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Benshi Midori Sawato

by Judit Kawaguchi

Midori Sawato is a benshi, a unique kind of performer who provides live narration to silent films at the movie theater. The benshi brings the characters in films alive using different voices and vocal expressions. They sit to the side of the screen, watching the movie with the audience and using their versatility and talent to act out each character. Benshi often work with a small orchestra, which provides the musical accompaniment. In Japan, there are probably 10 benshi still active and Sawato is by far the most famous among them. For her fantastic performances she has received many accolades, among them the Japan Film Pen Club Prize in 1990, The Japan Movie Critics Award Golden Glory Prize in 1995, and in 2002 the Japan Agency for Cultural Affairs’ National Arts Festival Award. In 2010 she was named Master of Sound by the Japan Audio Society. Sawato’s repertoire includes more than 500 of the greatest silent films from all over the world. This year, she celebrates 40 years of acting and will share some of her favorite roles in a keenly awaited performance at 6 p.m. on Dec. 29 at Kinokuniya Hall in the Shinjuku district of Tokyo.

Charlie Chaplin could tell a story with his eyes, without ever uttering a word. We could feel human suffering just by observing his tragic stare at food when his character was hungry. His eyes were windows into the complexity of human emotions. In his 1925 movie “The Gold Rush,” Chaplin was mistaken for a chicken by his hungry roommate. That scene is the most brilliant portrayal of how scary yet utterly hilarious human relationships are.

Times change but people’s lives remain the same: very tough. The movies of Yasujiro Ozu, whether his masterpiece “Tokyo Story” or his other genius works, make us understand how hard our existence really is. Everywhere in the world people make families, get jobs, struggle with hierarchy and lose out — mostly. But there are short, happy moments that keep us going. In his 1932 classic silent film “I Was Born, But …,” we meet a salaryman who feels pressured to get promoted, so at work he does just about anything to please his boss. By chance, his young sons witness their father acting foolish within the company, and with the innocence of children, they promptly lose respect for their father. You must watch this fantastic film to appreciate how much Ozu loved and understood people. There is nothing outdated about this film. The same thing happens every day, in every city around the world.

Always look again. The road might not be straight, even if it appears to be going straight ahead. The American silent film great Harry Langdon was a master of dead-pan comedy. He turned common sense upside down with his childish, innocent characters. He played babies trapped inside the body of a man. He would be a star even now as Japanese love this kind of kimo-kawaii (strange-cute) personality — when someone is weird and kind of freaky but at the same time cute. He showed us that nothing is as it seems.

Life is not always simply give-and-take: Oftentimes one person gives, then gives more and finally gives it all, while the other just takes everything — forever. That is also life. My other favorite director is Mizoguchi Kenji. In his film “Osen of the Paper Cranes” (1935), the beautiful female lead, Osen, is a servant who switches to prostitution so she can pay her love’s medical-school tuition fees. This film is about sacrifice. Men often sacrifice their lives, toiling in jobs they hate, just to keep their families safe and happy. In this truly modern film, a woman sacrifices herself for the man she loves. I always feel touched by this innocent story.

Japanese live for a pretty death. We Japanese feel close to death, especially to suicide. This idea is connected to the Bushido code of the samurai, who were ready to die for others at any moment. In Japan, suicide is not a sin. We love death and cherish it in our art forms and act it out in kabuki, noh and bunraku theaters.

Humans can learn a lot from cats. Cats are kind and considerate. They walk quietly and are sensitive to the people around them. Their tails show their emotions and they feel things with their whiskers. How cool is that! I wish I could be a cat. I admire their soft and flexible bodies, too. They have cute meows, but once they start arguing, they suddenly switch to an artistic, wild sound. Cats possess things we humans don’t have. I have a pair of cat pants and am on the lookout for some tops.

Japanese love expressing themselves in tight and short formats. Haiku consists of three lines of 5, 7 and 5 morae. Japanese love putting whole worlds into such a miniature form. Director Daisuke Ito specialized in samurai and jidaigeki (historical) movies. I love his 1931 silent film about a famous thief, “Jorikichi the Rat.” It’s a fabulous melodrama with superb camera work. Ito was a genius.

In a noisy world, silence says a lot. Silent movies don’t depend on dialogue, so they are visually very exciting. Also, since our world is full of color, these black-and-white films look surreal and are so attractive from the start.

Judit Kawaguchi loves to listen. She is a volunteer counselor and a TV reporter on NHK’s “journeys in japan” Learn more at: juditfan.blog58.fc2.com. Twitter: @judittokyo.©JUDIT KAWAGUCHI