The Wells Report

By Michael Wells

The Water Magician Surfaces in Manhattan, Magic Intact”

Kenji Mizoguchi’s The Water Magician was one of the nicest surprises in the final months of 2005, a season overflowing with treats for New York City-dwelling admirers of Asian film.  This ultra-rare (in the U.S., at least) silent classic screened once only, on December 2, in the Japan Society film series curated by photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto.  Though it was made long before Mizoguchi had achieved his global rep as an uber-filmmaker for the ages, it’s no “this kid’s got potential” calling card, but a gloriously confident piece from an artist working at a high level of achievement.  It’s so skillful I barely noticed the unlikeliness of its story, which is firmly in the “virtuous woman sacrifices all for the man she (chastely) loves” tradition.

Here the woman is the title character, an itinerant stage performer during the late 19th century Meiji era of legal and social reform and Westernization.  Not only does she have a heck of an act, but she pays for the law education of a hunky ruffian, helping to rescue him from a fate of degeneracy and crime.  In the grand old tradition of melodramatic coincidence, of course, he eventually finds he may be forced to bite the hand that fed him.  I’m not sure if “conflict of interest” was a foreign concept to the Japanese jurisprudence of the era, or if we’re just supposed to overlook the breathtaking lapses in professional ethics that the hero flirts with in the final act.

No matter, really.  The movie has a physical beauty, atmospheric texture and exhilarating camera freedom reminiscent of F.W. Murnau or other brilliant, late-silent European directors.  (You can clearly see the beginnings of the long, gliding tracking shots typical of Mizoguchi’s later work.)  An early scene wherein the heroine and hero talk on a bridge over a stream, before a moonlit rural landscape, was so gorgeous I almost would have been happy for them to keep talking for the rest of the movie.  By contrast, the shadowy claustrophobia of the interior settings seem even more obviously influenced by the German Expressionists.  Like those and many other fine silents, Water Magician uses the visuals as more than just lovely ornamentation, but also to convey emotion and inner states of being more complex and powerful than anything suggested by the conventional plot outline.

Mizoguchi probably could have dispensed with a lot of the abundant dialogue titles, given the precision and eloquence of his images.  At the beginning and the end, Sugimoto made a brief stab at voiceover narration in the style of the benshi of silent-era Japanese theaters; it felt doubly redundant, though it was a charming gesture.  I was surprised to hear it claimed during the post-screening Q&A that on its original release, this movie would have been accompanied by full benshi narration all the way through; I had assumed that the film, complete as it seemed, was part of the late-silent move away from reliance on the benshi by cutting-edge directors.  Then again, I don’t know how much say Mizoguchi would have had in the how the film was shown in individual theaters.

On the matter of sound, the music at the screening was at least as problematic – the score by Kenta Nagai was lovely when it stuck to shamisen passages which accorded well with the movie’s setting and mood.  But it was often marred by pretentious, electronic and percussion passages that were at times a terrible distraction from the delicate images unscrolling on the screen.  I have no inherent objection to the use of non-traditional or even anachronistic musical forms in new scores for silents (google “Alloy Orchestra” sometime, and try to see them if they come to your town).  But it’s a tricky thing to pull off, and the composer/performer didn’t manage it very satisfactorily here.

Such quibbles aside, I fervently wish NYC programmers would make a point of getting more silent, and other pre-war, Japanese cinema to our city.  I forget which famous director remarked that when Westerners started paying attention to Japanese film in the post-1950 Kurosawa era, the story was already half over.  Judging from the glimpses I got during the fall of ’05, we’re really missing out – and judging from the audiences I watched those movies with, other people feel so, too.

- December 2005 & February 2006

For some information on the Benshi, read this book review from Midnight Eye.

Michael Wells can be contacted here.