The Benshi in the silent era of Japanese Cinema

Hola amigos! The Japanese cinema is one of the most interesting cases  due to the historic context on which it was developed. In this post, I will talk about the Benshi, symbol of the Japanese filmography which was determinating for the creation of their own identity.

The Benshi was a narrator, a person who was standing by the screen and gave voice to every character. When there was an intertitle, he read it; if there was dialogue, he made it up; and still added comments to the film! The Benshi got to solve the problem of translating films into a foreign language and other issues like the censor; it must be mentioned that Japan imported most of their films on the early age of its cinema. Films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) by Rober Weine was one of the most successful films in Japan.

It is difficult to believe that Japan had been a medieval country until practically the 19th century.  Its isolation from the rest of the world enabled it to create a cinematography with conventions that were totally independent; the heritage of Japanese cinema would be different from European or American one.

The sound film arose between 1925 and 1930: In America, the market was monopolised by the companies like Fox, Warner, and Paramount, three of the future majors: The sound was included on cinema as a tool of competence between these companies. Vitaphone, Movietone, Photophone… many different systems were created; but in 1927, these companies decided to stop competing through the sound, as it could destroy their monopoly and unify their systems. The Movietone would prevail over the rest.

In Europe, there was not a lobby which could impose its sound system. Nevertheless, the UFA, in Germany, had created a cheaper and better system than the American ones and got export it to the rest of Europe as they didn’t have a real competitor. It was the Try-Ergon, which  surrendered to Movietone later.

In Japan, There wasn’t any technical tool to sounding films, but did they need it? The Benshi had had prominence by then, with 6818 Benshi in 1927, who obviously didn’t have any intention of making easy the transition to sound cinema.

This character was born around 1910 as a heritage from the Kabuki theater, the puppets theater, and representations: Japan has a strong cultural tradition of narrating what was going to happen on the scene: The Choir for the Nō Theater, the chanter for the puppets theater and the narrator (Gindayu) on Kabuki.

On the very beginning, the Benshi only explained the plot of what was to be shown on the screen, accompanied by any actor who said the character’s lines. Nevertheless, the Benshi will start explaining the plot during the film and  slowly adopting the narrative style which was known as Kowairo  setsumei (voice coloring), which was used on the Japanese theater. This style consisted in adding mimetic voices to the characters. There usually were from four to six actors, positioned out of sight on the wings of the stage. The voice actors disappeared with the prominence of Benshi. The Benshi was such a phenomenon that people chose a film in the cinema based on who was narrating it.

The Benshi got to create cultural voice conventions depending on the genre of the film: The historical film required a nasal tone and pompous; films about modern life were more colloquial, and tone for foreign films was judgmental and teaching. There were such strong requirements that there could be more than one Benshi per film. The Benshi were considered as an artist; there were narration contests and they even recorded albums to be listened without the film.

The sounding process was slowed down by the popularity of the Benshi. Despite the sound film conquered the Japanese cinema, there are some characteristics which still remain today. For example, the slowness of the Japanese films was resulting from the needing of giving time to the Benshi to narrate. The early filmography of Japanese Cinema was composed by short films which were looped on and on. The Benshi labor was prolonging the film sessions and improving the experience. The linear response was not implanted in the cinematographic culture yet, so it didn’t matter watching the film again as it was considered a second opportunity to get new information. Once the stories were longer, the cinema started to become more and more popular.

The Benshi had survived along the History in some cultural circles who have tried to keep it alive in a practice called “Neo-Benshi” that will still explore the possibilities of the Benshi’s figure. Midori Sawato or Vanilla Yamazaki are the most famous ones.


 

Richie, Donald.”Give way to the Benshi”, A Hundred Years of Japanese Film (2014). Kodansha America

Knopf, Robert. Cinema and Film (2005). Yale University (P. 34-36)

Sharp, Jasper. Historical Dictionary of Japanese Cinema (2011), Scarecrow Press

Berman, Tosh. The Benshi Tradition: Cinema = Performance. Alt-X (Acceded in 30/11/2015)

Sharp, Jasper. Arnold, Michael. Forgotten Fragments: An Introduction to Japanese Silent Cinema (Available in http://www.midnighteye.com/features/forgotten-fragments-an-introduction-to-japanese-silent-cinema/#sthash.xWOYHpKE.dpuf)

VV.AA. Historia General del Cine (1995.1998). Cátedra.

García Fernandez, Emilio. Historia Universal del Cine (1985). Planeta.

 

 

 

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