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Narrative In Japanese Film 1: Benshi

I’ve just finished reading Donald Richie’s excellent A Hundred Years Of Japanese Film. The book is arranged more-or-less chronologically, and begins with the very earliest of Japanese-produced movies in 1899. These, as with the imported films that at that time made up the bulk of the repertoire, were obviously all silent films. However, when they were screened they had sound added by a benshi, someone who Richie defines as a “film narrator, commentator, lecturer—a master of ceremonies whose appearance was an assumed part of early Japanese film showings.” This amazing practice continued well into the era of the talkies, and did not die out fully until the mid-1930s.

So why did the Japanese cinema audience need the benshi, and for so long? Excuse me if I quote at some length from the book:

The reasons for the long life of the benshi were various. Since Japan had only some forty years before been “opened up to the West” (a phrase invented in the West), ignorance of much of the outside world was common. The benshi filled in the gaps of knowledge Western viewers had acquired long before. They were “a reassuring native presence with a presumed acquaintance of the foreign object,” a necessity which might even now “explain the Japanese affection for teachers, tour guides, sommeliers, and other conduits for the acquisition of new experience.”

In addition to his educational role, the benshi was essential to the film-viewing experience. In part, this was because the early cinema of Japan was, as elsewhere, a cinema of short, unrelated clips—initially films form abroad: in the Lumière collection, one saw babies being fed, gardeners being squirted, and so on. A commentary connecting these clips not only made a short program longer but more coherent. Later, when longer programs became available, story links were created by the benshi. Still later came the illusion of a self-contained story-world. Until then, the benshi was all that these little glimpses had in common.

The benshi was also required to fill the time. This he accomplished in various ways. Besides talking, he sometimes lengthened the viewing time. Many films were quite short, and so a number were shown on a single bill. Sometimes, as was common in early showings in France and the United States, films were repeated. Since the audience had not yet developed what has been called a “linear response,” no one minded a second viewing as it gave one a chance to catch new things the second time round.

In recalling the films he had seen around 1898, as a child of about ten, novelist Tanizaki Jun’ichiro said: “The ends of the reel would be joined together so that the same scene could be projected over and over. I can still remember, endlessly repeated, high waves rolling in on a shore somewhere, breaking and then receding, and a lone dog playing there, now pursuing, now being pursued by the retreating and advancing waters.”


The technique of repetition has a proper Japanese name, tasuke (continuous loop), and its use remains common on Japanese television and in the movie theaters, where advertising clips are repeated several times. The aim now is not to make a short program longer, but the argument holds that anything short may be twice savoured. After all, repetition seemingly for its own sake is so accepted an element in Japanese dramaturgy that its cinematic equivalent seems quite natural. Perhaps those Western viewers, even during a Mizoguchi Kenji or Ozu Yasujiro film, sigh and hope the director will soon get on with it are responding to this Japanese tradition of repetition.

The benshi mostly filled in the time with lengthy explanations, a time-consuming rhetoric, and drawn-out, often moralizing conclusions. It was the benshi who created the narrative for the audience to follow, and even today, when the narrator’s performance has been reduced to a more or less scholarly reconstruction, a plethora of explanations, repetitions of information, and voice-overs remains in Japanese commercial film. This was what the uninformed audience required and consequently wanted. “What to filmgoers in the West might seem an overdetermined, annoying repetition was for Japanese audiences constitutive of meaning.”

From the Western perspective, it could be said that the benshi delayed the cinematic development of narrative in Japan. However, this line of thought is valid only if one believes that the development of narrative was a “natural” development of the film and that there were no other alternatives. Actually, as Japanese film indicates, there were.

In the West, cinema was evolving into a self-sufficient narrative. It seemed the most practical way to entertain increasingly sophisticated audiences. A series of short clips gave way to lengthier, more coherent stories. The audience’s involvement in more detailed stories increased attendance. It was thus possible to find in the narrative film the most suitable cinematic form if the industry required films to be quickly and cheaply made.

In Japan, however, the perception of narrative was different. It was the benshi and not any self-contained cinematic narrative which made sense to the audience. He not only explained what was being shown on the screen but also was there “to reinforce, interpret, counterpoint, and in any case to intercede.”

The role of the benshi was a very traditional one. From the earliest times, Japanese drama had required an informing voice. The chorus in noh drama, the joruri chanter in bunraku puppet drama, the gidayu narrator in kabuki—all premodern Japanese drama is a pictorial expansion of verbal storytelling. Joseph Anderson has indeed defined the Japanese drama as a presentation “in which actors do not autonomously enact events for spectators; dialogue spoken by actors is not the primary speech modality; and basic plot structure is not based on conflict, crisis, climax, resolution, and dramatic unity.”

Rather than being presented as an occurrence, drama is presented as a recounted occurrence. Although many national dramas have entertained like assumptions, the Japanese theater (and its descendants, movies and television) has remained remarkably faithful to the authoritative voice. As one early critic expressed it, the film itself was like the bunraku puppet and the benshi was the gidayu reciter.


The influence of the benshi continues even today. Joseph Anderson remembers listening to a modern Japanese soap opera from another room in the house and discovering that “voice-over narration not only recaps previous episodes but every so often talks about things that are happening right now on the tube. I don’t have to look at this television drama. I hear it.”

I find this passage pregnant with ideas. For my own benefit as much as yours, here are a few brief notes:

  1. This all suggests that Japan remains a primarily oral society. Most likely this is due to the notoriously difficult-to-master writing system that they use.
  2. In the text above, who said the audience had not developed a “linear response.” What do they—the person who said it originally and Richie himself—mean by it?
  3. This idea of showing film (or video) in continuous loops is intriguing. Given the modern technologies we have, it’s surprising that more has not been made of looping (as it has, for example, in audio). There are places where it is in common use: pop concerts and pop videos spring to mind; advertising on the web, or on LCD displays in public spaces; and Buñuel has used it (that scene in Exterminating Angel where the guests arrive twice). Presumably looping is so rarely used outside of these contexts because most films and TV shows are plot-driven. But as Brian Eno has said: “Repetition is a form of change.”
  4. If Japanese dramatic forms are not based on what we would recognize as an Aristotelian narrative form (conflict, crisis, climax, resolution, and dramatic unity), then what are they based on?

One final thought. Could not this format of short film or video clips linked by a live narrator/performer be consciously revived as a modern form? With the technologies we have at our disposal this could produce some very powerful effects.

Richie, D. (2005) A Hundred Years Of Japanese Film. Tokyo, New York, London: Kodansha International (pp.19-22)

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