Japanese silent films were never really silent. Almost from the start of the genre, live narrators not only explained the story, but also acted out the various roles. Called benshi or katsuben, some became more famous than the stars on the marquee. Their popularity began to fade as filmmakers adopted more sophisticated camera and editing techniques to tell a story — making benshi superfluous. The death blow was the advent of sound, though benshi fought their professional doom tooth and nail.

Masayuki Suo’s “Talking the Pictures” is a comedy set in the world of the benshi, starting when male actors were still playing women (a carryover from kabuki) and concluding a decade later when winds of change were about to sweep the benshi to oblivion.

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