The Cry of the Benshi 

Thanks to the Japanese art of live interpretation in cinemas, silent movies ... aren't.

The Pacific Film Archive has always enjoyed a special relationship with the cinema of Japan, whether by virtue of its large collection of Japanese mainstream releases from the '50s and '60s or because it has so often hosted retrospectives and special programs from that country. But the latest Japanese traveling series to arrive at the PFA is extra-special even by its standards, a glimpse into a neglected corner of Japanese film history -- the art of katsuben, performing or narrating alongside a silent movie by an actor called a benshi.

The benshi, whose interpretive art is in the tradition of kabuki and Noh, serves as a storyteller beside the screen in full view of the audience, performing all the parts and describing the action in place of title cards. A large part of the benshi's appeal comes from his or her musical intonation and rhythm, which adds a layer of traditional Japanese theatrical folk art to the motion picture experience. Because movie sound came late to Japan, benshi were employed well into the 1930s; they kept working even after sound was introduced, in theaters that lacked audio equipment or where audiences preferred the old way to the new prerecorded sound. Today the few remaining benshi, like thirty-year veteran Midori Sawato, are acclaimed as preservationists, keepers of an old-fashioned art form that recalls some of the mystery and magic of early film.

Ms. Sawato provides accompaniment for four films at the PFA on September 13, 14, and 15 -- but before she arrives, the eleven-film series "Japanese Silent Cinema and the Art of the Benshi" opens this Friday, September 6, with the first archival rarity from the vaults of the National Film Center in Tokyo: a 1933 crime pic called Policeman (Keisatsukan), directed by Tomu Uchida and accompanied by Neil Brand on piano.

With its well-worn scenario -- hackneyed even in 1933 -- of two boyhood friends on opposite sides of the law, Policeman definitely looks and feels like a Warner Bros. gangster movie from the same period -- scenes of alleys and pool halls, gunfights, a stakeout in the rain, etc. Think James Cagney and Pat O'Brien. But there's a strong whiff of classical Asian melodrama, too, in the way dashing young Officer Itami (played by Isamu Kosugi) must reconcile his official duty with his feelings for his wayward pal Tetsuo (Eiji Nakano), a slick character in expensive clothes who somehow is hooked up with a gang of bank-robbing communist agitators. The two long-lost friends reunite, and something seems wrong to Itami about his buddy ("Sons of bluebloods invariably become reds," explains the title card helpfully). It takes the young cop pretty much the entire 91-minute running time to figure out what we recognized in the first reel: that Tetsuo is a decadent playboy who gets his kicks from crime.

In the film's numerous flashbacks the two remember their closeness, the afternoons when they would lie around staring off into space in the sort of then-innocent male bonding that may cause smirks in modern American audiences -- until we recall its counterpart in the male-weepie Hong Kong bullet ballets of John Woo in the '80s and '90s. No 200-shot automatics here, though, just authentic tracking-shot tours of ramshackle urban slums, good location work on the waterfront, and a thrilling rooftop-chase finale. Policeman has fine nighttime camera work all through it, especially a mobile shot of a squadron of police motorcycles hitting the streets, played in montage against a solemn list of police duties and obligations. Director Uchida likes montage; he's even fonder of lap dissolves and crosscutting. It's probably a good thing we can't hear the corny dialogue, but Policeman is a solid piece of genre filmmaking.

Screenwriter-director Daisuke Ito's A Diary of Chuji's Travels, however, is a masterpiece, or rather, what's left of a masterpiece. The 1927 sword epic, which screens Saturday, September 14 at the PFA interpreted by a benshi performance by Ms. Sawato, was originally a trilogy. Only one sequence from part two and the last half of part three remain today, but that's enough to justify its reputation as one of the greatest Japanese films of all time, forerunner of the high-period samurai dramas and yakuza genre riffs of the '40s, '50s, and '60s. In common with most of Japan's pre-WWII film production, A Diary of Chuji's Travels (Japanese title: Chuji tabi nikki) was considered lost, but in 1991 portions of a nitrate print of the film were found in Hiroshima and were restored and preserved by the National Film Center and Matsuda Film Productions. It was well worth the effort. Even in truncated form, the adventure has sweep and grandeur.

Itinerant yakuza gambler Chuji Kunisada (played by Denjiro Okochi) -- a real-life figure of the 19th-century Tokugawa era and a popular subject of storytellers -- is nevertheless a man of honor. He is an oyabun, the yakuza equivalent of a Mafia godfather, and as such is bound by tradition to protect and defend his men. Even though down on his luck and rumored to be a petty thief, Chuji upholds his promise to care for the young man Kantaro, orphaned son of one of Chuji's followers. At the same time he avenges his reputation against impostors and the authorities, who true to their fashion can never leave a man like him alone. Chuji spirals downward gracefully, dealing with assorted courtesans, gamblers and their debts, sword duels (he fights left-handed), traitors and, in a romantic change of pace, Okume (Ranko Sawa), the winsome daughter of a sake merchant. Chuji, in disguise under the name Sadakichi, plays a romantic game of hide and seek with Okume among empty sake vats while children frolic around them (oblivious kids at play beside troubled adults is one of director Ito's constant ironic devices) -- but love is never in the cards for him.

Life for this heavy-hearted hero is one of great loss and regret, salvaged by steadfast loyalty. Chuji's motto, "Kill I may, but never my own," is put to the test in the last third as he returns, bitter and disillusioned, to his home region. Ito punctuates the melodrama of Chuji's decline with gorgeous mountain scenery and rousing swordplay. Grizzled Chuji resembles a wounded lion. The naturalism is thrilling -- you can see the actors' breath in the cold air, even in the interiors -- and the realistic fencing sets the pace for Hiroshi Inagaki, Akira Kurosawa, and other thoughtful action directors. For its own sake, as well as for a chance to see the work of the neglected filmmaker Ito, Chuji is a major find.

Midori Sawato performs her katsuben for three other films in the series: Kenji Mizoguchi's 1933 actors' romance, The Water Magician, on Friday, September 13; Yasujiro Ozu's I Was Born But ... , a typical Ozu portrait of middle-class manners from 1932, on Sunday, September 15; and later that same day, a surprising screening of Cecil B. De Mille's 1915 Hollywood drama, The Cheat, starring Japanese actor Sessue Hayakawa -- a story of interracial sex that was banned in several states and never shown in Japan. Other films in this treasure trove include another early Mizoguchi, The Song of Home (1925); Ito's 1931 Jirokichi the Burglar; a program of early actualité documentaries and kabuki films shot in Japan; short comedies by Ozu and Mikio Naruse; and Foghorn, a 1934 potboiler about Western criminality in Yokohama, by director Minoru Murata. All films in the series are silent and are accompanied, when not by the benshi, by live piano music. Check "One-Night Stands" listings for complete details, or visit


Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

Anonymous and pseudonymous comments will be removed.

Latest in Movie Review

Author Archives

Most Popular Stories

Special Reports

The Beer Issue 2020

The Decade in Review

The events and trends that shaped the Teens.

Best of the East Bay


© 2020 Telegraph Media    All Rights Reserved
Powered by Foundation