Silent film era Japan was characterised by a peculiar cinematic element in the form of Katsudo shashin benshi (abbreviated to benshi). The benshi were ‘silent film narrators’, who helped spectators understand what was happening on the movie screen through vocal narrative known as setsumei. While in the West, there was an emphasis on recapturing the form and style of screening as closely to the first release as possible, there was less concern with a film’s authenticity in Japan. Thus, the benshi had control over film in a way that reshaped the experience of film screenings in Taisho Japan (1912–1926); they could alter the speed of the projection, remove intertitles, and even modify the storyline of the film for the sake of their performance. Attitudes toward the benshi in the histories of cinema have diverged over time, with an increased foreign interest in the profession. Many Japanese scholars have expressed disdain for the practice, such as Sato Tadao, who attributed their ‘nonsensical explanations’ to their education levels, which were generally low. Others have described benshi as an obstacle to Japan’s cinematic evolution since directors used them to ‘fill the gaps’ in their films rather than create narratively self-sufficient scenes. However, recent defences of the benshi have arisen, with Noel Burch, for instance, arguing that they enabled Japanese cinema to evolve independently from the dominant Hollywood style. This article will assess the role of the benshi in a positive light, as an important feature of film presentation in the history of Japanese film.
Tadao argues that ‘the benshi were in fact more popular than actors’, and rightly so. Benshi had a rather unique experience of stardom, which helped many gain respectability and popularity in the film industry. An example of benshi popularity can be seen in Katsudo shashin kai, a Japanese movie magazine, that published an inaugural issue in 1909 featuring an illustration of a benshi on its cover. This idealised version of the benshi served as a commercial attraction that aimed to entice audiences to playhouses, and suggested their performance was actually autonomous from the screen. Their commercial appeal began in 1903 with the establishment of Denkikan, the first permanent playhouse. The benshi performed a variety of feats there and became the prime reason audiences attended such screenings. They not only used their voices, but their bodies; interacting with the screen and audience simultaneously with their own poses and costumes created a visual as well as an auditory experience.
One of the most prominent benshi of the 1920s and 1930s was Tokugawa Musei, who was so skilful that he was able to break down and convey the film’s mood and tone. Haniya Yutaka stated that Musei was not just an explainer, but was able to elevate his trade ‘to the level of an art form that prefigured the dubbing of today’. An example of the way in which Musei influenced Japan’s film industry can be seen in his decision to remove the maesetsu in the American production Civilisation. The maesetsu was a ‘preface’ at the beginning of a film (about five minutes in length) which gave: a short explanation of the story, a brief thanks to the audience, and a self-introduction by the benshi. In abolishing this introductory practice, Musei signposted a ‘structural readjustment’ of Japanese film which began in the 1920s. At a similar time, a new ‘theatre-going system’ was introduced, which involved a ticket system as opposed to the tea house performance system of the earlier Edo period. Thus, the nature of film began to take a new direction, and the benshi followed.
As the benshi stardom grew, the Tokyo Police Department began a process of institutionalisation in an effort to change their performance style. Arguably, this shift in direction began as early as 1909: established benshi, Eda Fushiki suggested that the purpose of benshi were to make films understandable rather than entertaining and they should be called ‘expositors’ instead. Reformist critics also adopted this view and began to steer away audiences from considering the benshi as a primary attraction; Kaeriyama Norimasa and Tanizaki Jun’ichiro argued that the benshi’s role was to ensure any class of Japanese audience could understand foreign films. However, there were other more sympathetic critics, such as Furukawa Roppa, who reasoned that the benshi were critical to the enunciation of characters, events and intentions. Nonetheless, by the early 1930s, the benshi were understood to be supplements to films rather than autonomous performers. On one hand, the institutionalism of the benshi did not weaken their popularity. Their stardom actually became more stable as they adopted the new role of functional narrators, and they still seemed to be able to maintain their levels of individuality in their performances.
On the other hand, government regulations from 1920 began to restrict the opportunities of aspiring benshi. Fushiki criticised the benshi for ‘drinking’ and ‘lechery’ in 1910, and the police introduced a licensing system to regulate voice performers correspondingly. This regulation and standardisation was intensified a decade later, making it a requirement to hold certifying examinations, and the Ministry of Education established sponsored training courses ‘to nurture the benshi as educators.’ These regulations asserted the idea that the benshi were not regarded as mere frivolous performers by government administrators, but important expositors that were worth the time and effort to be trained. Critics such as Gonda Yasunosuke and Matsui Shoyo emphasised the role of the benshi as assimilators of popular education, and in promoting the country’s moral uplift. Conversely, Kaeriyama advocated for the ultimate elimination of benshi. His wish was soon to be fulfilled.
The transformation of the film industry into a production-oriented system reduced the need for benshi from early 1930s. They had to increasingly prove themselves indispensable in playhouses and the film industry at a time when ‘talkies’ were becoming the more practical choice (the term ‘talkies’ refers to films which included synchronised dialogue). The prevalence of ‘talkies’ coincided with the widely held ideology that a story’s image and voice must be unified within one body; this seriously undermined the benshi’s ability to maintain their culture and stardom. By 1936, benshi activity had ceased to such an extent that the Tokyo Police Department terminated their licensing system and examination process. Nonetheless, the legacy of benshi lives on in the history of Japanese cinema. They became unanimous with the Japanese silent film experience, and it is because of them that the silent film era lasted longer in Japan than anywhere else. Most importantly, the technique of the benshi enabled Japan to retain a level of cinematic uniqueness from Western cinema, characterised by a tradition of Japanese oral storytelling.
Written by Kat Jivkova
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