends letters with money to Kinya regularly.

But the winter means hard times for the show and other artists beg for Shiraito’s money. Although she needs the money to help Kinya, Shiraito generously helps her colleagues as well. Now in need, Shiraito has to borrow money herself from Iwabuchi who is interested in her. But she is robbed on her way home and knocked down. As she wakens she finds a knife beside her, takes it and returns to Iwabuchi’s house. Shiraito thinks that he ordered the robbery and wants the money back. She threatens him with the knife, but Iwabuchi tries to rape her and so Shiraito stabs him at the heat of the moment. Iwabuchi is dead immediately.

As Shiraito realizes what she has done she decides that she wants to see Kinya again before she will be sentenced to death and heads to Tokyo. There she finds his house and talks to his landlady who tells her how eagerly Kinya studied to become a good husband for Shiraito. Here Shiraito feels some happiness and love again after her long waiting and suffering, but then the police arrives and she has to flee. (I would stick to the police interpretation.)

Eventually, Shiraito gets caught and sentenced to death by Kinya who is a lawyer by now. He has to sentence her according to law and follows his obligation (giri), but he commits suicide at the same time as Shiraito is executed thereby following his feelings (ninjou).

The conflict between giri and ninjou is very popular in Japanese art and in most cases the only way to solve this conflict is to commit suicide or even double suicide (shinjuu) in the case of lovers. The story of Shiraito again shows parallels to Mizoguchi’s life as Shiraito pays for her lover’s studies just like Mizoguchi’s sister paid for his. After watching this film I wondered whether Mizoguchi feels obligated to return something to his sister by his movies. Certainly her payments impose giri on Mizoguchi and his movies might serve as a kind of  ongaeshi (repayment).

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. aciara14 permalink
    June 12, 2010 14:15

    Found this post really fascinating… ! 🙂

    • franeymoon permalink
      June 12, 2010 15:49

      Thanks for your response! 🙂
      I’ll write some more about Mizoguchi soon.

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