Talking the Pictures (カツベン!, Masayuki Suo, 2019)

Famously, silent cinema was never really “silent” in Japan. As the quote from director Hiroshi Inagaki which appears after the end credits of Masayuki Suo’s ode to the early days of the movies Talking the Pictures (カツベン!, Katsuben!) reminds us, audiences always had the benshi to guide them. These narrators of film were often more of a draw than the pictures themselves, cinemagoers keener to see their favourite storyteller perform than the story up on screen. A relic of a bygone age, the benshi has often been blamed for holding Japanese cinema back as studios continued to craft their films around audience appetites for live performance, but as we’ll see even the benshi themselves could sense their obsolescence lingering on the horizon. 

Beginning in 1915, the film opens with a retro mockup of a Toei logo from the silent era though the studio was only founded in 1938 and therefore produced only sound movies. Shot as a silent picture the opening sequence follows a gang of kids as they make their way towards an active film set where a classic jidaigeki is in production, confused on passing what appears to be a woman peeing standing up against a tree, a reminder that early cinema was largely inspired by kabuki and therefore featured male actors playing female roles. This is a disappointment to young Umeko, the daughter of an itinerant sex worker, who dreams of becoming an actress. Shuntaro, a little boy obsessed with the movies and dreaming of becoming a benshi like his idol the marquee draw Shusei Yamaoka (Masatoshi Nagase), reassures her that plenty of films from other countries feature female actors as the pair bond sneaking into the local picture house together but as in any good melodrama they are separated by time and circumstance only to be reunited 10 years later when neither of them is quite living their best life. 

While Umeko (Yuina Kuroshima) is a struggling actress trying to make it in motion pictures, Shuntaro (Ryo Narita) is living as a “fake benshi” impersonating Yamaoka and others for clueless provincial audiences while the gang he’s running with rob local houses using the movies as a cover. Escaping with some of the loot, he rebrands himself as “Kunisada” after a favourite character from the silver screen and fetches up in his old stomping ground, getting a backstage job at the troubled picture house which finds itself at the mercy of the new outfit in town, a purpose built modern cinema run by local yakuza Tachibana (Fumiyo Kohinata) and his movie-loving modern gal daughter Kotoe (Mao Inoue). Like the film itself, the town is at the nexus of changing times. The Aoki cinema is housed in a former kabuki theatre with the staff dressing in kimono even if Shuntaro and his divaish rival Mogi (Kengo Kora) don suits to talk the pictures. The palatial Tachibana meanwhile boasts modern seating and has the habit of poaching the Aoki’s staff partly because they pay more and partly because no one wants to work with Mogi who is, in his own way, an exemplification of the ways the benshi can interfere with cinematic development in that he forces the projectionist to undercrank the movies to ensure they follow the rhythm of his narration and not vice versa. 

The handsome Mogi is still pulling in the crowds, but the ageing Yamaoka has become a melancholy drunk now convinced that his own art is an act of destruction, actively unhelpful in becoming a barrier between the audience and the movies rather than a bridge. After all, cinema is a visual medium, it shouldn’t need “explaining” in words. He’s actively standing in the way, imposing his own narrative over someone else’s vision just as Shuntaro is a “fake” benshi in that he merely copies the routines of others, adopting a “fake” persona while hiding out in the movie house from the gang he ran away from and the movie-loving cop (Yutaka Takenouchi) who’s chasing them. Yamaoka may have a point, the days of the benshi are numbered though there were those who argued the advent of the talkies was also a regression, the advances of the silent era squandered on the spectacle of sound. Nevertheless, filled as it is with silent-era slapstick, silly farce, melodrama, and romance, Talking the Pictures is a warm and nostalgic tribute to a bygone age of cinema and the men and women who guided us through it. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Initiation Love (イニシエーション・ラブ, Yukihiko Tsutsumi, 2015)

initiation loveMost romantic comedies don’t come with warnings about twist endings and a plea not to give them way, but Initiation Love (イニシエーション・ラブ) is not your average romantic comedy. Set in the early bubble era, Yukihiko Tsutsumi’s double sided feature is itself a wry look at the problematic nature of nostalgia. Harking back to a perhaps more innocent era in which lack of political and economic turmoil left plenty of time for romantic confusion coupled with the corruption of the consumerist dream, Initiation Love pits innocent romance against cynical success but subtly suggests that grown up love is a kind of compromise in itself.

