Saturday, August 21, 2004

Watching Silent Films, Japanese Style

The other day, I was digging through a box and found a research paper on filmmaker Akira Kurosawa that I had written back in my grad school days. Within the paper was this brief discussion on Japanese silent film:

The Japanese fashioned a unique way of viewing [silent] films. The western way of viewing involved projecting images followed by text on the screen, with organ accompaniment to enhance the drama. The Japanese, however, used benshi, or silent film narrators. As Kurosawa describes them, the benshi, “not only recounted the plot of the films, they enhanced the emotional content by performing the voices and sound effects and providing evocative descriptions of the events and images on the screen.” In time, the benshi became stars in their own right, and they—not the films—would often be the main attractions for the audience. One of these star narrators was Heigo Kurosawa, the older brother of Akira.

The benshi wielded considerable power in their heyday. They often pressured the studios to make movies with longer shots, so they could talk as much as they wanted. In 1918, a reform movement was underway within the [Japanese film] industry, one of their goals being to replace the benshi with subtitles on the screen. After a lengthy battle, both sides agreed upon the use of one benshi per film, whereas previously up to four narrators worked on a single film. When sound films were introduced, the benshi held strikes and protests, yet to no avail. Heigo Kurosawa was one of the leaders of the failed strikes. Despondent over his situation, Heigo eventually committed suicide.

Information from: Akira Kurosawa, SOMETHING LIKE AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY, translated by Audie E. Bock (Alfred A. Knopf, 1982), and Tadao Sato, CURRENTS IN JAPANESE CINEMA, translated by Gregory Barrett (Kodansha International Ltd., 1982).

I really love Kurosawa’s films and will go into depth about the filmmaker and his work in later posts.


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