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FIELDNOTES: I Am A Documentary

Caution: This essay will be littered with “I’s” as I gloat, float above the imagined throng of admirers and curious onlookers, fly high with the thought that I was on Japanese television.

As with all long stories, there is a beginning. Allow me, however, to start with an “end.”

Last week, I have become a documentary. That is stating it dramatically. I cannot help it.

Last week, it happened: NHK aired the documentary it made with me as a central character.

Last week, it did come out: The documentary on first Filipino katsudo benshi over that venerable TV network. That “benshi” was me.

Again, I need to explain what a benshi is. In simple terms, he is a narrator for Japanese silent film. He, however, does not simply narrate; he also provides the dialogues of all the characters. He is a commentator as well. If there is a machine shown on screen, the benshi explains what that machine or device is. There are even silent films where fishes of all kinds swimming in an aquarium is identified by the benshi one by one.

When NHK found out that Japan Foundation had requested me to be the benshi for Ozu’s “Tokkan Kozo” in time for the Silent Film International Film Festival on Sept. 1, 2018, I did so out of curiosity and for experience. I have taught Japanese cinema for some 30 years in the Japanese Studies Program of the Ateneo de Manila. It was after the performance in Ateneo de Naga, which served as a grand rehearsal, that we realized I had become the first ever Filipino benshi. I think we all knew it but we would not verbalize that record and reputation before we had even staged the performance.

For the press releases, Ami Takagawa started contacting local and international media networks. Remember, we were to perform in Manila and the more media mileage the better? One day, Ami informed me about a development: Would I be available for interview? NHK is interested in documenting my rehearsal and performance.

I was in Naga City then, in Bikol. I said yes and waited, excited to be interviewed. After a few days, NHK Manila emailed me sequence guides for the short and interview. They were doing a documentary of this first Filipino benshi. The bureau chief was curious and he was sure the Japanese audience would be both curious and interested. A Filipino was continuing a cultural and art tradition.

And one day, the new chief of the Manila bureau of NHK arrived with crew in Naga. They flew in via Legaspi in the morning; at past ten in the morning, they were setting up the camera in the O’Brien Library. Edna San Buenaventura, the University Librarian, was kind to lend us the O’Bikoliana Section. Interspersed with all the books in Bikol were the few Japanese books in the collection. They followed me walking from the library to Coco Café to have lunch. Then we walked back to Alingal for the rehearsal with the Tanikala band. They even shot some footages of the launch of my book, “The Last Sacristan Mayor and the Most Expensive Mass for the Dead and Other Tales from Ticao.” At 4 pm, a van whisked them off to Legaspi, then to Manila that day.

On Sept. 1, 2018, the crew waited for me at the parking area of Megamall as I alighted from the van that took our group to Cinema 1 for the Gala performance.

Then last week, Ami Takagawa sent a message to tell me that finally the documentary would be aired over NHK BS1, the channel seen in Japan. The airing over NHK World, the one we have access would come later.

My sister, Lilibeth, who lives in Tokyo with her husband, Sada, was frantic. The documentary is coming on at 10 pm, Japanese time, which means an hour ahead of our time. She started calling friends. Her Ikebana teacher promised to tape the documentary. Noel, in Naga, also received the message from Ami. He began alerting friends to watch the documentary until I told him it was via NHK BS1 and unless one had a Premium subscription, one would not have access to it. I reminded Noel NHK Manila had promised me a copy.

An hour after 10 in the evening, the photos started rushing in. My Japanese friends were sending messages and photos. Two of the photos showed me on a huge TV screen talking with three experts discussing this phenomenon of “Valiente san,” the first Filipino benshi.

Lilibeth was also sending a flurry of photos after photos. There was the close-up shot of English script sent in from Tokyo with my notes in red ink. At certain points of the narration, I opted to speak in Bikol (in the Naga performance) and Tagalog/Pilipino in the Manila presentation. There is on the screen again the images of the would-be kidnapper and the child, the latter crying because he wanted to go home. The voice was my voice, lighter this time as the voice for the boy. Inset, my face was all wracked with tears. I was so into the scene.

Then there were Noel Volante, who served as my Technical Director, the Tanikala tribe, and I huddled during the rehearsal. The camera went above the head of Noel, with me behind him. A subtitle in Japanese ran below our faces: In English, it said: We have lost the silences, right? Noel responded,Yes, we lost them. The exchange sounded existential. We were actually concerned that, maybe, we are filling up all the gaps and pauses, negating the very character of Japanese cinema, which is a cinema of meaningful silences.

A day after, Ami had sent in a message: The documentary was now online. I watched it. I was overwhelmed. I told Ami over Messenger how I was smiling all throughout while watching the documentary. I then thanked Ami, whose tour of duty with Japan Foundation had ended days after our Gala event. Thank you Ami for making it happen. She responded: Thank you for making it happen.

Ami does not know it yet but last Monday, while I was checking my Facebook account, I came across a request. Ichiro Kataoka, one of the few Master Benshi in Japan was requesting to be my friend.

I look at the request and, quickly, pressed “Confirm.”

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