Benshi and Macross 7

Silent films were an international language. Taking advantage of the fact they had no natural soundtrack, they were designed and produced to be understood through purely visual storytelling. Even when dialog cards were later introduced to add key pieces of dialog, the core of the films were still visual. This allowed them to be watched and understood by audiences the world over, or world audiences which lived right next door, since this was the great age of immigration and your neighbour may not speak the same language you did.

When these silent films were exported to other countries, they were adapted to the local customs, and in the case of Japan they took on narrators who were there to help the audience with the points of the film that local audiences might not understand. These narrators, called Benshi, would introduce the film to set the story and context, and then narrate the story as needed for the audience to help them get over jumps or occasionally missing pieces of film. While in the Western tradition, organs were used to accompany silent films for music, the Benshi worked alongside traditional Japanese Kabuki orchestras to produce a very Japanese movie-going experience from 1910 until the mid-1930’s. It worked so well this system was also adopted into early Taiwanese cinema, with the narrators called Benzi.

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The Benshi also shaped Japanese cinema, as the producers of Japanese films of the time knew that a Benshi would be there to narrate their films and so they started to script their films with the expectation that the Benshi would not only narrate, but do all the voices for the characters (of both sexes) as well. This made the Benshi truly part of the drama, and different Benshi became major stars based on their styles of acting and narration. People would even go to see the same film again if narrated by a different Benshi because it was said that in the hands of a different Benshi the same film could become a comedy, a romance, a thriller, or take on different levels of drama as the Benshi would add their own improvisations and style to the film’s story. You might even say that the Benshi became the reason people went to see the performance, and that the films themselves become a backdrop for the Benshi!

According to Wikipedia, “in 1927, there were 6,818 benshi, including 180 women.” This was likely their peak, as it was around this time that the first American “talkies” appeared and sound was introduced to movie-going audiences. So, while Benshi did continue on for a time as translators for foreign films, their services were less and less required, and they slowly became a rare cultural tradition. Today, there are still Benshi like Midori Sawato who do performances when silent films are played in art houses and on special occasions, but they are a rare experience.  Here is a series of short clips showing a Benshi in action from the above performance at the Sydney Opera House:

I personally find Benshi fascinating as a concept, and think it would be amazing to watch one perform, although technically I already have. Back when I was the president of Anime London in the 1990’s a group of us would meet on the second and fourth Monday of every month and watch anime from my fairly large (at that time) collection. One of the shows we watched was a series called Macross 7, and I had the whole series on videotape with only one problem- it was still in Japanese and wasn’t subtitled after the first two or three episodes. This was in the days before internet video was really big (or possible in any quality), but I did manage to find translation scripts for subtitlers to use online. However, I didn’t have the equipment or ability to subtitle all 49 episodes of Macross 7, so what to do?

My not-all-that-innovative solution was to become an audio subtitler, and read the scripts alongside the dialog while the rest of the group watched the show. (Holy Benshi, Batman!) However, after a few episodes one of my friends, a talented young man named Glenn Jupp offered to take over audio-titling for me for reasons I’ve forgotten. (I think I couldn’t do it one week for some reason.) Glenn was a natural Benshi, and would have done these Japanese masters proud. I never did it again because Glenn spent the next 44 episodes giving Macross 7 his own personal spin by doing his own inflections to all the voices, and showing incredible timing and dramatic flare. It worked perfectly, because Macross 7 is an over-the-top mecha anime musical, and having a wild dramatic reading of the lines just fit perfectly.The highlight of each meeting became watching Glenn perform, and while new members to the club took a bit to get used to our unusual way of doing things, they soon came to appreciate Glenn’s talents.

It made watching Macross 7 a unique experience that took the show to a whole other level, and even today I can’t watch it subtitled without hearing Glenn’s voice narrating the character lines. (“Listen to my song!!!”) The day we finished the series, I think we gave him a well-deserved standing ovation, and when they released some direct-to-video episodes of Macross 7 we got scripts and asked him to narrate once more. Watching it without Glenn just wouldn’t have been the same, and I can appreciate how audiences in Japan felt about their Benshi, because Glenn was ours.

Arigatou, Jupp-san. You would have done the masters proud!

Rob

Movie Review: Detroit 9000

Detroit 9000 should have been called “70’s Detroit Action Flick- The Movie” or perhaps “Detroit Cops of the 70’s- The Movie”, either way it’s an odd and unique little time capsule of a film. At it’s core, it’s a simple cop drama about police detectives trying to find the culprits behind a major robbery and a black cop and a white cop trying to get along in a service where even the police force seems divided along racial lines. However, there is nothing simple about this film.

