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Orochi and Gyakuryu Talking Silents 3 DVD

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    as there was some discussion of silent film and benshi while thinking about The Idiot last month, and I mentioned the Talking Silents series of DVDs produced by the Japanese company Digital Meme, I thought I could write a short overview of one of their releases that might give an idea of what you get.

    This week I received my copy of Talking Silents 3 , this DVD contains two films staring the actor Tsumasaburo Bando who plays down on their luck samurai in both films.

    The first film is called Orochi ( Serpent ) , was released in 1925 and is 74 minutes long .

    It has a choice of two Benshi sound tracks both with their own set of English sub titles. The disc menu can be selected in English .

    One of the Benshi soundtracks is by Midori Sawato who is a current working live performer. The second soundtrack was recorded by Shunsui Matsuda who according to the accompanying bi-lingual booklet was born in 1925 , was a child Benshi , continued performing after the war and died in 1987 . ( It doesn’t say when the recording of him was made.)

    The film looks pretty complete and was really fun to watch with the Benshi and music soundtrack. It was in pretty good condition given it’s age. Both Benshi use different voices for different characters which is fun e.g. higher pitched for female characters and lower for males.

    In addition they add some lines of plot explanation and sound excited in the action scenes etc. which builds up tension and must have really enhanced the theatre experience .

    The second film was Gyakuryu ( Backward Flow ) it’s incomplete but the surviving version is still 28 minutes long . It dates from 1924 which makes it the oldest Japanese film I’ve managed to see ( although I believe one of the Talking Silents available contains a film from 1923).

    This film only has one benshi soundtrack by Midori Sawato and she seems to do an excellent job. Again there are English subtitles for her narration. Even this film is in a very watchable condition and it really was a blast . It was extremely interesting to see some Chambara films from that period.

    There is a short booklet in the package with notes on the lead actor and the two Benshi and the disc contains a couple of extras, a short video interview with the Japanese film critic Tadao sato and a video introduction by Midori Sawato .

    Although, due to the high price of DVDs in japan and the very painful exchange rate these products are expensive , it is a totally different experience to watch a silent film with the narration soundtrack and I’m pleased I parted with the cash.




    I am so grateful for this forum. Longstone, thanks for forking it over so you could give us such a great overview! As it happens, I just watched Picture Bride tonight, where Toshiro Mifune makes an appearance as a Benshi, visiting the sugar cane fields in Hawaii. Without all the discussion here, and your wonderful post Longstone (which I read only 4 hours ago – before the film-) I would have wondered what the heck sir Mifune’s character was doing.

    There was a sweet moment in the film (have any of you seen this?) where there are two little boys playing swords with long sugar cane sticks. Mifune calls out to them, “Akira! Toshiro! You will never be Samurai playing like that!” and then he swings a classic Mifune pose and attacks the air with a sword (made of cane). What a delightful scene! And his Benshi was great too– I completely get it now – the how and why.

    Longstone, truly thanks for reporting back to us!



    Great overview Longstone, apart from Ozu’s silents I’ve only seen fragments of old Japanese silents on Youtube – they look terrific. Very tempting, pity about the price!




    I was trying to do some additional research and came across this link that you might find interesting . In 2002 Midnight Eye published an article about Japanese silent film and the two Benshi mentioned above including an interesting interview with Midori Sawato .

    You can read it at their web site here

    Midnight Eye silent film and Benshi article



    Thanks for the review and the link to the article, Longstone! I’m even more tempted now….

    For those interested in early Japanese cinema, I would definitely recommend Aaron Gerow”s Visions of Japanese Modernity. It has a fairly long chapter on benshi as well.

    I also wonder if now that we have very recently had two successful films dealing with film history, Hugo and The Artist, a Japanese director might pick up the idea of making a film about benshi.



    I forgot to mention that his made me laugh:

    Amnesty: Mifune calls out to them, “Akira! Toshiro! You will never be Samurai playing like that!”

    I’ve never seen the film. Is it worth seeking out, Amnesty?



    Well, yes – it was a quaffable flick Vili. Mr. Mifune is only in it for a blink, but worth it. Especially considering this discussion thread! I have always been interested in Hawaiian history and this film touches a bit of this and that about the cultures (especially the Japanese) that came to cut sugar cane. The picture brides’ hopes and dreams, the hierarchy among cane workers based on ethnicity (a Portuguese overseer of the Japanese and Filipino workers in the field is particularly vile). But they are all pawns. They are all just working for “the man.”

    It’s an interesting snap shot, and as I said, nice to watch just for the 5 minutes of our Toshiro as an older (tho ever delightful) man.



    Now you’ve made me want to see it, Amnesty!!

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