In the 1920s and early 1930s, Japanese filmgoers were often treated not only to a movie, but also to the electrifying art of a benshi. Katsudo benshi, or simply benshi, accompanied screenings with highly expressive performances that included narrating both the story and the characters’ dialogue, often giving their own outrageous twists and interpretations to the action unfolding on the screen. Benshi were stars who often commanded huge salaries for their masterful use of voice for both subtle effects and dramatic fireworks of emotion, and the assumption that a benshi would be present as a film’s narrator was a significant influence on the golden age of silent film style in Japan. Owing to their immense popularity, the benshi were powerful figures in the early film industry and were partially responsible for delaying the introduction of sound film for several years. But, to the relief of the increasingly authoritarian government of the 1930s–which was unhappy with the benshi’s ability to co-determine the interpretation of the filmic text and potentially counteract censorship—most of the several thousand active benshi of the 1930s quickly disappeared with the adaptation of sound film.
However, even after the war, a small number of benshi continued to perform along with silent film screenings and train apprentices. This included a benshi named Shunsui Matsuda, who founded one of today’s largest silent film archives, Matsuda Film Productions. Matsuda’s students are now among the most prominent performing benshi, including the possibly most famous practicing benshi, Midori Sawato, who provided Ichiro Kataoka with his training.
Ichiro Kataoka graduated from the Nihon University College of Art and began training under Sawato in 2002. He is the most well-known benshi of his generation, a rising star who is also the most internationally active benshi, having given performances in countries such as Croatia, Germany and Australia. Performing a broad repertoire of styles, Mr. Kataoka is known not only for performing with the more traditional benshi accompaniment of a small ensemble or select Japanese instruments, but also for working with experimental or electronic music. He has appeared as a benshi in various films and also works as a voice actor for animation and video games. – Alexander Zahlten, Assistant Professor of East Asian Languages and Civilizations, Harvard University
The Harvard Film Archive is thrilled to welcome back the renowned benshi Ichiro Kataoka for an evening of a captivating live interpretation of a silent film. For this program we have selected Shoes, a remarkably frank and progressive feminist film by the great Lois Weber, one of the most prolific and high-ranking directors of the silent era. One of Universal's biggest box office successes of 1916, Shoes was rapturously received by contemporary Japanese audiences.
Special thanks: Theodore Bestor, Gavin Whitelaw and Stacie Matsumoto – the Reischauer Institute, Harvard University; Alexander Zahlten – East Asian Languages and Civilizations, Harvard University; and Markus Nornes – University of Michigan.
Directed by Yasuji Murata
Japan 1929, digital video, b/w, silent, 11 min
Directed by Daisuke Ito
Japan 1928, digital video, b/w, silent, 10 min
Directed by Lois Weber. With Mary MacLaren, Harry Griffith, Mattie Witting
US 1916, DCP, b/w, silent, 57 min