The only way I can describe this movie is this- imagine if a millionaire (it was 1973) with almost no film experience decided to hire a top-knotch production team to help him film his dream movie about the cops of his home town- Detroit. He wrote the film himself, and filled it with local actors of highly variable quality, and then had this professional crew help them make it into a movie. That may not be what happened, but my god, it sure feels like it’s what happened when you watch this film.

The director, the editor, the sound people, the costumers, and pretty much everyone else knew how to take what was likely a medium-ish budget and make something really solid out of it. The problem is, the film they were making was horribly written and had some of the worst and most awkward dialog you’ve ever heard. The core structure of the film is okay, which keeps it watchable, but the dialog needs to be heard to be believed. You literally never know what awkward racist line going to come out of people’s mouths next, and most of the minor parts seem to be played by people who have never acted in their lives, so that makes it even worse!

The trailer above plays it as a Blaxploitation flick, but that isn’t quite accurate. It’s not so much an exploitation flick about black culture as a police/crime film that happens to have mostly a black cast. Which is good, actually, because that’s one of the things that keeps it interesting- watching the interplay between the black and white characters and seeing how they interrelate to each other as people and professionals. If anything, the movie is mostly colorblind (it treats all races, genders, classes and even sexualities as just normal people, despite the racist dialog), which I think was what the guy who wrote it had in mind- a movie about the people of Detroit just trying to get along despite the things that divided them.

So would I say I liked the film? I’m not sure I’d go that far. As I said at the beginning, it’s an odd and unique film. It’s an action movie about the people (and especially the police) of Detroit, made by the people of Detroit for the people of the city of Detroit of that time. As someone who lived in Windsor for a few years, and has a bit of an interest in Detroit as a city and its history and culture, I found it a fascinating little time capsule of a period after the white people had mostly gone, but before the middle-class black community had completely disintegrated. However, as a film, it’s so wildly uneven I don’t know whether I would actually tell anyone else to watch it unless you really just enjoy this kind of thing and are willing to appreciate it in its own unique context.

 

Shooting Indie Style!

ShootingIndieStyleCover
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Rob

The Gate Short Film – YouTube

Nifty short amateur sci-fi film. Excellent FX work.

Amazing Spider-Man Lives Up to its Name!

Like most people, when I heard there was a new Spider-Man film my initial reactions were “why?” and “too soon”. I mean, it’s been less than a decade since the Sam Raimi films and I consider Spider-Man a pretty tapped out franchise with all the recent animated series and films.

However, if Sony Pictures didn’t put out a Spider-Man film this year, they lost the rights to the character, so they whipped together a team and rushed this film into production to meet their deadline. (And considering how poorly Sony as a company is doing, they couldn’t afford to lose anything that actually made money!)

And I never thought I’d say it, but- I’m glad they did!

While this is in no way a perfect film, it is an (almost) perfect Spider-Man film. In fact, I’d argue that this may in fact be the best Marvel superhero movie to date, standing easily toe to toe with Iron Man or The Avengers.

And yes, that means I consider it better than the Raimi films with Toby McGuire. Although in this case, I’d say it’s a bit of Apples and Oranges. The Raimi Spider-Man films (or at least the first one) are homages to the 1960’s original comics, and retain that original 1960’s feel to them. They’re very stylized representations of the comic books brought to the screen, and have all the good and bad elements that implies.

This new film (I should say, New Films, since this feels very much like a first part/episode) is an adaption of the character and spirit of Spider-Man to film, and instead of trying to pull from the comics presents a more realistic and natural take on the story. One that not only works, but also frees up the character to be himself.

Andrew Garfield really does portray Peter Parker and Spider-Man like I’ve always imagined he should be. He has the perfect build, the right attitude, and comes across as a very real young man trying to deal with his own issues while also doing the right thing. They even get the Spider-Man banter right, which is something that’s pretty rare, and make it work on screen in a fun and entertaining way.

The performances in the film are all good, with Martin Sheen’s great take on Uncle Ben being a definite standout. I prefered the previous version of Aunt May to Sally Field, but she’s fine in the role. Dennis Leary is a passable Captain Stacey, and Emma Stone turns in a nice performance as Gwen Stacey. No complaints all around.

I also think The Lizard was an excellent choice for the villain of this movie, with hints of Norman Osborne lurking in the background. The Lizard (as shown) is a nice mirror of Spider-Man himself, and as they have similar powers makes a good sparring partner. He’s also a minor enough villain to make the ones that come after him seem more dangerous, but still a major threat.

