Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Cue Random Musical Number… Because We Can! Heinosuke Gosho’s The Neighbor’s Wife and Mine: The First Japanese Talkie

With the noise pollution that has accompanied the machine age, it is perhaps not as surprising as one would initially think to discover that the first Japanese talking picture, Heinosuke Gosho’s The Neighbor’s Wife and Mine (1931) is about a man trying to escape from noise.  In this rather flimsily plotted film—clocking in at under sixty minutes—a playwright facing a deadline moves his wife and two young children into a country house with the idea that he’ll “be able to get some real work done here.” Such was his hubris!
Enter stage left, right, and center: the cacophony of the modern world! Crying babies! Crying slightly-older children! Shrieking alley-cats in heat!  Alarm clocks! Bells! And, to top it all off, the neighbors have a jazz band rehearsing at their house! God, what are the odds? Now, why, you may ask, is there a jazz band next door? Because this is Japan’s first talkie, and goddamn it, we’re going to have some music.  And what music it turns out to be: a veritable futurist anthem in which they sing, “This is the speed generation!” before the English(y) refrain, “Speed-o! Speed-o! Speed-o! Hey! Hey!” One expects that old dead asshole Vladimir Mayakovsky to pop out of the woodwork and issue another slap in the face of public taste.
The Neighbor’s Wife and Mine is the first “first talkie of a national cinema” that I’ve seen.  The first talkie in the U.S. (and anywhere, for that matter) was Alan Crosland’s The Jazz Singer (1927), which I haven’t seen, but which I understand features Al Jolson in some profoundly racist blackface numbers (so many cinematic milestones are full of sickening racism).  Sound films came comparatively late to Japan.  Gosho’s movie was released in 1931 and silent films would continue to be made there well into the mid-thirties.  One of the reasons for this was the popularity of the uniquely Japanese institution of the benshi.  Benshi were live speakers who would provide narration to accompany screenings of silent films.  Some of them were so popular that they became stars in their own right, and people would go to a movie because of who was narrating it.  When the talkies finally did take over, the institution of the benshi died and their livelihoods were destroyed.  Akira Kurosawa’s brother, Heigo Kurosawa, was a benshi, and when the silent film died out, he committed suicide (this is described in Kurosawa’s memoir, Something like an Autobiography).  The original title for this piece was going to be “How Heinosuke Gosho Personall Killed Heigo Kurosawa,” but I decided that that was in dubious taste.
The Neighbor’s Wife and Mine might be a bit rambling, but the Japanese talking picture would come into its own by the end of the thirties, with great directors like Kenji Mizuguchi, Yasujiro Ozu, and Sadao Yamanaka creating their first masterpieces (or their last, in the case of Yamanaka, who died in 1938, but that’s another blog post).  As far as I can tell, not much of Gosho’s work is available in the US; I watched The Neighbor’s Wife and Mine on the Criterion Collection’s Hulu page, where they also have another Gosho film called Burden of Life (1935) which is Ozuesque and just much better in general, and shows that Gosho clearly went on to master the medium of the sound film.  Hopefully more of Gosho’s works will become available here.  In the meantime, I would recommend Burden of Life as the ideal introduction to Gosho’s oeuvre.

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