As I mentioned in my tag-line for this tidbit, the benshi were the not-so-silent side of Japanese silent film. Before we jump right in to the benshi and all their gritty details, let’s just paint the basic background.
Film came to Japan in the 1890s and by 1920 there was already a fledgling industry. By 1925, film was tremendously popular. In that year there were 813 theaters in Japan and 155 million admissions. Not bad for a country with a population of less than 60 million. The domestic products dominated their imported competitors (an anomaly on the international scene) and the Japanese directors and even the audiences were resistant to the new talkies. Ozu famously felt that he was nearing perfection of the art of the silent film and didn’t want to start over with a new medium. The first successful talkie was Heinosuke Gosho’s The Neighbor’s Wife and Mine (1932) but before that there was a very long history of what some of dubbed “talking silents”–the benshi.
The benshi used to sit to the left of the screen and narrate what was happening on screen. More than just describe, they would invent, embellish, explain, even sing or chant if they saw it fit. In their heyday they received first billing–before the stars, the directors, sometimes even in larger characters than the title. Recordings of their narration were turned in to best-selling records, even without the film. They held on quite tenaciously to their positions in the face of sound but ultimately all their unionizing and threatening couldn’t save them from the sinking ship that was silent film. When sound came, they fought hard and at times even comically. (The Japanese Film: Art and Industry , p. 75)
The benshi had been thrown into complete confusion by the coming of sound. At first they kept silent, hoping that the talking films would go away. Then they decided to take the offensive and tried to narrate over the sound. This was difficult because they had no public-address systems and were forced to shout as loud as they could. Soon they learned to cut down the volume to let themselves be heard, and, finally, some benshi turned off the sound altogether, showing the film as though it were silent and, as always, faithfully narrating. Some even narrated strictly musical shorts which had only songs.
To understand this phenomenon better, we must consider the Japanese storytelling tradition. In all three of the major theatrical trends of the 19th century (kabuki, noh and puppet theater) it was common to have someone like a benshi at the side of the stage explaining, commenting or singing as the case may be. Functionally, he seems to have fulfilled a role similar to the choruses in the ancient theater. In contradistinction to the European tradition, the Japanese aesthetic tradition has throughout had great tolerance for textual information alongside its images. Perhaps it is a consequence of the importance of calligraphy to an ideogram language, that’s beyond my ability to say. But consider the famous Zen artists, like Shubun, or the print-artists or painters of the Edo period. It is not at all infrequent to find passages of poetry, religious texts or whole stories printed alongside the image. Indeed, by the time the world of the ukiyo-e (perhaps a subject for another tidbit) was reaching its end, we see prints like the following, from Yoshitoshi’s series ‘Mirror of Beauties Past and Present (1875-1876):’
So when film came to Japan at the turn of the century it was only natural for it to be accompanied by a textual, if you will, accompaniment. There are for more intricate connections to be made, and Anderson’s “In Praise of Benshi” in the appendix of The Japanese Film: Art and Industry is a good place to start if you are interested in them. Richie connects the benshi with the Japanese fear of “not getting it” which drove them to subtitle Cousteau films with the genus and species of the fish or to print programs for foreign films that would contain all the facts that you might expect in a program as well as a a complete synopsis including “spoilers.” It was not uncommon to see theater lobbies full of moviegoers preparing for the movie by reading these thick pamphlets.
As far as the progress of cinema as an artform goes, the benshi were an impediment. The very textuality undermined the visual artform as well as the unity of vision of the film’s creator(s). This is never easy to maintain in an essentially collaborative product but imagine the situation with benshi: You could see the same film twice with different benshi and get a totally different interpretation of what happened.
And yet, there is something so quaint, so transitionally modern about them that you can’t but feel just a tinge of regret that you’ve never seen a film with one.
Stars scattered across a lavender sky
Blossoms Fallen like snow on the green earth
Spring, ah, spring
It is Spring and romance is in the South.
[Fade out. Over The End:]
The title is ‘Southern Justice’.
Complete in five reels.
A benshi”s narration from the end of ‘Southern Justice,’ a Universal picture (under the Bluebird Photoplays name) from 1917, when the two lovers are at last united in the hills of Kentucky. As quoted by Anderson p.449.
The next tidbit will actually not be about film at all but rather about evil conspiracies and secret societies. I will, once and for all, uncover the truth about everything.