In the 1920s and early 1930s Japanese audiences often did not go to the theater to see a certain film, they went to enjoy the electrifying art of a benshi. Katsudo benshi or simply benshi were stars that often commanded huge salaries for their masterful use of voice for both subtle effects and dramatic fireworks of emotion. Benshi accompanied screenings with highly expressive performances that included narrating both the story and the characters’ dialogue, often giving their own outrageous twists and interpretations to the action unfolding on the screen. The assumption that a benshi would be present as a narrator for the film was a significant influence on the golden age of silent film style in Japan. Due to their immense popularity, the benshi were powerful figures in the early film industry that were partially responsible for delaying the introduction of sound film for several years. To the relief of the increasingly authoritarian government of the 1930s, which was unhappy with the benshi’s ability to co-determine the interpretation of the filmic text and potentially counteract censorship, most of the several thousand active benshi of the 1930s quickly disappeared with the adaptation of sound film.
However, even after the war a small number of benshi continued to perform along with silent film screenings and to train apprentices. This included a benshi named Shunsui Matsuda, who founded one of today’s largest silent film archives, Matsuda Film Productions. Matsuda’s students are now among the most prominent performing benshi, including the possibly most famous practicing benshi, Midori Sawato, who provided Ichiro Kataoka with his training.
Ichiro Kataoka graduated from the Nihon University College of Art and began training under the celebrated veteran benshi in Japan, Midori Sawato, in 2002. He is the most well-known benshi of his generation, a rising star that is also the most internationally active benshi, having given performances in countries such as Croatia, Germany and Australia. Performing a broad repertoire of styles, Mr. Kataoka is known for not only performing with the more “traditional” benshi accompaniment of a small ensemble or select Japanese instruments, but also has been open to working with experimental or electronic music. He has appeared as a benshi in various films and also works as a voice actor for animation and video games. – Alexander Zahlten, Assistant Professor of East Asian Languages and Civilizations, Harvard University
The Harvard Film Archive is thrilled to welcome the renown benshi Ichiro Kataoka for two evenings of captivating live interpretations of silent films. For this program we have selected a combination of both Western and Japanese films. The first evening we will see Shoes, a remarkably frank progressive feminist film by the great Lois Weber, one of the most prolific and high ranking directors of the silent era. One of Universal's biggest box office success of 1916 Shoes was rapturously received by contemporary Japanese audiences. Weber's film is paired with Chaplin's classic 3-reel comedy A Dog's Life; Yasujiro Ozu's wonderful Dragnet Girl will screen on the second evening. Mr. Kataoka will narrate the films in Japanese and then answer questions after the screenings. Please note that Dragnet Girl is subtitled in English.