When to speak and when to shut up: the art of a Japanese ‘benshi’

by Alisa Yamasaki

Special To The Japan Times

The silent films screened in Japan from the 1920s to ’40s were never completely silent. Katsudo-shashin benshi, or benshi for short, delivered live narration that provided everything an audience might need to appreciate a film — from commentary to translation. Derived from Japan’s many narrative art forms, benshi were an effective way to introduce cinema to Japanese audiences.

Though the era of silent films is gone, the art of narration lives on through a handful of professionals. Ichiro Kataoka is one of the country’s few active benshi, and he will provide narration for Tomiyasu Ikeda’s 1926 classic “Chushingura” at the Tokyo International Film Festival’s Special Night Event at Kabukiza Theatre. The event will also feature narration by guest benshi Ichiro Furutachi and a special performance by kabuki actor Onoe Kikunosuke.

“I had known about benshi but I thought that it was a long lost profession,” Kataoka tells The Japan Times. “When I was 18, I happened to attend a benshi performance by Midori Sawato and it made me want to learn about being one.”

At age 38, Kataoka has built an impressive career out of the art. The professional benshi has narrated more than 300 films and has been invited to perform at events around the world.

“When I perform overseas, I’m asked to narrate classic Japanese films, but I do films from any country: Japanese, European, American, Chinese, anything,” Kataoka explains. Are non-Japanese films more challenging to narrate than domestic ones?

“There’s a specific pacing with classic Japanese films that makes it easier for benshi, since Japanese silent film directors were aware of the benshi and filmed their work with them in mind. With foreign cinema, mostly European, the director tries to convey as much as possible through the cinematography,” he says.

“At the end of the day whether it’s Japanese or not, the film I’m narrating is old. But I’m a modern person and my audience comprises modern people, so I need to constantly think about how to communicate the old film from one modern person to another — what themes to bring up and what scenes to emphasize — in order to present it as a terrific piece.”

While Kataoka has a compelling tone and presence to him, he says it’s crucial for benshi to understand they don’t have the leading role.

“A good benshi always remembers when to shut up and let the images do the talking,” he says. “Silence can be more powerful than words.”

Special Night Event at Kabukiza Theatre will be held Oct. 27 at 5:30 p.m. This article is part of an eight-page special on the Tokyo International Film Festival that will be published in The Japan Times on Oct. 22. The festival takes place from Oct. 25 to Nov. 3, visit www.tiff-jp.net.

TICKET GIVEAWAY

Special Night Event at Kabukiza Theatre will be held on Oct. 27 and is sold out. However, The Japan Times has two pairs of tickets to give away to readers. To apply, send a postcard by Oct. 23 with your name, address, postal code, phone number and the word “TIFF” to the Life & Culture section of The Japan Times, 4-5-4 Shibaura, Minato-ku, Tokyo 108-0023. To apply online, visit jtimes.jp/film.