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When film told it like it was

by Donald Richie

THE BENSHI — Japanese Silent Film Narrators, edited by the Friends of Silent Films Association, with essays by Tadao Sato and Larry Greenberg, and an interview with Midori Sawato. Tokyo: Urban Connections, 2001, 172 pp. with photographs, 1,500 yen (paper)

Despite its name, no silent film was, of course, ever shown silent. There was always, everywhere, something — usually music but often some kind of narration as well. Only in one country, however, did the practice of narration turn into a kind of institution. That was in Japan.

Among the reasons for this was that the silver screen was viewed as an offshoot of the dramatic stage, and traditional Japanese theater was rarely without its mediating voice. The noh had the chorus, the doll-drama had the joruri and the kabuki had the gidayu — all of them narrating the play, reiterating the dialogue, affirming the moral.

It was thus natural that someone in authority should serve as mediator for films. This was the benshi, a performer who stood to one side of the screen, narrated and moralized. He (sometimes she) was often colorfully dressed, commanded attention, and was frequently billed in larger type than the film itself. In a way, the benshi were the only “stars” of the early Japanese cinema.

Crowds came perhaps as much to hear as to see and, eventually, the benshi became so important that film scripts were sometimes shown to them before production began so that they could demand a rewrite if they wanted. In a sense, the films were made as much for the benshi as they were for the audience.

In her interview in this book, Midori Sawato, the major contemporary benshi, says that the easiest films to narrate are those made for narrators. She mentions Kenji Mizoguchi’s “The Water Magician,” a Shimpa melodrama that was made with benshi needs in mind. In fact, Mizoguchi once said that he preferred the benshi to dialogue-titles because they allowed for the long-lasting scenes of which he was so fond. Listening to Sawato’s reconstruction gives some idea of how seamless the experience could be.

In speaking of this particular Mizoguchi film, however, one should note that the benshi excerpt given in the book — by the late Shunsui Matsuda — narrates an incomplete print of the film, which for many years was the only one available. The final reel of the movie has now been reconstructed using production stills, so we can see that the original 1932 audience would have heard, and seen, something quite different during the closing scenes. Identical, however, would have been the final summing up:

“Oh, that spring moon! The snow on beautiful Mount Hakusan glistened under the moonlight, and then melted down to flow in endless streams of melancholic tears.”

Such bathos was expected and indeed constituted the charm of the benshi for his audience. At the same time, however, the Mizoguchi picture is one that is beautifully balanced, subtly acted and skillfully manipulative. It does not need such florid gestures as the benshi could provide. In fact it is ill served by them.

Benshi may have benefited early stage-bound sword-fights and domestic tears, but as film refined its means they became an obstruction. Yasujiro Ozu’s famous 1932 “I Was Born, But . . .” is so well observed that any comment becomes not only redundant but offensive. At the end of this fine film we are truly moved. The visuals (and the occasional dialogue-title — Ozu was no friend to the benshi) have shown us all we need to know, have respected our intelligence and engaged our emotions.

Yet here is the benshi script for these tender final moments: “A child’s world exists under an endless sky. The world of a grownup, on the other hand, is weighed down by the harsh realities of everyday life,” and on and on until the last frame flickers. This does not serve the film well.

However, respecting the possibilities of cinematic art was no concern of the benshi. Indeed, it might be argued that his presence long prevented the narrative advances common in the cinemas of other countries. You will not, however, find this argued in the present publication, which is a celebratory account of the benshi and his work. It includes 60 examples of benshi scripts along with precis and stills from each film; histories and pictures from seven historical movie theaters; and biographies and portraits of 26 famous benshi.

The film examples are taken from those silent pictures collected by Matsuda, who eventually had a collection of over 1,000 titles. It is indeed due to him that we are still able to see silent Japanese film. He was the first president of the Friends of Silent Films Association, which published this book, and preserved much of the material that is collated in the Windows DVD-ROM “Masterpieces of Japanese Silent Cinema.”