The art of the benshi

Here’s an interview from the Japanese Times with Midori Sawato, best-known of the small band of voice artists who keep alive the art of the benshi. There are around ten modern benshi in Japan, who continue the tradition of adding live narration to silent films, which was the standard manner in which silent films were exhibited in Japan up to the late 1930s, when – at its peak – there were some 7,000 such benshi in employment. The benshi would be positioned alongside the screen and take on the multiple roles, accompanied by live music, and putting their particular personality onto the film entertainment. Sawato gives around 100 such shows per year.

Sawato has been featured here before, as she is main voice artist featured on Digital Meme’s Talking Silents series of Japanese silents with benshi narration, reported on here. In the interview (which takes a couple of minutes before she gets to silent films) she describes how she was working in publishing in 1972 when she went to a silent film narrated by master benshi Shunsui Matsuda, one of a number of celebrated benshi still active. She became so engrossed by the art that she became his apprentice, making her debut with Chaplin’s The Rink. One of the interesting aspects of the interview is the realisation that benshi narrate for non-Japanese silents as well as Japanese – which is of course how it was during the silent era.

The interview covers how she learned the art (mostly by listening), how she conveys different characters, and her thoughts about the importance of silent film as a means to preserve history and culture. There’s also the oblique admission that she continues to perform to the films despite relatively small audiences, believing that it is good work to be doing whether the audience be large or small. It’s a noble activity.

The video serves as my means to introduce The Bioscope on YouTube. I’ve set up a channel, or playlist, on YouTube which lists almost all of the videos featured on The Bioscope since its inception in February 2007. I say almost all, because some videos have been taken down since then, and some have come from other sites (such as Vimeo). But it’s most of them, and I think they make interesting browsing. I’ll continue to add each new video to the channel as they are featured on the blog. The Bioscope on YouTube is now a link on the right-hand column of this site, alongside our other satellite sites, The Bioscope on Flickr (images featured on or associated with the blog), The Bioscope Bibliography of Silent Cinema (selected from the British Library catalogue, still ongoing), The Bioscope on Twitter (a feed from blog posts only), and Urbanora’s Modern Silents (another YouTube playlist, with some overlaps with the new channel).