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.

With meticulous research evident everywhere, down to the Taisho Era (1912-26) tune playing over the closing credits, the film is a hymn to not only a lost art, but also to the movies as a communal ritual and collective dream, with the benshi serving as both entertainers and guides to exotic realms.

Talking the Pictures (Katsuben!)
Run Time 127 mins.
Opens Dec. 13

The period flavor extends to the story itself, from its creaky gags to its antique plot devices. This approach has its charms but they fade somewhat as the realization sets in that the film, by design, is every bit as corny and hammy as the silent melodramas it references and celebrates.

But if its nostalgia is hard to completely share — Japanese cinema’s reliance on benshi, as critics noted at the time, slowed its development as an independent art form — its affectionate re-creation of a long-vanished era has its value and fun. Doesn’t everybody enjoy a trip in a wayback machine once in a while, especially one so well-constructed?

Real talk: Masayuki Suo's 'Talking the Pictures' celebrates a bygone era of Japanese silent films and live narrators. | © 2019 'TALKING THE PICTURES' PRODUCTION COMMITTEE
Real talk: Masayuki Suo’s ‘Talking the Pictures’ celebrates a bygone era of Japanese silent films and live narrators. | © 2019 ‘TALKING THE PICTURES’ PRODUCTION COMMITTEE

“Talking the Pictures” begins with a boy, Shuntaro, whose ambition is to be a benshi, befriending a girl, Umeko, who tells him she wants be an actress. Ten years later a now adult Shuntaro (Ryo Narita) is serving a roving band of thieves as a fake benshi. While he distracts the rubes with an impromptu performance, the thieves go about their nefarious business.

When the gang boss, the swaggering Yasuda (Takuma Otoo), is nabbed by a movie-loving detective (Yutaka Takenouchi), Shuntaro escapes and finds refuge in a provincial theater, the Aokikan. There he proves his skill as a benshi, winning over the audience with his eloquence and wit. But the Aokikan has a rival, the Tachibanakan, which is run by the slithery Shigezo Tachibana (Fumiyo Kohinata) and his slinky daughter Kotoe (Mao Inoue).

Meanwhile, Shuntaro’s rapid rise arouses the envy of the Aokikan’s arrogant star benshi (Kengo Kora), though an alcoholic veteran (Masatoshi Nagase) finally takes a shine to the newcomer. Also, Umeko (Yuina Kuroshima) turns up, now acting and still remembering her childhood crush.

When the plot wheels start turning — and Shuntaro finds himself on the run once again — the film becomes more of a slapstick comedy than a romantic drama, though the invention and daring of a Buster Keaton or Harold Lloyd are lacking.

That said, Narita is full of energy, nerve and talent as Shuntaro. He makes the characters on the screen indelibly his own while embodying the rock star appeal of the benshi to contemporary audiences. With him at the lectern, “Talking the Pictures” brings us the magic of the movies.

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