Benshi Performers Pass Along a Way of Thinking

During cinema’s Silent Era, thousands of performers were employed in Japan to accompany film showings with live narration, commentary, and voice work. The advent of the talkies naturally caused this profession to wane — but it didn’t disappear entirely. Today, around 15 individuals keep the tradition of the benshi alive. This month, audiences across the US have a rare opportunity to see them display their skills thanks to the Art of the Benshi tour, a series of screenings organized by UCLA’s Film & Television Archive and Yanai Initiative. Benshi Ichirō Kataoka, Kumiko Ōmori, and Hideyuki Yamashiro will be narrating a lineup of both US and Japanese silent films along with musical accompaniment.

I saw Kataoka and Ōmori perform during a similar event at UCLA in 2019, and I took the opportunity provided by this tour to speak with them over Zoom about how they became benshi and the modern-day conventions and challenges of the role. UCLA professor and Yanai Initiative director Michael Emmerich was on hand to translate.

Kataoka grew up knowing of the craft of benshi, but thought it had gone extinct until Midori Sawato visited his high school theater club with a demonstration when he was 18. “I realized, wow, not only are benshi still performing, but it’s really astonishing,” he remembers. “I was absolutely captivated by the performance and wanted to try it myself.” To that end, he approached Sawato and became her apprentice.

“Sawato was not the sort of master who gave a lot of instructions,” Kataoka recounted. “In the Japanese context, when you apprentice with somebody, it’s not necessarily about teaching technique. She didn’t give me pointers about how to use my voice or portray characters. She just wanted me to watch her perform and absorb what I could, and then I would start performing on my own. It was about more fundamental things: What do you think a silent film is? What are benshi doing? She was passing along a way of thinking.”

Ōmori’s introduction to the work came when she caught a television program about benshi featuring voice actor Vanilla Yamazaki. “I was completely blown away by the performance,” she says, “and was shocked to learn about this marvelous form of culture in Japan that I hadn’t known about.” A radio personality and vocal performer by trade, she wanted to add benshi work to her repertoire. Rather than apprentice, she commuted from her home in Kansai to Tokyo to take a class on the topic from a benshi. She also studied silent film itself, attending repertory screenings at a nearby theater. Though initially interested only in working with animation and Western films, this experience gave Ōmori a new appreciation for early Japanese cinema.

Such appreciation is vital. All over the world, saving silent film is a pressing issue — it’s estimated that more than 90% of all movies made before 1929 in the US are irretrievably gone. Benshi are part of the preservation effort in Japan, and their involvement can go beyond exhibition. During their heyday, for instance, many benshi would record their performances. Benshi like Kataoka then scour antique dealers and shops for such records to find inspiration for their own work. He’s turned over nearly 4,000 of these records to the University of Bonn, which is now working on digitizing them

Such research also sometimes leads Kataoka and other modern benshi to uncover clips of films that had been thought lost. In 2016, he saw a film reel in an online auction that turned out to be “Our Pet,” a short from 1924 starring early child screen actor “Baby Peggy.” He “snapped it up,” and donated the film to USC; it plays as part of the Art of the Benshi tour with Ōmori’s accompaniment. Similarly, in a Kyoto antique store, Kataoka discovered fragments of the earliest cinematic adaptation of the perennially popular Japanese story of the 47 Ronin, directed by Shōzō Makino and released around 1910. Archivists combined the footage with other extant material to make the most complete version of the movie yet.

There’s enough demand for benshi to keep the few contemporary practitioners engaged, but what the work entails varies among them. They could be narrating a short or feature, and the film may or may not be the main attraction. As Ōmori explains it: “I might be at a small theater where other people are doing other sorts of performances. There could be rakugo, which is a kind of comic storytelling, and I’ll come out during interludes to do short 10-minute pieces.” 

As a full-timer, Kataoka performs once or twice a week, while this is just one kind of gig Ōmori takes on. Silent film showings aren’t too common in either the US or Japan, and not every screening is accompanied by a benshi. Kataoka explains that tastes vary among Japanese cinephiles. Some enjoy benshi accompaniment, while others prefer the “purer” experience. Interestingly, Kataoka notes that it’s not uncommon to have screenings that are truly silent, with neither narration nor music.

This tour also marks an exceptionally unusual instance in which benshi are working outside Japan for any notable amount of time. Kataoka is by far the benshi who performs internationally the most, and even then, he says he doesn’t tend to do so more than two or three times a year.

While benshi work is tied to an older form of cinema, its practice has changed over time. Ōmori says that “each age needs its own style. We have to engage audiences and help them connect with the films in a way that’s appropriate to this moment.” Thinking about what’s different now, Katoaka adds, “Older benshi weren’t trying to perform the characters; it was a lot more about the narration. Today benshi tend to be closer to actors, trying to act out what the characters are feeling.” 

Content is also a concern; one near-universal element of silent film appreciation is cringing at the invocation of outdated or even objectionable stereotypes. A benshi must tactfully address these elements, presenting them in a way a modern audience can understand. Sometimes, though, the gulf between past and present is more mundane. Ōmori notes: “If a police officer appears, their uniform would have been immediately familiar to people watching the film at the time, whereas people today might not recognize it. You look for things that might require a little bit of explanation. You say, ‘Oh look, here comes the police.’”

This gets at how important the preparation stage is for the art, as benshi script their narration ahead of time. Both Kataoka and Ōmori stress how crucial this is. Kataoka explains: “If you’re taking a film that at the time had a clear message or theme that isn’t going to resonate now, you need to find something else that will resonate. Sometimes it’ll be a matter of finding something that originally might not have been crucial and bringing it out.” Ōmori adds that such intensive writing distinguishes benshi from other forms of Japanese oral storytelling. “With rakugo or kōdan, there are new works, but they traditionally draw on existing scripts that have been passed down for a long time, and performers learn them and tell them in their own way. It’s unusual that benshi each write their own scripts.”

Ōmori also gets into how the staging of a benshi performance is unique. Usually, “the performer is at the middle of the stage, everybody’s focused on them. But the benshi is over on one side of the screen, and the musicians are on the other side. It’s important to maintain a good balance between film, narration, and music. You don’t want to get in the way of the film, but you also don’t want to sort of retire, to disappear.” As she puts it, a good benshi transforms the audience’s experience of the film. 

Both Kataoka and Ōmori express their hope that those who attend the Art of the Benshi tour will enjoy it. Ever the scholar, Kataoka also talks about his hope to use these travels to study how benshi worked in Japanese immigrant communities in the US in places like Hawaiʻi and California. Watching benshi work is singular, a fascinating intersection between cinema and ancient storytelling conventions. I’m glad that even a few people remain to keep the art alive.

The Art of the Benshi tour plays in various venues around the US through April 21.

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