Bologna has been trawling through the Japanese cinema archives for six years now. Curators Alex Jacoby and Johan Nordstrom started with early sound and have progressed and diverged for each of the half dozen iterations. This year the selection consists of films from the late thirties and early forties, the Japanese pre-war years, jidai-geki movies, dubbed The Japanese Period Film in the Valley of Darkness. Jacoby and Nordstrom call this moment a ‘refuge for liberal film-makers seeking to comment critically on the troubles of the time.’ I suppose the comparison might be with the small but always interesting range of Hollywood productions in the 30s and early 40s which attempted to warn the world of the incipient menace of Nazism.
The films themselves have been presented in largely mediocre copies from the Japan National Film Centre and the Kawakita Memorial Institute. No restoration work has been done on them and they were frequently dark and not a little blurry. Still, still….. The selection opened up much that was previously little or even unknown. Two films captured the attention because yet again they were directed by a little known film-maker, Tamizo Ishida. I was reminded that a couple of years ago I saw work by Sotoji Kimura that had a similar revelatory sense.
Fallen Blossoms (Ishida, 1938) sets up a remarkable perspective. The events are viewed entirely through the eyes of the occupants of a geisha house. No males appear though an occasional voice is heard in the background. It has been discussed by Noel Burch in his book To the Distant Observer but that hasn’t assisted its circulation outside Japan. Alex and Johan’s notes call it his only famous film.
Which made the additional revelation of Old Sweet Song (Ishida, 1939) even more startling. I don’t have the wherewithal at the moment to put much down but Andrew Pike has already posted about it on Facebook and I’m going to pillage his note and leave it that. Andrew writes: This afternoon in Bologna I watched what may well be the film of the Festival for me thus far: MUKASHI NO UTA (Old Sweet Song) from Japan, 1939. It was a revelation in which small gestures, tentative half-smiles and held gazes expressed the incredibly moving thawing of a mother-daughter relationship. Of course the film was about much more, and I really need more viewings to begin to understand all of the complexity, but what did register with me did not rely on language. But how can I see it again??? This film and HANA CHIRINU (Fallen Blossoms) from 1938, which was shown a couple of days ago, make me intensely curious about this director, Ishida Tamizo. Does anyone know of literature about him in English?
But just to add to that endorsement here’s Michael Campi’s quick note on the matter: Ishida is indeed the discovery of this yesr's Bologna event. Like Andrew, I long to see these films again and, dare I say, in brighter prints.