Words / Sound / Rhythm

Supported by new developments in talkie technology, documentaries became a testing ground for rich experiments in sound and the pursuit of a new sense of rhythm. This opened up possibilities for the pairing of poetry with images, unique singing voices in synergy with music, and the pleasing synchronicity of sound-timed edits. This section looks at five films with diverse themes to shed a light on their multi-layered aesthetic approach.

Coal Face

UK / 1935 / English / B&W / 16mm (Original: 35mm) / 11 min

Director, Sound Director: Alberto Cavalcanti
Script: Alberto Cavalcanti, Montagu Slater
Verse: W. H. Auden
Additional Photography: Harry Watt, Humphrey Jennings and others
Editing: William Coldstream
Sound: E. A. Pawley
Music: Benjamin Britten
Commentators: W. H. Auden, Montagu Slater
Producer: John Grierson
Production Company: EMPO (pseudonym for GPO Film Unit)
Source: Japan Community Cinema Center

Having once made avant-garde films in France, Alberto Cavalcanti joined the British Documentary Film Movement whereupon he directed this short about the British coal industry. Making skillful use of existing footage, he combines music by a youthful Benjamin Britten with narrated verse penned by W. H. Auden, still then a rising star. Rhythmic verse, piano, and singing voices are superimposed against the visual montage, adding a richness to the film’s portrayal of heavy machinery and the coalminers’ labor.

Night Mail

UK / 1936 / English / B&W / 16mm (Original: 35mm) / 24 min

Directors: Harry Watt, Basil Wright
Script, Producers: Basil Wright, Harry Watt, John Grierson
Verse: W. H. Auden
Photography: Jonah Jones, H. E. Fowle
Editors: Basil Wright, Richard Q. McNaughton
Sound Director: Alberto Cavalcanti
Sound: E. A. Pawley, C. Sullivan
Music: Benjamin Britten
Production Company: GPO Film Unit
Source: Japan Community Cinema Center

In this masterpiece of the British Documentary Film Movement, a night train shuttles between London and Glasgow carrying mail as staff onboard go about their work. Its elaborate construction—featuring deft use of decoupage and even filming on a set—borrows heavily from techniques more commonly associated with feature film, though its actors are real postal workers. Complete with scenes depicting the dropping of mail from the running train, the film concludes in virtuoso fashion with a rhythmic reciting of Auden’s verse. Britten and Cavalcanti, who also worked together on Coal Face, took charge of music and sound respectively.

Kobayashi Issa

(Shinano fudoki yori: Kobayashi Issa)

JAPAN / 1941 / Japanese / B&W / 16mm (Original: 35mm) / 27 min

Director: Kamei Fumio
Photography: Shirai Shigeru
Sound: Sakai Eizo
Music: Oki Masao
Narrator: Tokugawa Musei
Production Company: Culture Films Department, Toho
Source: Japan Document Film

Creatively interspersed with haikus penned by the eponymous Issa, Kobayashi Issa exposes the reality of ordinary people’s lives lived among the severity of nature. After his previous film Fighting Soldiers (1939) was banned, director Kamei Fumio turned his attention to this, one part of the Shinano fudoki (“The Natural Features of Shinano”) Trilogy. Tasked with introducing Nagano’s tourist industry, Kamei films scenic rice terraces; the thronging crowds at Zenkoji temple; and Karuizawa, a famed leisure spot popular with the wealthy. His use of Issa’s forlorn poetry, elaborate montage and the humorous narration of Tokugawa Musei, however, reveal a harsher reality lurking behind these postcard visions. Put off by its critical undertones, the Ministry of Education refused to approve the film as a bunka eiga.

Village of Stone

(Ishi no mura)

JAPAN / 1940 / Japanese / B&W / Digital File (Original: 35mm) / 10 min

Director, Story: Kyogoku Takahide
Photography: Hoshijima Ichiro
Sound: Abu Yoshinobu
Music: Manzawa Wataru
Production Company: Asahi Eiga
Source: Kobe Planet Film Archive

A record depicting the excavation of oya stone, a specialty of Shiroyama Village in Tochigi (now the city of Utsunomiya). Flexible camera work captures the dynamism of the mining, punctuated acoustically by the dry taps of pickaxe on stone and the soft timbre of a lilting piano. Unable to use electricity to light the cavernous workspaces, the crew faced the extra hurdle of having to get by with flares alone. This early work of director Kyogoku Takahide—whose film career stretched well into the postwar era—brings into stark relief the reality of a local industry kept afloat by the labor of entire families.

Living by the Earth

(Tsuchi ni ikiru)

JAPAN / 1941 / Japanese / B&W / 16mm (Original: 35mm) / 9 min *Partial Version

Director, Photography: Miki Shigeru
Sound: Sakai Eizo
Music: Fukai Shiro
Narrator: Tokugawa Musei
Producer: Mura Haruo
Production Company: Culture Films Department, Toho
Source: National Film Archive of Japan

After getting his start in fiction film, Miki Shigeru joined the Culture Films Department of Toho as a cameraman of some repute. Living by the Earth marked his directorial debut. Supervised by ethnographer and folklorist Yanagita Kunio, he spent a year recording the life and customs of a farm village in Akita Prefecture. When complete, the film was six reels long (about sixty minutes), of which unfortunately only a small portion remains. Accompanied by the rich sounds of folk songs and the bon festival dance, the film captures the farmers’ adroit handiwork at cultivating rice, with occasional use of aerial photography conveying the vast expanse of the rural landscape. Miki remained in thrall to Yanagita’s ethnography to the very end of his life, dedicating a whole film to exploring it in the years before he died.