Speaking Pictures
Tokyo Chorus and the History of the Benshi in Japanese Cinema
by Max Nelson

Legend has it that one of the earliest benshi performances in Japan took place in 1897 to accompany the country’s first screening of a recent American import. The Kiss, Thomas Edison’s 22-second clip of two theater actors cuddling, embracing and passionately locking lips, had caused waves of moral outrage when it premiered in America and Canada the previous year. (It also drove audiences wild—so much so that it was usually played on a loop.) Decency standards were particularly strict in Japan at the time, and the film’s first exhibitor worried about accruing penalties or fines from Osaka’s police. He hired Ueda Hoteiken, a former carnival barker known for chanting traditional ballads, to endear the film to its first viewers. When the time came in the program, which also included the quaint 1895 beheading short The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, Ueda took the stage and explained that, in America, even kisses that might seem erotic were, in fact, innocent, Platonic greetings, like a slap on the shoulder.

From the very start of the profession, benshi—the highly trained performers who provided live narration in theaters for films during Japan’s long silent era—kept up an ambiguous, often fraught relationship to the movies with which they worked. The earliest benshi considered their job basically descriptive. It was their business to ensure that their audiences could make sense of a film, understand its cultural references—much of their repertoire consisted of American and European imports—and follow the course of its plot. In the early days of motion-picture exhibition, many were also expected to brief viewers on how, technically, film projection worked.

In practice, however, there was never much of a line for practicing benshi between description and interpretation. Reading a character’s facial expressions and body language, speculating about a hero’s motives, and giving entertaining, sometimes whimsical background dossiers about a movie’s historical setting were part of the work nearly from the beginning. Later benshi were expected to give the film an immersive third-person, past-tense narration, perform colorful, rambunctious dialogue exchanges in a range of voices, and, in the end, send audiences away with an instructive moral. They could change the tone of a movie, redirect its audience’s sympathies, and assign it a wide range of philosophical or political messagesin other words, remake it as it played.

Read any description of early moviegoing, in Japan as elsewhere, and it’s hard not to be struck by just how many offscreen factors determined what it meant to see—and hear—a silent film. The spectators swarm in—close-packed, since many of the major Japanese movie houses in the 1910s hold over a thousand seats and, to sell as many tax-exempt tickets as possible, usually over-book their screenings. The wealthier patrons move up to the balcony, where they take off their shoes and prepare to watch the show from freshly laid-out tatami mats. The majority of moviegoers, having bought the cheapest tickets, funnel into rows of benches arranged on the uncovered ground. The area quickly fills up until there’s nothing to do but wait, smoke, force open pockets of breathing room, and, in the summer, sweat.

When a well-liked benshi comes onstage, he’s often met with cheers and hollers from his fans. Rarely does his name, as popular lore will later claim, show up on the billboard above the title of the film in question—but it’s not far down, and it draws a dependable crowd. (Benshi, like other film professionals at the time, were overwhelmingly male; of the 6800-plus in the field by 1927, less than three percent were women.) He knows how to sonically project; it’s a vocal-chord-shredding exercise to narrate a film for over an hour in a dense, cavernous, smoke-filled, unamplified, and deafeningly noisy space. Once the film starts, he responds to it attentively and selectively. In some cases, he browses through each image’s multiplicity of possible meanings and chooses one—“the right way,” it was called—to convey. In others, he tries to enter into the film until he can say what the legendary benshi Tokugawa Musei once said of himself: “I speak as if I were actually the movie talking.”

He knows, as the men and women who wrote, shot, produced, appeared in and edited the movie never could, what audiences respond to badly and what they want. Often, he has recognizable tics and habits of his own. He waxes poetic; he embellishes; he struggles to capture what he takes to be the movie’s tone. But he is also an educator licensed and regulated by the state, obliged to make sure that spectators derive “correct”—that is, politically convenient—morals from the films they see. Often, he concedes to this requirement. In other cases he subverts it, particularly if he is one of the many benshi locked out of more socially respectable lines of work for their radical political views. A master of tonal manipulation, he can, as the benshi scholar Jeffrey Dym has claimed, turn a comedy into a tragedy, and vice versa.

How the ubiquity of benshi narration affected the form of Japanese silent films is a vexed question. Some influential benshi went so far as to exercise a kind of final cut over the films they narrated, manually snipping out scenes, changing projection speeds, or asking that the studio rearrange sequences to suit their needs. But the knowledge that their films would be projected with virtuosic, creatively extravagant narration doubtlessly influenced producers of the period in less easily detectible ways. One could argue that Japanese silent films aren’t complete in the absence of the spoken narrative texts they were originally made to accompany—that their surprising, sometimes jarring formal structures can’t be accounted for except as complements to, or reactions against, the presence of the benshi’s voice. Movies like Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Chorus (1931), as well as Tomikazu Miyata’s Migratory Snowbird (1931) and Kenji Mizoguchi’s The Water Magician (1933), coming as they did at the tail end of the golden age of benshi narration, are especially fascinating objects: films in which every cut, intertitle, and shift of tone suggests a struggle for authorial control between the creative professionals behind the camera and the figures who narrated the finished product from below the screen.


