‘Art of the Benshi’ tour will showcase century-old Japanese film tradition, April 5-26

Published: February 1, 2024
Benshi performers and musicians on stage with black-and-white filmBenshi began providing live narration for films in Japan in the 1890s. Pictured: A performance in Los Angeles in 2019. (Photo: UCLA Film & Television Archive)

Sean Brenner | February 1, 2024

A five-city tour co-presented by two UCLA entities will bring to life the mesmerizing artistry of Japanese benshi performance.

Benshi performers — the term is derived from the phrase katsudō benshi, meaning “movie orator” — were the captivating narrators of Japan’s silent film era. The practice began in Japan in the 1890s; at its peak, in the 1910s and ’20s, more than 7,000 benshi not only introduced films but also provided live narration, portraying characters and articulating the on-screen action, filling theaters and enthralling audiences. The form also thrived in Japan’s colonies and in immigrant communities around the world, including at the Great Fuji Theatre in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo neighborhood.

The Art of the Benshi 2024 World Tour is presented by the Yanai Initiative for Globalizing Japanese Humanities — a partnership between UCLA and Tokyo’s Waseda University — and the UCLA Film & Television Archive. It will run April 5–26, with 12 dates at six venues in New York, Washington, D.C., Chicago, Los Angeles and Tokyo.

The Los Angeles performances are scheduled for April 19 at the United Theater on Broadway (formerly The Theatre at Ace Hotel) in downtown Los Angeles, and April 20 and 21 at the Billy Wilder Theater at the Hammer Museum at UCLA.

The number of benshi performers began to diminish in Japan during the 1930s, with the rise of sound in motion pictures, but a small number of practitioners kept the practice alive. Now, nearly 130 years after benshi began, audiences will have a rare chance to immerse themselves in this enchanting cinematic tradition.

“The Art of the Benshi 2024 tour will offer a unique theatrical experience that combines cinema and live performance that is rarely seen on this scale, even in Japan,” said Michael Emmerich, UCLA’s Tadashi Yanai Professor of Japanese Literature and director of the Yanai Initiative. “We are honored to be helping to introduce this vibrant, enthralling form to a broader audience, and we know people will walk out of these shows wanting to see more.”

Each program will include screenings of classic, newly restored and rarely seen silent films from Japan and the U.S., and each will showcase the individual artistic interpretations of 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. Since the end of the silent era, the kowairo kakeai style has been seen only once in the U.S., during a 2019 tour that was also presented by the Yanai Initiative and Film & Television Archive.

“To experience silent cinema through the performative interpretation of a skilled benshi is to be taken on a journey of sight and sound unlike any other,” said Paul Malcolm, a senior public programmer at the UCLA Film & Television Archive. “We are thrilled to partner again with the Yanai Initiative to bring this deeply immersive and transformative art form to a wider audience.”

Ichiro Kataoka, one of the most celebrated benshi working today, will be joined by Kumiko Omori and Hideyuki Yamashiro, along with a group of musicians performing both new and historical scores. A total of 18 films will be screened throughout the tour, and the programs in each city will differ each night. Performances will be in Japanese, with live music and English subtitles.

The program includes a diverse selection of films, several newly restored, including the cult favorite “A Page of Madness” (Kurutta ichipeiji, 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. Some of the films being screened during the tour have been restored by the Film & Television Archive.

In conjunction with the tour, the Yanai Initiative will publish a lavishly illustrated book about the history of benshi, “The World of the Benshi,” which was co-edited by Emmerich and UC San Diego professor Daisuke Miyao.

‘Art of the Benshi’ schedule

April 5, 6, 7: BAM (Brooklyn Academy of Music), New York
April 12, 13, 14: National Museum of Asian Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
April 16, 17: Gene Siskel Film Center, Chicago
April 19: United Theater on Broadway (formerly The Theatre at Ace Hotel), Los Angeles
April 20, 21: Billy Wilder Theater at the Hammer Museum at UCLA
April 26: Okuma Auditorium, Waseda University, Tokyo, Japan

For information about individual programs, visit the tour website.