PREVIEW: Tokyo Godfathers

This Friday, December 9th at 9:30 PM, the State Theatre will be showing Tokyo Godfathers, an animated Japanese film. I have no idea what this movie will be about, but I’ve heard many good things about it. I believe the State Theatre put on this film last year as well: I’m wondering what has made them show this anime annually, which gives me high hopes about its quality. I’m especially excited to watch it in a theater on the big screen.

I’m very happy that the showing will be in English sub. I personally prefer Japanese dub, since it’s closer to the creator’s message and nuances. I also like Japanese voice actors more. To each their own, though; if you like English dub, I’m sure there’s a version out there of this movie for you to watch.

Some predictions I have about what this movie will be like from the featured image would be it’s family-themed, will probably have comedy and tear-jerker moments (= good OSTs), and doesn’t take place in the modern day.

I’m excited to let you guys know my thoughts and opinions afterward!

REVIEW: A Page of Madness

Thursday, October 13, 2022~

A Page of Madness (1926) is a Japanese silent horror film directed by Teinosuke Kinugasa. Just this past Thursday, the Center for Japanese studies hosted a free screening of it at the Michigan Theater.

I first heard about the event from my Japanese, and I thought that it would be the perfect opportunity to practice my listening skills. I also don’t have much experience with horror films, so this seemed like it would be a good experience.

The general plot follows a man, played by Masao Inoue, who took a job as a janitor at a mental asylum. He did so in an attempt to get closer to his wife, played by Yoshie Nakagawa, who was admitted there.

Unusually, this film did not have intertitles as I would have expected from a silent film; however, there was a benshi, a live performer who narrated silent films. Benshi were popular in Japan during the silent film era, and some say that they may have even extended the era for Japan. During the event’s introduction, they even mentioned that in later times people would turn off the sound for movies so that they could bring in a benshi. 

Nanako Yamauchi, a graduate of the oldest film school in Japan, Nihon University’s Film Department, was our benshi that day — and she was mesmerizing.

I admittedly didn’t catch much of the plot since there was no form of English translation and I’ve only been studying Japanese for a little more than a year. I understood some of the basic dialogue and a few phrases, but that’s all. However, as Yamauchi mentioned before the film began, it didn’t matter if we didn’t understand her. The emotion and drama in her voice were palpable, and you could easily recognize the emotional state of each character.

Additionally, the Detroit group Little Bang Theory (Frank Pahl, Terri Sarris, and Doug Shimmin), performed an original score that they played on toy and handmade instruments. Their music complimented Yamauchi’s narration and excellently set the film’s chilling mood.

While the film itself wasn’t too scary for me, nor did I find the plot anything extraordinary (probably because I didn’t understand it), the overall experience was valuable. After learning and witnessing firsthand the unique film culture of benshi narrations, I’m definitely intrigued to see more (maybe when I have a better grasp of the language).

This event was the first of CJS’s Japanese Film Series for the year. Their theme this time is Diamonds by the Decade, exploring different eras of Japanese movies. If you’re interested in that, I’d highly recommend checking out what other films they’ll be showing at the Michigan Theater!

REVIEW: Sankai Juku, Meguri: Teeming Sea, Tranquil Land

After experiencing the Japanese dance form of butoh through Sankai Juku’s meditative performance, I felt both emotionally disturbed yet liberated. The continuous 90-minute ‘dance’ performance, composed of seven distinct acts, is supposedly choreographed to emanate the circularity within processes and systems such as the earth’s transformation and its movement through the four seasons. The eight performers are powdered a stark white from head to toe, donning bald heads, asymmetrical earrings, and mostly white, sarong-like costumes on their lower halves. They move in correspondence to emotionally dynamic music and express a “dialogue with gravity” through both graceful and grotesque movements marked by spinning, jumping, and eerie bodily gesturing. It is personally difficult for me to describe Sankai Juku through a traditional ‘dance’ perspective; I fail to see it confined to any form of dance theatre that I have experienced before. Sankai Juku as a whole feels more akin to a poetically disturbing expression of the human experience, while their interpretation of meguri translates as a storytelling experience that is facilitated by the mostly monochrome stage lighting that changed with each act.

