Japanese cinema-viewing art, ‘benshi,’ in global tour, soon in Los Angeles


There are all kinds of ways that presenters of silent movies augment their films, or not, ranging from a rinky-dink upright piano with a guy pounding it out at the side of the screen, to the kinds of full orchestral accompaniment we have enjoyed in recent years. But the Japanese tradition, Benshi, is something new and fascinating. A traveling road show of a variety of historic classic, newly restored, and rarely seen silent films from Japan and the United States will get this treatment in showcases in Los Angeles and across the country. Performances will be in Japanese with live music and English subtitles.

Benshi, derived from “katsudō benshi” or “movie orator,” were the captivating narrators of Japan’s silent film era. With over 7,000 benshi at their peak, these artists introduced films, and provided live narration, portraying characters, and articulating the on-screen action. Three different benshi, performing individually as well as together in the form known as kowairo kakeai, in which multiple benshi take on the roles of different characters is a connoisseur’s delight.

Ichirō Kataoka, one of the most celebrated benshi working today, will be joined by Kumiko Ōmori and Hideyuki Yamashiro, along with a group of musicians performing a series of five different silent film programs with a total of 18 different films. The highlights of the diverse selection incude several newly restored, including the cult favorite A Page of Madness (Kurutta ippēji, 1926); the earliest surviving Japanese animated film The Dull Sword (Namakura gatana, 1917); classic films by Yasujiro Ozu, Kenji Mizoguchi, and Charlie Chaplin; and the recently discovered and restored The Oath of the Sword, which is the earliest known Asian American film production.

This is a moving festival, artsmeme people.

In Los Angeles,

New York, Chicago, Tokyo here:

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