Benshi-1

Silence is Golden

September 12, 2012 | by Dan Shine

The guy in the kimono likely caused a few of the students shuffling into their first screenwriting adaptation class last week to double check their schedules to make sure they were in the right place.

Turns out they were—and so was the man in the kimono.

Kataoka Ichiro, who has a residency this semester at U-M through the Center for World Performance Studies, is a benshi from Japan. During the silent-film era, primarily the late 1800s to the early 1900s, a benshi would stand next to the movie screen and narrate—in a theatrical style—the story to audiences, from packed Tokyo theaters to small screens in fishing villages. Kataoka is one of a dozen or so benshi still performing in Japan, and arguably is the top professional benshi.

Throughout the semester, he will be doing several performances and lectures on campus, including a workshop on how to be a benshi. Department of Screen Arts & Culture Chair Markus Nornes decided to bring Kataoka to his first class in order to introduce him to some of the film students and to promote Kataoka’s upcoming events.

After a short greeting from Kataoka in his quiet broken English, a seven-minute clip of an old silent film about a drunken samurai was shown. With the lights out, he stood next to the screen and began to narrate the film.

When the drunken samurai woke up hung over, Kataoka delivered his lines like a man in need of an aspirin. When the samurai ran through the town to the big samurai fight, Kataoka said his lines like a man out of breath. When the characters on screen challenged each other, Kataoka raised his voice. When the characters cracked a joke, Kataoka talked in a silly voice. When the characters laughed, so did Kataoka.

The students applauded when the film ended.

The idea of bringing Kataoka to campus began when Nornes heard the College of LSA’s fall 2012 theme semester would focus on translation. Theme semesters pair the academic and cultural strengths of U-M with many of the world’s defining issues. This fall, students will explore the interaction between languages, media, cultures, and disciplines through unique courses, guest lectures, performances, and special events.

Nornes, a professor of Asian Cinema, saw his first benshi while studying abroad as a college student.

“I had heard about it, I had read about it, and I finally got to see one,” he says. “A woman came up to the screen, introduced the film we were about to see—a samurai film—and proceeded to narrate it. She imitated the voices of the characters and provided lush narration.

“It was an astounding performance.”

Nornes says having narrators at silent films was once commonplace all over the world, but by 1907, narrators in most countries had died out. They continued to thrive in Japan.

Benshi became so popular and powerful that moviegoers went to theaters not based on what film was showing, but which benshi was narrating. Benshis even beat back a movement by elite film critics to get rid of benshi because it was seen as lagging behind Hollywood and modern movies.

When talking movies began around 1929-30, silent films and benshis remained popular in Japan for another six years. One benshi in post-war Japan began training future benshis. His star pupil was Midori Sawato, who eventually became a master benshi and began training Kataoka in 2002.

Kataoka, 34, was raised in Tokyo and studied theater in college. He said he likes acting, movies, and music and being a benshi is “all acts combined.”

He travels weekly around Japan to perform, and occasionally travels globally for silent film festivals. He also acts in movies and plays, and has done voice work for video games.
A historian on the benshi, Kataoka has amassed more than 600 recordings of benshi from the silent era. He also has written performance scripts for nearly 250 films, mostly Japanese and American.

He says there isn’t an accredited path to becoming a benshi in Japan. “If you want to be benshi you say, ‘I am benshi,’” he says, laughing.

His visit to Ann Arbor is his second time in the United States, and interestingly both times were to Michigan. He visited an aunt in Detroit when he was 14.

Kataoka says he hopes that U-M students enjoy his performances and learn a little bit about the history of benshis. “If they think it’s fun, I would love for them to try it themselves,” Kataoka says.

Nornes says he has wanted to have a benshi come to campus for years. “If you really want to see proper Japanese cinema, you need to have a benshi.”

Nornes does his own benshi performance every semester for his students, “and they’re just bowled over. And I’m a bad performer.”

For U-M students, Kataoka’s residency will give them a glimpse into Japanese cinema. “It’s historical,” Nornes says. “It’s a chance to see a unique form of cinema recreated with a benshi and live music.

“It is just fun, pure pleasure.”

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