I thought Ushio Amagatsu’s portrayal of the grotesque within the context of meguri communicated to the audience particularly well; Act V, titled Forest of Fossils, left me especially disturbed with my thoughts asunder. It was during this section that I finally reached some sort of understanding of the performers’ wide, gaping, mouths and permanently perturbed eyes – to me, they communicated agony in discovery and marked the climax of the program. During Act V, only three performers are present on a stage set aglow with greenish light; the music is both tensely trembling and pulsating with the sounds of rocks grinding, which calls to mind the natural shifting of the earth’s tectonic plates. Paralleling the earth’s provocations are the performers, who appear the most agitated that they have been, with one performer gesturing the most frantically and in the most ‘agony’ – at one point, that performer drags his limbs across the powdery ground in a tight spiral to form two symmetrical circles, then subsequently emotes in pure tension and agony around the formation of those two circles. The remaining two performers respond in an unsettling symmetry, and their generally upwards arm movements seem to be grasping at some unattainable substance or idea. The desperation and agony contained within this grotesque imagery, combined with the increasingly jarring music, left me feeling deeply unsettled and in rumination of Amagutsu’s artistic intent behind that section.

As much as I enjoyed the dichotomy between the grotesqueness of Amagutsu’s work and the beauty in the circularity and meguri it conveyed, I think the most uniquely beautiful aspect of Sankai Juku is how the performance manages to maintain universality in evoking the most visceral of emotions from its audience. My disturbed reaction to and interpretation of agony from Act V, Forest of Fossils, differs from the next audience member, yet the emotional impact of this does not seem to suffer in the face of Sankai Juku’s widely interpretable themes derived from the human experience.



REVIEW: Blue moon over Memphis

The Power Center is one of my favorite venues on campus, With the steep incline of it’s auditorium, floor to ceiling windows, and grey concrete staircases lifting off of the lobby floor I always feel like I’m stepping into the Senate Rotunda from Star Wars when attending an event there. The uniquely sci-fi setting proved to be yet another simultaneously clashing and complementary element in the night’s unique performance, a hybrid of American pop culture featuring the myth around “the king” himself, and Japanese traditional Noh theater, the most ancient theater practice in the world that is still being regularly performed today.  

After spotting flyers for the performance scattered across practically every free space on campus, I was curious as to how many people would actually show for the unique event.  When I first arrived a half and hour early I was surprised and slightly disheartened to see only a scattering of people in the section of the audience left open for the show, to say nothing of the empty seats above and to either side. Thankfully, as the show’s start time drew nearer more and more people trickled in until before I knew it, the crowd was sizably filled out.  Before the performance we had several esteemed guests including the head of UM’s Center for Japanese Studies warmly introduce the nights performance as well as acknowledge the Toyota Visiting Professor program that made the entire event possible.

As someone with little-to-no experience in… well… noh, I only had a vague idea of what we were about to witness.  I knew that noh involved slow methodic movement, painstakingly crafted masks, and very little else. Thankfully Theater Ongaku, the troupe that would be treating us to the performance that night first showed off two segments of other performances that they do, to give the audience a sort of “warm up.”  I also found it fascinating when they explained that the troupe had members flying in from quite literally all across the world to be there in person, and had done most of their rehearsing in the last few days leading up to the performance, although their polished performance certainly didn’t give the impression of being rushed.


Much to my expectation, the performance was very purposeful and deliberate, which some might also describe as painstakingly slow if they are used to the high energy plays and musicals so popular these days.  Additionally, there is no other way to word it, but several of the moments in the performance seemed to be unintentionally comical, with the dissonance between the subject matter and the art itself feeling slightly awkward and the intense acting on the part of the actors far from what most Americans are used to. I certainly spotted a few other audience members in the crowd trying to stifle their laugher as I was myself out of respect for the performers and the art form itself.  However it wasn’t until near the end of the performance when the groundskeeper character launched into his lengthy monologue that easily made up a quarter of the script that I realized that many of these moments were intentionally meant to be funny, as the groundskeeper himself acted like a jester, dancing around stage whirling about a pair of women’s panties as a prop.

