‘With Each Passing Breath’: A compassionate and richly textured documentary

This summer is seeing the return of some of Japan’s greatest matsuri (traditional festivals) after an extended pandemic hiatus, so it’s only fitting that one of the most vibrant films playing in theaters right now is an exploration of how cultural traditions survive.

In Atiqa Kawakami’s compassionate and richly textured documentary, “With Each Passing Breath,” the tradition in question is rōkyoku, a form of narrative singing that enjoyed its greatest popularity during the first half of the 20th century. The number of active performers has dropped from a peak of 3,000 to less than 100, but the art form is still stubbornly clinging to life.

During the first week of every month, rōkyoku artists can be found spinning yarns to shamisen accompaniment at the Mokubatei theater in Tokyo’s Asakusa district. That’s where Kawakami’s film spends much of its time, hanging out in the cramped backstage or watching performances from the wings.

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