Benshi (弁士 in Japanese), or Katsudō-Benshi (活動弁士) were Japanese performers who provided live narration for silent films (not only Japanese films, but also Western films).

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. [Standish, Isolde. "A New History of Japanese Cinema: A Century of Narrative Film". New York: Continuum, 2005. ISBN 0-8264-1709-4]

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. [Dym, Jeffery (2008). "A Brief History of Benshi (Silent Film Narrators").]

In the 1995 film "Picture Bride," Toshiro Mifune portrays one of the "benshi" who traveled to various sugar cane plantations in Hawaii during the early 20th century.

In 2008 Dinky-Bloc, an independent publisher , based in Cape Town, South Africa,resurrects the Benshi. I Married My Mother by Hilary Maraney is a modern daylittany of woe in the genre of a "Japanese I-novel". Within the idyllic world of "play play" Little Robot [ Benshi ] is trapped by her mothers negative entities.

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. [Cook, David A.(1990). "A History Of Narrative Film", New York: W. W. Norton & Company . ISBN 0-393-95553-2.] 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.

Modern benshi

* Sawato Midori
* Saito Yuko
* Kataoka Ichiro
* Sakamoto Raiko
* Sakurai Mami
* Yamazaki Vanilla

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 dialogue 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.


*cite book
first =Geoffrey
last =Nowell-Smith
authorlink =
coauthors =
year = 1996
month =
title = The Oxford History of World Cinema
chapter =
editor =
others =
edition =
pages =
publisher =
location =
id = ISBN 0-19-874242-8
url =

*cite book
first =Jeffrey A.
last =Dym
authorlink =
coauthors =
year = 2003
month = August
title = Benshi, Japanese Silent Film Narrators, and their Forgotten Narrative Art of Setsumei A History of Japanese Silent Film Narration
chapter =
editor =
others =
edition =
pages = 312
publisher = Edwin Mellen Press
location =
id = ISBN 0-7734-6648-7
url =

External links

* " [ The Benshi Tradition: Cinema = Performance] " by Tosh Berman (1995)
* [ Da Benshi Code] (Modern-day performers re-interpreting the idea of "benshi")
* [ Introduction to Japanese silent cinema with an interview from a modern-day benshi]
* [ List of Performing "benshi"] from [ Matsuda Film Productions]
* [ Motion Picture Benshi “Sawato Midori” Official Website] .
* [ Dinky-Bloc] (Official Website for independent publisher Dinky-Bloc).

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