My personal favorite element of the performance was not even the performance itself, but the beautiful and uniquely crafted garments made for it.  The main character of Judy was wearing what appeared to be a traditional Japanese garment sewn out of patched-together denim scraps, combining the American and Japanese elements quite literally.  The costumes worn by Elvis were striking as well, especially the enormous gilded cream outfit that he wore, subtly decorated by an elegant feather motif. The photo below, while not taken at the local performance, shows the interesting design of these two garments, especially in contrast with the plain black clothes most of the other performers were wearing.

While I can’t exactly ascertain how faithful the play was to traditional noh theater, it was evident that the troupe had a deep love and appreciation of noh theater, as well as extensive knowledge and training in the subject, so I can only assume that they did it justice.  

REVIEW: Dragnet Girl

Ichiro Kataoka performing

This Monday Ann Arbor was treated to something special, a screening of the Japanese silent film Dragnet Girl narrated live by of a modern-day benshi, Ichiro Kataoka. Benshi are traditional “narrators” of silent movies in Japan, that bothwrite and perform scripts for silent movies of all types.  Benshi were extremely popular in Japan during the silent movie era. Now there are about 10 benshi still performing for audiences both within Japan, and across the globe. Ichiro Kataoka is one of the very best amongst this selective number, and he travels the most out of the 10, this night gracing our town of Ann Arbor.

Dragnet Girl is a 1933 Japanese silent film about a gangster, Joji,  who meets the innocent and kindhearted Kazuko.  Kazuko enlists his help in looking after her brother who is slowly getting swept up in the dangers of the udnerworld. Joji’s girlfriend, Tokiko, gets lost in  a haze of jealousy, but eventually falls for the Kazuko’s wholesome charm.  Influenced by the innocent Kazuko, Tokiko dreams of finding redemption herself.

Most surprisingly, I was was able to be completely immersed in the film despite not understanding a word of Japanese myself.  I credit most of this phenomenon to the sheer talent of the benshi, Ichiro Kataoka.  While the intertitles were subtitled in English, the rest of the dialogue was pure, untranslated Japanese.  Despite this setback I was able to understand immediately the gist of what was being said by a mix of context, visual cues, and the pure emotion in the benshi’s voice.

During one particularly emotional scene, instead of focusing on the screen I tried to focus on Ichiro Kataoka’s performance.  I was shocked to see his face contorted into the very picture of despair, his expression matching perfectly with the crying girl on the screen. As he continued his narration and performance, he wasn’t just emoting with his voice but with his entire body. You could see the shift in his face and body as he switched from one character to the next, being able to go from a young crying girl to a gruff aging man in an instant.

This screening of Dragnet Girl was a part of the film series, KURO: The Dark Edge of Japanese Filmmaking.  There are two films left in the series, Ichi the Killer and The World of Kanako.   For more information about the film series and other series held at the Michigan Theater please check out this page. 

Specifically interested in seeing a live benshi in action? Ichiro Kataoka will be coming back for a special screening of an experimental Japanese film during the upcoming Ann Arbor Film Festival, so keep your ears pricked for upcoming news.

REVIEW: A Night of Rakugo

Sitting on a 2’x2’ cushion on stage, in front of a large audience, telling a funny story — that is the 400-year-old art of Japanese storytelling, or rakugo.

Having some prior knowledge of rakugo, the moment I heard about a live performance in Ann Arborfree of charge — I knew. I was there. Doors opened at 6:30PM in U-M’s Modern Language Building Auditorium 4. The performance was planned for 7PM sharp. Although my friend and I arrived on time, we were greeted by a full house. In fact, it was so crowded, people were standing against the walls. We were handed a very nice program that was half in Japanese and half in English, detailing the night’s schedule.

Organized by the U-M Japanese Language Program and Center for Japanese Studies, I saw the faculty dressed in kimonos. In case you don’t know what kimonos are, they’re long, loose robes with wide sleeves and tied with a sash, originally worn as a formal garment in Japan.

Seeing beautiful and intricate patterns, colorful fabric, wooden sandals, I could feel my heart punch a hole through my chest. This was the real deal.

