Digital Meme is one of the most exciting companies making their American Film Market premiere in 2009. Though they're still fresh out of the gates, CEO Larry Greenberg has already discovered the secret of doing good business in a marketplace saturated with so much similar, homogeneous product. Usually the kind of schlock product that one sees lining the hallway posters at AFM are splashy, high-concept flicks with little value beyond the gory laminated poster art. But what Digital Meme has is a great touch of class and sophistication -- preserved Japanese, silent cinema with benshi narration. By going back into the vaults and culling together the best and shining examples of treasured, classical films that Japanese cinema has to offer, Digital Meme asks a great question: why focus on contemporary movies, especially when we haven't done enough to explore the past?
Created in 2000, Digital Meme is a true labor of love. It takes die-hard fascination and dedication to the tradition of these old benshi narrated silent films to grow and cultivate interest in an audience. But there definitely is a market for these films. In Japan, the archival distribution Matsuda Company holds over 1000 of these silent Japanese films, which are regularly screened with benshi accompaniment at the Friends of Silent Films showings. With now over 600 public screenings, it seems appropriate that Digital Meme wants to take the benshi experience and package it for DVD distribution. The preservation process is arduous -- detailed cleaning, spot-checking, and repair of these dirt-crusted and oil-smeared prints, a painstaking digital re-mastering of all the blemishes that can't be removed during the physical reconstruction, and the recording of the benshi voiceover in order to complete the experience. At the end of the process, it seems almost as labor-intensive as shooting and cutting an entirely new film feature.
The process is worth the end product. These films have a luxurious ancient quality to them, with that old crisp black-and-white image detailing a picture of jidaigeki genre pictures as well as glimpses of modernized turn-of-the century Japan. The legacy of these images alone gives great rationale to the project, but where this enterprise truly and literally sings is in the audio track. The benshi voiceover is so unique and singularly specific to a particular cinema tradition, that one can't help but feel nostalgic for a tradition that you never experienced before. Benshi make these old films seem like a fantastic mix of fairy-tale bedtime story, social commentary, vaudeville acting, and doggedly serious Basho poetry. The scarred and irreparable images dissolve against the lull of the great speaking voice, and it makes images more alive than they've ever been. A director like Jean-Luc Godard has probably always dreamed of having this great of a soundtrack against his movies.
This is a very exciting project and I hope more interest picks up around Digital Meme, just so that they can keep that telecine suite busy with digitizing the rest of the Matsuda company's back catalogue. So, a couple of suggestions of things that should happen. First, while Digital Meme is an entirely privately-funded venture, I think it is a moral imperative that the Japanese Government put up some coin to help carry the cost of producing these DVDs. These films are not just entertainment, they're ultimately heritage and culture.
Second, boutique Western and European home video distributors need to pay attention to this company for possible co-releases. If Criterion has had any luck with Mizoguchi's Sansho the Baliff, or Ozu, or Shimizu releases, these releases already seem destined for American distribution, especially with the Tadao Sato commentaries as extras on the discs. Western cinephiles will appreciate this unique, accessible, and rare opportunity to listen to benshi.
And finally, and more locally and personally, UCLA, USC, and other Universities with strong East Asian Studies departments should collaborate to tour this experience. If Larry Greenberg has toured benshi films in such locales as Abu Dhabi and Eastern Europe, it only makes sense that these original prints and traditional benshi performers make their way to the American academy as well. The DVD experience is close, but it's certain that benshi is always best when seen live for that full resonance of the immediate performance. Let's hope that recessionary budget cuts will not prevent universities from investigating this great resource further. I've already got my fingers crossed, hoping that this will be a niche phenomenon that will soon sweep stateside.
For more information, go to Digital Meme's official website here.