09 October 2015

The Scent of Pheasant’s Eye (福壽草, 1935)

The Scent of Pheasant’s Eye: An Episode from the Tales of Flowers (1935)
乙女シリーズ その一 花物語 福壽草
Shōjo shiriizu sono hito - hana monogatari fukujusō

For their 10th anniversary, Camera Japan Festival in Rotterdam presented a benshi performance with piano accompaniment of the rarely seen silent film The Scent of Pheasant’s Eye: An Episode from the Tales of Flowers (乙女シリーズ その一 花物語 福壽草 / Shōjo shiriizu sono hito-hana monogatari fukujusō, 1935).  The revival of this film occurred in 2008/9 with screenings at the National Film Center in Tokyo (2008), who has a 35mm print of the film, and at the Tokyo International Lesbian and Gay Film Festival (2009). Screenings of the film have featured benshi performances by either Midori Sawato or Ichiro Kataoka.  The film’s first international screening is believed to have been at the 2013 Pordenone Silent Film Festival.

The Story

The film is based on a story found in Tales of Flowers (花物語/Hana Monogatari, 1916-1924) by Nobuko Yoshiya (吉屋信子, 1896-1973).  The 52 stories of romantic female friendships in this collection were very popular with female students of the day.  Yoshiya was a prolific and commercially successful writer who is considered a pioneer in lesbian literature.  Her same-sex (dosei-ai) romances were considered acceptable because they depicted lesbianism as a phase on the road to a culturally acceptable heterosexual marriage. 

The “pheasant’s eye” of the title English common name of the flower fukujusō (フクジュソウ / Adonis ramosa).  In the original kanji it means luck (/fuku), long life (寿/ju), and herb(/).  It belongs to the family of flowers named after mythological figure Adonis.  In East Asia, the fukujusō is a rare yellow flower found mainly in central and northern Japan.  In the context of this story, the flower is a metaphor for the rare beauty of the young female protagonists.  This is made clear by the opening quote from Yoshiya herself: “I dedicate this to the lovely young flowers.”

The Scent of Pheasant’s Eye tells the story of a high school girl called Kaoru Sakamoto who falls in love with her sister-in-law Miyoko.  Her crush actually develops before she has even met her brother’s new wife.  It is an arranged marriage and the "sisters" only meet on the wedding day.  A romantic young girl, Kaoru and her friends are the kind of girls who would be likely to read Nobuko Yoshiya’s novels and fantasize about their ideal romantic partner.  As the friendship blossoms between Kaoru and Miyoko, Kaoru grows jealous of any affection Miyoko shows Kaoru’s brother.  Kaoru’s schoolmates and family act as foils for her moody behaviour.  The drama of any romance is kept light with comedic moments such as the slapstick scene where the two young ladies are being photographed together in nature and the photographer falls into the water.   The physical comedy in the film shows the influence of the American silent greats like Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, and Harold Lloyd.   The lesbian love affair is suggested via the female gaze and evocative mise-en-scène, but no direct dialogue.  Miyoko is equally flirtatious with her husband as she is with his sister, causing the latter to indulge in jealous temper tantrums. 

The Cast

Star billing is given to Naomi Egawa in the role of Kaoru Sakamoto.  She gives a melodramatic performance, putting on a hilarious “jealousy face” every time her sister-in-law shows her brother some affection.  The benshi, Kataoka-san, told me that Kaoru’s “jealousy face” had the audience at the 2009 Tokyo International Lesbian and Gay Film Festival in stitches.  Egawa’s film career seems to have just been in the 1930s.  In contrast to Egawa’s melodramatics, Matsue Hisamatsu puts in a more subtle performance as Miyoko, the object of Kaoru’s intense affections.  Hisamatsu’s film career was even briefer than that of Egawa.

The best actors in this film are Akira Kichōji (credited under his real name of Mitsuhiko Okazaki) as Kaoru’s brother Mitsuo, and Buman Kahara (also credited under his real name of Keiji Ōizumi) as her father. Both men went on to have long and varied careers as character actors.   Kichōji’s best known films are Seven Samurai (1954), where he played one of the farmers, and Japan’s Longest Day (1967), while appeared in films such as Shōhei Imamura’s My Second Brother (1960) and Pigs and Battleships (1961).  With his expressive face, Kichōji plays Mitsuo as a very charming man.  However, the show-stealing performance of the film is that of Kahara who opens the film with a hilarious slapstick bicycle ride which would have been right at home in a Buster Keaton film. 

The Cinematography

The real star of Scent of Pheasant’s Eye for me is the extremely innovative cinematography.  The film opens with a POV shot of Kaoru’s father, a town councillor, coming home by bicycle.  I am not sure how they shot it, but it does indeed look as though they mounted the camera on an actual bicycle.  At first, the councillor's form of transportation is unclear, we only know that it is a bumpy ride and get to enjoy, from his perspective, the bemused farmers’ greetings of this well-known local figure.  When we do finally get to see a shot of him, it is played for comic effect.  His way has been blocked and he berates whoever is blocking his way.  When the camera finally widens the shot, we see that he has been telling off a cow rather than a person.  Such visual gags are frequent in the film, giving us a welcome respite from Karou’s sometimes over-the-top melodrama. 