Well, thanks to my punctuality, my friend and I found front row seats…on the floor. The faculty handed us Japanese newspapers to sit on and apologized that there were no seats left. It was really no trouble, though. Sitting on the floor was a pain in the butt, but the show was free, and we had a great view of the stage. It was red, with a lush purple 2’x2’ cushion sitting on top of it. A paper lantern stood on each side.

The show began by first teaching the audience a little bit about rakugo and giving a short demonstration as to how a typical performance is done.

is a traditional comedic performance that definitely throws anyone for a loop the first time around, but it’s actually pretty easy to understand. Long story short, the performer sits on the cushion on stage and tells a story. They do this by enacting every character in the story, and using their only two props: a paper fan and a tenugui (Japanese towel). They may stand up on their knees but never on their feet, so the performance never leaves the cushion.

Because the performer has so much to act out, their creativity and skill shine through the performance. They can use the fan as a pair of chopsticks or as a pen, they can use the towel as a letter or a book! The performance really delivers the story.

After the crash course on rakugo, the performances came next. Because the show was organized by the university’s Japanese Language Program, students studying Japanese were able to participate in this unique art of storytelling. One by one, short stories a couple minutes long were told by each student.

One of the students told a story about a little girl greeting her father who had come home from a seaward trip. The girl urged to see his photos of the ocean, gushing over the fish swimming underwater. In one photo, the girl found a sea creature that was uglier than the rest and, disgusted, she asked her father what it was. Then the father scolded her, because it was not a fish — it was her mother!

In rakugo, the story typically leads up to a hilarious punch line at the very end. And honestly, they were really funny! I was cracking up on the floor, trying to hold in my hideous snorts.

After the students were the two Japanese rakugo performers, who had flown to the United States all the way from Japan as cultural envoys. Rakugo professionals.

Yanagiya Sankyo (柳家さん喬) and Yanagiya Kyonosuke (柳家喬之助) are two widely famous rakugo performers in Japan, and tickets to see their shows are priced usually over $30 per person! It was the biggest honor to be able to see their performances for free. I was just happy to be there. Even if I was sitting at eye level with people’s feet.

Unfortunately, photography was prohibited for the two famous rakugo performers. But I promise you, they were amazing. Sitting up there with their commanding presence, their expressions and voices varying with every character — it was truly an art. Just by a small turn of their torso, they suddenly became a different person! Their performances were definitely the highlight of the night.

Yanagiya Kyonosuke (柳家喬之助) performed first with the story Hatsu Tenjin (初天神, “First Tenjin Festival”), which was summarized in the program: “A precocious boy named Kinbou convinces his father to take him to the festival at the Tenjin shrine, on the condition that he won’t bother his father to buy him anything. At the festival, of course, Kinbou can’t help asking for everything he sees, causing problems for his father.”

It was a hilarious performance, and the room roared with laughter as Yanagiya Kyonosuke pouted and wailed as the child. Kinbou was one spunky child, and I loved every second of his character on stage. It was an incredible performance by an incredible performer!

The last performance carries the most prestige in a rakugo show. After a brief intermission, Yanagiya Sankyo (柳家さん喬) delivered the last performance, telling the story of Shinigami (死神, “The God of Death”). In the program, it was summarized: “The God of Death tells a man who has decided that he wants to die that it’s not his time yet and teaches him a way to make a living as a doctor. He grants the man the ability to see the God of Death and teaches him a spell. If the God of Death is sitting by the patient’s feet, then the patient will recover. He simply has to recite the spell and the sick person will get well. If the God of Death is at the patient’s head, there’s nothing that can be done for him. The man becomes very wealthy but spends lavishly on trips and ends up broke. When patients stop coming, he becomes desperate to regain his fortune. But is it possible to trick the God of Death?”

Shinigami (死神, “The God of Death”) is one of the most popular and famous rakugo stories out there, and although it’s a little on the scarier side, it has its funny moments. Shinigami was beautifully told by Yanagiya Sankyo. Everyone was plunged straight into the story as he acted out the God of Death and the cheating doctor. As the God of Death, Yanagiya Sankyo held the fan like a cane under his hands, chuckling at the man’s misfortune. I was enraptured by his performance, visualizing the elements that weren’t there. It was a wonderful story told by a wonderful performer to end a wonderful night.

If you ever catch the word rakugo keep your ears peeled. A story will be told!