Benshi (弁士) were Japanese performers who provided live narration for silent films (not only Japanese films, but also Western films). Benshi are sometimes also called katsudō-benshi (活動弁士) or katsuben (活弁).
Role of the benshi
During silent films, the benshi stood to the side of the movie screen and introduced and related the story to the audience. In theatrical style, benshi often spoke for the characters on-screen and played multiple roles. Stemming from the traditions of kabuki and Noh theaters, the benshi's narration and general commentary were an important part of the Japanese silent film experience. The benshi would also provide translation for foreign (mostly American) movies.
Much like in the West, Japanese silent films were often accompanied by live music (in addition to the benshi)—however, unlike Western films, which tended to have a theatre organ as accompaniment, Japanese films had a score which supported the traditional Japanese instruments one would find in a kabuki play. Since benshi performed without external amplification, they had to carefully coordinate with the orchestra in order to be heard. At that time theaters typically seated 1000, so a trademark of successful benshi was the ability to project their voices into these vast spaces.
Famous benshi active in the silent era include Musei Tokugawa (at the Aoikan and Musashinokan theaters), Saburō Somei (at the Denkikan), Rakuten Nishimura, Raiyū Ikoma (at the Teikokukan), Mitsugu Ōkura, and Shirō Ōtsuji.
Influence of benshi on film aesthetic
As the film industry and art form developed in Japan, the presence of a benshi came to be part of the film. Benshi not only read the interstitials on silent films, and voiced all on-screen characters—perhaps most significantly for filmmakers, benshi would also add their own commentary, explaining what was happening in a shot or describing what had happened in confusing edits or sudden transitions. Some benshi were known to interpret and add to a script, for example reciting poetry to accompany a moving visual.
In addition, it was traditional for the benshi to introduce the film beforehand, even giving a brief lecture about the history of the setting. This meant that filmmakers could assume that a live narrator, accustomed to improvisation, would be present at the time of the showing to explain scenes, or even explain missing scenes or unfilmed action.
Perhaps because most early Japanese films were simply kabuki plays adapted to film, the characterization style benshi used to perform various roles was strongly influenced by the narrators in kabuki or a noh chorus—a grave and dramatic, exaggerated style. Also due to the influence of kabuki, audiences were not distracted by a single benshi voicing both male and female roles, regardless of the gender of the benshi.
Influence of benshi on film industry
In 1927, there were 6,818 benshi, including 180 women. Many benshi were quite famous in their own right, and garnered great acclaim. The presence of a benshi was the aspect of the film presentation that drew in the audience, more so than the actors appearing in the film, and promotional posters would frequently include a photo of the benshi announcing the movie.
The silent film era lasted until the mid-1930s in Japan in part due to benshi, despite the introduction of sound in full-length films in the late 1920s. The adoption of this new technology was slowed by the popularity and influence of the benshi (in addition to the high costs to both the cinemas and production companies). Though the tradition has mostly faded, there are still a few remaining active benshi in Japan (e.g., Midori Sawato).
Benshi in other cultures
- The benshi tradition was adopted in Taiwan under the name benzi.
- Benshi were also present in Korea from the first decade of the twentieth century where they were called pyônsa (변사).
- In the USSR, during the early years of the Brezhnev era, availability of foreign films in the USSR was severely restricted. The USSR State Committee for Cinematography held closed-door screenings of many Western films, open mainly to workers in the film industry, politicians, and other members of the elite. Those screenings were interpreted simultaneously by interpreters who specialized in films, where an effective conveyance of humour, idioms, and other subtleties of speech were required. Some of the most prolific "Gavrilov translators" began their careers at such screenings.
New benshi practice(s)
The underlying concept of benshi, live narration of film, continues to work its way into a variety of performance practices. The actual practice of "benshi" is most commonly referenced in relation to live film narration largely due to it having been an instance where the practice was more formalized and financed. As evidenced by the (above) listings of so-called "benshi" in other cultures, the art of cinema accompanied by a live performer was as international then as it is now. There are currently a number of groups in the United States alone seeking to not only revive this form of art, but to continue exploring the possibilities of altering the form in the spirit of experimentation from which the practice emerged. Likewise, new attempts to subvert traditional notions of storytelling and film watching are also underway. Some of these performers interject commentary into films, drawing from a century of social critique, often presenting popular films along with new dialog and narrative intended to juxtapose their own ideas with those the audience may already associate with the film. While some have adopted the term "Neo-Benshi", other performers have chosen to adopt the title "movieteller" as an alternative to "benshi", as they believe it emphasizes both the multicultural past and future(s) of the form, while also inviting further experimentation with the medium, such as a live narration of one's own films, the implementation of instruments as narrative devices, or any instance where a human contingent mediates between an audience and an image.
- All these forms are abbreviations of katsudō-shashin-benshi (活動写真弁士), where katsudō-shashin (活動写真) means "moving pictures", i.e. an old term for films, and benshi (弁士) is an orator or public speaker, see "katsuben (活弁)". Kōjien (広辞苑) (5th ed.). Iwanami shoten (岩波書店). 2000; "benshi (弁士)". Shin-waei-daijiten (新和英大辞典?, New Japanese-English Dictionary) (5th ed.). Kenkyūsha (研究社). 2004.
- Standish, Isolde. A New History of Japanese Cinema: A Century of Narrative Film. New York: Continuum, 2005. ISBN 0-8264-1709-4
- Dym, Jeffery (2008). A Brief History of Benshi (Silent Film Narrators). http://aboutjapan.japansociety.org/content.cfm/a_brief_history_of_benshi
- Cook, David A. (1990). A History of Narrative Film, New York: W. W. Norton & Company. ISBN 0-393-95553-2.
- Maliangkay, Roald H. "Classifying Performances: The Art of Korean Film Narrators". Image and Narrative: Online Magazine of the Visual Narrative, Issue 10 (March 2005). ISSN 1780-678X. Accessed 12 April 2009.
- "The Benshi Tradition: Cinema = Performance" by Tosh Berman (1995)
- Gerow, A. A. (1994). "The Benshi's New Face: Defining Cinema in Taisho Japan". Iconics. Retrieved 2009-05-29.
- Introduction to Japanese silent cinema with an interview from a modern-day benshi
- List of Performing benshi from Matsuda Film Productions
- Maliangkay, Roald H. (March 2005). "Classifying Performances: The Art of Korean Film Narrators". Image & Narrative. Archived from the original on 2007-04-16. Retrieved 2007-05-04.