The unusual framings of dialogue and action seem fresh and innovative for the time.  By the mid-1930s in the USA, the classical Hollywood style had largely been standardized and this film would have broken all those rules.  It seems surprising that this film has remained hidden from international scholarship for decades.  The cinematographer is Asakazu Nakai (中井朝一, 1901-88), who went on to become a frequent collaborator of Akira Kurosawa.  The film gave me a thirst to see more of his early work, as I have only seen the films for which his cinematography is renowned, like Stray Dog (1949), Ikiru (1952), Seven Samurai (1954), Throne of Blood (1957), High and Low (1963) and Ran (1985).  In total, he made over 130 films in his long and successful career, but his pre-war work has been little seen or written about.

The Director

Not a great deal is known about the director Jirō Kawate (川手二郎, b. 1904 – d. unknown).  He was born in Nagano Prefecture and it is said that his admiration for the renowned film and kabuki actor Bando Tsumasaburo (阪東妻三郎, 1901-53) inspired him to get into the film industry himself.  He first worked as an extra, then as an assistant director, before becoming a director in 1932 for Shinkō Kinema.  

In 1936 he moved to what is now Toho Studios, where he made several films of the genre Kulturfilm (文化映画 / Bunka eiga).  He then returned to his hometown to work in real estate, but nothing is known about his life since he retired from the film industry.

Jirō Kawate Complete Filmography:

1932父をたづねて三千里 / Chichi wo tazunete sanzen-ri
1933時雨ひととき/ Shigure Hito-toki
1933花嫁選手 / Hanayome Senshu
1933結婚快走記 / Kekkon Kaisōki
1934 誕生日/ Tanjyōbi
1934細君ネロ 家庭争議の巻 / Saikun Nero Kateisōgi no Kan
1935福寿草 / Fukujusō
1935釣鐘草 / Tsuriganisō
1935恋の浮島 / Koi no Ukishima
1936乙女橋 / Otomebashi
1936残月の歌 / Kingetsu no uta

The Screening with Benshi and Piano Performances

Ichiro Kataoka’s benshi performance was, as always, stellar.  He performed together with the Dutch silent film pianist Kevin Toma.  Toma and Kataoka met for the first time on the day.  They had a chance to talk to each other beforehand and did a sound check together, but they did not rehearse together.  One could liken their improvisational performance to jazz music.  Kataoka played off of the script that he wrote for the film in 2008.  Much of the film’s dialogue was preserved, but I noticed that he added his own interpretation to scenes.  I have seen him perform in Germany with projected subtitles of his script, but this film only had the NFC English subtitles of the title cards (done by the amazing husband and wife team Dean Shimauchi), so non-speakers of Japanese missed out on some of the poetic touches Kataoka brought to the film, such as his description of the changing seasons.  One moment that needed no translation was his hilarious interpretation of a scene in which two deaf old men play Go together but only have one ear trumpet to shout at each other through. 

The pianist, Toma, does not play silent movie standards.  He composes his own music, improvises, and often adds themes from some of his favourite composers.  During this performance he apparently used a melody from a piece by Toru Takemitsu.  The film was consisted of three 35mm reels that were on loan from the NFC but the cinema had only one projector, so Toma had to improvise during the long reel changes.  On the whole it was a lively performance much enjoyed by the audience.  

Incidentally after the performance I discovered that Kataoka is from Nerima (a ward in Tokyo).  This was a funny coincidence, I thought to myself, because Nerima is famous for its daikon radishes, and there is a memorable scene in The Scent of Pheasant’s Eye where Mitsuo flirts with Miyoko as she washes a long row of daikon in the river.  When I asked Kataoka about this, he laughed and told me that The Scent of Pheasant’s Eye was actually shot in Nerima and because of this, he would be doing a benshi performance of the film in Nerima next year.  Keep your eyes open for the event next year Tokyoites – it is worth watching!

Jirō KAWATE 川手二郎

Raizo HAGINO萩野頼三
Jirō KAWATE川手二郎
Nobuko YOSHIYA吉屋信子 (novel)

Asakazu NAKAI  中井朝一


Kaoru SAKAMOTO 坂本薫:Naomi EGAWA 江川なほみ
Miyoko (Kaoru’s sister-in-law) 薫の嫂美代子:Matsue HISAMATSU 久松美津枝
Kimiko (Kaoru’s classmate) 薫の学友春日公子:Ginko HANABUSA 花房銀子
Tsuyako (Kaoru’s classmate) 薫の学友阿部ツヤ子:Kimie HAYASHI 林喜美枝
Housemistress 舎監先生:Mineko KOMATSU 小松峰子
Governer’s wife 知事夫人:Junko KIMURA 木村潤子
Mitsuo (Kaoru’s Brother) 薫の兄満雄:Akira Kichōji吉頂寺 credited as Mitsuhiko OKAZAKI 岡崎光彦
Kaoru’s father 薫の父村長さん:Bumon KAHARA 加原 武門 credited as Keiji ŌIZUMI 大泉慶治
Photographer 写真屋:Kan UEDA上田寛
Go-playing old man 碁敵のおじさん:Eirō NIIMI  新見映郎
Old man 人のいいおじさん:Joe Ohara  ジョウ・オハラ
Masako KINOSHITA 木下政子:Ruriko HOSHI 星ルリ子
Schoolmaster 校長:Yōyō KOJIMA 小島洋々

2015 Cathy Munroe Hotes