Rediscovering Benshi

Narration in the Japanese Silent Film Era

Tomoko Shimoda, School of Asian Studies, University of Auckland [About | Email]

Volume 5, Issue 2 (Book review 5 in 2005). First published in ejcjs on 9 November 2005.

Dym, Jeffery A. (2003), Benshi, Japanese Silent Film Narrators, and Their Forgotten Narrative Art of Setsumei: A History of Japanese Silent Film Narration, Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 2003, ISBN: 0773466487, vi and 292 pages.

Jeffery Dym's book, Benshi, Japanese Silent Film Narrators, and Their Forgotten Narrative Art of Setsumei, is an important addition to our knowledge about a unique Japanese art form. Thanks to the research conducted over the past half-century, we now have a substantial English-language literature about Japanese film. However, one major form of communication that, until recently, has been largely overlooked by researchers is the story of the benshi, who narrated and interpreted the films of the silent era from the early years of Japanese film. Dym's comprehensively researched book makes a valuable contribution to filling the significant gap in our knowledge of this era.

Dym's book is structured in a logical, chronological manner, progressing from the late 1890s to the mid-1930s. The first Japanese film was made in 1899; however, the first successful 'talkie' was not made until 1931 and it was not until 1935 that the majority of films made in Japan were talkies. Therefore, the years from the turn of the century to the mid-1930s comprise Japan's silent film era.

Throughout the world, silent films were screened with musical accompaniment. In Japan, however, silent films were usually accompanied by an orchestra and a performer known as a benshi, who stood next to the screen to read the subtitles, explaining and interpreting the film. This kind of narration developed in many countries in the early years of the silent film era; however, the only countries in which it became a central component of the cinematic experience were Japan, Korea, and Thailand (the latter two countries, because of Japanese influence). Filmmakers in America and Europe also experimented with narrators of various kinds; however, they did not develop as a significant component of American or European films. In contrast, in Japan, the benshi became central figures in the presentation of silent films, and some achieved a status in public popularity comparable to the film stars of later decades.

The first three chapters of Dym's book detail the development of Japanese film from the end of the nineteenth century through the first decade of the twentieth century. In these formative years of Japanese cinema, the only stars were the benshi. The benshi, through their direct role in communicating with the audience, had a critical role in interpreting the films that they accompanied. Indeed, it was not until almost 1920 that subtitles first appeared in Japanese films. As a consequence, it was the benshi who interpreted the film images and brought the characters to life for the audience. Chapters 4, 5 and 6 go on to paint a richly illustrated picture of the central role the benshi played in the Japanese silent film era. Indeed, the importance of the role played by the benshi makes one wonder why they have been relatively neglected as a subject worthy of scholarly attention. Chapters 7 and 8 similarly paint a detailed and engaging picture of the benshi as challenging authority and cultural norms.

Benshi brought a decidedly subversive character to their readings of films and often tapped into some of the most non-conformist elements of Japanese culture. Japanese newspapers, magazines and government officials frequently criticised benshi for performing drunk, for having affairs with married women, for cheating women out of money, and for giving bawdy setsumei. The Japanese government tried to control the non-conformist, anti-authoritarian elements of benshi behaviour and its perceived effects on society. Yet the laws, and the methods the government used to control the benshi, were only partly effective, as the benshi frequently and openly ignored them. Benshi reveal that early twentieth-century Japan was not wholly consumed by politics and war. It was also about challenging moral propriety, enjoying life, and living life to its hedonistic fullest.

The popularity of the benshi faded with the introduction of sound to accompany film. Ironically, given the historical dominance of the benshi profession during the silent film era, today the most celebrated benshi is a woman, Sawato Midori. Midori has worked as a professional benshi for the past twenty years, and is now the only person in Japan who earns a living in this field. Dym notes that, when Midori was asked what is the most important role of the benshi today, she replied, 'Communicating the spirit of the films made in the past to today's audiences' (page 223–4).

