February 27, 2011 4:17 PM   Subscribe

The benshi of Japan were live narrators of silent films. "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."

Audio clips of the great benshi

On Youtube: Our Baseball Match (animated, 1931), Orochi (final sword-fight scene, 1924)

Midori Sawato keeps the tradition alive: article, interview, website

Neo-benshi: a revival in California
posted by Paragon (17 comments total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
Um... is this post about the benshi?

If so, lemme just say... cool post!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 4:24 PM on February 27, 2011

Totally trivial, but Akira Kurosawa's brother was a well-known benshi in Tokyo prior to killing himself.
posted by Dmenet at 4:28 PM on February 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

Reminds me of this tidbit from a recent review of Tété-Michel Kpomassie's An African in Greenland:
Kpomassie has a fantastic story about watching movies in Greenland, which were usually in a foreign language that nobody understood, with Danish subtitles that no one could read, and since Greenlanders had no patience for dubbing, films had to be stopped every 10 minutes while a disembodied voice from a loudspeaker explained to the audience what was going on.
posted by theodolite at 4:31 PM on February 27, 2011 [5 favorites]

Oh my god. There was a silent film showing up here in middle-of-nowhere Japan (Fukui prefecture, for what it's worth) of an old… Charlie Chaplin? Buster Keaton? One of those, and the main draw was the fact that there was both a benshi (a woman, surprisingly, as traditionally they were overwhelmingly male, as they mentioned at the start of the evening), and there was an unscored organ accompaniment on a pipe organ the size of God. This was followed by a showing of The Phantom of the Opera with just the organ.

Afraid I can't do it justice describing it this way, but suffice it to say it was definitely a unique experience. It was especially odd seeing the captions left un-translated in the benshi-narrated comedy, too.
posted by DoctorFedora at 4:44 PM on February 27, 2011 [3 favorites]

I bet there is a movie about an aging benshi who finds it increasingly difficult to find work as talking pictures take over. Maybe he even befriends a young girl who sets her mind on keep the trade alive despite meeting resistance from her family and the public. All of this told as a story within a story where the young girl, now an old woman in modern Japan, shares her life's story with her grandchild. Would so crowd fund this.
posted by Foci for Analysis at 4:49 PM on February 27, 2011 [12 favorites]

Maybe time for you to start writing the screenplay, Foci!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 5:01 PM on February 27, 2011

This reminds me of how my wife "watches" the Itchy and Scratchy segments of Simpsons. As soon as they start, she immediately turns away (she's squeamish) and just watches my face. I calmly explain what's going on ("Well, Itchy just chopped off Scratchy's face and is..oh nice.") while she dies of hysterics. She finds the actual segments completely unfunny--she only likes my explanations of them.
posted by DU at 5:16 PM on February 27, 2011 [12 favorites]

Q: What did the angry wife say to the live silent film narrator who had stayed out too late?

A: Benshi come home!
posted by tumid dahlia at 5:18 PM on February 27, 2011

I used to be a narrator for bad mimes. -- Steven Wright

Not sure what made me think of that, but I did.
posted by twoleftfeet at 7:12 PM on February 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

It is estimated that between 95-99% of all Japanese silent films are lost (with almost none before 1923 owing to the destruction of the Nikkatsu film store in the Tokyo earthquake)....Originally each part in a film was taken by a separate off-screen performer, until the film industry rebelled against this theatrical domination, around 1920, and the single benshi tradition began.

This is completely fascinating stuff; thanks, Paragon.
posted by mediareport at 8:28 PM on February 27, 2011

So, basically what you're saying is that the Japanese invented the Rocky Horror Picture Show experience roughly 75 years before bored American college kids did?
posted by Strange Interlude at 8:57 PM on February 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

Wow, I am a Japanese film geek (although my J Cinema professor moved to a different school before I could enroll in his MA program) and I thought I heard just about everything. But I never heard of this.

It reminds me of the guys who would travel around with little platforms that would display cartoons, they would narrate the tale as they changed the picture, and kids would buy little pieces of candy as their admission prices. I wish I could remember the name of that, I'm sure it has appeared on MeFi before.

Perhaps the Benshi was way ahead of his time. A while ago, I stumbled across a cable channel with an alternate audio track called something like "descriptive video." A narrator described the action, so the vision impaired could enjoy the program.
posted by charlie don't surf at 10:11 PM on February 27, 2011

Cool, KSCI in Los Angeles is playing a bunch of these during the early morning hours on their Japanese channel. It's very odd watching an old samurai flick with the cards in kanji, some lady narrating and doing voices, and then reading English subtitles
posted by zengargoyle at 12:22 AM on February 28, 2011

Bugger. Apologies for the malformed HTML. It's early...
posted by Devonian at 1:57 AM on February 28, 2011

Perhaps the Benshi was way ahead of his time

I'd argue they were precisely a product of their time and the fact they hung on a bit longer than elsewhere in the world for technological and cultural reasons is their chief particularity. It's by no means an exclusively Japanese phenomenon. Pre-1927 cinema (most historians settle on The Jazz Singer as the beginning of the sound era, despite it being mostly silent) positively seethed with various configurations of live voice acting and presentation filling the gap, if you will, of the silent screen, or replaced the subtitle.

Iris no. 22 (Autumn 1996) devotes an entire issue to this question.
posted by Wolof at 3:04 AM on February 28, 2011

Devonian beat me to it. Another item in the MST:3K genealogy!
posted by doctornemo at 6:06 AM on February 28, 2011

« Older Old School Weblog   |   A Booth, a Mic, and a Tower Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments