URASHIMA TARŌ, part of Early Japanese Animation at Barbican (09 JUN).
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SCREEN DIARY: Early Japanese Animation at Barbican (09 JUN 2019)

We went in as #BenshiVirgins & came out stunned by the live vocal virtuosity of narrator Tomoko Komura. This is our RADIANT CIRCUS writeup (plus we take a sneaky peak at Barbican’s new season ANIME’S HUMAN MACHINES, 12 to 30 SEP 2019).

THE DULL SWORD, part of Early Japanese Animation at Barbican (09 JUN).
THE DULL SWORD, part of Early Japanese Animation at Barbican (09 JUN 2019).


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Barbican Centre and Guildhall School Of Music & Drama recently staged a screening of Early Japanese Animation dating from 1917 to 1932. We say ‘staged’ because the evening featured live accompaniment by the Guildhall’s own Electronic Music Studio – with accompanying piano and percussion from their orchestra – and live Benshi narration by Tomoko Komura. RADIANT CIRCUS tweeted before we went in about being #BenshiVirgins, so we thought we’d better share something of the experience now that we’ve, you know, done it…

The event was a revelation in how to appreciate – very far from – silent cinema. Part audio describer / part possessed voiceover-cum-human-foley-artist, Komura expressed almost drunken virtuosity in sharing characters’ internal narratives as well as their spoken dialogue and sound effects. Sitting out only the most abstract of the pieces – although we would have loved to hear how she tackled those – this was an all-in performance, channeling the wit and energy of the animations in a way that gave them an extra dimension. Benshi, we discovered, has a long tradition in Japan, extending the production of silent film into the 1930s due to the popularity of key Benshi stars and the power of their trade union. 

The music, composed by Guildhall’s students, didn’t always hit the same comedy marks as the films, but this is a minor complaint for an educational exercise. The overall combination of electronic music cued from laptops, grand piano and occasionally thunderous percussion gave further weight to the narration and located the films in a contemporary context.

MONKEY AND THE CRABS, part of Early Japanese Animation at Barbican (09 JUN).
MONKEY AND THE CRABS, part of Early Japanese Animation at Barbican (09 JUN 2019).

Throughout the twelve shorts, the animation was stunning, ranging from the purely abstract ?/RHYTHMIC TRIANGLES/FIGHTING CARDS (1932) to adventure anime that more closely resembles the serials we know today such as MOMOTARO IN THE SKY (1931). One absolute highlight, where the images, electronica, piano and percussion really came together with the vibrant narration, was TARO’S TRAIN (1929), a comedic morality tale where the poor conductor of a rural express has to control the onboard chaos.

TARO’S TRAIN was one of several works in the programme directed by Yasuji Murata, renowned for his educational public service films – demonstrating the qualities of “sports-beast-ship” in THE ANIMAL OLYMPICS (1928) – as well as cutout animation (Zakka Films). His characters are always full of life, from the crab with a human body who still scuttles sideways in MONKEY & THE CRABS (1927) to the strange dilemma of a terrified pufferfish seeking shelter in MOMOTARO UNDER THE SEA (1932). The delight in all of his and the other works on show was the pure economy in storytelling: MY SKI TRIP (1930) suggests the change of seasons by simply giving the drawn outline of two hills a vertical shift following a blanket of snowfall.

Thanks to the excellent Japanese Animated Film Classics website by the National Film Archive of Japan, you can discover these early works for yourself. However, they seem somewhat orphaned online without the shock and awe of live Benshi narration and the perma-hoodied sounds of Guildhall’s Electronic Music Studio. If you can catch them performed live one more time, we’d certainly recommend it.


ANIME’S HUMAN MACHINES: SUMMER WARS at Barbican Centre (28 SEP 2019).

If you’re hungry for more Japanese animation, Barbican’s new season is expertly curated by Helen McCarthy. ANIME’S HUMAN MACHINES screens from 12 to 30 SEP 2019 and includes:

TETSUO, THE IRON MAN d. Shin’ya Tsukamoto, 1989 + Panel Discussion (12 SEP 18:30).

MACROSS PLUS THE MOVIE d. Shôji Kawamori, 1995 + Intro (14 SEP 18:00).

PATLABOR THE MOVIE d. Mamoru Oshii, 1989 + Intro (15 SEP 16:00).

GHOST IN THE SHELL d. Mamoru Oshii, 1995 + Intro (18 SEP 20:45).

ROUJIN Z d. Hiroyuki Kitakubo, 1991 + Intro (24 SEP 18:45).

SUMMER WARS d. Mamoru Hosoda, 2009 + Intro (28 SEP 18:00).

METROPOLIS d. Rintaro, 2001 + Intro (29 SEP 16:00).

PAPRIKA d. Satoshi Kon, 2006 + Intro (30 SEP 20:45).

Barbican’s exhibition AI: MORE THAN HUMAN runs until 26 AUG.


A flagship for the arts and culture in the City of London, Barbican sits proudly in our list of go-to places because of its compelling seasons linked to their art gallery and collaborations with other cultural partners. Sunday silents with live music are a speciality as are excellent strands about movies, their makers and the impact they have on our lives. Lone-wolf purveyor of off-kilter curios Cigarette Burns Cinema often sells out screenings here and we would also recommend anything programmed by regulars New East Cinema.

Web barbican.org.uk | Instagram @barbicancentre | Twitter @BarbicanCentre

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