11 February 2009

Book of the Dead (死者の書, 2005)

My first screening of Kihachiro Kawamoto’s masterpiece, The Book of the Dead (死者の書, 2005) was a real disappointment. The US release of the film on DVD falsely advertises itself as having a Japanese soundtrack with English subtitles. In actual fact, the soundtrack has replaced Kyoko Kishida’s narration with an English narrator who I had never heard of before. While Alice Hackett’s narration is competently done and perhaps makes the films more accessible to English-speaking children, the complete elision of Kishida’s narration from the DVD is a crime against the artistic integrity of the film on a number of levels.

To begin with, the film was one of Kishida’s last films and is a wonderful tribute to her talents. Kishida (岸田今日子, 1930-2006) was absolutely riveting in Hiroshi Teshigahara’s Woman of the Dunes (砂の女, 1964). She also took on some of the most daring female roles Masumura’s Manji, Ryo Kinoshita’s School for Sex (肉体の学校,1965) and the Teshigahara’s The Face of Another (他人の顔, 1966). She is also well-loved in Japan for doing the voice of Moomintroll in the animated Moomin series (1969-1970) directed by Masaaki Osumi and Rintaro. It seems a real shame that Kino Video, which claims to represent ‘the best in world cinema’, would not find it of value to have the original version on the DVD.

Secondly, the dubbing of the narration is a crime against the artistry of Kawamoto (川本喜八郎, b. 1925) himself, as well as the original tale by Shinobu Origuchi(折口 信夫, 1887-1953). Rhythm and intonation are essential aspects of Japanese storytelling traditions, and it is extremely jarring for the listener when the soundtrack moves from an English narrator, to the Japanese chanting of the spirit of the dead. Also, as you can hear in the trailer for Book of the Dead, onomatopoeic words are very important for creating mood in Japanese drama. The “shita-shita” (from the verb 滴るshitataru), for example gets replaced by “drip drop” in the English version, which gets across the same idea of the sound of water dripping but creates a different mood. The Japanese sounds more like whispering than the English. In all his films, Kawamoto’s takes careful consideration of all elements. the doll design, backgrounds, and soundtrack are all equally important components of the whole.

Thirdly, it is disappointing for collectors. While I applaud KINO for making films by international artists like Kawamoto available to North American audiences, they should really take more pains in the future to respect the integrity of the original film. The kind of people likely to buy this DVD prefer to hear the original soundtrack, even if they do not speak the language. For someone who does understand the language, it is difficult to follow the story when there are abrupt shifts between English and Japanese on the soundtrack. I also have some concerns about the transfer, because a number of the scenes had digital artifacts that I doubt were on the 35mm screening copies of the film (though it does look like CG was used for some backgrounds, like the opening shots of the town).

It is ironic that I should watch this film just after staying up late reading a lengthy discussion about FACETS on the Criterion discussion boards. I was wondering whether or not it was worth ordering FACETS' release of Naoyuki Tsuji’s work (I already have his Japanese DVD), and was looking for reviews of the US DVD to see if it had any extras of value. Years ago, I ordered my first film from FACETS for a research project I was working on. It was The Great Sadness of Zoharra by Nina Menkes, and the FACETS video was my only option because it wasn't available anywhere else. It was a pretty rough transfer to VHS with a pretty cheaply made cover. While I appreciate that there are companies out there willing to get these rare films onto the market for connoisseurs, it seems a shame that they don't go the extra step to ensure that the film quality is at least reasonably acceptable.

It looks like I will have to order Book of the Dead from Geneon before I can give it a proper review. I’ve been quite happy with their DVDs of Koji Yuri’s Film Works, Koji Yamamura’s work, Osamu Tezuka’s Experimental Films, and so on. The only drawback or films with dialogue is that there are no subtitles, which would make the films more accessible to a wider audience.

Not wanting to disparage a distributor of international films entirely, I should add that KINO's DVD of Kawamoto’s short films, The Exquisite Short Films of Kihachiro Kawamoto, looks to be in fine condition. The original Japanese soundtracks have been retained and the subtitles are adequate. My only criticism is that there aren’t more films on the DVD. Geneon’s Japanese-only DVD has five more short films including the rarely seen Self Portrait, from a series of self portraits made by animators in 1988.

For Japanese releases (no subtitles) of Kawamoto's work:

Shisha no Sho / Puppet Show

Puppet Show

Kihachiro Kawamoto Sakuhin shu / Animation

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2009