The Tale of Benshi: The Forgotten Heritage of Japanese Silent Cinema

Photograph of a Benshi performance

It’s strange to think of film as originally being something of a carnival attraction. Like the elephants and lions on view in neighboring displays, Edison’s Kinetoscope and Lumière’s Cinématographe were initially presented to the public as something exotic, bizarre, even magical. Another collective misconception that we are inclined to entertain is that the invention of film comprised a single moment in history. In reality, it took considerable time for the technology to dissipate and for its influence to take hold around the world. Nowhere is this truer than in Japan.

When the cinématographe arrived in Japan in 1897, it was received with curiosity and was commercially billed as a Western gadget worthy of ogling. Not knowing how to appropriate the technology to suit their own purposes, the Japanese set about translating what was, essentially, a foreign viewing experience. The purveyors of the new technology built a considerable amount of spectacle around the event, including a live-performance around the screening and a narrator whose job it was to simultaneously introduce the technology and prepare audience members for what they were about to see.

These “narrators,” for lack of a better word, ranged from actors to circus performers, and the positions they filled were for the most part unscripted, leaving the task of narration subject to varying levels of interpretation. A period of experimentation followed: most performers offered a basic explanation of the mechanics behind the function of the camera as well as a running commentary on the action as it took place in the film. However, some began to take on the role of auxiliary actors and performers, offering voiceovers for the otherwise silent characters and acting as Foley artists by providing sound effects when necessary. Others offered explanations of Western customs, or attempted to address issues regarding cinematic representation. One is said to have quipped, “Here is Napoleon. Napoleon is Napoleon,” which was received with considerable mirth by the audience.

As with the traveling (or flying) circus of the previous generation, the film camera made its way out of the cities and into the surrounding rural areas via traveling troupes that would set up tents to showcase the Western invention. As the itinerant caravan continued its grand circuit around the country, the narrators associated with these productions became increasingly popular. It was, after all, they who made these images relatable for the general public, especially considering the fact that intertitles didn’t appear until the 1920s. They had, ironically, become something akin to cinema stars by overshadowing the very actors who had given their likenesses over to the camera.

Somei Saburo was the first of these narrators who could be called a benshi. Rejecting the oft-assumed role of playing outside observer, Saburo chose to imitate, voice, and personify the characters depicted on the screen. By asserting himself as an indispensable part of the film, he had effectively achieved the interweaving of performance within the celluloid fabric of Japanese silent cinema.

By 1899 the Japanese had turned the self-reflexive lens of the camera on themselves, and began filming performances of Kabuki theatre. In all of these “films,” which may or may not be a misnomer, the camera was set up directly in front of the stage at a fixed vantage point, establishing its role as being aesthetically subservient to strict parameters of Kabuki theatre. Its role was to document, not to create. The benshi accompanied the distribution of these recordings, with the names of performing benshi prominently displayed both outside of the cinema and in front of the stage. As the productions expanded, more and more benshi found themselves co-starring alongside more reputable, famous, and experienced benshi. By this point in time, several thousand benshi are said to have been active in Japan.

The advent of the “talkies” in 1927 had a ripple effect in Japan, initiating the slow and steady decline of the tradition that the benshi had developed over the past two decades. Though it took considerably longer for Japan to transition from the silent era than it did elsewhere around the world, by 1939 almost all theatres had converted to sound-format films. As a result, most benshi found themselves in the position of becoming obsolete and took to aimlessly wandering in search of new work, much like the ronin of a previous generation.*

As with many other Japanese anomalies, film critics have half-heartedly tried to explain benshi to a Western audience by comparing their role to that of the accompanying organist during silent-era film screenings. Needless to say, this doesn’t really hit the mark, especially given the fact that silent films in Japan, like in the West, were also accompanied by a live orchestra composed of both Western and traditional Japanese instruments.

If you’re interested in seeing a benshi performance for yourself, the University of Chicago’s Film Studies Center will be screening Jirokichi the Rat (1931) this Saturday, October 27th at 7pm, accompanied by the internationally-acclaimed benshi performer, Ichiro Kataoka, who is no doubt much more of an authority on this forgotten art form than I am.
*Interestingly enough, the release of Kurosawa’s Rashomon in 1950 saw to a temporary resurgence of the benshi, since theatre owners were worried that, without an accompanying narrator, patrons would not be able to make sense of the divergent accounts of what happened. 

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