Documentary Cinematheque: The Heron and the Geisha

There exists a rich, beautiful and virtually unknown plane of Japanese culture that is centered around Nihon buyo, also known as classical Japanese dance. In its performance, a presence permeates, a presence of wondrously stylized beauty that is truly captivating to see. Unfortunately, a large mass of the Western art-consuming audience has not had the opportunity to immerse themselves in the immensely awe-inspiring practice of Nihon buyo. This issue exists because we have had so little media to introduce us to it.

Herein lies the fundamental beauty in the production of Noriko Sakamoto’s The Heron and the Geisha: A Life in Dance. In this well-composed documentary film we are introduced to Nihon Buyo by its veritable master, Yushie Tachibana and the students in her school. In the process of discovering this multifaceted dance style, we are neither driven too quickly or too laboriously into the theory and enactment of the various classical Japanese dance routines, and with the masterful direction of Mrs. Sakamoto, we are really able to experience the processes leading up to the performances as if we ourselves are bystanders, graciously let in to watch as one of the most intricate artistic experiences unfold before our eye. The art of Nihon buyo is truly one of a kind in its precision and majesty and capturing it on the cinema feels like an equally difficult attempt.

Looking at the film on its technical rather than cross-cultural merits, it is quite clear that Mrs. Sakamoto has developed a real economy of expression in her pacing and running time. Also an editor, Mrs. Sakamoto obviously realizes that films must work within certain boundaries often dictated in the post production process. A problem that arises with some documentary direction efforts in both the East and the West is that the film’s raw, innate strength is watered down by attempts to increase the running time of the film. This can be done ornately by adding subplots or haphazardly by increasing amounts of that oft-dreaded melodrama. When all is said and done, it presents a certain artificiality. What Mrs. Sakamoto achieves in her film is in its simple composition, presumably not to draw away from the utterly captivating performances that develop and then take place through her lens.

We are offered an even more unique experience when we are able to travel to the unique sights around Tokyo that Yushie Tachibana allows us to accompany with her. There is a certain genuine nature of this traveling, in which we are introduced to the various artisans that she utilizes in preparing her outfits for performance. It was truly intriguing to watch the shoe-maker at his craft and Mrs. Tachibana describe her affinity for kimonos made in Kyoto. Her sagacious words added a subtle personal touch that made the film a pleasure to watch on every level.

As a final note, I really did enjoy the closing presentation of Mrs. Tachibana’s dance at (I believe) the National Theater in Tokyo. What certainly made it wonderful was its cinematography, and that is to say, its minimalist approach to editing. Throughout much of the performance, our view is kept mostly static, with little movement and few noticeable cuts. It really served to heighten the experience of watching the Nihon buyo play out.

In closing, The Heron and the Geisha was a wonderful documentary in the genre’s most important respects: coupling interesting and unique subject matter through expert directing.

film’s website:

http://www.heronandgeisha.com/

Further updates will be made if new information becomes available.

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About Ryan Silva
An American born cinephile writing, making films, and studying in New York City. Festival addict and student Jurist at the 2010 Rhode Island International Film Festival. Hits: moe anime and space operas. Misses: Smelly roommates and Jersey Shore

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