It’s not often one finds a period film born of reverent, deeply researched cinephilia that is also a rip-roaring slapstick comedy suitable for the whole family (those able to read subtitles, that is), but the utterly adorable “Talking the Pictures” fits just that double bill. Directed with supremely good-natured verve by Suo Masayuki, who worked a similarly lovable if slightly more grown-up groove in 1996 with international hit “Shall We Dance?,” it’s a loopy caper inspired by, of all arcane things, the Japanese tradition of benshi — live narrators of silent films who became regional celebrities in their own right. As colorfully designed and meticulously costumed a re-creation of early-20th-century, small-town Japan as you will find in any more grandiose genre, it’s equally.
Umeko and Shuntaro meet first as mischievous children — Umeko the lonely, cute-as-a-button daughter of an itinerant prostitute and Shuntaro a rambunctious local scamp staying just out of the grasp of his mustachioed police officer nemesis. What unexpectedly unites all three is a love of the movies: Umeko announces her desire to become an actress, and the inspector attends shows with quasi-religious devotion, while Shuntaro is dazzled by the great Yamamoka (Masatoshi Nagase) the area’s best benshi, whose kabuki-style narration proves as big a draw as the films themselves.
The kids get into amusing scrapes, sneaking into movie shows, stealing caramels and stumbling into frame on a quickie being shot in town — footage that is frugally used despite their intrusion, with various benshi soon offering their own interpretations of why there are suddenly two unidentified children in the story.
Even in this prologue, Suo and screenwriter Shozo Katashima’s knowledge of the quirks of early filmmaking technique is evident in the insider laughs they milk from the film-set scenario: The actors mouth nonsense, carefully subtitled as “blah blah blah blah,” the director bellows a running commentary about what to do and when, and when the sun goes in suddenly, all the performers have to freeze mid-fight while they wait for the cloud to pass so that the hand-cranked camera will get enough light.
Ten years after the kids last saw each other, Shuntaro (now played with appealing puppy-dog earnestness by rising star Ryo Narita) has fallen in with a bad crowd. His talent as a mimic is being exploited by a roving band of ruffians who have him reluctantly imitate a renowned benshi, thus luring the villagers to the show, during which the gang robs their houses. At the first opportunity Shuntaro makes a break for it with a suitcase full of the gang’s money and tries to start over, working odd jobs in the failing Aoki Theater that is being cannibalized by the glitzy, gangster-run establishment across the road. At the Aoki, Shuntaro’s old idol Yamamoka is now a washed-up, sozzled, third-string benshi, while the slick, self-involved Mogi (Kengo Kora) is the flavor of the month. And Mogi’s girlfriend is, inevitably, the grown-up Umeko (Yuina Kuroshima), whose acting career Mogi has emptily promised to bolster.
So yes, phew — there’s a lot of plot here and a huge supporting cast, from lazy musicians to wisecracking projectionists to the gangster’s dimwitted henchmen and his slinky seductress daughter. But though the antics get progressively more madcap, their choreography captured handsomely by DP Junichi Fujisawa, then undercut by composer Yoshikazu Suo’s comical, plinky piano music, the film’s heart is true, and overflowing with affection not only for the characters but for the movies — like the silent versions of “Camille” and “The Ten Commandments” — that the benshi both glorify and bowdlerize.
Because Suo’s film is not so fuzzy with fondness that it doesn’t also critique the practice. The most touching character may just be Yamamoko, the once-great benshi who, alone in his profession, realizes that the days of live narration are numbered, and not just because sync sound is round the corner. After years as a performer using the movies basically as backdrop for his oratory, Yamamoko’s tragedy is that he has fallen for the medium itself. “Look at it!” he chides an audience who have grown restive at his prolonged silence during one of his sessions. “It’s obvious what’s going on!” Not only does he thus become one of Japan’s first true cinephiles, but in the recognition that added narration is often just tautology, he is also a kind of proto-film critic. No wonder he’s so frequently drunk.
“Talking the Pictures” is overlong; there’s really no reason why such a sweet, hard-U-rated confection should tip the scales at more than two hours, especially when the real climax — a scenario wittily contrived to create the greatest challenge a benshi ever faced — is a little undersold by the multiple endings thereafter. But that’s hardly even a criticism of this otherwise joyously entertaining, inventively plotted, beautifully shot farce, which, just like those early crowd-pleasers and the men who talked over them, really just wants to keep you grinning and giggling in the dark.