The art of setsumei—a blanket term for the sort of poetically inflected narrative storytelling at which the best benshi excelled—emerged out of a handful of earlier Japanese performance styles. Its practitoniers and listeners would have been familiar equally with spoken arts like rakugo, in which a lone performer would act out a complex comedic story single-handedly, and with narrative musical forms. Early benshi drew heavily on naguata, a style of vocal music used in kabuki plays, and jōruri, a kind of solo ballad-chanting backed by a stringed instrument and often incorporated into bunraku puppet theater performances. The setsumei form itself took decades to grow out of its influences. As late as 1917, the great essayist and fiction writer Jun’ichirō Tanizaki could say that he hated all benshi except for one Somei Saburō. “His setsumei,” Tanizaki admitted, “does not interfere with the film.”

“Not interfering” is a mild goal for any art form to aspire to, and most benshi had higher hopes. (In that respect, their closest contemporary equivalents might be composers of film scores.)Around the time that Tanizaki wrote those words, the job was professionalizing rapidly. Aspiring benshi would study under acknowledged masters and enroll in training academies, where they subjected themselves to strenuous exercises meant to improve their vocal range and tone. (One method was to practice reciting stock phrases, some of which are, in their own right, utterly amazing: “The sun sets in the west. The sun rises in the east. The temple bell rings through the air. The bell tolls. All reels have been shown.”) Many aspiring benshi were seduced by the glamor of the profession, but the wild, boozy life most benshi led was as much a response to the grueling rigors of the job as it was one of its perks. The charming, womanizing Tsuda Shūsui had to deal with a revolving door of jealous husbands and nosy decency officials. A benshi named Ichikawa Mugō died at thirty-eight, having at one point drunk a bottle of ink during a binge. Musei, one of the giants of the form, once showed up drunk to a screening of the Fritz Lang film Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler and, when the right title card came along, delivered it as a spittle-soaked excoriation of his audience: “You ignorant people, I am a god. You cannot resist me.”

In 1922, when that film premiered in Japan, benshi were, in fact, irresistible to many moviegoers. For others, they were toxic. For almost a decade, an influential school of filmmakers and theorists, including Tanizaki and the eminent critic Kaeriyama Norimasa, had been insisting that the benshi were anachronisms: holdovers from old theatrical traditions on which Japanese silent cinema had to stop relying. When these theorists lobbied for a “pure” cinema, they were insisting on the right of directors and producers to control their own products, but they were also suggesting that Japanese cinema, if it was to modernize, would have to take its cues from American and Western European movies. Much of the movement’s rhetoric was nationalistic (in 1922, one critic called audiences’ over-reliance on benshi “a disgrace to the great Japanese empire”), and yet its intentions were oddly assimilatory. It was the Pure Film advocates who first cast actresses in their movies instead of female impersonators, introduced close-ups into their formal lexicon, and experimented with Griffith-style montage. By the mid-1920s, those reforms had all made their way into the mainstream of Japanese cinema. Less widely accepted was the proto-auteurist thought that a filmmaker’s work was, in the end, “pure”—forbidden to tamper with or elaborate upon.

Migratory Songbird and The Water Magician—both of which are available on DVD with recorded narration from contemporary benshi—premiered no more than two years apart, but they show that thought at strikingly different stages of development. Throughout the earlier film, in which a lovelorn samurai befriends, threatens, and ultimately sacrifices himself for the itinerant gambler engaged to the woman he loves, so many emotional signals are mixed, so many references left open, and so many relationships kept unclear on the screen that the narration becomes the movie’s primary governing force. In the absence of intertitles, it’s left to the benshi to articulate what the two protagonists are arguing about in the first scene, to signal the ellipsis of several years on which the film turns, and to deliver the poetic monologue that sets the tone of the movie’s final shots. The movie itself comes off above all as a triumph of design: a vivid, illustrative backdrop to the main event that is the storyteller’s recital.

In contrast, the narration in The Water Magician—a shimmering masterpiece Mizoguchi produced three years before he rose to fame with the sound films Osaka Elegy and Sisters of the Gion—is practically superfluous. The film's plot, which follows the cruel fortune of a glamorous stage conjurer named Shiraito after she promises to pay the young carriage driver she loves through law school, is conveyed almost entirely by the sorts of wordy intertitles Migratory Songbird disavowed. Long titles kill the momentum of many a silent film, and yet it's precisely their presence that frees The Water Magician to bloom and swell out from under the benshi’s control. One of the film's thrills is watching Mizoguchi, then thirty-five and already in full possession of his authorial voice, find concrete, visible ways to record the surging movements of Shiraito's consciousness: to say in images whatever a benshi could say in words. On the DVD’s recorded setsumei track, it's only in the last minute, when the narrator spontaneously announces both of the protagonists' premature deaths, that the benshi has a chance to take the movie out of its director's hands.


