Friday, July 11, 2008

The Benshi

A Japanese friend who is attending tonight's San Francisco Silent Film Festival screening of Harold Lloyd's the Kid Brother at the Castro Theatre told her mother that she was planning to see a silent film. The mother asked if there would be a narrator present at the screening. The answer was no; the screening will be accompanied by a performance by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, who played for Beggars of Life and Miss Lulu Bett at last year's festival. But no narrator. The highly-developed tradition of an interlocutor (of sorts) performing narration, interpretation, and giving voice to silent characters, is a distinctly Asian one. In Japan, these performers were known as benshi or katsuben, and in their heyday they were more popular than the stars acting on the screen.

I'm by no means versed in the benshi tradition. I've never seen a benshi perform live. The SFSFF has brought the foremost modern benshi, Midori Sawato, to perform for the Sessue Hayakawa film the Dragon Painter, but unfortunately that was the year I missed the entire festival (I have since learned to make sure my family schedules its reunions on another summer weekend). I did once see a Korean byonsa silent film performer in Berkeley in 2002, but I understand that the traditions are significantly different. For one, a benshi would always perform along with a live musical accompaniment as well, something this byonsa event lacked. The closest I've come to experiencing the art of the benshi is when I viewed a 16mm print of Kenji Mizoguchi's the Water Magician with a katsuben talkie soundtrack.

Likewise, Jujiro will not be screened this festival weekend with benshi accompaniment, but with a new original score composed and performed by Stephen Horne. This seems not so inappropriate, considering the fact that the film's screenings in Western countries must have been sans benshi as well.

I didn't want to focus too heavily on the benshi in the materials I prepared to contextualize the Jujiro screening; there were so many other fascinating aspects of Japanese silent cinema I wanted to make sure to cover. But the benshi played a very important role in the development of cinema in Japan. Filmmakers, knowing that their products would have someone on hand to explain narrative or other unclarities, had little incentive to use the motion picture as a complex visual storytelling medium, as their counterparts in Europe and Hollywood would. Or so it was argued by members of the "Pure Film Movement" which sprang up in the late 1910s, and set Japan's filmmaking on the path that led to the development of a national cinema appreciated the world over. The "Pure Film Movement" is well-documented in Joanne Bernardi's Writing in Light.

By the time Teinosuke Kinugasa made his most radical works, the battles fought by the "Pure Film Movement" had seemingly shifted. But the benshi still thrived, and in fact it was revered benshi Musei Tokugawa who secured the release of a Page of Madness at the prestigious Shinjuku Musashinokan, a cinema that normally played European film imports. Upon the film's premiere, some reviews lavished Tokugawa's benshi performance with more praise than Kinugasa's film.

I was unable to unearth such specific information about the benshi in relation to Jujiro, and thus decided to leave a treatment of the phenomenon out of the final draft of my program guide essay. But I decided to devote half of the slide show I prepared to play before the film screens, to the context of Japanese cinema and the benshi. If you're planning to see the show on Sunday, be sure to get to the theatre early, so you can view my presentation. Or, for a terrific brief primer on benshi, take a look at this article by Frisco Bay's resident expert Frako Loden, who also co-authored a much more detailed article on the performers in the Iris 22 (Autumn 1996) article called Mastering the Mute Image: The Role of the Benshi in Japanese Cinema.

If I weren't going to be at the Silent Film Festival all weekend, I would take a visit to Artists' Television Access, where kino21 is presenting the New Talkies: a neo-benshi cabaret, a periodic event that I never seem to be able to catch. How different are these poets' performances in front of video projections from the benshi of silent-era Japan, I'm ill-equipped to judge.


  1. An excellent source of information on historical benshi and the development of their art can be found in Jeffrey A Dym's account

    Benshi, Japanese Silent film Narrators, and Their Forgotten Narrative Art of Setsumei

    As far as i know this is the only full length study on the history of the art. Very readable. Prof. Dym teaches at Cal State Sacramento.

    Good luck with your presentation!

  2. Frako Loden has told me that the neo-benshi that Konrad is playing with has nothing really to do with true benshi; but, it sounds fun anyway.

  3. I was actually kind of distressed by the narrators that the festival did have reading the foreign titles. It seemed distracting to me...probably because I'm just way too western. I didn't stay for Jujiro. I'm excited to see how it was.


    P.S. I was volunteering at the door, keeping people out. Did you see me? I was with a chubby curly headed guy (Scott from and we were totally stoked to be there.

  4. I got a chance to see Midori Sawata perform for Ozu's I Was Born, But... Unfortunately, the film broke numerous times, forcing her to ad lib off and on throughout the performance. I found nothing distracting about the narration, and really enjoyed seeing a benshi in action, even if under less than ideal conditions.

  5. hi Maya,

    I think i lost my comment so i'll try again:

    That book i mentioned above has a wonderfully detailed account of all the different ways that setsume were done. They experimented with a lot of techniques and approaches. Also i know from another source that Korean practitioners attempted to pass interpretations through the Japanese censors, to varying degrees of subversive success. It seems that nothing that we've done is really new at all, although we're working with a different production system in a different era of mass media.

    In the shows that i've produced and been involved with, i don't pitch a particular way of working, although i have a personal preference for non-filmic intervention (using the films straight, without re-editing). We've done about 40 different pieces by now and some performers have done things i would never dream of.

    Admittedly it is not traditional, but i feel that it's a bit of an exaggeration to say that what we're doing has "nothing really to do with true benshi." And i wonder what force the word "true" has in standardizing what seems to have a been a very colorful history.

    A note on the term "neo-benshi" which i just used to title the first show we did in 2003, on the heels of one of Sawato's PFA appearances. It was invented to point to the inspiration, rather than to claim the history. The term just stuck. In fact the program on Saturday was called "The New Talkies: Live film narration 2008" although Brian referred to it being titled as "neo-benshi cabaret." We have used that in the past, but have wanted to avoid the overtone of cultural appropriation and exoticism. I still like the term movie-oke too, but that just doesn't sound as good.

  6. Looks like I lost my comment too; I wonder if there was something up with blogger that day...

    Thanks for the book tip, Konrad. I will definitely seek that one out. I like the idea of your live film narration shows, and find it fascinating that they take some spark of inspiration from the benshi tradition, even if their resemblence to the artform as practiced is limited, as these comments seem to be pointing out. I'm also intrigued that the alternate term "movie-oke" is ultimately derived from Japanese as well.

    I hope to see Sawato perform someday. It's maddening that I missed her appearances here in both 2004 at the SFSFF and 2002 at the PFA. I attempted to buy a ticket to I Was Born, But... there (a film she obviously knows well enough to improvise to, as Marilyn's comment reveals) but they were all sold out by the time I called.

    Whitney, I think this was the first time the festival showed this many films with intertitle narration. I counted three features: Les Deux Timides, Michael and the Unknown. It can be distracting or distancing, I agree. But if its the way we get to see these films in prints with the best-possible image quality, I think it's worth it.

    I was thrilled with the presentation of the short the Skipping Cheeses with George Méliès' original narration read over it. I'd never seen a Méliès film presented that way (presumably they all had narrations written for them) and it reminded me that narrators were by no means exclusive to Asia, especially not in the first decade or so of cinema.

  7. Hey Brian,

    Hope you get to see a show sometime, whether it's original or spicy benshi.

    And hope your show went well!

    One thing about live narrators: they were by no means only in Japan; however it seems that by comparison the ones in the west were more the exception, whereas in Japan and perhaps elsewhere in East Asia they were more the rule.