A Brief History of Benshi (Silent Film Narrators)
Japanese “silent movies” were never silent. From the very first showing of motion pictures in Japan in 1896 until the end of the silent era in 1939, a person, or a group of people, always supplied a verbal component to the motion picture show. The most widely accepted Japanese word for this “narrator” is benshi, although the term changed over time. Benshi formed a central part of the “silent movie” experience in Japan by explaining what the motion picture was about, either before, during, or after the show. While one can find examples of similar motion picture narration elsewhere in the world, Japan is the only place where narrators proved to be an influential and integral part of silent cinema.
During the initial decade of motion pictures, benshi typically appeared prior to the films, giving audiences rather detailed introductory remarks (maesetsu) about the content of the movies about to be shown. Since most of the motion pictures were foreign imports, benshi primarily spent their time explaining Western exotica, customs, and places contained in the film. As movies became more narrative, benshi began summarizing film plots and characters in their introductory remarks.
The Russo-Japanese War caused a huge upsurge in cinema attendance, as Japanese citizens rushed to see pictures of their “heroic” soldiers battling the Russians. During the war years, 80% of the motion pictures shown in Japan were Russo-Japanese War films. Some of these films were actual news reels of the fighting. Most, however, were staged re-creations, such as those Thomas Edison produced and filmed in New Jersey. (Two of Edison’s films can be viewed at the Library of Congress Website.) In front of packed houses, Benshi roused audiences into a nationalistic fervor by providing extremely patriotic and jingoistic commentaries.
Following the Russo-Japanese War, benshi and their narrative art of setsumei entered an extended period of experimentation as motion pictures became much longer and more narrative. While benshi continued to provide introductory remarks (maesetsu) that outlined the plot and characters until the early 1920s, there was increasing emphasis on the setsumei that took place while the film was showing. During this period of experimentation, as benshi searched for the most appropriate sound, tone, and style for their emerging narrative art, a critical split emerged in setsumei, with foreign films being narrated in one manner and Japanese movies in another.
For foreign films, a solo benshi engaged the audience by explaining what was transpiring on screen. For Japanese films, a performance style known as kowairo setsumei (voice coloring) emerged. Kowairo setsumei entailed a number of performers, usually from four to six, positioned out of sight on the wings of the stage, adding dialogue in mimetic voices to the characters on screen. The illusion created by a kowairo setsumei performance was that of a dubbed film. Foreign films tended to be regarded as more high-brow and, as a consequence, foreign film benshi and their elucidating setsumei tended to be viewed as more intellectual than the benshi who provided mimetic dubbed kowairo setsumei. Although there was a split in setsumei, the two branches constantly influenced one another. In particular, the benshi who performed the solo style of foreign film setsumei began incorporating mimetic character voices into their narration.
A major turning point in the history of Japanese cinema was the Pure Film Movement of 1915-1925. Within the pages of the cinema magazines of the time, the proponents of the Pure Film Movement attacked what they perceived to be the anachronistic elements of Japanese cinema, which they claimed were holding it back from achieving the quality of Western cinema. In particular, they attacked the use of female impersonators (onnagatta or oyama) and benshi. Primarily because of the tradition of the stage theater (noh and kabuki), which used male actors for female roles, early motion pictures in Japan used men to play women as well. The Pure Film Movement’s attack against female impersonators, combined with the fact that audiences had become accustomed to women playing female roles in foreign films, led to a smooth and swift transition to using actresses. Audiences welcomed the sight of attractive Japanese women on the screen.
The Pure Film Movement’s attack on benshi, however, was much more vitriolic and in the end unsuccessful. In the West, filmmakers had devised numerous cinematic techniques, such as editing and framing, which allowed them to tell a story visually. Yes, intertitles were used to help the audience follow along, but Western filmmakers tried to keep them to a minimum. In part because of benshi, Japanese filmmakers were slow to adopt and develop cinematic storytelling techniques. Japanese filmmakers knew that whatever they could not convey visually would be explained aurally by the benshi. It was because of this feature that the Pure Film Movement attacked benshi. They failed, however, in their attempt to get rid of benshi. Audiences had grown accustomed to the benshi’s running commentary and banter and thoroughly enjoyed what they added to the cinematic experience. The Pure Film Movement’s assault did, however, lead to some changes. The introductory remarks that benshi gave prior to the showing of a film as well as group kowairo setsumei died out. What survived was a form of setsumei performed by a solo benshi. This combined narration, commentary, and mimetic dialog, all of which were provided while the film was showing. This was the setsumei and performance style of the Golden Age of benshi (1925-1932).
It should be pointed out that nowhere in the world was “silent cinema” ever truly silent—music was always a part of the show. In Japan, music also accompanied the film, but was used in a symbiotic relationship with the benshi. If music was playing, then the audience would not be able to hear the benshi. Thus, the orchestra had to coordinate with the benshi when to play, when to play quietly, and when to remain silent.
To many “silent” cinema fans in Japan, benshi were a major attraction. It was usually the film that drew people to the theater, but it was often the benshi which determined which theater a person would attend. Benshi were huge cultural stars of the time, with benshi earning as much, if not more, than many actors. Benshi had huge fan followings, particularly among women, and were often both fashion and vernacular trend setters. Around 1917, when group kowairo setsumei was at its peak, about 11% of benshi were women. With the disappearance of kowairo setsumei, the number of women in the profession rapidly declined. By 1926 only 4% of benshi were women. Japanese movie theaters were comparatively large, with an average seating capacity of 1000 seats. Benshi performed without a microphone. One of the great skills of the benshi was projecting their unamplified voice within the cavernous theater. During the Golden Age, a benshi typically only performed for an hour, with several benshi dividing up long films into one-hour segments. Still, benshi had to perform four to five shows a day, seven days a week. Films generally changed every week. Thus, benshi had to come up with new setsumei every week, then perform it in a fresh, entertaining, and engaging way roughly thirty times during the week. Benshi truly were “Poets of the Dark.”
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