Approximately two years ago in Tokyo, a warm spring night lead me to an aspiration in favor of seeing an American film. During the past three years I had been honoring a personal ban on modern cinema. I had no desire to see any film that was made beyond 1929. The disposition of a dandy (and I am one) calls for exorbitant concerns; particularly in the aesthetic department. To compromise one self is a sin as far as I was concerned. This so-called severe practice has guided me to a beautiful art-form known as the Benshi tradition.
My refusal to go to a boring useless contemporary "western" film had led yours truly to a screening of Lon Chaney's Phantom of the Opera. As I was heading toward the theater I saw a flyer with Chaney's characterization of the Phantom on it. I couldn't read the Japanese characters, so I was contemplating if this would be the showing of the horrific 1925 classic film. The one image on the flyer that had puzzled me (beside the lettering) was a drawing of a Japanese woman with a top hat and tails on. I knew there was no such character in the film, so I was perplexed with this curious image on an advertisement with Lon Chaney.
I went to that performance with great curiosity, sensing there would be a surprise waiting for my high notion of culture. That surprise evolved into the remarkable Midori Sawato. Why is she remarkable? Because she represents the link between theater, poetry, and film.
First a little bit of history. When cinema evolved into a presentation in the late 1890's, there was a narrator that traveled with the films. The narrator usually gave a lecture about the film and described the incidents on the big screen. Audiences at first needed the narrator to tell them what was being projected. As cinema developed into a more customary art, the narrator became irrelevant, as music and title cards replaced the live performer by the movie screen. Except in Japan, where the narrator was called a benshi.
The benshi system came to life during the turn of the century, when the Lumiere and Edison films first came to Japan. The benshi existed throughout the silent era in Japan - which unlike the West lasted to the mid-thirties even though sound was easily obtainable. The benshi performer had a strong presence in the Japanese film industry.
The benshi performer was more celebrated than the movie stars themselves on the projected screen. Audiences during that period were certainly not that interested in film for itself, but seeing the benshi's presentation was the main attraction. Generally, the Japanese audience are not taken with cinema.
Class-wise films were always third on the list - behind such general public activity as Kabuki and drinking. Legitimate artistic or entertainment events were live performances -and the Japanese needed a live presence on stage if they wanted to participate in any variety of theater. Audiences would have felt cheated if there was simply a film being shown. Japanese theater has this built-in Brechtian affectation where one is always reminded that you are watching something on stage. It is amazing even now when one observes a film on Japanese TV and there is an immediate acknowledgment of the actors' role, as they first appear in the production. The benshi reconstructs this practice when they discuss the actor's background during the actual performance.
In Japanese theater there is perpetually a live narrator clarifying the action on the stage. The stark Noh theater attributes a chorus chanting the minimal story line, and the Kabuki has a similar structure. What is astonishing to the westerner is not the act of retaining a live performer with the film, but that the benshi would often add their own interpretation to what is happening on the screen.
The benshi would incorporate their own unique dialogue to the film, even changing the storyline to enhance their own definition of what is occurring on the screen. The remarkable component of this practice is that the benshi is utilizing a finished film and operating with that material as a springboard for their own story. If there is a scene in the film of a beautiful moon, the benshi may use that image to recite a poem about the lunar landscape, or some other classification to describe their center of attention besides the actual narration of the film.
Compatible to assemblage art, the benshi treats the completed film as found footage to attach their own cultural terminology to the images. The benshi is known to focus their attention on the background scenery, such as the weather, location, architecture, and clothes. In essence, they are reediting the film for the audience as they sit there. Not by cutting the actual movie, but by having their audience's watchfulness drawn away from the actual events in the film.
Being a poet and always feeling close to the cinema, this to me was the utopian meeting ground - poetry to inspire film, not the other way round! To the general public, film is usually treated on a higher ground than poetry. More people go to films than readings or buying poetry. Great poets have used cinema as a source for poetry, but never has poetry been demonstrated in such a translucent flow from screen to benshi's mouth.
This presentation of a story-teller - which in itself is an ancient Asian tradition - merging with a 20th Century art form, is intriguing in its cross-cultural interpretation; which poetically causes another translation of what is, or how we, the audience, see cinema.
The artistry of the benshi makes the emotions transparent. This spectacle is similar to an Italian opera and not knowing Italian. One wonders if it is actually crucial to comprehend the language of the opera or benshi, and to be moved by the tradition and beauty of the native speaking voice: a voice that cannot be restricted in dissimilar cultures.
Watching Phantom of the Opera with a benshi had a pronounced aftereffect on me. For the first time I had witnessed an organic relationship between live theater and film. In the past, I had seen performance artists performing live with video or film, but the results were always forced and seemed to be insincere in their undertaking. The benshi however, with its long tradition of Japanese narration, seems as simple as breathing.
The Japanese language in itself for the benshi is furthermore crucial. I was wondering if it would be as effective if it was in English. This I decided was not the principle of the performance. The issue is that the benshi, whether it is a foreign or Japanese film, is putting their own culture into the performance. They comply with the presentation on the screen, which they unmistakably bring to their own revelation and culture when interpreting of the film. The Japanese language has built-in cultural aspects that are not translatable into English.
Midori Sawato is the last professional benshi. She shares her great revolution in not only loving films, but working with them. She is like Charlie Parker, in that she abducts a melody (film) and expands the medium onto another sphere. Benshi is not officially an art form: the presentation is looked upon as outright entertainment. When I do go to a benshi performance, the surroundings reminds me of the circus. There is a side-show aesthetic connected with the medium. The subject matter is not the circus itself but the classic nature of the entertainment seems turn of the century and small-townish.
After her pre-World War Two introduction music, Midori Sawato leaps onto the stage and makes a traditional speech about the film and nature of the show. She then sits herself down by a small table with a low light on the stage left of the screen. The audience consistently sees the performer even when the film is on.
In a voice that is comparable to "exotica" singer Yma Sumac, she portrays each character with a different pronunciation. Though not understanding Japanese, the music in her voice expresses more than the feelings and humor of whatever is happening on the screen. A great benshi performer never takes away from whatever the big screen offers, but enhances the viewing of the film and fills it with textures and layers of interpretation. Though ironically enough, the benshi performance is dying, the craft itself gives film a "a living" presentation and to one who was new to this beautiful process, there was a feeling of fresh air being pumped into the hot sticky cinema house that warm spring night in Tokyo.