The Benshi: Japanese Silent Film Narrators

picture: The Benshi: Japanese Silent Film Narrators
16 February 2004


The best overview of Japanese silent cinema we've yet to come across is contained in The Benshi - Japanese Silent Film Narrators. Shunsui Matsuda, born in 1925, took up his own vocation as a benshi at a fairly late date, shortly after the Pacific War, when post-War shortages meant there really weren't a lot of films being shown in the more provincial areas of Japan. In 1947 he found himself part of a troupe of itinerant benshi travelling around Kyushu, whose burgeoning coal mining industry had attracted a lot of workers to the region. The desperate shortage of any means of entertainment in the area meant that reruns of old silent films were still immensely popular. The story goes that Matsuda discovered one of the projectionists snipping out footage from one of these films because it "dragged the film down", and thereupon decided to dedicate his life to the act of preserving these early cinematic documents.

It's a good job he did, because what with the 1923 Kanto earthquake and the war, a vast number of films had already been destroyed, but even worse was the complete laissez-faire attitude of the major studios to their own product. The few surviving fragments of films such as Ozu's I Graduated, But… (Daigaku wa Detakeredo, 1929) are pretty much entirely down to the efforts of this man, who travelled the country scouring pawn shops and old theatres for films to add to his collection. Most of the existing copies of films from this period are dupes of the much used original master prints, covered in scratches and speckles and missing who knows how much footage. Apparently the sole existing full 98-minute version of Kenji Mizoguchi's The Water Magician (Taki no Shiraito, 1933) is a composite taken from about 6 different sources.

During the 1950s Matsuda was appointed President of the Friends of Silent Films Association, dedicated to the appreciation of Japanese silent cinema and keeping alive the benshi tradition of the katsuben silent film narration. He continued to give performances all the way up until his death in 1987, also producing Bantsuma - Bando Tsumasaburo no Shogai (Bantsuma - The Life and Times of Bando Tsumasaburo) in 1980 and even directing his own silent film, Jigoku no Mushi (Maggots of Hell) in 1979. He can be seen in full flow providing the narration for the silent film fragment in Kaizo Hayashi's homage to this golden age, To Sleep So As To Dream (Yume Miruyoni Nemuritai, 1986). It is Matsuda Film Productions, the company he founded which is currently being run by his son Yutaka Matsuda, who are responsible for the publication of this book, available for the very reasonable cover price of 1500 Yen. The same organisation also runs regular narrated screenings of silent films in Tokyo and have also put out a very informative DVD-Rom, which includes clips of a large number of these films complete with subtitled commentaries.

As for the book itself, well, by the time you reach this paragraph you should all know what a benshi is and what they do, but trying to actually imagine the whole experience of a fully narrated silent film screening is a little more difficult. The fact is, for both Japanese and foreign films alike, in those early days the benshi was an integral part of the film-watching process, and this is considered to be one of the reasons that the talkie took so long to catch on in Japan in comparison with the rest of the world. An introductory essay by eminent film critic Tadao Sato as well as an interview with Midori Sawato, the most prominent benshi in operation today, shed a whole load more light on the subject. However, the main bulk of the book is taken up with sections including one-page synopses and one-page sample katsuben commentaries of 50 films complete with images, profiles of the 27 most famous benshi, and a section detailing six of Tokyo's earliest cinemas. The book reveals that Japanese silent cinema exhibited far more diversity than the straightforward chanbara films included here in films like Araki Mataemon: Master Swordsman (Kensei Araki Mataemon, 1935), Chushingura: The Truth (Jitsuroku Chushingura, 1928) and Chuji's Travel Diary (Chuji Tabi Nikki Shinshu Kesshohen, 1927), also covering contemporary themes in films such as The Missing Ball (Mari no Yukue, 1930), Kids Commotion (Kodakara Sodo, 1935), and the early animation Private Norakuro (Norakuro Gocho, 1934). Despite being only 172 pages long, this book is not only a fascinating read, but a valuable research tool, rendered all the more precious by the fact that there's nothing else like it around on the subject.