In fact, the only things I found that raised a false note were pretty minor. I found the portrayal of The Lizard’s goals pretty murky and I didn’t quite like the ending.

(spoilers, skip to after the spoilers if you don’t want to be spoiled)

While The Lizard was chasing Spider-Man around the school, my wife leaned over and asked me “why is he after Peter?” and as I started to answer I realized that I didn’t really know. I knew how he’d found Peter, and I knew they’d already clashed twice, but I didn’t really know WHY the Lizard was there. Was it just revenge?  Was it because of the personal connection? Why was he there?

Also, they didn’t do a very good job of explaining why The Lizard wanted to turn everyone in New York into Lizards either. I know, he wanted to make humanity “better” and this was his crazy way of doing that. But, as it was presented he didn’t seem all that committed to the idea, it felt to me like he was doing it more because it’s what supervillains always do!

I’ll give an example- on the bridge he tracked down evil corporate executive because he was trying in his own way to stop him from using the serum to test on innocent victims. That was a clear, but indirectly presented motivation. But everything after that just became him doing things because he’s The Lizard, and that’s what that character does.

My other minor issue (much more minor) was the ending. If there’s one thing that’s constant, Spider-Man’s life sucks, and that’s part of his character and story. Raimi’s adaption captured that nicely. Here, we get the set-up for that (Peter can’t get together with Gwen), but then the film does a weird 180 and we get his English teacher spouting some B.S. about “all stories are about who you are”, and that promises are often broken.

This completely reeked to me of test audiences. I bet the original movie ended with the previous scene, and test audiences absolutely hated it, so the suits made them go and tack this extra little scene on at the end to show hope for the young lovers.

Nice going, guys. Peter swore on a man’s death that he’d keep hands off the guy’s daughter (which she psychically guesses in perfect detail) and now a week or so after he’s dead that promise is apparently “no big deal”. What an a**hole! Well, there goes most of the heroic side of the character out the window. It’s a typical attempt at a superficially “feel good” ending that actually isn’t good or in character at all. Which is why I say it smelled of being there to satisfy test audiences.

What’s even worse is that Peter is going to look like a super-a**hole when not keeping that promise later results in Gwen getting killed.

They would have been much better to just have Peter feel so guilty over her father’s death that he couldn’t face (or risk) Gwen getting involved in his life. He left Captain Stacey on his own, and he died because of that. More than reason enough for him to walk away from Gwen, and leave things between them troubled and open for the future films. It would be a heck of a lot more heroic than what we get.

(end spoilers)

Despite this, I have to say I really enjoyed this film. I went into it expecting the same-old, and instead found a fun film that presented a great take on one of my favorite superheros. . I really want to dig out some old Essential Spider-Man comics now and give them a read.

And that’s the highest compliment I think I can give it.

Rob

 

Review: The Avengers

Just got back from seeing The Avengers (or Avengers Assemble, to those outside of North America), and I think my take on the film is as follows:

After the Blu-Ray DVD version is released, some 15 year old kid using Apple iMovie is going to use it to produce an amazingly cool 80 minute long Avengers movie that’s going to blow everyone away. Until that day, we’re stuck with is a lumbering 142 minute long workprint (rough draft) of a film that seems to be more about ego (giving all the actors equal screen time) and spectacle (lots of epic FX shots and sequences) than telling an actual story.

It has some great sequences, some good humour, and some pretty good acting, but my god are those sequences spaced out by unncessarily long passages that do little to actually advance the plot (what there is of it). If it was only put under the editing knife of someone who didn’t care about anything but making it an effective story, then I think it could be turned into something awesome, but as it is- meh.

As a side note, it also totally confirmed my estimation that Chris Evans (Captain America) doesn’t have anywhere near enough presence or charisma to carry his role. I wouldn’t follow this Cap into a game of paintball, much less a full-scale war.

Robert Downey Jr. was Tony Stark (or is that the other way around?) and rocked as usual.

Chris Helmsworth was so-so, same with Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye.

The two surprises of the film were Scarlett Johansen, who actually did have presence and style, and the (new) Hulk Mark Ruaffalo, who actually did a great job in the role. (In fact, the Hulk was probably the best character in the film. Maybe because we never had to see him brood or look angsty?) They may finally have a Bruce Banner who can carry a film or three.

In the end, I give it 6/10. Didn’t suck, but wasn’t especially good either.

Rob