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Clive Bell

Bell Labs: The Benshi Refuses To Die

May 2015

"In the very early days, when all film came from the US, benshi could explain the projection technology and also mediate strange western customs to the Japanese audience." Clive Bell on the narration of silent cinema in Japan, the Burmese record industry and Ugandan Video Jokers

In Japan a century ago, silent films were accompanied not only by live music, but by a larger than life narrator known as a benshi. The benshi would tell the story, perform the voices of every character on screen and make explicit the inner thoughts of silent heroes and heroines. In the very early days, when all film came from the US, benshi could explain the projection technology and also mediate strange western customs to the Japanese audience. That passionate kissing on the screen, for example, is not what you think – in the West this is how people greet each other on the street. A cross between storytellers, stand-up comedians and MCs, benshi became wildly popular entertainers and audiences would avoid viewing a new film until their favourite benshi was due to tackle it. By 1930 most countries were making the jump to talkies, but in Japan the cult of the benshi ensured they continued to work into the 1940s.

Earlier this year Sylvia Hallett and I travelled to Birmingham’s Flatpack Film Festival to perform a live soundtrack for Yasujiro Ozu’s 1930 comedy Walk Cheerfully. We took along our own benshi, bilingual actress Tomoko Komura, who donned a broad-brimmed hat and gamely voiced gangsters both good and bad, jealous office ladies and little girls tackling their English homework. This silent gangster romp might surprise fans of Ozu’s later work – it’s a criminal world enthusiastically copied from whichever Hollywood movie Ozu and his team had been watching last month. These dapper bad boys dabble with jazz trumpet, play golf at weekends and take out their frustrations on boxers’ punchbags. When a colleague enters the room, eager gang members slip into synchronised choreographic routines, twirling hats and tossing coy glances over their shoulders.

What was the original live music for such a film in Japan? Evidence is thin on this point, but it seems a combination of western and traditional instruments was favoured; say a piano and clarinet alongside a shamisen and taiko drums. In 1930s Burma the piano was madly popular, played in a unique percussive style derived from the flashy pyrotechnics of the traditional drum circle. In Dust-To-Digital’s magnificent box set of Southeast Asian 78s Longing For The Past, we learn that the Burmese record industry, unlike elsewhere, was all about movie music. “Ba Ba Win” (“Glorious Beloved”) is a sophisticated song slipping between Burmese and western modes to make its comic point. Piano, slide guitar and horn violin are drafted into the trad ensemble, and the vocals are by Pyi Hla Hpe, a star who made a habit of standing behind the screen and singing live to his own films.

In the light of this, our approach to Walk Cheerfully was to mix trad (shakuhachi, khene Thai mouth organ) with western (violin, blues harmonica), plus contemporary (electronic loops created live). Hallett’s improvisations with delay pedals and laptop hopefully paralleled the film’s excitement over the exotic (in 1930) paraphernalia of cars, trains, booze and guns. Ozu’s funny, sentimental film mirrors the explosion of modernity in 1920s Japan, when in conversation the borrowed word ‘modan’ was almost unavoidable. A period that the historian John Dower characterises as “the tumultuous and brittle years before militarism gained ascendancy”.

So the benshi lives on, and even in contemporary film there are occasionally sightings of live narrators. In a Thai outdoor temple festival I stood agog as a Hong Kong gangster movie was projected with live miked-up commentary – all the voices dubbed live into Thai across the original soundtrack, at maximum volume, right next door to a stage with a live rock group. 50 metres away yet another PA system blasted another film, and another stage with one more group of musicians. In Thailand this is how you know you’re having fun. Currently in Uganda, according to Ben Mandelson of Globe Style Records, film narrators are big stars, each with their own following. On the Ugandan Wakaliwood Studio website they’re called VJs: “A Video Joker is a live narrator that can best be described as a cross between a cheerleader, stand-up comic and slum tour guide.” Voices chatting across film? That’s not going to happen in the UK. Time to go now, Gogglebox is on TV.

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