Associate Professor of Japanese Kyoko Omori organized and produced a silent film screening that featured a six-person international ensemble at the Billy Wilder Theater at UCLA on April 14.
The group, performing under the name The Orochi Ensemble, was composed of a “benshi” live silent film narrator, three Japanese traditional musical instrumentalists (shakuhachi, biwa and “narimono” percussion) and two western musical instrumentalists (piano and cello).
Omori said the event was significant for four reasons. First, it featured a rare, surviving 35mm copy of Orochi (Serpent: 1925), a historically important silent samurai film showcasing the directorial innovation of Futagawa Buntaro and the superb acting and sword fighting of Bando Tsumasaburo.
Second, it was the first time traditional Japanese and western instrumentalists collaborated to produce a new musical score for a silent film with benshi narration. Omori made this possible by enlisting Gabriel Thibaudeau, internationally recognized composer, pianist and conductor, to write and conduct the music.
Third, benshi Kataoka Ichiro presented his new interpretation of the film in his narration. His voice acting helped the audience experience and understand the psychological depth of the film.
Finally, the performance also featured traditional singing by the biwa player, Nobuko Kawashima.
Omori initially convened The Orochi Ensemble artists at Hamilton in September 2014 when she received support from the College and the Japan Foundation. At the end of the weeklong workshop, the ensemble performed their work-to-date by presenting the first half of Orochi in a public exhibition on campus.
The live performance and screening of Orochi at the Billy Wilder Theater was the first time Omori and the Ensemble presented the entire work, the result of their cross-Pacific collaboration over the last few years.
To showcase this benshi event, UCLA’s Film and TV Archive and Asian Languages and Cultures Department jointly sponsored a film series titled “Hollywood and Holy Wood: Silent Cinema Connection Between Los Angeles and Japan,” curated by Daisuke Miyao of the University of California San Diego.
Following the performance, Omori answered questions from UCLA Film Programmer Paul Malcolm and the audience. She also explained the history of benshi outside of Japan and more particularly in Los Angeles where Japanese immigrants formed communities in the early 20th century.