If you’re a BFI member there’s a treat in store for you tomorrow (Monday 22 April). They’e showing Yasujiro Ozu’s silent film, Walk Cheerfully, an early gangster movie, accompanied by a benshi performance from Tomoko Komura.
So what’s a benshi then? In Japan, in the days of silent films, they didn’t have an organ accompaniment. Instead a narrator (benshi), who sat on a little platform next to the screen, introduced the film beforehand, explaining the history and setting and any difficult points, and then told the story, speaking for the characters on screen and playing multiple roles.
There was a live music accompaniment as well, played on the kind of traditional Japanese instruments used for the kabuki. At that time cinemas typically held a thousand people, so a benshi, who had no microphone or amplification, needed to project their voice and coordinate with the orchestra in order to be heard.
Benshi didn’t only narrate Japanese films – they would provide a detailed introduction for foreign films, explaining the unfamiliar gestures and customs before narrating the story in a way a Japanese audience could understand.
Benshi were stars in their own right, better known (and better paid) than the actors appearing in the film – and the benshi’s picture was the biggest on the poster. They had large numbers of (mainly female) fans and were often fashion trendsetters.
Some benshi wore formal kimonos when performing, while others (particularly if they were narrating a foreign film) wore striped trousers and tails. Narrating styles varied between districts; Shitamachi style was passionate and dramatic, while the style in Yamanote was understated and intellectual. If you saw a film over again with a different benshi, it was like seeing an entirely different film.
It was hard work – four to five shows a day, seven days a week with a new films every week – so benshi generally worked in hour-long slots, handing over to the next benshi to continue the story. In 1927, there were more than six thousand benshi at work.
One of the leading benshi was Heigo Kurosawa, elder brother of Akira Kurosawa (director of Seven Samurai and many other great films). But the rise of talking films meant the benshi were no longer needed and thousands were thrown out of work. Heigo led an unsuccessful strike in protest against the talkies, but when it failed he committed suicide in 1933, aged just 27.
Not that the talkies had it all their own way; many people said they preferred the benshi, and there was real problem with foreign films where people couldn’t understand the foreign dialogue. Dubbing failed because Japanese audiences at the time simply couldn’t accept the idea of foreigners speaking Japanese. Some benshi solved the problem by having the film sound turned off and continuing to narrate as they always had done.
Cinemas tried projecting subtitles on a small screen next to the main one but it didn’t work because the projectionist, who knew no English, couldn’t keep the titles in sync with the story. Finally, in 1931, Paramount found a solution – they arranged for top benshi Yoshihiko Tamara to travel to America and provide subtitles for Josef von Sternberg’s Morocco. It was a great success, and the benshi’s fate was sealed.
The benshi for the BFI performance is Tomoko Komura, an English-speaking Japanese actress, probably best known as a member of the London-based Japanese pop performance group Frank Chickens. Tomoko became the UK’s first benshi in 2010 when she narrated Kenji Mizoguchi’s The Water Magician at the Barbican Cinema.
Some of the information for this post came from Donald Richie’s wonderful book The Japanese Film.