During their 2004 centennial celebration of Yasujiro Ozu, the Harvard Film Archive hosted Midori Sawato, one of a handful of silent-film narrators, or benshi, still active in Japan. It made little difference that the benshi wasn't performing in English, since the emotion behind her inflection, plus her remarkable physicality, crossed cultural barriers, complementing Ozu's 1932 masterpiece, I Was Born, But. . .. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
The HFA is once again hosting a renowned benshi: Ichiro Kataoka, a student of Sawato who began his training in 2002 — nearly 40 years after Sawato studied under Shunsui Matsuda (1925-87), another legendary benshi who notably saved many films and fragments from Ozu's career, long before preservation was of much concern.
This time Kataoka-san performs with another Ozu film, Dragnet Girl (1933; November 19 @ 7 pm), his homage to the American gangster genre. The picture fails to fully follow through on that wonderful title, and the spare Ozu style was still in its nascent stages, but watching Kenji Mizoguchi's muse Kinuyo Tanaka vamp it up, Dietrich-like, as a woman in love with a criminal delinquent, is sublime.
Kataoka will also narrate a double-bill of American silents: Charlie Chaplin's Tramp is aided by a mute in A Dog's Life (1918; November 18 @ 7 pm). It's preceded by a proto-feminist feature from 1916: Lois Weber's Shoes — a huge hit in Japan, boosted by the benshi headliners of the day, whose popularity rivaled that of actors and directors.
ICHIRO KATAOKA, BENSHI :: At the Harvard Film Archive November 17-19
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