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White Threads of the Waterfall (Taki no shiraito)
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by Jay Seaver

"Juggles more than just water."
4 stars

The silent era lasted a little longer in Japan than the rest of the world, which is why this star vehicle for Takako Irie lacks a soundtrack despite being released in 1933. The talkies were starting to take hold by that point despite the benshi guilds' best efforts, and I half-wonder if that serves as a sort of subtext for this movie's second half. If so... Well, I certainly hope that the silent film narrators didn't have to go through half of what the traveling performers in this movie faced!

Irie plays one of the most successful, "Taki no Shiraito", as renowned for her great beauty as for the feats she performs on stage as a "water magician". She has a reputation for being aloof where men are concerned, although it may just be that she had yet to meet Murakoshi "Kinsan" Kinaya (Tokihiko Okada), a penniless coachman with law books in his pocket. Taki decides to support her new love, and this goes well for a couple of years, but the waning popularity of the carnival brings out the drama among the other traveling performers. Particularly the knife throwers - the star of the act is in hock to loan shark Iwabuchi Gozo (Ichiro Sugai), his wife Ogin (Kumeko Urabe) is a drunk, and comely assistant Nadeshiko (Suzuko Taki) is in love with Taki's barker Shinzo (Bontaro Mikae). It's only a matter of time until this leads to a situation where the police are involved.

And how! What starts out as a sweet and initially kind of funny love story - Taki and Kinsan actually have a delightful little meet-cute - with the potential to take a class-based dramatic turn winds up going a lot further into somewhat nutty territory. One actually kind of has to admire the way that the writers and directors tell a story that works both as a short of romantic melodrama and pulp fiction, although perhaps escapist entertainment wasn't quite so segregated by age and gender in early-20th-century Japan as it is now. There are some fairly unlikely twists to the plot and some important bite that seem far harsher than reasonable from eighty years and an ocean away but if you like your tears jerked with gusto, that's not necessarily a complaint.

Takako Irie certainly does her job in drawing the audience's feelings out. She was a tremendous star of early Japanese cinema, to the extent that she had the clout to develop and produce her own projects (including this one) despite being a woman in her early twenties, and the confident performer we see early in the picture is enough of a reflection of that to make a viewer wonder how much the 24-year-old woman worried about impending spinsterhood reflected her as well. Its not heard to see why she was a star beyond that, either; she's great at every aspect she has to show of Taki add the movie takes her on an emotional roller coaster, and seductive even when she's pushing people away. There's a fine ensemble around her, with Tokihiko Okada throwing off enough sparks before the lovers are separated to form a strong connection and the whole roster of carnival performers, loan sharks, and dogged detectives making themselves memorable. Bontaro Mikae and Suzuki Taki are favorites as the young lovers Taki finds herself sympathizing with.

Kenji Mizoguchi is generally credited as the lead director - perhaps, admittedly, because he went on to greater fame and commercial success latter on - and this is one of the few films of his that survives from the silent era. Stylistically, it looks much different from his latter movies, with the crowded sets and exaggerated studio-created landscapes of silent film, with a crucial sequence on a bridge almost Expressionist in its design. It's a well-paced silent that makes great use of the form while also hinting at themes which would recur later in Mizoguchi's career, especially the precarious place of women in Japanese society.

It's also worth noting that the print screened had both a score and a subtitled benshi track, with a narrator not just reading the intertitles, but describing the action and doing character voices with his own dialogue. It was a good one, and it's unfortunate that the name went by too quickly for me to see. As such, though, it's worth noting that many other screenings or video releases of the film will be a very different experience depending upon what sort of soundtrack is featured.

I suspect that "Taki no Shiraito" - known as both "The Water Magician" and "White Threads of the Waterfall", along with other titles - will be a fine experience no matter how it's presented. It's an important part of the Mizoguchi canon, and also an intriguing introduction to Irie.

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originally posted: 06/10/14 13:55:07
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