Chapters 9 and 10 are notable for highlighting the largely overlooked narrative art of setsumei. Dym notes that jōruri, kōdan, rakugo, naniwabushi, manzai, mandan, and gidayū are a few of the narrative arts which are often mentioned when one talks about the art of story telling (wajutsu) in Japan. However, setsumei is rarely mentioned. This is a regrettable omission, as setsumei was one of the most unique and dynamic narrative arts to emerge in Japan during the twentieth century, particularly during the 1910s and 1920s. Setsumei is like kōdan, for it is story-like; it is similar to rakugo, as it is theatre-like; it employs a voice that is scratchy and rough, like the one used by naniwabushi storytellers; and it is identical to jōruri, in that it supplies a vocal element to a visual performance. Although setsumei borrowed from Japan's narrative tradition and contains elements from various vocal arts, it has its own unique sound and structure.

A strength of Dym's book is how it details the unique features of setsumei and highlights its enduring legacy and influence on Japanese narrative arts. A further strong point is how the book explains and elevates the roles played by the benshi. The book demonstrates that the benshi were masterful narrators. They developed an ability to perform poetic rhetoric that perfectly meshed with the moving images, to describe creatively images within a strict time constraint, and constantly to think ahead in anticipation of upcoming scenes. As Dym notes:

Benshi often inserted highly poetic lines into their setsumei because they sounded great, even though they often had nothing to do with the film and thus made little sense. Although superfluous, when used judiciously, they added to the poetic beauty and flow of the setsumei. Kunii Shikō, for example, liked to interject the following lines into his setsumei: 'In the forest of the flowers, the spring moon, one bird goes, another returns: don't cross the bridge of dreams.'
(page 191)

Usually, benshi saved their most poetic lines for the end of the film.

Chapter 11 emphasises that the benshi, while largely forgotten by contemporary society, are not quite extinct. Indeed, a small number of people, primarily amateurs, still practice the narrative arts of the benshi, and books such as Dym's may help revive further interest.

From my experience as a television announcer in Japan, and from recent experience acting as a benshi for Ozu Yasujirō's 1932 film Umarete wa mita keredo ('I was born, but ...') at the 2005 Auckland and Wellington Film Society Festival in New Zealand, I have gained an appreciation of how fascinating the benshi role can be. Benshi performances usually entail a careful mix of dialogue and explanation, sensitive variations of volume, tone, pace and timing, precise modulation of music and silence, and alignment of the stage presence of the benshi with the visual images and storyline. My recent experience acting as a benshi also provided me with an appreciation of Dym's efforts in writing this illuminating and richly detailed history of benshi and setsumei.

Much about the early cinema in Japan, as in the West and elsewhere, was novel and exploratory. This early period of Japanese cinema has, to some extent, been undervalued. Dym's book helps to rectify this neglect, and highlights the important historical role of the benshi, both as a link between traditional and modern theatre and as a cultural phenomenon of Japan's early twentieth century.

Benshi, Japanese Silent Film Narrators, and Their Forgotten Narrative Art of Setsumei is a significant contribution to our knowledge about the history of Japanese popular culture, and also highlights the continuing influence that benshi and setsumei have on contemporary Japanese cinema and narrative arts. The book will be of particular relevance to those interested in silent films and narrative arts and is, more generally, likely to enhance the appreciation of Japan's early-twentieth-century popular culture.

Further Reading

Anderson, Joseph and Donald Richie (1982), The Japanese Film: Art and Industry. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Kirihara, Donald (1985), A Reconsideration of the Institution of the Benshi, Film Reader, vol. 6, pp.41–53.

Urban Connections (2001), The Benshi: Japanese Silent Film Narrators, Tokyo: Matsuda Film Productions.

About the Author

Tomoko Shimoda is a lecturer in the School of Asian Studies, University of Auckland. Her teaching and research interests include Japanese language, gender in Japan, the Japanese media, and Japanese popular culture. She gained an MA from the University of Sydney, and a PhD from the University of Auckland. Prior to working as an academic, she worked as an announcer in a television broadcasting station in Japan, and has worked as a narrator in a variety of media. She maintains a keen interest in the Japanese media, and a particular interest in how the Japanese media portray gender roles and relationships.

Email the author

Back to top