From 1 March through 3 March, the Tadashi Yanai Initiative for Globalizing Japanese Humanities and the UCLA Film & Television Archive (with support from the National Film Archive of Japan) a three-day program titled “The Art of the Benshi.”
Benshi (弁士; also known as katsudō-benshi/活動弁士 or katsuben/活弁) are live performers who accompanied silent films of Japan as well as those produced in its then-occupied territories (in Taiwan, they were called 辯士/piansu; in Korea, 변사/byeonsa. They not only provided narration but were performers in their own right which, in some cases, rose to the level of celebrity. Among the most famous were Koenami Nakamura, Mitsugu Ōkura, Musei Tokugawa, Raiyū Ikoma, Rakuten Nishimura, Saburō Somei, Shiro Izumi, and Shirō Ōtsuji.
When I first learned about benshi in film school, I lamented the fact that when watching Japanese silent films, I was only getting part of the experience. I never thought I’d even
see footage of a benshi in performance — much less experience it in a live setting. I also love silent films. That’s why I’m so looking forward to this program.
Although the Dickson Experimental Sound Film was made c. 1894 and the first known public exhibition of a sound film took place in 1900, sound films weren’t commercially practical until the late 1920s. Although audiences of the day couldn’t get enough of sound and some great musicals were released in the early sound era, it also tethered filmmakers and actors to bulky recording equipment and made films overly reliant on uncinematic dialogue.
I’m not saying that sound was a bad thing — just that it was no more an “advancement” than was color film. It was just something different and I think that most modern Hollywood films would be far better if they were silent. An analogy I sometimes make between silent film and sound film is to printed books and audiobooks. I similarly have nothing against audiobooks but if I met someone whose entire library consisted of books on tape and compact disc, I’d have all sorts of questions.
Most filmgoers and filmmakers of the 1920s felt differently than I do, however, and after the after the 1927 release of part-talkie The Jazz Singer, Hollywood scrambled to
transition to sound at all cost — even inserting sound sequences into completed silent films. Such sequences were known as “goat glands” — a reference to the belief held by some that goat glands could cure impotence.
Beyond America’s shores, it seems, artistic and commercial impotence was less of an issue and many European directors continued to produce silent film masterpieces like Carl Theodor Dreyer‘s La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc; Fritz Lang‘s Spione; Luis Buñuel‘s Un Chien Andalou, Dziga Vertov‘s Человек с кино-аппаратом, and G.W. Pabst‘s Die Büchse der Pandora and Tagebuch einer Verlorenen. Meanwhile, in Hollywood, the box office was dominated by mostly-forgotten talkies like The Singing Fool, Noah’s Ark, and Abie’s Irish Rose.
The silent era, in Japan, lasted even longer — apparently in large part because of the power of the benshi, who by then were issued licenses by the government. According to David Cook‘s A History of Narrative Film, there were still 6,818 benshi employed in Japanese cinemas in 1927. Some Japanese critics and filmmakers, though, felt that reliance on benshi was hindering the development of Japanese cinema, tying it to the centuries-old kabuki and Noh traditions. Accordingly, some Japanese filmmakers edited their films with the intention of standing on their own — and few would argue that the era’s silent films by the likes of Hiroshi Shimizu, Teinosuke Kinugasa, and Yasujirō Ozu were — even without the benefit of a benshi — the equal to any sound films.
The silent film era did eventually end in Japan. Yasujirō Ozu’s (lost) final silent film, College is a Nice Place/大学よいとこ, was released in 1936. Although silent films are
rarely made today (Maru‘s films are arguably an exception) but silent films are still fairly widely screened in Japan. Naturally, then, there are still benshi (many of whom are additionally voice actors and/or kabuki performers). Some notable modern benshi include Midori Sawato, Vanilla Yamazaki, Yoichi Inoue, and Yuko Saito.
For the Art of the Benshi screenings, Kataoka Ichirō, Ōmori Kumiko, and Sakamoto Raikō will assume the role of benshi. Dialogue and narration will be delivered in Japanese but they will be subtitled in English. Most of the films being shown are Japanese but a few are American. There will also be live musical accompaniment provided by conductor and shamisenist Yuasa Jōichi, pianist Tanbara Kaname, violinist Furuhashi Yuki, flutist Suzuki Makiko, and drummer Katada Kisayo.
The films scheduled to be screened:
- Blood Splattered at Takadanobaba/血煙高田馬場 (dir. Daisuke Itō, 1928)
- Chameko’s Day/茶目子の一日 (dir. Kiyoji Nishikura, 1931)
- The Cheat (dir. Cecil B. DeMille, 1915)
- A Diary of Chuji’s Travels/忠次旅日記 (dir. Daisuke Itō, 1927)
- Dragnet Girl/非常線の女 (dir. Yasujirō Ozu, 1933)
- Jiraiya the Hero/豪傑児雷也 (dir. Shōzō Makino, 1921)
- Liberty (dir. Leo McCarey, 1929)
- Not Blood Relations/なさぬ なか (dir. Masao Inoue, 1916)
- Silence (dir. Rupert Julian, 1926)
- The Sword that Slashes Human and Horse/斬人斬馬剣 (dir. Daisuke Itō, 1929)
- Tokyo March/東京行進曲 (dir. Kenji Mizoguchi, 1929)
- The Upstart/成金 (dir. Thomas Kurihara, 1921)
Check the website for showtimes. All screenings will take place at Billy Wilder Theater. Westwood‘s Billy Wilder Theater is served by AVTA‘s 786 line, Big Blue Bus‘s 1, 2, 8, 17, 18, 20, and Rapid 12 lines; Culver City Transit‘s 1, 6 and Rapid 6 lines; LADOT‘s Commuter Express lines 431 and 534, and 573; Metro‘s 234, 602, Rapid 720, Rapid 734, and Rapid 788 lines.
Special thanks to the Tsubouchi Memorial Theatre Museum at Waseda University and Soy Paper — a website that covers the Japanese-Angeleño cultural scene.