Thoughts on life after the PhD
Most people who watch Japanese silent cinema never get a chance to see it the way it was meant to be seen–in a theater, with live musical accompaniment and a live narrator known as a benshi. Patrons of the cinema in early twentieth century Japan understood that these three elements were necessary for a full experience–the film was only part of it. Thanks to the hard work of Digital Meme, many Japanese silent films have been remastered on DVD with accompanying music and benshi narration. But I was especially lucky last Friday to see a live benshi event, one that recreated with amazing accuracy a night out in Tokyo in the 1920s.
The film was Oatsurae Jirokichi Koshi (Jirokichi the Rat), the music was performed by a group called Owaza (shamisen, koto, shakuhachi, and percussion), and the benshi narration was handled by the amazing Ichiro Kataoka. As Roger Macy points out in his review of Jirokichi, theatergoers in the 1920s and 30s were likely to be more interested in the benshi than the movie, because it was the benshi who truly brought everything to life–they had to provide narration, perform all the voices of the silent stars, create sound effects, and prompt the musicians. Kataoka managed all this effortlessly, turning an otherwise average film into a vivid and even moving experience.
For someone accustomed to watching movies and focusing only on the screen in front of you, a live benshi event can initially be a little jarring. In the first few minutes I wasn’t exactly sure where to look–the visual action was happening on the screen, but Kataoka’s character performances and narration were also fascinating, and the musicians in their traditional costumes demanded to be watched as well. Eventually you realize that they’re all important, and your eyes begin to move back and forth between them, taking them all in as a whole.
Seeing benshi for the first time was a bit like seeing kabuki for the first time at the Kabuki-za, with its low-tech visuals and sound effects that made you feel as if you were watching a performance exactly as it would have been conducted four hundred years ago. A benshi event is a snapshot of a very specific time and place, one that, thanks to the efforts of groups like Digital Meme, more people are having a chance to experience.
For those in the Tokyo area, this event was the second of a series being held at the Akasaka Kumin Center, which are free and open to the public. Check Digital Meme’s website or contact them for details.
writing•translation•scholarship on Japan (and a few other things)
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