Tokyo Chorus falls somewhere between those two extremes. One of Ozu’s earliest surviving films, it arrived in theaters just as the benshi’s popularity was starting to decline. Ozu was twenty-eight at the time, and the films he was making were both preternaturally wise and somehow exploratory and unresolved. As in the case of The Water Magician, it's possible to take Tokyo Chorus as a kind of skirmish between a filmmaker and the benshi who would have been commissioned to narrate the finished work: a series of evasions, traps, shieldings and feints designed to prevent any narrator from rewriting the text as it was edited and shot. But if Mizoguchi's early films are too robust in their design and too precise in their meanings to assimilate a narration, Ozu's are too darting, too tonally ambiguous, too discursive, too hard to categorize, summarize or capture.

Nearly every scene in Tokyo Chorus contains a moment that defies narration. When the film’s salaryman protagonist hands his wife the letter of termination he's just received for defending a fired coworker, his young daughter proceeds to fold it into a paper airplane and toss it at him playfully. Later in the film, the protagonist's son approaches his ailing sister's hospital bed, picks up the ice bag on her head, and licks it curiously before putting it back in its place. One of the movie’s most wrenching scenes is of the children’s mother wiping away a tear between slaps in a family game of pattycake; its last shots show the hero’s former teacher, surrounded by his former students, weeping through the singing of a boisterous song in the restaurant he now owns. Moments like these give the benshi two competing tonal paths to pursue. What is a narrator to do with a film that navigates so nimbly and unpredictably between melancholy, anger, frivolity, and sheer silliness?

One answer is: narrate it despite its difficulties, even in total ignorance of its difficulties. The measure of a benshi’s power was his ability to create a voice seductive and strong enough to overpower whatever authorial voice the movie’s director took care to develop on the screen. Indeed, there are moments in Tokyo Chorus in which it’s possible to detect the benshi’s speech creeping oddly into the body of the film itself. One title card tells us of the hero, after he’s forced to take a degrading advertising job, that “his wife was humiliated to see him like this”—a jarring shift into narratorial omniscience that seems lifted from the kind of third-person story a benshi would have spun. Another intertitle—“Once on the road to recovery, children get well quickly”—is the sort of reassuring folk-wisdom aside for which some narrators were famous.

Then, on the other hand, there are moments of such exquisite precision that no narrator, however skilled, could drown out the musical patterns they produce. The film turns on one of these sequences. Late in the movie, Ozu cuts back and forth between the pensive hero and the washing-line outside his window, then inserts a shot of the man’s wife watching him look at the clothes—a triangle formed by unreturned gazes and completed only when Ozu cuts to a medium-shot of the couple, framed from behind, looking out the window together. In the creative war that underlies a film like Tokyo Chorus, moments like these are decisive victories in the filmmaker’s favor.

What eventually defeated the benshi had little to do with the skill or imagination of individual directors. Sound came late to Japan (partly due to the combined delaying efforts of two old enemies, the benshi and the Pure Film advocates); by the late 1930s, it had put most silent-film narrators out of work. Considering the fame and attention so many benshi still enjoyed by, say, 1933, it’s striking how quickly the art form evaporated from the public’s awareness. In rural areas, where ragged prints of silent films were still screened well into the fifties, some itinerant benshi continued to practice the trade. (The legendary preservationist Shunsui Matsuda, who didn’t come of age until well after the profession’s golden age had passed, traveled through coal mining towns as a young man narrating films.) Nostalgic cinematic tributes to the benshi appeared occasionally in the second half of the century; Kaizo Hayashi's reverent silent film homage To Sleep So as to Dream (1986) pivots on a lengthy scene of Matsuda, then in his sixties, narrating a screening, and Toshiro Mifune had his penultimate role as a benshi travelling through Hawaii in the 1995 drama The Picture Bride. But the excesses and oddities of the form—its competitiveness, its prestige, its practitioners’ wild lives and excruciating physical exertions—had become more or less dead subjects.

If benshi continue to fascinate, it’s partly because there is a living art dedicated to the work of describing, explaining, interpreting and, you might say, reimagining movies—the work of selectively mediating between a film and its viewers. It is called criticism, and one aspect of the benshis appeal is the extent to which they suggest what it would look like for critics to practice their craft directly on the canvas of a film. You could look at benshi as critics vested with the power to incorporate their vision of a movie—what they think it could, or should, beinto the text of the film itself. That there was a time during which these seductive storyteller-critics had precisely that power is one of the strangest accidents of film history. Benshi were glorious anachronisms and incorrigible meddlers. The movies couldn’t tolerate them, but—as could be said about the best critics—the medium was stronger for having survived the challenges they posed.