The BigPond Adelaide Film Festival presented ‘The Water Magician’ (1933) together with benshi performance and a sound track as part of the ‘Silent Cinema in the 21st Century’ series of four crossover screenings. A masterpiece of Japanese silent cinema, the silent picture was made by Kenji Mizoguchi - a director of the calibre of Akira Kurosawa. In this screening, the silent picture is combined with a sound track and live performance in the traditional benshi style.

Long shots of perfected atmospheric mise-en-scène and realistic acting characterise the cinematic language of this extant early film by Kenji Mizoguchi. A powerful portrayal of a water entertainer star in the centre of the plot brings to the surface themes of self-sacrifice within a realistic depiction of a rigid patriarchal society. The emotional charge of the narrative is incredibly touching and surprising. 

The smooth movement of the picture is rarely interrupted by text, leaving plenty of opportunities for the benshi film storyteller to embellish. The film has English intertitles which clarified the story and allowed the audience to enjoy the melodious flow of the Japanese language. Ichirō Kataoka displayed every possible inflection. The softness of loving affection, the stark roughness of male assertion, the glissando-like humour of gossip, and the subtle nuances of female and male expression were only a few traits of his masterful dramatic presence.

Authentic screenings of the film would have had also live music. In this instance the music was recorded. The sound track incorporated traditional Japanese instrumental music in ensemble or solo (koto and shamisen) for the travelling troupe scenes. Western music was brought into play to emphasise romantic moments and to emphasise the suspense of the final scenes. Archival quality Western chamber music (solo violin and piano, flute and piano, clarinet and piano) and orchestral passages juxtaposed the sound of traditional Japanese music to underline the departures from orthodoxy that the heroine epitomises.

This is a rare opportunity for those who are interested in cinema and for those who are unfamiliar with the benshi style to experience ‘The Water Magician’. The next screenings are at the ACMI in Melbourne on the 5th of March, at the Sydney Opera House on the 6th of March, and at the National Film and Sound Archive in Canberra on the 10th and 11th  of March.

2011 BigPond Adelaide Film Festival
The Water Magician
with live Benshi performance

Director Kenji Mizoguchi

Venue: Piccadilly Cinema 1
Date/Time: Thu 3 March @ 6pm   

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