Last weekend I spent a magical couple of hours inside the Sydney Opera House enjoying something I’d never had the opportunity to enjoy before – a silent movie on a cinema screen.
It was no ordinary movie, though. The Japanese film The Water Magician (1933), directed by the legendary Kenji Mizoguchi and known in Japan as Taki no shiraito, was also accompanied by a benshi, which essentially is an actor who stands at side of stage and narrates the whole thing, including his own interpretation of the characters’ voices.
Our benshi was Kataoka Ichiro, a 33-year-old Japanese who has been practising this cinematic art of old for almost a decade. He was excellent, both visually and aurally, and appeared completely overwhelmed by the reaction to his performance at the end of the show.
The film itself tells the story of celebrity water magician Tako-no-shiraito, who for the time was an extremely strong-willed and independent woman, it seemed. She is the main act in the travelling carnival she is a part of, and makes more money than all the other acts.
The story centres on her and her love for orphaned carriage driver Kinya Murakoshi, who desperately wants to go to Tokyo to become a lawyer. So taken with this guy is Shiraito that she offers to fund his studies – all without even having kissed him. Amazing. Through the course of the story, she gets caught up in a murder in the years that Kinya is away studying and the film culminates in him coming back to prosecute the case after she is charged with the crime. I won’t say any more than that.
Should you have the opportunity to see a benshi in action, I highly recommend that you do so. The experience was truly unique, and utterly absorbing. It was an absolute treat, and for $20 a real bargain. No question one of the best nights of this brilliant year so far.