Side A: In the summer of 1987, Yuki Suzuki (Kanro Morita) – a geeky, overweight young man who is shy but has a kind heart, is unexpectedly invited to a college drinking party where he earns some major white knight points for interrupting the increasingly inappropriate grilling of new invitee Mayuko (Atsuko Maeda). Mayuko is pretty, sweet, and cute if in a slightly affected way. She is way out of Suzuki’s league, but later confesses that she’s looking for someone a bit different, like Suzuki, an awkward-type who won’t lie to her or play around. Bonding over a shared love of reading, the pair grow closer, Mayuko rechristens Suzuki “Takkun”, and he vows to spruce himself up to become “worthy” of her.

Side B: Takkun (Shota Matsuda), now slim and handsome, is given a surprise promotion to Tokyo. Rather than suggest marriage or that Mayuko come with him, he settles on long distance and promises to come back to Shizuoka at weekends while waiting to be approved for a transfer back home. In Tokyo, however, Takkun’s personality begins to shift. Seduced by city sophistication and the promises of an elite salaryman lifestyle, Takkun draws closer to upper-class career woman Miyako (Fumino Kimura) whose jaded straightforward confidence he regards as “grown up” in contrast to the innocent charms of Mayuko waiting patiently at home.

The overarching narrative is provided to us via a melancholy voice over and accompanied, in the manner of a classic mix-tape, by a song from the era which is deliberately on the nose in terms of its aptness – a song about giving up on summer just as the couple are stuck in a traffic jam on the way to the beach and about to have a gigantic row, or a song about lucky chances coming up on TV just as our hero is plucking up the courage to allow himself to be bamboozled into going on a date with the girl of his dreams. The carefully placed positioning of the songs reminds us that we are inside someone’s carefully curated memories. Just as Takkun’s vision of Mayu-chan is one surrounded by flowers and light, the early days of romance are a condensed and romanticised version of real events seen entirely from one perspective and coloured with the gradual fading of time. Nostalgia is an unreliable narrator, recasting real life as Hollywood fiction.

The warm and fuzzy glow of Side A is undercut by the subtly questionable actions of Mayuko and our own prejudices about why she might be with a guy like Takkun. Self-consciously cute, Mayuko makes needling suggestions – dress better, get contacts, learn to drive, which, objectively speaking, might all help Takkun to gain some much needed confidence if only he were not doing all of them solely because he fears losing a woman like Mayuko. If Mayuko wanted a guy she could remake and boss around, she might have come to the right place but she does, at least, also try to insist that she likes Takkun anyway and so any changes he makes to himself will make no difference to her.

Side B, by contrast, turns the dynamic on its head as Takkun’s Tokyo persona becomes increasingly violent, resentful, and cruel while Mayuko seems genuine, innocent, and hurt by the increasing distance between herself and the man she loves. Seduced by city sophistications, Takkun leans ever closer to dumping the innocent country bumpkin, a love he has now outgrown, for a leg up into the middle-classes by marrying the elegant daughter of a wealthy Tokyo businessman. He is, however, torn – between the nostalgic glow of first love’s innocence, and the realities of adult life, the certain past and the uncertain future.

This is the philosophy ascribed by Miyako (apparently given to her by her own first love) that the first failed romance is a crucial part of growing up, an “Initiation Love” that breaks your heart by revealing the idea of true love as a romantic fallacy, allowing you move into the adult world with a degree of emotional clarity. A sound idea, but also sad and cruel in its own way. The final twist, offered as a cynical punchline, can’t help but feel cheap, carrying mildly misogynistic undertones dressed up as a kind of joke aimed at cowardly men who are incapable making clear choices and refuse to see their romantic partners as real people rather than the self created images of them they maintain. Takkun remains torn, between past and future, town and country, old love and new but nostalgia is always a trap – a false impression of a true emotion that impedes forward motion with a promise of a return to something which can never be delivered.


Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2018.

Screening again:

  • QUAD – 10 February 2018
  • Brewery Arts Centre – 2 March 2018
  • Filmhouse – 9 March 2018

Playlist: Side A

Yureru Manazashi (Kei Ogura)

Kimi wa 1000% (1986 Omega Tribe)

Yes-No (Of Course)

Lucky Chance wo Mo Ichido (C-C-B)

Ai no Memory (Shigeru Matsuzaki)

Kimi Dake ni (Shonentai)

Side B:

Momen no Handkerchief (Hiromi Ota)

Dance (Shogo Hamada)

Natsu wo Akiramete (Naoko Ken)

Kokoro no Iro (Masatoshi Nakamura)

Ruby no Yubiwa (Akira Teruo)

Show Me (Yukari Morikawa)