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THE ART OF THE BENSHI AND THE JAPANESE SILENT FILM

ART OF BENSHI

Arte Benshi

Silent film era in Japan was characterized by a peculiar cinematic element in the form of katsudo-shashin-benshi (abbreviated to katsudō-benshi - meaning “moving pictures” -, or benshi - a narrator).

 

From the very first showing of motion pictures in Japan, in 1896, until the end of the silent era in 1939, a person, or a group of people, always supplied a verbal component to the motion picture show.

The Benshi helped spectators understand what was happening on the movie screen through a vocal narrative known as setsumei (explanation).

Benshi performers could give life and voice to the film characters, fill in gaps in a story, give background information, or elaborate on the thoughts and feelings of characters.

While one can find examples of similar motion picture narration elsewhere in the world, Japan is the only place where narrators proved to be an influential and integral part of silent cinema.

In “The Subject of the Text: Benshi, Authors, and Industry”, Aaron Gerow, 2019

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October 8th | 9.30pm
Cinema Charlot

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Music and Benshi performance
Atsuko Kamura

A page of madness

 

Teinosuke Kinugasa (JPN, 1926, 70 min.)

Cast: Masao Inoue, Yoshie Nakagawa, Ayako Iijima, Hiroshi Nemoto, Misao Seki

Production: Shin Kanaku-Ha Eiga Renmei

Original title: Kurutta ippêji

Print: Lobster Films

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A man takes a job as a janitor at a mental asylum so he can be near his wife. Although his wife suffers from actual mental anguish, he believes he can save her.

Though the absence of intertitles seems to leave great scope to the free interpretation of the viewer as to what exactly is going on in the plot, it's important to remember that the film was originally shown accompanied with narration by a professional Benshi, who were an inevitable feature of Japanese film exhibition in the silent era.

 

Undoubtedly, Benshi narration helped make A Page of Madness more accessible to its original Japanese viewers, on a story level, than it appears to viewers today. The loss of about a quarter of the original length of the film may have also heightened the avant-garde aspect of the film.

 

Using superimpositions, rapid and insistent visual patterns, fantasy sequences, and the visual flamboyance of actors impersonating mad people, A Page of Madness builds an atmosphere of astonishing intensity, playing on a continual discordance between subjective and objective reality.

In "A Page of Madness: Cinema and Modernity in 1920s Japan", Aaron Gerow, 2008