A “relic” from a distant past?
Now and then I’m picking up a topic here that – even if just at a first glance – appears to represent a particularity of the Japanese cultural industry. And that shall also be the case today, as I wish to express the delight I had the opportunity to experience this week.
On 24 November two Japanese silent movies were put on the silver screen at the small hall of the Fukagawa Edo Museum (深川江戸資料館 / ふかがわえどしりようかん):
- Nakayamashichiri (中山七里 / なかやましちり) from 1930 and
- Orochi (雄呂血 / おろち) from 1925 with the (at that time) extraordinarly popular and famous kabuki actor Tsumasaburō Bandō (阪東 妻三郎 / ばんどうつまさぶろう).
Of course, silet movies are no Japanese speciality, even though one might be surprised to learn that they remained highly popular here until the middle of the 30s of last century. However, as soon as one gets to know one of the reasons for sticking to this – even then – rather outdated technology (leaving the cost aspects aside), one also learns to appreciate it (especially in our days of technical sophistication). Additionally, one may wonder why dubbing international movies isn’t done in Japan as vigorously as in Germany, as there seems to be a kind of “tradition” for that.
Enough with the suspense: One of the reasons why silent movies were so popular in Japan was the extreme popularity of the so-called benshi (弁士 /べんし). If you you know that this word is composed of the characters for “speech” and “samurai/gentleman”, you may already have an idea of what it is all about: a particularly eloquent person.
This is: Benshi represent a distinct art form. They were the big stars of the silent movie era (almost as famous as the movie stars themselves). They did not only provide explanatory narration to the movie, but also gave the actors and actresses on the screen a voice. And all that happened live – while the movie was running. A movie screening with one of the famous benshi (there were some handful of female benshi, but the majority of the amost 7,000 benshi at the big times of the silent movies were male) were real cineast’s delights and ensured a sold-out house. Benshi did not just cover for the one or the other reading weakness in the audience, but also made sure that foreign movies could be “understood”.
Fortunately, this very particular skill hasn’t become extinct in Japan, but still enjoys its niche in show business. Even in our days it produces real stars. One of those was among the six benshi (three female, three male) on the occasion of 700th movie screening: the famous Midori Sawato (the lady in the wheelchair on the pictures you can see here), who made a name for herself as a benshi since the 70s of last century.
The following benshi lent their voices to the movies – and by doing so, they gave them a vibrancy that was in no way inferior to modern movie productions and their surround sound perfections:
Midori Sawato (澤登翠 / さわとみどり)
Yutaka Saitō (斎藤裕子 / さいとうゆたか)
Nanako Yamauchi (山内菜々子 / やまうちななこ)
And then the gentlemen:
Raikō Sakamoto (坂本頼光 / さかもとらいこう)
Hideyuki Yamashiro (山城秀之 / やましろひでゆき)
Yoshitoshi Uesuki (植杉賢寿 / うえすきよしとし)
Each of the two movies mentioned above was narrated successively by three benshi (“Nakayamashichiri” by Mr. Sakamoto, Ms. Saitō and Mr. Uesuki / “Orochi” by Ms. Yamauchi, Mr. Yamashiro and Ms. Sawato). While all of those benshi were absolute masters, it also became obvious why Ms. Sawato is enjoying just a high level of popularity.
Nevertheless, also live music is an integral part of such a silent movie screening in the style of the 20s and 30s. It may differ a bit from Western customs where silent movies were often accompanied by a full-fledged orchestra (and probably even more often by just a piano), in Japan initially only traditional instrumentation was applied – like the music people were used to from Nō or Kabuki plays. The quartet under the direction of Jōichi Yuasa (湯浅ジョウイチ) that was playing that night made use of a mixed instrumentation consisting of shamisen, flute (travers flute), piano (electronic) and percussion – and it listened to the ambiguous name “Colored Monotone” (カラード・モノトーン)“. The ensemle is also the one Ms. Sawato seems to prefer.
The combination of music that emphasises the dramatic aspects of the movie, the fact that the “silent” actors in the movie are given a voice by the benshi and the additional narration provided by the benshi make watching a “silent movie” a thrillingly unusual experience for us.
Are you interested in more of it? Have a look here:
The following three silent movies shown on 29 December 2016 at the Kinokuniya Hall in Shinjuku (新宿紀伊國屋ホール):
- Faust (Germany 1929)
- Thunderstrom (雷 電) (Japan 1928)
- Kusoniki’s father – Sakurai’s farewell (楠公父子 桜井の訣別) (Japan 1921)