MEXICO CITY – The cinema in Mexico City was full and the audience was enjoying “Taki No Shiraito” (“Cascading White Threads”), a Japanese silent film by Kenji Mizoguchi.
The audience was mesmerized not so much by the scenes unfolding on the screen, however, but by a woman in a black and white kimono talking, shouting and sometimes singing on a platform to the left.
Speaking in Spanish, she said, “Kin-san, Kin-san, I don’t know where you are,” in a young female voice, then, “Tomo, I will never forget what you’ve done for me,” in a low male voice, and then narrating, “They didn’t know that was the beginning of a tragedy,” in a low female voice.
Unfolding in the total presentation was the romantic but tragic story of a water-magic performer, Taki No Shiraito, and a law student, Kinya Murakoshi.
Irene Akiko Iida, the only “benshi,” or Japanese silent film narrator in Mexico, stood on the platform throughout the film, reading dialogue taking each character’s role and voice, accompanied by a pianist.
“That was a completely different experience — I felt the story deeply,” Elsa Garcia, a 31-year-old psychologist, said after the performance.
Rosio Ortiz, a 28-year-old kindergarten teacher, said she was pleased by the play because “when we grow up, no one reads us books like when we were children.”
Benshi first appeared in 1896 when silent movies came to Japan, initially providing introductory comments on films and even explaining the mechanism of projection itself.
“Benshi mediate two worlds,” said Deborah Silberer, the pianist, referring to the world of “light and ghost” and that of “live.” She said no two performances will ever be the same simply because they are live.
Iida, 41, was born in Mexico City to Japanese-immigrant parents. She later went to Japan to become a member of the all-female musical troupe Takarazuka Revue Company.
After 13 years with Takarazuka, she returned to Mexico to continue her acting career.
She became a benshi in 2002, when she was asked to appear with the Mexican silent film “The Grey Automobile” by Enique Rosas and with which she has traveled to Europe, the United States and Asia.
Although she has not been to Japan in the role of a benshi, she said she is “eager” to do so, adding, “My job is to help make the audience become involved with a film.”
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