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Unformatted text preview: on the emotive skills of the benshi or “narrators,” who
described the stories on the screen.
Although their art appears to be little remembered by Japanese today,
the benshi of the silent-screen era were in their day regarded as major
performers, and some even achieved star status comparable to the
cinema’s leading actors. There are no analogs to the benshi in Western
cinematic history. Western film exhibitors in the early years of motion pictures experimented with narrators posted near the screen, but the practice
of live narration for silent pictures never proved popular with Western
Characterized as “poets of the dark” by one scholar of their role in the
history of Japanese film,27 the benshi were charged with explaining the
events and action of the stories of silent films and, most important, with
infusing the films with emotion to “bring them alive.” A great benshi
could, in the language of the theatre, upstage the film itself, attracting
audiences that were more intent upon hearing him than viewing the
Most of the films produced to meet the demands for mass entertainment in the 1920s were, needless to say, of very little artistic merit; a
great many were of the bombastic chambara or samurai “swordplay” type,
the equivalent of the stereotyped American Western. Still, some people
sought to do original work and became pioneers in a tradition of serious
filmmaking that has earned much international recognition in recent
years, particularly for the way in which Japanese directors have used the
motion picture as a means to express their native, highly refined aesthetic tastes.
The most fundamental characteristic of the cinema is, of course, its
visuality, and the history of film is to a great extent the story of how
directors evolved methods for exploiting to the fullest the unrelentingly
realistic “eye of the camera.” For the Japanese, with their exceptional sensitivity to nature and to the life of man within rather than against it, the The Fruits of Modernity 293 cinema proved to be a uniquely congenial artistic medium. Th...
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This note was uploaded on 02/08/2013 for the course ANTH 142 taught by Professor Hans during the Spring '13 term at UBC.
- Spring '13